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 Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.