Nicola Sturgeon’s surprise resignation last Wednesday coincided with the end of data collection on our latest Scottish Opinion Monitor (Scoop) survey. At first this timing was dismaying, since we missed out on the chance to take the electorate’s temperature in the immediate aftermath of that bombshell development.
But the February 2023 Scoop ended up being the final poll of Scottish public opinion taken before Sturgeon’s announcement, which means it’s a useful yardstick of where voters were immediately before (and in a tiny handful of cases, quite literally just as) she decided to leave the stage.
The data were collected online by YouGov between the 10th and 15th of February, with the sample a representative cross-section of 1,239 Scots residents aged 18 and over. We circulated a press release and tables of key findings within 48 hours of Sturgeon’s announcement and made quite a splash – our Westminster vote intention figures showed Labour within touching distance of the SNP. However, there is considerably more nuance to the figures than this headline result suggests – it’s not all bad news for nationalists, and reports of the independence movement’s death are likely exaggerated.
In this blog, the first of two on the latest Scoop findings, we dig deeper into our data on the state of public opinion on Westminster vote intention, the prospects of the next general election being fought by the SNP as a “de facto referendum” and support for independence. A second blog will cover attitudes to devolution and gender recognition reform.
Strength in numbers
Firstly, we look at Westminster vote intention figures. The first graph shows our vote intention results for February 2023 with all parties included. Once “don’t knows” and other non-party responses are excluded and population weights applied, the data show that Labour trail the SNP by just 2.8 percentage points, and this is what caused such a commotion last week.
The next figure compares these vote intention figures for the top three parties with the same ones from the previous Scoop in November last year. Here we see that the Labour party recorded a 4.4 percentage point increase, while the SNP lost 3.2 percentage points. To pre-empt potential criticism here, it’s quite possible that our poll is an “outlier”; a public opinion survey which, for reasons of random variation in sample composition, over- or understates the actual opinions of the population as a whole.
However, in the context of those vote intention figures from November – which were not out of step with other polls taken around the same time – the change doesn’t look quite so enormous. The political weather has been tough going for the SNP since the beginning of the year, and the UK Labour party has looked increasingly like a “government in waiting”. Putting these together makes it plausible that Scottish Labour has closed some of the longstanding gap to the SNP in recent weeks.
Nat King Cope
It’s not all necessarily doom and gloom for the SNP, however. We also posed an additional question later in the survey asking respondents to “Please imagine the SNP do treat the next UK General Election as a ‘de facto referendum’. In this scenario, how would you vote?”, after offering a brief explanation of what this would entail. Below, we show the same graph as above but with the “de facto” Westminster election vote intention added.
Before readers get over-exercised about this, we must apply a major health warning. Asking survey respondents about hypotheticals is always dicey. People are notoriously bad at predicting how they would react to future events. It is also easy to imagine the SNP quickly running into difficulties in a de facto referendum scenario, particularly if, as some suggested, they ran on a single campaign pledge to negotiate independence. Other parties could attack the nationalists for prioritising abstract constitutional politics. Electors might prioritise removing the Conservatives from office. Indeed, we have evidence from the the February Scoop survey that Yes supporters are slightly more likely to do so, prioritising removing the Conservatives over maximising the number of pro-indy MPs in a direct tradeoff (by 41% to 36%, with the rest unsure).
With those caveats applied, it is striking that when the de facto context is added, Labour support declines quite substantially, by 7.6 percentage points, while the SNP and Conservatives both benefit at the margins. This speaks to Scottish Labour’s challenge over the past decade. The SNP has dominated the voting preferences of independence supporters and by extension the bulk of centre-left voters, while the Conservatives have successfully sold themselves as the strongest defenders of the union.
Give the caveats about hypothetical vote choice these figures cannot be treated as a prediction of what would actually happen in a de facto referendum scenario. It instead suggests that, as has been the case for several elections, Labour are likely to perform better when the constitutional issue is less salient. When vote choice is framed in terms of independence, a segment of voters drift away from Labour and revert to constitutional type.
Alluviate the pressure
The alluvial diagram below shows where individual respondents go between the first, standard Westminster vote intention question, and the later one phrased in the context of a “de facto” referendum. Again, to aid interpretation, we have removed all other parties because of the low total number of respondents selecting these. However, we do show the “don’t know” group, since this is the fourth largest overall and there is substantial and interesting movement among these respondents. Another cautionary note: due to the nature of the visualisation, there is no weighting, and we are talking about small overall numbers of respondents shifting from one party to another (group sizes are included in the graph below).
