Friday, 3 October 2014

Scottish post-referendum special

So now we know.  Scotland has decided to remain part of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, and as a reward it will have the opportunity to vote in the Westminster elections in 2015.

I'm a great believer in the old adage that the four most expensive words in the English language are "this time it's different".  In 2010 in Scotland, they would have been especially expensive, because not a single seat changed hands (compared with 2005 – the SNP by-election victory in Glasgow East returned to Labour).  This followed elections to Holyrood in 2007 where the SNP had far outperformed its 2005 result, and was followed by elections to Holyrood in 2011 where the SNP did still better.

Moreover, the seats generally became less marginal.  As John Curtice has noted this week, if there's a uniform 10% swing from Labour to the SNP, the SNP pick up only three seats from Labour.

In previous general elections (as opposed to Holyrood elections), the Scottish people seem primarily to have voted in Westminster elections on the basis of who they most wanted to form a government in the UK, given the practical options available.  This would be entirely logical in ordinary circumstances, and given the centre of political gravity in Scotland, has led to a Labour hegemony, with the Lib Dems and to a lesser extent the SNP securing rural highland seats that in England would be reliably Conservative (click to enlarge):

I looked at the SNP targets in April this year, ranked by SNP swing (with the then current odds retained for historical curiosity).  This emphasises the point of just how few marginals there are:

Nevertheless, this time I do think it will be quite a bit different.  We can expect a reasonable number of seats to change hands, and perhaps quite a lot.

So why do I think that this time it's different? 

1) The independence referendum has changed everything.  The identity of Scotland and its governance are the burning subjects of political discussion, and I see no reason why that will change in Scotland in the next six months.

Whatever else your views might be about the independence referendum, it successfully re-engaged the Scottish population with the democratic process.  The turnout was just shy of 85%.  Passions were engaged.  People who had never voted before turned out to express their view through the ballot box.

It seems a certainty to me that turnout will be substantially higher in 2015 than in 2010: many of these voters will repeat the experience, especially if they see it as a way of again expressing their view on Scottish separateness.

2) The course of the independence referendum has had the Yes campaign – predominantly led by the SNP, of course – position itself to the left of Labour, treating Labour as apologists for the Conservative/Lib Dem government at Westminster.  In poorer urban areas Yes prevailed, but No won its victory in the richer and more rural parts of the country.

The consequence of the campaign is that there is almost an inverse correlation between past SNP Westminster success and the performance of the Yes campaign, as this map of the referendum result shows (click to enlarge):

3) The SNP has acquired vast numbers of new members in the wake of the referendum defeat: 75,000 at the last count (three times as many as before the referendum).  By way of comparison, Scottish Labour has roughly 10,000, it is believed.  That means that the SNP has potentially far more footsoldiers for any ground war than any other party.  It also means that the SNP is transformed more or less overnight as a party. 

What does all this mean?

For the SNP
In terms of vote share, it seems clear that Labour will be down on 2010 and the SNP will be substantially up.  There have been two Westminster polls since the referendum result and both show a large Labour to SNP swing.  
In 2010, Labour tallied 42% of the vote, the SNP 19.9%, the Lib Dems 18.9% and the Conservatives 16.7%.  On the day after the referendum, Survation found Labour at 39%, the SNP at 35%, the Conservatives at 18% and the Lib Dems at 3%.  Today, Panelbase found the SNP at 34%, Labour at 32%, the Conservatives at 18% and the Lib Dems at 5% (behind UKIP).  The Survation poll represents a 9% swing to the SNP and the Panelbase poll represents a 12% swing to the SNP.
It remains to be seen whether this is a sympathy surge that will subside with time or a lasting level of support for the SNP.  There have been nine opinion polls in Scotland canvassing the question of voting preference at a Westminster election in 2014, and the SNP have dropped below 30% with only two polls, both conducted by Opinium in September, so this seems to be a question of house approach rather than reflecting a sudden surge of support.  Indeed, the Survation survey shows the SNP at a lower level of support than earlier in the year, when it twice registered 40%.  So my starting presumption is that this level of support is pretty solid.

But poll shares are only part of the story.  What's more important for betting purposes is how this translates into seats.  One thing is clear - the base of the SNP support has changed dramatically.  Uniform national swing works best with relatively small swings.  When a party's support base rises or falls sharply, the rise or fall is unlikely to be evenly distributed.  I looked at this previously in relation to the Lib Dems in Scotland here:

The maths of uniform national swing can be made to work when there's a large increase in vote share (unlike when there's a sharp fall), but as the increase gets larger, it becomes steadily less plausible that it is evenly distributed.  And anyway on this occasion we have clear indirect evidence that the increase is far from evenly distributed.  We should expect larger swings to the SNP in poorer urban areas where Yes performed strongly and smaller swings to the SNP (possibly even declines in support in some constituencies) in rural and more wealthy areas where No performed well.

