by Chris Carman, Fraser McMillan and Ailsa Henderson
It is easy to forget what was going on in domestic British politics before Russia launched its war of aggression in Ukraine in late February. A short time ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was dangling by a thread in the wake of allegations he and various other senior officials had broken their own COVID-19 lockdown rules by hosting parties at Downing Street during periods of severe restrictions on public liberty. The opposition and even members of Johnson’s own party, including its leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, publicly called on the PM to resign as an internal investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray spawned a Metropolitan Police probe into the alleged rule breaches.
With the knock-on effects of the Ukraine crisis begining to bite and the UK cost of living crisis deepening, domestic politics have gradually crept back onto the agenda. The political scientist Anthony Downs observed half a century ago that attention to new emergencies eventually fades and politics gradually returns to “normal”. As the Russian invasion has turned into a long siege, issues such as ethics in public life, COVID-19 and the cost of living have re-emerged.
While Ross withdrew his call for the PM to step down (causing a political brouhaha north of the border) and Labour leader Keir Starmer appealed for cross-party unity in light of international events, the “Partygate” story may not yet have reached its climax. Johnson’s brand remains badly damaged, and the Ukraine situation may, if anything, have exacerbated the ethical issues surrounding his leadership by highlighting the heavy involvement of Russian oligarchs and their wealth in domestic and, specifically, Conservative party politics.
Trust me, I’m a politician
It is this context in which we examine the impact of the Partygate scandal on Scottish public opinion. As part of the Scottish Election Study’s regular series of Scottish Opinion Monitor (SCOOP) surveys, at the start of March 2022 we asked Scots a number of questions designed to evaluate how much they trust people working in politics, how they feel about rule-breaking by public officials and how they feel about Partygate and other issues in light of the shifting global context.
Our survey was administered online by YouGov between the 1st and 8th of March 2022, who contacted a sample of 1,250 voting-age adults (16+) living in Scotland. The figures shown below are derived from the sample with population-representative weights applied. Our first question to respondents was as follows:
“How much of the time, if at all, do you think you can trust people who work in politics to behave ethically in their job?”
Only 13% of our sample said that they trust people who work in politics to behave ethically “always” or even “most of the time”. Almost half (48%) answered “only some of the time” and 39% responded “almost never”. Whilst striking, these results should not surprise as they are consistent with recent research from IPPR that shows that people across Britain (63% in November 2021) believe politicians are “out for themselves” rather than for their party or the country.
We see a rather different pattern across people identifying themselves as a supporter of one of Scotland’s big three parties. 29% of self-described Conservatives were on the more trusting side (“always” or “most of the time”), while only 17% of Labour and 11% of SNP supporters were inclined toward the trusting end of the scale. Amongst both Conservative and Labour supporters, about 27% said they never trusted those in politics to behave ethically, while this number was 43% among SNP identifiers.
Even though respondents had not been shown any specific prompt about Partygate at this point in the survey – indeed this was the very first question we asked – this discrepancy suggests that partisanship influenced the way people responded. In the current political climate, Scottish Conservatives appear more trusting than other partisans.
What about those who regard themselves as unaffiliated with any particular party? This group, comprising 40% of our sample, represents a much bigger share of the electorate than identifiers of any single party. And this group is even more pessimistic than SNP supporters about the ethical standards of people working in politics. Amongst this segment of respondents, 46% said they only “sometimes” trust and 44% said they “never” trust people working in politics to behave ethically.
A similarly partisan pattern emerged when we asked for respondents’ views on whether politicians should sometimes bend the rules to accomplish their goals. Specifically, we asked the following:
“Some people think that, in politics, it’s sometimes necessary to bend the rules in order to get things done. Other people think that in politics it’s important to respect the rules, even if it sometimes makes it harder to get things done. Which comes closer to your view?”
