Panelbase for the SNP: More on More Devolution and on Labour’s Prospects

The results of a poll conducted by Panelbase for the SNP have gradually been released during the last few days. There are two principal findings of interest. First, it provides further evidence on people’s attitudes towards more devolution. Second, it provides further evidence on the standings of the parties in the Westminster and Holyrood elections due to take place in May 2015 and May 2016 respectively.

So far as the debate about more devolution is concerned, the poll adds to the weight of evidence that the instinctive reaction of a majority of people in Scotland is that more or less all of the nation’s domestic affairs should be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed no less than two-thirds (66%) say they agree with the proposition that ‘control of all areas of government policy except for defence and foreign affairs’ should be passed to the Scottish Parliament. Not that everything that might be thought to flow from that proposition is quite as popular as that. Only 54% believe that broadcasting should be devolved. On the other hand, support for what might be thought to be the core of ‘devo max’, that is control over welfare and benefits (75%) and all taxation (71%) is apparently even higher than that two-thirds figure.

However, these findings come with a health warning. It might be felt that the wording used to introduce the subject served to encourage people to give a positive response to more devolution. Instead of simply asking people whether various policy areas should or should not be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, the survey stated,’During the recent independence referendum campaign, the UK leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties published a vow promising “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote. Do you believe that these extensive new powers should include….’. Against that backdrop perhaps only the more determined opponents of more devolution might be expected to think that the unionist parties should be allowed to ‘break’ their promise or that the further powers that might be devolved should be anything less than ‘extensive’.

The use of a question wording that might be thought to lead respondents into a particular response is arguably self-defeating so far as the SNP is concerned. The party clearly wishes to maximize the range of powers that the Smith Commission proposes should be devolved, and in conducting this poll it doubtless wanted to suggest that public opinion is on its side. But if doubts can be raised about how the questions were asked, it becomes easier for other parties to dismiss the findings as ‘propaganda’. And given that many another survey that has used a more neutral wording has uncovered majority support for devolution of the nation’s domestic affairs, it might be felt that there is no need for the SNP to have adopted such an approach in order to generate findings that were supportive of its view.

Meanwhile, as we noted last week, now that the referendum is over commentators’ attention is focused on the impact, if any, that it is had on electoral support for the parties. The latest survey contains a more pessimistic reading of Labour’s prospects in the Westminster election next May than obtained recently by Opinium and Survation. It puts Labour, on 32%, two points behind the SNP on 34%. Moreover this result stands in sharp contrast to the result that Panelbase obtained the last time they asked Westminster voting intention – as long ago as September last year – when the company put Labour on 45% and the SNP on just 26%. In short, in contrast to both the Opinium and Survation polls this poll does suggest that perhaps Labour’s Westminster support has been eroded during the referendum campaign.

Even so the swing from Labour to SNP since 2010 implied by this poll – 12% – is still short of the kind of swing that the SNP will need in May if it is to pick up much more than a handful of Labour seats. Just seven Labour seats are vulnerable to a 12% swing, in four of which the swing will have to be over 10 points for the seat to change hands.

This latest poll is also not very encouraging for Labour so far as its prospects for the 2016 Holyrood election are concerned. The party’s support is put at just 27% on both the constituency and the regional vote. In the case of the constituency vote this is the lowest figure Panelbase has recorded for Labour since the 2011 election. However, so far as the regional vote is concerned the figure is far from unprecedented; indeed it is exactly the same as that recorded in the company’s last poll of Holyrood voting intentions back in February. The poll is thus far from unambiguous evidence that Labour’s prospects for the next Holyrood election have worsened as opposed to simply being more or less as bad as they have been ever since 2011.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the post-referendum poll conducted by Survation, there is no evidence in this poll that the SNP’s Holyrood support has increased in the wake of the referendum. Support for the party is put at 42% on the constituency vote and just 37% on the regional one. The former figure is actually down a point on the nationalist tally in Panelbase’s last poll, while, curiously, the latter is actually lower than that recorded in any of the company’s previous polls in this parliament. Perhaps not too much should be made of that statistic, but it certainly underlines the need for caution before we assume that the referendum has put new wind into the nationalists’ sails.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.