That Scottish independence or anything which seriously reduced Scottish representation in the House of Commons could be fatal for Labour is now the common coin of politics. Labour is heavily dependent on its Scottish and Welsh heartlands. It has won a majority of English seats only five times – 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 – but these were exceptional results partly dependent on a distribution of seats in England which favoured Labour and which the Tories are now busily ‘correcting’. Wales is already losing 10 of its 40 seats under existing legislation, and Scotland will lose more seats under almost any new political arrangement. Under independence, of course, it would have no representation in the House of Commons.
Even if the Scots vote against full independence (which is likely) but vote for ‘devo-max’, the Tories will probably seize the opportunity to further reduce Scottish representation. That all this was a possibility has been known for a long time yet Labour has done nothing about it. What would make these changes not fatal to Labour is electoral reform, for that, almost alone, would deprive the Tories of their ‘natural’ majority in England. We know what Labour thought of this when it was put to them. They thought nothing of it in the 13 years they had to introduce electoral reform. Blair is primarily to blame, but many others in the Labour Party share responsibility for it, as they do for the failure of the referendum last May. A party that is not prepared to take elementary steps to protect itself scarcely deserves office; and is unlikely to get it.
Ed Miliband supported electoral reform and did so for high-minded reasons – that anything is more democratic than first part the post – but many of the people who opposed electoral reform are now doing their best to destroy him. The attacks on him both within the Labour Party and the neo-Blairite media have frequently been contemptible and are largely made by people who have never forgiven him for winning the leadership. Yet the opinion polls have been perfectly respectable as has Labour’s performance in by-elections. Furthermore, opposition leaders are always more unpopular than prime ministers: Wilson was more popular than Heath in 1970 and Callaghan more popular than Thatcher in 1979. It did neither Wilson nor Callaghan any good. But the attacks have done their work. Miliband and Balls have now lost their confidence and agreed to policies designed to show that Labour is ‘sound’ on the economy. This is a bad mistake.
Balls had developed a perfectly coherent and well-argued critique of the government’s policies, the correctness of which is demonstrated every passing day. So what if Labour is thought unsound? There are three more years before an election is held and nothing suggests that the government’s promises about recovery will be fulfilled. All the new Miliband-Balls policy does is to suggest that the Labour Party is opportunist and unprincipled – unlike Cameron, who might be wrong, but at least sticks to his principles. Sooner or later Miliband will have to take courage and tell his critics within the Labour Party to shut up or get out.