Leaders: Lib Dems crash and Ukip swing

In political terms Nigel Farage's Ukip are a party still on the political fringe. Picture: Julie Bull
In political terms Nigel Farage's Ukip are a party still on the political fringe. Picture: Julie Bull
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How well do political pundits understand Scottish voters? At first glance, our lead story today showing the UK Independence Party (Ukip) is now Scotland’s fourth largest party appears at marked variation to longstanding assumptions about Scottish political attitudes.

Equally, the findings that a larger than expected number of Scots would vote to leave the EU and that many display a hostile attitude to immigration challenge the conventional wisdom. Scots have long been regarded as less sceptical in their attitude to the EU than English voters. And there is a marked absence of the angst over immigration widely evident across England.

It is indeed remarkable that the latest poll reading should show Ukip is now Scotland’s fourth-strongest party preference. But this reading of voter intentions may flatter Ukip to deceive. Ukip did indeed come fourth in last week’s by-election in Cowdenbeath. But the party polled just 610 votes, a third of the result achieved by the Conservatives who came third, a paltry total compared with the 5,704 votes won by the SNP and quite dwarfed by the 11,192 votes cast for Labour. Coming fourth may be a statistical truth. But in political terms it can hardly be held to be a surge in support for what is very much a party still well on the political fringe.

More salient, surely, is the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats. It is too early to say whether last week’s disastrous showing in Cowdenbeath was a result of voter recoil from the Lord Rennard affair, or whether this may indicate a lasting voter rejection. The party has suffered heavily from its coalition with the Conservatives and there is no sign that it is reaping any benefit from the upturn in the UK’s economic fortunes. It is the collapse in Lib Dem support that is the bigger political fact and an early return to voter favour in the immediate future seems unlikely.

On Scottish attitudes to the EU, Professor John Curtice has long reminded us that there is a significant minority of Scottish voters opposed to our EU membership. It is the referendum on Scottish independence, not the prospect of a referendum on membership of the EU, that dominates voter attention here. And the Eurosceptics are nowhere near as numerous or vocal as those on the Conservative back-benches. Similarly, Scotland has not experienced the same degree of immigrant influx as many cities in England, nor the same problems of integration and assimilation.

Arguably, what may be helping Ukip is the corrosive “plague-on-all-your-houses” anti-politician rhetoric of some commentators that may be helping small “anti-establishment” parties. This lack of trust in the ability of political action to change much may be feeding a craving for change. In Scotland, however, the centre ground of politics is dominated by Labour and the SNP. The collapse in Lib Dem support is the bigger fact, not a swing to Ukip.

Random targets can’t cure inequality

In THE corporate world there are still deep-seated gender inequalities. Official figures show that only 17.3 per cent of directors of FTSE 100-listed companies last year were female. While the figure has improved in recent years, up from 12.5 per cent in 2010-11 and just 6.2 per cent in 1999-2000, there is much still to do.

This is broadly accepted by leading figures in business and the corporate realm. The question is how best to proceed. Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, says an SNP government in an independent Scotland would bring in laws to force big firms to keep 40 per cent of their top jobs for women. But what justifies the choice of the 40 per cent figure as a target here? Why not 50 per cent, or some other percentage? And how can we improve education, training and career progression to ensure that applicants for senior positions would comprise at least 40 per cent women?

A further problem with setting arbitrary targets is that many successful women entrepreneurs are concerned that some women would be seen to have been appointed to senior executive positions not on their professional merits, but in order to meet a specified quota. That would not enhance the position of women in business and would be demeaning. Others would worry that the best candidate for a senior position would lose out in the pursuit of quota targets. It is always inadvisable to try to rectify old injustices with the imposition of new ones.

Better, surely, to work on enlarging that talent-pool of women and to provide support for career progression through education, skills-enhancement and the broadening of experience. This is the most effective means to combat discrimination.