The SNP’s Slide Into Summer

Six months ago, the SNP were riding high. The Supreme Court had not long confirmed that the Scottish Parliament had no ability to hold any form of Independence referendum. Although this was the obvious and unarguably constitutionally correct ruling, it jarred somewhat with public belief. Whilst voters may not necessary want an immediate referendum, they also tend to think that decision should belong to the Scottish Parliament, with a YouGov poll around the time showing 51% of Scots felt this way.

Seemingly as a result of this, support for Independence spiked into majority territory. The SNP meanwhile, as the party most associated with Independence, also profited. Their polling for the Scottish Parliament was as good as at had been since the 2021 election. Although some way below its peak, their UK Parliament polling was also healthily on par with their 2019 result, with an upswing for Labour having come primarily at the Conservatives’ expense instead.

If you’d outlined the events of the past six months to someone back then, they’d have assumed you were a deeply unhinged conspiracy theorist. Nicola Sturgeon, still clearly the most popular politician in Scotland, standing down out of nowhere? A bruising party leadership campaign featuring savage infighting, bizarrely puritanical unforced errors on social issues, and the resignation of the chief executive over membership numbers? The successive arrests (then release without charge) of that former chief executive, then the party treasurer, then even Nicola Sturgeon herself? Clearly, the ravings of one of the many Twitter users who desperately needs to log off and touch grass.

Yet that’s exactly what has happened. Humza Yousaf has spent his first three months as First Minister reeling from events far beyond his control on the one hand, whilst engaged in the worst constitutional wrangling of the devolution era with a UK Government, led by a party similarly rocked by internal strife, also fighting for its political survival. It could not be a worse time for the SNP, and it’s shown in the polling. Six months on from their post-Supreme Court decision peak, and with a fresh poll from just a few days ago in the mix, it seemed like the perfect time to take a look at what has been happening in polling overall.

Note: The polling averages throughout this piece are a (simple and arbitrary) 5-poll average, except that where that would include two Redfield & Wilton polls, the older poll is skipped over for the next most recent poll from another firm. The full trackers are available on the dedicated pages – for the Scottish Parliament, UK Parliament and Independence. Although Alba and Reform UK are not part of the trackers due to their low levels of support, I’ve included them in the regional vote analysis below for additional context.

Holyrood Regional Vote

Regional Vote Average (as of 15th of June 2023)
6 Month Regional Vote Average (from 16th of December 2022)
Regional Vote Swings
Regional Vote Analysis

Starting with the list vote, which is the one that most determines the overall shape of Holyrood, and the SNP are in their weakest position. Over the past six months, they’ve lost a quarter of their vote and now sit bang on 30%. One more particularly bad poll and they’ll dip down into the 20’s where Labour are already not exactly far behind them. Indeed, two of the polls in this average have the two parties tied, whilst the older Redfield & Wilton that is skipped over was the first poll to give Labour a lead since before the referendum.

That said although Labour are up significantly, about half as many votes again as they won in 2021, their growth over the past six months has been pretty modest. They’d already gained much of this ground from the Conservatives, who for their part had just been through the disastrous experiment with Liz Truss and all the economic and political consequences arising from that. Indeed the Conservatives have just as much growth since December on this vote, as they gradually recovered from that collapse. They’re still significantly below their 2021 result, but the worst appears to be over.

Rather than a direct flow from the SNP to Conservatives, some of this will be “churn”. Doubtlessly some of the Conservatives 2021 supporters will have drifted to Labour in December, before returning to the Conservatives in the months since. Those voters are then however more than made up for by direct shifts from 2021 and December SNP voters to Labour. That’s not to say there will be zero SNP to Conservative moves, it’s just that’s likely to be relatively small given the highly polarised nature of both voter bases.

The two smaller parties at Holyrood are also polling much better than their 2021 results with identical, more modest, gains since December. For the Greens there was an odd period where Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation seemed to hit them, leading to them briefly dipping below 10% for the first time since the election. At this point however they are at a joint-record polling high, to the degree that even allowing for their tendency to poll better than they perform on the day, they’d likely break into double figures. The Lib Dems meanwhile are only fractionally (0.4%) short of their own best polling this term.

Despite all the difficulties facing the two parties they might expect to share a voter pool with, neither Alba nor Reform UK are really registering. They weren’t in the most recent Savanta which gets counted as 0% in my averaging rather than ignored, but even if they had featured, it’d have only been good for another half a % or so. For Alba in particular, the biggest contributors to the little spikes in their support come from Panelbase polls. Yet, that’s the pollster that most overestimated them in 2021. (Shouting about me on Twitter doesn’t change that assessment either.) If Alba were going to have any success at all, you’d expect now to be when that’d start showing, and it simply hasn’t.

