Labour's Future

Ross McKibbin

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 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.


  • 24 January 2012 at 2:32pm
    Doomlord says:
    Nice piece, though I don't think Miliband and Balls have conceded anything like as much as you suggest. It just, alas, looks that way - which is the worst of both worlds.

    Meanwhile, a question: assuming the Scots do get independence (a big assume), and England does become a Tory enclave - for how long could that last? Wouldn't a new form of tactical voting emerge? To be sure, we could be a long time waiting for it, but something would happen, no? Electorates don't like hegemony, after all.

  • 24 January 2012 at 5:59pm
    spout says:
    Interesting article.

    You assume that Labour are a plausible alternative to the Tories in England - although their right-wing drift and warmongering perhaps show that this is not the case.

    "Even if the Scots vote against full independence (which is likely)":
    That the polls are between thirty & forty percent in the face of years of disinformation from a staunchly Unionist media (including the BBC) is remarkable. We shall see - but perhaps some of the ongoing debate (which is taking place outwith London) needs to be sampled by commentators.

    You may be surprised & heartened.