The Labour Surge Washes Over Hadrian’s Wall

North of the border the election was meant to be a battle between a nationalist movement that was on the defensive and a Conservative party that was seeking to cement its newly acquired position as the principal voice of unionism in Scotland. Labour, meanwhile, was to be consigned to the margins of Scottish politics.

However, it appears the Labour Party failed to read the script. The revival in Labour support that has been in evidence south of the border in the last few weeks has apparently washed over Hadrian’s Wall. As a result, the Conservatives find that they are not guaranteed to secure second place (at least in terms of votes) after all, while the SNP’s efforts to move their vote back to the 50% mark they achieved in 2015 have seemingly come to naught.

Three out of four polls conducted during the last two weeks – from Ipsos MORI, Survation and YouGov – have suggested the Conservatives and Labour are now in a close race for second place. Ipsos MORI put the two parties equal on 25% each, while YouGov reckoned the Conservatives were just two points ahead.

Only Panelbase suggested that there was still some difference between the two largest unionist parties. They put the Conservatives on 30% and Labour on 20%. But even their figures represented a seven-point increase in support for Labour as compared with a poll the company conducted shortly after the election was announced. That trend was exactly in line with one identified by both Survation and YouGov, both of which also reckoned that Labour support was up by seven points as compared with the position at the beginning of the campaign.

The increase in Labour support in Scotland shares some of the characteristics of the trend that has been in evidence south of the border. Above all, it has occurred amongst younger people. YouGov put support for Labour amongst those aged 18 to 24 up 18 points on the position at the beginning of the campaign, while Survation estimate the party is now up 13 points amongst 18 to 34 year olds, and Panelbase reckon it is up by 11 points amongst this age group.

Conversely, support for the SNP amongst voters as a whole has done no more than hold steady at around the low 40% mark at which it began. YouGov’s latest poll puts the party at 41%, the same as at the beginning of the campaign, while Panelbase puts its vote down a couple of points to 42% and Survation down three points to 43%. Meanwhile no other poll published in the last couple of weeks has put the party above 43%.

However, the party has especially struggled to retain the support of younger voters. YouGov reckon SNP support has dropped by ten points amongst 18 to 24 year olds, while both Survation and Panelbase estimate it has dropped by 16 points amongst 18 to 34 year olds. Labour are, it seems, challenging the near monopoly of enthusiasm and support that the SNP has hitherto enjoyed amongst younger people.

That said, across the electorate as a whole, Labour’s progress has not been more marked amongst supporters of independence than amongst opponents. On average Panelbase, Survation and YouGov suggest that Labour support has increased by 6 points amongst those who voted Yes in 2014, and by 8 points amongst those who voted No. Equally, it looks as though the increase in Labour support has been much the same amongst those who voted to Remain in the EU as it has been amongst those who voted to Leave. In short, it appears that the rise in Labour support has relatively little to do with the debate about independence or that about Brexit, but rather reflects a change of heart amongst some voters towards the party as an institution. YouGov provide one clue as to why that has happened – a near 30-point increase across the course of the campaign in the proportion who think that Jeremy Corbyn is performing well as the UK leader of the Labour party.

Still, but for all the marked increase in Labour support, the four polls that have been conducted over the last two weeks on average only put Labour on 24%, no more than the party secured in what was regarded as a disastrous performance in 2015 – and still well below the 37% support registered by the same four companies in their most recent Britain-wide polls. It is a measure of how low the party had sunk that such a position can now be regarded as evidence of a recovery.

In the end, however, the polls suggest the main headline from Thursday night’s declarations north of the border may be losses suffered by the SNP, whose average poll rating of 42% is eight points down on what the party achieved in 2015. This, however, is not a reflection of any marked drop in support for independence – the last four polls have on average put support for Yes at 45% (after Don’t Knows are removed), exactly the same as in the September 2014 referendum. However, the SNP are finding it more difficult than they did two years ago to persuade those who voted Yes to back the party once again – all of the polls find that only just over three-quarters or so of Yes supporters say that they will do so.

At the same time, the party seems to have made little progress in persuading voters of the merits of an early independence referendum; according to Panelbase just over half (52%) say that there should not be a referendum in the next two years, exactly the same proportion as were of that view a month ago. But doubtless that is a debate that will continue long after the votes on Thursday have been counted and put away for safe keeping.

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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.