Survation on the Opportunities and Challenges of 2016

Just when it looked as though we might be having a quiet, poll free summer before the next round of electoral politics begins in earnest, the Scottish Daily Mail has opted to run a poll from Survation. It covers how people might vote in the Holyrood election next year and in the EU referendum whenever that comes, on where people now stand on Scottish independence, and on how Scottish ministers should use the new taxation and welfare powers that are gradually heading in their direction. The results leave all sides with plenty of food for thought.

At first glance, there is nothing but good news is for the SNP.  There are no signs that the surge that enabled the party to win 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats has in any way receded. Just over half (51%) say they would vote SNP if a Westminster election were to be held tomorrow, in line with the 50% that actually did so in May.

What, of course, is now of interest is what implications continuation of the surge might have for next May’s Scottish Parliament election. Until now the SNP has performed better in Scottish elections than in UK ones.   But polls conducted during the Westminster election campaign suggested that gap might have become quite small. For example, in the three polls that Survation conducted in March and April this year, the average level of support registered for the SNP on the constituency vote for a Scottish Parliament election was, at 50%, just two points higher than the average level of support for the party at the then forthcoming Westminster election.

Today’s poll, however, suggests that a substantial gap may have reemerged, with the SNP put on 56% of the vote, five points above the party’s Westminster standing. If this is indeed the case (and last month TNS BMRB put the SNP on as much as 60% of the constituency vote) it will be very difficult for anyone to deny the SNP an overall majority next May. Indeed 56% support would be enough to deliver the party an overall majority at Holyrood on the basis of the outcome in the constituency seats alone.  Consequently the fact that support for the SNP on the list vote in this poll is much lower, 45%, matters little. In any event, as we noted last month, polls of how people will vote on the list (‘second’) vote are seemingly at risk of collecting voters’ second preference, and thus should be treated with caution – including not least the 11% list support registered for the Greens.

But if the SNP were to win a second overall majority, the question that would then arise is whether it would want to hold a second referendum. On the prospects for this, however, the message of the Survation poll is more difficult for the SNP. The party’s success in the Westminster election has not been accompanied by any surge in support for independence. Consequently there continues to be a narrow majority in favour of staying in the UK. Today’s poll puts support for Yes at 43%, No at 47%, virtually the same result (44% Yes, 47% No) as that obtained by Survation when they last asked the question in May. Equally, there is no sign of increased enthusiasm for the idea of holding an early referendum.  While 41% would like one to be held within the next five years, that figure is little different from the 40% who were of that view in March. In short, the potential difficulty facing any second SNP majority government is that it is far from clear that it would have the public support it needs to hold and win a second independence referendum.

However, we are reminded once again by today’s poll that voters in Scotland are minded to vote to stay in the European Union when the referendum on the UK’s membership does come around. Almost twice as many (51%) say they will vote Yes in response to the question that the UK government is hoping to put to voters, ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union’, as say they will vote No (26%).  There thus continues to be a possibility that any No vote in the rest of the UK will not be replicated in Scotland, an outcome that might well give rise to a reassessment of the independence debate.  Incidentally, the Survation poll indicates just how divisive the EU referendum could be for all of Scotland’s parties.  While Conservative supporters are almost evenly split (41% Yes, 38% No), the SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all face the prospect of seeing around a quarter of their supporters backing a No vote.

A second majority SNP government would also have to make decisions about income tax in Scotland – the partial devolution of this tax as provided for by the 2012 Scotland Act comes into force next April, while the further devolution of taxation and welfare provided for by the Scotland Bill currently going through the UK Parliament should be implemented during the course of the next Scottish parliamentary term.  However, the Survation poll indicates that it will not necessarily be easy to persuade voters that the power to introduce a different rate of income tax from that in force south of the border should actually be used. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, only 9% think the Scottish Parliament should use its new powers to increase income tax, but equally only 26% support the idea for which the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has expressed sympathy, viz. that the tax should be reduced. A plurality, 42% would want to keep things as they are. The next Scottish government may find itself required to fund much of its spending from revenues raised in Scotland, while at the same time finding it difficult to change the rates at which the taxes it controls are levied.

True, it may be more acceptable for a Scottish government to use the (more limited) powers it is eventually due to get over welfare. Only 31% support keeping things as they are, slightly less than the 33% who would like to see welfare spending increased. However, increasing welfare spending will only be possible if the revenue can be raised to support it.

Still, at the moment Labour must be wishing it could even contemplate the potential difficulties of being in office. This poll suggests that the party has, if anything, taken a further step backwards. Just 21% say that they would now vote for the party in a UK general election, three points down on what the party actually achieved in May. The party’s standing for Holyrood is just as dire, at 20% on the constituency vote and 19% on the list. Evidently neither the party’s UK party leadership contest nor its Scottish one has done anything so far to help restore faith in the party.  The task facing whoever is unveiled as the party’s next Scottish leader on 15 August could well prove to be even more daunting than the one that last December faced – and eventually overwhelmed – Jim Murphy.

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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.