11 May 2014

Europe: through the looking glass

Over the last few days, a couple of my old blogs have been doing the rounds on social media.  As the 22nd of May draws closer, minds are focussing on the European elections. How does the voting system work? And if I'm a less than committed partisan, what strategies might I play with my vote? (Which is almost invariably code for, how best to ensure that the bumptious UKIP candidate doesn't win a Scottish seat?)
As I've done in past posts, the obvious place to start is the available polling. April's European election poll from ICM is the most recent Scotland-wide survey with a decent sample. Here's what it found:

So how would that shake out in terms of seats, when we scooch the numbers through the d'Hondt system used to allocated MEP seats? The short answer is, it produces the same outcome as all of the recent polls - five seats shared between Labour and the SNP, with the Tories snapping up the sixth and final representative in the European Parliament. 

But as you can see from the chart, unlike the ICM poll for March, on these numbers, the wrangle for the final seat in the allocation is a much more close run thing, with UKIP running the Tories very close, leaving the Greens and Liberal Democrats nowhere. Considering these figures alone, the tactical European voter, keen to dent Nigel's aspirations, might consider a vote for SNP, Labour (or even - egad - the Tories) to ensure that UKIP aren't the beneficiaries of the Liberal Democrats' distress.

But are these polls a reliable guide to the likely outcome? In particular, you'd only consider a tactical vote for the Tories if you were confident that the SNP were going to attract enough support to win three seats. But are they? Almost all of the recent polling suggests that the party is in with a shot of doing so - but there's a caveat. A biggie. Although we're used to seeing Scotland's two big parties polling in the 30% plus range for Holyrood elections, since 1999, the highest percentage support achieved by either outfit in European elections was the 29.1% gained by the SNP in 2009.  Here's how things have evolved since 1999.

One lesson we might be inclined to take from this broader picture is that the levels of support for the SNP in Europe which the pollsters are uncovering are either (a) a startling departure from Scots' past voting behaviour or (b) startlingly over-inflated as a reliable guide to the likely outcome. The critical and unknown quantity here is turnout

Voting levels in European elections are dismal. In 2009, only 28.5% of those eligible to vote cast ballots, down 2.4% on 2004's hardly stellar turnout of 30.9%. Nobody likes owning up to a dereliction in civic duty, so it's difficult for pollsters like ICM to catch a realistic sense of whether their respondents really intend to vote on the 22nd of this month. 

My hunch - and it is only that - is that the Nationalists will be doing well if they net over 30% of ballots cast, improving on their 2009 performance. That may well be enough to nab Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh that third seat from the Liberal Democrat George Lyon - but I'd be surprised if we registered anything near the thumping success in the high thirties or forties which some polling companies are predicting.  

Anecdotally, you also encounter a number of SNP-inclined, left of centre, independence supporting voters who are flirting with a Green dalliance. (A reaction, perhaps in part, to Tasmina's dappled career in Scottish political parties of a range of hues.) It is also worth noting that the Greens have tended to do better in European polls than in Scottish Parliament elections. Time will tell, but I wonder if the 4% at which the Greens are currently polling isn't a little on the parsimonious side, as a prediction about their national performance. Although the "Green verses UKIP" narrative is by no means as convincing as its proponents hope, it'd be a mistake to write off Maggie Chapman's chances entirely.

As I argued a few months ago, there's an electoral sweet spot for the Greens, UKIP (and even the ragged fragments of the Liberal Democrats) where both the SNP and Labour win sufficient support to take two seats apiece early on in the allocation, but with insufficient support to remain seriously in contention for a third, once the d'Hondt dividers have been applied and their support diluted. 

If that happens, any party polling in the 10% range has a decent shot at taking one of the two remaining MEP slots. As it stands, of the two big Scottish parties, only the SNP looks capable of taking a third. If the Tories can keep their heads and their votes, this should push UKIP's David Coburn out of contention. If not? I wouldn't care to prophesy.  The contest could go any which way.

While the available polling gives the would-be tactical voter obvious answers, given the turnout wildcard, the reality is likely to be messier and less predictable.  A lesson, perhaps, that the prudent voter should vote as their conscience dictates, and leave the divination to Nostradamus and Mystic Meg.


  1. I note the point you make about turnout and its possible effect on the outcome and result.
    I was surprised recently to discover that the Electoral Commission itself had, prior to the last Hoyrood election, hired a PR consultancy to encourage potential voters to actually go out and cast their vote in that election. I've no idea how much they spent. I've no idea how much they are spending to increase participation in the European elections, or for that matter if and how much they intend to spend on the independence referendum.
    It's right and proper that the Electoral Commission do encourage participation, but given that there may be a link between voter turnout and the result I'd like to think that the effort put in to advocating participation was broadly similar from one election to another. I'd also like to think that targeting of a particular demographic, whether deliberate or accidental, wasn't a feature of any PR agency inspired advertising campaign.

    1. I wasn't encouraged to vote, but as I am an Italian national they reminded me that I had the option of partecipating to EU elections and informed me that if I desired I could register seperately for thrn.

  2. I can only make one comment that I'm reasonably confident of: if the polls are in line with your graph above, there is no argument for tactically voting Green at all - doing so is only going to help UKIP by weakening the parties that are up against UKIP for that last seat.

    By all means, vote Green if you agree with their policies, but if your aim is to keep out UKIP voting Green isnt the way to go about it. Sorry Greens - some of you are quite nice.

  3. The turnout question remains the big question in Scottish politics. Nationalists are fond of saying the SNP achieved power in the face of a system designed to ensure that no one party would gain overall power, but whatever was envisioned, the one thing our Founding Fathers and Mothers did not foresee is that half the electorate would just not vote at all, as happened at that election.

    I think I will drop Labour this time and go Green as i have in the past. I now think also (regretfully), there is unlikely to be much of a tactical swing to the Greens from the SNP - you might as well go for that third seat, though there is the Tasmina factor which might result in some of the switherers deflecting at the last moment.

    The way things have gone, if the egregious Taz misses her shot here, she will be with UKip next Holyrood election (what in earth did you make of that poll which gave them 18% for the Euro election?). Funnily enough UKip seems not that different to the old pre-Eck SNP, which could be pretty suspicious of the EU. So much of our politics is skin deep, yet gets marketed as if it goes back to the broch builders.

    1. "UKip seems not that different to the old pre-Eck SNP, which could be pretty suspicious of the EU."
      Up to a point, Lord Copper. In the 1970s some local election SNP candidates could go off the rails in an idiosyncratic way (though usually on lawn&order, not race, gender or sexuality as I recall) but most stuck to the script. Compare and constant UKIP, every second candidate for which has to have his/her opinions "explained" by Nigel. If The Newark bye-election is a chance for them, expect desperate efforts to silence their own candidate.

      As for the SNP's Eurosceptic past, can I make a plea for the rehabilitation of that term? Thanks to UKIP and the barking-mad faction of the Tories, it has become synonymous with Europhobic. There is a place for a political position that calls for a total overhaul of the EU, starting with the crazy single currency project, because Europe needs to co-operate more effectively in the modern world.

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    3. Bob: 'As for the SNP's Eurosceptic past, can I make a plea for the rehabilitation of that term?'

      Oh indeed - I support that. Am not in great sympathy with the Bennite traditions but share Benn's distrust of the EU.

      Also to be fair the SNP didn't have a monopoly in wackos in the 70s. I can remember a Glasgow Tory using the slogan 'We are the People' - not so much a dog whistle as a foghorn - and Labour had its fair share of sinister characters. It could be said party candidates have become much blander these days but looking back, that's not such a bad thing maybe.