If the SNP denies Labour an outright majority, then what? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The battle for Scotland will echo the referendum and may define the election – and beyond

Labour and the SNP have competing visions for Scotland and the UK – could they really find common ground in Westminster?

As you may have noticed, the general election campaign is already underway, with messages from political leaders popping up almost as soon as the fizz was gone from the New Year celebrations. Why? Well, staking an early claim for votes in a fiendishly unpredictable election is no bad thing.

Nowhere is this more so than in Scotland where the fallout from September's divisive referendum has seen the Scottish National Party surge in the polls. Though comprehensively rejected by the electorate over independence Nicola Sturgeon's merry band could yet become major players in a parliament they view as wholly alien.

Recent polls have predicted the nationalists – who now possess a membership list in excess of 100,000 – are set to return in excess of 50 MPs to Westminster. Stunning as that forecast may be it would be wise to bear in mind that the bookies still reckon Labour is (just about) best-placed to become the largest party in terms of seats across the UK.

This suggests Ed Miliband has a better than evens chance of holding onto much of his Scottish powerbase where Labour currently have 40 seats and the nationalists just six. Still, should the SNP end up with even 20 MPs, comfortably beating their record of 11 members in 1974, they will be cock-a-hoop. That would be enough – possibly – to deny Labour an outright majority.

It will therefore be of some comfort to Ed Miliband that Sturgeon has categorically ruled out ever cutting a coalition deal with the Conservatives. Yet should the electoral arithmetic be tight Labour may still be required to dance with its own personal devil in power. 

Bitterness between the two parties over the recent referendum remains, of course, but there are deeper wounds, notably from 1979 and the fall of Jim Callaghan's government. Labour has never forgotten nor forgiven the SNP (dubbed the Tartan Tories) for voting against the government in the no-confidence motion which was lost by a single vote and so ushered in the Thatcher era. It was a move that prompted Callaghan to memorably remark during the debate that this was, “the first time in recorded history that turkeys had been known to vote for an early Christmas.”

In the here-and-now, these two old electoral foes are again at daggers drawn. Sturgeon, on unveiling a poster of green Commons benches turned tartan in recent days, suggested Labour's claim to be the only party able to keep the Tories out of power was, “an insult to the intelligence of the Scottish people.”

Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour's new leader, duly responded by saying the election was not about, “painting a bench tartan”, but, “getting David Cameron out.”

Frankly no matter what happens on 7 May, a Miliband minority government entering a formal coalition with the SNP would be less than credible (no matter how much the SNP may wish to tease that such a thing is viable).

It's not difficult to picture the outright fury in English shires at the sight of nationalists – possibly Alex Salmond included – not only voting on English laws, but defining them; agitating over Trident, calling for an end to austerity measures, stifling debate on the EU and demanding greater powers for Holyrood.

A loose pact, or "confidence and supply" agreement is surely as far as things could go. Even then Labour would need to constantly demonstrate there was no tail wagging the dog. The SNP would also have the advantage of knowing all the tricks in the minority government playbook, having gone down that route in Edinburgh between 2007 and 2011.

So some of the actors may have changed since those heady days last September, but expect the march towards Downing Street to feel very much like an extension of the independence campaign – a kind of referendum on the rebound with no love lost.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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