Kevin Maguire has written in the Mirror today that Labour may well prefer a UKIP victory to a Conservative one in Rochester. Read into that what you will about the existence or not of a 35% strategy.
One part did just catch my eye about possible future UKIP defectors: “More [Tory MPs] are predicted to defect to UKIP from January without fighting by-elections before May’s General Election.”
Is it really a certainty that they won’t have to fight by-elections?
Only in local government is there electoral law stating that a vacancy arising within six months of regular elections is not filled via a by-election. In the event of an MP’s death or resignation* close to a general election there is no law or even strong convention on what should happen. In 1997, Labour won the Wirral South by-election on 27 February (which deprived John Major of a majority in the Commons). Two and half weeks after Ben Chapman was declared the new MP with a 17% swing, the general election was announced and the local campaign would have started all over again.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 has lengthened the parliamentary election timetable (for both for general and by-elections) from 17 to 25 days. Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 30 March 2015. I might be wrong but it's possible that a writ could be moved on or near Monday 16th February for a by-election to be held on Thursday 26th March.
UKIP have at once gained credibility from defecting MPs deciding to resign and call by-elections (to simply swap parties without one would have appeared deceitful and cowardly) whilst also capturing the national media’s attention for weeks on end while the by-election campaign plays out. Whatever happens in Rochester, it is not a certainty that an MP defecting after January won’t face a by-election. Nor is it certain that UKIP wouldn’t want one if it was possible.
*Technically, MPs cannot resign.
Turnout in tomorrow’s Scottish independence referendum could be as high as 97%. The country’s 4.5 million voters will (if they haven’t already done so by postal vote) be taking part in a historic ballot that will affect all 60 million people in the United Kingdom.
I think the result will be victory for the No campaign. Despite a heroic narrowing of the gap in public opinion - with huge credit for this owed to the UK’s most able politician, Alex Salmond - a majority of the Scottish public will vote to continue the Union. However, while only Scotland goes to the polls, the referendum campaign has been played out across the whole of the UK’s media. The relative narrowness of the result, plus the UK-wide coverage, adds up to a real problem for the future of the Union. Here’s why.
On 22 August last year, Better Together enjoyed a commanding 30 point lead according to YouGov. Unsurprisingly, nobody was criticising the negativity of the No campaign back then. In making the case for keeping the status quo, the strategy was right: keep injecting uncertainty into the debate as it keeps Alex Salmond on the back foot and puts voters off the idea of voting for change.
If there was a fault with this strategy it was that those constant injections meant part of the body politic built up an immunity to them. But as I mentioned above, these arguments were being broadcast to the whole of the UK, not just Scotland. People in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were hearing that Scots shouldn’t vote to leave because of, among other things, an independent Scotland wouldn’t have pound sterling as its currency. Any other feasible scenario for a currency would mean no control over interest rates (a big lever for controlling inflation gone) and worst of all not having the Bank of England as your lender of last resort. Scotland might even have to join the Euro. Suddenly the Yes/No question only seems to have one viable answer.
Would independence really be worth that kind of a price? When you consider how sweet Scotland has it, you do have to wonder whether it’s worth voting for. At the moment Scotland already enjoys its own Parliament which controls huge areas of domestic policy – health, education, justice. So, for instance, it can vote so that its university students don’t pay fees. Better yet, it gets a huge subsidy from the rest of the UK (or more accurately, England) to pay for such policies via the Barnett Formula. Treasury figures show this means a person in Scotland has almost 20% more spent on them than a person in England, and it costs £8.7 billion a year to do this. To cap it off, its 59 MPs can still go to Westminster and vote on matters that only affect England. Like university fees. This measure was only passed with the votes of Scottish MPs.
The whole point of devolution to Scotland was that Scots thought it was bloody outrageous that the effing Tories (to borrow a phrase) could pass laws affecting them without being accountable to Scottish voters. And yet for some reason it’s not so bloody outrageous for Scottish MPs to do exactly the same thing to English voters.
So let’s recap the status quo. A strong, stable currency. A central bank. Its own Parliament. A huge subsidy. Scottish identity thriving within the Union. Hello, HELLO? Why would you give this up? Don’t forget Scotland can also punch above its weight internationally as part of Britain. It enjoys thousands of jobs from shipbuilding (instead of Portsmouth) and the nuclear industry that it certainly wouldn’t have as an independent nation. The No campaign being 30 points ahead, on this backdrop, seems reasonable given the no-brainer of a decision at hand.
That’s why the turnaround in public opinion in Scotland has been so remarkable – and so damaging. For a whole year YouGov’s polling found consistent results, with the No campaign in the 50s, Yes registering in the mid 30s and undecideds in the mid to low teens. Even on 7 August this year, YouGov found the same old story - 55:35:11. This 12 months of consistent findings meant the poll on 1 September was a bombshell: Yes had clawed back to within 6 points of No. The poll on 5 September finding Yes actually in the lead 47-45 was a disaster.
That’s why the referendum campaign has so badly damaged the Union. The arguments for staying are overwhelming, and yet the result won’t be. Further devolution and the continuation of the Scottish subsidy will only make matters worse. Despite a No vote, the clock is ticking for the end of the Union. If one of the four main political parties wakes up to this first, there is a huge opportunity for them.