Three Prime Ministers, an indyref ruling and cost-of-living crisis - 2022's major issues, according to the pollsters
Yet another tumultuous year in UK politics is coming to a close. Many Conservatives in particular will be glad to see the back of 2022, a year in which their support has fallen off a cliff-edge and they face the prospect of a '97-style wipeout if nothing gives before the next general election.
“We kind of started the year with polling catching up with the end of 2021, where obviously we had the lockdown parties, the sleaze, the corruption stuff,” explains Allan Faulds, the man behind leading Scottish polling analysis website Ballot Box Scotland. “Polling picked that up by January, so we started the year with the Conservatives having slipped behind Labour.”
Most of the polls had the two big parties neck-and-neck throughout November last year, with a small gap bigging to emerge in December. But for the first half of 2022, despite the mounting pressure on Boris Johnson, that gap tended to hover around six percentage points.
“Even when Boris Johnson was finally something dragged kicking and screaming out of Number 10, polling just continued in roughly the same place. Labour were still ahead of the Conservatives, [but] there weren't any big shifts,” says Faulds.
Last year, inflation [and] cost of living wasn’t anywhere in the top issues. And then by May, it was the top issue
And then the calamitous mini-Budget happened. That is the moment Faulds picks out as the gamechanger for both the Tories and Labour.
That fiscal announcement, which sent the markets into freefall, was the brainchild of short-lived PM Liz Truss and even-shorter-lived chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. It was supposed to be a plan to tackle the cost-of-living crisis – another of the major events of 2022, according to Rachel Ormston, research director at polling firm Ipsos.
She says: “We ask people what they think are the most important issues facing Scotland. Last year, inflation [and] cost of living wasn’t anywhere in the top issues. And then by May, it was the top issue.
“I think we also had some polling out in August where we asked people about their level of concern about the impact of cost of living on their own circumstances and nine out of 10 people were saying that they were concerned that their own standard of living was going to drop in the next six months. Just in terms of how widespread anxiety about cost of living is, I think that's just coming through more and more in the polling. And unfortunately, unlikely to go away.”
That chimes with exclusive polling from Holyrood, where the majority of MSPs said their caseload relating to the cost-of-living has hugely increased.
The good news for the Conservative Party is that they end the year in a slightly less tragic position than at the peak of the Truss premiership. Under Rishi Sunak, the party is now 20 points (rather than 30 points) behind Labour.
Ormston says: “Rishi Sunak is definitely less unpopular. I think that’s the most that can be said for his poll ratings. In our most recent poll, he had a net negative score of minus 21. So that's still negative, it's not great, but he's not as unpopular as Johnson or Truss, at least.”
Trust in the SNP have gone down quite substantially since the last time we asked
Meanwhile, here in Scotland little has changed in terms of the likely next government. Faulds says: “The entire year has just been poll after poll after poll where that cooperative SNP/Green government is going be pretty comfortably reelected. Underlying that, you've got a little bit of a slump for the SNP, which is very common for them in the mid-term. They often drop a little bit between elections before coming back up.
“The Greens, on the other hand, they've been polling very well and actually the best polling they've ever had in their history, which is not too shabby for them being 18 months into government.”
That said, Ormston says there are some “warning signs” for the SNP based on trust levels and people’s opinions on their performance. “Trust in the SNP have gone down quite substantially since the last time we asked it, which was back in 2021.
"They're not as trusted as they once were, but they’re still more trusted than either of the other parties. And also, that falling trust doesn't seem to have at all translated in any decline in voting intentions. That’s partly a question of where people see the alternatives and partly a question of how tied up voting SNP and supporting independence have become.”
You occasionally get these spikes [for Yes], but we're not substantively discussing the issue, so I don't see how people's opinions... are going to change sustainably
That, of course, has an impact predominantly on Scottish Labour. While UK Labour continue to poll very well across the UK, Scottish Labour’s support “has bumped up a bit but not by anywhere near the same degree as at UK level,” says Ormston.
“They still have the challenge of how they how they position themselves in relation to the constitutional debate. They just, at the moment, can't seem to find any way of undoing that. They don't want to lose their No voters because that's a big chunk of their support, but also, how do they get any people who are inclined to support Yes back from the SNP? It is really not clear how they go about that given voting Yes and voting SNP are now so closely aligned.”
One interesting point picked up by Faulds, however, is that there is a slight difference in polling for Scottish Labour depending on whether voters are being asked about Holyrood or Westminster elections. The party appears to do better when speaking about a UK general election.
“The fact Labour are doing that bit better at UK level polling than they are at Scottish polling maybe does suggest that there are a few of those people who are voting for the SNP, for the Greens, who are now thinking, ‘I'm still going to vote for those parties at Holyrood, I still support independence, but if this is an opportunity to get rid of the Conservatives maybe I will vote for Labour at UK level.’”
What that means for the next general election in practice, he says, will depend on how well the SNP manages to convince voters that is it indeed a de facto referendum. If enough people view it as a real opportunity to gain independence, the SNP will do better. But if people are more disposed to see it as an opportunity to get rid of the Conservative government, Labour will benefit – and they only need their national vote share to go up by a couple of percentage points to be in with a fighting chance of regaining some of those central belt seats.
Polls released since the Supreme Court ruled the Scottish Parliament could not unilaterally legislate for a referendum are inconclusive about how the public are viewing the next election, with some anticipating higher support for the SNP and others not.
What has changed, though, is that Yes has overtaken No on the question of whether Scottish should be independent in several of them. Faulds, however, believes this is likely only temporary.
“My instinct is that it’s probably just a spike because the point I've made a million and one times is that you're not actually going to meaningfully change people’s opinions on the constitution without actually debating the constitution. And for the past eight years we haven't debated the constitution. We've debated the process by which we can debate the constitution.
“You occasionally get these spikes, but we're not substantively discussing the issue, so I don't see how people's opinions on the issue are going to change sustainably with just discussion about process. So I'm leaning towards, it'll probably be ephemeral.”