What the SNP's breakthrough tells us about UKIP's prospects

As it was for the "Tartan Tories", the real test for UKIP is not whether it can take votes off the Conservatives but whether it can build a broader long-term coalition.

Today politicians are fearful of the potential "breakthrough" of a nationalist separatist party with a charismatic leader. No, not Alex Salmond and the SNP, but Nigel Farage and UKIP. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two parties are striking. When you consider that both are obsessed with constitutional politics and plebiscites; both are derided for their collection of "fruit cakes"; both admire the right-wing economic policies of Margaret Thatcher; both stand on a none-of-the-above party platform, challenging the political establishment; and, ultimately, both believe that the blame for all life’s woes lie with membership of a certain union.

So should this worry us? Not necessarily. If there is one thing that we can learn from Scotland, it is that the voters are able to differentiate between different elections. For example, although the SNP did unbelievably well in 2011, the year before, in the UK general election, they stood by and watched Labour consolidate their position as the main party of Scotland at Westminster.

And according to recent opinion polls, they still command solid support at the Scottish Parliament, despite six years in government, although this is not the case in recent UK polls. In addition, if every single opinion poll on the referendum is to be believed, then their entire raison d'être, separatism, will be resoundingly rejected next year. Yet it is from history that we should view this nationalist success, and measure the potential success of UKIP.

The SNP's breakthrough in Scotland did not happen in 2011, nor in 2007 as some would have us believe, but rather over time, and can be traced back to the void created by the 1960s decline of the Tories in Scotland, which the SNP helped to fill, as well as the start of distrust of the three main parties among the Scottish electorate. This was first noticed when the SNP started to win local elections, and come strong runners up in by-elections like the one in West Lothian in 1962, where it scooped most of the Conservative votes. Since then, many of its strongholds are in what were once Conservative areas. Hence the old SNP nickname north of the border:"the Tartan Tories".

They manoeuvred to collect these initial votes through their embrace of previously Tory values around tradition and, most obviously nationalism, as well as an ownership of rural issues; depicting Westminster as distant and unrepresentative; oh and the argument that membership of the union was not only expensive, but somehow that Scotland was subsidising England. Sound familiar?

Nonetheless, this was nothing new. Despite the Tories winning half the Scottish vote in 1955, Scotland has long voted disproportionately for centre-left parties. For most of the 19th century, it was as sterile towards the Tories as it is today. Thus there was no future for the SNP in remaining "Tartan Tories". The smart thing the party did was not just to provide a hearse for Scottish conservatives, but also a vehicle that can be boarded by social democratic Scots as well.

Of course these were long term changes. More recently, in the last decade, the SNP, via devolution and local government, was able to portray itself as a more credible party of government that could be trusted with the keys to the public coffers, helped by competent and charismatic leadership.

The real test of UKIP’s prospects, then, is not if it take Tory votes, but if it can substantially spread its vote more widely, like the other main nationalist separatist party in these isles has done. It is not until UKIP builds this sort of coalition among the electorate, as the SNP has done in Scotland, that people can truly claim to be witnessing a "breakthrough".

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.