How to interpret the UK "ban minarets" poll

Read this before you open tomorrow's newspapers

According to a new survey published by Angus Reid Public Opinion today, "Britain would vote to ban minarets" if the Swiss referendum were repeated here. This contrasts with the United States, where the vote would be evenly split, and Canada, where the proposal would be rejected.

You can find the full results of the three-country polling here -- and I would advise you to do so, particularly if this survey is picked up as a news story in tomorrow's papers. For, if they present the results as I have done above (merely repeating the way Angus Reid has done in its missive), the effect will be to focus on their most negative interpretation -- not to mention the unwelcome suggestion that we in the UK are more illiberal than Americans. (Canadians we can just about get: but the people who elected Dubya? More Islamophile than us?)

I would be the last to pretend that many British people do not have a very real problem with Islam, and that includes many left-liberals, secularists and feminists whose opposition is principled, if, in my opinion, wrong. Actually calling for minarets to be banned, however, is to step beyond principle and full square into the territory of prejudice.

So I am relieved to report that there is a much more hopeful interpretation to be put on the survey's findings.

Firstly, a majority of respondents in all three countries agreed, either "strongly" or "moderately" with the proponents of the ban. But in each case this majority was under 50 per cent (44 per cent in Britain, 37 per cent in Canada and only 30 per cent in the USA). Secondly, although majorities in Britain and the USA would vote "yes" in a referendum on a ban, these too were not absolute majorities -- 37 per cent in the UK, and a mere 21 per cent in America.

True, these figures are larger than those who would vote against (UK: 25 per cent; USA : 19 per cent). But the real story for me in this survey is that, faced with this questionnaire, majorities in all three countries refused to say "yes" when asked if they would vote in favour of a ban.

Forgive me if that sounds a little convoluted (I've had to use a double negative because I can't formally say majorities actually oppose the ban). What the survey showed was that vast numbers of people either wouldn't vote or weren't sure -- around 40 per cent in Britain and Canada and over 60 per cent in the USA.

I find that a great cause for cheer, because it makes clear that, when asked to come to a closed-minded, prejudiced judgement on whether members of one of the world's major religions should be allowed to erect thin, elegant structures to adorn their places of worship -- this is all minarets are -- majorities in all three countries will not do so. They will either oppose such a ruling, or not feel strongly about it, or they will think about it.

During a referendum you have time to explain your case. Given that I think the argument against a ban has common sense, decency and toleration on its side, after reading this survey I feel confident that victory would go to those who would oppose a ban.

And that, I think, is the real message from this poll.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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