Overall, 71% of respondents said is it is important to respect the rules in politics, and just 15% said it was sometimes necessary to bend the rules. Digging deeper, we find substantial variation across partisan groups. SCOOP respondents who did not align themselves with a party disapproved of political rule-bending, with 66% saying it is important to stick to the rules. Amongst Conservatives, however, 38% said that sometimes it is necessary to bend the rules in politics. The equivalent figures were just 15% and 8% for Labour and SNP identifiers respectively. It is hard to imagine that partisan motivated reasoning is not playing some role here. That said, it is worth bearing in mind that a (slim) majority of Conservatives still believe that it is important to respect the rules.
Is the party over?
The above questions were phrased in a general way, without referring to specific political actors or institutions by name – only to “people who work in politics”. The elephant in the room for the above questions is the recent Partygate story and the ongoing investigations it begot. To assess the impact of Partygate more directly, we asked our respondents questions about the parties specifically.
“Some people say that the recent revelations about parties during lockdown, including ones attended by the Prime Minister, have made them change their minds about other political issues, while others disagree. What about you, has news about the parties made you more or less likely to do any of the following.”
|More Likely||No Difference||Less Likely|
|Vote Conservative in UK election||6%||38%||56%|
|Vote Labour in UK election||31%||52%||17%|
|Follow current COVID rules||18%||60%||22%|
|Follow restrictions on social gatherings if there is another lockdown||18%||54%||27%|
Although we must be careful not to over-interpret so-called “trial heat” polling questions asking about hypothetical voting behaviour, nonetheless, the 56% who report that they are now “less likely” to vote for the Conservative party in a UK election is a much bigger share of the electorate than those possible voters the party might have written off, such as core pro-independence or SNP voters.
And when we take a closer look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this response is certainly not limited to people who were already unlikely to vote Tory. While these individuals do of course account for a substantial share of people saying Partygate makes it less likely they would vote Conservative, even among respondents who voted for the party in the 2019 General Election, more than one in four (28%) said that the scandal made it less likely they would do so again. Given the instrumental nature of Tory support in Scotland – many of their supporters are committed unionists rather than committed big-C Conservatives – this ought to cause some concern within the party. When push comes to shove, voters often return to the fold, but this is far from guaranteed given the pro-union alternatives presented by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Many SCOOP respondents also reported that the Partygate revelations – accusations that the politicians and civil servants broke their own lockdown rules – would affect their own personal behaviour in following future pandemic guidance. This fits with a large body of political science research which has consistently found that people are less likely to follow and comply with rules that they believe are procedurally unfair and unequally applied. It is no surprise then that in early March around a quarter of Scots said that they would be less likely to follow additional restrictions on socialising should there be another lockdown.
Bread and butter vs. despot nutter
Returning to where we began this post, one might think that under the shadow of the first inter-state war in Europe in decades, the worsening cost of living crisis and continued economic hardship for individual voters, that “now is not the time” to change leadership, as Douglas Ross claimed in his reversal on Boris Johnson. The war in Ukraine started just before our survey went to the field, and so we posed respondents the following question:
“Some people say that with all the big problems in the world today, certain issues just seem less important than before. Others disagree, saying those issues are more important than ever. Given everything going on in the world today, would you say the following are more or less important than before?”
|More Important||No Difference||Less Important|
|Ethical standards of people who work in politics||62%||31%||7%|
|The Westminster “partygate” allegations||44%||33%||23%|
|The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union||48%||36%||16%|
“Everything going on in the world today” is, of course, deliberately vague. It could refer to the pandemic, post-Brexit economic adjustments, the rising cost of living, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or some combination of all of these. Whichever way respondents interpreted this, it is clear these prominent issues do not detract from concerns about Partygate – or ethical issues more broadly – in the Scottish public’s mind. We can’t say from these questions how many people agree with Douglas Ross that “now is not the time” to remove Johnson from office, but we can be fairly certain that with 62% saying ethical standards are now more important, the issue of professional and political ethics will not fall off the agenda any time soon.
