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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle