Salmond's only hope of victory is a Tory recovery

To triumph against the odds, the Yes campaign needs fear of a Conservative government and permanent austerity to push voters towards independence.

After trailing in the polls by a double-digit margin for most of the last year, Yes Scotland is hoping that the launch of today's independence White Paper marks the beginning of a remarkable comeback. Alex Salmond has long spoken of the possibility of a revival similar to that enjoyed by the SNP against Labour in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. He told the NS back in June, "This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign. I went into an election [for the Scottish Parliament] in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground." 

Only the foolhardy would write off a campaigner as formidable as Salmond, but the odds are overwhelmingly against him. There has never been a majority for independence in Scotland (around 20 per cent of SNP voters support the Union) and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its aftermath has made voters even more reluctant to take that leap into the dark. The SNP's refusal to publish the legal advice on whether Scotland would inherit Britain’s membership of the EU and the uncertainty over its preferred option of a currency union with the rest of the UK (Unionist figures privately suggest that they may pledge to stage a referendum on the issue and Wales has already vowed to veto it) have also damaged its cause. After pledging to preserve so many of the features of the British state - the monarchy, the pound, Nato membership - independence looks increasingly like a solution in search of a problem. 

The great irony of today's launch is that the headline announcement was on childcare (the SNP pledged to ensure that, over time, "every child from age one to starting school is guaranteed 30 hours of provision for 38 weeks of the year"), an area already devolved to Holyrood (Nicola Sturgeon responded by saying that she didn't want the additional tax revenue raised by parents returning to work to accrue to Westminster). Salmond repeated his promise to abolish the bedroom tax, the issue that he has predicted "might well have the same galvanising effect as the poll tax". But Ed Miliband's unambiguous pledge to do the same means this is less likely to prove the elixir he needs.

The increasing probability of a Labour victory in 2015 has helped to further tilt the odds against independence. One of the arguments Salmond made for secession was the risk that the UK could leave the EU. Earlier this year he gleefully cited a poll showing that the No campaign's lead evaporates when the Scottish public are asked how they would vote if Britain looked set to leave. But the diminishing likelihood of a Tory victory, and of an in/out referendum in 2017 (Labour has still not, and may not, promise a public vote), means it will be harder for him to warn that we're heading for Brexit. 

With just one Conservative MP in Scotland (compared to 41 for Labour), the fear of another five years under the Tory yoke, and a government wedded to permanent austerity, could help to push many towards independence. But if Labour is still comfortably ahead in the polls in September 2014, far fewer will fear what lies ahead. For this reason, a Tory recovery is perhaps the essential precondition of  a Salmond victory. 

Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon present the White Paper for Scottish independance at the Science Museum Glasgow earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.