The SNP’s Dilemma

One of the key lessons of Scottish politics in the last 12 months is that referendums and parliamentary elections can present a political movement that is capable of garnering around half the vote with very different challenges. In a referendum that movement may well fail to win, as happened to Yes in September last year. But in a parliamentary election where the opposition is divided, it can easily be enough to win handsomely, just as the SNP did this May.

And herein lies the SNP’s current dilemma. On the one hand, around a half of Scots continue to say they will vote for the party in next May’s Scottish Parliament election. At 51% on the constituency vote and 45% on the list, the SNP tally is exactly the same in the latest YouGov poll for The Times as it was a month ago, and confirms the message of the most recent TNS BMRB poll published last week (56% on the constituency, 52% on the list) that the party still seems to be on course to win a second overall majority at Holyrood.. Such an outcome would ensure that the votes that would be needed in the Scottish Parliament to pass the legislation needed to hold a second referendum on independence would be in place (albeit that Westminster might well not be as accommodating a second  time around).

The trouble is, as the First Minister has now acknowledged, having the support of around half of Scots is, from the perspective of the independence movement at least, an insecure basis on which to hold a second referendum. Indeed YouGov’s poll puts the current level of support for independence at 48% (after Don’t Knows are excluded), unchanged on last month.  Although the No lead has narrowed since September of last year, it is evidently still there. So, Ms. Sturgeon has now made it clear that she will want to see consistent polling evidence that support for independence is well above the 50% mark before she is going to risk a second referendum.  Whether everyone will be happy with the pollsters being invited to play such a prominent role in the decision about a second referendum might itself be the subject of an interesting debate!

At the same time, Ms. Sturgeon has also signalled that the one development that above all she anticipates might instigate increased support for independence in the polls is if the UK as a whole were to vote to leave the EU while Scotland voted the other way. The possibility that Scotland might vote differently from the rest of the UK certainly cannot be discounted. YouGov’s poll points to a 62% vote to remain in Scotland(after Don’t Knows are excluded), whereas in the company’s last Britain-wide poll on the subject in September, just 49% said they would vote to remain (and thus 51% to leave). TNS BMRB’s poll suggested that no less than 73% of Scots might vote to remain (albeit only after a relatively large proportion of people who said, “Don’t Know” are excluded from the calculation). Still, at the moment on average the GB-wide polls point to a narrow lead for remaining, but there is no doubt that the outcome of the Europe referendum across the UK as a whole is far from certain.

In the meantime, however, Ms. Sturgeon has to defend her record in office and lay out her programme for government for the next five years. Next year’s Scottish Parliament election will be very different from its predecessors because, following the passage of the 2012 Scotland Act and the anticipated passage of the Scotland Bill currently going through the UK Parliament, politicians can and will be asked how they propose to raise (some of) the money that they want to spend, rather than simply just telling us how they would spend the money that comes from Westminster. YouGov’s polling gives an idea of some of the constraints that politicians will face if they try and use the powers that Holyrood will have to change the rate of income tax north of the border.

First, it seems that there is little appetite for cutting income tax. Only 27% support the idea if it were to entail a reduction in welfare benefits, while just 13% take the same view if it meant a reduction in public services. This suggests that the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, will not be singing a very popular tune if she goes ahead with her inclination to reduce income tax north of the border. Even amongst Conservative supporters only 25% back the idea if it were to mean cuts to services.

Equally, however, despite the continuing political argument about whether the Scotland Bill would give the Scottish Government as much ability to top up UK welfare payments as the Smith Commission intended, it appears that there is little appetite to raise income tax in order to increase welfare payments.  Just 30% back this idea, and even amongst SNP supporters slightly more are opposed (47%) than are in favour (42%).  It is thus, perhaps, not surprising that the Finance Minister, John Swinney, acknowledged in a BBC interview yesterday that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that a Scottish Government would be able to insulate Scotland fully from the welfare cuts being introduced by the UK Government.

At the same time, however, there is rather more support for increasing taxation in order to ‘improve’ public services. No less than 52% support this proposition, while just 37% are opposed. The contrast is not surprising – data from the British Social Attitudes survey have consistently shown that spending on schools and hospitals is much more popular than that on welfare, and Scotland is no different in that respect. But it does mean, somewhat ironically, that the next Scottish Government might find it easier to use its new tax powers to increase spending in its existing responsibilities such as schools and hospitals than it will on its new responsibilities for welfare.

However, when it comes to its record in office, it seems that the SNP is Teflon coated. Despite the problems with waiting times at the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, YouGov report that slightly more (48%) think that the SNP is handling the NHS well think it is handling it badly (43%).  The SNP also gets positive marks for its record on the economy (52% reckon they are doing well) and on education (55%). Rather more surprisingly, perhaps, the same is true of ‘justice’ (45% reckon they are doing well on this, 40% badly), even though as many as 63% think that Police Scotland themselves are doing badly. But perhaps voters do not equate policing with justice. Certainly last month Survation found that more people were dissatisfied than were satisfied with ‘the Scottish Government’s handling of ‘policing issues’. Even so, it is clear that Labour have an awful lot of work to do to make what they think are the weaknesses in the SNP’s record tell in the minds of voters. And unless it can do that, the party is unlikely to put a serious dent in the SNP’s commanding election lead.

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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.