The final push: What could the election outcome be in Scotland?

The race is almost run. By Friday we will know the make-up of Scotland’s representation at Westminster and, crucially, the extent to which that impacts the overall balance of parliament and the narrative around the likelihood of another independence referendum in the near future.

We have seen five polls during the campaign, alongside one conducted just before the election was called. The evidence from the polls suggest a number of consistent themes; that the SNP will win the election in Scotland and probably return more than its current 35 MPs to Westminster, that the Conservatives have gained support to around the point the party reached in 2017, thirdly that support for Labour has fallen back while the Liberal Democrats look likely to increase their vote share.

Headline voting intention (changes shown versus previous for that polling company)

So, what might this mean in terms of seat distribution? On the basis of a national swing, the SNP would return with as many as 47 MPs, based on the Ipsos poll, or as few as 40 based on the most recent Panelbase poll.

Either would represent progress for the SNP and mean they hold at least two-thirds of seats. However, the difference between these two estimates in terms of the narrative around the push for a second independence referendum is significant with the party’s call for another vote strengthened with each additional seat it gains. Interestingly the latest Multi-level Regression and Post-stratification (MRP) seat model from YouGov predicts the SNP total at 41, within the national swing predictions.

For the Scottish Tories, there has been a significant uplift in support during the campaign, to the extent that the party is now back to around the 29% vote share it received in 2017. National swings suggest that the party is therefore likely to hold the majority of the 13 seats it won two years ago, though the MRP model shows five seats falling to the SNP. Labour’s vote share looks set to fall again possibly to below 20%, which would be its lowest in the post-war period. National swings suggest Labour looking five or six of their seven seats north of the border although the MRP prediction points to them losing only two.

Explaining the polls

So, how do we explain the current state of political opinion in Scotland on the eve of the election:

Independence and Brexit dominate

In keeping with recent electoral events, the campaign has been dominated by the dual constitutional issues of Brexit and independence.

To some extent at least this reflects voter concerns; the Ipsos poll of late November highlighted that only 12% say that ‘neither Brexit nor independence will influence my vote” and the same poll showed that these two issues are in the top three of voter concerns.

Of course, a focus on constitutional issues helps the SNP and the Conservatives, allowing both parties to energise their core voters at either end of the independence debate. So, it is unsurprising that these issues have been at the forefront and that the polls have moved accordingly.

The Brexit Party withdrawal has helped the Tories

In the YouGov poll conducted just before the election was called, the Brexit Party stood at 6%, meaning that it may have negatively impacted Tory chances in parts of North East Scotland which returned Conservative MPs in 2017 and which were more pro-Brexit in the EU referendum. Since the Brexit Party withdrew from all Tory-held seats across Britain, polls in Scotland have mirrored those across the country in so much as their vote has been captured by the Tories.

This withdrawal, added to the clear Tory message on Brexit, will give the party hope of keeping most of its 2017 gains.

The Conservative vote versus SNP turnout

There were two reasons why the Conservatives won an additional 12 seats in 2017; the party almost doubling their vote share and the SNP losing around 500,000 votes between 2015 and 2017.

So, if, as the polls predict, the Tories receive around the same vote share in this election, can we assume that they will hold the vast majority of their seats? This depends on the distribution of their vote share and the turnout of SNP voters.

Looking at the polling immediately prior to 2017, it is clear that the Tory vote looks to be drawn from the same groups now; around a third of those from affluent backgrounds and a quarter of those from working class backgrounds; about half of both 2014 ‘No’ voters and 2016 ‘Leave’ voters. This suggests that the party will likely draw support in the same areas this year.

That means that, in order to win back Tory gains, the SNP must energise its voters and encourage greater turnout than in 2017. We have already considered the half a million voters that the SNP lost between 2015 and 2017 and how the majority of these stayed at home in 2017 rather than switching allegiances. It is therefore clear that these voters need to be re-energised if the SNP is to recapture some of the Tory gains of two years ago.

The Labour/SNP marginals

We have previously noted the high number of marginal seats in Scotland, with a quarter of all seats having majorities of under 1,000. Many of these seats are Labour-held marginals where the SNP is a close second.

National voting intention polls and national swings suggest that Labour is on course to lose all or most of the six gains it made in 2017. Although local issues may come to the party’s rescue in some places, it is braced for losses, squeezed in the now familiar dominance on constitutional issues.

For the SNP, given the challenge of eating in to the Tory gains, it is essential that they win back the Labour marginals in order to claim progress.

So, what could happen?

The polls point to the SNP winning a commanding victory in terms of vote share and returning to Westminster with more MPs than in the last parliament. However, while the margin of victory remains unclear, it looks unlikely to mark a return to the 2015 SNP landslide.

For the SNP, the key to success appears to lie in energising its base and increasing turnout from the 2017 election. Given that the Scotland-wide Tory vote share looks likely to remain similar to 2017 with the same distribution, this looks like the SNP’s best chance of winning seats back.

The party will expect to gain between 40 and 50 seats; anything more will exceed expectations while anything less may be seen as a disappointment.

For the Conservatives, holding on to up to 10 seats will exceed the expectations set at the start of the campaign and may be crucial in determining the UK-wide outcome. The additional benefit from such an outcome would be to blunt SNP calls for another independence vote. Labour will aim to minimise losses while the Lib Dems will expect its four seats while hoping to pick up the UK’s most marginal seat of North East Fife.

One day to go; still all to play for.

Written by Mark Diffley

11 December 2019

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