And So Our Eyes Turn To May 2016

There is little rest in the world of politics.  Today sees the publication of the first poll of voting intentions for next May’s Holyrood election since the UK general election on May 7th.  During the UK election such readings were largely ignored, but now that that ballot is behind us, the battle for power at Holyrood is set to become the centre of attention in the Scottish political world – with only how Scotland might vote in the EU referendum possibly vying for attention.

The poll, from TNS BMRB, makes miserable reading for Labour as it embarks on an internal battle for its UK and Scottish leadership. The poll puts the party on just 19% on both the constituency and the list vote, while the SNP are estimated to have 60% of the vote in the former and 50% on the latter.

This represents a marked decline in Labour support since TNS BMRB last polled Holyrood vote intentions at the beginning of this year. Then Labour were estimated to be on 31% of the constituency vote and 26% of the list vote.  The SNP’s tallies were 47% and 44% respectively.  Labour’s fgures in today’s poll are also much worse (and the SNP’s better) than they were in polls conducted by YouGov and Survation just before the May 7th ballot that saw all but one of Labour’s MPs swept away.

In short, it looks as though that disaster may have further dented voters’ confidence in the party’s ability to govern and/or persuaded them the SNP is better able to advocate and promote Scotland’s interests. That said, we should perhaps bear in mind that voters are inclined to love a winner. Since May 7th two GB-wide polls (from ComRes and YouGov) have put the Conservatives more than ten points ahead, after having struggled to separate the two parties beforehand. Labour have to hope that the honeymoons that their opponents are enjoying on both sides of the border will not last.

Equally arresting, however, is the ten point difference between the estimated level of SNP support on the constituency vote and that on the list vote. Relatively big differences between these two votes are often found in polls of Holyrood vote intentions.  For example, the last YouGov poll before May 7th  identified a six difference in SNP support on the two votes, and the last Survation poll as much as a nine point difference.

However, differences of that size in the level of SNP support have never materialised in the Holyrood ballot boxes. The biggest difference was one of three points in 2003, while at the last election in 2011, the gap was just one point. Indeed, overestimating the difference proved to be the undoing of the polls in 2011. On that occasion just before polling day TNS BMRB correctly anticipated the SNP constituency vote of 45% but, at 38%, the company seriously underestimated the actual nationalist list vote of 44%.  Equally YouGov’s estimate of the constituency vote, 42%, was only a modest underestimate, but its figure for the list vote, 35%, was a long way short.

One likely reason for this discrepancy is that many voters are not aware of how the Scottish Parliament’s two-vote system works and when suddenly asked by a pollster how they will vote on two different ballots they presume they cannot vote the same way twice. As a result when asked how they will vote on the list ballot paper they state a second preference. If so, then it suggests that during the next twelve months the pollsters need to give careful consideration to how they ask people their list vote (which after all is often called the ‘second vote’), and try to find wordings that minimise the risk that their respondents offer a second preference.

Today’s poll does also provide us with a reading of how people north of the border for the EU referendum. Much as was true of a poll conducted by YouGov for the Sunday Post shortly after the UK election, it shows a substantial majority for staying in. YouGov reckoned 54% would vote to remain and just 25% to leave. TNS BMRB put the figures at 49% and 19% respectively. Still at the moment even the Britain-wide polls suggest there is a clear majority in favour of staying in the EU, so perhaps we should not be surprised that at the moment somewhat more Europhile Scotland appears quite firmly of that view.

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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.