A positive message is the key to stopping Salmond

Darling is right to put the positive case for the Union.

The title of the "no" to Scottish independence campaign - Better Together - is indicative of the group's determination to make a positive case for the Union, rather than merely a negative case against secession. Alistair Darling, who launched the campaign in Edinburgh this morning, rightly rejected the argument that an independent Scotland would be economically unviable. Rather, he pointed out that both Scotland and England have more to lose than to gain from a break-up:

The truth is we can have the best of both worlds: a strong Scottish Parliament and a key role in a strong and secure United Kingdom.

It was not the case that Scotland could not survive as a separate, independent state, he said. "Of course it could. This is about what unites us, not about what divides us.

He added:

We make a positive case for staying together. A positive case that celebrates not just what makes us distinctive but also celebrates what we share.

We put the positive case for staying together. We are positive about our links with the rest of the United Kingdom, through families and friendships, through trade and through shared political, economical and cultural institutions.

We're positive about being a proud nation within a larger state and the far wider range of opportunities for our people that this creates.

We're positive about all of the identities that we share - Scottish, British, European, citizens of the world - and don't see the need to abandon any of them.

The other point that Better Together is keen to make is that the version of independence offered by Alex Salmond is increasingly indistinguishable from the status quo. An independent Scotland would retain the Queen as its head of state, the pound as its currency, and apply for EU and, perhaps, Nato membership. As Jason asked in a recent column, what kind of independence is this?

Having abandoned  his previous enthusiasm for euro membership (Salmond quipped in 2009 that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and that the euro was viewed more "favourably), the SNP leader now favours a "currency union" with the UK. Yet as Darling pointed out this morning, monetary union leads remorselessly to fiscal union (as the euro crisis has demonstrated). In other words, Scotland would end up back where it started. Why change so much (separate embassies, separate armed forces, a separate civil service) and yet so little?

Darling had little to say about the possibility of further devolution but this is a subject the campaign will need to address in the future. As Douglas Alexander has previously said, "we must be open-minded on how we can improve devolution's powers, including fiscal powers, but be resolute in our rejection of separation". So long as Salmond can spend money without having to raise it, the SNP will remain a formidable force.

Meanwhile, it appears that Salmond and the UK government are no closer to reaching agreement on the wording of the independence referendum. Cameron is still refusing to offer legal approval for Salmond's plan to hold a two-question ballot (one on independence and one on "devo max") in autumn 2014, a few weeks after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

The SNP leader has now issued an ultimatum (£), threatening to hold his own poll on election day in 2015 if he fails to win legal approval for a 2014 referendum. This would be an advisory vote designed to provide Salmond with a clear mandate to negotiate for independence. It would be open to challenge in the courts but, as I've previously noted, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has suggested that the UK government would not launch that challenge itself. If the referendum is to be held before 2015, the two sides now have just a few months to reach an agreement.

Former Chancellor Alistair Darling launched the Better Together campaign today in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.