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A message to the Labour Party: Get better soon…

In many ways, the current position of the commentariat should be seen as a compliment to Labour: it’s not often that people can look at a poll lead of just short of ten percentage points and start asking, “Where is it going wrong?”. And yet, that seems to be what’s happening – partly because that lead was in excess of ten percentage points just a couple of weeks ago. Of course, this might yet be a blip and the lead could return to double figures rather than start to erode. But even so, things seem to have held steady at around a ten-point Labour lead for months, which suggests that not only has the Official Opposition not gained the “Big Mo”, but that it seems not to have even found a small mo. So where is it going wrong? Is it actually going wrong at all?

Well, yes, it is. The UK’s much vaunted credit rating is being downgraded by agency after agency; the economy is teetering on the brink of a triple-dip recession; the Coalition is beset by infighting; the Government’s Big Idea appears to be the Bedroom Tax.

And what of Scotland? The independence referendum is front and centre of Scottish politics, and given the state of opinion polls, the Scottish Government inevitably finds itself at a disadvantage in that it actually has to change people’s minds rather than simply get out its vote. It could do better at that: the Scottish Government gives off the appearance of making binding, quasi-constitutional decisions for the future of an independent Scotland seemingly without giving the ideas much thought or checking that their allies share their vision for a post-2014 Scotland. Moreover, the tightened Scottish Budget is making the choices required even harder to make. The Government isn’t doing badly, but it has had better periods. A strong opposition could capitalise.

And yet, and yet. Voters still don’t trust Labour to run the economy any better than the Tories, and despite having endured David Cameron as Prime Minister for almost three years, they appear dislike him less than Ed Miliband. The gap opened up between the SNP and Labour in 2011 under Iain Gray shows no sign of closing any time soon under Johann Lamont, and at the last serious electoral test, the Eastleigh By-Election, Labour’s percentage point increase only registered to the right of the decimal point. So, yes, we do need to ask where it’s going wrong.

It seems as though Labour still believe that all they need to do is watch their opponents do badly, and the voters will flock back to them. How wrong they are! If you don’t like the Coalition, yes, voting Labour, as the main opposition, might make the most sense, but there are also the Greens, Respect, the SNP, Plaid and UKIP, which exists very much on the opposite end of the political spectrum, but provides a clearer opposition to the Tories. In Scotland, opponents of the SNP might head to Labour as the main opposition, but could also switch to the Coalition parties if they were so minded; the Greens at least partially survived the 2007 electoral cull of smaller parties and are growing in local government; UKIP claim to be on the verge of some form of breakthrough in Scotland; and reports of the SSP’s demise are very much exaggerated. It’s not enough to just not be the Tories, the LibDems or the SNP.

So what’s the prescription? The Blairite assessment put forward in recent weeks is both quite correct and at the same time, very, very wrong. John Reid is correct when suggesting that voters want solutions – they can see what the problems are for themselves, so expect the politicians to provide answers. But the solution put forward by Tony Blair and his acolytes – to jump right back on the Thatcherite bandwagon – is the precise opposite of what needs to happen: if you’re offering the same thing as the other side, there is no reason to vote for you.

Yet paradoxically, Thatcher does provide the template, just not in terms of policy. Ed Miliband himself hit the nail on the head in his tribute to the former PM when he said she reminded us that ideology mattered. What, then, is his – and Labour’s – ideology?

The time has come for a new approach to politics and to government: and the Banking Crisis from 2008 saw a previously under-regulated financial sector turn cap-in-hand to the government for state aid. The bailouts and attempted economic stimulus created new pressures on public finances to which the Thatcherite answer was the current austerity approach taken by the Government. It hasn’t worked, sustained growth still seems like a distant prospect, and the banks still seem happy to reward themselves for years of failure. The alternative must have its roots in the political left and it must come from Labour: the legacy of Thatcherism can’t be erased just as it would be a foolish politician who did away with the NHS, created under Attlee. But a new approach should allow for more responsibility and scrutiny to be built into the system.

