Today’s latest poll, conducted by Ipsos MORI for STV news, addresses three of the key questions about the future of Scottish politics – the race for second place at Holyrood, the debate about whether the Scottish Parliament should be attempting its new income tax powers in the near future, and the impact that a UK vote to leave the EU might have on the prospect for a second independence referendum. It has interesting things to say about all of them.
Recent polls suggesting that the Conservatives might be increasingly breathing down Labour’s neck and thus might claim second place have so far provided the main excitement in advance of May’s Holyrood election. So there will be little doubt that the party will be disappointed that its support has apparently now edged back slightly to 16% on the constituency vote (down two points since November) and 15% on the list (down one). It must have hoped that Ipsos MORI would uncover a continually rising tide of support that would now put the party neck and neck with Labour, just as a YouGov poll did last week. However, we should note that the Tory tally is still 3-4 points up on where the party stood in Ipsos MORI’s previous poll but one in August. So today’s reading does not necessarily mean that the rise in Tory support was a mirage, but rather underlines the fact that the increase has been a modest rather than a dramatic one, and, as most polls have suggested, has so far been insufficient for the party to overtake Labour.
Not that there is much comfort in this poll for the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Most of the interviewing for it was conducted after her announcement that Labour proposed to increase income tax in Scotland by a penny in the pound in order to reduce public expenditure cuts north of the border. Yet there is no sign of an increase in Labour support – at 20% on the constituency vote and 19% on the list, its support is estimated to be just where it was in November. Meanwhile, at 53% and 49% respectively, SNP support is up by three points on both the constituency and list vote. At the same time, whereas YouGov found 53% in favour of increasing income tax, Ipsos MORI put support for the idea at just 30%.
The explanation for the difference undoubtedly lies in the way in which the two companies addressed the question; YouGov asked about increasing income tax to ‘improve public services’ while Ipsos MORI asked whether everybody’s income tax should increase by a penny in the pound without any mention of what the increase would be for. The lesson, perhaps, is that if Ms Dugdale’s proposal is to prove attractive she will need to spell out the benefits that she thinks voters would enjoy as a result.
Meanwhile, today’s poll provides further confirmation, if any were needed, that a majority of people in Scotland wish to remain in the European Union. Once those who say they do not know are left aside, 70% indicate that they will vote to Remain. In line with the now consistent difference between polls (like Ipsos MORI’s) conducted by phone and those done over the internet (like YouGov’s) that figure is markedly higher than that reported last week by YouGov (62%). But it is four points down on the figure that Ipsos MORI reported back in November. Given that much of the interviewing was conducted after the publication of David Cameron’s draft deal on the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership, the result is thus not inconsistent with the proposition that that publication has not been beneficial for the Remain camp.
But, of course, the strong likelihood that Scotland will vote to Remain in the EU raises the question of whether voters north of the border would sue for independence if the UK as a whole voted to Leave. Today’s poll in fact finds a small majority saying they would vote in favour of independence now, though at 52% (once don’t knows are left to one side) support is rather lower than the 55% that was recorded by Ipsos MORI in August, a figure that is still a record high for any poll conducted since the independence referendum. Even so, when people were asked how they would vote if the UK had voted to leave the EU, the proportion saying they would vote Yes to independence (again leaving aside the Don’t Knows) increases to 58%.
This six point swing in favour of independence is much the same as that recorded by Panelbase last month when they conducted a similar exercise. In their case what at present was a 47% level of support for independence became 52% support – a five point swing very similar to today’s six point movement. Now that two separate polls have produced very similar figures, we can reasonably conclude that a UK-wide vote to leave the EU would most likely produce a noticeable, if not necessarily dramatic, increase in support for independence. But given the disagreement between the polls about what the current level of support for independence is, what remains uncertain is whether the swing would be enough to persuade Nicola Sturgeon that holding a second independence referendum would be gamble worth taking.