Rumours of the SNP's demise are exaggerated

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 9 October 2017 in Inside Politics

Commentators have taken the 2017 general election result as a sign of the SNP's demise, but polling analysis suggests the party's position remains solid

Nicola Sturgeon at SNP conference - image credit: SNP

If you had told SNP strategists back in 2003 that by 2017 the party would hold 35 out of 59 Scottish seats in Westminster and 63 out of 129 at the Scottish Parliament, you would probably have received a pretty sceptical response.

Even more surprising would have been the revelation that commentators were taking the numbers as a sign of failure. Or worse, that the polling numbers were being interpreted as proof of the party’s demise.

Yet that is exactly what is happening. The latest polling from Survation puts the SNP on 42 per cent in the Scottish Parliament constituency vote and 31 per cent on the regional vote, with the Scottish Tories on 26 per cent in the constituency and 21 per cent in regional preference, and Scottish Labour on 26 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. It would be absurd to try and insist any party with that sort of dominance is doing badly.


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Yet questions persist over the party’s strategy. Sounds of discontent have been murmured by the membership for a while but in the last six months, and particularly after it lost 21 MPs, including Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond during the 2017 general election, they seem to have increased in volume.

And while any SNP strategist travelling forward in time from a decade ago would be delighted with the party’s current position, it’s hard to escape the feeling that all is not as rosy as it was a year back.

In some ways, that’s consistent with the way politics has been unfolding over the past few years. After all, this was a party that turned a defeat in the 2014 independence vote into a win, surging in the polls, drawing in an unprecedented increase in membership and sweeping the board at the 2015 general election. The SNP lost a referendum and acted like it won. In 2017, it won the majority of Scottish seats and it’s acting like it lost.

The snap general election seemed to catch the party on the back foot. At a time when focus was clearly trained on the consequences of a hard Brexit, foisted upon Scotland by Theresa May, along with questions over how the vote could affect support for independence, the party’s response to yet another election – there have now been half a dozen major votes since the start of 2014 – seemed to lack clarity.

And there is no doubt pressure on the leadership has increased. As George Kerevan, the former East Lothian MP who lost his seat to Labour’s Martin Whitfield put it, “the SNP ‘message’ during this election was all over the shop.”

Writing in the National, he said: “We started in the aftermath of the EU vote by focusing on Indyref2. Remember the ‘national conversation’ on Europe and independence launched in late 2016? It felt like a stunt.”

He added: “By the spring, after May set her face against a second independence referendum, the SNP seemed to relegate Indyref2 to a long-term Scottish response to any hard Brexit deal.

“That was sensible enough. But after a snap general election was called, the party’s message shifted yet again – to the tepid ‘stronger for Scotland’ at Westminster theme.”

So what happened? Did the party’s stance on constitution hurt it as voters looked for some stability? Or should it have pushed left to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party? Is the SNP soaring or in desperate trouble? And just how worried should Nicola Sturgeon be?

Research published by Professor James Mitchell from the University of Edinburgh and Dr Lynn Bennie from the University of Aberdeen, ‘Recruited by Referendum’, would suggest any concerns over an impending membership revolt are overblown. The study, based on approaching almost 90 per cent of the SNP membership, with a response rate of around 21 per cent, took in the views of more than 16,000 members. From long-term supporters to those drawn in more recently by the Yes campaign, the researchers wanted to learn more about how the party  has changed over the last ten years.

The study suggests the SNP leadership doesn’t have too much to worry about in terms of its membership, with 55 per cent saying membership has fully met their expectations, and nearly 40 per cent saying it had partly met them.

Meanwhile nearly 90 per cent of SNP members said they are ‘very likely’ to remain in the party, with nearly ten per cent opting for ‘somewhat likely’.

As part of the study, Mitchell and Bennie asked members to rank how urgently they believed the SNP should push for a second referendum on independence, with ‘one’ representing an immediate vote, and ‘ten’ meaning the party should only hold one if they were confident of winning.

Despite some of the claims thrown around on social media over the party’s priorities, the results reveal a highly pragmatic approach from the membership, with responses leaning heavily towards backing the leadership in only holding a vote in the right circumstances. In fact, more than half of respondents chose an eight, nine or ten in answer.

The study paints a picture of a membership which has changed substantially since 2007, not least because of the surge in membership in the wake of the independence referendum.

The mean age of an SNP member is 56, with 62 per cent of the membership male and 38 per cent female. And as the membership has grown, Mitchell and Bennie identified a general shift to the left. Researchers asked SNP members to place themselves on an eleven-point scale of left to right, with 0 being left-wing and 10 representing right. Back in 2007, the mean sat on 4.45 – just to the left of the political centre. For those who joined before 2014, the mean is 3.34, and those who joined after 2014 were further left again, with a mean of 3.09.

Bennie describes a shift in party attitudes to other issues. She said: “There is also some suggestion that members are becoming more liberal. We asked a whole load of questions on things like their attitude towards the death penalty. In 2007, 50 per cent of SNP members thought the death penalty was never justified, but larger proportions think that now.”

Bennie added: “Compare pre-referendum joiners and those who joined post-referendum, the ones who joined after the referendum are a little bit more likely to describe themselves as socialist and a little bit less likely to describe themselves as nationalist.”

The research also examined members’ reasons for joining the party. Unsurprisingly, the number-one issue was support for independence. But following closely behind was a belief in creating a more equal or just society, with the third most common motivation being inspired by the party leader.

