There have been various bits and pieces of polling published during the first full week of campaigning since Theresa May announced a snap general election to take place on June 8. Most important was a new poll from YouGov for The Times which provided us with another reading of Westminster vote intentions. in Scotland. Most noticed was a poll from Kantar TNS (that is, System Three of old) who reported a somewhat surprising reading of vote intentions for a second independence referendum. Meanwhile The Sunday Times have now released further findings from their recent Panelbase poll, while BMG Research’s latest reading of the level support for independence was also published by The Herald.
To YouGov first. The poll put the SNP on 41%, the Conservatives on 28%, Labour on 18%, and the Liberal Democrats on 7%. This was the first time that YouGov had ascertained Westminster voting intentions in Scotland since the 2015 UK general election, so the poll does not give us any direct further evidence on either the apparent recent further fall in SNP support or the increase in Conservative support reported last week by Panelbase and Survation. Still, we might note that the broad picture painted by YouGov’s figures is not that different from the impression created by last week’s polls. It is noticeable too that SNP support is ten points lower than YouGov’s estimate of Scottish Parliament vote intentions last month. In part that ten-point difference may reflect a reluctance amongst some of the SNP’s Holyrood supporters to back the party in Westminster elections, albeit such reluctance has been less in evidence the 2015 UK general election. However, it is also consistent with Panelbase’s finding that SNP support may have fallen during the last month or so.
In short, YouGov’s poll certainly provides further evidence that the general election in June is going to prove more difficult for the SNP than the last Westminster contest in May 2015. Perhaps one of the reasons is that Nicola Sturgeon’s personal ratings continue to decline, as do the public’s ratings of the Scottish Government’s record including, not least, in respect of health and education. While it is difficult to establish how far these trends account for the somewhat weaker position of the SNP in the polls – and in part at least the most recent decline in Nicola Sturgeon’s rating seems to have been confined to those who voted against independence and thus may have been expressing a partisan judgement – it is almost bound to be more difficult for the party to persuade voters to back it with a leader who is now seemingly less popular land a performance in office that is regarded less highly.
Still, there is one explanation for the somewhat diminished position of the SNP that that can be ruled out – that is, that support for independence has fallen. YouGov found that, at 45%, support for independence (once Don’t Knows are left to one side) is still much the same as it was in the 2014 independence referendum and indeed as it has been in most polls during the last two and a half years. Indeed, according to YouGov support was actually up a couple of points on last month (statistically insignificant though such a movement is). BMG put support for independence as high as 49%, much the same as in February (48%) and January (49%). These two readings certainly stand in sharp contrast to Kantar’s poll published on Tuesday, which reported that support for independence had fallen to just 40%. The figure represented the lowest level of support for independence registered by any poll since the 2014 referendum, and, as is common in the reporting of polls, this exceptional finding received much more publicity than YouGov’s and BMG’s more run of the mill findings. But given that as many as four other polls conducted at much the same time as Kantar’s failed to replicate their finding, it would seem not unreasonable to presume that their unusual result was a consequence of the chance variation to which all polls are subject.
In fact, Kantar themselves chose not to headline this finding in their own press release but rather the now familiar finding that only a minority of voters think that a second independence referendum should be held in line with Nicola Sturgeon’s proposed timetable. According to Kantar, only 26% say that a second referendum should be held in either autumn 2018 or spring 2019. Similarly, YouGov found that only 37% think that a referendum should be held after the Brexit negotiations have been concluded but before the UK actually leaves the EU. Inevitably, responses to questions such as these are heavily coloured by whether people do or do not back independence, but there is still a substantial minority of nationalists who have yet to be convinced of the merits of the First Minister’s proposed timetable.
Central, of course, to the SNP’s argument as to why there should be a second independence referendum when the Brexit negotiations are concluded is their belief that Scotland should be able to remain in the EU single market, a proposition that was finally formally rejected by the UK government on Friday. Yet despite the 62% vote in Scotland in favour of remaining in the EU, according to Panelbase only 39% think that Theresa May should allow this to happen while 47% say that the Brexit settlement should be the same for Scotland as for the rest of the UK. The Prime Minister’s vision of Brexit is not proving to be the recruiting sergeant for a second independence referendum that the SNP seemingly anticipated it would be.
Inevitably in the election campaign there has been some sparring between the Conservatives and the SNP over whether a drop in the nationalists’ share of the vote in the UK general election or in its tally of Westminster seats would represent a rejection of Ms Sturgeon’s plans for a second independence referendum. Such arguments about process do not, however, necessarily resonate with voters in the way that politicians seem to imagine. Panelbase found that as many as 52% say that the SNP would have a mandate for a second independence referendum if the party wins a majority of the seats in Scotland. That, of course, is a target that the SNP could still meet quite easily even if its support is lower on June 8 than it was in 2015. But at the same time, only 50% think they would have such a mandate if they won more than 50% of the vote – which, of course, is a much tougher target for the party to meet. Against this backdrop, it seems unlikely that the outcome of the election will change many minds about the merits or otherwise of an early independence poll.
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.