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.