Election 2019: First Scottish poll shows some familiar patterns

It took nearly three weeks, but this weekend saw the publication of the first poll in Scotland conducted during the election campaign, from Panelbase and published in the Sunday Times.

As far as the outcome in Scotland is concerned, the poll pointed towards a result that bears more resemblance to 2017 than to 2015, though with the SNP likely to gain around two-thirds of seats and remain the dominant political force.

Vote share and seat prediction

The headline vote shares from the poll show the SNP at 40% (up 3 points from the 2017 result), the Conservatives at 28% (down 1 point), Labour at 20% (down 7 points) and the Liberal Democrats at 11% (up 4 points).

On the basis of uniform swing[1], this would give a seat distribution of 41 for the SNP (up 6 from 2017), 12 for the Conservatives (down 1), 5 for the Liberal Democrats (up 1) and 1 for Labour (down 6).

What is this telling us?

Of course, this is just one poll and we await others, but it does rather confirm some of what we had anticipated at the start of the campaign,[2] namely that the SNP would likely gain the seats it had lost to Labour and that predictions of a Tory wipe-out in Scotland look like being wide of the mark.

The dominance of constitutional issues, especially the prospect of a second independence referendum, in the campaign so far enables both the SNP and the Conservatives to energise their respective bases. This poll suggests that the big losers in that could be Labour, with the UK-wide party coming under scrutiny over the timing of its backing for indyref2 and the Scottish party’s announcement that it would support a second referendum if there is ‘pro-Yes’ majority after the 2021 Holyrood election.

The Conservatives and the SNP will be most pleased with this poll.

Given expectations of the collapse of the Conservative vote in Scotland, they will be most content if this poll comes to pass. Several factors are working in their favour, including the party’s position on Brexit (55% of Leave voters in Scotland back the Tories) and the decision of the Brexit Party not to stand in Tory-held constituencies. We can see how this helps the Tories as their vote share rises to 30% in areas where the Brexit Party is not standing, giving the Tories additional confidence of holding some of its marginal seats in the North East.

But the SNP will also be delighted if it goes back to Westminster with six additional seats. For some, the party’s progress is always measured against its landslide in 2015 but it’s true to say that was unprecedented and that winning 70% of seats would further cement the party’s domination in Scotland at all levels of government. And with 90% of those who voted SNP in 2017 saying they would do so again, and the First Minister’s approval rating at +85% among SNP supporters, it is clear that the party is doing more to keep its base onside than other parties.

Having said that, there are one or two notes of caution for the party. Firstly, as we noted after the 2017 election, the party’s key issue was in motivating voters to the polling station, so ensuring a higher turnout this time will only help the party if it is going to make more gains.[3] Perhaps more pertinently, the poll highlights the key dilemma for the party and the wide ‘Yes’ movement, namely balancing the gains being made among those who voted Remain in 2016 and who are attracted by the party’s avowedly pro-EU position, with those who voted Leave in 2016 and who may be put off by it. The party’s stance will undoubtedly help it win back the Labour gains in the central belt in 2017 but make the challenge of breaking through the Tory gains more difficult.

For Labour, it is hard to see much to cheer. In line with the GB-wide picture, the party made significant gains in 2017 but, for them, the outcome may be more 2015, reduced to a single MP, than 2017 when they had seven.

There are two particular alarm bells for the party. Firstly, it retains only 67% of those who voted Labour in 2017, significantly lower than all other parties, losing support to the SNP and, to a lesser extent the Conservatives. This suggests that the issue of independence continues to be problematic for the party and that it is losing support to both sides of the constitutional divide. The second is that Jeremy Corbyn would appear to be a drag on Labour support; on the eve of the 2017 election, 42% of Scots said he was doing very or fairly well with 47% saying badly or very badly (a net score of -5).[4] Now, fewer than 1 in 5 Scots (19%) says he is doing a good job while 60% saying he is doing a bad job (a net score of -41).