Holyrood Constituency Vote

Constituency Vote Average (as of 15th of June 2023)
6 Month Constituency Vote Average (from 16th of December 2022)
Constituency Vote Swings
Constituency Vote Analysis

The dynamics over on the constituency vote are broadly similar. However, the SNP retain a much wider advantage over Labour here, where they’ve “only” lost a fifth of their vote. The list vote may be the one that’s most consequential to the overall seat distribution, but the constituency vote does still matter, especially at the moment. Just like at Westminster, the more of this vote the SNP can hold onto, the more constituencies they can keep in their grasp. With their list vote so low, winning 7 or 8 constituencies in a region gives them a bit more than their proportional share and helps keep them out in front.

I will however add I think some of that is down to the fact it’s proven difficult for pollsters to get the Green vote “right” on the constituency ballot. Although they’re up on the list vote relative to December, they appear to be down on the constituency vote. In general, Green constituency polling is always well below their regional vote. Whilst some degree of gap is to be expected, in the 12 constituencies where the Greens did stand in 2021, it was nowhere near to this degree, with somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of their list vote being the norm. In an actual election, were the Greens to widely contest constituencies it’d further eat away at the SNP’s constituency vote – and Labour’s and the Lib Dems’, though not to near the same degree.

Turning back to the parties that actually usually win constituencies, Labour do have the greatest growth here by both measures. Whilst, again, they’d seen a large portion of this as a result of Conservative collapse, they’ve actually had the clear majority of it since December. Just like the list vote, the Conservatives have recovered a bit since that dire period, and the Lib Dems are just the tiniest bit shy of a term-so-far high on this ballot.

Holyrood Seat Projection

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

Holyrood Seat Projection from Average (as of 15th of June 2023)
6 Month Holyrood Seats Projection from Average (from 16th of December 2022)
Swings in Holyrood Seat Projection from Average
Holyrood Seat Projection Analysis

The current polling average projects to the barest of majorities for the SNP-Green government, at 65 seats to 64 for the opposition. Based on average vote shares, they’d slipped into minority territory by the end of April and remained there throughout May, but have edged just back in there. It’s a very different tale for each of those parties though, as the SNP were on their best projection of the term so far back in December, with one seat more than they needed for a majority, but have crashed down to the low 50’s. The Greens on the other hand have not only grown their projected seat tally relative to both December and 2021, but this is the most seats the polling average has ever projected to in their history.

It’s that Green uptick in recent polls that’s done most to keep Labour lagging far behind the SNP, as Labour had peaked at 37 seats whilst the SNP-Green government was projecting to a minority, but have had a net loss of 4 seats versus that peak, with the Greens being most of the gain since then. Indeed, although Labour’s vote share gains are higher versus December, their net seat gain of 3 over the past six months is the same as the Lib Dems. Driven in part by their decent growth in the regional vote, it’s the Conservatives that have made up the most ground recently, though they’d still be much depleted relative to 2021.

You should always bear the caveats in mind with projections, but especially so when we’re talking about one seat making the difference between a Pro-Independence and Pro-Union majority. Quite a few of the seats the SNP are projected to hold here only have a couple of percent in them, and outside of Central and South, losing any one of those would swing things towards the Pro-Union bloc. On the other hand, some of the projected Labour gains are similarly narrow, and could bolster the SNP-Green majority.

In fact, the most marginal seat in the entire country is none other than Glasgow Pollok, the First Minister’s seat, which goes to Labour by 0.03% in my model. That… is not an estimate to be confident in either way! It nonetheless won’t be particularly heartening for Humza Yousaf to consider that on current polling, he’d be out of a job, given the lack of compensating list seat in Glasgow.

Westminster Vote

Westminster Vote Average (as of 15th of June 2023)
6 Month Westminster Vote Average (from 16th of December 2022)
Westminster Vote Swings
Westminster Vote Analysis

In some respects, the Westminster side of the equation is similar to the Holyrood constituency vote. The SNP-Labour gap has narrowed, but remains at a level you’d still expect the SNP to win a clear majority of constituencies. The Conservatives have rebounded a little from their low point. The Lib Dems remain relatively static around the 8% mark, though here that represents a negative swing versus the election. And the Greens don’t really register, though a part of that is down to some pollsters not prompting for them on this side of things.

Yet what’s different here are the sizes of the swings relative to December. The SNP are still losing a big chunk of their vote, but they were already polling a bit lower here than at Holyrood. Only about a fifth of Labour’s gains have come in the past six months, having already gained 10% on their 2019 result by December.

