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.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.