Today’s analysis piece is a very exciting milestone for Ballot Box Scotland – this is the first time I’ve commissioned a poll of my own, thanks to generous crowdfunding support! What that means is a professional polling firm, in this case Survation, carried out all the fieldwork and data compilation. I set the questions, with guidance from them and using their “standard” set for voting intention. This is no different to when e.g. the Scotsman or Sunday Times commission polling – in all cases, we’re just the clients, and have no influence over the findings.
I’m always keen for polling to come from diverse sources, which is why I deliberately commissioned Survation for this, as we hadn’t heard from them yet this Holyrood term. This poll ran from the 24th to 28th of March, and I’ll be publishing it in two parts. This side covers all the usual polling bits, and a separate article looks at the local components.
Holyrood figures are therefore changes only versus the election, whereas Westminster and Independence are versus their last pre-Holyrood poll from the 30th of April – 4th of May 2021. Changes for those are shown as (vs that poll / vs last election).
The past couple of ComRes polls have found comparatively low shares for the SNP on the list side of things, and Survation are now corroborating that. They’d still be clearly out in front, but this is a joint worst figure of the term so far. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the findings, and I’ll have some thoughts about parts of that in tomorrow’s piece.
By contrast this is the best regional poll yet for Labour, putting them firmly in second place and with their widest lead over the Conservatives since last year’s election. Indeed, as we go through this article (and tomorrow’s), you’ll see it makes for much happier reading for Anas Sarwar than it does for Douglas Ross.
Turning to the smaller parties, both the Greens and Lib Dems record solid increases versus the election, but not anything remarkable compared to some other recent polls. Both would nonetheless be more than happy with these results at a full election. Alba meanwhile continue to languish near oblivion.
On the constituency side, the SNP maintain their mammoth lead. This is still their joint-worst figure of the term, but they’ll find that status less concerning attached to 46% than they will 34%. Similar to the regional poll, we also see Labour opening up a big lead over the Conservatives. That makes this overall poll Labour’s best so far in this Holyrood session, which is sure to put a spring in their step ahead of May’s local elections.
Projecting that into seats might give us something like this:
As you’d expect, if Labour are on their best poll of the term, that projects to their highest seat share of the term. It’s still only a modest recovery at 26 seats, but it puts them three clear of the Conservatives, the widest gap so far. The SNP nonetheless remain way out in front, and a slightly larger Green contingent would comfortably enable the continuation of their co-operative government.
After much complaining on my part about the lack of Westminster polling, this poll let me take matters into my own hands. We haven’t had a Scotland-only Westminster poll so far this year, and this is a doozy. Although the SNP remain well clear of their competitors, Labour surge into by far their best Westminster figure since the 2019 election. Their previous peak had been 23% in a Survation poll last March.
The Conservatives may have thought the worst of the Lockdown Parties storm had passed, but if this is what it looks like after the storm, Douglas Ross may dread to imagine what it’d have looked like during. This gives Anas Sarwar and his party further cause to celebrate this poll, but a word of caution. 27% was what Labour won in Scotland in 2017, and it then netted them 7 MPs. However, most of those were very narrow wins over an SNP that was on 37%.
As the SNP are unmoved from their 2019 share of 45%, Labour gains if this result came about might be much more limited. Indeed, they could still place behind the Conservatives and Lib Dems in terms of seats. Whilst a couple of Conservative and one of the Lib Dems’ seats are clearly vulnerable, they are well dug into three each, even allowing for likely boundary changes. First Past the Post makes it extremely hard to accurately represent this kind of shift in the electorate.
Over on the ol’ constitutional question things are a little less exciting – no new heights or lows. It feels like we’re now settling into a period of consistent, but not massive, leads for the pro-Union camp. And since the comparison with the last poll here is from 11 months previously, that adds to a general sense of stasis. It seems like after a period of drama throughout 2020, nothing much is moving.
As much as the constitution can feel all-consuming, it’s perhaps become so much background noise to the electorate. In the absence of any specific, high profile campaigns in support of either option, I don’t expect we’ll see all that much change either way for a while.
Long time followers of Ballot Box Scotland will know I’m a tireless (or tiresome, your mileage may vary) advocate of proportional representation – both improving on the systems Scotland currently has, and bringing it in for Westminster. No surprise that given the chance, I was going to ask questions about it.
Support for PR at Westminster
Since Westminster remains the only Scottish election without PR, starting with views on changing that made sense – especially in light of the scenario outlined in the Westminster section. This question, adapted from a similar question asked by Make Votes Matter at UK-level, read:
“Proportional Representation is the collective name given to electoral systems which ensure that the proportion of seats a party receives in Parliament closely reflects the proportion of votes they received from voters. To what extent do you support or oppose such a system for elections to the UK Parliament?”
A substantial majority of voters, 56% in total, supported using PR for UK elections, whilst only 11% were opposed. That means twice as many people strongly support PR as oppose it at all. Opponents are similarly less than half the number of people who aren’t really fussed either way.
This is in line with UK-level polling which consistently finds more support than opposition for PR. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that Scotland has so much more experience with forms of PR, this poll found higher support and lower opposition than in any of the polls in MVM’s linked tracker chart. Voters understandably want fairer, more representative elections, that better reflect the diversity of public opinion, and they get that at every other election in Scotland.
