Reason for Labour to Smile A Little?

The New Year has seen Labour’s new Scottish leader, Jim Murphy, make a few waves with a promise to deliver 1,000 extra nurses that would in effect be paid for by the proceeds of a UK government mansion tax that would be paid primarily by those living in London and the South East. Meanwhile the economic winds have blown rather coldly for the SNP thanks to a sharp fall in the price of oil, a drop that has raised question marks about the party’s prospectuses for both independence and ‘devolution max’ as well as criticism of its response to the threat to jobs and investment in the North East.

Today we get the first indication from a Scotland only poll as to whether these developments have done anything to reverse the ‘surge’ in support for the SNP in next May’s Westminster election that was in evidence in the last three months of last year. Conducted by Panelbase for The Sunday Times, it will put a slight smile on Labour faces this morning – but no more than that.

The poll suggests the SNP, on 41%, are still well ahead of Labour on 31%. But this does represent a four point reduction in SNP support and a three point increase in Labour’s tally as compared with Panelbase’s previous poll conducted for the nationalist website, Wings over Scotland, at the beginning of November. Indeed the 10 point SNP lead is the smallest lead the party has enjoyed in any Scotland only poll for three months. We have to go back to a Panelbase poll that was conducted at the very end of September before we find a smaller SNP lead (when it was just two points).

Moreover, today’s poll reminds us how a relatively modest improvement in Labour’s poll standing could have quite substantial implications for the number of seats that the party wins. At the 28% at which it stood in the previous Panelbase poll, the party would – on the assumption that the swing against it was the same in every constituency – win just 10 seats. Today’s 31%, in contrast, points (on the same assumption) to the party winning twice as many seats, 20. In any scenario where the SNP is ahead of Labour in votes across Scotland as a whole, the number of seats Labour is likely to lose to the nationalists is highly sensitive to the exact lead that the SNP enjoy.

Yet today’s poll also confirms the evidence of other recent polls that Mr Murphy is not a major crowd puller. Today’s poll finds that 21% are ‘very’ or ‘quite’ satisfied with his performance as Scottish Labour leader, while 33% are ‘very’ or ‘quite’ dissatisfied. That does means he is a little more popular (and more high profile) than his predecessor, Johann Lamont, was when Panelbase last asked this question in February 2012 (12% were satisfied with Ms Lamont while 28% were dissatisfied), or indeed when it was asked about her predecessor, Iain Gray, in March 2011 (13% satisfied, 29% dissatisfied). But it still leaves him trailing Nicola Sturgeon, whose rating (42% satisfied, 32% dissatisfied) is only a little less favourable than that enjoyed by Alex Salmond three years ago (when 44% were satisfied with his leadership and only 27% dissatisfied).

Moreover, while Jim Murphy’s ratings may not be stellar, those of the man he is trying to persuade Scots to vote for as Prime Minister, Ed Miliband, are little short of dire. Just 13% say they are satisfied with his leadership, while 59% are dissatisfied. These figures are even slightly worse than they were three years ago, when 11% were satisfied with Mr Miliband and 52% dissatisfied. The unpopularity of the party’s UK leader does not make Mr Murphy’s job of saving its Scottish seats any easier.

Meanwhile today’s poll suggests that Labour’s attempt to persuade voters that a vote for the SNP makes it more likely that Mr Cameron will remain Prime Minister (even though the Conservatives only have one seat in Scotland and the nationalists have refused to countenance supporting a minority Conservative government) largely passes them by. No less than 43% (including 47% of SNP supporters) say they just do not know whether voting SNP makes a Labour or a Conservative government more likely. And given that Mr Cameron is personally no more unpopular than Mr Miliband (19% are satisfied and 61% dissatisfied with him), one wonders how much many voters actually care whether backing the SNP makes a Labour or a Conservative government the more likely outcome.

But the SNP now has its own problem – in the form of the black sticky stuff that has long helped fuel the independence debate. As many as 46% think the fall in the price of oil has weakened the case for independence. Now, of course, many of those who take that view are committed unionists. But 22% of SNP supporters (and the same proportion of those who voted Yes in September) also share this view – and they are just as numerous as the proportion of SNP voters who believe the fall has strengthened the case for independence (presumably because they feel it highlights the UK government’s failure to establish an oil fund). That suggests a degree of unease amongst SNP supporters that Labour might yet hope to exploit – if it can convince them that having Labour in power at Westminster offers the prospect of a brighter future after all.

Meanwhile this coming Thursday sees the publication of a draft version of the legislation that will be required to implement the recommendations of the Smith Commission on more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Today’s Mail on Sunday reports some new polling from Survation on the subject, focusing not so much on what powers should be devolved (though we do discover that rather more, 40%, are in favour of Alex Salmond’s ‘devolution max’ view of ‘Home Rule’ than are opposed to it, viz. 35%) as on how the devolved powers should be used. It provides further evidence that it will not necessarily be easy when Smith is in place for Scottish politicians to argue for either tax rises or tax cuts – or for enhancements or reductions to welfare.

In neither case is there a consensus in favour of a change in one direction or the other. Only 7% say they think they should be paying more income tax (unsurprising perhaps!), but equally only 28% feel they should pay less. Meanwhile, contrary perhaps to the impression created by the Yes side in the referendum campaign, only 27% feel that the Scottish Parliament should try to use the welfare powers it will get to implement a ‘more generous approach to benefits than is currently in place’. They are in fact more than matched by the 35% who feel that the Parliament should try to ‘cut the cost of the benefits system’, but this too is evidently a minority view. Using the powers might prove much more difficult than acquiring them.

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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.