THE Liberal Democrats have slumped to fifth place in Scotland ahead of this year’s European elections, with the party trailing the anti-EU Ukip, an exclusive new poll shows.
Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems would lose their only MEP north of the Border and finish behind Ukip, led by Nigel Farage, for the first time ever in a Scottish national election, the survey of those who intend to vote suggests.
Ukip overtaking the Lib Dems in Scotland will be seen as the latest blow to Mr Clegg’s party, which has been dogged by allegations of misconduct against senior figures including an MP and peer. In last week’s Cowdenbeath by-election, the party finished fifth behind Mr Farage’s party, polling just 425 votes.
The ICM survey for The Scotsman shows the Lib Dems facing meltdown, with the party winning the support of just 6 per cent of Scots – a sharp decline on the 11.5 per cent the party polled in Scotland at the last European elections, held in 2009.
Ukip, which polled 5 per cent in 2009 in Scotland, is now on 7 per cent ahead of the European Parliament elections on 22 May – the last major test of public opinion before September’s independence referendum.
The poll also revealed more than half of Scots want to see stricter curbs on immigration, to make it harder for migrants from other European Union nations to come to live in the UK – a stance strongly backed by Ukip.
Strikingly, 53 per cent of voters want the number of new arrivals to Britain from other European countries to be limited, according to the ICM survey.
The survey also suggested a third of Scots are likely to vote for Scotland to leave the EU if David Cameron holds an in-out referendum on Europe.
Ukip, which backs withdrawal from the EU and a clampdown on immigration, claimed a “general dissatisfaction” with the main parties would leave Mr Farage’s party in a strong position in future Scottish elections.
There was a surge in backing for the SNP, with the party supported by 43 per cent in the ICM poll, compared with the 29.1 per cent of votes it won in 2009, when it took two of Scotland’s six European seats.
The SNP would be on course to win another MEP, and the Lib Dems to lose their sole representative in the European Parliament – Scotland’s former finance minister George Lyon.
SNP business convener Derek Mackay said: “Voters are rejecting the Lib Dems after they reneged on promise after promise as a result of their unholy alliance with the Tories at Westminster.”
Mr Clegg’s party suffered heavy losses at the 2011 Holyrood election, seeing its representation in the Scottish Parliament plummet from 16 to five.
However, a spokesman for the Lib Dems last night denied the party was in meltdown north of the Border, despite being in fifth place and trailing Ukip for the first time ever in a Scotland-wide opinion poll.
A Scottish Lib Dem spokesman said: “People know that Ukip’s only policy would threaten millions of UK jobs. Scots will be able to compare that to top Lib Dem candidate George Lyon, who has a track record of delivering for Scotland. His campaign to keep the UK in Europe will safeguard the three million jobs in Scotland and the UK.”
The latest blow to the Lib Dems came as Lord Rennard, the party’s former UK chief executive, lost the party whip after he refused to apologise to female party workers towards whom he was accused of behaving inappropriately.
MP Mike Hancock has also had the Lib Dem whip removed over allegations that he behaved inappropriately towards a vulnerable constituent.
The ICM polling results, taken across Scotland last week, also make gloomy reading for Labour, with the party on 24 per cent of the vote and trailing the SNP by 19 percentage points.
Labour, which last week triumphed over the SNP in Cowdenbeath, had two MEPs elected in 2009, when the party won 20.8 per cent of the vote.
But a Scottish Labour spokesman insisted the party was in a strong position following its latest victory. He said: “Our message of change and reality is resonating with our voters, and we hope to build on that by returning as many Labour MEPs across the country as possible.”
The Tories are on course to retain their only MEP in Scotland, with the party on 14 per cent, compared with the 16.8 per cent it polled in 2009.
A Scottish Tory spokesman suggested the party was likely to perform well in this year’s elections, due to David Cameron’s plans to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership if he wins the next general election.
The spokesman said: “We believe in reforming the EU, and only the Conservatives will give people across Scotland a say on Europe through a UK-wide referendum.”
A senior Scottish Ukip official last night suggested the party was faring better in Scotland because of its stance on Europe.
Spokesman Donald Mackay, who is also Ukip’s Scottish treasurer, said: “We’re producing better results than the Lib Dems and it shows there are very substantial issues people are concerned about that the establishment parties are failing to address.”
The ICM poll revealed 53 per cent of Scottish voters want UK ministers to change EU laws to impose a cap on immigration from other member states.
Restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians were lifted at the start of 2014, with nationals handed the same rights to work in the UK as other EU citizens.
The ICM poll, of more than 1,000 over-16s – of whom more than 500 intend to vote in May – suggests widespread concern about immigration from the EU in Scotland as well as south of the Border, where separate surveys showed anxiety about migration levels to the UK.
The survey showed a large chunk of those polled want an outright ban on immigration. More than one in ten Scots favoured a ban on immigrants from the EU’s poorest nations.
There were also 15 per cent wanting the UK to withdraw from the EU’s free-movement laws to ban immigration.
A decade ago, officials estimated about 13,000 people from eastern European member states would come to Britain each year. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, just over a million people from Poland and the seven other countries that joined the EU in 2004 are now living in the UK.
An exclusive poll in Scotland on Sunday yesterday revealed the SNP is within reach of victory in the referendum, with support for independence up by five percentage points over the past four months.
John Curtice: Scots may take a more liberal line on Europe, but their support of the EU isn’t unbounded
Scotland has so far seemed resistant to the anti-immigration, anti-Europe mood that appears to have gripped politics south of the Border. Indeed, for some the vision of a more tolerant country at ease with itself in Europe is one reason for voting Yes in this year’s referendum.
This Scotsman poll illustrates both the truth and the limitations of that perspective. At present, it seems Scotland would vote to stay in the European Union, by 46 per cent to 33 per cent, whereas the rest of the UK would want to leave – by 37 per cent to 46 per cent. At the same time, support for maintaining the right of EU citizens to live and work in any part of Europe is higher than elsewhere in Britain.
Meanwhile, with just 7 per cent of the Scottish vote, it appears the party that has benefited most from England’s xenophobia, Ukip, will struggle to win a Scottish seat in the European elections in May – when recent polls suggest it could well win about 25 per cent of the vote across Britain as a whole. Yet at the same time, fewer than a quarter of Scots are definitely committed to staying in the EU, while the actual level of support for maintaining freedom of movement in the EU is only 20 per cent.
Ukip could still do well enough to push the Europhile Scottish Liberal Democrats into fifth place in the European elections, after having been as much as six points behind in the last contest five years ago.
Consequently, we should assume that in an independent Scotland politicians would have the freedom they might want to pursue a more liberal line on immigration, or to end the bickering with Brussels.
While support for curbing EU migration is a little less than in England, nevertheless, most Scots would still like to see something happen. The most popular option, backed by 53 per cent, is a limit on the total number of people who could come here each year – though 15 per cent would like to see the EU’s freedom of movement rules scrapped entirely.
Meanwhile, as the SNP’s stance on borderless travel and adopting the euro implicitly acknowledge, enthusiasm for Europe is not extensive enough to suggest an independent Scotland would be joining the European fast-lane. Scotland may be a little more liberal than England, but maybe not by enough to make a difference.
• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
In-out vote definite ‘if Cameron still PM’
Voters will have a say on Britain’s membership of the European Union if David Cameron continues as Prime Minister after the 2015 general election, Foreign Secretary William Hague has claimed.
Mr Hague criticised “antics” in the House of Lords intended to delay proposed laws for an in-out referendum in 2017, and insisted it would remain Conservative policy if it failed to reach the statute book.
He said recent developments offered voters a choice in 2015 of a referendum with the Tories or none without, adding his party was united on the policy.