Three Lessons from the First Campaign Polls

The election campaign has been put on hold for a few days as a mark of respect for the Duke of Edinburgh, whose death was announced on Friday. On Monday politicians of all parties will come together at Holyrood (and at Westminster) to express their condolences. But where will the parties and leaders find themselves once they return to the campaign trail?

The first fortnight of the campaign witnessed the publication of five polls. Not only were these the first polls of the campaign, but they were also the first to be conducted since the publication of two reports on the Scottish Government’s handling of the harassment allegations against Mr Salmond, one from the independent adviser on the ministerial code and the other by the Scottish Parliament committee charged with investigating the affair. The first of these exonerated Ms Sturgeon while the other – on a split decision – was more critical of her conduct. At the same time, these polls were the first to be conducted since Mr Salmond himself announced he was standing in the election as leader of the Alba Party.

There are three key questions to be asked of these five polls. First, what, if any, appears to have been the political fallout from the Salmond inquiries? Second, what has been the impact of the Alba Party? And, third, where do the answers to these two questions leave the unionist parties?

Media coverage of the row between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon reached its height in the run-up to their respective appearances before the Scottish Parliament committee on 24 February and 3 March. Thus, if that coverage had an impact on the SNP’s fortunes we would expect the party’s support to be lower (or higher) now than it was in December and January. Yet at 51% the average level of support for the party on the constituency vote is exactly the same as it was in polls conducted in December and January. Meanwhile, at 51%, the average level of support for independence (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) is just a point down on where it was in the depth of the winter.

The same comparison also uncovers no more than mixed evidence as to the impact of the row on Ms Sturgeon’s personal popularity. On the one hand, according to Savanta ComRes, 52% of all voters now have a favourable view of the First Minister and 32% an unfavourable one, whereas in the same company’s two polls in December and January the equivalent figures were 55% and 29% respectively. On the other hand, Panelbase’s most recent poll found that 54% believe that Ms Sturgeon is doing a good job and 33% a bad one, whereas in December 2019 the figures were 46% and 39% respectively.  Meanwhile, among those who voted for the SNP in 2019, 81% currently say they have a favourable view of the First Minister, while 86% say that she is doing a good job.

In truth it looks as though that not only were the opposition’s hopes of bringing the First Minister down over the Salmond affair not realised, but also that the row has done little if any damage to the popularity of the nationalist movement in general or that of its principal spokesperson in particular. It is perhaps not surprising that an issue that some thought might dominate the election campaign now seems to have fallen off the political agenda entirely.

Except, of course, but for Mr Salmond’s decision to stand in the regional list part of the election as leader of the Alba Party. Citing the fact that the SNP was not allocated any list seats in six of the Scottish Parliament’s eight electoral regions at the last election (on account of its success in winning constituency seats), he is urging nationalist supporters to back his party on the list rather than the SNP on the grounds that such votes are more likely to result in the election of a pro-independence MSP and thereby help create a ‘super-majority’ for independence in the new parliament.

Alas for Mr Salmond the early polls have not been encouraging. A party list has to win close to 6% of the vote in a region in order to win a seat. While one poll, from Panelbase, did put the Alba Party at that level across Scotland as a whole, three others estimated its support at just 3%, while one (from Opinium) said it was just 2%. Of course, even at that lower level, a party might still do well enough to secure election in an individual region or two, and on average the polls suggest that Alba may well be performing better in the North East (with 5% of the vote) where Mr Salmond himself is standing. But at the moment, even if he does manage to secure election to Holyrood, the former First Minister is at risk of finding himself a lone figure in the new chamber.

Alba faces two problems. First, relatively few nationalist supporters appear to believe that Mr Salmond’s intervention is helpful to the pursuit of independence. According to Survation, just 19% of those who currently support independence believe that Mr Salmond is helping the cause of independence, while as many as 64% believe he is a hindrance. Second, Mr Salmond himself is deeply unpopular. According to both Survation and Opinium just 18% of those who would currently vote Yes in another referendum say they think favourably of Mr Salmond, while Savanta ComRes put the figure at just 15%. Between them these three polls put the proportion of independence supporters who think unfavourably of Ms Sturgeon’s predecessor at between 63% and 75%.

Still, even if the Alba Party may not be doing well enough to pick up many seats themselves, any votes that they take off the SNP on the list ballot might yet still cost the SNP one or two list seats that it could need for an overall majority at Holyrood. And the SNP will note with some concern that at 40%, its share of list vote intentions in the five campaign polls to date is as much as eleven points down on its tally in the constituencies. Moreover, whereas its share of the constituency vote is two points up on the figure when those same five polling companies polled previously, its share of the list vote is down by two points, thereby resulting in an enlarging of the gap between its constituency and list vote tallies.

Only some of this damage, however, is being inflicted by the Alba Party. Four of the five campaign polls to date suggest that only 3-4% of those who propose to vote for the SNP on the constituency ballot say they will back Alba on the list, though Panelbase put the figure at 12%.  In contrast, the polls suggest that around one in eight (13%) of those backing the SNP on the constituency ballot are minded to vote for the Greens on the list. Moreover, that figure is up by three points on the position when the same five companies previously polled. It may be that although Mr Salmond may not be having much success in persuading SNP voters to cast a tactical vote for his own party, by raising the issue of ‘wasted’ SNP list votes he may be encouraging some nationalist supporters to contemplate giving the Greens their list vote.

So where does all this leave the unionist parties? In truth, much where they already were. At 21% on both ballots, the Conservative tally is a little above where it was in December and January (20% in the constituencies, 19% on the list) but it is down a little on the party’s standing when the five companies that have polled during the campaign last polled in February/March (23% and 22% respectively).  Their leader, Douglas Ross, has become a little better known, but polling consistently suggests that more voters regard him unfavourably than favourably (see here, here, and here).

Meanwhile, despite much speculation about the possibility that Labour could challenge the Conservatives for second place there is little sign so far of consistent progress by the party in the polls. The party stands on average at 19% on the constituency vote and 18% of the list – little different from the position in December and January (19% on both ballots). The party’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, is certainly making more of an impression than his predecessor, Richard Leonard – according to Savanta ComRes the proportion who do not know what they think of him has halved from 32% in February to 16% now – and between them the polls suggest that at least as many voters think favourably of him as unfavourably (see also here and here), but there is little sign as yet of this relative personal popularity translating into increased support for Mr Sarwar’s party.

Much of the opposition attack in the campaign, at least so far as the Conservatives are concerned, still appears to be focused on opposition to the idea of holding a referendum any time soon. But, in truth, given the stability of SNP support, it appears that this is not proving an effective line of attack. This is not surprising. On average, no less than 89% of those who currently support independence say they intend to vote for the SNP on the constituency ballot – and just 8% of those who would vote No. Nearly all of these Yes voters want a referendum – all recent polling on the subject suggests that over 90% of those who back independence believe that an independence referendum should be held at some point within the next five years. Campaigning on the issue of holding a referendum may be a good way of mobilising the unionist base (nearly 90% of No voters oppose a referendum in the next five years), but it looks unlikely to be effective at prising independence supporters away from the SNP. To achieve that the unionist parties need to reduce the level of support for independence by persuading more voters of the substantive case for the Union – a subject on which so far the campaign has largely been silent.


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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.