Labour’s Scottish Play – the onward march of the SNP

Election watchers and political anoraks have been spending much of the day absorbing the eagerly-awaited Scottish constituency opinion polls from Lord Ashcroft. The SNP have been polling very strongly in national Westminster opinion polls since the failed independence referendum, and have consistently polled leads over Labour of over 20%. The big question for those trying to make sense of the upcoming election has been “Do these strong national polls for the SNP translate to possible gains in a first past the post Westminster election?” The answer has proved to be an emphatic “Yes”.

Sixteen constituencies were polled; fourteen where Labour are defending the seat, and two where the Liberal Democrats are the incumbents. All except one, Glasgow North East, show the SNP first when it comes to voting intention. These are some seriously out-there swings; for instance Dundee West, which Labour won handily in 2010 over the SNP by 48% to 29%, is now showing the SNP leading Labour 59% to 25%, a 27% Labour to SNP swing. That is an astonishing change in sentiment.

The question then becomes to what extent the polls in these particular constituencies can be extrapolated to Scotland as a whole.  In a previous UK-wide forecast, I had taken Holyrood results and shifted the results to reflect the changing fortunes of the parties in Scotland since the last Holyrood poll.  I was able to compare the figures from the Lord Ashcroft polls to my forecast numbers from adjusting the Holyrood results, to see if the numbers were comparable. They actually turned out to be reasonably close to each other. On average, my forecast was 1.3% lower than the Ashcroft polls for the Conservatives, 0.5% higher than the Ashcroft polls for Labour, 3% higher for the Liberal Democrats and 2% lower for the SNP. I shifted my forecast numbers for all 59 seats up or down for each party by the variance between my forecast numbers and the Ashcroft polls to correct the forecast model to be closer to the polls.

Finally, I decided to give each MP defending his or her seat a 3% bump. MPs defending their seats tend to receive a bump between the polls and their actual election results, and the 3% figure was suggested by FiveThirtyEight for UK elections.

Finally, to the results. In Scotland in 2010, the electoral map looked like this.

Scotland 2010

Labour were the largest party on 41, followed by the Liberal Democrats on 11, then the SNP on 6, and the Conservatives had one seat. Using the Ashcroft poll adjusted, Holyrood based forecast, then the map for 2015 looks like this.

Scotland Forecast 2015

The SNP would have 50 seats, Labour would be down to 6, the Conservatives would lose one but gain two to leave them with two seats, and the Liberal Democrats would be left with one MP, in Orkney and Shetland.

Were this scenario to happen, it would make it essentially impossible for Labour to have a majority in the House of Commons, unless there is a significant surge in Labour support in England between now and the election. Anything can, of course, happen between now and then. But if Lord Ashcroft’s polls do, in fact, turn out to be close to reality, then it may turn out to be very difficult for Labour to form a majority government ever again. The two party system in the UK would effectively be dead.

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  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Salmon! Your last sentence is a real punch-line. Have to take the whole posting away and study it. Mind you, it confirms me in the notion that election special in 2015 is going to be seriously all-night affair, with pizzas and fish suppers and beef curries and sticky toffee puddings (plus salads and fruit salads for the weemen) keeping us all awake and healthy until the obligatory big fry at 7.00 am.

  • mickfealty

    Here’s a little detail I think is worth highlighting also (

    It’s only a snippet and I am not sure what other polls say on the matter, but it struck me that the on an optimism/pessimism about the future scale, the SNP’s support is noticeably closer to that of the UKIP than the three traditional parties…

    This contrasting interestingly with the SNP’s optimistic pitch over the referendum, and Labour’s downbeat negative campaigning (negative in the sense that it was trying to push fairly realistic fears of ‘here be dragons’ in the event of Scotland actually winning its independence.

    To push the boat out slightly further and post a counterfactual, it seems to me that the SNP are prospering to much greater extent than they might:

    – because it feels as though Independence was denied them (though for independence read ‘agency’) by the Unionist lobby for winning the Referendum;

    – but also, having been spared the reality of a collapse in the SNP’s own hugely optimistic business plan by the decision to stay in the UK, they get to play opposition more or less permanently in Scotland.

    A position the Scottish population had become habituated to since the traumatic de-industrialisation of the early Thatcher period. Sadly for Labour, in politics it is near impossible to argue a counterfactual.

    For many of those feeling the economic pressure Labour are being cast as the new Tories, with same culture war twist that the Labour party previously used to rout the Tory party from senior representation at Westminster.

    I’d be wary of reading these polls as predictors, but it looks like its going to be a long way home for Labour in Scotland.

  • salmonofdata

    That’s an interesting point on the economic optimism index. I’m surprised that the Greens were close to UKIP as well. Possibly a sign that the more pessimistic people are about their prospects, the more likely they are to support one of the insurgent parties; the Greens, UKIP, PC or the SNP. Given the (obvious) geographical concentration of SNP support this effect is having the biggest impact in Westminster terms in Scotland.

    It also helps that the SNP have played a blinder in terms of positioning. By ruling out any sort of deal with the Conservatives, but making conciliatory noises to Labour, they have sold themselves as an opportunity to both kick the Tories and to place Scottish interests front of mind for any incoming Labour administration. A strong SNP presence at Westminster could greatly increase Scottish leverage over UK policy, with few perceived downsides.

  • mickfealty

    The positioning has been wickedly clever, if I dare say so, in the classic Blairite/Thatcherite mould, but with the additional advantage of having the wind of British constitutional change at their backs.

    There may be a reckoning to pay at some point in the future for the political recklessness involved, but since they are still on the rise (and as Murphy rightly says the UK is paying for all the immediate – and were it independent, significant – shortfalls in Scotland’s bills) that can be successfully long fingered until it’s got its feet well and truly under the table. They just need to keep that pessimistic coalition fed with the optimists dream.

    So long as the dream continues to be thwarted by Westminister it will retain its power. The SNP just needs to not do anything stupid, whilst Labour seriously needs to rediscover its social purpose. Murphy might just do that, but his problem is that he relies on UK Labour doing the same thing.

    Skirmishing at Westminister with Salmond as ‘Foreign Minister’ will so much more simple, not to mention fun!

  • the keep

    (plus salads and fruit salads for the weemen) dont you mean the wee weemen should be making tea and tray bakes for us?
    Joking aside i dont see and this is just gut instinct that the SNP will do as well as everybody expects they might get to 12-14 seats and come close in others but the memory of Scots about the 80`s and 90`s` when they were ruled by the Tories with virtually no representation in Scotland still burns on I suspect

  • Ernekid

    I was given a nice bottle of single malt whisky last week, I think I might save it now for when Danny Alexander, Clegg and the rest of the Lib Dems have their Portillo moment on election night.

    If I was living in Scotland I’d definitely be voting SNP. They are the only party in the UK, presenting a positive centre left outlook that puts people first.

    I really hope Scotland sends a big delegation of SNP members to Westminster to really shake things up.

  • chrisjones2

    The two party system in the UK would effectively be dead.

    Its only on life support anyway because Labour gerrymandered the boundaries and with the support of the Lib Dems killed the last Boundary Review

  • chrisjones2

    I doubt Sweeney has the time and he’s still held down by Millibands utter complete uselessness

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Labour-held seats (up to now mainly in London, around the old English industrial cities and in Scotland and South Wales) tend to have smaller electorates than Tory-held equivalents in suburban and rural England.

    However the gap in overall populations is probably a lot less, as younger/ poorer/ more transient/ less white groups tend to be less likely to register .

    So not quite a gerrymander I think

  • Superfluous

    I’ve put a decent bet on a Labour / SNP / Lib Dem coalition after the election at 25/1. Looking at the numbers it may be the only possible majority Government, and as we witnessed last time around short term pragmatism could be more of a factor than philosophy (will either Miliband or Clegg even survive as leaders if they fail to form a Government? and Salmond showed last time he was pragmatic on the idea ) – there are, of course, a lot of negatives against my bet, in possible minority Governments and informal coalitions, but I’m still convinced this will be the only stable option – and better still, the lazy option for self serving politicians who have a limited shelf life.

  • Gerry Lynch

    The Ashcroft constituency polls can’t be read as reflecting Scotland-wide voting trends for reasons Ashcroft himself mentions in his blog: the constituencies polled aren’t a representative sample of Scottish seats but predominantly those which are traditional heartland Labour seats that voted heavily Yes last year. Other Scottish polling hasn’t shown a swing quite as dramatic across Scotland as is being shown in these particular seats, but I think we’d all expect that and the Labour->SNP swing is pretty dramatic all the same. Even with a reasonable recovery in a Jim Murphy-led election campaign, Labour are looking at losing at least two dozen Scottish seats; the current polling is significantly worse (I think mostly suggesting Labour holding 10-15 seats on a uniform swing) and there’s no guarantee of a recovery.

    I think Labour will do a bit better than the polling suggests because the swing isn’t uniform; can’t see all those Lothian seats tumbling to the SNP given the anaemic “Yes” performance in that part of Scotland.

    The rise of the Greens is another problem for Labour, this time South of the Border, especially down here in the deep South; the Greens have traditionally polled best in urban areas in the South of England. That spells trouble for Labour in key Southern targets: Bristol West and North West, Swindon South, (Tory held) Brighton Kemptown, Hove… all places where the Greens do well in European and sometimes local elections and where their rise imperils Labour. It could even threaten a few Labour seats down here. John Denham barely held on to Southampton Itchen last time and it’s the sort of place where the Greens will poll well if they really are on a national roll, and that could hand the seat to the Tories.
    Labour are running a dreadful election campaign. Rudderless and lacking ideas, topped by a basic ineptness summed up by Ed Balls’ episode of amnesia on Newsnight. They really did pick the wrong brother.

  • Davros64