But is Miliband the man to do it? It looks unlikely: obviously you would expect details of what a post-2015 Labour government would do when there are two years of twists and turns to go until an election, but setting out what his mission would be, the broad themes and aims of that government is an absolute must. And not the ‘One Nation’ message either: I’d love for Northern England to have the same development and opportunity as is afforded parts of the South, and I’d love for the South East to enjoy a cost of living closer to the (lower) Northern lifestyle. I’d love for bank managers to actually care about their customers’ welfare and for the CBI to lay down with the TUC. But it ain’t gonna happen so it’s up to Labour to set out not what we would all wish to happen, but what they are going to make happen. All we get now are howls of protest about the Bedroom Tax followed by an uneasy silence when asked if Labour will repeal it.

And what of Johann Lamont? She has an extra year to play with as the earliest she could enter Bute House is 2016. At a time when the public is crying out for a left-leaning alternative, asking Arthur Midwinter to produce a shopping list of universal benefits to be axed seems like the stupidest thing she could possibly have done. But it could be framed in a left-wing context. After all, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a Marxist slogan, and you have to ask if someone who was able to save for their working lifetime (and who is likely to enjoy a lengthy retirement) needs a free bus pass as much as someone who just managed to make ends meet every month for decades and, living in an area with one of the lowest life expectancies in the developed world, won’t have much time to enjoy the benefits of free public transport and personal care.

But think harder: means testing all of these previously universal benefits risks wiping out any savings to fund the new bureaucracy needed to administer them; charging for Higher Education puts social mobility for Scotland’s young people at serious risk; charging for prescriptions calls the whole free-at-the-point-of-need ethos of the NHS into question; and while the Council Tax freeze gives disproportionate benefits to the wealthy, ending it would inflict disproportionate costs on the poor. A “smite the poor to spite the rich” proposal, couched in vituperative rhetoric about Scotland’s “something for nothing” culture? Keir Hardie must be spinning in his grave.

And again, Lamont’s approach to the Bedroom Tax is little better than Miliband’s. She and Alex Salmond are locked in a circular row, with each party demanding that the other do something to mitigate the effects of the changes to Housing Benefit. She calls on the Scottish Government to legislate to ban evictions for tenants who default on their rent as a result of benefit cuts. The FM calls on Labour Councils to operate a no-evictions policy as their SNP counterparts are doing. Now, Lamont could force the Government’s hand tomorrow by introducing a Member’s Bill to ban evictions: Ministers would either have to follow her lead or oppose the Bill. Instead, SNP Councillors are introducing a no-evictions policy where they are in administration, and proposing no-eviction motions where they are in opposition, only for Labour-led administrations to vote them down.

So while opposing the Bedroom Tax, Labour won’t commit to repealing it at Westminster, they’re passively waiting for someone else to do something about it at Holyrood, and they’re actually inflicting the full force of the policy on the people they represent in local government.

But what do Scottish Labour and Johann Lamont stand for? Her speech at this weekend’s Scottish Labour Conference contained no fewer than 22 references to the SNP and 13 to Alex Salmond, and the Leader of the Party failed to get her constitutional proposals past the ‘futile forty’ – Scottish Labour’s cohort at Westminster (and successors to the ‘feeble fifty’ who couldn’t protect Scotland from the worst excesses of a government rejected time and again at the ballot box), who do at least stand for something even if it’s just the status quo.

And on the constitution, I don’t expect the Labour Leadership to undergo some sort of Damascene Conversion to independence, but I’d have thought that by now they could come up with something better than a ‘Misery loves company’ argument which suggests that the best reason for remaining in the Union is that Scotland should have to put up with a Tory government it didn’t vote for just as Newcastle and Liverpool do. Instead, more and more believe that an independent Scotland could be a beacon of progressive politics, whether it’s Labour for Independence, John Niven, or Mary Lockhart, the Chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party. Johann Lamont, by contrast, spent the weekend defending the business dealings of a Tory donor to Better Together.

Meanwhile, what Fringe event at the Conference caught the most attention? One discussing Scotland’s role in a progressive Union? No. One discussing how to counter the Scottish Green Party’s ability to pick up a quarter of Labour constituency voters’ support on the Regional Vote, and the party’s “threat to progressive politics” (should that be “threat of progressive politics”? – Ed). Not a policy discussion, or even one on how to work with the Greens. But one designed to slag them off and work out how to shaft them electorally. I wonder if it even occurred to any of the attendees that at least some of those voters might actually be Green voters first, and the trick is to keep attracting their constituency votes?

