The State of Scottish Parties

Scotland’s decision to vote No in the independence referendum will have fundamental consequences regarding it’s relationship with the rest of the UK, but it will also prove to have far-reaching implications for politics at home.  Here are some of my predictions for how Scotland’s five major represented parties, significant  but largely unrepresented (the SSP) and others (UKIP) will fare over the next couple of years:

The Scottish National Party
In pure electoral terms, the SNP may end up becoming one of the big winners in the post-referendum fallout.  This may seem surprising given that they lost the referendum, however it’s important to remember how close the result ended up being.  Including nonvoters, around 38% of Scots voted for independence, far more than the 22.7% who voted for the SNP in 2011.  This extra 15% of Scottish voters who support independence must have come from somewhere.  Granted many will have been members of the other pro-independence parties, the Greens and Scottish Socialists.  However others will have come from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who saw perhaps as many as a third of their former voters support independence.  I’m not suggesting these people will convert en-masse to the SNP but if they’re willing to go against their parties on such an important issue as this, it’s very likely they may be swayed to go against them again in 2016 and vote for the SNP.  Meanwhile a substantial portion of these Yes voters most likely came from people who don’t normally vote, but who may be likely to SNP in future.   I also believe the SNP could get significant support from the 46.8% of Scots who voted ‘No’.  Now independence is off the table, many No voters who support more devolution may end up backing the SNP as a guarantee for extra powers, especially if the Westminster parties are seen to be reneging on their promises.

This isn’t just idle speculation; in the last 48 hours the SNP have reportedly gained almost 5,000 new members, an increase of approximately 20% bringing them up to 30,000 – far and away the largest political party in Scotland (Scottish Labour refuse to publish their membership numbers but they’ve been in decline since 1997 and probably number no more than 13,000 people – though they still somehow claim to be ‘Scotland’s Biggest Party’).  Such a surge in membership in so short a time is virtually unprecedented.  For these reasons, and in this context, I’ll be very surprised if the SNP don’t remain the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the 2016 election.  Another downright majority may even be within their grasp if the situation south of the border is perceived to be particularly dire.

Labour
I could be wrong, but I think Scottish Labour is in trouble.  The party has been in decline throughout the last decade, losing seats in every election for the Scottish Parliament to date.  As mentioned earlier a third of Labour voters may have backed independence, who could end up drifting away from the party if the devolution settlement doesn’t go far enough.  The Yes vote was particularly high in Glasgow, Labour’s stronghold in the country – I’ve heard rumours that it touched 60% in Pollok, Johann Lamont’s own constituency (indeed, there have been opinion polls suggesting she might lose her own seat at the next election).  The poor performance of the No campaign will also undoubtedly have harmed Labour due to its overwhelmingly negative tone, while firmly creating the image of Labour as a party of the establishment.  If Labour wins the 2015 general election, manages to avoid any major controversy and is able to bring forth a truly inspiring programme of reform under Ed Miliband the party may earn a reprieve – though probably not enough to actually win the 2016 Scottish election.  Otherwise, if the party fails to deliver on its promises or if a potential Labour government at Westminster has a very bad year, then they’re finished in Scotland.

Conservatives
I don’t think the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes will change much following the referendum.  They’ve consistently won within 12-17% of the vote throughout the last decade, not moving greatly in either direction.  Given that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters are thought to have voted No, there aren’t many grounds for defection in the immediate future, except perhaps to UKIP – though they’re unlikely to do well enough in Scotland for this to make a major difference.  The Conservatives will probably remain the third largest party in Scotland for some time, unless the Greens begin to do particularly well or the Liberal Democrats see a reprieve.

Green Party
The Greens could emerge from the referendum in a comparatively better state than even of the SNP.  Within the last 48 hours the party has gained an extra 2,000 members, more than doubling its membership count.  Even before this surge the party has consistently been polling at between 7-9%, up from 4.4% in 2011.  If this extra support lasts I could imagine the party easily reaching at least 10% of the vote in 2016.  The party is no doubt also benefiting enormously from the publicity boost it gained from the referendum, giving figures such as Patrick Harvie a much greater profile.  The future looks bright for the Greens.

Liberal Democrats
Like their compatriots across the UK, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are in a state of continual meltdown in Scotland since the Westminster party entered a coalition with the Conservatives four years ago.  At the 2011 election they lost 12 seats as their vote halved, while they’re now consistently polling even lower than they did back then.  I’m not sure they could possibly lose any more support even if the referendum had made a negative impact upon them.  Though I’m not sure it will really have made much difference.  The party – as in most current issues – has largely been ignored throughout the debate.  It was also the only unionist party calling for a full federal solution across the UK, and perhaps therefore the only party to recognise that the current system is broken.  Since the party has lacked a platform to get these ideas across I don’t know how much of a difference this will have made, but it certainly won’t have done any harm.  I expect the party to continue its position at around 5% in the polls, maybe climbing back up to the 7% or so they achieved in the last election by 2012, largely unaffected by the referendum.

The Scottish Socialist Party
As with the Greens, the referendum has proved to largely boost the profile of the SSP as one of the few parties to support independence.  Also like the Greens and SNP, the party is reporting a rise in members by around 600.  During the last year the SSP has risen to around 3% in the opinion polls – not a great position, for sure, but enough to potentially win a seat in Parliament.  The party lacks the base that the Greens and the SNP have – it’s only elected representative is one councillor in West Dunbartonshire – so there’s perhaps a risk that this boost could fizzle out, though the fact it’s had 600 members in the last couple of days suggest it is perceived as a genuine option for voters.  Winning a seat or two is definitely a possibility for 2016.

UKIP
I don’t expect UKIP to see its electoral fortunes changed much except to have become even more unelectable among the 45% of Scots who voted for independence (though I can’t imagine such an English/British nationalist party ever gaining any traction to anyone who’d consider independence in the first place).  It’ll continue gaining votes from the small section of Scottish society it appeals to, which may be enough to win a few seats in Parliament, while remaining incredibly toxic to the 90+% of the rest of the population.  UKIP is currently polling between 4% and 7% but it wouldn’t surprise me if this decreased by 2016 as the Greens and SSP become more attractive protest options.

For updates on polling in Scotland, which may or may not shift dramatically after the election, keep an eye on my election blog, The Election Stalker!

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Scotland Votes No; Now it’s Westminster’s Move

I knew from the moment polls closed that Scotland would deliver a ‘No’ vote.  I just had a gut feeling.  The polls suggested it would be a close No vote, while there was evidence of a last-minute swing away from Yes.  Ultimately the result was 44.7% for Yes and 55.3% for No – a safe victory for the Union, though much closer than it looked to be just a year ago.  The Yes vote achieved a majority in Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, while missing out by just 86 votes in Inverclyde.  The referendum may have been lost, but for the first time in centuries there is widespread support for an independent Scotland.  This in itself may constitute a victory for the SNP and the wider Yes campaign.

So, where do we go now?  I was one of the 1.6 million Yes voters because I believed Westminster incapable of instituting the type of reform I would like to see – creating a federal UK that would devolve all domestic powers to Scotland, meet the demands of voters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and that would solve the West Lothian Question once and for all in a fair way.  I was also put off by the complacency in the No campaign, large parts of which basically rested solely on “vote Labour and everything will be ok.”  When that poll suggested Scotland may actually vote Yes, the last minute scramble to offer more powers lacked all credibility and reeked of desperation.

Yet, before voting, I made a commitment to myself to respect whichever way the vote went and work with the majority of Scots in creating a better future.  This now means I’m committed to making the UK work and will suspend my support for an independent Scotland.  To clarify, my support for independence has only ever been a means to an end; I believed independence to be the best route towards achieving the political and social reforms I wanted.  Now the referendum is lost it would be a distraction to continue focusing on independence alone at the present moment.

However, crucially, this does not mean I am prepared to give Westminster a blank cheque.  All three major parties promised further powers for Scotland and a genuine overhaul of the British constitution.  Now a No vote has been delivered the ball is very much in Westminster’s court.  I plan to put as much pressure on politicians as possible to deliver real reform; this can be done by voting carefully for parties and candidates that genuinely want change, by writing to MPs demanding they go ahead with reform, by signing petitions, and so on.  I plan personally to become much more active within the Scottish Green Party to force change both within Scotland and the UK at large.

The Westminster parties will need to carefully weigh up where they go from here.  Many English voters are (rightfully) demanding that Scottish, and perhaps Welsh, MPs should be barred from voting on issues that don’t affect their own countries – essentially, upon ‘English issues’.  If more devolution is delivered, the number of issues Scottish MPs can vote on becomes very small indeed.  This could present an acute problem if, for example, we get a Labour government elected with a wafer-thin majority (not unlikely according to polls for next year’s election), that’s in office but unable to deliver on many of its policies because it relies upon MPs from Scotland and Wales.  This is why I believe simply giving more devolution to Scotland and Wales is an untenable solution.  There must be devolution within England as well, spurring a transition to a much more federal structure where Westminster becomes the equivalent of the federal government in other countries around the world.  As I see it, this is the only solution.

I’m giving the Westminster establishment a year to bring forward proposals on how to do this.  I don’t mean to actively introduce these reforms – they need time to be carefully considered – but there must at the very least be a commitment to a detailed plan of reform and a timetable for implementing it.  If this is not the case within a year’s time, if Westminster produces more half-hearted sticking plasters to the issue of Britain’s constitutional mess, then my only conclusion will be that my initial instinct was right and that Westminster is incapable of reforming itself.  Now we’re committed to remaining in the union for the next generation I really, genuinely want the UK to work for all its citizens, but if Westminster will not or cannot provide real reform then I don’t see any other alternative than returning to the cause of Scottish independence.  I’m not a nationalist – this is not a cause I will triumph if I don’t need to.  Westminster, please don’t let us down.

The early movements aren’t looking positive.  David Cameron has still yet to commit to any details, instead appointing Lord Smith of Kelvin to oversee vague reforms (I can just hear 45% of Scots shouting, “Have you learned nothing over the last two years?!”).  The No campaign promised there would be a cross-party motion delivered to the House of Commons today laying out the groundwork for further devolution.  This has not happened.  Ed Miliband has seemingly refused to go along with David Cameron’s proposals, perhaps because he has other plans – although it’s worth noting that of all three parties’ reform pledges, Labour’s have consistently been the most limited.  I shouldn’t be surprised that this post-vote period is messy, given how plain it is that these devolution pledges have been cobbled together at the last minute.  As I said, I’m giving Westminster a year to sort out a plan.  During that period I shall be watching and commenting attentively upon that process.

The Union is in your hands, Westminster.  If you want to avoid a re-run of the independence referendum in fifteen years, one where you’d have a much harder battle according to demographic figures, you’d better not mess this up.

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The Referendum is Unpredictable

Yesterday, Yougov published a poll which put the ‘No’ vote at 59% and the ‘Yes’ vote at 29%.  This gave the No vote a lead of 30% – as far as I’m aware, the highest lead it’s ever had since the campaigns began.  So is this a sign of Scotland increasingly rejecting independence.  Should Alex Salmond be worried?  Well, it appears not.  Today, Panelbase published a poll which, for the first time in two years, actually showed the Yes vote ahead at 44% with the No vote at 43%.  It’s worth bearing in mind that this poll was commissioned by the SNP* but it doesn’t appear to be biased any particular way**.  This is only a lead of 1% and could easily be an outlier, but there’s no way a difference of 31% between polls can merely be statistical.  I’m not suggesting either poll is biased; I think the referendum is just that hard to predict.

I’m still not convinced that the Yes campaign will achieve a shock rise in the polls in time for September 2014, but this poll has shown that the referendum isn’t entirely a foregone conclusion nonetheless.  In some ways, the proportion of people who vote ‘Yes’ might be just as significant as an actual Yes victory.  If 30% or less were to vote Yes to independence, it would be easy for Westminster to consider it supported by a minority, but if the result were to be much closer it would certainly be a worry for whoever’s Prime Minister.  If 46% of Scots want to leave the country, that could easily tilt over 50% in the coming years if he or she is not careful.

Perhaps a close vote may inspire Labour, the party most likely to gain power at Westminster in 2015, to repeat their actions of 1997 and grant more powers to the Scottish parliament in an attempt to reduce support for independence.  On one hand, these potential future Labour ministers might believe that this clearly didn’t work last time, yet they might also point to the fact that the Scottish people have consistently shown in polls that we would prefer full fiscal autonomy to independence.

Well, this is going into too many what-ifs.  The point I’m trying to make is that I think that the referendum is too unpredictable for either campaign to be assured of a victory.  If we can accept this, perhaps both campaigns can move on from their ugly scare-tactics and foul-play, and maybe even respect the other’s viewpoints.  Then we can begin a fair debate on the real issues.

