How Much of a Challenge Do Labour Pose to the SNP?

Nicola Sturgeon speaks to her party’s annual conference in Aberdeen today facing a rather different political landscape than the one in place a few weeks ago. Four polls conducted in the run up to the conference indicate that the sharp swing from Conservative to Labour recorded in the British polls following the ‘fiscal event’ of a fortnight ago has also occurred north of the border, albeit not on the same scale. This inevitably has raised speculation about whether a Labour revival might pose a challenge to the SNP’s electoral dominance of Scotland and thus, perhaps, threaten its plans to try and hold a referendum on independence. Now that Labour looks as though it might be able to sweep the Conservatives from power at Westminster, might voters north of the border find joining Sir Keir Starmer’s bandwagon more attractive than backing the uncertain path to independence?

There is certainly no immediate sign of that having happened. At 45% the SNP’s average tally in the latest polls of Westminster voting intention is unchanged from the equivalent average for the previous readings of each of the four polls (taken at different points between March and August this year). Rather than being accompanied by any decline in nationalist support, Labour’s increased tally (a rise of seven points) has been accompanied by a marked decline in Conservative support (a fall of five points). Meanwhile, in the three polls that also asked people how they would vote on the constituency ballot of a Scottish Parliament election, at 47% the SNP’s average share of the vote is slightly higher than that recorded by the same polls last time. At the same time, the two polls that asked people how they would vote in response to the question that appeared on the 2014 referendum ballot paper both put support on 49%, well in line with what most polls have been recording over the last eighteen months.

In short, what we have witnessed so far at least is primarily a realignment of the unionist vote. On average in the latest polls, nearly one in five (19%) of those who voted Conservative in 2019 say they would now back Labour, nearly double the equivalent figure (10%) when these polls were last conducted. In contrast, the proportion of 2019 SNP voters that have switched to Labour is, at 8%, only marginally up on the 6% recorded previously. Labour’s support among those who voted Yes in 2014 is, at 16%, up four points, whereas the party’s tally among 2014 No supporters has increased by eight points to 44%.

Of course, irrespective of where Labour is gaining support, a rise in the party’s tally could still enable it to gain seats from an SNP whose support is simply holding steady. Indeed, whereas the SNP’s 45% share in the latest polls is the same as its score in 2019, Labour’s 30% share represents as much as a twelve-point increase in the party’s support since the last Westminster ballot. However, there are relatively few seats that are marginal between the SNP and Labour. As a result, a uniform 6% swing across Scotland as a whole (the figure implied by the current polls) would only deliver the party half a dozen seats. At its current level of support, Labour would probably have to rely on anti-SNP tactical voting by Conservative supporters to push its gains much above that. However, with Conservative support currently standing at just 14%, eleven points down on 2019, there would not be much of a Tory vote left to squeeze. Meanwhile, it is the SNP who would be expected to gain the six seats the Conservatives would be trying to defend, leaving the nationalists’ representation at Westminster undiminished – and the Conservatives facing the prospect of a repeat of the wipeout the party suffered in 1997.

Still, it might be argued that voters in Scotland have yet to take on board the fact that Labour now stands on average at 50% in the Britain-wide polls, while, at 24%, the Conservatives are currently on course for a heavy defeat at the next Westminster election. Perhaps some SNP supporters will switch when they appreciate how the political landscape has changed. And certainly, the SNP will be aware that, of the three principal unionist parties, it is Labour who are by far the most effective at winning the support of those who back independence. While, as we have already seen, as many as 16% of those who voted Yes in 2014 currently back Labour, the equivalent figure for the Conservatives (4%) (and indeed, the Liberal Democrats (2%)) is much lower. Perhaps Labour might be able to increase its support further among those whose commitment to independence is relatively weak?

However, the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future is no longer simply about its relationship with the rest of the UK. It is also about whether Scotland should be inside or outside the EU. The SNP suggest that independence would pave the way to rejoining, whereas Labour do not wish to reopen the Brexit decision. Meanwhile, most Yes supporters – nearly four in five (78%) according to the latest polls – voted Remain in 2016. So, to win these independence supporters over, Labour would have to persuade them to set aside their wish to be inside the EU as well as their support, so far at least, for independence. And it is notable that, at present, Labour in Scotland is not much more popular among 2016 Remain supporters (30%) than it is among Leave voters (28%) –  in marked contrast to the position south of the border.

Still, we might remember that, should the Supreme Court rule in the case to be heard this week that the Scottish Parliament cannot hold an independence referendum on its own authority, Nicola Sturgeon has set herself a high bar in her ‘plan B’ – to contest the next UK general election as a de facto referendum in which she would regard winning 50% of the vote as a mandate for independence. At the moment, hitting that target looks like a tall order – after all even in the 2015 general election when the SNP swept almost everything before it, it did not quite win half the vote. As we have already noted, the latest polls of Westminster vote intention put the party on just 45%. However, we should note that only one of the four polls included the Greens (whose vote would contribute to the 50% tally) as a possible answer. (The one poll that did, YouGov’s, estimated Green support at 3%, a tally that would close much though not all of the gap.)

Part of the reason why winning 50% looks like a high bar is that while most people vote in line with their constitutional preference these days (meaning that elections in Scotland are already close to being de facto referendums), No supporters are a little more likely than Yes voters to do so. At present, three-quarters (75%) of 2014 Yes supporters say they would back the SNP at the next UK election, whereas four-fifths (80%) of No voters support one of the three main unionist parties. Certainly, if Nicola Sturgeon’s plan is to succeed, she could not afford even a minimal increase in support for Labour among those who back independence.

Even then, her position would still look very fragile. For all the SNP’s dominance of Scotland’s representation at Westminster and the substantial pro-independence majority at Holyrood, support for independence is still no higher than 49%. That is not enough to win a majority of the votes in either a referendum or an election. To have any chance of delivering independence, Ms Sturgeon needs to see that figure rise significantly. As to whether or not that does happen, much will depend on how voters react to the white paper on the implications of independence on Scotland’s economy (a key issue in 2014) that has been promised for later this week.

It is perhaps an appreciation that the argument for independence has yet to be won among Scotland’s voters that helps explain why there is a degree of reticence among Yes supporters about Nicola Sturgeon’s plans. According to Savanta ComRes 23% of current Yes supporters do not support fighting the next UK election on the sole issue of independence (64% are in favour). Meanwhile, YouGov find that three in ten (31%) of 2014 Yes supporters would oppose a declaration of independence in the wake of the SNP winning 50% of the vote (58% are in favour). Indeed, the same poll finds that the same proportion (31%) currently do not think there should be a referendum next year (58% back the idea).

But perhaps none of this identifies the key reason why Labour’s latest advance in the polls could prove a setback for the SNP and the independence movement. Hitherto, the Britain-wide polls have suggested that while after the next election Labour might well find itself the largest party in a hung parliament, it looked unlikely that it would be able to win an overall majority. The party might find itself dependent on the support of the SNP to sustain a minority administration. While Sir Keir Starmer has been adamant that Labour would not agree to a referendum in return for SNP support for a minority Labour administration, becoming the ‘hinge party’ in a hung parliament has hitherto looked the SNP’s best, though far from certain, path to securing an eventual referendum. It is not the risk that Labour’s revival might cost it Scottish votes that will most concern the SNP, but, rather, that Labour might now be in a position be able to ignore its protestations at Westminster.

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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.