So when a Labour Leader could build a new vision for the UK and for Scotland, Labour are found wanting at every level, relying on empty buzzwords and attack politics. That’s where it’s going wrong.

Of course, it’s a bit rich for me to spend a post attacking the Labour Party while at the same time concluding that they need to stop being so negative. But here’s the thing: I’m living in England and as a resident of Lancashire, have a vote in next month’s County Elections. I’m on the left politically, so that rules out support for the Tories, let alone UKIP or any of the various far right groups active at the moment; the actions of LibDem Councillors in both Chorley and Edinburgh have left me wondering how “Liberal Democrats” haven’t run into issues with the Trades Descriptions Act (and I don’t even have the option of dismissing the LibDems in this election as they aren’t fielding a candidate); the Greens only make it onto a ballot paper in this ward for the European Elections; and obviously, the SNP and Plaid aren’t options here.

So with a choice between the sitting Tory Councillor, Labour and UKIP, the only option I have that involves casting a successful vote is Labour. I want to support them, I really do. So it would be nice if, with less than two weeks until polling day, the one party whose leaflet I actually wanted to receive, whose candidate is the one thing standing between me and a spoiled ballot paper a week on Thursday, were not the only party not to have left some visible evidence of at least an attempt at communication. Is my part of the ward ‘in the bag’? Have they given up on it?

And the thing is, I know that my personal and political journey (an SNP member living in England) might not be all that conventional, but I’m convinced that I’m far from alone in my attitude towards Labour: I want to support them. I want to vote for them. But I have no idea what difference to my life and the life of my community voting Labour will make, or even if it will make any difference at all. With no clear message, and, it would appear, no messengers in this part of the world save for a name on a ballot paper, I can’t make an informed judgement.

No, I can’t be the only one in that predicament – that would, I suspect, explain why Labour’s poll lead is starting to decline ever so slightly. Whether or not that forms part of a trend, a ten-point lead at this stage in a Parliament isn’t enough.

In fact, look at polls at this stage of every Parliament (~57.5-59 per cent of the way through the term) since 1970, and compare them to the subsequent election result, and you see two sets of trends: on average, the Labour position is overstated by just under six and a half points, while the Tory vote is understated by just over four points.

Looking at the figures another way, the principal opposition party finds its position overstated by five and a half points, and that of the principal party in government is understated by just under three and a half points.

And whichever way you look at it, you would expect the third party to have its support understated by an average of just over two and a half points. That would still have the LibDems getting their poorest result since the merger (and still the worst showing of the party and its antecedents since 1970), but things aren’t as apocalyptic as the polls suggest and a LibDem Westminster group in the low thirties wouldn’t be an unreasonable outcome.

Now, bear all that in mind when you consider Labour’s ten-point lead, and the three-figure majority that would come with it. All of a sudden, it looks very, very vulnerable. The government-opposition discrepancy sees the Labour lead cut to just one point. The party discrepancy makes even worse reading for Labour: a ten point Labour lead could turn into a Tory lead of just under one point. Now, even that would make Labour the largest party in the Commons and would probably put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. But the three-figure majority? Gone. Labour could find themselves short of a majority, at best by three seats (take out the Speaker and Deputy Speakers and assume five Sinn Fein MPs refusing to take their place, and Labour would be able to win most Commons votes without working too hard for support from elsewhere), and at worst by fourteen seats (which would all but force Labour and the LibDems into formal talks).

And here’s the worst part for Labour: as we add new polls and take out old results, and keep looking at historic polls in the equivalent timescale in previous Parliaments, we see a double whammy for Labour: in this Parliament, their lead seems to be going down; while the gaps between what historic opinion polls were saying and what actually went on to happen seems, if anything, to be getting wider. Obviously, those leads to go down – but if the past week really has heralded the start of the decline for Labour, it has come too soon.

There are those in Labour who fantasise about SNP members praying for a never-ending Tory Government as a way of boosting support for independence. I hate to burst their bubble, but I can’t imagine many SNP members preferring a Tory Government to a Labour one. Next year is next year – we all have to deal with the consequences of a Tory Government right now. And unless the Labour Leadership extracts its collective digit, regardless of what I want, what other SNP members want or what Labour supporters want, a Tory Government could well be what we get in 2015. Could Scotland be blamed for wanting to get out when it can?

