The Tory plan for a permanent majority gathers pace

Boundary changes, Scottish independence and party funding reform could prevent Labour ever winning a

Labour strategists have long warned of a nightmare scenario in which the party would likely never govern again. First, the coalition's proposed boundary changes are approved, depriving Labour of an estimated 25 seats (the Conservatives would have won 13 fewer seats at the last election and the Lib Dems would have won seven fewer).

Second, Alex Salmond holds a referendum on independence and Scotland votes Yes. Of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland that automatically would be lost, 41 are Labour-held but just one is Conservative-held. Finally, the Tories and the Lib Dems introduce a cap on party donations, depriving Labour of much of its trade-union funding and bankrupting the party.

Labour is consigned to permanent opposition and a new age of Tory hegemony is born.

So far this strategy, masterminded by George Osborne, is proceeding remarkably well (Osborne doesn't support Scottish independence but he will have done the parliamentary arithmetic). The new constituency boundaries are likely to be approved by 2013 and the Alternative Vote, which would have made the formation of a "progressive alliance" more likely, has been rejected by an overwhelming majority.

Meanwhile, an independent Scotland is more likely now than at any other point in the 304-year history of the Union. There is no doubt that David Cameron is being sincere when he vows to defend the United Kingdom with "every fibre in my body", but not everyone in his party takes the same view. A 2009 ConservativeHome poll of 144 party candidates found that 46 per cent would not be "uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent".

Never assume

To many Tories, an independent England – economically liberal, fiscally conservative, Eurosceptic, Atlanticist – is an attractive prospect. The Conservatives have not held more than one seat in Scotland for the past 19 years – there is little political incentive to preserve the Union.

As Michael Portillo told Andrew Neil on This Week in 2006: "From the point of political advantage, the Conservatives have a better chance of being in government if Scotland is not part of the affair. You are continuing to assume the Union is sacrosanct. That is not an assumption I make any more."

The third plank of this strategy – party funding reform – is about to return to the agenda. As today's Observer reports, the Tories and the Lib Dems are advancing plans to impose a cap of £50,000 on political donations. The paper notes:

An analysis of funding conducted since David Cameron became Tory leader shows Labour would have been deprived of 85 per cent of its income since 2005 if the limit had been in place. This is because the vast majority of its funds have come from hefty union donations well above the £50,000 level.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, would have forfeited just 50 per cent of their income, as the party receives a higher proportion of its income from wealthy individuals who tend to give sums below the proposed £50,000 cap.

As I've pointed out before, Labour is now remarkably dependent on the unions for its funding. Back in 1994, when Tony Blair became Labour leader, trade unions accounted for just a third of the party's annual income. They now account for more than 60 per cent.

In the last quarter, private donations accounted for just £59,503 (2 per cent) of Labour's £2,777,519 income. Just two individuals donated to the party, one of whom was Alastair Campbell. By contrast, union donations accounted for 90 per cent of all funding.

I'm a strong supporter of the trade-union link, but it's unhealthy for a progressive political party to be so dependent on a few sources of income. Labour must broaden its funding base as a matter of urgency.

But the wider challenge is clear. If history is not to record Gordon Brown as the last Labour prime minister, the party must show as much ruthlessness, cunning and ingenuity as the Tories.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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