Monday, 14 September 2009

Conundrum for the SNP

Reading through Jeff's analysis of recent poll figures, a question which I've been considering in my studies at the moment suddenly became more pertinent.

Jeff has the SNP winning 25 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats on 33% of the vote, which seems doubtful, but that's not the point of this post. Ipsos-Mori also has them winning 38% of the constituency vote in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, a massive 13% lead over Labour in second. Again, it seems rather high, but perhaps that reinforces the point I'm going to make.

The SNP, after 2 and a half years as the Scottish Government, are still proving popular with the public (as the poll figures above indicate). Yet, and despite moving forward with the National Conversation with the publication of An Oil Fund for Scotland and Europe and Foreign Affairs indicating a more intensive discussion process as they build towards their intended referendum, support for independence remains static at around 28% of the population.

Now, from an SNP perspective, that figure may be "soft", indicating a lot of people (such as Jeff himself) who remain undecided about independence but may be convinced when they have heard a positive case for independence through the National Conversation process. Or, it may be a hard ceiling - the height of support for the SNP's constitutional preference - and indicate that, if a referendum occurs, the party will see a massive defeat.

I suspect the answer may be somewhere in between. Without reading too much into "loaded" polling questions and from anecdotal evidence, I'd suggest the constitutional question falls at about 60-40, with 60% against at the moment. Which I think is good news. 60% is 6 in 10. Change one mind and its a tie, change two and its a landslide (quote, Will Bailey). But I digress.

The point I wanted to make was this. What if support for the SNP maintains at its current levels - or even increases - and sees the party win near a majority of Scottish Westminster seats, improve their position in the Scottish Parliament to 50-55 MSPs in 2011 and maintain their position as the Scottish Government post-election but at the same time support for independence remains static at 28, what does the party do?

The party will have proved that they can govern competently and will have remained popular as a government (if indeed, their vote share/ representation increases). But their main policy objective would remain the preference of the minority (assuming no referendum in 2010 given current parliamentary hostility to the idea).

Could we judge the party as a successful government? Or, given their inability to legislate for their main policy objective, would that constitute failure? And yet, if they continue as a popular (populist??) government, people will continue to vote for them, and ignore their constitutional goals.

This is the conundrum facing the SNP: how do they translate the support for the party in government to support for their constitutional objective? How can they convince people that the government needs more powers when they are running it (in the public's eye at least - according to poll figures) effectively and efficiently? In short, why should the Scottish population support constitutional upheaval when they are content with the SNP as a Government?

I don't know if there is an answer, but I'd suggest that the extension of the National Conversation at the moment is seeking to inform further why constitutional change may be preferable. But whether the SNP see any shift in support for independence remains to be seen.


subrosa 14 September 2009 at 11:37  

It's fairly obvious people want increased powers Malc, but as you say the difficulty for the SNP is the jump between more powers and full independence.

We still have too many people who absorb the scare tactics of the unionists and until they are gone I doubt if there will be any radical change.

Malc 14 September 2009 at 11:55  

I guess I didn't explain that point so well. But yes, I agree.

Except to say this. The SNP have to be incredibly careful - if they become so efficient as a government (with increased powers or not) then people will start to wonder (if they have not already) whether they need the powers of independence. Its a tricky game.

Dubbieside 14 September 2009 at 12:00  


Wait till the torys get in at Westminster then you will have your answer.

The only poll that ever asked the question "how would you vote in a referendum if the torys were in power at Westminster" 25% who said they would vote no, would change that to yes.

I think however that if you take most polls over the last year or so, the nos have between 35% to 40%, the yeses 30% to 35% with the rest undecided. Good and competent government in Holyrood will continue to help convert the undecided, albeit long term, it is the comming of the torys that will make the difference.

However if the SNP gained a majority of seats at a general election there would be no need for a referendum.

Malc 14 September 2009 at 12:22  


Your second point is the point I'm making, but in a different way. You think competent government means more people are likely to support independence. I'm asking whether that would necessarily be the case. I'm not convinced support for an SNP Government - however high that support is - translates to support for independence.

