AT THE Eastleigh by-election on the south coast of England, the talk yesterday was of the major error made by UKIP leader Nigel Farage in deciding not to stand.
UKIP, fresh from the 21 per cent it won in Rotherham last autumn, is making the most noise in the Hampshire seat. And with neither the incumbent Lib Dems nor the challenging Conservatives making much ground, Farage may, on Friday morning, find he has missed a golden opportunity to become the party’s first MP. Fed up with the grinding sameness of the main contenders, voters appear ready to give something different a whirl.
By-elections are notoriously poor indications of national swings, with voters habitually using them to take the kind of potshot at the established order they would never try at a general election. But UKIP’s advance in England suggests that – at a time of apparently unending austerity – the mood is growing increasingly frosty towards the mainstream parties. The nervous political establishments watching this tide washing up around their ankles are now asking how much higher it will rise.
The answer partly lies with the question of risk. People are notoriously risk averse when it comes to their political habits – by-elections excepted. The established order, therefore, has a head start. The danger comes if and when people conclude that, so bad is the mess the country is in that they have nothing left to lose – and, therefore, they can risk a punt nonetheless.
Politics is entirely different in Scotland, but this same factor has a huge potential impact on the independence campaign. The pro-independence camp is bluntly selling “Yes” as a way out of Westminster’s austerity agenda. So far, the signs are that most people are unpersuaded/utterly disinterested by this pitch. But if voters in Scotland conclude that the UK economy is not so much a source of security as a basket case, then they are far more likely to take the plunge. This is why the loss of the UK’s AAA rating this week was significant, and why it was seized on by the Yes camp with such gusto.
A possible straw in the wind came earlier this month when the latest Ipsos Mori poll revealed a massive increase in support for independence among 18-24-year-olds. No exact reason has been given, but one theory tossed around is the fact that young voters are the least risk-averse of all. That fact has been strengthened by the dire prospects many of are facing in the job market. What have they got to lose? So perhaps the pro-independence message offering a different path to the mainstream Westminster way is cutting through (though last week’s Glasgow University poll rather dented that theory).
The anti-politics, anti-business-as-usual mood will, however, only get the independence cause so far. The key task remains to persuade that larger chunk of risk-averse voters who have got plenty to lose that they should take a bet nonetheless.