2023 in Review: Constitutional Polling

For the third and final part of the usual annual review we turn to Scotland’s central political divide: the constitution. You might think that compared to the messiness of parliamentary polling we’d be able to tie this side of things up with a very neat bow, but you’d be wrong. Nothing is ever simple in Scottish politics, and that extends to the wrangling over our national status.

Polling Caveats

As with parliamentary polling, I haven’t typically had a caveats section for the constitutional polling component of annual reviews, but the emergence this year of what I’m calling the “BBS Standard Series” makes it worth outlining some bits and pieces. Effectively, the Standard Series includes all published polls by British Polling Council member pollsters (that I’m aware of, stuff can slip the net) with two exceptions: the Scottish Opinion Monitor (Scoop) polls by YouGov, and anything from Redfield & Wilton after June 2023.

Scoop is kept separate because the methodology is slightly different to usual YouGov polls, which are included in the average and so I don’t want to mix the two. I still cover Scoop polls, I just track them as a separate series which you can see on the Additional Polling page and through the Scoop tag.

I stopped covering Redfield & Wilton after their June poll, after my initial excitement at having a regular Scottish tracker was replaced by disappointment at how weird and inconsistent their findings were, particularly on the Holyrood list vote for the Lib Dems (exceeding their pre-collapse record) and Greens (ricocheting from record high to no improvement on 2021 back to record high from month to month). Most polling firms have identifiable house effects (e.g. Ipsos above-average for SNP, similarly Survation historically for Labour) that are consistent and can be accounted for, but this was all over the place.

I’m not the only person to have raised eyebrows at the reliability of their polling, with other pollsters picking up issues such as oddly high Lib Dem voter favourability for Conservative politicians (source Tweet for that now protected, alas) or finding younger people and inner Londoners more likely to vote Conservative, against all sense and past electoral evidence. I would note with significant interest that in their most recent Scottish poll, Redfield & Wilton didn’t poll the Holyrood side of things, which rather suggests they’ve realised themselves what they were putting out on that front was flawed.

Although I also provide a chart of the polling average throughout the year, the primary target of my analysis is the quarterly average for Q4 (October through December). Given the variability in number, and source, of polls in Scotland, I’ve used Q4 as my basis for these reviews every year. This means that I’m at least comparing against the same time period each year, even if everything else is different. That also means that the final point on the chart of averages will not match the Q4 average.

This year we had just three polls in the Standard Series over Q4; one apiece from Panelbase, Savanta and Ipsos. Unfortunately, the most recent of these covered the 20th – 26th of November, so we have no December data in the average. Although there was a fourth poll, a YouGov, in the Parliamentary entry, unfortunately that poll didn’t seem to include a constitutional element. There’s also a Focaldata poll listed on What Scotland Thinks, however it’s not included because the poll was an A/B test with two different wordings, the standard Yes/No therefore only had a half-sample of about ~500 people, and the series only tracks polls with full ~1000+ samples.

That’s going to have… implications that I foreshadowed in both of the previous review pieces. Whilst you may not like those implications or my decisions on what to include or exclude, I made those decisions months ago, I could not have known we’d have so few polls in Q4, and I did not invent numbers, percentages or averages, so please do not blame me for what follows!

As is always the case with polling on this question, this is going to look at figures both with and without Don’t Knows included. That comes with the caution that Don’t Knows are particularly important on this sort of binary question, and faced with a real referendum may not split neatly between options. In addition, the “Excluding Don’t Knows” figure may differ marginally from what you’d get using the raw “Including Don’t Knows” figure as your basis, because there’s been an additional step of rounding involved.

Independence Polling Average Through 2023 (Including Don't Know)

2022 concluded with a dramatic lead for Independence, rooted in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision that the Scottish Parliament had no power to call an Independence Referendum. Whilst that was, in my view, always going to be the obvious and logical constitutional conclusion, it did trigger a little bit of a surge in support for both Independence and for the SNP in particular. That it was a brief flareup is demonstrated by the fact that whereas the final 5 polls of 2022 split 4:1 in favour of Independence, the first 5 polls of 2023 split exactly the opposite way.

Support for the Union therefore pulled into the lead even before the end of January by this simple averaging measure. It further increased its advantage during the SNP’s brutal leadership contest, and then remained roughly steady right up until September brought a couple of polls with leads for Independence, including a surprising one from Opinium, meaning it wasn’t just the usual suspects Ipsos and Find Out Now.

Those narrowed things enough that when Ipsos published what turned out to be the final poll of the year, Independence squeaked into an absolutely tiny lead to end the year ahead. At this point I emphasise that this is entirely down to the polls included in the average, and that those nonetheless split 3:2 in favour of the Union. I don’t think this is a “real” lead for Independence, and (trying desperately to minimise people being mad at me) if I was trying to rig figures in favour of Independence I wouldn’t be writing “hey I actually think this is slightly off, I don’t think there currently is a lead”! This is just what the numbers say and I’ve got to roll with them!

