An Uncertain Contest: Polling on the SNP Leadership Election

SNP members are now voting for the next leader of the SNP. Following a tough interrogation by Sky News’ Political Editor, Beth Rigby last night, tonight the contenders will debate each other in front of a live audience on BBC1 Scotland.

The polls suggest there is everything to play for, at least so far as Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are concerned. If they are at all correct, Kate Forbes is clearly the most popular of the candidates among the general public, albeit many would prefer not to have a SNP First Minister at all. However, among SNP supporters, she and Humza Yousaf are seemingly neck and neck. None of this, however, tells us anything directly about their standing among SNP members, of whom there has only been one limited poll.

Four polls of the general public conducted during then last ten days have asked voters directly which candidate they would prefer as the next SNP leader and/or First Minister. On average, these have put Kate Forbes on 30%, Humza Yousaf on 20%, and Ash Regan at 10%. That, of course, means that on average as many as 40% did not express any preference.

Over the same period, five polls have asked a variety of questions (see here, here and here) that have invited respondents to evaluate each candidate individually by asking whether they would make a good or bad FM/leader (on a four or five-point scale), whether the respondent regards them favourably, or whether they support or oppose the person becoming First Minister.  Across all five Kate Forbes emerges on average with slightly more people evaluating her positively than negatively, with a net positive score of +3. The equivalent figure for Humza Yousaf is -22. Ash Regan emerges with a net score of -13, though, as the least well known of the candidates, in her case voters were more inclined not to express a view either way.

However, the picture among SNP supporters is very different. Across the four polls that asked respondents who they would prefer as SNP leader, among those who voted SNP in 2021 Humza Yousaf on 29% is neck and neck with Kate Forbes, also on 29%,  while Ash Regain trails on 13%. Note, though, that even among this group nearly three in ten did not express a preference.

Meanwhile, when asked to evaluate the candidates individually in the various ways detailed above, across the four polls for which the cross-break is available, Humza Yousaf on +16 emerges among those who voted for the SNP at the 2019 election with a somewhat better net score than Kate Forbes on +11, while Ash Regan stands at +6.

Most likely, the views of SNP voters provide a better guide to the views of SNP members than do the opinions of the general public. Evidently much of Kate Forbes’ popularity lies among those who have not recently voted for the SNP. But, of course, it might be the case that the views of SNP members are even further apart from those of the general public than those expressed by SNP voters.

That might be the implication of the one poll of SNP members that has been conducted so far, which put Humza Yousaf clearly ahead with 31% support, while Kate Forbes was on 25% and Ash Regan on 11%. However, the poll, conducted by Savanta, was relatively small (just over 500 people), is now a fortnight old, and also fiound that nearly one in three (32%) did not at that point have a preference at all. The poll is potentially an important straw in the wind, but maybe no more than that.

Meanwhile, it has to be remembered that the election is being conducted using a preferential voting system. On the evidence we have so far, it looks possible that no candidate will win more than half the first preference vote, while it seems highly likely that Ms Regan will come third. In that event, the outcome could be determined by the second preferences expressed by her supporters. Only one poll, by Survation, has asked voters their second preference. Among those of Ms Regan’s supporters who said they would currently vote SNP at a Westminster election, Ms Forbes led Mr Yousaf by 43% to 30% on second preferences, though this was inevitably based on a relatively small sample size of 50 people. However, perhaps it is an indication that Ms Forbes might need to run Mr Yousaf quite close on first preferences for Ms Regan’s second preferences to be enough to carry her over the line.

Ms Forbes’ campaign did, of course, have a bumpy start after she revealed that she would not have voted for the gay marriage legislation that was passed in 2014. Mr Yousaf has been keen to draw the contrast between his ‘progressive’ values, which be believes most Scots share, and the more socially conservative outlook of his principal opponent – though on gender recognition at least, it is his views that are out of line with majority opinion (and even SNP voters are divided on the issue). However, it is clear that Mr Yousaf, who, even among SNP supporters, began the campaign with no more than a modest public profile, has had more success than Ms Forbes in enhancing his reputation among SNP supporters.

In the last ten days both Ipsos and YouGov have repeated their questions about how good or bad a job Mr Yousaf and Ms Forbes would do as First Minister that they initially asked shortly after Nicola Sturgeon announced she was standing down. In Ipsos’ initial poll, Ms Forbes had a net score of +31 among those who voted for the SNP in 2019, but in their more recent poll the figure stood at a more modest +12. In contrast, Mr Yousaf’s score improved over the same period from +6 to +24. Meanwhile, in the case of YouGov, what was initially a net score of +23 for Ms Forbes among SNP voters is now one of -4. In contrast, Mr Yousaf has seen what was previously a score of -4 rise to one of +10.

That said, Mr Yousaf may still need to persuade some SNP and pro-independence supporters that he has the qualities needed to do the job. According to YouGov, 47% of those who voted SNP in 2019 believe that Ms Forbes is competent, while only 19% feel she is incompetent. In the case of Mr Yousaf, only 41% believe he is competent, while 26% say he is incompetent. Ms Forbes also has the better numbers on being a strong leader and on being trustworthy. Meanwhile, Opinion Matters have reported that slightly more current Yes supporters (32%) believe that Ms Forbes has made the most convincing case for independence during the campaign than feel that Mr Yousaf has (28%).

Against this backdrop, perhaps it is not surprising that the campaign has left nationalist supporters looking rather uncertain and divided about the choice SNP members now have to make.

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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.