Should Labour Be Worried?

One of the most remarkable features of the referendum result was that supposedly ‘Red’ Clydeside provided three of the four council areas where a majority of voters voted Yes. This has inevitably led some to question whether the link between Labour and its erstwhile ‘traditional’ working class base has been irretrievably broken. Will we find that when the UK general election comes around in May next year that the party will lose some of the Westminster representation it fought so hard to preserve in the referendum? And do the party’s prospects in the following year’s Scottish Parliament election look bleak too?

As we noted last week, it is certainly the case that less well-off voters, that is the kind of people who might be thought to be Labour’s traditional constituency, were more likely to vote Yes than those in more comfortable circumstances. This though should not have come as a particular surprise. Such a pattern was also evident in SNP support in 2011, as evidenced by both the Scottish Social Attitudes survey and the Scottish Election Study. In short the SNP were fishing with relative success in supposedly Labour waters long before the referendum was held.

Even so, a significant proportion of those who voted Labour at the last Hoyrood election in 2011 voted Yes in 2014. According to YouGov’s on the day poll, 27% did so, while Lord Ashcroft’s immediate post- polling day poll put the figure at 31%. Both figures are fairly similar to the average figure of 33% in those polls that were conducted in the last week of the referendum. If this behaviour signals conversion to the nationalist cause then the party is apparently at risk of losing up to one in three of the already diminished band of supporters it had three years ago.

Meanwhile, the body of support the party enjoyed in the 2010 Westminster election is apparently even more fragile. According to Ashcroft no less than 37% of this group voted Yes on 18 September, while a poll conducted by Opinium shortly before polling day suggested that as many as 47% did so.

But at this point some caution is in order. For a start, it is hardly surprising that a larger proportion of those who backed Labour in 2010 voted Yes than did of those who voted for the party in 2011. After all, there are plenty of people who voted Labour in 2010 but SNP in 2011, and they could well be expected to be more sympathetic to the independence message that those who remained loyal to Labour in 2011.

Meanwhile, we should remember that Labour were not alone in having former supporters who voted against the party’s position in the referendum. Around one in five of those who backed the SNP in 2011 voted No. (According to YouGov the figure was 22%, while both Ashcroft and the final polls on average put it at 20%.) Doubtless the SNP have not written off these supporters. The only party that enjoyed the almost unanimous backing of their supporters for their referendum stance was the Conservative party.

In any event how many of those who voted for a party three or four years ago failed to follow their party’s recommendation is of debatable relevance when assessing the possible impact of the referendum on party fortunes.. Many of those former supporters may have become ex-supporters a long time ago. A more direct measure is the current level of support for Labour and whether or not this changed during the referendum.

Polls of Westminster voting intention in Scotland have been few and far between in recent months. During the referendum campaign only Survation made it a regular feature of their polling, only to stop asking it in the last couple of months. However, it was included in a poll they conducted immediately after polling day for the Scottish Mail on Sunday. It put Labour on 39%, down just three on its 2010 tally, and a higher figure than that recorded by the company at any time during the referendum itself. True, the SNP themselves were on 35%, up no less than 15 points on 2011, but that was actually a lower figure than Survation had recorded for the party during most of the referendum campaign.

Westminster voting intention also featured in the two polls conducted by Opinium shortly before polling day, though there are no readings from the company for before then. These polls both suggested that Labour’s position is more or less as strong now as it was four years ago. One put the party on 42%, another on 43%, while the SNP were put at just 25% and 22% respectively. In short, none of these three polls suggest that there was a major erosion of Labour’s Westminster support during the course of the referendum campaign, albeit they disagree about how much the SNP might have advanced since 2010.

Moreover, we should remember how few are the Westminster seats that are marginal between Labour and the SNP. There are no Labour seats in which the SNP will start off less than 10 points behind and only three in which the nationalists will begin less than 20 points behind. Unless and until the SNP begin to pull ahead of Labour in terms of the Scotland wide vote, their haul of current Labour seats is likely to be no more than a small one. In truth some of the SNP’s best prospects next May could well be in seats such as Argyll and Gordon that the troubled Liberal Democrats will be defending.

In contrast to Westminster voting intention, Scottish Parliament voting intention was measured with a degree of regularity during the campaign. Moreover, two companies, Survation and YouGov, did so either just before or just after polling day. In its post-referendum poll Survation put Labour’s support on the constituency vote at 33%, just a point above its tally in 2011, though little different from what the company found throughout the referendum campaign. YouGov similarly put Labour on 32% in its final pre-referendum poll, though this was a little lower than anything the company had recorded previously. Both companies put Labour well behind the SNP; Survation reckoned the SNP was on an unusually high 49%, though YouGov put nationalist support at a more modest 40%, just a little above what it had been during most of the campaign.

So when it comes to Scottish Parliament elections, the picture looks very different. Labour emerges from the referendum looking about as weak as it did when it went down to calamitous defeat in 2011. However, this is more a reflection of a weakness that was evident before the referendum campaign got into gear rather than the consequence of any marked loss of support during the campaign itself. The party’s problems at Holyrood are much deeper than anything simply thrown up by the referendum campaign.

This though still leaves open the question of how soft the Labour vote might be, as evidenced by the proportion of the party’s current supporters that voted Yes. The answer would appear to be, ‘Quite soft indeed’ – and especially the party’s Westminster vote. Opinium (who are the only source of this information) reckon as many as 37-38% of those who would vote Labour in a Westminster election backed Yes. In contrast, YouGov reported in its final pre-referendum poll that a more modest 19% of the party’s current Holyrood supporters voted Yes, although in one of its final polls, Survation put the figure somewhat higher at 25%.

So Labour certainly has more than its fair share of closet nationalists, and especially so amongst those who are minded to back the party next May. But, of course, these figures can be read two ways. Although Labour supporters who voted Yes might be thought a soft target for the SNP, both next year and in 2016, these voters have also just declared they are still minded to vote Labour even though they have just voted (or were just about to vote) for the SNP’s raison d’être. If that has not been enough to dislodge their loyalty to Labour, we might wonder what would be.

Topics: Elections, parties & leaders

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen, and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.