Too close to call?

The highest turnout for a national election in Scotland in the past fifty years seems to have been the February 1974 General Election, where over 78% of registered voters voted.

Glasgow Herald 1979The turnout for the devolution referendum in March 1979 was 63.72%: 51.62% of those voted Yes to a Scottish Assembly, 48.38% voted No, a majority for Yes of 3.24%. But, according to the terms of that referendum, set down in 1978, the Assembly had to get over 40% of the electorate – there were 3,747,112 registered voters, so they needed at least 267,908 more votes for Yes to be allowed to win. 1,359,540 people were registered to vote and didn’t – the turnout was 63.72%, with only 0.13% rejected ballots.

The UK General Election in May 1979 got a turnout of 76.84% – that is, 532,198 more registered voters turned out to vote three months later than in the Assembly referendum. To win an Assembly under the 40% rule, the campaign would have had to get a higher turnout than average for 70s General Elections, and maintain its 51.62% share of the vote.

No wonder, in 2012, the SNP insisted that the 2014 referendum had to be strictly on the usual first-past-the-post rule for UK-wide elections and referendums.

But that also leads to complications.

Three things I hope we can all agree on, whether Yes, No, or Undecided/Prefer Not To Say:

  • High registration is fantastic – high turnout is essential. 70%+ would be great: 80%+ would be fantastic.
  • Everyone gets to go to their polling station and vote without having any intimidation or interference.
  • We need a reasonable margin of victory. 50.1% isn’t a good win, no matter which side it’s for.

The plans by some Yes Scotland campaign groups to stage a march with pipers to the local polling station are as wrongheaded as any other campaigning groups plans to march on the polling station would be. Have your pre-results party if you want, but have it elsewhere than the polling station.

(Quite possibly a bad idea. Tempting the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing.)

In 2007, the guddle of the ballots meant 7% of ballots were rejected. The SNP formed a government in coalition with the suddenly-shrunk Scottish Green party, and promised a referendum on independence the next time they were in government.

I do not honestly think they expected then that the “next time” would be 2011. Someone asked me why the polls got the results for 2011 wrong: my answer then was that in 2011, everyone got to the polling station, stared at their ballot, realised that on the constituency side they could vote for a Tory (no) a LibDem (basically a Tory, no), a Labour (and we’re sick of Labour), or an SNP. I voted Scottish Green on my list side, would have voted Scottish Green on the constituency side if I could, and finally after several minutes of mental quibbling voted for Malcolm Chisholm because I respect him a lot even though he’s Labour. I could not have told a pollster accurately how I was going to vote even five minutes before I did, and I think my state of mind was far from unusual in Scotland in 2011. But the other answer is: the polls did, in fact, predict a SNP win if not an SNP majority: a week before the election, the poll of polls suggested they would get 60 seats. In the final count, they got 69.

Guardian ICM pollA week before the referendum, the polling suggests it’s too close to call. Most polls are showing a slight lead for No over Yes, a lead dwarfed by 10-17% of voters who say they’re still undecided.

It would be a mistake, I believe, for either Yes Scotland or Better Together to assume that the undecided are likely to vote yes, to vote no, or to not vote at all. Their presence in the polls at this late date and the narrow margin between Yes and No tells us only that the majority in the referendum could be anything from 0.1% to 17% – for either side.

Keep Calm and Don't Guddle BallotsIf the majority is less than 0.5%, there will certainly be recounts. Because the majority has to be across the whole of Scotland, in principle, a majority which is less than the percentage of rejected ballots could mean that every doubtful ballot in Scotland – and even 0.13% would be thousands of them, across all 32 local authority regions – has to be hand-counted and could be challenged by either side. It is possible that, far from Scotland waking at 7am on 19th September to hear the result, the recounts and challenges could go on for days – or weeks. (A legal challenge can be made up to six weeks after the date of the referendum.) This would be bad for either side, but it would be worse for Yes Scotland than for Better Together. Whichever side was ahead at the initial count, will have supporters who will mock the other side for insisting on a recount, no matter how justified.

For Better Together, a tiny majority for No is a legal win, no matter how achieved: they do not need a mandate to keep the Scottish Parliament and devolution for Scotland, that has already been achieved in 1997, and no one is seriously proposing to take this away. Their next main objective is the May 2015 UK General Election, and it seems likely that a paper-thin No win on a recount in September would have no effect on most of their MPs.

Long-term, if Yes Scotland got over 45% of the vote, I think there’s no doubt that there will be another independence referendum: but that’s not likely to affect Westminster MPs until well after the 2020 general election.

If Yes Scotland gets a tiny majority after a recount, this is a legal win: the Edinburgh Agreement gave the Scottish Parliament full right to legislate the referendum, and to declare that 50%+1 of the vote is a win for either side. But the Westminster Parliament has to legislate the terms of independence, and that tiny majority – especially if achieved by a recount – would not give the SNP any great democratic authority to insist that Westminster put independence for Scotland ahead of preparations for a general election, nor to assert that they have the people of Scotland with them – if the vote is split so closely down the middle, clearly half the people of Scotland are not with them. It would be a very bad beginning for major changes.

On the night of 18th September/the morning of 19th September, the 32 local authorities will be returning their results through the night. We may not know til 6am what the final result is – Edinburgh and Glasgow may not show til after 5am. If the result for either side is over 2.14 million, that is decisive: it’s 50% of the total electorate, and therefore certainly a decisive majority of those who voted.

Keep calm and vote whicheverLet there be a clear and inarguable majority for Yes or for No, without need for recounts or challenging rejected ballots. Once it’s done, it’s done.

3 Comments

Filed under Scottish Politics

3 responses to “Too close to call?

  1. keaton

    “The SNP formed a government in coalition with the suddenly-shrunk Scottish Green party, and promised a referendum on independence the next time they were in government.”

    No. 2007-2011 was an SNP minority administration, not a coalition, and they said from the outset they were going to have a referendum. A bill made its way through various parliamentary stages before being dropped (I think in 2009) when it became clear there was no way they could get it through the large unionist majority in the chamber. After 2011, of course, that changed.

    I agree that a close result would be unfortunate in many ways, but I don’t think it would lead to another referendum any time soon. It took twenty years to get a second referendum on devolution after 1979, and that was following a Yes vote! So if there’s actually a No vote this time, it’s highly unlikely any of us will live to see another referendum.

    • I agree that a close result would be unfortunate in many ways, but I don’t think it would lead to another referendum any time soon. It took twenty years to get a second referendum on devolution after 1979

      It took ten years til in 1989 a grassroots movement came into being to plan out a Scottish Parliament. Eight years after that, there was a referendum.

      The big delay wasn’t getting the referendum. The delay was doing the work and believing it was possible. I’d say 10-15 years, assuming that most Yes campaigners don’t just sit down and cry but set out to join up with radical No campaigners for a proper planning session.

      As for 2007, you’re right, it wasn’t a full coalition with the Greens, but there was an agreement.

  2. I believe Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow are estimated to declare at 6am. The Chief Counting Officer can announce a result as soon as it becomes mathematically impossible for either side to win so hopefully we do know between 7am and 8am. I personally believe it’ll be 55% or over for Yes.

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