And on your final point, I don't think you'll find many people that will agree with that notion now. Sure, in the 1970s, before a Scottish Parliament, a majority of SNP MPs might have been considered a mandate for independence, but not now.

Anonymous,  14 September 2009 at 12:47  

On the point of the SNP wining a majority of Westminster MP,s, i don't see this as a mandate for independence, unless the SNP won over 50% of the votes (ie 50% of those who bothered to vote and not those who are eligible).

It is conceivable the SNP could win a majority of Scottish seats on 36% of the vote and even though i 100% support independence, i would not be comfortable with gaining independence because of an unfair FPTP voting system which has seen Labour hound Scottish politics for 50 years.

But a problem could soon be confronting the Unionists.

Now the Unionist parties have made it clear that they will not back a referendum on independence which by judging from Malc's analysis the SNP could easily loose but what if the SNP were to win a majority of Scottish MP,s for Westminster ?

You see Scotland could have independence through default yet the Unionists are against the democratic process (ie, referenda)which by all accounts the SNP could loose.

My guess is Scotland will become independent through a series of events and independence may even be delivered from outwith Scotland, interesting times ahead.

On the point of the SNP in power and being good at it, well this could be another problem which Malc has pointed out.

Some people will ask, if the SNP are making devolution work then why do we need independence ?

My answer to that would be, Just take a look at the UK,s disastrous foreign policy and the billions waisted on weapons of mass destruction

Montague Burton 14 September 2009 at 12:51  

Malc, I agree with Dubbieside. The remnants of Labour, dare I say it even the Lib Dems when faced with five years or more of a Cameron government will be looking on the benefits of an Independent Scotland and their own chances of improvement within that. Let's say Cameron put Michael Forsyth back as Scottish Secretary for the State of Scotland, can you imagine the reaction?

Interestingly the YouGov poll for Sunday Times link is below. It puts SNP on 35% - Labour 28% - Tories 19% and Lib Dems down at 13%

One person of the 175 people polled in Scotland thought Gordon Brown was doing very well...

Stuart Winton 14 September 2009 at 14:08  

Malc, I suspect the support for the SNP is pretty lukewarm, which is why support for independence is similarly limited.

But the former support is probably because the SNP are considered the best of a bad lot - particularly vis-a-vis Labour - and in truth with the devolution settlement and the lame duck minority administration there's not really much they can do either constructively or destructively.

AMW astutely alludes to the salient point - when push comes to shove and the electorate have to express a preference in the ballot box only 10-15% support the SNP.

In a similar vein, as an expert in these matters, what kind of turnout do you think an independence referendum would garner?

Malc 14 September 2009 at 14:43  


I don’t think the SNP will win a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster, despite the Ipsos-Mori poll having them at 25 of the 59. The FPTP system which you alluded to helps Labour at the expense of the SNP in Scotland, with the result that the SNP would have to carry probably more than 40% of the Scottish vote to win over 30 seats, and that I can’t see.

But your last comment is the ball game: if the SNP do well at governing through devolution, why do we in fact need independence? Your answer is similar to mine, but I think the SNP may have to ramp up the negative politics – ie, blaming Westminster for things that Holyrood has no control over. However, this may have a knock on effect on their polling.

Anonymous,  14 September 2009 at 14:43  


Excuse me but Labour were elected on 22% of the electorate.

My point is simple, we all have the right to vote and people have died for that right so if people are to lazy to go out and vote then they can hardly moan at the outcome can they ?

"AMW astutely alludes to the salient point "
No actually i don't and i think you will find i have more than addressed the "salient point"

Anonymous,  14 September 2009 at 14:48  


On the Westminster front, you could well be right but i was basing my seat projection from the Sunday Express poll...

On the Holyrood point, well i think you are right but the SNP being negative could well sway votes away from them. I personal think its a gamble worth taking.

