The Challenge Facing The New Scottish Labour Leader

Labour’s new Scottish leader is due to be unveiled on Saturday, an announcement that will in effect signal that the holiday season is coming to an end and normal political hostilities will soon begin once more. The announcement will, of course, be made against the backdrop of a divisive UK leadership contest in which the apparent front runner has been deemed unsuitable for the job by many a senior Labour figure. But even if the UK-wide party were not currently seemingly in crisis, the party’s difficulties closer to home would still mean that whoever dons the Scottish crown, Kezia Dugdale or Ken Macintosh, will be faced with a daunting task.

Three polls published during the final four weeks of the leadership campaign have confirmed the impression created by two previous post-UK general election polls (from TNS BMRB and Survation) that the party is potentially heading for as serious a defeat in next May’s Scottish Parliament election as it suffered in this May’s general election.  Two of the three polls have come from TNS BMRB, one published in July and one earlier this week, while the third was conducted by Panelbase for The Sunday Times.

The July TNS BMRB poll put Labour on 20% (constituency vote) and 21% (regional list vote), only slightly better than the 19% (on both votes) with which the party was credited at the end of May, shortly after the general election. The August poll from the same company is no better for the party, putting Labour on 20% on both ballots. The SNP, in contrast, were credited with 60% on the constituency vote in July, the same as the company’s figure for May, and with no less than 62% in the most recent poll. The SNP tally on the list vote is rather lower (a persistent pattern that may reflect a tendency for some respondents to report a second preference when responding to a second question about how they would vote in a Holyrood election), but at 51% (in July) and 54% (in August) it is even slightly higher than the 50% recorded in May.

The Panelbase poll, conducted in late June and early July, was not much better from Labour’s point of view. It put the party on 22% (constituency vote) and 21% (list vote), five to six percentage points below where the party stood when Panelbase previously ascertained Holyrood voting intentions, in late September shortly after the independence referendum.  At 53% (constituency vote) and 48% (list vote), the company’s estimate of SNP support is somewhat lower than TNS BMRB’s (as was  Survation’s), but it is still (on both ballots) no less than eleven points above where it was last September.

Indeed, between them the five post-general election polls of Holyrood vote intentions suggest that the new Scottish Labour leader will inherit a party that is in an even weaker state than it was when Jim Murphy took over last December. At that point our poll of polls of Westminster vote intentions put Labour on 27%, twenty points behind the SNP.  Now the five post-general election polls of Holyrood vote intentions put Labour on average on 20% on both ballots, leaving the SNP 38 points ahead on the constituency vote and 30 points on the list ballot.

Still, doubtless the new leader will have taken note of the findings in the latest TNS BRMB poll that the SNP might be somewhat vulnerable when it comes to voters’ perceptions of its record in office. Only slightly more think the SNP’s management of the economy and the health service during the last twelve months has been good than think it has been poor, while in the case of crime and justice the latter group actually slightly outnumber the former. Only in the case of education do the SNP emerge clearly in credit.

However, the problem for Labour is that at the moment how the SNP has been performing in office appears to be a less salient issue in voters’ minds than the conviction that many have that Scotland should become an independent country. On all four areas, less than half of current SNP supporters reckon the party has done a good job – but are minded to vote SNP nonetheless. What binds SNP supporters together is the fact that, according to Panelbase, no less than 85% of them would vote in favour of independence in a second referendum. It looks as though Labour needs to try and persuade voters that next May’s vote should not be regarded as simply yet another opportunity to vote for or against leaving the UK.

Not that next May’s election will necessarily be straightforward for the SNP when it comes to the constitutional question. For while the party is well ahead on voting intentions, it can hardly be confident of winning a second referendum. In line with most other post-referendum polls, Panelbase’s poll suggests that supporters of independence (45%) continue to be narrowly outnumbered by opponents (50%).  The SNP may well not want to commit itself next year to holding a second ballot that looks as though it could be lost – but if that is the case it will need to find a way of ensuring that its overwhelmingly pro-independence body of supporters do not feel let down.

Here, though, David Cameron’s EU referendum may come to the SNP’s rescue. For Panelbase’s poll confirmed the impression that Scotland looks likely to register a higher vote in favour of staying in the Union than England and Wales – and thus might end up on the opposite side of the fence. Once those who said ‘Don’t Know’ were left to one side, 66% of Scots said that they would vote to remain in the EU, whereas a parallel poll conducted by Panelbase in England and Wales found just 50% in favour of staying, while just as many, 50%, wanted to leave. This contrast between the two parts of the UK is in fact rather greater than that painted recently by YouGov, which still finds a ten point Britain-wide majority in favour of staying in. Even so, we should not be surprised if the possibility that Scotland might vote differently from the rest of the UK provides the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, with sufficient cover to come up next May with an ‘it all depends’ formulation on the question of a second referendum. If so, one of the key tasks facing the new Labour leader will be to try to ensure that that stance begins to unravel.

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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.