In a couple of weeks, Scots will go to the polls for the first time in two years. It’s been a long breather by recent standards: the last European elections in 2014 kicked off a dizzying three-year period which saw two Westminster elections, one Holyrood election, a council election and two separate referendums. (Labour members north of the border also managed to squeeze in a total of five Scottish and UK-wide leadership elections.) As with every other election in Scotland since 2010, the SNP are going to poll considerably more votes than anyone else. But beyond that, there’s a lot up for grabs in the UK’s largest constituency.
In 2014, several months before Indyref 1 changed everything, the SNP topped the polls with 29% of votes. Labour came next on 26%, with both parties taking two of Scotland’s six available seats. The Tories polled 17%, good enough for a single MEP, with UKIP’s 11% of votes securing the final seat. Since then Labour’s Catherine Stihler has left the parliament for a role outside politics and UKIP’s colourful David Coburn has abandoned ship for the Brexit Party.
For Scotland’s governing party, the question isn’t whether they’ll make gains – it’s how many. They will strongly expect to pick up a third representative and a fourth isn’t out of the question. The SNP have been hammering home a straightforward message based around objecting to Scotland being dragged out of the EU against the will of its people, and (fairly amusing mailing-based mishaps aside) early signs are that it’s hitting home.
They’re not going to get near their 2015 highs in the polls, but boosting their vote share at least into the mid-thirties seems like a reasonable thing to expect. Given the way the d’Hondt system works, the number of MEPs this would give them is in large part a function of how the other parties perform (the more divided the better): if the SNP manage to get 40% of the vote, two other parties (say Labour and Brexit) get 14% and nobody else breaks 10%, then that means 4 MEPs for them. More likely, they’ll get something in the thirties and will end up with three of the six slots, which would mean that French-born Aberdeen councillor Christian Allard and former environment minister Aileen McLeod would head to Brussels along with party heavyweight Alyn Smith MEP.
The Labour Party
Scottish Labour’s recent woes have been widely documented and they probably won’t finish within three points of the SNP this time. Anything above 20% would represent a relief for a party which has consistently struggled to take an unambiguous line on Brexit, to its detriment when it comes to appealing to Scotland’s strongly pro-EU electorate. Nevertheless, they look better placed than anyone else to take second place, given that the right-wing vote is likely to split multiple ways. Their lead candidate, the vastly experienced (and unimpeachably Europhile) David Martin, will be confident of continuing a stint as an MEP that has lasted since 1984, but the chances of anyone else on the list being returned look fairly slim.
The Conservative Party
This might be quite a tricky election for the Scottish Tories. Logic suggests that at some point their message of ‘vote Tory to say no to independence’ is going to start seeing diminishing returns, and while Scotland is unlikely to see the same flows of voters to the Brexit Party or to UKIP as other parts of the UK, the Scottish Conservatives have fewer votes to lose. Early polling suggests that they might be in for a rough ride. They’re unlikely to do sufficiently badly to actually lose their parliamentary seat, but a slip significantly back from the 17% they garnered in 2017 could see Ruth Davidson being asked some tough questions for the first time in a wee while.
The Brexit Party
It’s hard to know what to expect from the Brexit Party. Not only did they not exist until recently – a bit of an inherent problem with assessing them across the UK – but there isn’t much of a pre-existing reservoir of UKIP support to tap into. Still, plenty of Scots did vote Leave (obviously Scotland overwhelmingly backed Remain in 2016, but 38% of the electorate is still quite a lot of people) and if Farage’s party can become the default choice for enough of those voters then they could do fairly well. Early polling suggests that they’re a good bet to win a seat and are possibly more likely than anyone else to push Labour for second place. Coburn won’t be back, though – he didn’t make the list of candidates, which is headed by entrepreneur Louis Stedman-Bryce.
The Liberal Democrats
The Scottish Liberal Democrats are a party whose support has become highly localised in recent years. In parliamentary constituencies, they’re generally either a serious force to be reckoned with or (usually) wholly irrelevant. This doesn’t necessarily translate well into performance in a Scotland-wide constituency, and in 2014 (admittedly against the backdrop of an unpopular coalition government) they finished sixth, 45,000 votes or so away from securing an MEP. However, they will be buoyed by their strong performance in the English local elections and have some hopes of gaining support for a solid message of ‘remain in the EU, remain in the UK’. If they’re able to win away enough former Tory remainers and erstwhile Labour supporters looking for a stronger line on the EU, they could definitely win a seat. If anyone is going to spring a surprise next Thursday, it’s probably going to be them.
