The SNP have had their difficulties and disappointments since first securing the reins of office at Holyrood in 2007, including losing the 2014 referendum, the Covid pandemic, and a falling out between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. However, the last 12 months have proven the most challenging for the party yet.
First of all, early last autumn, the fallout from Liz Truss’s short-lived administration boosted Labour on both sides of the border, not only increasing the threat the party posed to the SNP’s domination of Scotland’s representation at Westminster but also opening up the prospect that Labour might win an overall majority at the next UK general election, thereby denying the SNP the leverage it might have in any hung parliament.
Buffeted by political turbulence
In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament could not hold any kind of referendum on independence – leaving the party to debate whether the next UK election could be regarded as a ‘de facto’ referendum. In December, the passage of legislation on gender recognition for transgender people gave rise to the biggest parliamentary rebellion in the SNP’s 14 years in office and an unprecedented veto of the legislation by the UK government.
Then in February, Sturgeon announced she was standing down, a decision that gave rise to a fractious leadership contest. Meanwhile, no sooner had Humza Yousaf got his feet under the desk at Bute House, and Peter Murrell, former chief executive of the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, was arrested (and then released, without charge) in connection with a police investigation of the SNP’s finances, followed a few weeks later by Sturgeon herself being called in for questioning.
These developments have seemingly taken their toll on the SNP’s popularity. Twelve months ago, the party stood on average at 45% in polls of voting intention for Westminster – in line with the party’s performance in the 2019 UK election. Although Labour had overtaken the Conservatives as the second most popular party north of the border, it was still as much as 21 points behind and seemed no more than a distant threat. Yet in polls taken since the arrest of Sturgeon at the beginning of June, support for the SNP is down to 36% – as weak a position as it has been at any stage since the 2014 referendum.
Labour is, at 34%, breathing down its neck. On these figures Labour might well take some two dozen Westminster seats off the SNP. The picture is much the same for voting intentions for Holyrood, such that, at the moment, a Scottish Parliament election might fail to produce a majority of pro-independence MPs.
Scrutinising the shift in the polls
But which of these adverse developments have actually damaged the SNP? There are a few myths that need busting. Labour’s dramatic rise in the UK polls in the wake of the ‘fiscal event’ that lead to Truss’s downfall had no discernible impact on SNP support. As was the case south of the border, Labour’s advance was primarily at the expense of the Conservatives. Support for the SNP did ease a little to 43% in the wake of the row about gender recognition, but no more than that, and was the level at which it stood when Sturgeon announced her resignation. Meanwhile, the arrest of Murrell and the widespread publicity of the SNP’s financial difficulties to which it gave rise only saw a slight easing of SNP support – at least until the arrest of Sturgeon, which was followed by a two-point fall in SNP support to its current level of 36%.
That leaves one potential main culprit for the SNP’s current difficulties – the SNP leadership contest. As we have already noted it started with the SNP at 43% in the polls. By the time the contest was coming to a conclusion, it had slipped to just below 40%. Meanwhile, once Yousaf had been declared the winner, it had slipped to between 38% and 39%. The election of a new party leader usually gives their party a boost in the polls – but of this, there was no sign at all following Yousaf’s success.
In announcing her resignation from the SNP, Sturgeon said that public attitudes towards her had become a barrier to her party’s progress and that of the wider pro-independence movement. While this was not the only stated reason for her resignation, her claim on this count at least has not been vindicated by events. For while public opinion was divided about her performance in office, for every voter who regarded her unfavourably at the time of her resignation, there was another who felt favourably towards her. Yousaf, in contrast, is relatively unpopular. There are nearly three people who feel unfavourably about him for every two that regard him favourably.
Yousaf’s relative lack of popularity is not confined to unionists. It is also evident among supporters of independence. A little less than half of those who voted Yes in 2014 regard him favourably. In contrast, the equivalent figure for Sturgeon at the time of her resignation was 70%.
Support for independence remains stable despite party woes
This takes us to another key development in the last 12 months – a weakening of the once close link between support for independence and willingness to vote SNP. A year ago, the polls suggested on average that 48% of Scots would vote Yes in an immediate independence referendum. Despite everything in the last 12 months, that figure has not changed. However, whereas a year ago, 77% of those voted Yes in 2014 were backing the SNP, now the figure is just 64%.
The last 12 months have tested the loyalty of the SNP’s ‘natural’ supporters. Above all it has been tested by the outcome of a change of leadership that leaves the party without the charisma at the top that was provided by Salmond and Sturgeon. And even if the police investigation comes to nothing, internal divisions dissipate, and Labour begin to slip in the polls, that potentially crucial gap will still be there. But what, if anything, will the SNP be able to do to overcome it?
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