For the Liberal Democrats, the poll does not represent a big breakthrough, though in the vast majority of marginals it is not holding second place currently. However, at 11% it looks like they will hold their current four seats and have a fair chance of winning North East Fife form the SNP.

Of course, as we pointed out last time[5], the number of marginal seats in Scotland makes seat predictions challenging, and local campaigns can be vital when majorities are often tiny; however, the poll may give us some hints as to the broad direction of travel.

The bigger picture – where are we?

If the election result in Scotland shakes out in line with current polling, there are two significant implications.

The first is that it makes a Tory majority at Westminster more likely, not least because the party had expected to suffer much greater damage in Scotland, so keeping the vast majority of its 2017 gains helps Boris Johnson’s search for a working majority, something which GB-wide polling so far in this campaign suggests is the most likely outcome for now.

The second is that, although it makes the prospect of a second independence referendum any time soon more remote due to the Conservative’s stated opposition, there are signs from this poll and others recently that support for independence has ticked upwards in recent, and it is likely that a sizeable SNP presence at Westminster, potentially still as the UK’s third-biggest party, will continue to make the case for another vote.

The standout from this poll is not that the country is now pretty much equally divided over the independence question (49% vs 51%) since that has been a consistent poll finding over a few months. Rather it is that support now stands at 71% among those aged under 35, at 49% among current Labour voters and 57% among those who voted to remain in the EU in 2016. Most strikingly however is that 45% of respondents think that Scottish independence offers a greater opportunity to the Scottish economy compared to Brexit, while just 24% think Brexit offers the greater opportunity.

So, the shakeout from the election may simultaneously help the Conservatives in the short term, while providing an impetus towards a second independence referendum in the longer term. We await more polls with interest.

We’re off and running in the race for Downing Street; five weeks of manifesto launches, leaflet printing, door knocking, TV debates and mudslinging await as voters choose their government for the next five years, or alternatively, votes for another hung parliament.

The campaign in Scotland will be simultaneously different in tone and substance from other parts of the UK and potentially crucial in determining who will walk across the threshold of Number 10 on December 13th.

How does the campaign begin?

The election of June 2017 resulted in the SNP continuing to be the dominant force at Westminster, albeit with a significantly reduced number of seats, from 56 in 2015 to 35 two years later; the election saw the revival of the other parties, particularly the Scottish Conservatives, who won an additional 12 seats, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats saw their share rise from a single seat to seven and four seats respectively.

The question now is whether we return to something closer to 2015 SNP supremacy or whether we see the continued re-emergence of multi-party representation from Scotland in the UK Parliament.

The state of the parties

The first important point to make is that, unlike in the rest of the UK, polling conducted in Scotland has not been plentiful of late; indeed in the period since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July, there have only been two polls in Scotland which have asked about General Election voting intention; this means that some of the movements observed in GB-wide polls may have been reflected in Scottish public opinion but are not being measured sufficiently often to know for sure.

Notwithstanding that caveat, the available polling points to a number of clues:

  • Support for the SNP is up from 37% at the 2017 election to around 40% now,
  • Both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour have seen support fall back to around 20% each,
  • The Liberal Democrats vote share has risen to around 12%, from 7% in 2017,
  • The Brexit Party is less popular than in the rest of Britain but is still polling at around 5%.

Running these numbers through a seat predictor like the Electoral Calculus model [1] would give the SNP heart, suggesting that the party will return to Westminster with 50 MPs, with the Liberal Democrats up to five seats and the real losers being the Conservatives (down to three seats) and Labour (down to one).

But there are many reasons to be sceptical that this will be the final outcome!

There are a high number of marginal seats in Scotland

The first reason why Scotland may produce an unexpected, difficult to predict result lies in the high number of marginal seats which could fall two or three ways as a result of very small swings.

Scotland’s most marginal seats

Written by Mark Diffley

26 November 2019

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