After Eastleigh: Labour

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

Did Labour have a bad night or a good night? Their vote share held up, in fact it increased (albeit by 0.22%), giving them the best overall performance of the Big 3. Not bad in a seat where they had no real infrastructure or organisation. If the swings in Eastleigh were repeated across the country, Labour would end up with a majority fairly close to the one they scored in 2005. There ends the case for the defence.

The case for the prosecution is far more damning: they were third in 2010; they came fourth in 2013. Not only did they fail to convince LibDem voters to move to Labour, they actually lost a thousand votes. In a seat where they apparently haven’t had any organisation in place since the last By-Election in 1994, Labour still achieved over 10,000 votes consistently from them until 2005 – more than one vote in five was for Labour. This time, they couldn’t even manage 5,000 votes or one vote in ten. John O’Farrell tried to frame the contest as a two-horse race between the Coalition parties and Labour. In his own narrative, he still came third.

There, once again, is Labour’s problem. It’s what got them humiliated in Scotland in 2011. It’s what cost them Bradford East in 2012. It’s still hurting them in 2013. Don’t they get it yet? It is not enough, and it will never be enough, simply to not be the Coalition. UKIP aren’t the Coalition. Respect aren’t the Coalition. The SNP aren’t the Coalition. The Greens aren’t the Coalition. And so on. We know what Labour is against, but with just a little over two years left of this Parliament, we are no closer to working out what Labour is for.

And it flies in the face of Labour’s latest buzz-phrase: One Nation. Where is ‘One Nation’ evident in Chuka Umunna shrugging his shoulders and saying that if Labour won Eastleigh in a General Election they’d have a majority of 350 seats? Where is ‘One Nation’ evident in there needing to be a By-Election for Labour to get organised? With the LibDems getting pummelled in local elections for the past two years, with Labour being the main beneficiaries of that, and with the party still as recently as eight years ago being to enjoy five-figure polls and a 20% vote share in a seat where you would expect tactical voting to have been the order of the day, why weren’t they in there, getting a toehold on the Council?

What is Labour’s plan? To sit there quietly, and win by default? They should be trying to seize the agenda, shape the narrative and build momentum. They aren’t doing that. And it’s UKIP who benefit from Labour’s complacent inertia.
The party enjoys, on average, an eleven-point lead in the polls. At the equivalent point in the 1987-1992 Parliament, in early 1990, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party enjoyed a lead of fifteen points. The Tories won a fourth term in 1992. Tony Blair had a lead of 27 and a half points in early 1995. His lead was reduced to just(!) thirteen points in 1997 – enough for a landslide, but half what he was predicted to get two years earlier. Hell, even Michael Foot had a lead of 10 and a half points in mid-1981, and look what happened to him!

So Labour might have been the only party to increase their vote share, and the swing on display might grant them a 60-seat majority. The polls might give them a lead over the Tories of eleven points and a three-figure majority to go with it. But there is a gap between mid-term polls and the actual result – a gap which could see their lead shrink to three points at most: enough to give Labour a majority of just 22 seats.

If Eastleigh should have taught Labour anything, it’s this: the party needs to stop assuming that the votes will simply come, and start going out to find them. No more shrugging of shoulders. No more musing that a seat isn’t on the target list. No more 20-year organisational vacuums. No more just not being the other guy.

There were surely ten thousand potential Labour voters in Eastleigh, and the party just found four thousand of them. A few more failures on that level, and even that 22-seat majority could look optimistic. Labour could end up handing David Cameron another five years in Downing Street.

After Eastleigh: the Conservatives

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

It’s hard to know what has been the biggest disaster for the Tories in this By-Election: the campaign, the result, or the aftermath. Maria Hutchings should have been a shoo-in to win: she had stood in the constituency before and her previous opponent had resigned in disgrace.

But the Conservatives forgot the First Law of By-Elections: for the main three UK-wide parties, a candidate is one of more than six hundred in a General Election, but is one of one in a By-Election. Her previous utterances were scrutinised, her views canvassed on a range of subjects. She was as hostile to immigration as UKIP; were David Cameron’s proposed referendum on the EU to take place, she would vote to leave it; had the been in the Commons a few weeks earlier, she would have voted against equal marriage. It seems that she shared a party affiliation with her leader, but very little else: she had more in common with UKIP, a point that all of her opponents were happy to exploit.

