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New Thinking.

Labour needs a generation to unwind the SNP surge

The party's biggest opponent in Scotland is time.

By George Eaton

This is what a political earthquake looks like. Until the publication of Lord Ashcroft’s Scottish constituency polls this morning, there were some who doubted whether the SNP could win as many seats as the national polls implied. Even in the post-referendum world, could it really overturn Labour’s elephantine majorities in Glasgow and elsewhere? The answer from Ashcroft is clear: yes, it can. 

The Conservative peer’s poll, one of the most extraordinary ever published, found an average swing of 25.4 per cent to the SNP in the 14 Labour seats polled, 13 of which would be lost. Only the likeable Willie Bain, who represents Glasgow North East, would survive, with his majority tumbling from 54 per cent to 7 per cent. The rest, including shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander (majority: 16,614) and shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran (11,840), would be out. As in 2011, when it won a majority at Holyrood (an outcome the election system was designed to prevent), the SNP has once again redefined the impossible as possible. 

For Labour, the results put paid to any lingering hope of a majority. Were the party to lose half of its 40 Scottish MPs (which would now be considered a success), it would need to make net gains of 88 in England and Wales to secure an overall victory: an unachievable feat. 

“Our biggest opponent is time,” one Scottish Labour MP told me recently. Ashcroft’s poll confirms this assessment. The surge in support for the SNP is of an epochal kind that takes a generation to unwind. The sight of Labour campaigning with “the effing Tories” in defence of the Union has, as Gordon Brown feared, permanently tarnished its brand. One shadow cabinet member compared it to the betrayal a partner feels after an affair. Ashcroft’s poll, concentrated in pro-independence areas, confirms that those Labour supporters who voted Yes (“Red Nats”) have transferred their affections to the SNP. Labour’s cry that nationalist gains will allow the Tories back in has little purchase when the two parties are viewed as part of a common enemy. 

In these conditions, there is little that Jim Murphy and Ed Miliband can do. Those who have fundamentally turned against Labour will not be assuaged by any policy offer, however radical, or any leader, however appealing. The migration away from the party is a cultural phenomenon that no politician can hope to control. 

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Among the gloom, there are some shards of light for Labour. As Ashcroft notes: “The Labour majorities in some of these seats are such that even a swing of this magnitude has not put the SNP far ahead – for example, just three points in Glasgow South West and Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill, and six points in Glasgow North West.” Two-thirds of defectors from Labour to the SNP rule out returning, meaning that around a third are open to persuasion. One MP predicts that “Douglas will pull the gap back in his seat” and that “better ground campaigning might save some more in Glasgow and Lanarskhire”. 

But Labour, for so long hegemonic north of the border, faces an unambiguously grim fate in Scotland. The only question now is how grim. 

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