Why is Labour’s Election Strategy Not Working?

Labour’s strategy in the Scottish Parliament election is clear. It is trying to win back those for the most part relatively left-wing former supporters who voted for independence eighteen months ago and subsequently switched to the SNP. To that end it has put forward plans for markedly higher taxation and spending than those being espoused by the SNP, a stance that has the added advantage of representing a clear commitment to using the Scottish Parliament’s enhanced powers. ‘Both distinctively Scottish and avowedly egalitarian’ is the image the party wishes to portray.

Yet if a poll from Panelbase for today’s Sunday Times is to be believed, the strategy is not working. The poll puts Labour on 19% on the constituency vote and 18% on the list vote. True, these figures only represent small changes in the party’s support as compared with Panelbase’s previous poll in January – down two on the constituency vote and one on the list. Such small changes could simply have occurred by chance. Nevertheless, given that the party’s support was already at a record low, Labour badly needed this poll to provide some evidence that it was making progress rather than perhaps losing yet further ground.

In any event, as a result of the slight fall in the party’s estimated support together with equally modest increases (of one point on the constituency vote and two points on the list) in support for the Conservatives, the small gap between those two parties that was still evident in Panelbase’s previous poll has more or less been eroded. The Conservatives are credited with 18% on the constituency vote, one point behind Labour, and 19% on the list, one point ahead. If this were to be the outcome on May 5th, the Conservatives would probably emerge with a couple more seats than Labour at Holyrood. In reality, of course, all that we can really say is that the race for second place is too close to call.

So what has gone wrong with Labour’s strategy? Well in part the problem is that its policy stance on taxation is not so popular after all. Only slightly more (34%) agree than disagree (29%) with the party’s claim that, ‘the quality of public services in Scotland would fall too much unless income tax is increased’. Indeed, amongst those who voted SNP in the UK general election last May almost as many (31%) disagree as agree (32%). Meanwhile, in an echo of one of the findings of the poll that Ipsos MORI conducted for BBC Scotland at the beginning of the campaign, voters are not sure they want to be distinctively Scottish on tax after all. No less than 69% agree that ‘people in Scotland should not have to pay more income tax than people in England’, while just 9% disagree. Even 62% of those who voted Yes to independence 18 months ago agree with this proposition. This suggests that even for those who wish to leave the UK, England is evidently still a powerful point of comparison, an outlook that could well make it difficult for Holyrood to make extensive use of the substantial new tax powers that it is now set to obtain.

But of course in any election voters do not just judge the message. They also evaluate the messenger. And today’s poll suggests that Labour have had little success in dispelling the impression that led to its catastrophic defeat at the hands of the nationalists five years ago – that the party is incapable of providing Scotland with good government. For the most part voters feel that the SNP have done a good job of running the country. A half (50%) believe the nationalists have done a good job in the last five years, while only just over a quarter (28%) believe they have done a bad job. The SNP also consistently secures a positive scorecard when voters are asked about their performance in respect of specific policy areas. In contrast, only 17% believe that Labour would have done a good job if they had been in power, while no less than 45% feel they would have done a bad job. Even amongst those who voted Labour last year less than half (44%) reckon the party would have done a good job.

At the same time the high profile that Kezia Dugdale has enjoyed as a result of the election campaign has evidently done little to persuade voters that she has the leadership qualities that they are seeking. At 17% the proportion who say they are satisfied with the way she is doing her job as Scottish Labour leader remains exactly the same as it was in January. Twice as many (34%) say they are dissatisfied, up four points. In an echo of YouGov’s finding last week that voters are inclined to believe that Ms. Dugdale’s Conservative counterpart, Ruth Davidson, would make the better opposition leader, rather more (24%, up four points on January) say they are satisfied with the Tory leader’s performance than say they are satisfied with Ms. Dugdale’s.

In short it seems that Labour finds itself with a less popular policy stance than it might have hoped, while voters are still inclined to be sceptical about the party’s ability to provide Scotland with effective government. Against that backdrop it is hardly surprising that the party has achieved little in its efforts to prise those who voted Yes to independence away from the SNP – 83% of Yes voters still say they will back the nationalists, who with 51% on the constituency vote and 47% on the list are apparently still set to secure a second overall majority. And time for Labour to do much about the predicament in which it finds itself is beginning to run out….

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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.