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.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.