UK politics

EU election results and the referendum on Scottish independence

I am generally of the opinion that the results of local and European elections are unlikely to influence substantially the results of a subsequent general election in the UK, in this instance in one year’s time, and I do not for example think UKIP will be winning seats in the UK parliament, but the results do shape the political narrative quite heavily, perhaps for a few weeks, and possibly months. Later I will put forward a thought, not too seriously, that there these results may have some impact on the debate and the referendum on Scottish independence.

Even though local and European election results may not determine the course of future events in terms of national politics seen from a long-term perspective, politics is about moments and momentums, tomorrow’s headlines, so a week can be very long, especially in the era of round-the-clock news coverage and the instantaneous combustibility of social media. There will be a strong temptation to do something, even when inaction and allowing time for things to calm down may not be a bad idea, and hasty decisions could lead to profound consequences. It is not the results as such, but how politicans react to the results, that could have long-term repercussions, especially with the next general election in one year’s time.

On the basis of these results, the Conservatives will be forced to recompose their political narrative to attract the UKIP voters, who would ordinarily have voted Tory. UKIP’s purpose, in essence, is to push the Tories to a more sceptic position on Europe, and these results will achieve that goal. Given the first-past-the-post system for the UK parliamentary elections, the worry for the Conservatives must be that UKIP will take sufficient votes away from them to let Labour in, unless they assure their Eurosceptic voters, yet Tory-inclined voters may feel that keeping Labour out is the priority, and will not shift their vote to UKIP, with or without a more sceptical line on Europe from Mr Cameron. Voter psychology – and what the political parties and pollsters think what voters think – will be fascinating in the run-up to the general election next year.

The Liberal Democrats saw grimly bad results, and they will face a huge struggle in maintaining their presence in the next UK parliament. The succession of electoral battering that the party faced seems a little unfair, as the Liberal Democrats have done the responsible thing to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives in time of dire need for a stable government in the country, and they have proven themselves as a party in government. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats will follow the same course of oblivion that their German counterparts have trodden. Yet, the first-past-the-post system may come to the Liberal Democrats’ rescue, as they tend to dig deep once they capture parliamentary seats: it doesn’t matter however abysmal their share of national vote is, so long as they can win one more vote than the second-placed candidate in the constituencies. Given the closeness of the polls figures, even reduced, the Liberal Democrats may still end up holding the key to the next UK government.

The preceding paragraphs assume that Scotland will not decide to vote for independence in the upcoming referendum. Indeed the referendum is often seen as a sideshow of no significance, because the outcome will be no. While it feels as if there is now a year-long campaign leading to the general election, the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence in September will be a very serious and defining moment in British politics and history. It may well be a weird and preposterous argument, and I myself do not completely subscribe to the theory, but I felt the biggest losers in the local and European elections were Labour, and that the results make a yes vote in the referendum on Scottish independence likelier than before. If I were a betting man, I would not place my (hypothetical) house on Scotland voting yes, but I feel it is a distinct possibility.

If Labour were really the next government in waiting, and if the current government were really unpopular, then Labour would have trounced the Conservatives in the share of the vote in the EU parliamentary election, but it did not: Labour accounted for 25.4% of the vote, and the Conservatives 23.9%. In contrast, in 2009, the Conservatives won 27.7% of the vote, as opposed to Labour’s share of 15.7%. One year is a very long period of time in politics, yet it can be surprisingly short in certain aspects. For example, it is probably impossible to change the leadership. As much as the Liberal Democrats ditching Mr Clegg as their leader now would be a sign of panic and desperation, there is insufficient amount of time for Labour to change its leader, so unless something extraordinary happens Mr Miliband will be leading the party into election. Also, oppositions, if they are going to win the election, would normally be in clear lead against the incumbent at this time.

The referendum on Scottish independence is taking place possibly at the worst possible time for the pro-union parties. Mr Cameron might have thought that he had called Mr Salmond’s bluff. Mr Cameron would have thought that the possibility of a yes vote to independence was virtually nil given the lukewarm support historically, and the SNP would be unpopular for being in government. After a clear rejection of independence, portrayed as a rejection of Mr Salmond and the SNP, Mr Cameron faces a deflated and lame-duck SNP government in Holyrood, making his life easier at the beginning of his second term in office. Support for independence does not seem to have grown substantially and has been at around one-third, but clear-cut opposition to independence seems to be weakening. The SNP has remained popular despite being in government for quite a long time now. All the while, the pro-union parties are engaged in a long-winded election campaign against each other.

Mr Cameron’s plans may backfire spectacularly, partly a yes vote once totally unthinkable looks a possibility, and partly because Mr Cameron is doing too well and Labour is doing too badly in the UK as a whole. Many Scots are unlikely to want another UK government by or led by the Conservatives, and Labour’s sluggishness in the polls mean that deliverance from a Conservative(-led) government is unlikely: Labour’s pro-union message of hang on for a few months, and we’ll be back in government is becoming less credible.

The media reports, south of the border, have framed the results of the local and European elections in terms of the UK general election in 2015. The referendum on Scottish independence is curiously absent from most analyses, and there seems to be something of a complacent assumption that independence will be rejected clearly. As I have stated initially, I very much doubt that these results will have profound influence on the outcome of the general election, but could they have repercussions on the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence? If Scotland were to vote yes for independence, then the complexion of the general election and British politics will change completely. Interesting times ahead.