Malc 14 September 2009 at 14:48  


It’s an interesting point, and one which there has been some academic study of. Would the SNP’s chances of winning an independence vote increase under a Tory government?
I’d suggest that David Cameron is not daft enough to appoint Forsyth as Sec State for Scotland, but he has made the point that he would accept the First Minister’s policy direction in devolved matters but that he would expect there to be no interference in reserved matters. Which is not entirely relevant to the discussion, but interesting nonetheless.

With regards a referendum, I’d say the SNP’s chances are enhanced by having a government in Westminster which is unpopular – whichever party that is.

Malc 14 September 2009 at 14:59  


Lukewarm support for the SNP?! Surely not!

I don’t think support for the SNP and support for independence is intrinsically linked. Sure, SNP activists (Jeff aside) tend to be very pro-independence, but in 2007, many chose to give them their vote for other reasons (saving hospitals, council tax revision, tuition fees abolition etc etc). And judging by the polls we’ve seen, support for them as a government is far from lukewarm, sitting, as they are, a good few percentage points ahead of Labour.

However, I do agree, they probably are perceived as the best in Holyrood. But “lame duck minority administration”? There’s a controversial point. I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate either – practically, perhaps, but not in reality.

As an “expert” in these matters (to quote Donald Dewar, “I like that”) and given there was a 60% turnout for the 1997 referendum on devolution, I’d expect a turnout of anything up to 75-80%. Purely given the magnitude of constitutional change we’re talking about, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was higher. What do you think Stuart?

Dubbieside 14 September 2009 at 15:04  


Surely the most important point to put to the electorate would be "if this is what we can achieve with one hand tied behind our back by Westminster interference, just think how much more we can achieve with all the levers of normal government?

I find the argument strange that good government with limited resources should be seen as a barrier to even better government with full resources.

Why would Scots not aspire to normal government, are we inferior to Ireland, Norway Denmark etc.

Dubbieside 14 September 2009 at 15:11  


The turnout at any election is irrelevant. The only important thing is the result.

If one more voter voted yes in a referendum that the total who voted no, yes would be the result. That is called democracy.

As AMW pointed out, if you do not vote you do not count. That is also called democracy.

In the 79 referendum the torys put a higher bar, a 40% of total electorate had to vote yes. That was a higher % than ever vote for Thatcher. That was an affront to democracy.

Lukewarm!!! dream on.

Malc 14 September 2009 at 15:56  


With your first point, I agree to a point. But the point I was making was not "the SNP are a good government, so lets not have independence". The point was that that is seemingly how it is playing at the moment. And that is a problem for the party - how do you convince people that you NEED more than devolution to improve Scottish life?

As for the turnout, I was responding to a question from Stuart - he asked what I thought the turnout would be, I answered.

Finally, look at your history for the 1979 referendum. It wasn't the Tory's who put the 40% stipulation in. It was Labour MP George Cunningham - it was known as the "Cunningham amendment. We can blame the Tories for much, but on this one, it was very much the devolution-sceptic Labour MP!

Dubbieside 14 September 2009 at 16:10  


Thank you for the correction. Mea Culpa.

Indy 14 September 2009 at 18:31  

It is not a conundrum.

The longer the SNP is in power, the more people trust us, the more empowered they feel and the more likely independenec becomes,

This has always been a long game.

In my grandparents' day the idea of Scottish independence barely existed.

In my parents' day the idea of independence was seen as a nice dream but not something that was actually achievable.

Now independence is a viable option. Perhaps the Scots are not yet ready but the idea of independence is one which most people are relaxed with.

Independence may well happen incrementally, or it could happen in one go. It is impossible to predict. But the direction of travel is clear.

Stuart Winton 14 September 2009 at 20:51  


As is so often the case when criticism of the SNP is made you seem to be conflating this with support for Labour, the Union or whatever.

As for people being too lazy to vote, I think it's more appropriate to say that they don't hold any of the political parties in particularly high regard, and they realise that there's not really much alternative and that all the parties are worried about is grabbing the seat/government etc rather than trying to enthuse the effectively disenfranchised majority.