So faced with this gulf between the candidate and the Leadership, the Tories had two options: try and spin her as an independent(ish) voice for Eastleigh, or crowd her out with neighbouring MPs and frontbenchers, and lock Hutchings in a cupboard somewhere. They went with Option B, which served to only further highlight the ideological gap, and raised questions as to whether or not she had been gagged. Even following the result, her speech was brief and devoid of any political content, and she was whisked out of the counting hall, not speaking to any of the reporters throwing questions at her. Not speaking at all.

So again, it’s a judgement call: she was fine as one of six hundred, but the party assumed she’d be fine as one of one. She wasn’t. They then needed to find a way of backing her up when exposed. They didn’t. The Second Law of All Politics was in effect: it’s not the action that hurts, it’s the reaction.

Then there was the result: the Tories came third in a two-horse race. They shed their vote fell by 14 points and Hutchings shed almost half the votes she’d garnered in 2010. The only things that bore even a passing resemblance to a ray of light were the minuscule net LibDem-Tory swing (0.26%) and the almost total failure of Labour to capitalise on Coalition misfortune. Yes, it was a mid-term result, as the Tory mantra went, but they initially had hopes of victory in this poll.

So what now? David Cameron has said that there will be no lurch to the right,but his Cabinet seem out to prove him wrong, with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond demanding a cut in the welfare budget to preserve the MoD, and Home Secretary Theresa May openly musing about the UK quitting the ECHR.

This might be what Tories want to hear. But it won’t work. The Tories need to get that they didn’t lose the election because they just weren’t right wing enough. They tried that approach in 2001. It failed. They tried again in 2005. It failed. Their candidate embodied those views in Eastleigh. She came third. UKIP are now established on the party’s right flank. Yes, they need to compete against that, but with recent LibDem travails, the left flank, the centre-right ground, is ripe for exploitation. They missed that, and so the LibDems held it.

This now is the Tory problem: they have a Leader who is still trying to make the odd pitch for the centre, but those who might be attracted to it take one look at the rest of his party and back off. The activists and candidates are on the hunt for red meat, taking a hardline approach for what should be core support on the right of the party, forgetting that core support alone doesn’t win elections. But that core support looks at Cameron’s pitch for the middle and is put off. They are trying to appeal to everyone but are convincing no one. They have two years to come up with a convincing narrative.

After Eastleigh: UKIP

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

Another ‘best ever’ result for UKIP, with momentum clearly on their side: they kept their deposit in Oldham East and Saddleworth; they took second place in Barnsley Central (though the battle there was for second); and more than a fifth of the vote in Rotherham. This is another chapter in that story.

So why did it happen? Firstly, with the By-Election a battle between two sides of the same coin, there was always room for a third force. Secondly, the speculation that Nigel Farage might be the candidate helped get their name in the papers from the get-go. Thirdly, the Conservatives’ attempt to outflank UKIP from the right backfired spectacularly, giving UKIP additional traction and relevance and highlighting a political gulf between David Cameron and Maria Hutchings. Fourthly, she might not have been Nigel Farage, Diane James proved to be a revelation, putting the UKIP case in a reasonable, articulate manner. Fifthly, UKIP tapped quite successfully into some of the fears of the constituents. The stars aligned for Nigel Farage and co, but I suppose there will be a few in the party wondering what might have been. Had Farage himself been the candidate, would he have won? Perhaps so, but as he himself admits, he’d then be accused of leading a one-man band.

But are UKIP the party of tomorrow? Not necessarily. Yes, they kept their deposit in Oldham, took a second place in Barnsley and built on that in Rotherham and Eastleigh. But there have been far more than four By-Elections and while the general pattern of UKIP results has shown a series of credible performances, the party has not consistently set the heather alight. Besides, we’re all talking about the party’s second place today, but it’s not a first place. Diane James was a good candidate, but for how long will she be remembered? The SNP hold the names Robert McIntyre and Winnie Ewing in high esteem. Gwynfor Evans enjoys a place in Plaid Cymru’s pantheon. But they won their contests. Diane James did not. When UKIP secures its first elected MP, then they’ll have made history.

