A Broken Link? Support for Independence and the SNP

One of the key developments in Scottish electoral politics over the last decade has been a strengthening of the relationship between constitutional preference and party choice. Those who support independence have come overwhelmingly to support the SNP, while those who are opposed have become disinclined to do so. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 84% of current supporters of independence voted for the SNP in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, while only 11% of those who wanted to remain part of the UK did so. In contrast, back in 2011 when the SNP won an overall majority at Holyrood, the equivalent figures were 79% and 38% respectively.

It is therefore of some note that four polls conducted since Humza Yousaf emerged as the new leader of the SNP just over a fortnight ago have all detected a widening of the gap between the level of support for the SNP and that for independence. On average, these four polls put support for the SNP in the next Westminster election at 39%, three points down on the position in mid-February when Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to resign. In contrast, these same polls on average put support for independence at 48%, undiminished from when the same companies polled previously.

This widening of the gap between the level of support for the SNP and that for independence suggests that the alignment between the two has weakened. Indeed, according to the two recent polls that have tabulated current party support by how people say they would vote now in an independence referendum, on average just 70% of those who would vote Yes say they would vote for the SNP in a general election. And according to the one company, Savanta, that have also made this tabulation available for their previous polls, support for the SNP among Yes supporters has dropped by six points since February and by as much as nine points since last December – while (the admittedly already low level of) support for the party among No supporters has held up.

In three of the recent polls, we can alternatively examine instead the link between party preference and how people voted in 2014 – though how people voted nearly a decade ago is gradually becoming a less adequate measure of voters’ stance on the constitutional question. On average, these three readings suggest that just 68% of those who voted Yes in 2014 would now vote SNP in a Westminster election, down six points on the position shortly after Ms Sturgeon resigned. The equivalent figure among those who voted No is three points (up to 12%). So, this analysis too suggests the SNP has lost ground among Yes supporters, albeit not necessarily exclusively so.

Meanwhile, as we might anticipate from its previous position as the one unionist party that has shown some ability to gather support across the constitutional divide, it is Labour who primarily have profited from the fall in SNP support among Yes supporters. On average 18% of current Yes supporters now say they would vote Labour (just 4% back the Conservatives and a similar proportion the Liberal Democrats). According to Savanta, Labour’s tally among Yes supporters is up five points since mid-February (and seven points since December). At the same time the company’s polling suggests that Labour has not registered any increase in support at all in recent weeks among No supporters.

Analysing the data by how people voted in 2014 indicates that Labour are at 19% among those who voted Yes, up four points on mid-February, though this has been accompanied by a two point rise among those who backed No. Either way, during the SNP leadership contest Labour advanced at least as strongly, if not more so, among independence supporters than it did among those who would prefer to remain in the UK. This, as we have shown previously, stands in sharp contrast to the pattern of the party’s progress prior to Ms. Sturgeon’s decision to leave the front of the political stage.

Even before the developments of the last few weeks, buoyed by the rising tide it shared with the party south of the border, Labour in Scotland had already emerged as a potential challenger to the SNP’s dominance of Scottish representation at Westminster. Even so, at 29%, the party still trailed the SNP by as much as 14 points, sufficient perhaps to gain around half a dozen of the seats currently held by the nationalists but perhaps no more. Now, in contrast, the SNP lead across Scotland is down on average to just seven points, thereby opening up the prospect of as many as 15 Labour gains. Such an outcome could make a significant difference to Labour’s ability to secure an overall Commons majority, and perhaps especially so now that the party’s UK-wide lead over the Conservatives is showing signs of narrowing.

Of course, it is remarkable in itself that the SNP should have suffered a decline in support in the wake of electing a new leader. Usually, a party enjoys something of a polling bounce following a change of face at the top. However, polls conducted during the party’s leadership campaign suggested that, despite being by far the most popular candidate among his parliamentary colleagues, Mr Yousaf was not especially popular among SNP voters, let alone the wider electorate (a finding that was mirrored in the narrow outcome of the leadership contest).

That message has been reinforced in the polls conducted since Mr Yousaf emerged as leader. According to Savanta, only 38% of Yes supporters believe that Mr Yousaf has a successful track record as a Scottish Government minister, while Redfield & Wilton report that only 38% approve of his performance to date as First Minister. Similarly, Panelbase find that only 35% of those who voted for the SNP in 2019 are confident that the new First Minister will be able to improve the performance of the Scottish Government.

Whether perceptions such as these – and the fact that less than half (45%) of those who want independence feel favourably towards Mr Yousaf – account for the widening of the gap between support for the SNP and that for independence is impossible to tell from polling tables. However, what the widening gap does suggest is that belief in independence is currently not translating into support for the SNP to the same extent as in the recent past. And given that the party is now having to deal with the adverse publicity arising from the arrest of its former CEO, Peter Murrell, over allegations of financial mismanagement, such a development could not have come at a worse time for Mr Yousaf and his party.

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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.