Oddly enough, I didn't see Ruth Davidson tweeting the words "Well done, Clacks!" this time. The Tories' crushing defeat in the Clacton by-election is a landmark moment in UK politics - it's easy to lose sight of that in the midst of post-referendum fever, but it's true. It's on a par with Hamilton 1967 as marking the moment that a one-time fringe party entered parliament, never to leave (or never on any imaginable timescale). Even if we assume the most pessimistic scenario for UKIP at next year's general election, they will at least retain the one seat that they now have. Douglas Carswell clearly has an enormous personal vote, and to be fair it's not hard to understand why - leaving aside some of his political views, he seems like a decent enough bloke, and now that he's made his move there's suddenly such a thing as "the sane wing of UKIP".
The likelihood of the party system in the House of Commons fragmenting further has increased significantly with this result, and that will offer a huge opportunity for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the coming years to use the seemingly improbable Westminster route to bring about radical change. We could well be heading for an Indian-style situation where we retain the God-awful first-past-the-post voting system, and yet still end up with the PR-type outcome of a hung parliament in every future general election, thus enabling small parties to squeeze substantial concessions out of the larger ones. To understand how profoundly things have changed, you only need to look at the way that Labour people were jumping up and down with joy last night at the news that YouGov were putting them ahead of the Tories by 35% to 30%. I mean, seriously? 35% is good news? There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when there were thoughtful people in both of the two largest London parties who realised that, notwithstanding their own personal distaste for electoral reform, serious questions of moral legitimacy arose for any single-party government that had been elected on a relatively small minority vote. That kind of decency in Westminster politics has long gone - now Labour are quite content to win an absolute majority by a freakish quirk of the electoral system, and to hell with moral legitimacy. Unfortunately for them, it's open to severe doubt whether they're even going to do that.
As I see it, we're now looking at a slim one-off opportunity for Labour to get a majority, because we're currently in a transitional phase where the Liberal Democrats are going to take a big hit, and where UKIP haven't yet put down enough roots to win anything more than ten seats at the absolute most. That means a hung parliament will only come about this time if the result happens to be close enough between the two main parties. But by the election after next, UKIP will be in line to make a second-stage breakthrough, the Lib Dems' fortunes may at least have stabilised somewhat, and the Greens might even be looking to take a few more seats. From that point on, it may well become next to impossible for the Tories or Labour to ever win an outright majority again.
If so, the SNP will only need a little bit of luck for the cards to fall in their favour as they did in the late 1970s, when the party effectively held the balance of power with just 11 seats. They skillfully used that arithmetical good fortune to steer the Labour government down a road that very nearly led to a devolved Scottish Assembly being established. ('Very nearly' doesn't sound terribly impressive, but it shouldn't be underestimated just how close devolution was to happening - it was probably only the unfortunate timing of the winter of discontent that thwarted it.)
And what about the other potential indirect route by which it's frequently speculated that the Scottish independence movement might reach its objective quite rapidly, namely a British exit from the EU? It's actually hard to judge whether Clacton has brought that prospect closer or made it more distant. Obviously the stronger and more credible that UKIP become, the more plausible it is that the "out" side could win an in/out referendum. But a prerequisite for that referendum taking place is that there is a Tory-led government after the general election, and as tedious as the Tory warnings last night were that a UKIP surge might help Ed Miliband into Downing Street, there may be a grain of truth in that. We generally assume that Labour can't win because the public don't take Miliband seriously as a potential PM, but if it's getting to the point where it's arithmetically possible to win a majority on 33% or 34% of the vote, just how seriously do they actually need to take him?
Suppose Labour fall short, though. Suppose they fall so far short that their only hope of forming a government is to involve both the Lib Dems and the SNP. That was exactly the position last time around, and it turned out that they found the idea so distasteful that they preferred to see the Tories take office. But after five years frozen out of government, would they be hungry enough for power to deal with the SNP? I suspect they might just be, but that poses an even bigger question : would they be prepared to make a generous enough offer, given that as things stand (incredibly) the Tories are more radical on devolution than they are? It's an interesting one.
On the BBC results programme last night, Professor Curtice was once again expressing his scepticism about the theory that the referendum has permanently changed the game in Scotland, and said that he didn't expect the SNP to make more than a handful of gains from Labour in the Westminster election. He may yet be proved right, because the apparent lead that the SNP hold at present will be very vulnerable to the media blackout they generally suffer in the run-up to any UK-wide contest. But if so, Curtice is right for the wrong reasons, because he actually seems to doubt that the SNP's current position is favourable, which I struggle to tally up with the available evidence. For starters, he's completely ignoring the almost uniform message from recent Scottish subsamples that the SNP have the lead. Doubtless he'd justify that by pointing to the inherent unreliability of subsamples, but when they're showing such a consistent message I'm not sure that doctrine works so well. He's also pointed a number of times to the fact that Survation's full-scale post-referendum poll showed a weakened SNP position in Westminster voting intentions, but has failed to qualify that by noting that it was a telephone poll, and therefore not directly comparable to the previous polls from the firm. For some reason he has also failed to call out the obvious flaw in the only other full-scale Scottish poll that has been published since the referendum, namely that it used the discredited procedure of weighting by 2010 vote recall (although even then it still managed to produce a small SNP lead over Labour).
Whether Curtice is right or wrong, though, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the SNP still have a golden chance to make significant gains at the election even if Labour hold everything they have. There really is very little doubt that there will be huge swings in Lib Dem-held seats, and it's just a question of whether the SNP will be the prime beneficiary of that. Until recently it looked almost certain that they would, but there is now a school of thought that the referendum may have decoupled a section of rural No voters from the SNP, and that the Tories might prosper instead (or indeed Labour in East Dunbartonshire). As things stand, that's completely unknowable - the SNP's strength in the opinion polls makes it seem unlikely, but we can't be sure that a decline in support in rural areas isn't being more than offset by what might be a short-lasting surge in traditional Labour areas. Even if that's true, though, a post-Clacton UKIP bandwagon effect is the last thing the Tories need, because a split in the right-wing vote will make it harder for them to pip the SNP in Lib Dem-held seats (and indeed in the three most vulnerable SNP-held seats).
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The SNP have published their submission to the Smith Commission - it can be read HERE. It's really important that as many people as possible make their own personal submission, in order to improve the negotiating hand of the SNP and the Greens. You can find out how to make a submission by clicking HERE.