Nothing in Ed Miliband’s election campaign became him like losing it. For all the garment-rending since Thursday, it was a good election for Labour to flunk. Even without a formal agreement with the Scottish Nationalists, a Labour government would have been perpetually open to the charge of being ‘held to ransom’ by an SNP fraction pulling the UK ever further leftwards. The Tories, probably led by Boris Johnson and hoorayed by the press, would have been free to indulge in Europhobic braying from the opposition benches without the discipline of running an in/out referendum to make them act responsibly. Miliband would have been torn between two nationalisms: the left separatism that has obliterated it throughout Scotland, and the rightist anglonationalism of Ukip that has leeched Labour’s vote in northern England. Fleet street would have had a hoot. It would have made eating bacon sandwiches look like a picnic.
Is 2015 1992 redux? Certainly the pollsters’ egregious and consistent underestimate of the Tory vote recalls the Conservative victory 23 years ago, which may or may not be down to voters’ tendency to lie more readily about their voting intentions than about the way they voted. Black Wednesday followed less than six months later, and from then on John Major’s government, its managerial credentials shattered, fought an uphill struggle against sleaze and its own Eurosceptics. When the European referendum comes in 2017, Tory divisions will be laid bare. Even if Cameron wins, it’s likely to be his version of Major’s 1995 tactical resignation which, as a long-term gambit, proved about as successful as drilling a hole in a sinking boat to let the water out. He’ll be faced with a large and voluble rump in his own party for whom Brexit remains a thwarted dream, and have to persuade European partners to play along with renegotiating British membership. Meanwhile Cameron’s reinstalled the same hatchet-faced apparatchiks to head the Treasury, Home Office and Foreign Office. The spectacle of Theresa May and the new justice secretary Michael Gove putting aside mutual animosities to trash our human rights may provoke more odium than Cameron has bargained for. Growth will continue to slug along under the cosh of austerity. And then there’s the matter that even the hapless Major could safely ignore: Scotland.
As the past two Holyrood elections have shown, Scottish voters are happy to elect SNP governments, even if they don’t necessarily want to go the whole home-rule haggis. The Scottish revolution – no other word will do – of the past year has largely been down to Labour’s taking its North British vote for granted and failing to understand the force of left nationalism. The legacy of the referendum – shamelessly played on by Cameron afterwards, knowing that Labour would cop it in the general election – was to leave Scots thinking the other parties had ganged up to piss on their chips. In picking as its leader the Blairite revenant Jim Murphy last year, Scottish Labour chose the greatest major-party kamikaze candidate since the Tories plumped for Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. Scotland may well be gone for good – or bad, from Labour’s long-run perspective – but it can cause Cameron a lot of headaches in the meantime. In government or informal cahoots with Labour, the SNP would have had to own the policies they’d co-authored or at least failed to oppose. No such curbs apply now. Picture Cameron’s roast-beef complexion pinking up every week at PMQs to derision from the Nats on the benches opposite. The narrative’s already written: posh-boy Sassenachs try to lord it over free-born Scots. It’ll be Cameron’s Braveheart moment, dragged out over a period of years.
As people have said, Miliband failed to give Labour a narrative of its own, particularly on the pointless sadomasochism of austerity, to which it was still signed up during the election campaign. That will need a lot more political imagination than Labour has mustered recently, not least by recognising that fighting for social justice is often a guerrilla war. Its big chance lies in the fact that a lot of Tory voters are old and will die fairly soon – like sharks’ teeth, these voters need to be replaced regularly if the beast they serve is to survive. An aggressive campaign for voter registration would be a start. Labour needs to make common cause with others on the left whom it’s spurned through its narcissistic self-image as the privileged tribune of the people – a large cause of its undoing in Scotland. It also has to resonate with young voters, who by 2020 will remember nothing before Bullingdonian austerity, will face £9000 a year in fees or even more if they go into higher education, and will be receptive to the idea that the UK – what may then remain of it – has been commandeered by moneyed little Englanders bent on keeping wealth in the hands of the few, and glib, if not in outright denial, about the climate change whose gravest consequences will kick in only once they’ve gone off to the fossil-fuelled inferno.