The SNP now also has a new army of members to help with the ground game.  Following the referendum, the SNP will have a clear idea of where to find the Yes supporters (while the campaign was formally separate from the SNP, it was overwhelmingly led by the SNP).  This means that they know where to find the bodies to deliver the votes now.  

Oh, and 50,000 subscription fees will come in handy after the party has spent almost every penny over the referendum.

That said, there is a worm in the apple.  Because Scottish politics is currently all about independence and devolution after a very polarising debate, the SNP must now be vulnerable to some measure of tactical voting against it.  This may make targets a bit harder to take than they would otherwise be.

The net is clearly very positive for the SNP though.

For Labour

Labour's support is down in Scotland, though so far not as much as received wisdom would lead you to believe.  It does seem to have lost control over a sizeable part of its own voter base in the referendum campaign, and it's far from clear whether that's coming back.

This will probably have no particular impact on Labour's battles against the coalition parties.  The Lib Dems look flat on the canvas (indeed, their polling levels seem if anything to have declined from their appalling state six months ago towards levels that I then thought unimaginable), while the Conservatives are broadly holding steady.

Labour look much more vulnerable to assaults from the SNP.  Their large majorities will give them some comfort, but they now seem to be facing opponents who know the ground at least as well as they do, who have a fired-up base and who are better resourced, both financially and numerically.  

Labour might seek tactical votes from Conservative and Lib Dem supporters against the SNP.  I'm doubtful whether many true blues would vote for Labour, but Labour may scoop up more of the few remaining Lib Dem voters.  So I don't see much prospect for much relief on that front.

So Labour may well gain some seats from the Lib Dems, but simultaneously lose some to the SNP.

For the Conservatives
Despite Ruth Davison being widely suggested to have had a good referendum, the much-trailed Conservative renaissance stubbornly refuses to naisse, at least in vote share.  Both recent polls put the Conservatives at 18%, which is a bit ahead of their 2010 tally, but hardly going to set pulses racing.

The Conservatives in the past have been the victims of tactical voting against them in Scotland.  This will no doubt continue, but they can reasonably hope for this to be substantially reduced in any seats where the SNP are in the mix (fervent unionists who are anti-Tory may well simply opt to vote for their favoured party), and even where they are not, they can reasonably hope that the new faultline in Scottish politics leaves them looking less demonic than in the past in the eyes of some voters at least.

In truth, there are few realistic targets for the Conservatives in Scotland.  They will be looking at Aberdeenshire West & Kincardineshire and Berwickshire Roxburgh and Selkirk.  Both of these are Lib Dem held.  Fife North East and Argyll & Bute are seats where the Conservatives are in the mix - in both cases the Conservatives are second in four way battles.  Beyond that, it's hard to make a case for any other seats in Scotland going blue.  

The Conservatives are within touching distance in a couple of the SNP-held seats, but even if the SNP surge is unevenly distributed and there is tactical voting against the SNP, it's hard to see the Conservatives taking these.  You might make a case for Angus, Perth & North Perthshire or Banff & Buchan where the SNP hold the seat with 40% of the vote, but I can't say I fancy it much.

All the Labour seats look out of reach for the Conservatives.  So in practice the Conservative targets are essentially Lib Dem held seats.  To understand their chances there, we need to look at the position of the Lib Dems.

For the Lib Dems
What is the next word beyond dire?  Potentially cataclysmic?  When 5% is your better tally out of two polls, things are desperate.

I've linked above to a detailed consideration of the Lib Dems' prospects in Scotland.  That all basically still stands.  A further proviso: in seats where the Lib Dems' main challenger is the SNP, the Lib Dems may well be able to get more tactical votes from both Labour and the Conservatives.  That could conceivably help the Lib Dems get home.  But for this to make much difference in any seat, the Lib Dem poll ratings are going to need to revive.  There's absolutely no sign of that yet.

Bringing it all together

This is really complicated, as you will appreciate.  Some seats are going to be very wild indeed.  Let's look at the current odds (ranked as an SNP battleground in order of odds):

Paddy Power have currently withdrawn from the market, but an asterisk marks where before they withdrew they offered better odds than those presently on offer with Ladbrokes.

This can't be exhaustive (for reasons of length), but I'll pick a few out.

One bet screams out, which is the SNP in Dundee West at 2/1.  I'd make that something closer to 1/2.  Yes took Dundee by a substantial margin.  The SNP knows the city very well and knows the Yes voters.  It requires a 9.8% swing, but the SNP are currently heading for that on a uniform national swing basis anyway, and all the signs suggest that it should do considerably better than average here.

