A guest post by Hapleg
Until this year, the received wisdom was that Scotland was settling into a pattern of voting Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood. This view was predicated on the observation that Labour landslides in 2005 and 2010 alternated with SNP victories in 2007 and 2011. 2015, of course, seems to have blown that theory to bits but I will return to that later.
Turnouts for Holyrood elections have (so far) tended to be a good 10% lower than those for Westminster and those voters that have turned out have tended (until this year) to be more SNP-friendly than the Westminster electorates (and more Green-friendly too, for that matter, but it's unclear how much of this is down solely to the electoral system - my guess would be a lot). Is it the case that those who have turned out for Westminster but not for Holyrood have been people sceptical or scornful of the 'wee pretendy parliament' and therefore, for obvious reasons, much less likely to vote SNP? If so, will this continue and what are the implications?
Perhaps it is better to ask it this way: are unionists less likely to vote in Holyrood elections? I make a distinction here between those who voted No last year out of concern (fear?) over the consequences of independence and hard-bitten unionists/Brit Nats. While acknowledging that there are many sincere devolutionist Brit Nats, e.g. Adam Tomkins and most Tory MSPs, I will refer to a portion of this unionist group as 'direct-rulers', as in pining for 'direct rule' from Westminster à la pre-1999, in opposition to 'home rule'. This sub-group is vehemently opposed to independence for reasons other than economics and is opposed to Scottish self-government in any form (polling suggests somewhere between 10-20% of the population*). It would seem to follow that those who are sceptical or contemptuous of devolution per se are less likely to be motivated to vote in elections for the devolved legislature. Equally, it seems likely that those committed to independence (and therefore, it is reasonable to assume, to devolution) are correspondingly more likely to turn out for elections to 'Scotland's parliament'. My guess is that, by and large, No voters who vote SNP are, on the whole, at least pro-devolution in some form.
Those who continued to vote Labour at Holyrood and Westminster but who were initially at least open to, and then latterly committed to and voted for, the prospect of a more socially just, independent Scotland have been sheered away from Labour by its despicable shenanigans during the referendum campaign, moving en masse to the SNP (for 2015, at least – I don't discount a decent portion of them voting Green/SSP next year). Labour's remaining constituency seats in the central belt must now look very vulnerable to SNP. Indeed, there is now only one Labour Holyrood constituency the nearest Westminster equivalent for which the SNP does not hold (Dumfriesshire, whose approximate Westminster counterpart is Tory-held). Will Edinburgh Southern, a constituency with very different boundaries from its Westminster near-namesake, remain yellow, especially without (surely?!) a Cybernat scare thrown into the mix?
There is also a second group that I would posit is less likely to turn out at Holyrood than Westminster: older Labour No voters. My unscientific impression is that a large proportion of the residual 'traditional' Labour vote which still cleaves to the People's Party is composed of older folk whose parents won the Second World War and built the post-war welfare state. For many of them, George Galloway's characterisation of Holyrood as the 'White Blether Club' strikes a chord, while Westminster is still thought of as the 'real deal', the arena of giants like Attlee, Bevan and John Smith. Many of these people will vote Labour at Westminster but not see Holyrood as being worth the bother. Many who might otherwise have been included in this category, as I have experienced from canvassing, have simply given up on politics altogether and will likely never vote again, save for possibly another indyref, when scares over pensions inevitably rear their heads again. They are disgusted by Westminster but remain dismissively hostile to Holyrood, despite the enormous influence it already wields over their lives.
A big anomaly presents itself however - do Tories always vote? The Tory vote appears to have stagnated, standing at around 15-17% at every Westminster and Holyrood election since 1997. It seems that the Tory party is now only gaining supporters roughly in line with the mortality rate. Interestingly, however, there doesn't seem to much, if any, evidence to suggest that Conservative voters, arch-unionists though they generally are, are any less likely than the average voter to turn out in elections to Holyrood, despite the fact that they are the most anti-devolution of the main parties' voters. Perhaps being a Tory in Scotland requires a particular doggedness or even eccentricity?
Another counter to this point would be that, despite the low turnouts they attract, European elections record much higher levels of support for UKIP than other elections do. This may seem to fly in the face of my argument, as it would seem to follow that those who vote for a virulently anti-EU party (Eurosceptic feels far too gentle a term) are plainly not turning out to vote for an institution about which they feel enthusiastic. I would posit that the European parliament is far less well understood by its opponents than Holyrood is by the direct-rulers. Kippers view the EU as a growing but distant and obscure foreign threat against their wholesome British way of life, whereas direct-rulers are resigned to life with devolution. Since UKIP dropped their commitment to repealing the Scotland Act 1998 a few years ago, no party even remotely close to electoral success now advocates a return to direct rule and so their options are rather limited.
The 'energised electorate' trope, something anyone with eyes in their head can see is both true and an unalloyed blessing (although the smug self-back-slapping around it is close to becoming a sickening ritual), is an obscure variable. Its consequences are difficult to predict but, based on the scant and contested evidence which we can draw from the indyref and GE 2015, it seems more likely to be of benefit primarily to the SNP and probably also the Greens and SSP. The question has been posed rhetorically many times before, but how many people are likely to have broken their habit of abstention to vote No in 2014 or Labour/Tory/Lib Dem in 2015? Some, but not many. On the other side, however, the Yes movement in general, and RIC in particular, were superb in creating the engagement which has continued to flow to this day.
In short, therefore, I am speculating that there is a turnout differential that benefits the pro-indy parties. Speaking as an SNP member, this is not a call for complacency in any way. I am also not in any way celebrating the fact that our opponents' supporters may not deign to cast their votes – in my view every citizen has a responsibility to cast their vote and low turnouts harm the legitimacy of our democratic processes. I am simply positing that the electorate that turns out for Holyrood tends to be more favourable to the SNP, Greens and SSP and that, if anything, this effect will be amplified by the massive switch away from Labour witnessed since the referendum. If I am correct about this trend, is there any good reason to believe it will not continue? Well, for one, I certainly would not rule out an SNP Holyrood manifesto pledge of indyref2 prompting No voters to turn out in greater numbers than hitherto observed. For us on the Yes side, the referendum was a joyous awakening; for most on the No side, it was a deeply traumatic and risk-fraught process that they will not be keen to repeat. We will see if I am proven correct.
*The level of support recorded in opinion polls for abolishing the Scottish Parliament varies considerably, principally because the choice of options presented alongside it is not consistent. Indeed, abolition itself is rarely presented as an option at all, with most pollsters preferring to present 3 options: independence, status quo (whatever that happens to be at the time) and 'more powers'/devo-max. When this is the case, we can only presume that direct-rulers opt for a mixture of the status quo and 'don't know'/'refused'/'none of the above'. I am convinced, however, that it accounts for a steadily diminishing but still non-negligible portion of the public.
* * *
This is guest post no. 4 since I made my 'appeal' the other day. Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!). My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.