New Leader, Old Troubles: Labour in Scotland

The Murdoch press empire decided to rain on the Scottish Labour leadership parade on Saturday by releasing a YouGov poll in The Sun and The Times showing the party is 20 points behind the SNP in voting intentions for next Westminster’s election – an outcome that could see it lose the vast bulk of its Commons seats.  The fact that the same poll suggested that the victor, Jim Murphy, was by far and away the most popular choice amongst the much diminished band of Westminster Labour supporters (53% backed Mr Murphy whereas only 13% wanted his main rival, Neil Findlay) doubtless came as little consolation.

The poll confirms the evidence of previous polls taken in October and November as to why Labour now finds itself in such serious difficulty.

First, the gap between Westminster and Holyrood voting intentions has almost disappeared. At 47%, support for the SNP in a Westminster election is only three points lower than it is for a Scottish Parliament one; when two years ago YouGov were asking people both their Holyrood and Westminster voting intention, the equivalent gap was more like eight points. Meanwhile, Labour’s Westminster support is actually one point lower than its Holyrood support whereas two years ago it was five points higher.

The past three months has not simply been marked by an increase in SNP support. Rather the nationalists are also benefitting from the fact that voters have apparently become more inclined to vote in a Westminster election in much the same way as they would in a Holyrood one – perhaps because in the wake of the referendum voters’ focus is still on which party they think is best for Scotland in particular rather than who is best able to govern Britain as a whole.

Second, the party is suffering badly from the fallout from the referendum. Pretty much everyone who voted Yes in September (no less than 86% of that group) now say that they will now vote SNP in May. Given that around two-fifths of those who voted Labour in 2010 voted Yes, this alignment between voting Yes and backing the SNP is costing Labour dear. With just 13% of Labour’s current Westminster voters saying that they would vote Yes in an independence referendum, Labour’s vote is left looking as unionist as it has ever done.

Third the party’s particular difficulties north of the border are compounded by the fact that Labour at Westminster is not viewed very favourably either. When asked which of the party leaders is ‘doing best in their role’, not only does Ed Miliband (8%) trail David Cameron (19%) north of the border, but he is even less popular than Nigel Farage (10%). South of the border, Labour’s apparent failure to convince many voters that it represents a credible alternative government has been reflected in a gradual erosion of its support. But in Scotland, where the party faces much more serious competition for the votes of those on the left, it is at apparent risk of being washed away by a nationalist tsunami.

Nationalist success on anything like the scale anticipated by the current polls will doubtless be interpreted as evidence that Scotland now wants independence after all. On this, however, some caution is necessary. True, YouGov’s poll suggests that 52% would now vote Yes. However, as was the case when the company reported a similar finding in late October, this poll has not been weighted such that those who say they voted Yes in September represent 45% of the sample. Rather they represent 47%. So, although as other recent polls have shown, there does appear to have been something of a swing to Yes since the referendum, we cannot be sure that this means that a majority would now vote Yes. After all, a 5% swing to Yes, as identified by this poll, would see both sides on 50%!

Still, even a swing of that size suggests that the publication of the Smith Commission’s proposals for more devolution has not had any impact on the level of support for independence. Indeed, no less than 87% of those who voted Yes in September say that the Commission’s proposals do not go far enough. Evidently most people in this group are at one with the SNP in believing that the proposals are inadequate.  But perhaps more worrying for the unionist camp, is that many of their own supporters are not convinced about the proposals either. Less than half (42%) think that the Commission has got the balance of powers right. As many as 21% think the powers do not go far enough, counterbalanced by 23% who feel that they go too far. The position amongst Labour supporters in particular is not dissimilar.  And if the unionist parties cannot manage to sell the Smith package to their own voters, it is difficult to see how it will succeed in settling the debate about how Scotland should be governed any time soon.

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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.