I'm stressing what to do about the Glasgow seats.  The swings required are epic, but Yes won out here and I expect the SNP to see a particularly sharp rise in their vote here.  I tipped the SNP in my last post for Glasgow East at 33/1, and despite the referendum defeat, this bet doesn't need to be written off.  Given the seat was represented by the SNP as recently as 2010 after a famous by-election victory, this seat has already got some SNP history (5/1 is still not a completely silly price, even with an 18.4% swing being required).  But having made some longshot bets before the referendum, right now I'm not inclined to add too many more at current prices. If you feel differently, the 10/1 in Glasgow South on the SNP looks a fair bet.

I have made one exception.  Yes won North Lanarkshire.  Labour holds some terrifying majorities here, but I have placed a bet at 6/1 for the SNP to take Airdrie & Shotts.  They require only (only!) a 17.3% swing, but Pamela Nash, the incumbent, does not seem popular with her own party, having only narrowly been reselected and having not obviously shone in the House of Commons. This seems to me the sort of seat where the SNP might be able to pull the rug from under Labour's feet.  

I don't fancy betting on the SNP anywhere where the No vote exceeded 60%.  Not all Yes voters will vote SNP anyway, and many No voters will probably now try to find a way of stopping the SNP.  That's not to say that the SNP won't take some of these seats, simply that their prices are too short.  Unless they get up to about 40% in any seat, it seems quite likely to me that a sufficient vote will normally coalesce around a main rival to deprive them of that seat.  They may well win confused seats like Gordon or Argyll & Bute for want of a clear challenger, but at evens and 11/10 respectively, I'm not tempted - the risk that one of the other parties establishes itself before the campaign in each seat as the main unionist party is just too great.  Anyway, I'm a lazy gambler and haven't got the energy to work through such complicated seats when there are simpler propositions elsewhere.

The other theme for betting is against the Lib Dems.  If the current polling numbers hold steady, even strong incumbents are waiting for their P45s.  It seems entirely conceivable to me that only Charlie Kennedy and Alistair Carmichael will be present in the 2015 Parliament of the current batch of MPs.  Five MPs would be an outstanding result on current polling.  The 4/5 on Labour in Edinburgh West still looks outstanding value, given that Labour look poised to pick up the bulk of the disgruntled Lib Dems even as they lose some of their own support to the SNP.  I come back to the point that I made in April: uniform national swing just doesn't work when the Lib Dems have suffered such precipitous drops in support, and you should expect Lib Dem incumbents to underperform not outperform uniform national swing.  Lib Dem polling figures are going to have to improve if they want to save more seats.

That said, Lib Dem incumbents may be the accidental beneficiaries of increased tactical voting against the SNP.  If they can establish themselves as the clear unionist candidate, they may cling on in places like Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross.  I'm not putting money on it at 1/2 though.

The Conservatives can not just hope but expect to make a gain or two off the Lib Dems.  The 6/4 on the Conservatives in Aberdeenshire West & Kincardineshire remains a good bet.  Personally, I'm putting no money on their chances against the SNP, but if you feel differently, the 8/1 on the Conservatives to take Perth & North Perthshire is not a stupid bet, given how strongly that area voted No.  If the Conservatives can get their vote in the seat up to 35% or so, there may be sufficient defectors from the SNP to other parties to allow them to squeak home.  I'd say 8/1 is about right.

2015 is going to be a fairly wild election in Scotland.  The vote shares are likely to be radically different.  The seats, however, will move around less.  

I expect that the SNP will take some seats that no one had imagined at this stage, but the problem is spotting them.  The Lib Dems are likely to be nearly obliterated, and will need a lot of luck to have a different fate.

But politics in Scotland is volatile right now.  Build that into the prices.  There are very few certainties in Scotland any more.


Morris Dancer said...

Very good piece, Mr. Antifrank. Just one thing I'd suggest as an addition:
Labour voters will be less motivated, and the SNP will be very motivated. Miliband doesn't enthuse the Scots (achieving a worse approval rating than Cameron), whereas the self-proclaimed 45 are full of anger and will, I think, be far more likely to turnout than lukewarm Labour supporters.

Plus, as you indicated, a lot of new SNPers (whether members or just voters) are former Labour sorts, which is a double whammy for the reds.

DavidL said...

I think you are underestimating the Tory chances in Dumfries. If there is a Lab to SNP swing and some No voters don't want to vote SNP anymore (it was an over 60% no area) this seat goes Tory.

Only the extraordinary weakness of the Tories in Scotland since 1887 has ever made it anything else. In England it would not be close to a marginal.

Stephen H. said...

Of the other Lib Dems I wouldn't write off Danny Alexander, who has a big majority and who will have resources poured into his seat.