UK politics has never looked so uncertain. The old assumptions which dominated during the era of two (and a half) party politics appear redundant and nowhere more so than in Scotland. The SNP surge looks set to redraw the political map north of the boarder and if the result from Lord Ashcroft’s polling is borne out, the subsequent electoral earthquake will be felt across all parts of the UK, stretching the constitutional fabric of the nation to its limits.
The latest polling by Lord Ashcroft makes grim reading for Labour, which has in the past rather complacently assumed it had Scotland in its pocket. What would happen in the event of the poll findings being replicated on 7 May has been well covered; suffice it to say Labour would find itself reduced to a measly rump of six seats. But as Lord Ashcroft is constantly reminding us; “These polls are a snapshot, not a prediction.” In other words, with just under four months to go, it is still all to play for.
This brings me on to the second poll related story to briefly cause a stir recently, albeit one which was soon eclipsed by the Ashcroft poll. This was the reporting on the phenomenon known as the shy Tory. Whilst the concept itself is not new, with polls putting Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck the implications of the shy Tory vote have never been more important. For those who are unsure about what is meant by this term I will briefly explain: The shy Tory is “wot won it” (along with the Sun) for John Major in 1992, took a bit of a break in 97 but have slowly been making a comeback ever since. What this means is polls in the run up to elections often appear to slightly overestimate the level of Labour support at the expense of the Conservatives. The result is that respected psephologist Rob Hayward believes the Labour vote could be overestimated by anywhere between two and four points. If this were true, the Ed Miliband, facing meltdown in Scotland and a shy Tory vote, really is in big trouble.
But why bring up the shy Tory vote in an article about Labour in Scotland, especially as the Tories really do cease to be of too much relevance north of the boarder whether shy or not? It is because, and this really is not based on anything other than speculation, I would not be surprised if there could be a shy Labour vote out there hiding under supposed support for the SNP. As the rise of the SNP has been so rapid and unprecedented, there is hardly any prior data with which to extrapolate any evidence supporting this claim. But there are a few things which could lend credence to it.
Firstly, it is the psychology of what makes these voters “shy” in the first place. As a quick browse on the internet shows, the phenomenon is mainly associated with right wing parties, with searches bringing up articles on shy Republicans in the US and shy conservatives in Brazil. The reason behind this is the perceived “nastiness” of these parties which many people associate with self-preservation at the expense of solidarity with their fellow citizens. People do not like to think of themselves as selfish, whether or not a vote for one of these parties really is or not. Likewise, people think a vote for a non-progressive party is “uncool” and backwards. It is the reason people tell pollsters in England they are voting Labour, they just cannot bring themselves to admit out loud they are seriously contemplating lending the Conservatives their vote.
But in Scotland there has been a dramatic role reversal. The fight between Labour and the SNP is between the establishment and the insurgent. It is between an SNP which paints itself as the true representative of progressive Scotland and a Labour party it has so far successfully been demonised for its role in the No campaign where it shared a platform with the toxic Tories. That toxicity has rubbed off. The perceived negativity of the No campaign has made the party look “anti-Scotland” and in a nation where people’s identities are increasingly being defined by their “Scottishness” it does not bode well for the party which is seen on the wrong side of this zeitgeist. But this could have similar implications of the polling of the Labour vs SNP vote north of the boarder as it does on the Labour vs Conservative in England. Peer pressure, not wanting to be seen as anti-Scottish, being part of the times and a the fact many voters probably feel Labour has taken them for granted for too long have combined to create a situation where to admit you may still harbour a desire to vote Labour is to feel shame or embarrassment or perhaps even face recrimination.
If one looks at the final days of the independence referendum the polls narrowed significantly to the point where a couple put the independence campaign ahead before the decisive ten point victory by the No vote. Despite all the talk of “the Vow”, it is clear that when push came to shove, all the emotion and all sense of inevitability being portrayed by the hard-core Yes was not enough to prevent people opting for the status quo. The same could end up happening in May. Obviously it is being played for different stakes and is on different terms, but it should be noted that Lord Ashcroft’s polling was conducted in Labour held seats in areas which voted yes as well as showing that around one third of those who have switched from Labour to the SNP will consider returning to the fold, even in these seats. Those which voted No may conclude it is too risky to get into another situation where a re-run of the referendum becomes a possibility or the SNP manages the breakup of the UK through the backdoor. Lord Ashcroft also pointed out that even in those seats he polled where there was a Yes vote such as Glasgow South West and Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill and Glasgow North West the swing to the SNP, despite being huge, has put them no more than six points ahead. Just small enough perhaps for a shy Labour vote to ensure they remain in Labour hands.
None of this is for certain. It is certainly not based on hard facts as the nature of the upcoming election means precedents are few and far between. I am also not Scottish, so may have completely misjudged the mood music. This article is just to give some further fuel for thought in what promises to be an incredibly interesting election.
By Adam Hignett, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.