That said, the lead for the Union I think does exist in reality would be pretty small. Even if I were to fully lift my exclusion of Redfield & Wilton, the figures come out at 47.4% No vs 46.4% Yes, just a 1% lead. That’s only a slender advantage, and in statistical terms (though mitigated by averaging) near enough a dead heat. Given how close this continues to run, you’d have to be daft to be the kind of person I do occasionally see pop up confidently declaring that Independence is “dead”. 

Independence Polling Average Through 2023 (Excluding Don't Know)

When you look at things excluding Don’t Knows, obviously it’s all much the same, with No peaking by the end of the SNP’s leadership election, then a narrowing later in the year. Due to rounding, we don’t actually see an Independence lead on this side of things, and in fact the 5-poll average finishes bang on a 50-50 tie. Again, I think this is slightly overegging the reality of Independence support at the moment, and if I lift my Redfield & Wilton exclusion briefly it’s 50.6% for the Union vs 49.4% for Yes.

Independence Polling Average Q4 2023

Changes here are versus Q4 2022 and, for the pure No:Yes figures, the 2014 referendum. Remember we’re dealing with just three polls for this quarterly average, as opposed to the five above.

Although the overall ratio of polls for Q4 goes 2:1 in terms of leads for the Union, the relative strength of the outlying Ipsos leads to a very marginal lead for Independence by both measures, keeping it very narrowly ahead even after excluding don’t knows. It’s nonetheless down on where it was in the same quarter last year, further demonstrating that the increase we saw following the judgement was just a flash in the pan.

What’s really interesting about this though is how dramatically different it is to Parliamentary polling if you’re totting up parties by constitutional preference. Even if we compare against the figures including don’t knows here, support for Independence is running exactly 4% ahead of the combined support for the SNP, Greens and Alba on the list, and 7.3% ahead after excluding them. Last year the figures were -1.3% and 2.5%, respectively.

In other words, last year support for both Independence and the parties backing it was nearly identical, yet this year Independence is markedly ahead of its advocates. That suggests that at least for the time being, most of the party switchers aren’t actually constitutional switchers. That’s important to bear in mind when people – and, it exasperates me to say, actual elected MPs and MSPs on both sides – start playing the game of tallying up party votes as constitutional proxies. We know it’s not that simple, and it’s also silly when we get standalone constitutional polling!

Council Area Projection

Please see this page for how projections work and important caveats.

On this purely for indication, purely for fun projection versus 2014, Yes would have a lead in 15 council areas (up from 4 at the referendum, down from 17 last year), compared to 17 for No (correspondingly down from 28 in 2014, and 15 at the end of 2022).

That means it basically preserves last year’s pattern of the Central Belt (bar the most affluent bits) leaning towards Independence, with the Highlands and Western Isles as outlying areas also swinging that way, whilst the south of the country and the mostly rural sweep in between the Highlands and Central Belt remain mostly supportive of the Union. In this scenario, Independence barely squeaks ahead despite the Union being the preferred option in most council areas largely because it’s generally the more populous areas that lean towards Yes.

Looking Ahead

Unlike council by-elections and parliamentary elections, unless something astonishing happens 2024 isn’t going to feature any direct constitutional contests. However, given the general expectation and assumption that there will be a UK General Election that will lead to both a Labour UK Government and possibly a very bruising defeat for the SNP, it could be extremely impactful in the longer term and potentially break us out of the near-deadlock we’ve been stuck in for years now. In true Ballot Box Scotland style, there are opportunities and risks for both sides here, and I’m going to look at a favourable scenario for each.

Advantages the Union

Though it’s by no means the only factor, you’d have to be a complete fool to deny that support for Independence has been driven in part by Scottish opposition to Conservative UK Governments. The party may have had a big Scottish revival, but even at its 2017 peak the gap between Conservative support in Scotland versus the UK overall was a chunky 13.7%. A huge majority of voters each election clearly vote against the party and, as the Lib Dems can attest, severe punishment is meted out to anyone too closely associated.

Recent polling by Ipsos, available on the Additional Polling page, shows the Conservatives far outstripping every other Scottish party in the unpopularity stakes, with a whopping net -46% favourability. It perhaps isn’t helping things that recent Ministerial attack lines intended for the SNP have instead perhaps leaned too heavily into the suggestion that Scotland as a whole, a country the Conservatives are literally one of the governments responsible for, is a social and economic dead end, and an irredeemably unhealthy rubbish pit besides.

A UK Labour government immediately removes that pressure. Even if Scottish Labour’s performance ends up trailing the UK-wide share by similar margins to the Conservatives 2017 peak, as polling currently suggests is likely, fewer people are actively opposed to the party as demonstrated by the much less harsh net -8% favourability at latest measurement. Especially if that government is doing things that people feel make their lives better, and comes across less inexplicably hostile to Scotland, voters may begin to agree with Labour’s assessment that it isn’t Independence that they need but instead a non-Conservative UK Government.