There is, of course a partisan element to responses here as well. Amongst people who previously told us they voted Labour at the 2019 general election, 68% said ethical standards are now more important, and amongst SNP supporters that number is 72%. Conservative voters remain distinct, with nearly half (48%) saying ethical standards are more important and almost the same number (46%) saying global events make no difference.
We see an even larger gap between party supporters when we ask about the actual Partygate allegations. Here, 60% of people who said they voted Labour in 2019 and 53% of those who said they voted SNP thought the Partygate allegations were more important, and 30% of each group said that world events make no difference to the importance of the allegations. Scottish Conservative voters appear far less vexed by Partygate and more in-line with their leader’s view, with 44% saying everything going on in the world today makes the Partygate allegations less important and 39% saying such events make no difference.
Turning from voters to those who specifically identify with a party, the above numbers tend to strengthen a bit. For instance, for Scottish Conservative partisans, 47% said that Partygate is less important in light of world events and 41% said such events make no difference. And what about the all-important unaffiliated group who are more likely to swing from one election to another? Amongst respondents with no party identity, 40% said that the Partygate allegations were more important with everything going on in the world today and 36% said world events make no difference to the allegations’ importance.
It’s clear that the scandal retains traction north of the border; the real question is whether the public’s view of its relative importance will translate into votes at the local council elections in May or even the next general election. To this end, we asked SCOOP respondents about Westminster vote intention in both December and March (note that each SCOOP is its own cross-section, it is not a panel study which aims to retain the same respondents over and over).
|Party||December share||March share||Change|
The Table above shows the figures from each survey and the change in-between. While the scandal does not seem to have done anything to dissuade prospective Conservative voters, there has been a modest shift (+3.1) to the SNP. Coincidentally, this number precisely matches the reduction in the number of people who said they wouldn’t vote. The “other” party share has also declined slightly (-1.5). While all of these changes are within the margin of error and should not be overstated, it could well be that the Partygate revelations have helped to mobilise a small number of supporters behind the SNP, drawn from those who were previously apathetic or unattached to other parties. Continued misbehaviour by Westminster officials could easily further galvanise nationalist voters.
Finally, returning to the question about whether global events changed people’s minds about other issues, we also asked if the situation made Brexit and Scottish independence more important. What we found seems to be driven by patterns we would expect in light of our previous work on Scotland’s political “tribes”.
Looking at the Brexit question, among Leavers (i.e. those who identify with the pro-Brexit Leave side), 52% said world events make no difference and 29% said world events make Brexit more important. This contrasts starkly with identity Remainers, among whom nearly two thirds (63%) believe Brexit has increased in importance in light of world events. A further 26% said it makes no difference and just 11% think it makes Brexit less important. And for those who do not identify with either of the Brexit sides, around half (48%) say world events make no difference to Brexit’s importance, with the other half roughly evenly split between the other options.
Turning attention to Scottish independence, roughly two-thirds (67%) of Yes identifiers think that world events make independence more important… and roughly two-thirds (64%) of No supporters think that world events make independence less important. For the uncommitted middle, 34% say independence is less important and 26% say independence is more important given the state of the world. If we break down this non-aligned group further by examining how they say they would vote in another indyref, the attitudes of those who lean towards either side closely resemble those of the respondents who identify with each side.
Overall, what can we say about the “stickiness” of the Partygate allegations and concerns about ethical behaviour for the Scottish public? From our SCOOP survey conducted in early March 2022, it seems unlikely that concerns about ethics and rule-breaking at the very top of the UK Government will fade any time soon. And whilst there is a clear partisan pattern to the distribution of concern among the respondents in Scotland, there is evidence that even some who voted Conservative in 2019 are concerned enough about ethical standards that they might not vote for the party in future.
Although we are yet to see this manifest in vote intention polling, distaste with Westminster could also feasibly mobilise those on the other side of the constitutional fence. We are little more than two years away from the next UK General Election – it remains to be seen if Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives into that contest.