Labour Profits from Polarisation?

A poll by Panelbase in today’s Sunday Times Scotland provides Labour with some relatively encouraging news in its attempt to stay ahead of the Conservatives at Holyrood. At 23% on the constituency vote and 22% on the list, the party is estimated to be six and three points ahead of the Conservatives respectively. Such an outcome might still leave Labour with just three seats more than the Conservatives, but it still represents a more attractive prospect than the one Panelbase portrayed in their previous poll a fortnight ago. In that poll Labour were neck and neck with the Conservatives in terms of votes and most likely behind in the tally of seats.

Not that there has been any marked diminution in Conservative support. At 17%, the party’s support has eased (a statistically insignificant) one point on the constituency vote, while it has held steady at 19% on the list, both still relatively good figures as compared with the party’s performance at previous Holyrood elections. Rather, the party’s hopes of coming second now look more distant because Labour’s vote is estimated to be up by four points on both ballots. This pattern is a reminder that the fact that the prospect of a battle for second place has always primarily been a reflection of the weakness of Labour support rather than  an indication of a major Conservative advance.

Why might Labour’s support have increased? Panelbase’s poll offers one clue. First, we should note that at 49% on the constituency vote and 44% on the list, SNP support has eased somewhat by two and three points respectively since the company’s previous poll. Though they are still enough to produce a SNP overall majority, both figures are lower than those recorded by Panelbase at any time since shortly after the independence referendum. Perhaps the more exaggerated expectations of how well the SNP might do on Thursday will not be realised.

What, however, is of particular interest is the pattern of this drop in SNP support – it has occurred entirely amongst those who did not vote for independence in September 2014. A fortnight ago, 20% of this group (those who either voted No or abstained 18 months ago) said they intended to vote for the SNP on the constituency vote; now that figure has slipped to 17%. In contrast, support for the SNP amongst those who voted Yes in the independence referendum has held steady at 83%.

This suggests that as the election campaign has intensified and Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly been invited to talk about her plans for a second independence referendum, so the constitutional question, already the central dividing line in the election, may have come to matter yet more in voters’ minds. That, in turn, may have made it more difficult for the SNP to reach out to those voters who do not support the party’s stance on independence.

Yet although it is the Conservatives who have been presenting themselves as the party that is steadfast in defence of the Union, it is Labour that appears to have profited from this apparent increased polarisation on the constitutional issue. Labour’s support amongst those who did not vote for independence has increased from 30% a fortnight ago to 37% now, whereas its tally amongst those who voted Yes remains at 8%. Meanwhile, at 31%, Conservative support has largely simply held steady amongst the opponents of independence.  Focusing on the constitutional question may not have been such a smart move by the Conservatives after all.

Still, this is but one poll, and anyone who remembers the polling industry’s tendency to underestimate Conservative support will still be cautious about the outcome on Thursday. In the meantime, we might note that today’s poll provides further evidence that Ms. Sturgeon could face a difficult decision about holding a second independence referendum should the UK vote to leave the EU. Once again, Panelbase have asked people how they would vote in an independence referendum now and how they might vote if the UK opts to leave the EU. At present 47% say they would vote for independence (after Don’t Knows are left aside), unchanged from Panelbase’s previous poll. That figure rises by five points, to 52%, when respondents were asked how they would vote in the event of a UK withdrawal from the EU. This five point swing is a little higher than the three point one that Panelbase recorded a fortnight ago, but is exactly the same as the one that the company obtained when it first undertook this exercise in January.

In short, as we have written before, a vote by the UK to leave the EU could see what at the moment still appears to be a small majority for Scotland to stay in the UK translated into a small majority for independence. But, if the polling evidence is to be believed, the hypothetical swing in favour of independence would be too small for the SNP to be sure that it would win a second independence referendum. Perhaps we should not be surprised if once Thursday’s election is over, Nicola Sturgeon does put some effort into trying to ensure that the UK does not vote to leave the EU in the first place.

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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.