Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the odds still favour Labour with a year to go

In Westminster, it is seats that count. And Miliband's party is still best-placed to win the most. 

Talk to Labour and Tory MPs and it is easy to forget that somebody has to win the general election a year today. Members on both sides are resolutely pessimistic about their side's chances. All they agree on is that, in the words of one Labour source, "it's going to be bloody close". 

After the recent narrowing of the polls, with Labour's average lead down to four points, senior Conservatives are increasingly confident of at least remaining the single largest party next May. But this hope collides with the reality that, though ever-smaller, the opposition's stubborn advantage remains. Not since March 2012, in advance of the omnishambles Budget, have the Conservatives led in an opinion poll. 

Were Labour to win by a single point next year (the party's lead in two surveys today), Ed Miliband would almost certainly become prime minister. In 2005, with a vote share of just 35 per cent and a lead of just three points, his party achieved a majority of 66 seats. Five years later, the Tories fell short with a lead of seven. This apparent bias has less to do with the unreformed constituency boundaries than it does with the fact that Labour's vote is far better distributed than the Tories' and that it benefits disproportionately from tactical voting. 

Uniform swing calculations can, of course, be an unreliable guide to election outcomes, failing to take into account factors such as the incumbency bonus and above-average swings in marginal seats. Had there been a uniform swing in 2010, the Conservatives would have won 14 fewer seats, Labour eight more and the Lib Dems five more. But even if, as seems likely, the Tories perform disproportionately well in their existing seats, Miliband has a good chance of retaining the lead he needs to win. Crucially for Labour, polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that it is winning an above-average swing in its target constituencies. One possibility increasingly discussed in Westminster is that the Tories win the most votes, while Labour wins the most seats (an outcome last seen in February 1974). 

The Tories' fortunes are likely to improve as the economic recovery accelerates and as Labour comes under ever-greater scrutiny. But as long as Miliband retains parity with the Conservatives, he has reason to hope. One of the key points in Labour's favour is the unusually low level of switching between the two main parties (just 5 per cent of 2010 Tory voters currently back Labour), with most of the increase in its vote share due to Lib Dem defectors. Unlike in the past, this means that falling support for Labour doesn't automatically translate into rising support for the Tories. In large parts of the country, the Conservatives simply remain too toxic for voters to lend them the support they need to defeat the opposition (no matter how strong the economic recovery). As recent polling by Ipsos MORI showed, 40 per cent would never consider voting for them, compared to 33 per cent for Labour. Miliband is fishing in a larger pool than Cameron. 

The Lib Dem collapse, the Ukip surge, the death of the coalition's boundary changes and Labour's superior ground game are all reasons for Miliband's continuing confidence. Against this is the fact that no party has ever won while trailing on both economic management and on leadership. Cameron leads by 15 points as the "best prime minister" and the Tories lead by 14 points on the economy (the highest level so far this parliament). But in this era of stagnant living standards and four-party politics, Labour could yet defy history. The only iron rule of the next election is that there aren't any. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear