The Daily Record chose to headline its new Scottish poll from Survation this morning – the first of 2016, and the first of what we are told will be a regular series between now and May – as indicating that the SNP were heading for an even larger majority at Holyrood than the nationalists won last May. In so doing it arguably missed the poll’s most interesting finding.
In truth, there was nothing new in what the poll had to say about the standing of the nationalists. At 52% the SNP share of the vote on the constituency ballot was actually a point down on Survation’s previous Scottish poll – for the Daily Mail last September – let alone the 56% Survation recorded in July. Meanwhile the 42% with which the SNP are credited on the list vote is simply in line with Survation’s last reading.
What did represent something of a change was the 16% tally in the poll for the Conservatives. This is a two point increase since September on the constituency vote and three points on the list. Now, that certainly is not a big enough change for us to be able to dismiss the possibility that it might simply have occurred as a result of the chance variation to which all polls are subject. But, given the further evidence during the autumn from both Ipsos MORI and YouGov (if not TNS BMRB) that Tory support seemed to have increased somewhat, it is certainly worth noting that today’s figures represent the highest ever level of Tory support in any Scottish poll conducted by Survation since the company first started polling regularly in Scotland at the beginning of 2014.
Not that Conservatives should get too excited with loose talk of overtaking Labour. Even with this record share (for a Survation poll), and despite Labour’s continued dismal showing, the party is still four to five points behind Kezia Dugdales’ party. But getting the party’s level of constituency support back up from the 14% it won in 2011 to the 17% that it recorded in both 2003 and 2007 is beginning to look like a realistic target.
As we have written before, the Conservstives’ hopes for May’s election are heavily invested in the performance and popularity of their Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson. Today’s poll contains further evidence on why that is the case. Despite her party’s long-standing unpopularity in Scotland (and Mr Cameron’s continued unpopularity), almost as many as (23%) say they regard Ms Davidson favourably as say they view her unfavourably (29%). But that still leaves her with a net favourability score (-6) that is slightly better than the equivalent statistic for her Labour counterpart, Kezia Dugdale (-9). Moreover, this is despite the fact that considerably more people are unable to express any kind of view about Ms. Dugdale (28%) than are unable to do so about Ms. Davidson (16%).
Perhaps particularly illuminating is the very different standing of the two parties amongst their own supporters. Even amongst those who say they intend to vote Labour in May, just 32% say they have a favourable view of Kezia Dugdale, In contrast the equivalent figure for Ruth Davidson amongst Conservative supporters is 56%. And the standing of UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is not much help here to Labour either – only 36% of Labour supporters say they regard him favourably, only slightly above the 29% who view him unfavourably.
Still, apart from the modicum of seemingly good news for the Conservatives, the needle of Scottish electoral politics remains firmly stuck in the groove on which it landed in the immediate wake of the independence referendum. It remains the case that around nine in ten of those who voted Yes on that occasion remain determined to vote SNP, joined by just a small minority (one in five) of those who voted No. Meanwhile, an astonishing 97% of those who voted for the SNP in last May’s UK general election say they are going to vote SNP once again. Despite the efforts of the nationalists’ political opponents, few SNP supporters see anything more than the slightest of blemishes in the party’s record in government. Even on transport, just 12% of current SNP supporters say they are dissatisfied with the party’s record, despite the much publicised problems with the Forth Road Bridge. The equivalent figure on other issues covered in the poll also ranges from no more than 6% (on law and order) to, again, 12% on health. Such figures suggest that it will not be easy to erode the continuing faith of most SNP supporters in the policies and the performance of their party.
Indeed, it may be the case that today’s poll underestimates the SNP’s strength as May’s election approaches. As reported above, at 42% support for the party on the regional list vote in today’s poll is no less than ten points adrift of its tally on the constituency vote. Indeed, it is actually two points down on the share of the list vote that the SNP scored in 2011 – the party is only projected to win a (one seat) larger Holyrood majority because the projected gain of constituency seats is greater than the implied losses of list seats. However, a key reason why the SNP’s success in winning an overall majority in 2011 came as a surprise was because the polls pointed to a noticeably lower SNP tally on the list vote than on the constituency ballot, when in reality the party’s performance on the list vote was only one point adrift of that on the constituency vote.
The problem that pollsters face is that when voters are asked to give two voting preferences, some may think that the second vote is a second preference. This would appear to be a particular risk with the way in which Survation ascertain people’s list vote, which reads, ‘Your second vote will be a party list vote to elect representatives from your region of Scotland by a form of proportional representation. If the election were tomorrow, which party would you be most likely to vote for with your second, regional list vote?’. Certainly, it is noticeable that more people in today’s poll say that they will vote differently on the list vote than on the constituency vote than have done so in other recent polls. For example, just 75% of those who say they will back the SNP on the constituency vote indicate that they will also vote for the party on the list, while the equivalent figure for Labour was just 72%. In contrast, the equivalent figures in TNS BMRB’s most recent poll were 88% and 81% respectively, in Ipos MORI’s, 84% and 80%, and in YouGov’s, 87% and 92%. If SNP support is indeed more loyal across the two votes than today’s poll implies, the gap between the overall level of SNP support on the two ballots will undoubtedly be less than 10 points.
But if the SNP are heading for another overall majority, and perhaps one even bigger than that implied by today’s poll, the party is still no further forward in its efforts to prepare the ground to hold a second independence referendum. Once Don’t Knows have been left to one side, 51% say they would vote No in an independence referendum held now, while 49% state that they would vote Yes – exactly the same proportions as Survation uncovered last September. While the referendum may have reshaped Scotland’s electoral landscape, it has done little to help resolve its constitutional future.