Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy speaking in Glasgow on December 15, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Labour starting to turn the tide in Scotland?

For the first time since the referendum, the polls show a swing against the SNP. 

Since the independence referendum, the news from Scotland for Labour has been unremittingly grim. Despite their double-digit defeat, the nationalists moved with remarkable ease to frame the debate that followed. "They had a plan and we didn't," one shadow cabinet minister told me recently. While Nicola Sturgeon seamlessly replaced Alex Salmond as First Minister and SNP leader, Scottish Labour collapsed into crisisA succession of polls gave the nationalists a lead of more than 20 points as Holyrood and Westminster voting intention aligned. The election of Jim Murphy as the party's new leader in December failed to produce any early dividend; Labour appeared on course to lose as many as half of its 40 Scottish seats (not assuming a uniform swing). 

But last weekend brought rare cause for hope. A new survey by Panelbase (the nationalists' pollster of choice) put the SNP's lead down from 17 points to 10 (41-31) - its smallest advantage for three months. Another poll, conducted by Survation for the Daily Record, showed the party's lead falling from 24 points to 20 (46-26). To be sure, these are merely two snapshots and the SNP's lead remains of a level that would have been considered remarkable in the pre-referendum era. But they are the first indication that the nationalists' advance may not be inexorable. Labour has long hoped to win back the "red nats" by framing the general election as a straight choice between a Labour government or a Conservative one. As a shadow cabinet minister observed to me, by ruling out any deal with the Tories in a hung parliament, but refusing to do so in the case of Labour, the SNP has implicitly conceded that the latter is superior to the former. 

There are some signs that the collapse in the price of oil - to the point where it may become unprofitable for North Sea firms to produce - has harmed the nationalists' cause. The Panelbase poll found that 22 per cent of SNP supporters believe that the crisis has weakened the case for independence. The party's traditional claim that Scotland's black gold would compensate for its inferior fiscal position is even less persuasive than before. 

But Labour figures make no attempt to diminish the scale of the task that remains. One Scottish Labour MP told me: "The emotional fallout from the referendum is as damaging for us as the poll tax was for the Tories in the 1980s." The sight of Labour fighting alongside Conservatives in defence of the Union is one that some of its traditional supporters will not forgive or forget. Murphy is regarded by most in the party as having performed exceptionally since becoming leader, bringing much-needed competence and vigour to the party. But Labour MPs believe, in the words of one that, that "our biggest opponent is time". With only a few months to reverse the SNP's huge advance, most would settle for a dozen losses. Against this, one SNP source told me that the party stood to gain a minimum of six from Labour and a maximum of 17, with the former more likely. The nationalists are more optimistic in the case of the Liberal Democrats, They believe they can win 10-11 Lib Dem seats if just a quarter of the party's 2010 vote swings its way (a result that would leave just Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael standing). 

All agree, however, that Labour will lose MPs in Scotland, an area where it had previously hoped to make gains (or at least hold its 2010 level). In a close election, the danger remains that the party's hopes of victory could die in the country where it was born. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.