Why Labour's weakness in London may be good for the pro-independence movement

This is not what the first year of Keir was supposed to look like for Labour; a new GB-wide poll today from YouGov shows Labour polling at under 30%, the lowest since the new leader took office in April 2020 and shows Sir Keir preferred by just 26% of voters in a head-to-head against Boris Johnson for the choice of best Prime Minister.

Of course, this is just one poll, but it does reflect a trend over recent months which should sound a cautionary note for the party and its leader.  After a promising honeymoon period, support for Labour and for Starmer have fallen back over recent months, poorly timed ahead of important devolved parliamentary, local and mayoral elections, as well as the Hartlepool Westminster by-election in less than three weeks.

Some issues in this polling slump are beyond Labour’s control; the government is getting a lot of credit for the vaccine roll-out; almost 90%, including 85% of Labour voters, think the government is doing a good job of vaccinations. In addition, the economic mood of voters seems to be on the increase as we prepare to come out of lockdown, and the benefit of the current public mood appears to be going to the government rather than Labour.

Beyond the Westminster bubble, recent polling trends at a GB-level have significance in a Scottish context.

A fall in Labour support across Britain is good news for the SNP and the supporters of independence just as it is good news for Conservatives in Westminster.

One of the key arguments against a speedy push for a second independence referendum is that the current Conservative government may be voted out in a few years, and that an incoming Labour government would be more palatable to many voters currently leaning towards independence. But recent trends in polling blunt that argument and lend ammunition to the pro-independence argument that there is no end in sight to a government in Westminster which is deeply unpopular among voters north of the border.

And there is plenty of polling evidence to suggest that a long-lasting Conservative government at a UK level might lead to growing support for independence. A poll by Panelbase in November 2020 found that over three quarters of Scots think that a Conservative government is likely to either substantially reduce Holyrood’s powers (55%) or abolish the parliament altogether (22%). If this were case then the polls finds that 7 in 10 Scots would be more likely to vote in favour of independence, including a third of those who voted ‘No’ in  the referendum of 2014.

A UK general election is nearly four years away and of course the public mood is likely to be quite different by then. Current government popularity might be blunted by the post Covid and post Brexit economic realities; Labour might successfully capitalise on the current scandals and allegations of sleaze which are increasingly enveloping the government. All of this could be true, but the fact is that, as we approach the most important Holyrood election of the devolution era, there is no sign of anything other than continued Conservative rule in Westminster. And despite the broad praise for the excellent performance of Scottish Labour’s new leader Ana Sarwar on the campaign trail so far, there is little sign so far that this is likely to improve his party’s performance on May 6th. UK Labour’s hopes of forming a government in 2024 rely to some extent on its fortunes in Scotland so it will need to improve its standing here if it is going to benefit the fortunes of the UK party in years to come.

This article was published in The National Extra on 16 April 2021

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