Their next major test is the County Council elections in England this May. Every year UKIP promise a breakthrough at local elections. Every year, they fail to seriously deliver. This year, they have to. Then will come their showpiece: the 2014 European Elections. They’re aiming for first place, but even if they get it, they shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a viable springboard into the Westminster Elections a year later. In 2004, they made a breakthrough in the European elections, coming third with 16% of the vote. The following year they took just 2.2%, having lost two million voters in less than a year. In 2009, they came second with 16.5%, but a year later they took just 3.1%, with 1.5 million voters heading elsewhere. They remain the party you vote for to give someone else a kicking.

Then there’s candidate selection: the candidates they got elected to the Greater London Assembly in 2004 ended up seeking re-election under a different banner; their MEPs suggest in all seriousness that it would be a bad idea to hire women of childbearing age; some end up arrested; and even those with a clean record are just as likely at their one-time AM colleagues in another party. Robert Kilroy-Silk was their big draw in 2004 and he ended up splitting the party. Last time, the party thought it a wheeze to but former EU Commission official Marta Andreasen on the ticket: she spent the last four years as a thorn in Nigel Farage’s side and finally switched to the Tories during the Eastleigh campaign. “Good riddance,” crowed UKIP, citing her acrimonious departures from the OECD and European Commission, but this is a no-win position for them: if she’s right, then the party is a basket case. If they’re right, then did they not realise what they were taking on when they selected her?

The party is on an upward vector, but every time they’ve been on one before, they themselves have ended it with their own poor judgement. The biggest threat to UKIP’s continued success remains UKIP.

After Eastleigh: the LibDems

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

It should have been the perfect storm: the LibDems have been the electoral whipping boys of UK politics from the moment the ink dried on the Coalition Agreement; their former MP – a two-time Leadership contender and one-time Cabinet Minister – was forced to resign in disgrace; the party became embroiled in a row over sexual harassment which saw Nick Clegg’s leadership (not so much his position this time as his actual ability to take control of the situation) and relationship with the truth called into question once again; and on paper, in Maria Hutchings they were up against a local opponent who had fought the seat before and whose views resonated with her activists. Defeat surely, surely, was a given.

And yet they won: the LibDems selected a local, well-established and respected candidate; activists poured into the constituency, augmented an already strong local structure (every single Borough Councillor in the Constituency is a Liberal Democrat). Mike Thornton reaped the reward of decades of effort in the seat.

But as I say with every By-Election, scratch the surface. The LibDem vote share fell by 14.5%: in line with the party’s least favourable opinion poll results. The party has lost more than 11,000 votes since 2010. And there was even a net swing, albeit a minuscule one of just 0.26%, from the LibDems to the Conservatives, whose result was judged to be a disaster.

The party’s local government base in Eastleigh survived the onslaught inflicted on it elsewhere. What if it hadn’t?

The party’s main opponent had been (or rather, was supposed to be) the LibDems’ equally unpopular partners in the Coalition. What if it had been another party?

The Tory campaign took on an increasingly shambolic air as time progressed. What if it hadn’t?

The rise of UKIP as a viable alternative meant that the opposition to the LibDems was seriously split. What if there had been only one clear, palatable challenger?

With UKIP suggesting that they won among those who voted on the day and it was the postal ballot that secured the LibDem victory, what if the writ for the By-Election had been moved just one week later?

Labour admitted that they’d had no base in the area for twenty years. What if they’d had some sort of organisation in place which could have appealed better to the LibDem left?

Six questions, and you can answer any of them the same way: the LibDems would have come second or even worse.

This was a first past the post election and the Liberal Democrats were first past the post. After two and a half years of agony, this is a much needed morale boost for the party, and might give them what they need to stage a recovery, or at the very least, stop the rot. But the result masks serious problems evidenced in the severe vote fall and the net swing to the Tories in an area of real LibDem strength with an opposition that the LibDems would have chosen themselves if they could have.

And here’s another point: what if, as is likely, the Tories decide that the best reaction to this result is to tack to the right, taking the ideological locus of the Coalition with them? Then, the LibDems will be faced with a tough choice: put up with it and move even further out of their political comfort zone, or don’t put up with it and end the Coalition. What will they do?