What it looks like was happening in December was some Westminster-specific growth for Labour, perhaps rooted in a greater willingness of Scots to vote differently at each parliament in order to effect a change of Government down south. With the SNP also in complete disarray by now, Holyrood has snapped more into alignment with Westminster, but Westminster has likely seen the same Conservative to Labour back to Conservative balanced by SNP to Labour churn.

Independence Vote

Note that due to rounding in some polls, figures here don’t necessarily add up to bang on 100%. 

Independence Vote Average (as of 15th of June 2023)
6 Month Independence Vote Average (from 16th of December 2022)
6 Month Independence Vote Average (from 16th of December 2022, excluding Don't Knows)
Independence Vote Swings
Independence Vote Analysis

Back in December, Independence was polling at levels that hadn’t been seen since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with a clear lead over the Union. I’d said at the time however that I thought this wouldn’t last. My core argument was, and remains, that for all that Scotland is stuck on the constitution, we’re not generally debating the substance of it. Instead, we’re generally preoccupied with the process, and that does nothing to genuinely change minds, with polling dips and spikes proving short-lived as a result.

That has indeed proven to be the case, as support has swung back towards the Union in the past few months. However, what has become notable is that the swing hasn’t been comparable to the SNP’s loss of support at Holyrood. Indeed if we look at the Holyrood list vote, the net swing for the Pro-Independence parties of -7.4% is notably sharper than the -4.4% and -4.8% for Yes. There are some polls in this average which are run pretty close, to say nothing of the outlier of the Independence lead that Ipsos keep finding.

When we compare with the 2014 referendum, the dial has moved not insignificantly towards Independence. It remains the case that Independence can count on the support of nearly half of the population. For all that some of the most partisan users of social media interpret any negative movement for Independence or the parties that support it as a sign the prospect is dead, it’s still sitting at a level anyone more rationally minded should view with extreme discomfort. As much as the Pro-Independence camp would prefer to be ahead, the Pro-Union camp shouldn’t feel in any way happy about losing support since the referendum.

As I so often find myself doing, there are obvious notes of caution to be sounded for both sides here. Assuming that this near-tie will continue to be the norm outside a campaign period and that all that’s needed for an Independence majority is a genuine campaign is foolish. It ignores the possibility that, as time goes on, younger voters not yet polarised into either camp become less favourable to Independence, especially if there’s no longer a Conservative UK Government and the SNP have become a tarnished brand.

By the same token however, trusting the SNP to stay tarnished and for that to rub off on Independence fails to consider that the next UK Government has to actively work to grow support for the Union. It’s long been a weakness in the Labour case for the Union that it seems to hinge on them being in Government, when they so often aren’t. Failure to address that simply leaves the door open for dissatisfaction to boil over again in 10-15 years when they’re booted out again.

I know I make similar points over and over again, and that battering my head against the wall of tweets from daft roasters (on both sides) is largely fruitless, but it’s important to be clear about this. Confident partisan assertions may bring you comfort, but they don’t actually make what you’re claiming real. Scotland is completely stuck on the constitution and it turns out the departure of Nicola Sturgeon was not the “One Weird Trick The Nationalists Hate!!!” that so many hoped it would be.

What Next?

Haven’t the foggiest. Just before the SNP leadership contest ended in March, I did my best to do an even-handed think through of what the future could hold. I couldn’t have foreseen the arrests and consequent chaos that would follow shortly after. Yet, I also wrote in that piece that “the eye of the storm isn’t the most objective place for predictions.” That feels like sound advice to myself to avoid making firm predictions for the future given the storm has only gotten stronger. This piece has been intended as a look at how polling has shifted over the past six months, but how it’ll change over the second half of the year remains to be seen. 

Labour have already had one poll lead over the SNP at Holyrood, and they may yet manage more. It seems very hard to imagine the SNP won’t lose at least some seats to Labour at the next UK General Election. Yet beyond that, it’s very hard to say. A fresh Labour Government at UK level may very well prove the final impetus needed for a Scottish equivalent in 2026, especially if the final outcome of the investigation into the SNP’s finances is a bad one for the party. Yet, if it’s not as bad as all that, there remains time for them to rebuild, and for voters to decide based on Keir Starmer’s performance whether or not they feel like sticking with a different party at Holyrood.

Regardless, I will continue doing my best to report on polls, analyse trends, and keep followers informed. I always have the little donate box at the end of my articles, but it has been a particularly busy period in terms of polls lately, given how unsettled everything has been. If you can afford to do so, your support is more appreciated than ever, so please do consider popping a few quid in!

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