The Scottish independence campaign is losing ever more ground

One in four supporters have deserted the nationalist cause in 2012.

At last, they’re off. Last week’s "Edinburgh Agreement" ended nine months of argument between the Scottish and UK governments over how and when the independence referendum should take place, and signalled the start of a two-year campaign to determine Scotland’s constitutional future.

But where do the nationalist and unionist campaigns stand and what challenges lie ahead? Last week’s Ipsos MORI poll provides many of the answers.

The poll headline reveals that support for Scotland becoming independent continues to decline. In January 2012, almost four in ten of those of those who told us they would definitely vote in the ballot agreed that Scotland should be an independent country. Today, that figure stands at 30 per cent, meaning that one in four supporters have deserted the nationalist cause in 2012.

At least some of this change in public mood was predicted during a year in which a sense of ‘Britishness’ was celebrated with the Jubilee and the Olympics. And this week's so-called  ‘Scomni-shambles’, with two Scottish National Party MSPs resigning over the party’s new policy on NATO membership and the First Minister’s integrity being questioned over the legal advice sought about an independent Scotland’s future in the EU, won’t have helped the nationalist cause.

It is clear that it is the nationalists who face the stiffer challenge in winning the hearts and minds of Scottish voters. Firstly, there is the fact that only a quarter of women female voters (24 per cent) support independence, a full 13-points lower than support among men. The appointment of deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to run the ‘Yes’ campaign is clearly aimed at encouraging more women to change their minds, but the scale of the deficit makes this a huge task.

Then there is the economic argument. It is clear that voters have yet to be convinced that they will be better off if Scotland were to go it alone. Our January poll showed that this will be the most important issue in deciding the outcome of the referendum and that voters felt less secure about their finances when they considered what life would be like in an independent Scotland.  The current poll illustrates that it’s owner-occupiers (28 per cent), those with children (27 per cent) and those who live in the most affluent areas of Scotland (23 per cent) who are the most lukewarm about the prospect of independence.

These challenges are magnified by what is happening to support for the SNP and to voter satisfaction with the performance of the First Minister. In terms of voting intention for the Holyrood parliament, Labour has now closed the gap with the SNP from 25 points in December 2011 to just five points now. And while Alex Salmond continues to have personal ratings which all other leaders can only dream of (50 per cent are satisfied), these are also heading in the wrong direction, having been at 62 per cent just under a year ago.

The ‘No’ campaign has had an easier ride of late yet still faces its own challenges in persuading voters that Scotland is ‘better together.’ Their current healthy lead could be vulnerable if they are unable to outline and persuade voters of the additional powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the event of a ‘no’ vote. The majority of Scots want decisions about taxation, welfare and benefits to be made at Holyrood. However, with the option of further devolution not appearing on the ballot paper, it is up to the ‘No’ camp to outline a united, coherent vision or risk alienating voters who want further devolution but who currently want to remain in the UK.

Overall, those working for an independent Scotland face the bigger challenge in winning public support. Their hope is that 2012’s feeling of ‘Britishness’ will be replaced by ‘Scottishness’ in 2014 with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Bannockburn commemoration. The danger is that, by then, it may be too late.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP annual conference on October 20, 2012 in Perth, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mark Diffley is research director of Ipsos-MORI Scotland. He tweets as @markdiffley1.

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.