This visualisation does, however, give us a much better idea of what’s going on in the graphs above. When the “de facto” context is introduced, Labour support scatters more than is the case for other parties, with a sizeable net transfer to the SNP and, interestingly, some movement toward the “don’t know” category. Of those respondents who answered “don’t know” to the first, standard vote intention question, nearly half make their minds up in a ‘de facto’ context, mostly shifting to pro-union parties.
This highlights some very interesting dynamics. Labour’s apparent polling boost seems to be down to pro-indy Scots, which would make sense in light of the SNP’s recent difficulties. But these voters “come home” when the constitutional issue is put front and centre. We cannot make strong inferences here about whether Sturgeon’s favoured “de facto” strategy would actually benefit the party when rubber meets road. However, Labour support is relatively soft and depends on the wider political environment being one in which independence is considered less relevant.
From a glass-half-full perspective for Labour, however, it also demonstrates that a nontrivial share of pro-indy voters are Labour-curious and are open to backing the party in the right circumstances. Additionally, it seems that there’s a pool of committed No supporters who are currently only undecided on which specific pro-union party they would back (even, presumably, if the SNP decide to scrap their proposed election gambit).
Of course, the political challenges surrounding this de facto referendum strategy are non-trivial. The First Minister alluded to this in her speech, suggesting it would be unwise for her to get her own way on the issue at the now-postponed special conference and then pass the buck to a new leader who might have disagreed with the idea. Indeed, many within the SNP were sceptical of the approach – but do their coalition think it would be a wise move or not?
New plan indy works?
Helpfully, we can shed some light on how Scots perceived the strategy. Rather than ask respondents directly whether they believed it was a good idea or not, since this risks confusing the basic principle and its strategic wisdom, we simply asked whether people thought the adoption of this approach would ultimately make independence more or less likely to happen.
The figure below breaks this question down by independence vote intention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yes supporters are quite bullish about the idea, with 62% of them believing it would ultimately facilitate independence. Very few, just 8%, think it would harm the movement’s prospects. No backers are, on the whole, quite indifferent, with half saying it would make no difference. Only 12% believe the strategy would be effective in terms of increasing the chances of independence, and 28% say this would make it less likely. Nearly half of undecideds also believe it wouldn’t make a difference, but, interestingly, the remainder are more likely to believe the strategy would help rather than hurt the cause.
This might be because many of the “don’t know” group themselves lean towards Yes. For the first time in a Scoop survey, we followed the standard 2014 referendum wording independence vote intention item with a so-called squeeze question for these respondents: “If you had to choose a side, what is your best guess as to how you would vote?”
The first table below shows responses to the baseline independence vote intention question from the latest Scoop and the previous one in November, which showed a very narrow Yes lead. We observe here that Yes has lost the ground it gained last Autumn, while the share of undecided respondents has remained fairly constant.
|Response||Nov 22||Feb 23||Change|
|Would not vote||4.6||3.1||-1.5|
The next table shows how February Scoop respondents who answered “Don’t know” or “Would not vote” broke down when squeezed. Although we are talking about small overall numbers of respondents here, and the majority of undecideds stick with “Really can’t choose”, there are twice as many Yes leaners in this group than No leaners.
|Really can’t choose||57.9|
The final table shows how head-to-head Yes/No figures change when we add the squeezed respondents who picked a side. We also show a bar graph which better illustrates the improvement to Yes prospects when these respondents are added. And while the impact on head-to-head Yes/No numbers is marginal, it suggests that the pro-indy side commands somewhat more sympathy among those who haven’t entirely made up their minds. This group is, after all, the one which currently holds the balance of power.
|Vote intention||Baseline||After squeeze||Change|
Baseline excludes “Don’t know”/”Would not vote” respondents
Overall, the latest Scoop survey suggests that the SNP have lost ground to Labour of late and that Yes support has fallen back to pre-Autumn 2022 levels, closely resembling the 2014 referendum result. However, this is complicated when constitutional attitudes come into play. While it is difficult to know how a “de facto” referendum would work in practice, our data suggest the SNP could continue to capitalise on Yes support. Despite the First Minister’s claim that there is a majority in the country for Yes, the problem for nationalists is that they simply don’t have the numbers to win a referendum – de facto or otherwise – at this point in time.