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.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000) and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.