Where did it all go wrong for Labour in Scotland?

Labour’s attempt to turn the election into a referendum on the coalition was a disaster.

It was a terrible night for Labour in Scotland. The SNP has won a second straight victory and now looks like the natural party of devolved government. The proportional additional member system is designed to prevent any party from winning a majority (a safety valve against independence), but it looks like Alex Salmond could get one. The SNP is predicted to win 68 seats: an overall majority of three and the largest number of seats any party has ever won in the Scottish Parliament.

So, where did it all go wrong for Labour? As recently as March, the party was enjoying a double-digit lead in the polls. What's now clear is that its attempt to turn the election into a referendum on the Westminster coalition was a disastrous misjudgement. Ed Miliband urged the public to use the contest to give Labour "the best chance of stopping it [the coalition] going to the full term". But he badly misread the mood in Scotland after one term of SNP governance. The electorate chose to judge the contest on its own merits and concluded that Salmond would do a better job of standing up for Scottish interests than Iain Gray ("Gray by name, grey by nature"). The charismatic Salmond ran a textbook presidential campaign that give him the edge with swing voters.

The SNP's remarkable poll surge (up 12.3 per cent in the constituency section) is not the product of any increase in anti-Union sentiment. The most recent poll on the subject showed that just 33 per cent would vote in favour of independence, were a referendum to be held. It is precisely for this reason that so many chose to vote for Salmond's party. They were free to endorse his social-democratic policies (no tuition fees, no NHS prescription charges, free personal care for the elderly, free school meals for all five-to-eight-year-olds), safe in the knowledge that they retain a veto over independence. As Roy Hattersley (a Miliband ally) just admitted on the BBC, the SNP won because it offered something "genuinely radical". Salmond, a formidable politician, deftly positioned his party to the left of Labour and repelled the old gibe of "Tartan Tories".

In a leader published a week ago, we warned that failure in Scotland would be a big blow for Miliband's leadership. Labour has been denied what he rightly identified as a platform to set out a "real alternative" to the coalition government. This fact, combined with the inevitable rejection of AV, means that two significant opportunities to undermine the Tories have been missed.

Miliband has become associated with defeat dangerously early in his leadership. The prospect of an emboldened Tory party fighting the next election under first-past-the-post, having redrawn the constituency boundaries in its favour, is not a happy one for Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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