Ed Miliband takes questions at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As its poll lead holds, Labour is divided – between those who fear defeat and those who fear victory

The party could inherit a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse. 

When Ed Miliband declared before his meeting with Barack Obama at the White House, “I am going because I want to be prime minister of Britain in less than ten months,” he spoke with the conviction of a man who fully believes that he will be. The Labour leader’s self-confidence bewilders those in his party who predict that they will lose in May 2015, but it cannot be dismissed as delusional.

For the fourth summer in a row, the opposition has entered the parliamentary recess ahead in the polls and in the marginal seats that will determine the general election result. There is ill-disguised outrage among Conservatives and parts of the media that Miliband has made it this far. Those who regard him as unfit even to be leader of the opposition find it too painful to contemplate him in Downing Street.

Others, absorbing the data, are adjusting to the prospect of a Labour victory. When I told one Conservative MP that Miliband believes the press onslaught against him is motivated by the fear that he will win, not the belief that he will lose, he replied: “That’s exactly right.” The public admission by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he is planning for negotiations with Labour in a hung parliament offered an insight into the calculations that many Liberal Democrats are making in private. Others are preparing to flee Westminster. There is no mystery as to why Dan Byles, the Conservative MP for North Warwickshire (with a majority of just 54), has become the eighth Tory elected in 2010 to announce that he will not defend his seat.

After 16 months of economic recovery, with GDP surpassing its pre-crisis peak, some Tories expected to have eroded Labour’s advantage by now. But their ratings, like the public’s wages, are flatlining. After briefly drawing level with inflation earlier this year, average earnings are now rising at the slowest rate since comparable records began in 2001. It is partly for this reason that, while trailing on economic management, Labour continues to lead as the party that would most improve living standards. David Axelrod, the Obama strategist hired by Labour, has noted with hope that this is the trend seen during the US president’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.

Yet the moroseness among Labour’s ranks reflects the awareness that the party’s lead has more to do with antipathy for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems than sympathy for the opposition. “The most depressing thing is when people say, ‘We’re just voting for you to stop the Tories,’ ” an MP told me.

Others are finding alternative receptacles for their discontent. Michael Ashcroft’s most recent marginals poll found that Ukip is now in first place in Thurrock (Labour’s number-two target seat) and Thanet South (where Nigel Farage will likely soon announce his candidacy). The Greens are polling at their highest level since 1989. If the election produces a second successive hung parliament for the first time since 1910, it is this fracturing of the anti-government vote that will explain why.

The shared hope of Labour and Tory strategists is that voters will view the election as a binary choice between their two parties. But this summer, both will find themselves on the same side as they unite against Scottish independence. The possibility that the country could vote to secede from the UK on 18 September, after 307 years of union, makes the outcome of the general election appear almost trivial by comparison. But after a significant wobble early this year, Better Together campaigners are increasingly confident of victory, if less certain of achieving the double-digit win they believe is necessary to avoid a “neverendum”.

Most Conservatives are sincere unionists but some privately reflect that another opportunity to tilt the electoral landscape in their favour will have been missed. After the earlier defeat of the proposed boundary changes, Labour will now retain its 41 MPs north of the border (a figure certain to increase next year), while the Tories keep an electorally worthless one.

Provided that Scotland votes against secession, attention will shift to the least predictable election since 1992. Unusually, all three of the main party leaders will be able to tell his autumn conference, with a straight face, to “prepare for government”. But all fear what victory would bring.

For the Tories, it would mean an in/out referendum on the EU that could split the party as no issue has since the repeal of the Corn Laws. For Labour, it could mean inheriting a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse: a bankrupt NHS, an imploding housing market (forcing a precipitous rise in interest rates) and a prison system at full capacity, combined with the requirement to accelerate the deepest public-service cuts since the war, or raise taxes by an equivalent amount. “Sometimes I worry more about winning than losing,” one Labour frontbencher tells me.

Others fear an electoral outcome that creates a new crisis of legitimacy for Westminster: the Tories winning the most votes but Labour the most seats; the Lib Dems having fewer voters than Ukip but four times as many MPs; a parliament so hung that neither Labour nor the Tories can form a majority government, even with Lib Dem support. Some MPs are preparing for the possibility of a second general election that perhaps only the Conservatives would have the financial resources to fight adequately.

When not battling each other, all of the parties face a collective struggle to maintain relevance in an age of voter alienation. To most people, Westminster is the place where ignorant armies clash at night. Both Labour and the Tories, the two great tribes that once commanded 97 per cent of the vote between them, will be lucky to scrape home with much more than a third each. In this war of the weak, even the winner could end up feeling like a loser. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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