First published in Progress magazine
English marginals need real attention
During the course of a campaign that ran at full speed for longer than can reasonably be expected, Better Together mobilised members of both the frontbench and the backbenches of Labour’s Westminster and Holyrood teams in the effort to save the union. Both the official ‘No’ campaign and the Labour party pulled in resources to combat the nationalists. In the last few months organisers were moved from southern English target seats as far away as Plymouth, key campaigners were moved from English and Welsh marginals and in the last week of the campaign regional offices across the country upped sticks and were out knocking doors for our Scottish cousins. Indeed, from Hogmanay onwards I was the lucky recipient of increasingly panicked texts and emails about venturing north to help the Better Together campaign.
This was no doubt the right thing to do but it does prompt several avenues of questioning.
First, that, while winning a general election without Scotland is an impossible task when Labour is only polling in the mid-30s, the party’s target list assumes Scotland returns its current complement of members of parliament along with an additional five. But Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, predicted in August that ‘if the Scottish National party, recovering from its likely defeat in next month’s referendum, persuade a number of Scots to “vote SNP in order to extract extra ‘devo-max’ powers from London”’, they might pick up an extra five seats: three from Labour and two from the Lib Dems.’ This means Labour actually losing seats and failing to gain two of our five marginals in Scotland. As another two of those targets are contests against the SNP, this leaves Scotland’s only remaining Tory member of parliament as our best chance of making a gain. Was this factored into our influx of resources to the referendum? Are we ready to counter an SNP revival?
Second, when is the Scottish Labour party going to return the favour? It has been impossible to get a Scottish frontbencher to do an event outside London since Christmas. Candidates in seats like Burton, Carlisle and Cambridge, which are twinned with Scottish frontbenchers, fully understand why they received little help and support in the last nine months. The question is: will this now change? Fifteen per cent of Labour’s MPs represent Scottish seats but only five per cent of its target seats are north of the border. We are going to need Scottish MPs – alongside members of the Scottish parliament, Scottish members of the European parliament and Scottish councillors and activists – to venture back south, and soon.
Third, why do our parliamentary marginals not have the same frontbenchers and backbenchers continually texting, emailing and calling to turn out the extra activist, meet the next voter ID target, or get more of the much-needed ‘question two’? Caroline Flint has relentlessly championed marginals in the south, dragged MPs and activists campaigning while taking her twinning with Lincoln candidate Lucy Rigby incredibly seriously. Ed Balls, too, is a regular across the eastern region. But their efforts need now to be complemented by a much more aggressive, coordinated push to get boots on the ground in the southern seats which will determine whether or not the Tory government which drove so many Scots into the arms of the nationalists is evicted next May.
Finally, the referendum has sparked an important debate about whether England now needs its own Labour party. What is clear, however, is that we urgently need an institutional mechanism to sharpen the party’s focus on seats in England – not just marginals in the south, but those in the Midlands and the north-west, too. Labour already stages a women’s conference the day before its annual conference kicks off. It should continue to do so. This should now become the model for how MPs, candidates, and activists from across England can come together to debate the issues and challenges they have in common – and to make their much-justified case for a greater share of the leadership’s attention and the party’s resources.
Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress