Support for Scottish independence is on the slide

The anti-independence campaign's lead has risen from 11 points to 20.

Ahead of the launch of the "no" to Scottish independence campaign (or, rather, "yes" to the United Kingdom) next Monday, there's some cheer for unionists in a new poll. The latest Times/Ipsos-MORI survey (£) reveals that among those certain to vote, support for indepencence has fallen by four points since January to 35 per cent. Over the same period, support for Scotland remaining in the UK has risen by five points to 55 per cent. In other words, what was an 11-point lead for the "no" campaign has become a 20-point lead.

Worse for the SNP, Ipsos-MORI asked Scots Alex Salmond's preferred referendum question - "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" - a question widely criticised as leading. Robert Cialdini, for instance, an American psychologist with no stake in the race, told the Today programme:

I think it's loaded and biased because it sends people down a particular cognitive chute designed to locate agreements rather than disagreements. It's called a one-sided question or a loaded question... [pollsters] for a long time have warned us against those sorts of questions.

When all responses are taken into account, including those unlikely to vote, support for independence falls to 32 per cent, while backing for the Union remains at 55 per cent.

After his dalliance with Rupert Murdoch came under new scrutiny, Salmond's personal ratings have also fallen. Fifty three per cent of Scots say they are "satisfied" with his performance as First Minister, down from 58 per cent in January. Concurrently, the level of dissatisfaction with Salmond has risen from 36 per cent to 40 per cent.

We're still more than two years away from the SNP's preferred referendum date of autumn 2014 (a few weeks after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn) but with the UK in recession and discontent with David Cameron at a new high, the nationalists should question why they appear to be losing momentum.

One possibility is that the form of independence proposed by Salmond is increasingly indistinguishable from the alternatives of "devo max" (full fiscal autonomy) or "devo plus" (full tax-raising powers, with the exception of VAT and National Insurance). As NS editor Jason Cowley recently noted, Salmond would retain the Queen as head of state, keep the pound (the SNP leader, who quipped in 2009 that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and that the euro was viewed more "favourably", is now desperate for a currency union with England) and, perhaps, seek to join Nato. What kind of independence is this? So long as the Better Together campaign (as it will be known) makes a genuine offer of further devolution to Scottish voters, it has little reason to fear the coming battle.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.