Pollster, pollster, in your crystal ball, who’s the best opposition leader of all?

Last week a poll from Survation suggested that the huff and puff of the campaign, including not least two televised leader debates that took place either side of the Easter weekend, had not made much difference to the balance of voting intentions for next month’s Scottish Parliament election. However, much of the interviewing for that poll was conducted before the campaign had really got going. But now this week a poll conducted by YouGov for The Times between 7 and 11 April, well after the campaign had got under way, has confirmed that impression.

True, there are some small differences from YouGov’s previous poll conducted in the middle of March. In particular, Labour’s vote is up two points on both ballots (to 21% and 19% respectively) while Conservative support is down a point on both (to 18% in both cases). That is enough for Labour to be put ahead of the Conservatives (albeit precariously),  whereas last month they were (on the list vote at least) a little behind. But such differences are too small for us to be able to dismiss the possibility that they might simply have been occasioned by the chance variation to which all polls are subject. All that we can conclude is that YouGov still reckon the Conservatives and Labour are in a close contest for second place, and indeed that that contest is rather closer than most other polling companies suggest.

What we do learn anew from this poll is that Ruth Davidson has struck a chord with her claim that she would make a more effective leader of the opposition than her Labour counterpart, Kezia Dugdale. Asked directly which of the two would make the ‘better leader of the opposition in the Scottish Parliament’, one in three (33%) named Ms. Davidson whereas fewer than one in five (18%) chose Ms. Dugdale. The Conservative leader also emerged ahead when respondents were asked about a variety of more specific personal qualities – with being ‘more in touch with ordinary people’ the only exception. Even amongst Labour supporters, only 44% reckoned Ms. Dugdale would make the better opposition leader.

But therein also lies the rub for the Conservatives. Neither doubt about Ms. Dugdale nor respect for Ms. Davidson necessarily translates into a willingness to vote Conservative rather than Labour. However much it may be admired, a robust style of leadership may not be enough in voters’ eyes if it is not married with a perceived empathy with what voters want. Certainly there is no evidence in this poll that the Tories’ focus on Ms. Davidson’s qualities has actually helped them gain votes.

There is no evidence either that the campaign has so far done anything to undermine the SNP’s position. At 50% on the constituency vote and 45% on the list, the party’s support is actually up slightly (by one and two points respectively), but again this may be no more than chance variation. More importantly, the party continues to enjoy the support of nearly nine in ten (87%) of those who voted Yes in the independence referendum, providing it with a bedrock of support that its opponents are still failing to erode.

Indeed, SNP support is undiminished even though many of the party’s supporters would seem to be closer to the positions being adopted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens on whether and how the Scottish parliament’s new taxation powers should be used. As many as 57% of SNP voters say they favour increasing the rate of income tax and ‘using the money to improve public services’, while just 33% are opposed. However, support for increasing taxation appears to have declined somewhat amongst SNP supporters. Back in February the proportion in favour of increasing taxes stood as high as 66%, while just 26% were opposed. It is likely that Nicola’s Sturgeon’s opposition to increasing the basic rate of income tax has helped persuade some SNP supporters that the idea may not be such a good one after all, thereby helping to neutralise Labour’s attempt to win them over with its proposal that the basic rate of income tax should be increased.

But while the SNP may be set for an overall majority, there is still little sign that the party is likely to be in a position to hold another independence referendum anytime soon. Just as last month, the proportion who now say they would vote for independence at present stands at 46% (after Don’t Knows are left aside). This is still below the crucial 50% mark – just as it has been in every YouGov poll for over a year. Meanwhile, although the proportion who say they would vote Yes in the event of a UK-wide vote to the leave the EU is, at 50%, four points higher, that means the chances of Yes winning a referendum in such circumstances would be no better than 50:50 – and thus most likely too much of a gamble for Nicola Sturgeon’s taste. This hypothetical four point swing to Yes in the event of a Leave victory in June is, incidentally, very similar to previous estimates of 5-6% obtained by Panelbase and Ipsos MORI.

During the last week (when the YouGov poll was being conducted) the Scottish campaign was, of course, fought against the backdrop of allegations at Westminster about supposed tax avoidance by the Prime Minister’s family. This seems to have had little impact on the Conservatives’ image north of the border – last October 38% agreed that the party was ‘very sleazy and disreputable’, while 44% disagreed. Now those figures stand at 32% and 40% respectively. The detailed textual exegesis to which the Prime Minister’s statements about his financial affairs were subjected may, perhaps, have simply passed most voters by.

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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.