Panelbase (and more) from The Sunday Times

Despite the fact that the outcome of the election in Scotland could well prove pivotal in determining who forms the next government, it is a fortnight since an up to date Scotland-wide poll of voting intentions for May 7th was published.

However, the drought is broken today with a poll conducted by Panelbase for The Sunday Times and Heart FM. For much of the referendum Panelbase painted a relatively rosy picture of the nationalists’ prospects. But when the company last conducted a poll of voting intentions back in January it produced the narrowest SNP lead – just 10 points – of any poll conducted since last October.

Now, however, Panelbase more or less join the consensus in putting the SNP lead somewhere in the high teens. Their poll (conducted before Thursday night’s leaders’ debate) puts the SNP on 45%, up four points on January, while Labour are on 29%, down two points.  At 16 points the SNP lead is still a little below that in some other polls, and as a result of both this and also the fact that our latest calculation also takes account of results from early March released last week by the British Election Study (on which more below), our estimate of the SNP’s standing in our poll of polls drops a point to 45%. Meanwhile the Tories have also dropped a point to 15% while both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP are up a point at 5%.

Today’s poll is of particular interest for the further light it helps cast on why Labour is in so much difficulty in Scotland. One of the features of the referendum campaign was that while Labour was involved in a largely negative campaign attacking independence, the SNP were able to lay out a vision of the kind of Scotland that they wanted to create, one key plank of which was a more equal country. As a result, Labour’s mantle as the principal party of the left and of equality north of the border was potentially at risk of being stolen by the SNP.

Panelbase’s poll suggests that this is indeed is what has happened. It shows that no less than 55% of all Scots now think the SNP are ‘strongly’ in favour of a more equal society in Scotland. In contrast only 14% believe the same of Labour. While another 30% believe that Labour are  ‘slightly’ in favour of a more equal society, that still means that less than half (44%) of all Scots think the party now backs equality either ‘strongly’ or ‘slightly’. In contrast as many as 69% believe SNP backs equality at least to some extent.

Perhaps most remarkably of all, those who backed Labour in 2010 share this perspective. Far more of them (57%) believe that the SNP ‘strongly’ favour equality than believe that Labour does (26%).  Labour itself would, of course, challenge the SNP’s claim to be an egalitarian party, but evidently it has so far failed to do so effectively.  It seems highly likely that this failure is part of the mix that helps explain why so many former Labour supporters are now backing the SNP.

Meanwhile, of course, Labour has been trying to win back support by raising the spectre that Labour losses to the SNP in Scotland could enable the Conservatives to retain power at Westminster. It is though an argument that assumes SNP voters care who is the next Prime Minister – and it appears that many of them do not. According to today’s poll only 42% of SNP supporters think that it ‘matters a lot’ to Scotland whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is the next Prime Minister, well down on the 64% of both Conservative and Labour supporters that do so.  Labour needs to persuade voters of its own virtues rather than rely on their supposed fear of what another five years of Conservative government might mean.

Still whatever difficulties Labour may be having selling itself as the party of equality, what has long been clear, the principal foundation on which the SNP’s lead rests is the apparent determination of those who voted Yes in September to follow up that choice with a vote for the SNP in May. This was neatly confirmed by new evidence from the British Election Study (BES) that featured in last week’s Sunday Times (which, incidentally, put the SNP on 44% and Labour on 27%).

This academic survey has interviewed (online) a large panel of voters on four different occasions during the course of the last twelve months.  A year ago a little less than two-thirds (64%) of those who at that stage said they proposed to vote Yes in the referendum (and who had a party preference) said that they would vote for the SNP in the general election. The position remained much the same in June. But when the BES interviewed their respondents again shortly after the referendum, that figure had increased to 78%, and now it stands at 85% – much the same as the equivalent figure in ICM’s most recent poll for The Guardian (82%), and in Survation’s last poll for the Daily Record (85%). Unless voters can be persuaded to leave the independence debate to one side, it is difficult to see how Labour will be able manage to claw their way back to relative safety.

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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.