Leader: Failure in Scotland would be a big blow to the Miliband leadership

A second SNP victory would deny Labour an important platform.

The former Labour cabinet minister George Rob­ertson spoke for many when he predicted that devolution would "kill nationalism stone dead". But what he and others failed to anticipate was that nationalist politicians would adapt best to the new political landscape. Of no one is this more true than the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Alex Salmond, who is on course to win a second term as First Minister of Scotland after a remarkable comeback by the SNP.

Largely unnoticed by the English media, the SNP has overturned a double-digit Labour poll lead and is likely to become the single largest party after the 5 May Holyrood general election. A YouGov survey published on 24 April put the SNP on 45 per cent in the constituency vote, with Labour trailing on just 32 per cent. If repeated at the election, these figures would leave Mr Salmond just nine seats short of an overall majority. The first SNP victory in 2007 ended Labour's hegemonic grip on Scottish politics. A second, as Rob Brown writes on page 30, could transform the SNP into the "natural party of devolved government".

The surge in support for the SNP is not the result of any increase in anti-Union sentiment. Instead, it reflects Mr Salmond's considerable personal appeal and the popularity of the social-democratic agenda he has pursued. While George Osborne rolls back the frontiers of the welfare state in England, the SNP leader is rolling them forward in Scotland. Since taking office, his government has abolished NHS prescription charges, frozen council tax and introduced free school meals for all pupils aged five to eight. At the same time, the SNP has maintained its commitment to free care for the elderly and to free university education for all Scottish students. Such policies may be fiscally reckless - the funding gap is estimated to be £975m - but they are politically canny. Mr Salmond, a formidable politician, has deftly positioned his party to the left of Labour and will be rewarded on 5 May.

Labour's disastrous Scottish campaign poses grave questions, not just for the party's leader in Scotland, Iain Gray, but also Ed Miliband. In his recent address to Labour's Scottish conference, Mr Miliband explicitly called for voters to turn the election into a referendum on the Westminster coalition. He urged the public to use the contest to give Labour "the best chance of stopping it going to the full term". That the people appear unwilling to do so suggests that he has badly misjudged the mood in Scotland after one term of SNP governance.

In a feverish attempt to prevent defeat, Labour has belatedly changed tack, warning that voters now "stand on the edge" of triggering the break-up of the Union. Yet a poll published in the Scottish Sunday Mail on 24 April showed that just 33 per cent would vote in favour of independence, were a referendum to be held. It is precisely for this reason that many no longer fear voting for Mr Salmond's party. In practice, as the former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars has written, his party has softened its support for independence in an attempt to win votes "from all and sundry", including Unionists. At some point in the future, the constitutional status of the UK, which is now neither a unitary nor a federal state, will need to be resolved. But there is little to suggest a second SNP victory would result in independence for Scotland.

Should Labour lose to the SNP on election day, the party will be denied what Mr Miliband rightly identified as a platform to set out a "real alternative" to the coalition government. Moreover, if, as seems likely, the voters reject the Alternative Vote in the electoral reform referendum, two significant opportunities to undermine the Conservatives will have been missed. The prospect of an emboldened Tory party fighting the next election under first-past-the-post, having redrawn the constituency boundaries in its favour, is a reminder that Labour will not return to power simply by riding a wave of anti-cuts discontent. Unless the party offers a far clearer vision of the kind of society and economy it wishes to create, there is every danger of this being a new Conservative century.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide