As the European elections fast approach there is a growing possibility that UKIP is going to cause an upset in Scotland by winning a seat – to the cost of the Scottish Conservatives. Henry Hill has written about it on this site recently, as I have in The Scotsman back in March last year but the latest poll by YouGov for The Sunday Times at the weekend provided fresh evidence that the momentum is with UKIP, putting it on 18 per cent, with the Conservative party falling to just 8 per cent.
The UKIP performance will appear to many as inexplicable in as much as UKIP in Scotland is very low key – to the point of, at times, being invisible. If it were not for the media curiosity that accompanies the rare visit by Nigel Farage or the occasional Holyrood by-election (when UKIP loses its deposit) there really would be very little measurable presence at all. The Scottish wing of the party is rarely quoted on stories and the coverage it has generated about itself has been almost entirely negative, such as the internal infighting over the Euro-candidate selection process that resulted in the resignation of a majority of officers and candidates.
The UKIP candidate for Brussels who was finally chosen, David Coburn, is Scots born and educated, but works in the City and tweets as much (if not more often) about flooding from the Thames than everyday Scottish political issues.
The probability of UKIP taking the seat the Tories had hoped to hold on to (the incumbent Struan Stevenson is retiring and the lead candidate is Dr Ian Duncan) is, however, encouraging for unionists in other respects, whatever you think of EU membership or UKIP as a party. What it reminds us is that the Scottish electorate is just like the British electorate – despite wild claims to the contrary by the Scottish nationalists.
For the reality must surely be that UKIP is doing well despite any significant presence on the ground, it is pitching to the public through Nigel Farage and a nationwide campaign and it is having a very similar effect in Scotland to that seen in England.
The same poll that gives UKIP 18 per cent also gives Labour 25 per cent and the SNP 29 per cent – and it would be safe to assume that were the SNP not a factor then UKIP could take a significant slice of the SNP vote share, possibly in the region of a further 10 percent – giving it a very respectable 28 per cent. It should be remembered that a recent poll put Scottish support for leaving the EU at 37 per cent – higher than many polls put support for Scotland leaving the UK, and higher than the YouGov poll put support for the SNP itself.
This does not mean that UKIP could replicate the Scottish support it is now expected to receive in the EU elections in the General Election of 2015 or the Holyrood election of 2016 – there will be different factors at play and the electorate will make entirely different calculations about who it wants to send to each institution.
Likewise, the predicted poor Tory showing for the EU elections also reflects the relatively poor UK Tory performance (19 per cent) as it approaches the EU elections – as compared with polling for the General Election (YouGov places them at 31 per cent). This is despite Ruth Davidson’s Scottish party being better known than UKIP and her making a decent fist of leadership. It should help UKIP that it does not have to carry the baggage that Davidson is still trying to lose, but the branding of it as a party for Little Englanders is clearly not damaging it in the way that the SNP intended.
Now compare the polling of UKIP in Scotland with that of Labour in its struggle with the SNP. The Labour Party is meant to be dominant in Scotland but it continues to trail behind the SNP for the EU elections by 29/25 per cent and for Westminster by 36/29 per cent.
Labour is well organised, has many elected councillors, MSPs and MPs and yet when Ed Miliband brought his cabinet north to Scotland last week no-one noticed. No one. I would be surprised if a majority of those reading this column even knew he did.
Despite the No campaign continuing to be ahead in the polls Labour has not yet connected with the Scottish public and Miliband is certainly not yet proving to be the man to do it. While tribal loyalty will harvest votes in next year’s general election, Miliband’s poor resonance with the Scottish public imperils the Union. Leftist unionist commentators keep demanding that Labour does more in the referendum, that it brings out its big beasts (meaning Gordon Brown, George Robertson, John Reid, etc), but they are now looking tired and from a now tarnished past.
Brown’s utterances on issues like pensions being more affordable and generous if Scots stay in the UK appear to have had little effect. But likewise, interventions by Miliband about social solidarity to save the welfare state and the NHS (did nobody tell him the latter is a devolved responsibility?) are about as popular as wearing a pair of tweed knickers under a kilt.
If anything, I actually believe David Cameron is better respected in Scotland – and the YouGov poll backs me up, putting Cameron’s Scottish approval rating at 29 per cent for / 65 per cent against compared to a worse showing for Miliband at 23/67 per cent. Again, the Scottish figures reflect the UK ones (38/54 for Cameron and 26/62 for Miliband), supporting the thesis that Scots really are little different from the rest of the UK.
In Scotland (and the UK) Cameron may be framed by his enemies as a Tory toff, but many just see that portrayal as inverted snobbery. More worrying for Miliband must be how he is often framed as an aloof and inexperienced geek from an intellectual set that has sold Labour short. Strangely, I have no doubt that bluff, gruff, decidedly English figures like John Prescott cut more ice in Scotland than Ed Miliband and the metropolitan elite of Polly Toynbee et al.
The comparison between the effectiveness of the Farage and Miliband media campaigns and their respective impacts on their parties suggests that if Scotland is anything to go by Miliband could yet be undone in the General Election by the combination of a sound economy and blue collar Tory policies that connect more with Labour voters than he does.
Margaret Thatcher achieved this in 1979 with promises of union reform that rank and file trade unionists supported, can Cameron and Osborne find their own issues that can outflank Miliband and split his vote, while shoring up their own? My own suggestion would be regulatory changes that could deliver hundreds of thousands of new family houses.
It also tells us that the nationalist attempt to portray UKIP as a solely English phenomenon is a serious miscalculation that is about to explode in their collective faces. This will impact upon September’s independence referendum because it brings a new pressure on the issue of EU membership and the nationalists’ refusal to countenance offering an in/out EU referendum. It also gives Farage a new platform to exploit (witness his challenge to debate with First Minister Alex Salmond) by arguing that Scotland’s bogeyman is not Westminster but Brussels.
I continue to believe that all of these dynamics present opportunities for Ruth Davidson and her Scottish Conservatives, but whether or not she has taken enough brave pills to exploit them remains a secret between her and her physicians.