Labour still face an uphill battle to win over Scottish voters despite falling SNP support
4 min read
Humza Yousaf was the overwhelming favourite to become the next SNP leader among his fellow MSPs at Holyrood and among those who occupy the SNP benches at Westminster.
In the event his margin of victory over his principal rival, Kate Forbes, was a narrow one, following a leadership contest which raised questions about his personal competence and exposed some important divisions within the party over both economic and social policy. Against that backdrop it is not surprising that some are asking whether the decade of SNP dominance in Scottish politics is coming to an end.
Labour’s attempt to appeal to voters north of the border is potentially constrained by its opposition to a reversal of Brexit
Nowhere is the speculation more febrile than within the ranks of the Labour party. Restoring at least some of the strength that the party formerly enjoyed north of the border could make it significantly easier for the party to secure an overall majority at the next United Kingdom general election and thus avoid the potential nightmare of trying to sustain a minority Labour administration in a House of Commons in which the SNP might hold the balance of power.
But how much trouble are the SNP really in? Certainly, at 40 per cent their average standing in Westminster voting intention polls – conducted since Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation in the middle of February – is lower than it has been since the last election in 2019. Meanwhile, in tandem with its much improved position south of the border, Scottish Labour is as strong now as it has been at any point in the last four years. At 30 per cent the party finds itself just 10 points adrift of the SNP across Scotland as a whole. That implies a swing of 8 per cent from the SNP to Labour, enough to topple 10 of the Westminster seats that the SNP currently hold.
Still, voting behaviour in Scotland these days is heavily influenced by people’s attitudes towards the constitutional question. Most of those who support independence vote for the SNP, while relatively few of those who would prefer to remain in the Union do not. That said, Labour is the one pro-Union party that has some measure of success in securing the support of those who back independence. In recent polls, on average 15 per cent of those who voted “Yes” in 2014 have said they would vote Labour, while just five per cent support the Conservatives and only two per cent the Liberal Democrats.
Nevertheless, most of Labour’s advance – which south of the border began when the Partygate storm first broke over Boris Johnson in December 2021 – has occurred among unionist supporters. That 15 per cent tally among “Yes” supporters represents only a six-point increase in Labour support since the second half of 2021. In contrast, the party now enjoys 42 per cent support among those who backed “No” in 2014, an increase of 14 points over the same period. So far at least, winning over nationalist votes has proven a harder task than scooping up unionist ones in the wake of Conservative misfortune.
Meanwhile, Labour’s attempt to appeal to voters north of the border is potentially constrained by its opposition to a reversal of Brexit. In contrast to the position south of the border (where there is little competition for Remain support), in Scotland Labour’s standing among those who voted Remain (which is currently averaging 33 per cent) is only a little above that among those who supported Leave (27 per cent).
Of course, perhaps SNP support will fall away further now that the party is headed by a leader who, unlike Nicola Sturgeon, is, on balance, evaluated negatively by voters. Maybe too, the difficulties that the Scottish government is facing in restoring Scotland’s public services to their pre-pandemic health will begin to cost the party support. But for that to happen Labour will need to persuade voters to set aside in their minds the issue of Scotland’s constitutional status. And on the evidence so far that might prove hard to do.
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and senior research fellow at the National Centre for Social Research.
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