Why the No campaign should encourage Cameron to debate Salmond

The Prime Minister's persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign.

As the well-worn Westminster joke goes, there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs. It is a truism to note that those north of the border are not naturally predisposed to the Conservative Party. Despite achieving nigh on 40% of the vote at the last general election in England, the Conservatives sank to less than 17% in Scotland, returning the lone David Mundell as the dash of blue in the otherwise crimson electoral map. This sobering electoral arithmetic no doubt informed David Cameron’s understated admission at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that his appeal "does not stretch to all people in Scotland". It is seemingly this, and the fact that he is very much an Englishman, that is driving his near-absence from the No campaign as Scotland finally votes on its independence this September.

It is easy to see the logic behind the decision. Salmond is one of the most accomplished and gifted politicians of his generation. His mandate in Scotland is near-absolute, Cameron’s none-existent. He has crushed a once proud and omnipotent Scottish Labour party and commanded political popularity far exceeding his nearest rival for six years now. The SNP are one of the few political parties in government with a clear and retained polling lead. And even if they lose the referendum, it is unfathomable that the SNP will not be in government after the next set of Scottish elections in 2016 – surpassing Labour’s total years of governance at Holyrood.

It is always tempting to cast Salmond as the man with all the cards in his hand. Tempting, in part, because both Salmond and the media have long-fuelled the myth of Scotland’s first minister as an irresistible force leading a movement whose time, as the party’s slogan says, has come. But Alex Salmond does not make Scottish independence inevitable. Support for the SNP has never readily translated into support for independence. His political narcissism, always prevalent, is beginning to boil over. The customary cocky brinkmanship will begin to grate if the electorate sense he is overdoing the performance in what is so patently a serious moment. Behind the façade, Salmond has always understood that most Scots are sceptical about independence – hence his latest attempts to bait the Prime Minister into debating him. It is a challenge the Better Together campaign should readily take up.

Cameron’s persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign. It will be cited at every juncture by every advocate of independence and, if the polls narrow, which they surely will, Cameron’s absence will become simply untenable. What could be more apt than the leader of Scotland, making the case for independence, and the leader of the UK, defending its continued existence, as the centrepiece of this referendum campaign? 

Salmond’s predictable sneering at Cameron’s refusal, with as many references to his Conservative, English heritage as possible, should not distract from Cameron’s achievement. Cameron was the leader who, in early 2012, finally broke out from the corner into which Salmond had long pinned the main party leaders by forcing the SNP leader to concede the date and conditions on which the referendum was set. This was, somewhat predictably, met with a howl of protest from Salmond who confidently declared Cameron’s meddling would see increased support for independence. Then, as now, the polls remain stubbornly against the SNP leader. Salmond was always content on letting the referendum date lapse ever longer into the future, hoping for the polls to change and praying for an outright Conservative victory at the 2015 general election.

For years, Salmond has been able to dictate the political debate north of the border with past and present opposition leaders who were either unable or simply unwilling to take him on at his own game. The emerging candidate to do just that is the Prime Minister, David Cameron, even if he does not yet realise it himself. He is clearly a competent performer on television and to commit to a debate would, at a stroke, deny Salmond a key line of attack. As long as Cameron is humble, not regal, and clear in his intentions that this is about his determination to secure the Union and not for electoral prospects, for he has none, then the Prime Minister has the ability to rise above Salmond’s desperate attempt to frame the vote as that of Scotland versus the Tories. Scottish voters will see the difference, and with it may well grant a rare victory for long-held foe.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with David Cameron at the men's Wimbledon final last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Talbot is a political consultant

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.