Runes from the Polls as the SNP Meet Again

The SNP meet (virtually) again this weekend for their second conference in three months. But have the polls changed significantly since the party’s previous conference in September, just before the seventh anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum?

There is little sign of any erosion of the party’s dominance of vote intentions. Three polls of vote intentions for Westminster have put the party on 48%, unchanged from the three polls conducted between June and September, and three points up on the party’s tally in the 2019 UK general election. The party is still well set to retain its grip on Scotland’s representation at Westminster, a prospect that significantly increases the chances that the next UK election could result in a hung parliament.

Meanwhile, the party’s rating (again in three polls) also averages 48% on the constituency ballot for Holyrood, unchanged from the position in polls conducted between June and September and on the party’s tally at the election in May. At 38%, its average standing on the regional ballot is also unchanged from the polls conducted prior to the September conference, though that does represent a two point fall on what it achieved in May. Not least of the reasons for the ten-point difference between the SNP’s constituency and regional support is the 11% currently being garnered on the latter by the Greens. Nearly all of that support comes from people who otherwise back the SNP. Reaching the agreement with the Greens at Holyrood may not have made it any easier in future for the SNP to persuade its potential supporters to vote SNP on both ballots.

The politicians’ next appointment with the electorate, however, is the round of local elections scheduled for next May. One recent poll, from Panelbase, asked to which party voters will give their first preference on the single transferable vote ballot that will be used. Doubtless many voters will not have made their mind up as yet, and certainly the 3% who said they would vote ‘Other’ (including 2% who named Alex Salmond’s Alba Party) is well below the 11% who did so at the last local elections in 2017, mostly for Independent candidates who can be expected to have some impact again. Even so, we should note that while the reported tallies for most parties in the Panelbase poll were not dissimilar to what they were on the first preference vote in 2017, at 45% the SNP tally was 13 points up on the party’s support in 2017. We should bear in mind too that in the UK election that took place just a month after the 2017 local elections, support for the SNP was, at 37%, well below what it is now. As things stand at present, next year’s local elections could well witness significant SNP gains, a prospect that the party might hope would lend some impetus to its independence campaign.

In any event, it is clear that there is still work for the SNP to do before it would have a good chance of winning any second independence ballot. On average four polls of indyref2 vote intentions put (after excluding Don’t Knows) Yes on 48% and No on 52%. That puts Yes slightly adrift of the 49% it registered between June and September, but is in line with the 48% recorded in those polls conducted immediately before last May’s Holyrood election. Meanwhile, the latest reading of the alternative question preferred by the Scotland in Union campaign, which asks people whether they would vote to remain in or leave the UK, put support for remaining (at 59%) up slightly (by two points) on the previous figure in September. The electoral needle on Scotland’s constitutional question appears currently to be stuck at a point where holding indyref2 any time soon would look like a considerable gamble for Nicola Sturgeon.

This message from the polls seems not to be lost on Yes voters. It has been apparent for some time that support for an early ballot has diminished since the election in May (see here and here). This reflects a relatively cautious mood among many a SNP and Yes supporter. According to Panelbase only 37% of those who voted Yes in 2014 think there should be a referendum in the next twelve months, while YouGov report that only 39% of current SNP supporters are in favour. Meanwhile, according to ComRes, only just over half (54%) of those who voted SNP in May want a referendum within the next two years (that is, Ms Sturgeon’s preferred timetable).  True, Survation’s poll for Scotland in Union, which simply asked people whether they were for or against a ballot within two years, found 72% of SNP voters in favour, but this is still far short of the level of opposition to the idea (91%) among those who voted for one of the unionist parties in May.

The decision on when to try and trigger indyref2 will lie, of course, in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. Despite now having been First Minister for seven years, she remains a relatively popular politician – albeit not as popular as during the height of the pandemic. According to ComRes, 49% think favourably or her, while only 36% regard her unfavourably – though a year ago the equivalent figures were 55% and 28% respectively.  Meanwhile, in response to a question that YouGov have asked throughout Ms. Sturgeon’s tenure, 53% say she is doing her job well, while 41% reckon she is performing badly. That represents a substantial fall in her evaluations as compared with previous readings during the pandemic, but is still better than anything recorded by YouGov between 2017 and 2019. The very high support that the First Minister gathered during the pandemic has now seemingly dropped away, but Ms Sturgeon still looks like an asset that the Yes movement cannot afford to lose as it tries to negotiate the rocky path towards a Yes majority in an independence referendum.


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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.