There are now just fewer than nine months to go until the referendum that will decide Scotland’s future. But in those 260 or so days, there will be one that more than any other is likely to shape the outcome, and curiously it’s one in which few people in Scotland will actually be very interested.
The last elections to the European Parliament, in 2009, saw a turnout in Scotland of under 29%, below even the dismal UK figure of 34%. We have no reason to believe this year’s will be massively different, at least not on the northern side of the border.
But the election, which takes place (on 22 May) almost exactly halfway between now and the referendum, will have a huge impact on UK politics, and the corresponding knock-on effect could decide which way Scotland swings in September.
It won’t have anything to do with who wins the six Scottish seats, which are currently split two each for the SNP and Labour (despite the SNP getting almost 50% more votes) and one each to the Tories and Lib Dems. With the elections conducted by PR, massive changes are unlikely. Rather, it’s the results in England that will define the political climate in which the referendum will be held.
There was an article buried away last weekend on UK Polling Report when everyone was staring mournfully at yet more turkey sandwiches, but which ought to be vital reading for anyone interested in politics anywhere in these islands. Of the many fascinating graphs it contained, we’ll focus on just one:
There are two things worthy of note. One is the declining importance placed on the economy by UK voters, because they believe the coalition’s austerity policies are finally working and growth is returning. The other is the startling rise in the significance of immigration, which rocketed over the course of 2013 from just over 20% to almost 40%, and is set to overtake the economy in time for the Euro elections.
That bodes well for UKIP, who were already expected to do well in the poll and who currently hold 13 of the UK’s 72 seats – the same number as Labour, who secured fewer votes than Nigel Farage’s party. (The Tories have the most, with 26.) But what does it have to do with Scotland?
The UKPR article also notes that Labour’s average poll lead for the 2015 general election declined last year from 10% to 6%. But if you factor in the UKIP vote, things start to get interesting. Because if, for the sake of argument, you switch half the UKIP vote to the Conservatives, then David Cameron’s party have been either in the lead, or within the margin of error of Labour, for almost the whole of 2013.
We took a (genuinely) completely random stab at the site and landed on this poll from 24 March 2013. It gave Labour a commanding-looking 10-point lead, but if we give the Tories half the UKIP vote that lead narrows to just 3.5 points (the standard margin of error being +/-3). Jumping on a few months to July, the first one we came across put Labour just three ahead, but adding half the UKIP share to the Tories reversed that to a Conservative lead the same size.
The big question, of course, is why we should give half of UKIP’s votes to the Tories. But the answer can be spelled out in four letters – FPTP.
First-Past-The-Post electoral systems lead almost inevitably to two-party systems, and on the very few occasions when a third party has managed to insert itself into a Westminster government as part of a coalition, it’s always been punished severely at the next election for the compromises involved. The Lib Dems have already shed between half and two-thirds of their 2010 support, usually polling a couple of percent either side of 10 compared to their 23% share four years ago.
When 2015 rolls around, UKIP voters will be faced with a stark choice. They can either vote for a party with no hope of forming the government and only a vanishingly small chance of being in a coalition – the Lib Dems, remember, are currently a weak and despised partner with 57 MPs, and UKIP currently have none whatsoever – or they can choose which of the two major parties is closest to their beliefs and offers the best chance of achieving their objectives.
Nigel Farage knows this only too well. We doubt that even the wildest of his dreams encompasses taking anything remotely like 50 seats, which was what made a recent Guardian interview with Godfrey Bloom – until recently UKIP’s economics spokesman and party whip, and a close friend of Farage – so intriguing.
“Bloom accuses Ukip’s leader of pursuing an ‘Ein Führer’ leadership policy and a ‘No-policy’ policy agenda, and claims Farage has already struck a secret election deal with the Tories in return for a seat in the Lords.”
Why “until recently”? According to Bloom his parting of the ways from the party was nothing to do with a series of gaffes involving racist and sexist language, but over a much more fundamental disagreement:
We trust that more alert readers have already joined the dots.
There are two possible outcomes of the European elections. Either UKIP will do well, which will throw David Cameron into a panic and greatly increase the chances of his forming a loose pact with Farage in return for a guarantee of an EU referendum in 2017, or UKIP will flop and a significant proportion of their dispirited supporters will slink grudgingly back into the Tory fold for fear of something far worse – Ed Miliband.
(Cameron, after all, has already pledged to have a referendum if he can’t substantially renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership, which is deeply unlikely to happen.)
When it comes to the crunch, half of UKIP’s current support voting tactically against Labour is probably – if you’ll forgive the phrase – a conservative estimate. And with Labour’s poll lead already crumbling and Miliband disastrously un-credible as a potential PM, the right-wing vote in England will be kicking at a rotten door.
So far, of course, this is all just abstract speculation. But at the end of May, one way or another, there’ll have been a significant crystallisation of what a vote to stay in the UK is likely to mean. And as we’ve been saying since last March, that’s the point at which the people of Scotland will really start to pay attention.