Brian Monteith: Tactical voting may thwart SNP

Voting for Nigel Farage's Ukip could scupper SNP chances of another MEP. Picture: Jane Barlow
Voting for Nigel Farage's Ukip could scupper SNP chances of another MEP. Picture: Jane Barlow
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If unionist voters want to put a spoke in SNP wheels, then a vote for Ukip in the European elections might help, writes Brian Monteith

IT IS generally believed within the Scottish Conservatives that they were victims of tactical voting back in 1997 when the party’s Westminster members were wiped out.

There were certainly other influences at work: the general feeling that it was time for a change, the seemingly never-ending string of sleaze and corruption stories involving Tory MPs and ministers, together with the loss of confidence in the government’s economic management following the recession of 1992 (even though the economy was, by the election, performing well). Nevertheless there was also an “anyone but a Tory” attitude that confronted canvassers on Scottish doorsteps that June and a real sense that electors were reading the runes to establish who had the best chance of beating any Conservative incumbent.

It should be remembered that the Scottish Conservatives still managed to poll nearly half a million votes, representing a 17.5 per cent share, but such was the spread they failed to win any seats while the Liberal Democrats won ten with just 13 per cent.

It was for this reason that only two years later, with a smaller vote share, the Scottish Conservatives were able to win 18 seats under proportional voting at the Scottish Parliament. A solitary Westminster seat has been the party’s lot for the last three general elections but a poll from ComRes that last week put the UK Conservatives only one point behind Labour had a Scottish sub-sample of Labour on 31 per cent, Conservatives on 22, SNP on 16, Ukip on 5 and Lib Dems on 3. While the Scottish polling sample would be small and the numbers could therefore change the order is consistent with other recent polls for Westminster.

Meanwhile a Scotsman ICM poll for the European elections put SNP on 43 per cent, Labour 24 per cent, Tories 14 per cent, Ukip 7 per cent and Lib Dems 5 per cent.

The impact of such a demise for Lib Dems will first be tested in the elections for the European parliament at the end of this May. If the polling is sustained and Ukip remains ahead then there is every likelihood that the SNP and Labour will both win two seats and the Conservatives one. The remaining European seat, currently held by Liberal Democrat George Lyon, will be up for grabs – with specific European polling suggesting the SNP most likely to seize it.

Ukip needs to break the threshold of 11-12 per cent to have a chance of taking the Liberal Democrat’s place, but with some recent in-fighting and, as yet, no significant inroads into the Scottish political psyche, the party looks set to fall short. Competing parties might well welcome any failure by Ukip to establish a bridgehead in Scotland but there is of course another way to look at such an outcome – through the prism of the current nationalist versus unionist debate as we approach the independence referendum.

If the SNP gains the Liberal Democrat European seat we can expect the bragging knob to be turned up to full volume; we will be told it is the SNP gathering momentum before the referendum and that the unionist parties have been dealt a mortal blow by the Scottish people. The fact that unionist parties will still have polled, jointly, a likely 50-plus per cent will be brushed aside.

It will also be said that the repudiation of Ukip by the Scottish electorate – in contrast to what is expected to be a triumph for the party in England – is confirmation that Scotland is different from the rest of the United Kingdom and further evidence that the country would be far better severing its 307-year-old political partnership.

In other words, any demise of the Liberal Democrats that does not result in a corresponding gain by Ukip will greatly assist the nationalist campaign with only three and a half months to go before the 18 September ballot.

It would not be unreasonable to expect that as the European elections approach that voters begin to think what they would like to do and – in that context only – the support for Ukip in Scotland increases, possibly by enough to win one of the six seats. The Scottish electorate has a habit of thinking about the destination of the politicians it elects by either voting for different parties for different institutions – or staying at home and not bothering to vote at all.

Thus we find that in 2010 the Scottish voters not only voted to keep Labour in power but did so in greater numbers than they had in 2005 – but by the following summer had not only voted for the SNP to stay in government but to give it an unprecedented overall majority.

Likewise the Scottish Conservatives’ supporters have traditionally turned out disproportionately well for the European elections. So this year’s could be a close-run thing. On current polling the SNP and Labour should be certain of two seats each, the Conservatives should manage to hold their single seat and then we have a three-way fight for the remaining place – with the Liberal Democrats in free-fall, Ukip on the up and the next best party in proportional share, because of traditionally poor Labour turn out, likely to be the SNP.

I therefore wish to posit this thought and maybe start a few hares running: if it was right to vote tactically in the 1997 general election to help wipe out the Tories, would it not be right for unionists to vote tactically this May to ensure the SNP does not gain a third MEP and thus land a blow against its independence campaign? If Labour voters need an excuse to go to the polls, could voting Ukip give them one?

In other words, should uncommitted unionists, Labour and Conservative supporters and yes, even Liberal Democrats, loan their vote to Ukip so that they win one seat to go with those won by Labour and the Conservatives?

Cunning and cynical? Certainly, but no more so than the tactical voting that deprived the 493,059 Conservative supporters in Scotland of any parliamentary representation in 1997. Ukip could do worse than appeal for such tactical support and the Labour and Conservative parties might not care too greatly if it happens. If Ukip wins a Scottish seat it could be the beginning of the unravelling of the SNP’s campaign in more ways than one.