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by Mark Diffley
30 April 2021
Comment: The popularity of the party leaders will play a key role in the election result

The recent Channel 4 leaders' debate. Credit: Alamy

Comment: The popularity of the party leaders will play a key role in the election result

In the research and polling world, leadership and the impact of political leaders matters.

When we take a step back from polling headlines and the ups and down of support for parties or constitutional positions, voters’ attitudes to party leaders and prominent politicians allows us to gain a much fuller and more complete view of where the electorate is at.

One of what is sometimes called the three ‘P’s’, Parties, Policies and Personalities, we know that views on leaders and how they perform in campaigns do make some difference when considering voting intention.

Arguably, at this Holyrood election, when voters are less likely to see their local candidates manning street stalls, holding public meetings or door-knocking, the exposure of national leaders through set-piece interviews and debates has been more important than ever.

Which is why the data released from the Ashcroft poll and focus groups this week is such a treasure trove and is hugely illuminating.

In a period when we have seen tended to view political issues through the prism of political leaders, Sturgeon v Salmond, the FM v the PM on handling the pandemic, the rising popularity of Anas Sarwar during the election campaign, an in-depth look at what voters think of our leaders goes some way to help explain the wider political landscape.

Polls conducted through the election campaign suggest that the SNP is almost certain to be the largest party after May 6th, albeit that there is uncertainty as to whether this will be with an overall majority, and the public’s view of the First Minister goes some way to explaining this likely result; after a bruising year of managing COVID and dealing with internal party strife, it is notable that, when asked to select the attributes that most apply to her, those which are most commonly mentioned are being ‘strong for Scotland’, ‘determined’ and ‘competent.’

This contrasts starkly with how the public views the two politicians with whom she has been in conflict with or compared to in the last year, Alex Salmond and Boris Johnson.

The former first minister is most likely to be viewed by voters as having negative attributes, namely being seen as ‘dodgy’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘smug’.

Given his role as the leader and most prominent of the new Alba Party, these ratings may go some way to explaining the finding in most campaign opinion polls that Alba is unlikely to make a significant breakthrough on May 6th.

This new research dovetails with other polling evidence that has suggested that the current first minister has come out more favourably in the court of public opinion after the Sturgeon v Salmond psychodrama.

Similarly, the First Minister outperforms the Prime Minister, both in general favourability terms and in specific terms of dealing with COVID.

Johnson’s most mentioned attributes among voters here are as being ‘dishonest’, ’arrogant’ and ‘out of touch’, presumably explaining to some degree why he has not campaigned north of the border and will not be seen here ahead of polling day.

While these insights on our attitudes to leaders goes a long way to explaining the broader political landscape, the link between views on leaders and party support does not always follow the same trajectory and can throw up anomalies.

The case in point is that of the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar who, by common consent, has performed well during the campaign. This is borne out by Ashcroft’s research, citing his most common attributes as ‘competent’, ‘fair’ and ‘up to the job’ with one focus group participant saying that he ‘comes across as quite calm and level-headed…… a calming influence.’

Of course, as a relatively new leader, Sarwar is still an unknown quantity to many voters and it is noticeable that the rise in his personal favourability has not been followed by a significant rise in support for Labour.

This is likely to be a result of the importance of the constitutional question in shaping voting behaviour and highlights the importance of the two other ‘Ps’ in understanding attitudes fully.

But the evidence suggests that leaders do matter in shaping our views and should not be underestimated as a key determinant of the upcoming election.

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