Understanding of First Past the Post
I also was curious as to how well Scotland’s array of voting systems are understood. It stands to reason that anyone who isn’t utterly obsessed with politics (read: is normal) doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about voting systems, and could find it confusing to have so many different systems in the one country.
First up was FPTP: “UK Parliament elections use the First Past the Post voting system, where each constituency is represented by the single candidate who wins the most votes. How would you rate your understanding of this voting system?”
Unsurprisingly given the simplicity of the system, the vast majority (73%) of respondents felt they had a good understanding of it, compared to just 18% who felt their understanding was poor. I’d also reckon the fact we get so much more coverage of FPTP elections, both in terms of Westminster and the over-focus on the constituency side of Holyrood, has helped familiarise people with how it works. Plus, it’s long established.
Understanding of the Additional Member System (AMS)
Now, what about the Holyrood voting system? To my frustration, “complex” is the go-to description of AMS for any journalist, but do voters feel the same? I asked: “Scottish Parliament elections use the Additional Member System (AMS) which combines constituencies electing the single candidate who wins the most votes with larger regions electing multiple candidates via proportional representation. How would you rate your understanding of this voting system?”
Just about half (49%) of voters reckoned they had a good understanding of AMS – and only 11% a very good understanding. A sizeable 39% were shakier in their grasp of AMS, more than twice as many as for FPTP. If I was to hazard a guess, the double-vote nature and how the two interact are likely to be the major points of confusion for folk here.
Understanding of the Single Transferrable Vote (STV)
Last but not least, I asked about STV: “Local elections use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, where voters rank candidates 1, 2, 3 in order of preference to elect a handful of candidates via proportional representation. How would you rate your understanding of this voting system?”
Although not as strong as FPTP, this shows a clear majority (58%) rating their understanding of STV as good, whilst just under a third (31%) reckoned they might need a bit of a refresher. It’s interesting STV is better understood than AMS, because the maths of allocating seats is objectively much, much more complex (and justifies that term) than it is in AMS.
That perhaps backs up a point I often make when it comes to electoral reform – the maths of the system really don’t matter that much to voters. They don’t need nor care to understand how it works under the bonnet, any more than they do for a car or bus. They just need to be confident of casting their vote (or that the vehicle won’t explode, to torture the metaphor). STV is indeed as easy as 1,2, 3 for a voter, and it seems that’s less of a head scratcher than having two bits of paper for the one election under AMS.
Consistency of Voting Systems
It’s one of Scotland’s real oddities is that we’ve ended up with three different voting systems – before the UK left the EU, it was four. No election uses the same system as any other, likely reflecting the utterly disjointed process by which each came about. That almost certainly contributes to some of the lack of understanding voters expressed in the previous questions – you’ve no sooner got your head round one system, than the next election rolls around with a different one.
I therefore wanted to know people’s views on rectifying this: “Scotland currently uses three different voting systems for UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and Local elections. Which of the following statements is closest to your view?” (The answer statements were longer, but I’ve shortened them for the chart.)
An overwhelming majority of voters would prefer to ditch our weird patchwork and move to a single voting system for every election. A clear plurality, but not quite a majority, would like for that to be a form of PR. Interestingly, despite the fact that only 11% of respondents expressed outright opposition to using PR at Westminster, more than twice that number would nonetheless prefer FPTP to be the standard voting system. It’s worth noting Don’t Knows were highest here, suggesting quite a few respondents perhaps needed more time to think about the issue than they get when filling out a poll.
As ever, the last little bit of analysis concerns those hypothetical and more proportional voting systems that I have a bee in my bonnet about here at BBS. The fact Westminster uses pure FPTP is an affront to democracy, and though Holyrood fares far better, AMS is still deeply imperfect. The examples here simply transpose the poll findings onto more proportional voting systems – the reality is that different systems would of course result in different voter behaviour.
For the moment, although the maps are useful for illustrative purposes, I’m opting just to show these hypotheticals as charts. It’s very time consuming making maps, and for these pure hypotheticals, it’s possibly a bit overkill.
Simply reforming AMS just can’t fix the disjoint between the SNP’s two vote shares – and commanding lead in constituencies. That means although the pro-Union parties have a lead in votes here, there’d still be a majority of seats for the co-operative SNP/Green government in this hypothetical…
… but use a more fully proportional voting system and, as has been the case in other recent polls, that government would be a minority. It’s always important to bear in mind that similar to the 2007-2011 parliament, even with a hardening of constitutional position since then, this wouldn’t guarantee a change of lead party given the ideological diversity of parties. It would however necessitate at least some form of shift in composition of government or at least how it operates in the chamber.
Scandinavian Style Westminster
Whereas the expectation under FPTP is that Labour would find it hard to really leverage their substantial lead over the Conservatives, given how far ahead the SNP remain, bring in a fairer voting system (as we know voters support in principle) and it’s a very different story. They’d open up a solid lead of 4 seats over the Conservatives. Similar to Holyrood, there’d be a combined pro-Union majority in this scenario, with the SNP short a few seats of an overall lead.
But remember! The excitement of Ballot Box Scotland’s first ever poll isn’t quite over yet. There’s a section on local elections and government too – and you’ll want to check back first thing tomorrow morning for that. Some of the findings are, to say the least… spicy.
If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.