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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

0800 7318496