How Much Difficulty Are The SNP In?

So just how much difficulty are the SNP in as they gather in Glasgow for their autumn conference?  Are they, as some reporting seems to suggest, fatally wounded in the wake of the setback that the party suffered in the UK general election in June? Or does the party simply need to bide its time in the expectation that the tide will soon turn once more in its direction?  Further evidence on the answers to these questions has been provided by polling from YouGov published in The Times over the weekend.

The YouGov poll certainly offers further evidence to that recently provided by Panelbase and Survation that the SNP is not as popular as it was in the Holyrood election eighteen months ago. The poll put support for the party on the constituency ballot at 42%, down five points on the 47% it secured in May 2016 and in line with the 41%-42% recorded by the two other polls conducted this autumn. On the regional vote YouGov credited the SNP with just 35%, down as much as seven points on the equivalent figure in the last Holyrood election (though the seven-point difference between the estimated level of SNP support on the two ballots is simply par for the course in YouGov’s polls).

Between them these figures raise questions as to whether there would still be a majority at Holyrood in favour of independence if a Scottish Parliament election were held now. Indeed, much might depend on the performance of the Greens, which were credited by YouGov with just 6% of the vote, but with 9% by Survation. Such an outcome at the next Scottish Parliament election – due in 2021 – would certainly kill the SNP’s hopes for a second independence referendum stone dead, at least for the next five years. Meanwhile, claims over the weekend that the latest polls still leave the party better placed than it was at the same stage in the previous Scottish political cycle are open to question – although one poll conducted in October 2012 put the party’s constituency vote at just 40% another reckoned it stood at 45%.

Even so, with support for the two principal unionist parties, Conservative and Labour, evenly divided at around a quarter of the vote each, there is little sign as yet of any other party being able to present itself as a credible alternative Scottish government. Meanwhile, the decline in SNP support registered in June seems to have been stemmed. YouGov put the party on 40% in Westminster vote intentions, up three points on the election. Survation, too, put the party on 39%, up a couple of points. Such a performance would be enough for the SNP to recapture up to eight of the seats it lost in June – thanks not least to an apparent six-point drop in Conservative support since the UK election. In short, the party’s domination of Scottish representation at Westminster does not seem to be under immediate threat either.

But, of course, the SNP is not just a political party seeking office; it is also a movement that wishes to secure independence for Scotland. This is a project that seems to have stalled. YouGov put support for independence (after Don’t Knows are left to one side) on 44%, very similar to the 43% and 46% registered by Panelbase and Survation respectively, and more or less in line with the outcome of the independence referendum in 2014. The SNP’s sharp loss of support in June should not be mistaken for some precipitate decline in support for independence – some one in four who voted Yes in 2014 simply did not vote for the SNP in June. That said, support does seem to have eased somewhat from the average 47% level of support for independence that was being registered by the polls at the beginning of this year.

Still, small though the decline in support for independence might have been during the course of this year, it is the very opposite of what Nicola Sturgeon anticipated would happen in the wake of the divergence between the outcome of the EU referendum across the UK as a whole and the result in Scotland in particular. The fact that, as a result of the decline, support for independence is still well below 50% has in truth been reason enough for the First Minister to put her plans for a second independence referendum on hold, let alone the fact that, as confirmed by the answers to a number of questions in the latest YouGov poll (see here, here and here), there is little enthusiasm (even amongst Yes voters) for having a second ballot any time soon.

Indeed, it seems as though the First Minister might now be minded to take a different tack in her efforts to limit what she believes will be the damage inflicted on Scotland by a hard Brexit. This is to back the idea, to date only supported by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, to hold a second referendum on leaving the EU once the Brexit negotiations have concluded. Unsurprisingly, this seems to be a rather more popular cause north of the border than holding a second independence referendum; according to YouGov 46% favour holding a second EU ballot (including 61% of Remain voters), while only 33% are opposed. There is also perhaps some (if still slim) chance of securing majority support for such a ballot in the Commons, whereas there seems little prospect of winning Westminster’s approval for a second independence referendum.

However, hitching her wagon to a second EU referendum rather than a second ballot on independence would not be without its political risks for Ms Sturgeon. The problem with her wish to pursue one way or another a strongly pro-EU stance is that the issue divides her party’s supporters. Between a quarter and a third of those who voted SNP in 2015 voted last year to Leave the EU, and much of the party’s loss of electoral support between 2015 and 2017 occurred amongst this group. According to the British Election Study’s large internet panel, support for the SNP fell by as much as 20 points amongst those who voted to Leave, while it dropped by only five points amongst those who voted to Remain.

The prospect of a second independence referendum designed to pave the way to Scotland’s renewed membership of the EU has, it seems, been particularly unattractive amongst SNP supporters who voted Leave. They would hardly seem likely to be persuaded back into the nationalist fold by a SNP promise to back a second EU referendum instead.

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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.