If that’s followed a couple of years later by Labour taking up the reins of government at Holyrood as well, a honeymoon period in both parliaments may further take the shine off Independence and help keep the SNP down. That’d likely be aided by what is clearly a relatively close relationship between Starmer and Sarwar that’d see less conflict than currently between Starmer and his own party’s Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, never mind the abysmally poor relations between the current Scottish and UK Governments, which have been in freefall since the start of Boris Johnson’s time in office.

The biggest risk for the Independence side here is that a period of relative comfort with the UK Government could reverse the current trend of younger generations being more pro-Independence. Most assessments would view that as a cohort rather than age thing – i.e. it’s based on the year you were born, rather than simply how many you’ve lived – that means it’s a relatively fixed view for most current voters. So, if the trend reverses and the coming generations are instead pro-Union, that could act as a final nail in the coffin for Independence, almost a slow-release valve that gradually lessens support and thus the likelihood even of another referendum.

Advantages Independence

For the Pro-Independence camp, there are likewise both short-term and longer-term advantages that may arise. Whilst Scottish voters may not be instinctively against Labour and be more welcoming of a UK Government led by them, they will expect to see meaningful improvements in their lives, improvements that are by no means guaranteed. It’s been discussed widely enough now I think I can state this as a generally understood fact rather than a directly partisan dig, but Keir Starmer has now rather famously developed a habit for abandoning pledges, including recently deleting his leadership campaign pledges from his website.

Some of the chatter around this habit has framed it as deliberately following the modernising, softly-softly approach of Tony Blair, recognising the importance of getting into power before being able to do anything. However, Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair. Apart from anything else, ahead of his election, Tony Blair was genuinely extremely popular (net +22 favourability just before GE 1997) and people were clearly elated about the possible change in government. “Things Can Only Get Better” wasn’t just a clever pick for a campaign song, but a genuine feeling for many.

Starmer meanwhile is sitting at a net -22% approval according to a recent YouGov, simply making him less unpopular than Rishi Sunak who was wallowing at -49%. It’s hard to detect any excitement about a change in government at the moment either, perhaps because the UK has endured a seeming perma-crisis since 2007 which shows no sign of abating, whilst the world falls apart around us, whether through the deepening climate crisis or international wars and humanitarian crises like in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and Nagorno-Karabakh. That’s a rather miserable contrast to Blair being able to ride a wave of economic recovery and a period of post-Cold War rapprochement and peace (admittedly incomplete, particularly for Kosovars) that suggested the world was on the way to becoming a safer and less conflicted place.

If Starmer doesn’t deliver the improvements that people are after, and quickly, that could stall a Scottish comeback that can’t happen until 2026. Even if Sarwar does find himself in Bute House, there’s a possibility he finds himself facing the exact same challenges the current Scottish Government have. If the UK is still stuck in an economic rut and more generous funds haven’t flown their way from Westminster, easy opposition rhetoric about wasted money and cuts to public services whilst taxes increase may have a hard time translating into government solutions. If this is what happens, the risk for the Union is that Scottish voters perceive it to demonstrate exactly what the Pro-Independence side have been claiming – that things can only get better outwith the UK, regardless of who is in power at either level.

Yet, even if it doesn’t, there’s a risk too from Labour pushing the idea that the UK works best when they are in power, because past experience tells us they simply won’t be forever. Barring a complete rewriting of the norms of UK politics, the Conservatives will be back in Downing Street within 15-20 years at most, and if that leads to Scottish tempers flaring back up it could be fertile ground for Independence. That may seem like a long time frame to worry about, but 2024 will be a decade on from the Independence referendum, and 13 years on from the 2011 election that triggered it. I can hardly believe that myself, but it’s true. Time has a habit of moving rather quicker than we think. The aim for the Pro-Union campaign should be to permanently settle the question, not just defer it for a decade or two.

Thanks and a Happy New Year!

Phew! And that is, finally, a lid on 2023. Having worked on my annual reviews over this lull period between Christmas and New Year, I will be very firmly enforcing a proper holiday next week. If anyone has decided to bring the New Year in with a poll, I will not be acknowledging its existence until the 9th of January at the earliest! Before that I just want to say that the support this project receives never fails to amaze me, and I’m deeply grateful for it, whether you’ve been able to afford to donate, offered kind words, or simply just liked and retweeted things as they went up.

I’m personally looking forward, as a teetotaller, to a very nice chill Hogmanay with my best friend tomorrow, bringing in the bells with some Mario Kart and a big bottle of Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola as is our tradition. Whatever your own plans are, and a lot of you will be having a much more raucous time than I will, I want to wish everyone who has followed Ballot Box Scotland through another year a very Happy New Year for when it comes. 

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