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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour loses Copeland to the Tories but clings onto Stoke-on-Trent Central

It is the first time a party in opposition has lost a by-election to a governing party since 1982.

Labour have lost the seat of Copeland, which they have held since 1935, to the Conservatives. 

Meanwhile, the party only narrowly saw off a threat from the right-wing populist Ukip leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Jeremy Corbyn, who is to set out the party's path to Brexit today, tweeted: "Labour's victory in Stoke is a decisive rejection of Ukip's politics of division. But our message was not enough to win through in Copeland."

The Labour leader's unpopularity with the country at large is likely to loom large in the by-election post-mortem. In Copeland, an area heavily reliant on the nuclear industry, the Tories made much of Corbyn's unwillingness to counter further expansion.

In Copeland, the Tory candidate, Sellafield worker Trudy Harrison won with 13,748 votes, beating Labour's Gill Troughton by 2,147 votes. The Conservatives won with an increase of 8.5 points, taking 44.3 per cent of the vote.

The election was characterised as one of "nuclear vs the NHS", with locals also worried about a relocation of hospital services which could leave them travelling 40 miles for treatment. Despite a candidate who was a former doctor, and the NHS being Labour's bread and butter, the party failed to keep the seat.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, by contrast, party activists will be relieved to see off Nuttall, who has tried to rebrand Ukip as the party of the working class. Nuttall is reportedly determined to carry on as party leader, but as my colleague Anoosh writes, the party will now have to mull over a fundamental question: if Ukip can't win in Stoke, where can it win? 

However, given Nuttall's reputational meltdown over a false claim to have lost close friends at Hillsborough, Labour's Gareth Snell only narrowly beat him.

Snell received 7,854 votes, compared to Nuttall's 5,233, a majority of 2,621. Labour squeaked to victory despite a 2.2 point reduction in its previous vote share.

In his victory speech, Snell said his constituency would not be divided by race or faith: "So for those who have come to Stoke-on-Trent to sow hatred and division, and to try to turn us away from our friends and neighbours, I have one message – you have failed."

Both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent voted Leave in the EU referendum. However, the Liberal Democrats, which has styled itself the voice of Remainers since the EU referendum, enjoyed a surge in the by-elections.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, the Lib Dems increased their vote share by 5.7 points, while in Copeland they did so by 3.8 points.

Lib Dem president Sal Brinton said of Stoke: “We would have done even better but for many voters, drawn to the Lib Dems, who felt they just couldn’t risk being represented by a Ukip MP, so reluctantly backed Labour."

Corbyn allies among the Labour MPs have tried to play down the loss of Copeland, with Richard Burgon describing it as a "marginal" (albeit one held by Labour for more than 80 years), and Paul Flynn taking a swipe at former Copeland MP Jamie Reed, tweeting: "Copeland MP is pro-nuclear right winger. No change there."

 

 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.