The odds are still against Scottish independence, but every vote will count

The closer the contest is, the more likely radical changes to the devolution settlement become.

Polls of the Scottish electorate currently show a healthy lead for those arguing against independence. But even if public opinion doesn’t shift significantly in the months ahead, every vote will be crucial in determining Scotland’s constitutional future after the referendum.

With Holyrood about to go into recess, it’s clear that if the referendum were held tomorrow there would likely be a clear victory for those arguing for Scotland to remain in the UK. Once we get back from the summer break, there will be a year left for both sides to make their case.

For those of us keenly watching every detail of the debate, it was surprising to read the First Minister’s interview in last week’s New Statesman in which he declared: "This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign." To some extent, he’s right, and all sides expect some movement in public opinion in the months ahead.

Salmond’s optimism is born out of a number of factors. He believes that on-going austerity measures, particularly cuts in welfare spending, will push voters towards voting 'Yes'. He will also have an eye on the outlook for the 2015 general election and hope that next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow may engender feelings of Scottish nationalism in the same way that last year’s Olympics enhanced pride in ‘Britishness’ among many voters.

The main reason to suggest some shifts in opinion though is what our polls highlight about the number of people who are still to make up their minds. 'Undecided' voters come in three categories: those who tell us they may not vote if there were a referendum tomorrow (25 per cent of adults in our latest poll from May, including 2 per cent who tell us they definitely will not vote), those who would vote but are undecided (7 per cent) and those who lean towards one side but tell us they may change their minds before polling day (12 per cent). Taken together, this represents over four in ten Scots whose vote remains up for grabs and who will become an increasingly important group as the referendum comes into clear view.

This said, at present the odds remain firmly stacked in favour of the No campaign. This is because, although there are significant numbers of undecided and uncommitted voters, there is nothing in our polling to suggest that they are currently leaning towards voting Yes in sufficient numbers to make a decisive difference to the overall result.

In fact, analysis of these groups provides more comfort to those in the No camp. Among those who tells us they are uncertain to vote in the referendum, one in five, 20 per cent, would vote Yes while half, 49 per cent, would vote No, suggesting that a campaign to encourage participation is more likely to be beneficial those in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. Those who tell us that they are undecided or may change their minds are more evenly split, with 38 per cent leaning towards Yes and 43 per cent towards No. The remainder cannot be even gently swayed either way at the moment.

So, assuming undecided voters do not begin switching to Yes in significant numbers in the coming months, the debate may begin to switch from who will win the referendum to the margin of victory and what that means for Scotland’s constitutional future.

Our polling suggests that a majority of Scots want some form of constitutional change. For instance, our June 2012 survey showed 29 per cent in support of the status quo, while more than two-thirds of voters (68 per cent) supported either full independence (27 per cent) or the 'Devo-Plus' proposals for greater powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

We do not yet know what will happen to Scotland’s constitutional position in the event of a No vote next year. But it is possible that more radical and significant changes become more likely in a closely contested vote. That’s why every vote will be significant and strongly fought for in the run up to the referendum.

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond launches a paper on the Scottish economy on May 21, 2013 in Falkirk. 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.