The LibDems will celebrate – and rightly so – this weekend. But they’re not out of the woods yet, and they may have even harder decisions to make in the coming weeks and months. The good news for the party is that its members get this: Caron has always been a good barometer of the LibDem take on events – not the party line as fed by the leadership, but the view of the activists and supporters – and she’s already looking at what Mike Thornton will be dealing with in the Commons, and the lessons the LibDems need to learn from Thursday. The party’s result and its reaction show that while things aren’t great for the Liberal Democrats, they might yet avoid the complete tonking that the rest of us have come to expect.

The choice under Cameron: Less Europe or No Europe

All I can think of today is George Robertson’s infamous utterance, eighteen years ago, that devolution would ‘kill Nationalism stone dead’. Today there’s a majority for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament – whose electoral system was designed to prevent that from happening – and a referendum on independence is coming next year.

So I have yet to discern quite what David Cameron is playing at with his proposed referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Isn’t it funny, that when his own backbenchers were calling for the very same thing, the Prime Minister was deaf to their calls? Isn’t it funny, that when UKIP’s support level in opinion polls is roughly equal to the Conservatives’ defecit against Labour, Cameron suddenly finds the time to muse on matters European?

And that, I fear, is why his plan is doomed. It’s contingent on two things: a Tory majority in 2015 (not impossible, but at this stage, I’d rate it as unlikely); and a favourable renegotiation of the UK’s terms of EU membership. Now, leaving aside the consequences of the second of those things not happening (how will he react then?), let’s assume that we get to a point where that referendum takes place.

It’s clear that the EU is not popular in the UK (and I do mean the UK: while England may be particularly sceptical, and the old tensions in Northern Ireland colour people’s view of Europe, you don’t see many people throwing Europe Day parties in Scotland and Wales). But there are some who favour it, who think that it still can be a force for good. They will be forced to choose between less Europe or none at all. Euro-enthusiasts have already lost this referendum, years before it has been formally called.

Of course, by opposing a referendum outright, Ed Miliband has harmed his case – again, look to Scotland’s political history: opposing a referendum didn’t do much for Jack McConnell in 2007 or Iain Gray in 2011. People like being asked the question: any opinion poll that asks people if they want a referendum on almost any matter produce a lead in favour. And the LibDems, having called for an in/out referendum in Opposition now have to explain why a referendum now (or in a few years) would be bad. That opinion poll defecit, and even UKIP support, may well drop for a time.

But strategically, Cameron has acted foolishly. Having tried to duck the question of Europe since 2005, Cameron now faces a discourse where Europe plays a new prominence – as the Constitution does in Scotland. And by not going the whole hog and calling for withdrawal, he now gives those in the ‘Out’ camp added prominence. Step forward, Nigel Farage and UKIP. Instead of sidelining UKIP, he’s given them what they want: Farage can (and is already trying to) claim a victory, arguing that this vote wouldn’t be possible without UKIP pressure.

And if he loses the vote, he humiliates himself and the Tory Party: and gives UKIP even greater relevance. Just as it’s likely that the SNP would continue in some form after independence, so UKIP could continue after EU withdrawal. But even if he wins, what then? A narrative would have been established: a debate between less Europe and no Europe. Just as the (unsuccessful according to the Cunningham Amendment) 1979 referendum on a Scottish Assembly spawned a campaign for a Scottish Parliament, which culminated in the 1997 vote, and the Parliament that was established then formed the Calman Commission in 2007, and Calman was overtaken by the event of a pro-independence majority being elected in 2011, so there will be another campaign for even fewer powers ten years down the line. Indeed, just eight years after the 1975 Common Market referendum, Labour went into an election calling to quit. And just a few years later, one of the biggest supporters of the Common Market in that 1975 poll made a speech in Bruges opposing further European integration. So this won’t kill the issue, and it won’t kill UKIP.

Then there’s that other referendum, taking place next year. It’s interesting David Cameron opposes holding an EU referendum now as, with a Europe-wide flux in progress, it isn’t clear what it is that people would be voting to stay in or leave. But neither his party nor Labour have set out clear proposals for what would happen in the event of a ‘No’ vote in 2014, other than vague promises of further powers. So it’s OK for Scottish voters to cast a ‘No’ vote with unclear consequences, but on the EU, there has to be delay and a full renegotiation before the ballot.

