Murphy Proves Not To Be A Magic Bullet For Labour

Any hopes that Labour might have that the election of Mr Murphy as its Scottish leader would prove to be a magic bullet are dispelled by the first poll to be conducted since he won the crown. Conducted by Survation for the Daily Record, it puts Labour on 24% in voting intentions for next May’s Westminster election, exactly the same as in its previous poll a month ago. The SNP, meanwhile, are on 48%, actually a couple of points up on last month. If the swing since 2010 implied by these figures were to be replicated everywhere the SNP would sweep the board with 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats, while Labour would have just four.

Indeed, Mr Murphy’s personal success has been met with no more than polite applause. Amongst those currently backing Labour only 29% state that his election has made it more likely that they will actually back the party in May. And while 17% of Conservatives (together with 35% of the very small number of Liberal Democrats identified by the poll), only 7% of SNP supporters do. And it is amongst nationalist supporters that the new Labour leader has to score.

In fact, much of the detail in today’s poll has a by now familiar ring to it. For example, as in other recent polls, voting intentions for Westminster are almost exactly the same as they are for a Holyrood constituency ballot (for which Labour are on 25% and the SNP on 51%). At the same time the Westminster election continues to look very much like a rerun of the referendum; 85% of SNP Westminster supporters voted Yes in September, while 82% of Labour (and 91% of Conservative and 79% of Liberal Democrat) supporters voted No. And while this means that the SNP have lost indeed ground amongst No supporters, those losses are not so large as Labour’s losses amongst No voters. (Specifically, in this poll there are just 14 fewer SNP No voters now than there are amongst those who voted SNP in 2011, while the equivalent calculation for Labour shows a loss of 40 voters.)

But today’s poll also casts some new light on the post-referendum transformation of the parties’ prospects next May. Perhaps most illuminating are the results of a question that asked people whether they were voting, on the one hand, for the party with the best UK wide policies or leader or, on the other hand, either for the party with the best Scotland-wide parties/leaders or for the party with the best approach to devolution and independence. The answers to this question suggest that next May’s election is being looked at by unionists and nationalists through very different prisms.

Most unionist party supporters (that is, 68% of Labour, 84% of Conservative and 73% of Liberal Democrat voters) say that they are voting for the party with the best UK-wide policies or leader. In contrast just 13% of SNP supporters state that is what they are doing. No less than 75% say that either they are voting for the party with the best policies or leader for Scotland or for the party with the best approach to the constitutional question. To win over these voters then either Mr Murphy will have to wrap his party in tartan or persuade them that the future of the UK as a whole maters after all.

Not that many SNP voters indicate a willingness to consider voting Labour next May, even though a majority (53%) say that they have voted Labour at some point in the past. Only around one in five (21%) of those who state they will vote for the SNP also say that they would ‘seriously consider’ voting Labour in May. Even if all of these voters were to be won over by Labour (and assuming no Labour voters make the journey in the opposite direction even though 19% of them say they would ‘seriously consider’ voting SNP), the SNP would still lead Labour by 38% to 34%, an outcome that could still see as many 10 Labour seats fall to the SNP. If Mr Murphy is to achieve his ambition of successfully defending all of his party’s citadels, Labour will have to win over voters who at present could not seriously contemplate voting for the party at all. It looks as though Mr Murphy will  have to hope or pray that he can conjure up a game changer at some point between now and May.

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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.