Can Labour ever win without Scotland?

History suggests that it would be difficult but not impossible for Labour to win.

History suggests that it would be difficult but not impossible for Labour to win.

As I noted earlier this week, the Scottish independence referendum is win-win for the Conservatives. If Scotland votes No, the Union is saved, if Scotland votes Yes, the Tories win a huge advantage over Labour. While Ed Miliband's party would be stripped of 41 MPs, David Cameron's would lose just one. This has prompted some to suggest that an independent Scotland would leave the Tories with an inbuilt "permanent majority".

But how true is this? Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1997 (with a majority of 139, down from 179), in 2001 (129, down from 167) and in 2005 (43, down from 66). What those who say that Labour cannot win without Scotland are really saying is that they do not believe Labour can ever win a sizeable majority again. This may or may not be true but it's a different debate. History suggests that England and Wales alone are capable of electing a Labour government when the conditions are right.

What is true is that so long as British politics remains "hung", Labour cannot afford for Scotland to go it alone. Were it not for Miliband's Scottish MPs, the Tories would have won a majority of 19 at the last election. The loss of Scotland, coupled with the coalition's boundary changes (which will deprive Labour of 28 seats, the Tories of 7 and the Lib Dems of 11), would stack the odds against a Labour majority.

Should Scotland win independence, one likely consequence is that Labour will shift to the right in an attempt to win greater support from English voters, who are generally perceived to lie to the right of their Scottish counterparts (although psephology paints a more complex picture). Thus, those who want Labour to win again and to do so on a social democratic programme have every interest in preserving the Union.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.