Scotland, the rematch

30 10 2014

So it turns out the independence referendum was actually a two-legged affair…

The collapse of Scottish Labour has drawn headlines in the last week; their ineffectual leader has resigned, and their Westminster poll ratings are collapsing at the hands of the SNP, following the line set at Holyrood in 2011.

A poll today has the SNP on 52% in Scotland’s Westminster voting intentions, with Labour down to 23% – in 2010 Labour scored 42% with the SNP below 20%. If those results were replicated at next year’s general election on a uniform swing across Scotland, Labour would be left with at best four and at worst just one MP in the country they have dominated politically for decades. The SNP would have between 54 and 57 of the country’s 59 MPs, turning Scotland into virtually a one-party state. There is absolutely no precedent in British political history for such a dramatic collapse.

Any such outcome would make a Tory-led government almost certain after the general election. Which is why it is unlikely to happen.

It is inevitable that Labour’s remaining world-weary troops will trudge around Scotland next year with the simple line “Vote Yellow, Get Blue”. Despite Labour’s despondency, that message will have an effect. Massive SNP (the yellow party) gains would almost certainly take the Tories ahead of Labour at Westminster, regardless of Labour gains south of the border.

Much of the SNP’s rapid growth came towards the end of the independence referendum campaign and in the aftermath, as Labour’s Scottish heartlands deserted the party over its alliance with the hated Tories in the No campaign. Are those same voters going to cast their ballots in a manner that is likely to see a Tory-led government at Westminster? Really? Whatever arguments one could make about a Tory government devolving powers more quickly than a Labour one, if hatred of the Tories is as visceral in Scotland as we are led to believe, that sort of detail is unlikely to count.

The SNP’s problem here is that, beyond the (powerful) symbolism of a vote against Westminster, there isn’t actually a lot that a vote for the SNP would achieve. SNP MPs don’t vote in Westminster on matters decided for Scotland at Holyrood – Westminster’s place in Scottish politics is a denuded one. Their role would be in agreeing a coalition (or a “confidence and supply” deal) in exchange for more powers for Scotland.

But during the election campaign, Labour is bound to demand of the SNP – “Will you rule out propping up a Tory government?” If the SNP says no or ducks the question, Labour can cry “Vote Yellow, Get Blue”. But if the SNP says yes – if they rule out a deal with the Conservatives – that would massively reduce their bargaining power in any post-election coalition talks with Labour, as the SNP would have put their credibility on the line by ruling out talks with the Tories.

It’s basically the same sort of bind the Lib Dems found themselves in after Cleggmania – both main parties claimed a vote for the Lib Dems would lead to a coalition with the other.

Labour could, of course, still royally screw everything up, as is their habit. Electing Jim Murphy as their Scottish leader – the demand from the Westminster elite – would be to entrust in an out-and-out Blairite the job of winning back Labour’s core vote from an SNP that is seen as standing on the left. It would be like standing Margaret Thatcher in a mining constituency.

But Labour is insulated by enormous majorities in its Scottish Westminster seats – 30%, 40%, even 50% majorities, the kind of majorities that have never been overturned in general elections, and barely ever in by-elections. The seats where the SNP is closest to Labour are more middle class seats, seats that voted No, with voters Labour might hope to hold on to. Chuck in the “incumbency bonus” of left-wing Labour MPs such as Katy Clark and Mark Lazarowicz, and the picture becomes even more muddled.

And whilst tactical voting for Labour by Conservatives to keep the SNP out is unlikely – tactical voting being very much a thing of habit – should the returning Alex Salmond start dropping hints about a second independence referendum as part of a coalition deal, don’t rule it out.

More likely than the SNP winning 90% of Scottish seats next year, is the SNP coming within three or four percent of winning 90% of Scottish seats next year. It is easy to see the SNP repeating the legacy of the SDP in 1983 – getting close far more often than close enough.

Which would help Ed Miliband stagger the last few steps to Downing Street, but is of absolutely no use to Labour long-term.

2015 is set to be the last hurrah of the two-party binary, and the last toot on Labour’s rusting trumpet. Even if the SNP surge blows itself out over fears of a second Cameron administration, Labour’s austerity government, with its unpopular leader, mutinous front bench, and dwindling union funds, would find themselves with the SNP, Ukip, Greens and the Tories all perfectly poised to pounce in 2020 – the SNP sweeping through Scotland, Ukip driving its tanks through northern towns, the Tories carving up Middle England and the Greens nabbing the youth vote. If Labour is even able to hang on to power until 2020, that is.

In fact, as the Labour Party enters its final death throes – sacrificed at the altar of its own austerity amidst economic meltdown as Britain’s personal debt drags it beneath the waves – it is easy to see both the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer losing their seats at the election after next; Ed Miliband to Ukip, Ed Balls to the Conservatives.

Fear and loathing of the Tories should get Labour over the line next year. But a party that loses its principles becomes nothing more than a hollow shell of powerlust. Labour now exists for nothing more than its own existence. And a party that exists for the sake of its existence does not exist for long.