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 I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.