Why Scottish independence wouldn't mean a permanent majority for the Tories

Unless the Tories dramatically improve their performance in the north, independence would most likely lead to further hung parliaments or small majorities for them or Labour.

One Conservative recently remarked to me that the Scottish independence referendum was "win-win" for his party. If Scotland votes no, the Union is saved (although it is Alistair Darling, not David Cameron, who will receive most of the credit), if Scotland votes yes, the Tories acquire a huge advantage over Labour. While Ed Miliband's party would be stripped of 41 MPs, David Cameron's would lose just one. It's for this reason that a 2009 ConservativeHome poll of 144 party candidates found that 46 per cent would not be "uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent", with some dreaming of a "permanent majority".

It is this group that has been rebuked by former Conservative Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth, who said today: "There are number of foolish people in the Conservative Party in the south who are keen on independence or 'devo max' (devolution of all tax powers). Labour thought by creating devolution they would have permanent power in Scotland. I don’t think political parties can establish support by trying to gerrymander the constitution – the voters are smarter than that."

Forsyth is certainly right to argue that the influence of Scotland on general election results has been exaggerated. On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 146, down from 143), in 1966 (77, down from 98), in 1997 (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 arguing is that the party will never win a sizeable majority again. History shows that England and Wales are prepared to elect a Labour government when the conditions are right. What is true is that so long as British politics remains "hung" (with both main parties struggling to win an overall majority), Labour cannot afford for Scotland to go it alone. Were it not for their desultory performance north of the border, the Tories would have won a majority of 19 at the last election.

Independence wouldn't make a Labour majority impossible, but it would certainly make it harder, which explains why, although some Tories are silently cheering Alex Salmond on, none of their Labour counterparts are. But unless Cameron's party is able to dramatically improve its performance in the north and the midlands (where it holds just 20 of the 124 urban seats), Scottish independence would almost certainly lead to further hung parliaments (or small majorities for either party) , rather than the permanent majority that some Tories imagine.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with David Cameron at the men's Wimbledon final earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.