Ipsos MORI have ensured that the new Scottish political season kicks off with a bang rather than a whimper, with the publication today of a poll for STV that says that 53% would now vote Yes in an independence referendum, while only 44% would vote No. Once the small proportion who said, ‘Don’t Know’, are removed, that equates to 55% Yes, 45% No, or a complete reversal of the result last September. The finding is bound to fuel speculation that the SNP will want to keep the door open to the possibility of holding a second independence referendum should they win another overall majority in May – a prospect that today’s poll does nothing to dispel.
One of the first laws of the media reporting of polls is that exceptional results make better headlines. And today’s poll is certainly exceptional. It goes against the grain of most other post-referendum polling on the independence question. It is the first time since March that any poll has suggested more would now vote Yes rather than No. Since then a series of no less than ten polls have all put No (at least narrowly) ahead, including three that were conducted after the SNP secured its landslide success on May 7th.
Of course, it may be the case that some voters spent the summer holidays contemplating Scotland’s condition and came to the conclusion that perhaps the country would be better off becoming independent after all. But equally the wise punter will be aware that rather than being an indication of a trend, an exceptional poll may simply be a victim of the random error to which all polls are subject, however well they are conducted.
There are certainly two particular reasons why we might be cautious about today’s finding. First of all, this is the first time that Ipsos MORI have ventured into asking people how they would vote in a second referendum. There is thus no previous form for that company against which directly to compare today’s result. Second, unlike most other companies it appears that Ipsos MORI have not asked their respondents how they voted in last September’s referendum. We thus cannot be sure that their sample is representative of what happened on that occasion, and thus exactly how big a change of heart since last September it has uncovered.
That said, there is nothing exceptional about the poll’s estimates of where the parties stand in the race for next May’s Holyrood election. The SNP are put on 55% on the constituency vote and 50% on the list vote, up just two points in both cases on Ipsos MORI’s previous reading in January. The figures are not dissimilar to the most recent readings of SNP vote intentions from Survation and Panelbase, and rather lower than those provided by TNS BMRB. At the same time, the poll also appears to confirm the impression created by all of these other polls that Labour’s predicament is even worse now than it was when Jim Murphy took over the leadership last December. Just 20% say that they will vote for the party on either the constituency or the list ballot.
Of course, the new leader, Kezia Dugdale, has as yet barely had time to get her feet under her desk, so any reading as to her popularity at this point is very much a first impression. At the moment it seems that Scotland is suspending its judgement. The proportion saying they are dissatisfied with her leadership (31%) is balanced by almost exactly the same proportion who say they are satisfied (32%) – not dissimilar to the position in which Jim Murphy found himself in the early weeks of his leadership. Ms Dugdale has to hope that her subsequent trajectory proves to be upwards rather than the downwards one experienced by Jim Murphy.
In the meantime, Ms. Dugdale, like everyone else, will have to await the outcome of the UK Labour leadership contest. Today’s poll suggests that a victory for Mr Corbyn might help her reach out to some existing SNP voters, but at the same time put at risk some of the support she still has. As many as 27% of current SNP supporters say that they would be more likely to vote Labour next May if Mr Corbyn becomes leader, almost matching the 28% who say they would be less likely to do so (a group that doubtless contains many who in any event would never do anything but vote SNP). Yet, at the same time, as many as 30% of current Labour supporters say they would be less likely to vote for the party if Mr Corbyn wins. It certainly seems unlikely that Mr Corbyn’s election would prove to be a magic bullet.
Meanwhile, Ms. Sturgeon (whose own satisfaction rating remains at the record 71% registered before the UK general election) is presented with some food for thought as to whether Scots would welcome a second referendum should the SNP win again in May. In truth, the public are as divided on this question in much the same way as they are about the merits of independence in the first place. Overall, slightly more (50%) think that one should be held within the next five years than think one should not (46%). This is because almost everyone who says they would vote Yes in the referendum (87%) would like another referendum to be held, while almost everyone opposed to independence takes the opposite view (90%). What, however, Ms Sturgeon will be bearing in mind is that given that 87% of those currently backing the SNP would vote Yes, that means that no less than 81% of SNP supporters would like another referendum soon. The First Minister will want to avoid to be seen to be letting them down.