A Tory Revival – And A Yet More Polarised Scotland?

Theresa May’s decision on Tuesday to seek Commons approval for an early UK general election means that the strength of her party’s revival north of the border will not only be tested in the local council elections on 4 May, but also in a Westminster ballot five weeks later. Two polls of vote intentions for the June 8 contest published today, one by Panelbase for The Sunday Times, the other by Survation for the Sunday Post, suggest that this revival could well prove strong indeed, with the party perhaps achieving its best Scottish performance for over 40 years.

Today’s Panelbase poll puts the Conservatives on 33%, up five points on last month, and no less than 18 points above what they secured in the 2015 general election. You have to go back to 1983 to find the last time a poll put the party’s share of the vote that high, while it has not actually won as much as 33% in the Scottish ballot boxes since February 1974.

The findings of today’s Survation poll are somewhat less spectacular. It puts the Conservatives on 28%. The company have not polled Westminster vote intentions in Scotland since September 2015, that is, long before the first signs of the Scots Tory revival emerged during last year’s Holyrood election campaign. However, today’s figure represents a 12-point increase on the level of Tory support found then.

Conversely, SNP support in the Panelbase is down three points on last month to 44%, and as much as six points down on its performance in the 2015 general election.  Survation, meanwhile put SNP support on 43%, down eight points on the company’s last reading and seven points on its performance in the 2015 Westminster ballot. Between them the Tory advance and the SNP drop in these two polls suggest that the Conservatives might take eight or so seats off the SNP, not enough to end the SNP’s dominance of the country’s representation at Westminster but arguably more than a minor dent in its body of MPs. And any Tory gains north of the border will help Mrs May achieve her objective of winning a much bigger majority in the House of Commons than the one she enjoys now.

Still, doubtless the SNP will point out that the last time any poll put the party as low as 43% or 44% in Westminster vote intentions was just a couple of months before their dramatic success in 2015. But given that the party did almost sweep the board last time, today’s polls are a sharp reminder of just how difficult it could be for the nationalists to repeat fully what they achieved two years ago.

It is probably equally likely that the Conservatives’ reaction to the results of today’s polls will be to claim that it vindicates their opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum. The correct answer to that claim will be, ‘well, yes and no’.

The ‘No’ first. Today’s polls do not suggest that there has been any further decline in support for independence. In fact, once the Don’t Knows are left to one side, the Panelbase poll actually puts Yes up a point to 45%, suggesting that the gradual slide in support for independence that Panelbase have charted in recent months may have come to a halt. Meanwhile, Survation reckon that support for independence stands at 47%, unchanged from their previous reading on that subject just a month ago.

Equally, there is little sign that many voters have changed their views on the merits of holding a second independence referendum when the Brexit negotiations have concluded. According to Panelbase, nearly one in three (32%) think a second ballot should be held within the next year or two while the Brexit negotiations are taking place, and another 16% believe that one should be held about two years from now when the Brexit negotiations have concluded (that is, more or less following the precise timetable that Nicola Sturgeon has in mind). At 48% the combined tally of support for an early second ballot is only a couple of points adrift from the figure in Panelbase’s poll last month.

Now for the ‘Yes’. While the level of support for the Union may still be little different from what it was in 2014, the Conservatives’ focus on defending the Union means that it is gradually proving increasingly successful at winning over the support of those who already back the Union.

According to Panelbase, over half (55%) of all those who voted No in September 2014 now say that they will vote Conservative. Only last September the equivalent figure was just 44%. In contrast, the party has hardly made any progress at all amongst those who voted Yes; its 4% support amongst this group in September has now edged up to just 7%.

Meanwhile, although Survation put Conservative support amongst No voters rather lower, at 46%, this is still well up on the 30% with which the party was credited amongst this group in September 2015. At the same time, as in Panelbase’s poll, support amongst those who voted Yes is still no more than 6%, just a little higher than the 2% recorded previously.

As a result, it is Labour, who are primarily suffering from the Conservatives’ advance. Today’s Panelbase poll puts the party on 13%, down just a (statistically insignificant) point on last month but still a new all-time polling low for the party. No less than 29% of the much-diminished band of people who voted for the party in 2015 now say they will vote Conservative, up from 15% in September. In contrast, just 9% say they have switched from Labour to the SNP.

Survation’s figures are not quite so dire for Labour, but, at 18%, is three points lower on where the party stood in September 2015 and six points down on its 2015 UK general election performance. The poll finds that 15% of those who voted Labour in 2015 have now switched to the Conservatives, compared with just 8% to the SNP (and unusually as many as 14% to the Liberal Democrats).

It would seem that after haemorrhaging support to the SNP in the immediate wake of the 2014 independence referendum, Labour is now at risk of losing much of its remaining unionist vote to the Conservatives. A once proud and dominant party north of the border apparently runs the risk of recording a performance every bit as bad as anything  the Conservatives suffered during their time in the wilderness during the last twenty years.

However, the revived Tory vote is not just marked out by its concentration amongst unionists. It is also increasingly becoming the party of choice amongst the 38% of voters who voted Leave in last year’s EU referendum. According to Panelbase, over half (53%) of this group now say they will vote Conservative, well up on the 33% who were of this view in September last year. In contrast, amongst those who voted Remain support for the party has increased over the same period by just a point, to 21%.  As a result, around three-fifths of the Conservative vote north of the border now consists of Leave voters, for whom, as also seems to be the case south of the border, Mrs May’s vision of Brexit is apparently proving appealing.

Incidentally, at the same time, the fall in SNP support since last autumn seems to have occurred primarily amongst those who voted Leave, a reminder perhaps to Nicola Sturgeon that her support for the EU runs the risk of costing her the support of the substantial minority of nationalists who take a different view from her on Europe.

Scotland has been a politically polarised country ever since the September 2014 referendum. But if today’s polls are any guide, this could prove to be even more the case after June 8. Hitherto the unionist vote has been scattered across three parties, while the nationalist vote has largely been concentrated in one. But now it seems that the Conservatives could be evolving from a unionist party into the party of the Union. If so, that would mean that the more or less even division of opinion on how Scotland should be governed will now come to be reflected more clearly in the division of the electoral spoils.

At the same time, however, the new Conservative/SNP duopoly that may be emerging looks as though it could also reflect to some degree the different perspectives in Scotland about what its future relationship with the EU should be. And then, of course, there is also the long-standing difference the parties that one is on the centre-left, the other on the centre-right. Whoever thought that devolution would usher in an era of ‘consensus politics’?



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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.