State of play: Mark Diffley of Ipsos MORI on where the parties stand going into the election

Written by Mark Diffley on 23 March 2016 in Comment

While the SNP looks likely to win the election, all the parties have much to play for, says Ipsos MORI's Mark Diffley

On the surface, public opinion in post-indyref Scotland looks pretty settled, at least for now.

The first poll to emerge after September 2014 showed a surge in support for the SNP that remains until now and looks set to deliver the party a third consecutive term in government. Looking back, it is obvious that it would be the SNP which benefitted in electoral terms from the referendum result.

The 45 per cent who backed ‘Yes’ would always be most likely to back the party most strongly associated with independence, while there were others who were not convinced by the independence argument but would vote for the Nationalists at Westminster and Holyrood elections.


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This will include a number of voters who had previously supported Labour, and helps to explain why the party’s decline in Scotland accelerated so significantly at last year’s general election.

Public opinion since the referendum, alongside the historic general elections result in Scotland last year, also explains the contrasting moods of the parties as the campaign gets under way.

For the SNP, it is very much a case of ‘steady as she goes’. However you look at polling figures, it’s hard to see how the opposition parties can substantially affect the outcome.

The SNP is ahead in voting intentions for both the constituency and regional elements of the election, preferred on all the major devolved policy issues which dominate Holyrood elections and it has far and away the most popular of the party leaders. All these indicators point to Nicola Sturgeon securing another majority.

The party’s strategy as we head into the campaign seems clear and was reinforced by the recent spring conference; defend the record of the last nine years, put the issue of trust and satisfaction in the First Minister at the heart of the campaign and be relatively modest in new policy proposals to avoid any unnecessary risks to the election outcome.

The party may be a little anxious about how many voters who back the SNP in the constituency vote then support other parties with their regional vote: hence ‘Both votes SNP’ is as prominent as it was in 2011.

But if the party is as successful in winning constituency seats as it was in last year’s general election, then this issue will not be significant in determining whether it achieves a second consecutive overall majority.

The spring conference also went a long way to resolving what the SNP will say in its upcoming manifesto about the timing of a second referendum. Our most recent poll indicated that a majority of Scots (54 per cent) would vote in favour of independence in the event of the UK leaving the EU after June’s referendum despite the majority of Scots voting to remain.

However, the reality is that there has not been a consistent and strong enough change in attitudes to the constitutional issue for the party to be confident of winning a second referendum in the near future.

The announcement of a ‘new drive’ for independence to begin in the summer allows the party further time to reflect and plan without being committed to holding a second referendum in the near future.

The opposition parties each face their own challenges in making electoral headway against a dominant SNP.

Collectively, they have so far failed to capitalise on issues that may have caused the shine to come off the SNP’s popularity, such as the economic argument for independence, the fall in oil prices or the internal difficulties the SNP has faced with some of its MPs. Instead, the other parties have set their sights on more modest targets than winning the election.

For Labour, once the natural party of government in Scotland, success at this election will be judged on whether or not the party can come second and continue to be the main opposition party at Holyrood.

While most polls continue to put Labour ahead of the Conservatives, including our most recent which had Labour four percentage points ahead on the constituency vote, the margins of that lead are sufficiently small to make Labour nervous about the outcome.

Although we are yet to enter the campaign and consider the party’s propositions in detail, there is little evidence that Labour’s big announcement so far, to use the new Scottish rate of income tax to increase the base rate by one penny in the pound, will have a significantly positive effect on the party’s electoral chances.

Our February poll found that 30 per cent of Scots support this measure while 54 per cent prefer income tax to remain at current rates, suggesting that this bold step may not provide the electoral breakthrough the party needs.

While Labour’s support continues to slide, the Conservatives sense an opportunity to come second, an achievement that would be the single biggest talking point of the election if it were to happen.

The Conservatives have benefitted from the meltdown in support for Labour since the referendum to the extent that even a modest improvement in performance from the 14 per cent the party achieved in the constituency vote in 2011 makes second place a possibility.

The party’s strategy is geared to trying to secure second place by emphasising the relative popularity of leader Ruth Davidson (her satisfaction rating of 41 per cent far exceeds the party’s popularity) and appealing to ‘No’ voters by vehemently opposing any second independence referendum. Time will tell whether this will be enough.

The other parties also have much to play for in May.

The Liberal Democrats will be determined to buck the trend in the polls – our latest poll has them at six per cent in the constituency vote and eight per cent in the regional contest – and at least holding the five Holyrood seats they have.

The Greens clearly have their sights on significantly increasing their current number of two MSPs, and with six per cent support or upwards in the regional contest they may well do so, potentially benefiting from voters who supported the SNP in electing a constituency MSP.

It looks tougher for other parties, notably RISE from the left or UKIP from the right, to make an electoral breakthrough in May, although UKIP can draw on its success at the 2014 European elections as proof that it can win seats in Scotland, and it may get a boost from added attention as a result of the overlapping EU referendum campaign.

Of course, the usual caveats apply that the official campaign has not yet begun and that things could change. But bearing all this in mind, I’d say the three key things to look out for on 6th May will be:

  • Will the SNP victory be large enough to secure another overall majority?
  • Will the Tories pip Labour for second place?
  • Will we return to more of a ‘rainbow parliament’ with a wider range of parties securing seats?

Watch this space…

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