A Race for Second Place?

This time five years ago we were wondering whether the SNP could possibly win a second Holyrood term. Three polls published in the autumn of 2010 (and there were only three) all put Labour ahead of the SNP  – by between three and ten points. Far from anticipating the possibility of a SNP overall majority, the polls suggested that Alex Salmond could prove to be a one term First Minister.

How different the picture is now. In the three months that have elapsed since the first anniversary of the independence referendum on the 18 September, four polls have seen the light of day. All have put the SNP at above 50% on the constituency vote, while the party has been credited with between 45% and 52% on the list vote. These figures follow, of course, on the party’s success in winning 50% of the vote in the general election. They suggest that the party could well win an even bigger majority next May than it did five years ago – an outcome that would ensure that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status remains on the political agenda.

Indeed, so dominant does the SNP’s position seem to be, in recent weeks speculation has centred not on whether the nationalists can win a second overall majority (that rightly or wrongly seems to be a foregone conclusion), but rather on who will come second. Might the Scottish Conservatives finally re-emerge from the political wilderness to which they have been consigned ever since the 1997 UK general election? Is the Labour-SNP duopoly of centre-left politics that has dominated Scottish politics throughout the devolution years finally going to be broken?

A couple of this autumn’s polls have suggested that the Conservatives have made some progress. Ipsos MORI put the party on18% of the constituency vote and 16% of the list vote, up six and four points respectively on that company’s previous reading in August. Meanwhile YouGov put the party on as much as 19% on both ballots. While that represented only a one point increase on the company’s previous reading in September, it constituted a three to four point increase on the tally YouGov registered just before May’s general election. Both sets of figures are also something of an improvement on the 14% of the constituency vote and 12% of the list vote that the party won in 2011.

However, two polls conducted by TNS this autumn have failed to pick up this apparent movement in the Conservatives’ direction. Both of their polls put the party on just 12% on the constituency vote and 11% on the list vote – no better than the party’s position during the summer and suggesting that the party might be in an even weaker position than five years ago.  Those findings must cast some doubt as to whether the Conservatives really are beginning to enjoy something of a renaissance.

But in any event the main reason why we are asking whether the Conservatives could possibly come second is not because the polls are pointing to a transformation in the party’s position, but rather because they suggest that Labour’s situation remains dire. Both Ipsos MORI and YouGov suggest that the party commands little more than a fifth of the vote on both ballots, a long way down from the 32% of the constituency vote and 26% of the list vote that Labour won five years ago. TNS present a somewhat less pessimistic picture, but at no more than 24% on the constituency vote and 25% on the list even its figures paint a dispiriting picture for the party.

So the key question in the battle for second place is not so much whether the Conservatives have some prospect of recording a modest improvement in performance as whether Labour can avoid falling any further.  To do so, the Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, needs to begin to make an impression on the electorate. She made a good start at her party’s Scottish conference in October by announcing that she would increase the top rate of tax in Scotland in order to fund a reversal of George Osborne’s proposal to cut tax credits – an announcement that temporarily put the SNP on the back foot. But that fox has since been shot following the Chancellor’s enforced retreat on his tax credit proposal, and since then there has been little from Labour to grab voters’ attention.

The consequence is a party leader who is still too little known. In particular, TNS, YouGov and Ipsos MORI all agree that more voters feel unable to say how well Ms Dugdale is doing than are unable to evaluate the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson. As many as 29% felt unable to tell Ipsos MORI whether or not they were satisfied with her performance, while the equivalent figures in YouGov’s and TNS’s polls were 38% and 53% respectively. In contrast, only 20% told Ipsos MORI they could not rate Ruth Davidson, while the equivalent figures for YouGov and TNS are 25% and 36% respectively.

Ms. Davidson has, of course, been in post much longer than Ms Dugdale, but that just underlines just how much catching up the Labour leader has to do. Moreover, while TNS’s data suggests that the Scottish Tory leader might not be widely liked, both Ipsos MORI and YouGov suggest that, quite remarkably for a Tory leader north of the border, she has at least earned many voters’ respect. Both companies find that on balance more voters regard Ms. Davidson favourably than do Ms. Dugdale. What remains to be seen is whether the Tory leader really can turn respect into votes.

In the meantime, Labour’s troubled position in the polls combined with a marked change in the party’s candidate nomination strategy means that some of its key figures are now engaged in a desperate battle for a slot on the party’s regional list. Hitherto Labour has only rarely allowed someone to stand both as a constituency and a regional list candidate. This stance meant that, when five years ago many of its senior MSPs lost their constituency seats, they not only lost their place in the Holyrood chamber, but also saw themselves being replaced by novice candidates who unexpectedly secured election via the regional list.

However, the party’s disdain for what many within it had hitherto regarded as the ‘back door’ route into Holyrood has now been replaced by a willingness to allow any candidate to stand in both a constituency and on the list. Meanwhile, given where the polls currently stand, there is a serious risk that the party will fail to win a single constituency seat. As a result, all but one of the party’s MSPs who are standing again (Elaine Murray in Dumfriesshire) have taken the opportunity to put themselves forward for the regional list as well as fight their existing constituency. The regional list may, after all, be the only route back in.

The result is that in Glasgow, Central Scotland, Mid Scotland and Fife, and the West of Scotland in particular, existing constituency and list MSPs are now pitted against each other in a battle to win as high as possible a ranking on the party’s regional list – a battle that is further spiced by the decision of two former MSPs (Pauline McNeill and Bill Butler in Glasgow) and two MPs (Anas Sarwar in Glasgow and Thomas Docherty in Mid Scotland and Fife) to try their luck via that route too. Labour is at risk of starting the New Year with its focus on internal battles when what it really needs to do is to start talking to voters.

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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.