David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour and the Tories are both framing 2015 as a two-horse race

But which will benefit the most?

After last year's "summer of silence" (in the words of one shadow minister), Labour is aiming to hit the parliamentary recess running. Ed Miliband's speech tomorrow marks the beginning of a "summer offensive" that will feature more than a dozen major speeches by members of the shadow cabinet in the next five weeks. 

The campaign will be framed around "The Choice" between a "Labour future" and "Tory threat". The aim, as I write in my column this week, is to present the general election as a diametric battle between the two main parties, deterring former Lib Dems from returning home and traditional Labour supporters from defecting to Ukip. Having previously spoken of a new era of "four-party politics", Labour has returned to acting as if there are just two. 

It is a message that the party badly needs voters to hear as they find alternative receptacles for their discontent. Lord Ashcroft’s most recent marginals poll found that Ukip is now in first place in Thurrock (Labour’s number-two target seat) and in 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.

Labour's attempt to present itself as the only vehicle for anti-Tory voters makes sense, but it is not without risk. By framing the general election as a contest between itself and the Conservatives, it helps to reinforce the equivalent Tory message that the only way to stop the opposition taking power is to vote Conservative (not Ukip). If enough Ukip supporters return to the Tory fold, Labour could struggle to win many of the Conservative marginals it has targeted. 

For the Tories, the danger of presenting the election as a Manichean battle between itself and the opposition is that the 25 per cent of 2010 Lib Dems who have defected to Labour are even less inclined to return (as I've written before, Tory MPs recognise that they need a partial Lib Dem recovery to remain the largest party).

If there is cause for Labour optimism it is that the number of anti-Tory voters is higher than the number of anti-Labour voters. As recent polling by Ipsos MORI found, 40 per cent of the electorate would never consider voting Conservative, compared to 33 per cent for Labour. With a far stronger brand, it is the opposition that has the most to gain if voters come to view 2015 as a battle between red and blue. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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