The coming of Nigel: Farage arrives for a Ukip public meeting in Basingstoke. Photo: Getty
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Leader: the SNP, Ukip and our disunited kingdom

Seventeen years after the coming of New Labour, Britain’s two unions have never seemed less secure.

When New Labour entered power in 1997, two of its defining ambitions were to secure the Union between England and Scotland and to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”. It sought to achieve the former through devolution (which the cabinet minister George Robertson predicted would “kill nationalism stone dead”) and the rebuilding of the public realm and the latter by convincing voters of the necessity of European integration in an era of globalisation.

Seventeen years later, Britain’s two unions have never appeared less secure. In Scotland, ahead of the independence referendum on 18 September, support for secession is growing, especially among working-class Scots, with some opinion polls putting the No campaign ahead by as few as 6 points. Far from killing nationalism stone dead, devolution has reinvigorated it. Meanwhile, the UK Independence Party, whose founding aim is the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, is on course to finish second or even first in May’s European parliamentary elections. Rather than whether to be at the heart of the EU or to be on its periphery, the debate is now whether to be in it at all. A party of English nationalism with no Westminster MPs and a party with six, the Scottish National Party, have exposed the divisions in our disunited kingdom.

The surge in support for Scottish independence and for Ukip reflects a profound disillusionment with the status quo. Never in recent history have the three main Westminster parties been more reviled or less trusted. It is the belief that they are either unwilling or unable to make a difference that has led voters to look to the insurgents of Ukip and the SNP, or to turn away from voting altogether. Both parties draw their support from what one could call the losers of globalisation: poorer voters whose living standards have been continually eroded and who regard open markets and open borders not as an opportunity but as a threat.

In his report from Cliftonville, a Ukip stronghold, starting on page 26, our political editor, Rafael Behr, notes that while Ukip continues to attract more former Tories than anyone else, “Farage’s popularity is a symptom of something more potent. Little England is the retreat of the besieged; Ukip is animating a spirit of resistance.”

It is for this reason that David Cameron’s attempt to buy off the party’s supporters by promising a referendum on EU membership in 2017 and even tougher restrictions on immigration has proved so unsuccessful. Such gestures fail to address the long-term causes of their alienation. Anxiety over immigration can be a proxy for concern over housing, jobs and wages.

However, the Conservatives’ unrelenting support for austerity over investment has exacerbated this problem. Instead of boosting supply through a mass housebuilding programme, the Tories have chosen to inflate demand through the Help to Buy scheme.

The response of the mainstream parties to Scottish nationalism has been similarly ineffective. Rather than making the positive case for the Union, Better Together has run a negative campaign characterised by dry and technocratic attacks on the SNP over the currency, North Sea oil and EU membership. In so doing, it has only enhanced its opponents’ appeal as an optimistic, anti-establishment force. If the No campaign is to avoid defeat in September, it must respond to the clear and consistent desire in Scotland for greater autonomy by outlining concrete cross-party proposals for further devolution. Only a reconfigured Union – one that covers the need to address the English question – will settle the constitutional tremors.

Ukip and the SNP are symptoms of a multinational state that is ever more divided. The uneven and unbalanced economic recovery is widening the disparities between north and south, rich and poor, entrenching the impression that the inhabitants of Westminster occupy an alternate reality. Just as the “boom” was meaningless to those whose living standards stagnated, so the “recovery” is, too.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred