THE most striking number to emerge from Thursday’s Scottish parliamentary by-election in Aberdeen Donside wasn’t the majority, the swing, or the various parties’ share of the vote.
Those can all be spun and spun again, ad nauseam. The really shocking number was the pathetic turnout – a miserable 38.8 per cent.
One senior member of the Scottish political press corps suggested that level of participation could be regarded as “respectable”, given only 47 per cent had bothered to vote when the same seat was last contested in 2011.
But this campaign was being fought near the mid-point of Scotland’s protracted political debate about our country’s constitutional future. That question has dominated the news agenda for months. Over the six weeks of campaigning in Donside, the two main protagonists, the SNP and Labour, poured their national campaigning resources into the fight. At stake was the SNP Holyrood administration’s outright majority. Important local issues, like traffic congestion and school closures, dominated much of the debate.
Yet, after all that, fewer than four in ten of those registered to vote chose to do so. Respectable? How low does turnout have to go before we realise we have something approaching a crisis of participative democracy on our hands?
Politicians continue to tear rhetorical lumps out of each other. In an interview with this week’s New Statesman in which he likened the Better Together campaign to a Hammer Films’ Dracula – likely to crumble, once exposed to the light – Alex Salmond suggested the independence debate is still in the “phoney war” stage.
“The real game hasn’t even started,” he declared, “We are just clearing the ground.” I suppose that relegates Thursday’s by-election to the status of a training match. So just about filling four out of every ten seats in that north-east stadium might appear respectable. But our First Minister also professes to being a devoted Hearts fan. Given the fate that befell his club this week, might we not be witnessing, through the reluctance of more and more voters to turn out, something rotten in the game itself?
Of course Mr Salmond didn’t really think holding onto the Donside seat didn’t matter. He launched his party’s campaign himself, made several other visits to the constituency, and hailed the result as a “fantastic” win. Even if the campaign was waged mainly on local issues, with independence only featuring in the background, losing Donside would have been a major set back on the long road to 18 September, 2014. And the First Minister knew it.
But, resolutely combatative politician that he is, I’m far from sure he – or, indeed, the leaders of the other mainstream parties in Scotland – begin to understand why the way politics is now routinely conducted is proving such a complete turn-off for what is fast becoming a majority of voters. In a Scotland where there are probably fewer members of all political parties combined than the 45,000 crowd that squeezed into Hampden Park on Tuesday evening to listen to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, there is a growing disconnect between our political practitioners as a group and the wider voting and non-voting public.
A referendum in 453 days’ time that failed to persuade at least 50 per cent of registered electors in Scotland to vote would be a national humiliation. Those who claim to know more about these things than me insist there is no chance of that happening. Looking at turnouts like Aberdeen Donside, I’m not so sure.
Some of us yearn for a politics that replaces soundbite outrage with reasoned and respectful debate and where participants acknowledge there is no monopoly of wisdom and the sheer complexity of many of the challenges we face is beyond dispute. Like a lot of people, I am finding that response not in the political arena, but in alternative forums, like one I attended in the Glad Cafe on the southside of Glasgow the other evening, to hear Mike Small from consumer network Fife Diet talk about his new book about Scotland’s Local Food Revolution.
Mainstream politics seems much more obsessed, as Mr Salmond put it in that New Statesman interview, with “war”, whether it be war of the phoney variety, a bit of war gaming, or the real thing. Consider the outrage stoked up when the BBC chose to put Nigel Farage of Ukip and George Galloway of Respect on the same BBC Question Time panel before an audience of 16 and 17-year-old Scots in Edinburgh a couple of Thursdays back.
Neither Ukip nor Respect had any support in Scotland, we were told. There was talk of a motion being put before the Scottish Parliament, condemning the BBC for making such choices ahead of representatives from the Scottish Greens or the Lib Dems, even though the programme was transmitted across the UK.
Well this Thursday, in Aberdeen Donside, the Ukip candidate came fifth, narrowly losing his deposit. His 1128 votes outpaced the Scottish Greens (410) nearly three to one and was not that far adrift of the Lib Dems, in third, with 1940. On the same day, in a local government by-election in Glenrothes, in Fife, another Ukip candidate came fourth with 176 votes, more than twice the tally of the Lib Dem candidate who amassed just 83. And in Edinburgh, in another local by-election where Labour took the seat from the SNP, another Ukip candidate was sixth, with 235 votes to the Greens (412) and the Lib Dems (605).
I’d never dream of voting for Ukip but some Scots are doing it, in numbers that challenge support for both the Greens and the Lib Dems. There must even be a possibility Ukip could pick up a seat on its special subject – Europe – in next year’s European Parliament elections in Scotland. Even on Thursday’s showings, doesn’t all that synthetic anger the week before about them being allowed any voice at all in Scotland sound just a little, as Burns might have put it, unco guid?
On the bigger electoral picture that’s emerged this week, it appears Labour has clawed back some ground on the SNP. This is ground which, if it can be recovered elsewhere across Scotland, begins to rule out another majority administration for any party come elections in 2016. While local issues dominated, all parties claim to have found evidence on those well-trodden Aberdeen doorsteps, that the momentum is with their side in the independence debate.
The bigger picture there, in poll after poll where the question is asked directly, is that the Yes side still have it all to do. However, as both camps try to change minds and woo the undecided to their cause, they now have something else to guard against, given that pathetic sub-40 per cent turnout in Donside. Borrowing the First Minister’s own illuminating metaphor yet again, when the phoney war ends and hostilities begin in earnest, can all protagonists conduct themselves in ways that engage the disengaged? Or will so many people be turned off by the fire-storm of claim and counter claim that they’ll do as most Aberdeen Donside voters did this week and walk away from the whole thing?