*No doubt this will overwhelmingly discredit the poll for those people who seem to think Alex Salmond and the SNP are fascist wannabes, but for those of us who prefer to take a more balanced look at Scottish politics this shouldn’t necessarily be an issue.

**Since posting, that article has been updated with a potential explanation for the result.  Two questions were asked beforehand which, it’s claimed, could have boosted those voting ‘Yes’ in the survey.  While surveys ought to be as simple as possible and I agree this could be a reason for the unusual result, I personally struggle to understand how structuring this survey in such a way would convince people to vote differently.  Are people’s views when taking a survey really that subject to change?  Nevertheless, considering the wide range of results we’ve seen in other polls, I believe my point still stands.

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My Issues with Westminster Politics

I’ve noticed that, other than to discuss opinion polling (a post on which is overdue), I don’t tend to speak about British politics very much on this blog.  This isn’t because it doesn’t interest me, nor because I don’t follow it.  I just don’t tend to have much to say, for some reason or another.  I think this may partly be due to the fact that, regarding Westminster at any rate, I tend to feel a general antipathy towards the entire system.  I dislike our monarchical system, I blame the electoral system for a large number of problems our country faces – or, at least, for limiting our solutions – and I don’t feel inspired by any of the major parties:

The Conservative Party
My views tend to veer to the left so, clearly, the UK’s main right-wing party does nothing for me.  I oppose our current Conservative-led government’s obsessive drive to enforce austerity upon us, thereby punishing the weakest of our society for a crisis they didn’t cause.  While recognising the private sector has its place I oppose the relentless agenda of privatisation they’re enforcing upon us.  Ridiculous assaults on people in need of benefits with policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ are disgraceful.  While I am thankful for David Cameron’s somewhat moderate leadership, trying to reign in the Eurosceptic backbenches and pushing through gay marriage, I still think he is a poor prime minister.

UKIP
Same as the Conservatives, but worse.  As someone who is pro-Europe, pro-immigration, pro-renewable energy but not particularly fond of pubs, I don’t think I have a single thing in common with this party.

Labour
I really want to like Labour.  In theory the mainstream party of social democracy, my amateur opinion is that it abandoned this title long ago.  New Labour did some great things – most of which were before I became politically aware – my favourite of which is introducing the minimum wage, but it seemed to bow to the concept of privatised, unadulterated individualism which Thatcher imposed upon the country.   More shockingly, I’ve read a few criticisms from Labour supporters at the flimsiness of Labour’s policies which, after a whole 13 years of being implemented, are easily being torn away in a fraction of the time by our current coalition government.  If Labour were to promise some real, left-wing progressive policies – nationalisation of the railways,  ambitious cuts to carbon emissions, the scrapping of Trident and a proper, growth-focused alternative to austerity, to name a few – I might change my mind.  As it is, we have a shadow cabinet which has stated it will more or less continue the coalition’s austerity drive and is currently tearing itself apart over the role of unions in the party.  I’m not well informed enough about this issue to make a detailed comment but, without the unions, what would be the point of Labour?  They’d simply be a less scary version of the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats
I think people have been too harsh to the Liberal Democrats at times.  As a junior partner in a coalition, with less than 1/5 of the seats the Conservative party have (they should have three times as many but, you know, our electoral system…) they really can’t be expected to live up to all of their promises.  That said, Liberal Democrat policies have taken such a beating in this government – tuition fees, changing the electoral system, reforming the House of Lords, etc – that I’m amazed any of their MPs see the coalition as still being worthwhile.  I suspect they’re staying in only in the hope that their abysmal poll performance improves.  The last three years has been proof that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is in reality a vote for either Labour or Conservative, depending whichever performs better.  That said, of the four they would still probably be my preferred option, if only because they are the only party seeking to reform the electoral system and end this straitjacket upon British politics.

It’s not the only reason, but an electoral system which only lets our vote count for two almost identical parties is why I largely feel disillusioned with Westminster politics and why I have far more confidence in the Scottish system.  I’m sure I can’t be the only person being pushed by this charade towards viewing Scottish independence as a positive thing.

Nevertheless, I will try to pay greater attention to developments in both UK and Scottish politics, and I’ll make an effort to blog about them a little more.  I doubt that will do much for my lack of faith but it might make it more justified.  If you disagree with any of this, please let me know why!