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

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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