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Pro-Unionist Tactical Voting In Scotland Closing Labour-SNP Gap, Pollsters Suggest

Keir Starmer and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (Alamy)

5 min read

Pro-unionist tactical voting could propel the Labour vote in Scotland at the next general election, pollsters have suggested, as the party have closed the gap on the SNP in the last year.

The SNP have declined in the Westminster polls in Scotland over the last year, while Labour's position has improved, with figures from pollster Savanta indicating the SNP have gone from a 21 point lead last June, to now drawing level with Labour. 

Earlier this month, Keir Starmer’s party defeated the SNP to win a by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West with more than 58 per cent of the votes, and a swing of more than 20 per cent to Labour. 

Reacting immediately after the result, Labour campaigners hoped that the result could indicate more seats across Scotland could be open to the party than previously expected. 

Chris Hopkins, political research director at Savanta, told PoliticsHome that the Rutherglen vote saw “very well executed unionist tactical voting” and that “ we could see that again” when a general election comes around. 

A poll by Savanta for the Scotsman newspaper this weekend put Labour and the SNP neck and neck on Westminster voting intention ast 35 per cent each. It was the first time the two parties had tied in a Savanta poll. 

The Conservatives were in third on 19 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats on 6 per cent. 

If that played out at the ballot box, Hopkins believes it could see Labour gain more seats than the SNP, thanks to a concentration of the SNP vote in certain areas. 

Patrick English, associate director for political and social research at YouGov agreed that “there’s a lot of pro-union tactical voting going on within constituencies in Scotland,” and thinks that Labour have taken the pro-unionist space in Scotland that was previously occupied by the Conservatives in the years after the independence referendum in 2014. 

“Whereas Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives really established themselves as the second party of Scottish politics, as the party pushing for that pro-union coalition in previous electoral cycles, which also correlated with Conservative governance.

"That was a very different story to the one we're seeing now where it's Labour and it's [Scottish Labour leader] Anas Sarwar who are doing that and really, really pushing that agenda very hard being the party of no, being the party of pro unionism, and being the party that everyone needs to get behind to beat the SNP,” he explained. 

“That's changed fundamentally over the last five years: five years ago it was the Conservatives, now it's Labour.” 

The SNP are gathered in Aberdeen this week for their annual conference, and party leader and Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has urged members to use the next general election to “put independence front and centre”. 

This weekend, SNP members voted to back the policy that they would have a mandate to negotiate independence with the UK government, if they won a majority of Westminster seats in Scotland at the next general election. 

It is a change to the previous strategy, set out by party leader Yousaf in June, and means that the SNP would need to win 29 of the 57 seats in Scotland to begin the discussions. 

In the summer, the First Minister brought forward a proposal that the SNP only needed to win more seats than the next largest party in Scotland to hold those conversations. 

Hopkins compared the changing attitude to the SNP in Scotland to that being to the Conservatives among portions of English voters. 

He explained: “I think the sense that we get from respondents is that all of a sudden the tables have been turned on the SNP on their record of governing in Scotland, it’s not all  about independence anymore." 

He added: “It’s very similar to what we’re seeing in England with the Conservatives. There would be a lot of people who would be very tempted to vote Conservative if things were good, but their record in the eyes of voters isn’t that great.”

English detects a similar “growing frustration” with the Scottish electorate with the SNP, with voters feeling like “a lot of the main issues facing people in their day to day lives weren’t being addressed.” 

Starmer labelled the result in Rutherglen earlier this month as “seismic” and that the result was the “culmination of three and a half years of hard work” winning back the trust of voters in Scotland. 

Although party figures had been expecting for the seat to go Labour, having last elected an MP from the party in 2017, campaigners were surprised by the size of the swing and subsequent majority. 

English thinks that the SNP vote will “recover a little bit” as polls narrow and election day gets nearer “and the extent to which that recovery happens will probably determine whether Labour gets 25 wins in Scotland or ten to 15”. 

He added: “I think it’s going to be all eyes on what Humza Yousaf can do and what the SNP can do to reassure, regenerate and re-energise that base to come out and vote for them at a Westminster election.” 


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