Ed Miliband gives the keynote at the Scottish Labour conference, 2012. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Labour struggles to define itself post referendum as the SNP continue to rise

Scottish Labour's bilingualism used to be a good thing - but the relationship between Westminster and Scotland has changed.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The referendum was won for the Union. The issue was supposed to be, as David Cameron said a few weeks ago, “settled”. And yet every Scotland-wide poll since last September has put the Scottish National Party significantly ahead of the unionist Labour Party. The latest poll, conducted by Michael Ashcroft, predicted Labour would lose up to 36 of its 41 seats north of the border at the general election on 7 May.

It doesn’t seem to matter how often Labour mentions the mansion tax or the 50p top rate of tax – both of which are Labour (and not SNP) policies: Scottish voters continue to see the SNP as a more convincing vehicle for redistribution and social justice. The nationalists’ shift from an abrasive and divisive populism under Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon’s ecumenical, centre-left approach has helped them. As has the state of British Labour, Ed Miliband’s leadership and a poor opinion of Westminster.

The official line from the Labour Party is to emphasise the need for every vote and every seat in order to form a Labour government. A vote for anyone else, including the SNP, could allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street, it argues. Yet its inability to comment on a deal with the SNP makes its weakness clear. Saying one or the other would cost it dearly – trapped as it is between enemies to the right and left.

Labour is up against a party full of enthusiasm with just short of 100,000 members. The nationalists have money, resources and a feeling that the political wind blows in their favour. Labour, on the other hand, has an antiquated organisation and an ageing membership (it hasn’t declared its numbers in four years). On the plus side, Jim Murphy, the leader of Scottish Labour, has in typical New Labour fashion been raising lots of money from party sympathisers.

Murphy has been required to define himself according to terms set by the SNP’s success. At Scottish Labour’s one-day conference in Edinburgh on 7 March, a new constitution was voted through declaring it a “patriotic party”. Murphy has also stated that he is “not a unionist” (a statement that has historic connotations in the west of Scotland). Lately, he went as far as to claim that he is “not a Westminster politician” – stressing that he is merely a Scottish Labour politician who happens to go to Westminster. This is a politics of redefinition stretched to the point of absurdity and retreat.

A recent BBC Newsnight item illustrated the historic predicament engulfing Scottish Labour. In a discussion between two thirtysomething Glasgow men, one said about Labour and Murphy: “It is no longer good enough to talk one language – socialism in Scotland – and the opposite at Westminster. Jim Murphy is just the latest example of this.”

Scottish Labour’s ability to talk two different languages – one in Scotland and the other in Westminster – used to be a positive thing. It meant the party could act as a bridge-builder between Scotland and the UK, selling the benefits of the Union to Scotland while advocating for Scotland’s interests in the Union. But this balancing act was based on an instrumental understanding of the Union, one that has now, after three decades of Thatcherism and New Labour, finally broken down.

One of the pivotal dilemmas that Labour faced in the Scottish referendum was the complete absence of a progressive case for the Union. It was there to be made by a party that dared to acknowledge the inequalities and divisions affecting the UK as a whole, arguing for deep economic and social as well as constitutional change as a solution. The party that will make this case, at present, is not the Scottish Labour Party. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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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.