The Scottish Greens
In 2014, the Greens were the highest-placed party not to secure any MEPs. Their hopes of going one better this time will depend on whether they can capitalise on the increased salience of environmental issues, and on their own set of strong performances in the locals.Their lead candidate, the party’s co-convenor Maggie Chapman, will be hoping to squeak in under the wire. I don’t think it’s likely – the Greens are likely to struggle both with the fact that there are several explicitly pro-Remain parties competing for votes and with the fact that much of the party’s support at Holyrood elections come from SNP supporters lending their second vote – but stranger things have happened and we’re not in ‘implausible’ territory yet.
Ah, here we are. Change, or whatever they’re called, are running a full slate of candidates in Scotland, though they don’t seem likely to make a breakthrough. Scotland is a tough environment for them, as their main target audience (left of the Tories, right of Labour, strongly opposed to Brexit) is already highly supportive of the SNP. If the Lib Dems have a particularly bad night and the Greens don’t get going, they could conceivably compete for fifth spot, but I don’t think it’s very likely. Their campaign hasn’t gone smoothly so far either: initial lead candidate Joseph Russo stepped aside after a variety of … controversial … social media posts came to light. The next candidate on the list, David Macdonald, is an independent Renfrewshire councillor who founded the TriBeCa restaurant chain. Now you have a Change UK fact to drop into election night parties (this is why we don’t invite you to TSR parties, Hugh -Ed).
Late update: Macdonald has now quit the race and urged Change’s legions of Scottish supporters to back the Lib Dems. It’s not going well for them. (Though it’s probably another decent sign for the Lib Dems.)
And then there’s Continuity UKIP. The party has generally failed to make any electoral breakthrough in Scotland, but did manage to secure one MEP in 2014. The odds are heavily against their managing to repeat the trick: early polling suggests that the Brexit Party are hoovering up most of their support, which is bad news when the pool of hard Brexiteers is as small as it is in Scotland.
(The bampot who taught his pug to do Nazi salutes is fourth on their list, which means he’s got more or less the same chance of becoming an MEP as I do.)
Theoretically, the next election in Scotland will be the Holyrood election scheduled for 2021. If that does turn out to be the next poll, however, the political context is likely to have moved on considerably, to the extent that these European elections won’t be much use as a predictor (after all, the 2014 results didn’t tell us very much about what happened in 2015…). If there’s a snap UK general election within the next year or so, however, that’ll be a very different story, and this month’s results will come under considerable scrutiny from that angle.
In a funny way, the sheer extent of the SNP’s nationwide appeal means that there isn’t a lot that they’ll specifically be looking out for, at least with regards to their own support. They’ll be keenly interested in results throughout Scotland, and will be hoping that the signs suggest that they’re benefiting from the Brexit fiasco, rather than gradually succumbing to the laws of political gravity. For the most part, though, they’ll likely be most interested in what the returns say about the health of their political opponents.
Labour will be most interested in what happens in the central belt. Much of the area from Glasgow to Edinburgh saw slender margins between Labour and the SNP in 2017, and the party will be hoping – at the very least – that their support remains high enough in these areas that they can hope to make gains in a national election where the focus is back on who governs the UK.
Conservative strategists, meanwhile, probably won’t be too concerned about losing votes to the hard-Brexit parties, who are unlikely to play a serious role in future parliamentary elections (though they’ll be interested in judging the level of appeal of a nakedly Eurosceptic pitch to the Scottish electorate): they’ll be more worried by any signs of a more general Liberal Democrat revival, particularly in the Highlands and the northeast, threatening the Tory claim to be the main unionist party across swathes of the country.
The Lib Dems will be looking at potential areas of attack as they continue to claw back from the nadir of 2015: they’re just as good at exploiting local issues and digging in in Scotland as they are in the rest of the UK, and they’ll hope that the detailed results give them material for some new bar charts. The Greens, meanwhile, have never won any Scottish Westminster seats, and barring some pretty seismic developments they’re not going to do it next time either. They’ll be most interested in the regional breakdown with a view to planning their next assault on Holyrood’s list slots.