7 Apr 2015

General election 2015: Scottish engagement vs rest of UK

Scottish voters turned out in huge numbers to decide on independence, outdoing general election turnout by 20 per cent – so is the rest of the UK anywhere near as engaged?

The Scottish vote will be crucial in deciding the fate of the Westminster parties, as the Scottish National Party prepares to play kingmaker in the event of a hung parliament.

But could the independence referendum have a longer lasting effect – awakening a new generation of voters to shape the future of Scotland and the rest of the UK?

Young voters were seen as crucial to the outcome of the Scottish referendum vote, a poll which generated a turnout of 85 per cent – 20 per cent above that of the last UK general election in 2010.

Keen to vote?

A recent poll by Populus suggests Scots are much more determined to vote in the 7 May election than prospective voters in the rest of the UK.

Populus found that 75 per cent of Scots polled were “absolutely certain” they would vote in the general election, compared with an average 53.75 per cent across the rest of the country.

And only three per cent of Scots said they “definitely won’t” be voting, compared to an average of 7.25 per cent in the rest of the UK.

A strong current, but should it be taken on appearances?

Keiran Pedley, polling analyst and associate director at market research company GfK, told Channel 4 News that Scottish voters “typically tell pollsters they are more likely to turn up than voters in other regions – if we look at Lord Ashcroft’s recent national poll we clearly see this”.

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“However, a challenge for the SNP will be to maintain enthusiasm as voting day approaches,” he adds. “Many of their current supporters didn’t vote last time so key is getting them to actually turn up even though they say they will right now.”

Even so, Dr Craig McAngus, research fellow at the University of Stirling and a member of the Centre on Constitutional Change, told Channel 4 News the referendum “has changed politics in Scotland quite a bit.”

The quality of the debate on the airwaves didn’t really reflect the quality of the debate on the ground
Dr Craig McAngus

“There probably was a sense of empowerment among young people about being asked on such an important question,” he says.

The vote was especially important for the young because of the impact it would have upon them, compared to older voters who would live under a new system for a few years.

“If you were 16 and voted for an independent Scotland, you would be living with it for the next 75 to 80 years,” he says.

Scottish voting before the referendum “seemed to follow UK patterns more generally”, but once the independence question was settled on “engagement in Scotland changed”, he adds.

But the question itself stirred voters in whole new ways.

“People were sitting around talking about politics in ways that were different to the way they were before,” Dr McAngus says.

He became aware of “a lot of public meeting about the referendum, and they weren’t necessarily organised by the main referendum campaigns or parties” – an anecdotal observation, but a possibly important one nevertheless.

“The debate overtook the politics – the quality of the debate on the airwaves didn’t really reflect the quality of the debate on the ground, which was better,” he adds.

‘Quirky outlier’

A seismic event in British politics – but will it really have a bearing on the 7 May poll?

If the trend from the independence vote continues, Scotland will certainly be more engaged than the rest of the UK. But the big question is how far the referendum effect will travel.

Joe Twyman at pollsters YouGov told Channel 4 News the referendum was a “strange, quirky outlier” in the political universe.

Referendums are “very unusual” in Britain, he points out. Others held in recent history, such as the UK vote on whether to switch to an Alternative Vote system in 2011, resulted in a “very low turnout” of about 41 per cent, he adds – less than half the turnout of the Scottish poll three years later.

Voting turnout is a decent measure of whether a populous is politically engaged, and for the referendum “a lot of people engaged, and crucially a lot of younger people engaged”, he says.

But he reckons the perception of the Scottish poll as a “game changer” is “wishful thinking”. This is partly because of the nature of the vote.

‘It mattered’

The referendum posed “a simple question that people could understand” – there were no “broad church policies” that define a general election, he says.

“It was a question that really, really mattered and people up and down Scotland could see this was not some abstract issue – this was something that was really important.

“Not just in the short term, but long term: this mattered and it mattered forever.”For the upcoming general election “the same is just not true”, he adds.

“It’s not a simple question, it’s quite a complicated one – and a lot of people don’t think that it matters.”

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So has the referendum genuinely energised the Scottish electorate in a way that hundreds of election posters and weeks of campaign visits never could? Mr Twyman is sceptical.

“It may make a small amount of difference – but more in terms of voting intentions of those who would vote anyway,” he says.

And he warns against the social media hype that permeated the referendum campaign, with a comparable storm being whipped up again for the general election.

“There is a lot of activity on Twitter, but it tends to be politically engaged people who were already politically engaged talking to other politically engaged people.”

Which means the general election will be more about “converting current voters, not winning new ones over”, he says.

For many Scots the referendum is seen as the start of a process, not the end. But whether or not it draws more people to the polling booths come 7 May, the Scottish vote will still play a huge part in the general election.