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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.