Where the party has lost voters, they were turned off by its pro-European stance—not its support for a second independence referendumby John Curtice / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
It has been a tough few months for the SNP. In June the party lost 21 of the 56 Westminster seats that it had secured two years previously. Later that month the party’s leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, put her plans to hold a second independence referendum by spring 2019—that is, before the UK is due to leave the EU—on pause. Meanwhile, the party’s attempts to persuade the UK government to soften its stance on Brexit have so far come to naught.
Yet as the party gathers for its annual conference, its difficulties are, perhaps, all too easily exaggerated. Two polls conducted in the last few weeks, one from Survation and one from YouGov, both suggest that the slide in the party’s support registered in the UK general election has been stemmed. One put support for the party in a forthcoming Westminster election at 39 per cent. The other at 40 per cent, some two to three points above what the SNP secured in June.
True, the party’s support is still down on the 46.5 per cent vote it secured on the constituency ballot in the Scottish Parliament election last year. However, standing at 41-42 per cent in three recent polls of Holyrood vote intentions, the party is still way ahead of all of all of its rivals.
Indeed, opposition to the party is now as divided as ever. Earlier this year it looked as though Labour could be swept to irrelevance north of the border, with the unionist vote coalescing around a revived Conservative Party. But now the Scottish Tory revival appears to have stalled, while the modest recovery in Labour support registered in June continues.
“Support for the SNP dropped by 20 points between 2015 and 2017 amongst Leave voters”
On average recent polls put the Conservatives on 26 per cent in voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament, with Labour narrowly behind on 24 per cent. Meanwhile in polling for a UK election Labour are narrowly ahead on 28 per cent (up a point on June) with the Conservatives on 25 per cent (down four points). At present both parties are a long way away from being able to mount a credible challenge as an alternative government to the SNP at Holyrood.
Meanwhile, the impression is all too easily given that the sharp decline in SNP support in June’s UK general election is an indication that support for its raison d’être, independence, has fallen dramatically too. In truth, any drop in support has been minimal, and the idea is still more or less as popular as it was on the occasion of the independence referendum three years ago. At the beginning of this year support for independence was running on average at 47 per cent, while the most recent polls point to 44 per cent.
That said, even a small drop in support for independence is far from what Sturgeon anticipated when, in the immediate wake of the EU referendum last year, the First Minister first began to prosecute the case for an early referendum. Her expectation that Scots would rise up in anger at the prospect of being required to leave the EU even though a clear majority north of the border had voted to Remain proved to be wide of the mark. For most unionists being part of the UK matters much more to them than remaining in the EU, and so few have been persuaded by Brexit to change their minds on the independence question.
Indeed, rather than simply being occasioned by opposition to an early independence referendum (as is widely assumed), much of the drop in the SNP vote in June looks as though it was occasioned by the party’s ardent support for the pro-European cause. Between one quarter and one third of 2015 SNP voters actually voted to leave, and according to the British Election Study, support for the party dropped by 20 points between 2015 and 2017 amongst Leave voters, compared with just five points amongst those who voted to Remain.
The combination—support for independence remaining well below 50 per cent and the party’s pro-European stance costing it valuable electoral support—has given Sturgeon more than enough reason to put on hold the proposition that a second independence referendum should be held in order to escape Brexit. Expect things to remain that way—unless and until the Brexit negotiations go seriously awry.