Allowing survey respondents to put things in their own words is underrated. In the 2021 Scottish Election Study – on top of typical closed-ended, multiple-choice questions about voting – we gave respondents the chance to tell us why they voted the way they did, allowing us to identify lines of analysis that we might otherwise have missed. While we can discern a lot from people’s constitutional preferences, ideologies, issue priorities and party evaluations, open-ended questions allow us to both gain an overview of the broad reasons for people’s choices and understand the more idiosyncratic reasons people might have for their vote.
In big-picture terms, the open text comments on vote choice reveal the that pro- and anti-independence voters pursued two different strategies. Those who backed the SNP and Scottish Greens made their choices for reasons specific to those parties – generally speaking, they liked their policies. For voters supporting pro-union patties, however, the focus was far more on who they were voting against as much as who they were supporting.
Looking at the responses of SNP voters more closely, we find a focus on Scotland, with comments about standing up for Scotland or picking the best party for Scotland particularly prevalent. Also popular were references to independence, or breaking free from some combination of the UK Government, Westminster or the Conservatives.
The First Minister’s handling of coronavirus was also important, with more than half of Nicola Sturgeon’s mentions referring favourably to pandemic handling. A combination of these views was easy to find: “I voted SNP because I want an independent Scotland. Also I respect Nicola Sturgeon as a leader and think she has handled the coronavirus crisis exceptionally.” There is some evidence that COVID has changed people’s thinking about parties: “I don’t normally vote because I don’t know enough about each party’s offerings but this year in covid has made me pay attention to government decisions and I have been really happy with SNP”.
There were frequent references to policies. However, specific mentions of individual policy areas were rare, and virtually nobody made reference to particular manifesto commitments beyond the promised independence referendum. All of these patterns are evident in the word cloud below, which visualises the relative prevalence of words across the responses for SNP voters. Our findings on the SNP here are not dissimilar to those identified by the Welsh Election Study for Welsh Labour, in which the country and the First Minister Mark Drakeford’s name featured prominently.
We see similar patterns for the Scottish Greens, whose own voters’ word cloud is shown below. These are the reasons voters gave for their choice in constituency contests, and so there are far fewer Green constituency voters than there are Green list voters. While the references to Scotland are less prevalent we see a similar pattern in terms of support for independence and references to the environment as well as a belief that they are the best party. References to the SNP included those who supported independence and liked both parties, as well as those who supported independence were not particularly keen on an SNP majority. As one respondent put it, their votes were “pro-independence but aren’t the SNP as I don’t think a majority government is a good thing.”
We see a completely different pattern for those backing pro-union parties. In each instance, the most frequently cited word for supporters of the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats is the SNP. Words like “stop”, “out” and “tactical” also appeared with regularity, while references to particular policies were rare.
Very few Conservative voters gave Tory-specific reasons for choosing this party over other possible pro-union parties: “I voted for my particular party as I did not want to vote SNP. I do not like SNP and do not want independence”. The Conservatives were clearly advantaged by the perception that they were best placed to challenge the nationalists. Other positive reasons included their management of the economy. Incredibly, no one mentioned either Boris Johnson or Douglas Ross.
Labour voters’ reasons were largely similar, with frequent references to tactical voting, stopping the SNP or another independence referendum. While party-specific references were still uncommon, there were a substantial number of references to the party’s Scottish leader Anas Sarwar. Respondents also sometimes referred to specific candidates: “First, Labour were the best placed to keep out the SNP in my constituency. My MSP is very good, he helped out my family with casework, so I wanted to keep him. And I like Anas Sarwar.” In addition, Labour voters were more likely to talk about how the party represents people like them, with frequent references to representing the working class.
As with other pro-union voters, Liberal Democrat voters referred to tactical voting and stopping independence. As with Labour, there were more party-specific references than for Conservative voters. This included their position on Europe, but also their support for better funding and services for mental health: “I’m a unionist left of centre but don’t trust or like Labour, pro EU so voted Lib Dem”.
This analysis reinforces what we already know about Scottish elections and especially 2021 – that pro-union voters are primarily motivated by a desire to prevent another referendum and deprive the SNP of power. Meanwhile, pro-independence voters see a lot to like in the movement’s dominant party and figurehead. Pro-union voters cannot afford to be picky. However, as stated in yesterday’s post about constitutional Tribes, there is a ceiling to this type of cross-party coordination – both in terms of selecting the correct strategy and in convincing some voters to lend support to parties they otherwise dislike. We’ll return later this week with more detailed analysis of split-ticket voting, which will help us develop a stronger understanding of the numbers involved.