And as has already been said, we’re used to hearing that where Scotland and the EU is concerned, the status quo is best and can only be guaranteed with a ‘No’ vote. Now, that isn’t the case and there will doubtless be people musing on the effects of, four years after the independence referendum, a Scotland voting to remain in the EU but being dragged out by a UK-wide majority voting to exit. This might well push a few non-Eurosceptic undecideds into the ‘Yes’ camp, and a few ‘No’ supporters into ‘Undecided’.

So he might have burned Labour and may even have stolen a march on Nigel Farage today, but looking further ahead, he’s undermined Better Together, given new impetus to UKIP, guaranteed that this issue will chunter along in the press for another five years and commenced a series of rows that will only conclude when the UK has finally out of the EU (whether it takes place before 2018 or at some point in the future)… an ever-decreasing Europe.

Tam Dalyell described devolution as a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits – David Cameron’s policy on Europe looks to me like a motorway with only exits.

Aside

Independents for Independence

This was the kind of day that moves a man to dust the blog off – if only for an evening, as the SNP Leadership’s victory over NATO finally drove SNP stalwarts John Finnie and Jean Urquhart (now both MSPs for the Highlands and Islands, of course) to quit the party.

For clarity, I should say that had I been at the Conference this year, I’d have voted with the Leadership, though not for the reasons that were apparently being put forward, which if reports from Perth were a fair reflection of the case being made, centred around electability than anything else.

No, I’d have said ‘Yes’ to NATO because I think it’s right. Firstly, on the nuclear argument, I would want Scotland (and, indeed, the world) to be nuclear-free. But we won’t get that by clinging onto a 1980s view of the world, and NATO and nuclear weapons no longer map onto one another comfortably: one can be in NATO and non-nuclear; conversely, leaving NATO is no guarantee that Scotland would get rid of Trident.

Scotland becoming independent won’t change the rest of the world, and at times, there’ll still be a need for countries in the developed world to stand up and be counted to help (in whatever way necessary) those who need it, whether that be humanitarian peacekeeping exercises, or, as a last resort, some form of military action, followed by KFOR/ISAF-style work. Now, it’s one thing to baulk at combat operations. It’s another to turn your back on the rest of the package,and SNP members pride themselves on being not just Nationalists, but Internationalists, wanting Scotland to step up and play a full, direct part in the international community. I agree with that sentiment – that’s why I’d have voted yes to NATO.

But there were enough who didn’t feel that way (and they weren’t assuaged by the sight of SNP Parliamentarians citing opinion polls) and for two MSPs, it has got too much and they had to go. SNP reaction is divided: some respect them for sticking to their principles, wish that they didn’t have to do this, and wish them well; others agree with them but wish they’d remained in the Party to change it (back) from within; others are exasperated that they’ve reacted in such a way to a vote taken in Conference; while others still are now appalled that they’ve left at a time when their voices are needed more than ever on the way to 2014.

I don’t know what to think. As someone who left Labour over top-up fees, I sympathise, and as they’re sticking with Yes Scotland, they’ll still be valued, valuable friends. And yes, they were elected as SNP MSPs, but on a 2011 platform which included withdrawl from NATO. They are sticking to that platform. So while I disagree with them, I wish them well.

And it’s also worth pointing out that precedent would be against them resigning their seats: Dorothy-Grace Elder and Margo MacDonald did not resign in Session 1, nor did Campbell Martin, Brian Monteith or Tommy Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne (who went and formed a whole new party) in Session 2. Also, anything that diversifies the Yes campaign, which absolutely has to be more than the SNP Frontbench under a different banner, has to be good. Just as there are different visions of what Scotland should look like in the Union (though Labour aren’t articulating theirs and Hell will freeze over before the LibDem one becomes reality – there’ll just be another Commission in ten years time when it’ll be watered down again), there should be different visions of what Scotland could look like outside the Union, the idea being that any of these visions, or one still to be had, could be made reality if Scotland’s people support it.

PS If they wanted to, they could band together with Margo and the Greens to form a Parliamentary group not unlike the one founded by Independents and the SSCUP’s John Swinburne in the second Parliament (we will dismiss Bill Walker as persona non grata). It would have five Members and so qualify for a place on the Bureau (note to political reporters: that’s the Bureau and NOT the Corporate Body, which is a different entity with a different purpose, whose members are elected in a different way), and as the same size as the LibDem group, would surely be entitled to regular representation at FMQs as well…