Lies, Damned Lies… and opinion polls

Published: 5 February 2015
Malcolm Harvey on politics being anything but predictable. This post originally appeared in the print copy of the Press and Journal.
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics: a phrase frequently attributed to Mark Twain. In an election year, parties might do well to keep the quote in mind.
Lord Ashcroft’s Scottish constituency polling supports the trend in recent YouGov, Panelbase, Survation and Ipsos-MORI of a substantive swing from Labour to the SNP. Replicated in May’s General Election, this would result in Labour losing much of their Scottish representation to the SNP. The Liberal Democrats would also likely lose significant numbers of Scottish MPs – including Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, as well as losing Gordon to former First Minister Alex Salmond.
The broadcast media’s decision to include the SNP in television debates, the delayed naming of candidates (in order to include some new – post-referendum – members) and the continued emphasis on further powers for Scotland, “English votes for English laws” (EVEL) and wider constitutional reform put the SNP in a strong position going forward to May, and make shifting the polls difficult for Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
What does this mean post-May?  Well, if you thought the referendum had answered the constitutional question, you’re going to be disappointed. The SNP currently have 6 MPs. A substantial increase upon that number (with polls projecting anything up to 45 SNP MPs) would put the constitutional question front and centre of political debate.  With the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announcing that the SNP would no longer hold to their convention of not voting on English-only legislation, expect further consternation among MPs who represent English constituencies about Scottish MPs “foisting” legislation upon England which won’t affect Scotland.  Some form of EVEL seems likely to emerge, alongside further powers for the Scottish Parliament, though these are short-term solutions which do not consider the long-term implications for the UK constitution.
In electoral terms, the prospect of SNP gains at the expense of Labour in Scotland make it very difficult for Labour to emerge as a majority government. This means three potential outcomes: another coalition government, between parties yet to be decided; a Labour or Conservative minority government, with issue-by-issue support from smaller parties; or another election later in the year.
In 1995, then-shadow Secretary of State for Scotland George Robertson suggested that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”.  His quote is evidence of one thing: politics is anything but predictable.

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