Paris Gourtosyannis: How Scotland’s indyref divide explains why an election win is hard to find

It’s often said that the 2014 independence referendum foreshadowed the political trends that Brexit unleashed on the whole country - an energised electorate, growing distrust of established voices in politics, and plenty of rancour and division.
Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WirePicture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Briefing journalists yesterday, the polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice made clear that this election could be the one where the political divides created by independence finally catch up with both UK parties.

For Labour, the warning is stark. “It’s either going to be a Boris majority and we’re heading out of the European Union, or it’s a hung Parliament and we’re going to have a second referendum.”

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Confusion over its position on the Union saw Scottish Labour pulled apart by the Tories on one side and the SNP on the other; similarly, on Brexit UK Labour “have tried to satisfy everybody and they have ended up satisfying nobody”.

Jeremy Corbyn’s party has lost ground among Remainers, with 53 per cent supporting them in 2017 compared to just 43 per cent today; they have given up even more ground among Leavers, with 26 per cent backing Labour in 2017 compared to 14 per cent now.

“On Labour’s position, voters say ‘I don’t get it’,” Prof Curtice explained. “It has not allowed them to hang on to the Leave vote, and at the same time the biggest movement out of the Labour Party is to the Lib Dems.”

He added: “The deep, deep irony is that Jeremy Corbyn is meant to be our radical and extremist politician. He is the only compromiser left on the biggest issue facing the country... People either want to reverse Brexit or want it to be done, there aren’t many in the middle.”

Support for Labour in Scotland is at a 100-year low. Prof Curtice suggests the SNP “still has to be the favourite to get the third largest party place in the Commons” by winning around 45 MPs. Where once Labour could rely on a 40 strong contingent from Scotland at every election, the dominance of the SNP makes victory all but impossible.

“What happens in Scotland is potentially fundamental to Boris Johnson winning the election,” Prof Curtice says. “The chances of Labour winning a majority are frankly as close to zero as one can safely say they are given that the party looks incapable of regaining anything in Scotland.”

But that doesn’t mean a Conservative majority is guaranteed. In the battlegrounds of northern England, it is Remain voters that will decide whether the Tories make the gains they need - do they back the Liberal Democrats, or stick with Labour?

“The battle for these seats is not about Tories winning over Labour Leavers they have never won before,” Prof Curtice said. “It is about can the Tories hang on to enough of these voters and will enough Remain voters swing behind the Lib Dems.”

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The University of Strathclyde psephologist described the election as an “unpopularity contest” - a problem for both leaders, but one that could cost Boris Johnson a majority.

“Boris is loved by Brexiteers and he is hated by Remainers, so he is Marmite,” Prof Curtice said. “The Boris Johnson we have now is not the Boris Johnson who was mayor of London, who was able to reach across the political divide in the capital. The Boris Johnson we have now is very firmly regarded as the person who is responsible for Brexit.”

With the Tories stacking up Leave votes in Brexit-supporting areas, a big poll lead may not necessarily translate into significant gains in terms of more MPs. The current average puts the Tories around 10 per cent ahead of Labour, which should be enough for a majority. But that becomes less certain if the lead narrows to six or seven points.

“If it get below that, the odds swing in favour of a hung parliament,” he said. “So be aware: just because the Tories are ahead in the polls, it doesn’t mean a majority.