Brian Monteith: Don’t dismiss Ukip Scottish impact

Nigel Farage’s party is just as relevant in Scotland as it is south of the Border, writes Brian Monteith

IN THE aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election it has very quickly become commonplace for our ruling liberal elite to dismiss the performance of Ukip as a temporary, protest vote. Similarly in Scotland the MacChattering classes, who by definition are social democrats and therefore include many nationalists, are apt to say Scotland is different and therefore Ukip is an irrelevance.

Both assumptions are wrong and if they are not corrected are most likely to come back to bite such bletherers on the behind.

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The Eastleigh by-election will, I suggest, come to be seen as a key moment in the life of the coalition government. It is a warning to both parties, but most especially the Conservatives, for it shows that David Cameron’s gamble of offering a referendum on EU membership has not dampened the electorate’s growing enthusiasm for Nigel Farage’s party.

It now means that the Conservatives have one chance, and only one chance, to correct their trajectory of hurtling towards defeat in 2015, and it is with George Osborne’s budget on 20 March.

It has come down to this one day because for too long David Cameron ignored Ukip and the issue of the EU. He did not recognise how the EU influences so much of what troubles the electorate – while Ukip has been able to broaden its appeal beyond EU membership to such issues as our becalmed economic growth, managed immigration, welfare tourism and climbing energy prices (to name just a few) – and trace back the origins of these difficulties to Brussels diktat and regulation.

As David Cameron cannot easily deliver a referendum now, for so long as the Liberal Democrats and Labour will not countenance it he has no parliamentary majority to do so, and as he has not yet renegotiated anything anyway Ukip will hang around the Conservative Party like a very unwelcome smell for a long time yet.

Ukip has the ability to wreak havoc for the Conservatives by splitting the right-of-centre vote and thus practically guarantee a Labour victory much as in the way the SDP helped Margaret Thatcher give Michael Foot a humiliating mauling in 1983 by splitting the Labour vote.

That said, it is not just winning votes off the Tories, but is taking support away from all parties. In as much as it clearly is a right-of-centre party, sometimes claiming to be libertarian, it is actually expanding the right-of-centre voting pool and that could become a problem for Labour and other social democratic parties if Ukip actually achieves parliamentary representation in Westminster or Holyrood.

In Scotland political matters are different, simply by dint of the fact that the nationalist question pervades everything and we also have our own political theatre and accompanying institutions, our own media and other separate influences such the Kirk, our law and education. These differences do not, however, make Ukip an irrelevance.

If the independence referendum votes Yes then Ukip is indeed an irrelevance – but if it votes No then it suddenly becomes a player and the Eastleigh result has Scottish resonance.

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For one thing, the influence of Ukip in making the defeat of the supposedly hated Tories in the 2015 general election practically a racing certainty removes the big bogey man that the SNP likes to threaten the voters with. Instead of Yes meaning free gingerbread against No meaning the big bad wolfie Cameron, No can now mean Labour in power as well as easy access to NHS services in England, contracts for Royal Navy ships, a single Royal Mail, and other such sharing of risks and opportunities – while still getting free gingerbread.

There is also the evidence through polling in Scotland that Ukip is challenging, and occasionally beating, the Liberal Democrats in vote share. As in England with by-election performances, this should not be laughed off as some here today, gone tomorrow apparition.

Last Thursday, just as the Eastleigh by-election was reverberating across British politics, a small council by-election went unnoticed in Coatbridge. Sure, Labour romped home with 2,145 votes and the SNP had 452 – but the Ukip candidate Billy Mitchell defeated the well known Liberal Democrat John Love with 34 votes to 19, coming fourth behind the Tory, Ashley Baird on 71. Replicate that running order across Scotland in 2016 and Ukip can be optimistic it will get a handful of Holyrood list seats.

Before then, next summer, we have the European elections when Ukip has traditionally done well, pushing Labour into an embarrassing third place last time round. With national coverage on television there will be every opportunity for Ukip to supplant the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish ranking and set its target as outvoting the Scottish Conservatives.

There is also the consideration that the Westminster general election is in 2015 and the Holyrood election – with its proportional system – in 2016, by which time the Ukip momentum may have built up or petered out – but at the moment it is a time of opportunity for the party rather than insurmountable challenges. One can only guess what Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson would give for such positive choices.

There is also another known unknown yet to be decided – how will the broadcasters treat Ukip in the next general election and the following Holyrood election – will Nigel Farage or some such Ukip personality be given an equal platform? Surely if they stand enough candidates and have the polling evidence of popularity (and elected members in the European Parliament) they cannot be denied a place?

Giving Nick Clegg an equal position in the leaders’ debates arguably cost the Conservatives outright victory in 2010 – what would be the impact of letting Farage have equal billing in 2015? And why not give Ukip in Scotland equal treatment on TV with the Greens – a party currently polling less than Ukip?

Writing off Ukip in Scotland would be a mistake; Ukip may not be threatening to win huge numbers of MPs or MSPs, but small parties can become kingmakers and suddenly have great influence.

Here today, gone tomorrow – a protest vote? Not any more.