A Very Different Election?

A poll from YouGov for The Times, whose results first started to emerge on Friday and the final instalment of which is published today, is the first Scottish poll to have been conducted since the week the UK general election was announced. It suggests that, so far at least, the sound and fury of the campaign trail has had little impact on the parties’ popularity.

The poll credited the SNP with 42% of the vote, the Conservatives with 29%, and Labour with 19%. In all three cases this represented a one-point increase on the equivalent figure in YouGov’s previous poll at the end of April – movements that could simply reflect the chance variation to which all polls are subject. The same is true of the one-point fall in Liberal Democrat support to 6%.

But while this poll might indicate that little has changed during the course of this election campaign, it confirms that this election is currently heading towards a somewhat different outcome from that in 2015. The SNP may still dominate the electoral scene in Scotland – indeed, the party’s level of support for the current Westminster contest would have been regarded as truly remarkable before 2015 – but it looks as though the SNP are unlikely to replicate fully their astonishing success two years ago in winning 50% of the vote. Meanwhile the SNP is facing a different principal challenger this time, in the form of a revived Conservative Party rather than a declining Labour party.

To gain some insight into why this election is proving rather more challenging for the SNP, we can compare the results of this latest YouGov poll with polling the company conducted before the 2015 election. Many of the questions asked on the latest poll were also asked in a poll YouGov conducted a week or so before the last Westminster contest. That poll proved quite prescient in that it put the SNP on 49%, just one point short of their actual tally in the ballot box, Labour on 26%, only two points above its actual performance, while the Conservatives were credited with 15%, exactly what they eventually achieved.

One point emerges straight away. The lower level of SNP support being registered during this campaign is not a reflection of a sharp drop in support for independence. YouGov’s latest poll puts support for Yes at 45% (once Don’t Knows are left to one side), exactly the same as in April, and just two points lower than two years ago. A two-point difference in the level of support for independence (even if we think it might reflect a real movement in the electorate, which is far from certain) cannot account for the seven-point difference between SNP support now and that registered by YouGov’s April 2015 poll.

Rather, the SNP’s problem is that it is proving less successful this time around in persuading those who voted Yes in the independence referendum to vote for it in the election. Two years ago, no less than 89% of Yes voters said that they were intending to back the SNP; now only 75% say they are going to do so.

Of course, some people will have changed their minds about independence during the last couple of years. Indeed, according to YouGov, 14% of 2014 Yes voters say they would now vote No whereas just 3% had switched sides by April 2015. Such switchers on the question of independence might well be expected to have changed their minds about the SNP too. But if that was the only reason why SNP support has fallen amongst 2014 Yes voters, we might expect to observe a compensating increase in nationalist support amongst 2014 No voters. After all, according to YouGov, one in ten 2014 No voters now say they would vote Yes (compared with 6% in April 2015), and they might be expected to have switched to the SNP. But of that there is little sign. In April 2015 13% of 2014 No voters said they were going to vote for the SNP, while now, at 11%, the figure is actually slightly lower.

Of course, since the last UK general election, there has been another referendum, this time on Brexit. And in that referendum at least a quarter of those who voted for the SNP in 2015 went against their party’s stance and voted to Leave. It looks as though this group may well account for a significant proportion of the SNP losses.

Amongst those who say they voted for the SNP in 2015, 26% say that they think that Britain has made the right decision in voting to leave. In contrast amongst those who say they are going to vote for the party now only 14% are of that view. In short, those who propose to vote for the SNP at this election appear to be more anti-Brexit than those who did so two years ago, implying that nationalist pro-Brexiters are more likely to have defected from the party. The outcome of the EU referendum may have had little impact on the level of support for independence, but the ballot may well have cost the SNP the support of some of its more Eurosceptic voters – in some cases, perhaps, to the Conservatives who now have the support of 51% of Leave voters (and just 15% of those who backed Remain).

But some of the SNP’s difficulties may also lie closer to home. Two years ago, the First Minister was almost universally popular. No less than 75% of all voters – and an astonishing 98% of 2014 Yes voters – reckoned that she was doing her job well. Now the equivalent figures, 46% and 76% respectively, are rather more prosaic. A degree of disappointment with the SNP’s record in office may also have contributed to the loss of some of its former support.

Any decline in SNP support also opens up the prospect that tactical voting by unionist voters – that is, voters voting for whichever unionist party seems best able to defeat the SNP locally – might have more impact than it could last time around. In 2015, the SNP won no less than 35 seats with more than 50% of the vote, thereby making it impossible for any anti-nationalist tactical voting to make any difference in many of the 56 they won. But that number would fall to just eight if support for the SNP were to fall by seven points everywhere.

YouGov asked people whether they have already decided to vote tactically. As many as 15% said they were not voting for their first choice party but rather were voting for a party that had the best chance of beating a party they like even less. The figure is, in fact, only slightly higher than the 12% who said they were voting tactically a week before polling day in 2015. So at first glance, it is not clear that substantially more voters are inclined to vote tactically.

However, in the most recent poll, far more people (17%) said they were ‘not sure’ whether they were voting tactically or not than did so a week before polling day in 2015 (4%). One potential explanation for this increase is that as many as 26% of YouGov’s most recent sample either say they do not know how they will vote or that they will not vote, compared with just 11% in April 2015. Such voters would seem quite likely to say that they are not sure whether their vote choice is a tactical one or not (the increase in their numbers may, by the way, reflect the greater efforts that YouGov have been making since the last general election to include in their samples people who are less interested in politics), and if they are left to one side, the proportion who say they are voting tactically has risen from 13% in 2015 to 20% now.

There is, though, another difference between the April 2015 poll and the most recent set of figures from YouGov that we have to take on board before coming to the conclusion that the SNP is at greater risk of losing seats from tactical voting this time around. Two years ago, no less than 69% of those who said they were inclined to vote tactically indicated that they were doing so in order to defeat the SNP. This time around, only 46% are stating that this is their purpose, while as many as 39% say they want to stop the Conservatives winning locally.

So we may see more anti-Conservative tactical voting at this election rather than just attempts to deny the SNP success. Ms Davidson’s stout defence of the Union may have won her many new friends, but it has seemingly also stimulated others into trying to stop the advance of a party that, according to YouGov, no less than 46% still say they dislike the most.

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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.