A mountain to climb – Labour’s challenge ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections

A mountain to climb – Labour’s challenge ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections

Rachel Ormston of Ipsos MORI Scotland and Ailsa Henderson from the University of Edinburgh look at the numbers.

The story of Labour’s woes in Scotland is by now a familiar one. Having dominated elections in Scotland from the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s, the notion that they would return only one Scottish MP was once inconceivable. Yet in 2015, that is exactly what happened – a fate that was to befall them again in 2019, when, following a very poor showing in that year’s European Parliament elections, they suffered the further humiliation of being beaten into third place behind a dominant SNP and a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party. 

Labour’s fate in Scottish Parliament elections has become equally troublesome. Having formed the governing administration (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) for the first two terms of the Scottish Parliament post-1999, it has since struggled to find such favour with the Scottish electorate in the wake of the rising tide of support for the SNP. In Holyrood 2016, its vote share fell to a new low of just 22.6% on the Constituency vote and 19.1% – again, behind the Conservative Party – on the Regional List.

Ipsos MORI’s latest Scotland polling – based on 1,045 telephone interviews with Scottish adults between 2nd and 9th October 2020 – provides scant hope for Labour faring much better in the 2021 Holyrood elections. In fact, it suggests that they may yet have further to fall. Among likely voters who state a party preference, just 13% indicate that, at this stage, they are minded to give their Constituency vote to Scottish Labour – behind both a dominant SNP, on 58%, and the Conservatives, on 19%.  The Regional List vote looks no better – again, just 13% are minded to vote Labour, with the SNP on 47% and the Conservatives at 19%. 

Previous research has shown that people often vote differently in Westminster and Holyrood elections – switching between voting Labour in the former and SNP in the latter has not been uncommon. However, given their already diminished vote share, Labour will be hoping that those who voted for them for Westminster less than a year ago in December 2019 will at least remain loyal next May.

But again, our findings suggest this is far from guaranteed. Just 59% of those who said they voted Labour in the 2019 General Election say they are minded to vote for them on their Constituency vote next year, with 10% intending to switch to the Liberal Democrats and 30% to the SNP.  In short, their numbers having dwindled since the 2014 referendum, Labour look set to lose a further substantial chunk of voters, with most of them heading to a party with similar social democratic credentials but one key policy difference: support for independence.

Of course, poll findings on future voting intention always come with caveats. All polls are subject to a margin of error that means they may under or over-estimate the true picture (typically by around 3 percentage points for a poll of around 1,000). Moreover, May is still a very long way away – the picture could easily change dramatically as the campaign focuses people’s minds. Yet however you look at them, these figures make grim reading for Scottish Labour.

Labour’s challenge

In 2019 we know that three things prompted voters to leave Labour: their stance on the economy, their unpopular UK leader and their opposition to independence.  A new UK leader with a new economic platform could well have raised hopes.  Other findings in the poll, however, highlight enduring concerns.  The first is leadership. At this stage, Nicola Sturgeon’s ratings look unassailable – she has a ‘net’ satisfaction rating (that is, the percentage who are satisfied minus the percentage who are dissatisfied) of +49 percentage points.

In contrast, Richard Leonard has a negative rating of -25 percentage points. Particularly worrying for Scottish Labour must be the finding that among 2019 Labour voters, his rating is -18. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, is proving relatively popular with Scottish voters, with a ‘net rating’ of +16 percentage points (+44 among 2019 Labour voters). This stands in sharp contrast with Jeremy Corbyn, who had a net satisfaction rating of -47 in Ipsos MORI’s November 2019 Scotland poll (conducted just before the December General Election). 

But to state the obvious, Keir Starmer is not the leader of Scottish Labour, and he is not a competitor for the role of First Minister. His relatively popularity may not prove much of an advantage come next May – and in any case, his ratings still trail well behind Nicola Sturgeon’s. Equally worrying is the proportion of the electorate that express no opinion on party leaders.  Only four per cent claim they ‘don’t know’ how Sturgeon is faring, compared to 38% for Leonard. Ten times as many have no opinion of the man who has been leader of Scottish Labour for almost three years.

The second key challenge is how the party navigates the independence question in its election campaign. Ipsos MORI’s data confirms the pattern that has been apparent in Scottish Opinion polls since the summer – that the balance of public opinion appears to have swung in favour of Independence. And at 58%, support for Yes in this poll is the highest yet recorded.

Analysis of Constituency vote preferences by support for independence shows that the vast majority – 92% – of those who now support a Yes vote plan to vote for the SNP next May, with just 5% inclined to support Labour.  Among No supporters, 47% plan to vote Conservative, with the remainder largely split between Labour (25%) and the Liberal Democrats (17%).  

As for Labour supporters, of those who stayed with the party in 2019, 37% say they would vote Yes in a future independence referendum. This compares with just 22% of those who plan to vote for the party in May who say they favour independence.  The party’s constitutional view is becoming more consistent with what its party supporters want, but the cost appears to be an ever dwindling number of supporters.

So Labour has a very tricky line to tread. As public opinion shifts towards independence, it needs to both retain every last one of its Unionist supporters – who now form the core of its support – and to win back voters who have moved towards independence and are now inclined to back the SNP in May, at the same time as campaigning against the very thing a majority of the electorate appears to want.

Rachel Ormston is a Research Director at Ipsos MORI Scotland. Follow her at @rachelormston

Ailsa Henderson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Follow her at @ailsa_henderson

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