What I mean by 'lukewarm support' is that the SNP garner only around 10-15% of the eligible electorate at actual elections.

The opinion polls are more like, "Which do you prefer, Coronation Street, Emmerdale or Eastenders", and no doubt the winner of such a poll would be gratified at the result, but the results don't really demonstrate that those polled like any of them.

As for the independence referendum, again I was alluding to the lack of enthusiasm for politics, and despite the obvious importance of such a vote I wonder if it would enthuse people to the extent of an 80% turnout?

After all, the declining election turnout in recent years has to be reflected to an extent, even in a vote of such import.

Malc 15 September 2009 at 11:22  


I wasn't arguing that this is not SNP strategy - I know it is. And the point was not that independence isn't an option, because it clearly is.

The point was - as AMW neatly put it - if the SNP are making devolution work then why do we need independence? And that is something that the party need to guard against.

But I concur. The way to independence does go through an SNP Government.

Malc 15 September 2009 at 11:26  


Maybe in this case I'm an optimist (though Jeff will tell you that is incredibly unlikely). I simply think that, in a matter of deciding the country's fate/ future constitutional position, more folks will come out to vote, but I may be wrong.

As for support for the SNP, you are of course correct that polling doesn't offer a fair representation of their success - only an election with an ACTUAL vote can do so. I would point you to the Euro election which, albeit on a small turnout, suggests the SNP maintain a decent level of support. And they appear to be on an upward trend. But yes, the votes of 10-15% of the electorate does not constitutional change make.

Anonymous,  15 September 2009 at 13:12  

Stuart Winton said...

As is so often the case when criticism of the SNP is made you seem to be conflating this with support for Labour, the Union or whatever

Sorry your wrong again Stuart, i was merely pointing out that Labour were elected on 22% of the electorate as your were pointing out the "salient point" on any referendum.

The SNP as we are so often told were elected on 18% of the electorate, I stand by my point and if people do not wish to engage with the political process than that is their problem.

Its funny when Labour are unpopular some people just put it down to " As for people being too lazy to vote, I think it's more appropriate to say that they don't hold any of the political parties in particularly high regard "

Hmm... I ponder...

Okay we have a problem with voter apathy but if a poll of around 1,000 people can predict the out come of an election then surly the 58% who voted at the last Scottish election is fairly representative of those who did not vote.

Maybe some of that voter apathy stems from 50 years of the same old rubbish from Labour in Scotland and the English being sick of Labour after only 11 years.

I think if we had a system that removes a party after 8 years then the public might just get interested in politics.

Stuart Winton 15 September 2009 at 18:52  


Again you seem to allude that my criticism of the SNP implies I'm making the case for Labour, but that's certainly not the case.

In particular, you quote me when you say:

"Its funny when Labour are unpopular some people just put it down to " As for people being too lazy to vote, I think it's more appropriate to say that they don't hold any of the political parties in particularly high regard ""

I would say the same whichever party was in power.

Indeed, it was Dundee Labour who were instrumental in completely changing my views on politics, and since the SNP in the city are largely the same party but with a different label then I don't see any difference between the two, and independence per se doesn't float my boat these days, so I can't really see the point of supporting any particular party.

As for the voting figures, again whichever way you look at it I don't think it equates to great enthusiasm for the SNP - I supect most people just choose what they regard as the least worst option, and while those who don't vote might express a preference (as in the KiteKat adverts!) they are presumably even less enthusiastic!

(You may not recall the Kitekat adverts from a few years ago, which said something like: Nine out of ten cat owners said their cats preferred Kitekat.

They then changed it to say that nine out of ten owners who *expressed a preference* said their cats preferred it.

Don't know exactly how this came about, but I suspect the original slogan was misleading because most cats weren't really that bothered, and only those who were preferred Kitekat.

Which perhaps has some relevance for politics - most people aren't particularly bothered, but when push comes to shove they might rather grudgingly prefer the SNP to Labour or the other parties ;0)

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