Professor John Curtice on the state of Scotland's main parties going into the election

Written by John Curtice on 29 March 2016 in Comment

Analysis: The election looks like a battle amongst a set of also-rans for any electoral scraps left behind by a dominant SNP

Five years ago, the success of the SNP in winning an overall majority at Holyrood came as a shock. It ensured that Scotland was set on a path that led to a momentous referendum on independence. This time around, however, it will be a surprise if the party does not manage to win a second overall majority. However, what that will mean for the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future is far less certain.

All the polls suggest the Holyrood election will be but a continuation of last year’s UK general election in which the SNP won just short of 50 per cent of the vote, albeit, of course, it is an election at which voters will get the chance to cast two votes rather than just one. On average, seven polls conducted during February and March credited the party with 53 per cent of the vote for individual constituency MSPs and 46 per cent of the regional list vote. Both figures represent an advance (of eight and two points respectively) on the party’s performance in 2011 and should be more than enough to deliver the nationalists an overall majority.


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Even these figures may underestimate the SNP’s strength. One of the difficulties facing pollsters in Scottish Parliament elections is in asking people how they will vote on two ballots there is a risk that when asked their intentions for the second of two ballots some respondents, unfamiliar with the details of the Holyrood voting system, state their second preference. Some of those who say they will vote differently on the list vote from the way in which they will vote on the constituency ballot may, in practice, vote the same way on both. At the last Holyrood election, for example, two polls conducted close to polling day both suggested the SNP’s share of the list vote would be seven percentage points adrift of its share of the constituency vote. In reality, the gap was just one point.

Labour, of course, were crucified last May. At 24 per cent, the party’s share of the vote was its lowest in Scotland since 1918. But now it seems things could be even worse. Recent polls reckon Labour, on average, enjoys just 20 per cent of the constituency vote and even slightly less, 19 per cent, of the list ballot. The former figure represents no less than a 12-point drop on the party’s vote in 2011. If that fall were replicated throughout Scotland, Labour would lose every single one of the 15 constituency seats to which it managed to cling on to last time. Little wonder that all but one of the constituency Labour MSPs hoping to be returned to Holyrood have sought a place on the party’s regional list too, a practice hitherto largely frowned upon by the party. Trouble is, if their party wins just a fifth of the list vote, some Labour MSPs may well find that their place on the list fails to provide them with a secure alternative berth.

If Labour are fearful of what might transpire on 5 May, Scottish Conservatives appear to be looking forward to the election with some anticipation. They dream of overtaking Labour and becoming the principal opposition party at Holyrood. Indeed, a handful of polls have put the Conservatives neck and neck with Labour. However, with a tally of 15 per cent on the constituency vote and 16 per cent on the list ballot, the polls on average still put the party between three and five points behind. In any event, the talk of a ‘race’ for second place is a reflection of just how low Labour have fallen rather than evidence of a Conservative revival. The party’s average poll rating is still no better than the 17 per cent the party won in 1997 when it lost all of its Commons seats, or the 17 per cent it won on the constituency ballot in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election – to date, its best Holyrood election performance.

If the Liberal Democrats have a crumb of comfort, it is that they did so badly five years ago, winning just 8 per cent of the constituency vote and 5 per cent of the list, that they can hardly do any worse. Still, with an average poll tally on just 6 per cent (on both ballots), the party’s chances of reclaiming a front-row spot in the Holyrood chamber appear remote.

Indeed, the party may well face a fierce fight in its two constituency outposts in the Northern Isles, where the SNP challenge five years ago was seemingly dented by two strong Independent candidatures and where the publicity surrounding the appearance of the local Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, in an election court could rebound on the party locally.

Indeed, the Liberal Democrats face the risk of being overtaken for fourth place by the Greens. Thanks to the way in which the Holyrood electoral system works, the Greens’ fortunes are always on a knife edge. To win a list seat in a region a party usually has to win between 5 per cent and 6 per cent of the vote. Consequently, if the Greens win 6 per cent across Scotland as a whole, they are likely to pick up a seat in most of the eight electoral regions.

In contrast, if they manage just the 4 per cent they won five years ago, they are likely to be left with just the two they currently have. Recent polls have, on average, been putting the party on 8 per cent, well above the 6 per cent threshold. But given the potential problems the polls have in estimating the list vote, this figure probably needs to be regarded with caution.

Much the same is true of UKIP’s position – on average, the polls have put the party on 4 per cent, less than it is likely to need to secure representation. But given that its support has ranged in recent polls from 0 per cent to 6 per cent, there would appear to be particular uncertainty about just how well the party is placed.

In short, the election looks as though it will primarily be a battle amongst a set of also-rans for such electoral scraps as are left behind by a dominant SNP.

The nationalists have many an asset, including the popularity of their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and a record in office that is still, on balance, regarded favourably by the electorate. But the central foundation of the party’s dominance is the fallout from an independence referendum that saw an increase in support for leaving the UK that shows no sign of diminishing, and which turned the issue into the main dividing line of Scottish electoral politics.

Much like last year, perhaps as many as 90 per cent of those who voted Yes in that referendum are inclined to vote for the SNP in May. For so long as that remains the case, the nationalists are always going to prove difficult to dislodge.

Yet, despite the party’s dominance, there is no presumption that a second SNP overall majority means a second independence referendum. At 47 per cent or so, the current level of support for independence is still insufficient for the party to be confident that a second ballot would be won.

As a result, Ms Sturgeon is reserving her judgement on holding such a ballot during the next five years. Instead, she appears inclined to concentrate on administering a radically enhanced devolution settlement that has now been bequeathed to Scotland by a majority UK Conservative government. Who knows what the consequences of such a scenario will be for the future of Scotland’s constitutional debate?

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