Allan Massie: No pointers in European election

Low turnout will mean few conclusions can be drawn ahead of the referendum and next year’s general election, writes Allan Massie

When Willie Whitelaw was Tory deputy prime minister he commented on politicians going round the country stirring up apathy. In the independence referendum, this would play more to Alex Salmonds  advantage. Picture: Denis Straughan
When Willie Whitelaw was Tory deputy prime minister he commented on politicians going round the country stirring up apathy. In the independence referendum, this would play more to Alex Salmonds advantage. Picture: Denis Straughan

IN A letter to this newspaper published yesterday, Mr William Ballantine from Bo’ness wrote: “The SNP dominates Holyrood because its core vote of about 25 per cent always turns out to vote, and the rest of us didn’t. A turnout of 50 per cent sees it dominate.”

This is evidently true, and it is to the SNP’s credit. Its supporters care, and it mobilises them efficiently. Other parties are less able to motivate their natural supporters, though over the years the Liberal Democrats have been arguably as efficient in this respect as the SNP. Labour has failed to do so because it was able for so long to assume that it didn’t need to make much of an effort to be the majority party here. As for the hapless Scottish Conservatives, the pitiful level of their Scottish vote suggests that many of what one assumes to be their natural support stay at home, shrugging their shoulders or wringing their hands, and moaning: “What’s the point? We’re a’ doomed”.

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Given the intense arguments there were about the need for a Scottish Parliament, it’s somewhat depressing that in the four Holyrood elections, the turnout has always been lower than for Westminster polls. One can only conclude that, while the Scottish people may be quite happy to have a parliament in Edinburgh, an awful lot of us don’t much care who sits in it, or even perhaps what it does.

Yet the Scottish picture is actually only a reflection of declining interest in representative democracy. The turnout at general elections has been falling for years, with only the occasional blip. A by-election poll for either Westminster or Holyrood will rarely touch 40 per cent, and is often a good deal lower, even though you might think that voters would respond to the experience of having TV and radio news teams and print journalists drawing the nation’s attention to their constituency. As for council elections, there the turnout is often even more embarrassingly low.

We have the European elections in May and it would be a big surprise if the turnout reaches 35 per cent. Admittedly the European Parliament seems a bit remote to most of us, and its proceedings are scarcely ever reported in our newspapers or on the wavelengths. Moreover, its PR electoral system means that almost nobody feels that any individual MEP is his or her representative. For many this election is little more than a glorified opinion poll, and an opportunity to kick the governing party sharply in the shins.

But political journalists and number-crunching psephologists will pore over the results in May and try to draw conclusions from them. If Ukip does well and the Conservatives do badly, that, they will say, is a smack in the face for David Cameron, just as the last European election was for Gordon Brown. Yet it is certain that a few million people who will vote either Conservative or Labour in the general election next year won’t bother to turn out to vote in May, while Ukip will find it easier to motivate its motley band of supporters in May than it will when it comes to voting for the next government. The most important outcome of the European election will be the effect on the morale of the two main parties, one of which will form the next government, or at least the core of that government if there is to be another coalition.

Between these two elections we have our own independence referendum, and here the level of turnout will surely be not only significant but important. If it is no higher than it was in the 1997 devolution referendum, when fewer than two-thirds of the electorate chose to vote, one would have to conclude that a third of us don’t really care whether Scotland becomes an independent country or remains part of the UK. This would be a very strange result, no matter which side wins a majority of the votes cast.

An even stranger thought presents itself. The hard-core support for independence is almost certainly higher than the 25 per cent hard-core support Mr Ballantine attributes to the SNP. Most would put it at something between 30 and 35 per cent. That of course wouldn’t be enough to secure a victory. But, if you assume that committed supporters of independence are all likely to vote, then a low poll would be in the interest of the Yes campaign. Willie Whitelaw, when Conservative deputy prime minister, once spoke of people going round the country “stirring up apathy”. This might be a wise strategy for Alex Salmond to adopt, for his own natural supporters will certainly be less apathetic than some of those who are against him.

Conversely, the problem for the Better Together or No campaign is how to mobilise its natural support, how to persuade all those who value the Union, and those who have doubts about the prospects for an independent Scotland, separate from the rest of the present United Kingdom, to come out and vote. They would surely be wise to proclaim that not to vote is to vote for change, to stay at home is to vote for separatism, abstention is a vote for Alex Salmond; and to repeat this message over and over again. Apathy in the wider electorate is the SNP’s friend, the Unionists’ foe.

This is the paradox of the referendum; that while the SNP can muster supporters who are vociferously enthusiastic for independence, vigorous campaigning to get the vote out is surely more necessary for the Better Together camp, whose supporters are either content with the status quo or favour only more devolution, than it is for the independence one. There has been no great shift in the opinion polls. Taken as a whole, they indicate that the majority of Scots do not want to break up the United Kingdom.
But complacency is the danger for
the Unionist camp because it may result in a low turnout, and, on the evidence of the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, a low turnout favours the SNP.

Anyone who doesn’t want independence but stays at home on 18 September may wake up the next day to find that independence is just what he or she has been landed with. The referendum is, after all, one election when the result really matters.