Labour shows how it plans to win the ground war

The party reveals that it has recruited over 100 full-time organisers in key target seats, more than at any time in the 1997 election campaign.

One of the criticisms made of Labour over the summer was that the party was not battle-ready. While the Tories poached Barack Obama's former campaign manager Jim Messina to work alongside Lynton Crosby on election strategy, Miliband's MPs fretted as the party delayed naming a successor to Tom Watson as campaign co-ordinator.

Now, having appointed Douglas Alexander as chair of general election strategy, and Spencer Livermore, Gordon Brown's former director of strategy, as general election campaign director in the recent reshuffle, Labour is seeking to show that it is on a "war footing". 

At an all-staff conference tomorrow, Alexander and Livermore will deliver a joint presentation on "election strategy and structures" and will explain "how the party will now be organised around a structure of seven taskforces in an election war room." This will include a "strengthened Attack and Rebuttal Unit and a Digital Taskforce".  The conference will be opened by general secretary Iain McNicol followed by a Miliband speech and Q&A.

Judging by the early extracts released by Labour, Miliband will emphasise the message that he delivered at today's PMQs: that the Tories' U-turn on payday lending marked "an intellectual collapse of their position". Here's the key passage:  

Two months ago, David Cameron and George Osborne were warning that a Labour Party that wanted to fix broken markets and build an economy which works for working people was flirting with communism and being inspired by Das Kapital.

This week, George Osborne has finally followed our lead on pay day lending and declared, with a straight face, that he now believes markets must be made to work for people, even while he and David Cameron still refuse to take on the big six energy companies.

So be in no doubt: we are winning the battle of ideas, the Tories have no answers. They will always stand up for the privileged few.

But while seeking to show how it's making the intellectual running, Labour will also point to its plans to win the ground war. The party has revealed today that it has already recruited over 100 full-time organisers in key target seats, more than the number achieved at the height of the 1997 election campaign. 

Optimistic Labourites and pessimistic Tories have long cited the party's superior ground game as one reason why it is likely to win in 2015. One shadow cabinet minister recently told me that Labour's strength in this area helped it to win "a 1992-style share of seats on a 1983-style share of the vote" at the last election. The party currently has 187,537 members, significantly more than the Tories' 134,000, a stat which prompted political and campaign communications head Michael Dugher to remark recently: "Labour still has its historic competitive advantage – people. Tory party membership is dying on its arse and no one is joining the Liberal Democrats."

Conscious of this gap, Grant Shapps has written to every Tory MP asking them to increase the average number of Conservative members per constituency from 0.5% of Tory voters to 3% (something that would increase the party's total membership to 800,000). But barring a dramatic transformation, Labour can be confident that it will retain its ground advantage right up to May 2015. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.