Likewise, the most common identity cited by SNP members was that they felt part of the independence movement, with identifying as part of the anti-nuclear movement coming in second and the environmental movement following in third.

But more surprising is what the research showed about the declining primacy of independence within the party. In 2007, just over 70 per cent of members agreed with the statement “the SNP’s primary goal should be independence and all else should be secondary”. Pre-2011, the proportion fell to just over 60 per cent. Pre-2014, it was around 55 per cent. In 2014, 40 per cent agreed and by the time the post-2014 referendum membership surge arrived, the proportion of SNP members who thought independence should be the party’s primary goal fell to just over 30 per cent.

Professor Rob Johns from the University of Essex analysed data from the British Election Study and Scottish Election Study, both funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, on how support for the SNP has changed. His work also suggests the SNP’s support remains pretty firm, with the party retaining four-fifths of its voters between the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

Johns’ research also lends weight to the idea the party’s support has shifted to the left. “One recurring feature of the SNP electorate is that it is a little bit to the left of the average voter, but for a long time it was only a very little bit. The SNP was drawing support from across the ideological board in the same way it was drawing support from across the socio-demographic board. But the impact of the referendum is clear – that gap has widened.”

In self-identifying their place on the left-right scale, it’s common for voters to place themselves further to the left in assessing their identity than their policy preference would suggest, and this tendency is on display within the SNP.

Johns said: “SNP identifiers and voters see themselves as quite a lot further to the left than they used to be, than to the average member of the electorate, and then arguably, based on their policy preferences, than they really are. That gap has widened.”

And so the SNP’s members are still happy with the party, and they seem pretty relaxed about the timing of a future second referendum. But while that should ease any pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to make any big constitutional promises at the party conference, it does not mean the leadership’s strategy has been free from internal criticism.

In fact, with field work on the study ending on 16 March – well before the party’s losses at the 2017 election – it is quite possible discontent has increased. But, interestingly, Mitchell does not believe the party’s concern should be focused on its referendum strategy.

He said: “My sense is that opinion is shifting and there is more criticism of the leadership all the time, but not on that issue [the timing of a second referendum]. I think the leadership is not under huge pressure, not on that issue, but there may be other issues where it is under pressure. One could argue that has been reflected in the Programme for Government.”

It is here, on the domestic policy agenda, the party could face internal mutterings. Mitchell added: “I would hypothesise that it [members’ views] might have shifted, to become a bit more critical. Certainly at the elite level, there could be more dissatisfaction with the strategy, but not on the question of independence.”

The party’s domestic approach came under intense pressure during the general election campaign, with opposition parties repeatedly hammering home the message that Nicola Sturgeon was too focused on the constitution to deal with matters like education and health.

To the party’s supporters, the attacks may have been unfair – after all, devolved matters have little relevance in a Westminster election – but equally, there seems little doubt that the claims the FM had taken her eye ‘off the day job’ played a part in the result.

The Programme for Government, containing sixteen bills to be put before the Scottish Parliament in the 2017/18 session, represented a clear attempt to regain momentum.

As Sturgeon put it in her speech: “We live in a time of unprecedented global challenge and change, with rapid advances in technology, a moral obligation to tackle climate change, an ageing population, the impact of continued austerity and deep-seated challenges of poverty and inequality, and an apparent rise in the forces of intolerance and protectionism. Those challenges are considerable, but in each of them we must find opportunity.

“This Programme for Government is our plan to seize those opportunities and to build the kind of Scotland that we all seek – an inclusive, fair, prosperous, innovative country that is ready and willing to embrace the future. It is a programme to invest in our future and shape Scotland’s destiny.”

And there were some eye-catching plans, including the implementation of ‘Frank’s Law’ – making free personal care available for under-65s with certain conditions such as dementia – to increasing the presumption against short-term prison sentences to 12 months, the creation of a £50m child poverty fund, and a new ‘unlocking ambition challenge’ to encourage entrepreneurship, with 40 start-ups to be supported by established entrepreneurs.

It was probably the environmental plans contained in the PfG that drew the most positive responses, with Sturgeon outlining plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 (eight years earlier than the UK), introduce low emissions zones in Scotland’s four largest cities by 2020, double spending on active travel to £80m per year and establish a nationwide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.

Friends of the Earth Scotland called it “the greenest Programme for Government in the history of the Scottish Parliament”. This, clearly, was an attempt to shake off any claims that the party had taken its foot off the pedal domestically.

And crucially for members leaning towards the left of the party – including those who have been swept in during the last few years – Sturgeon seemed to suggest a willingness to move towards a more progressive system of taxation, albeit only if she can find allies across the chamber to back her.

She said: “We know that continued Westminster austerity, the consequences of Brexit and the impact of demographic change will put increasing pressure on our public services and our ability to provide the infrastructure and support that our businesses need to thrive.

“The time is therefore right to open a discussion about how responsible and progressive use of our tax powers could help to build the kind of country that we want to be – one with the highest-quality public services, well-rewarded public servants, good support for business, a strong social contract and effective policies to tackle poverty and inequality.”

The measures were a signal of intent, even if it will be years before their effect on support for the party can be gauged. In the meantime, the membership will continue to change.

And so, after ten years of SNP government, first in minority, then majority, then minority again, after the SNP lost two referendums but continues to dominate, Scottish politics still seems to be in a state of flux.

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