Robert Hoskins takes a close look at polling around both Labour and independence in the wake of the Partygate scandal, and considers what it all might mean for Scotland.
Eight weeks of relentless media exposure of industrial-scale partying in Whitehall and No 10 whilst the country was in lockdown has triggered an outpouring of public anger which threatens to topple not only Boris Johnson but the electoral prospects of the Conservative Party itself.
The public response to Partygate has also had other dramatic effects on the body politic. From being behind in most opinion polls, in the space of 8 weeks support for Labour has rocketed to double-digit leads not seen since 2014.
In London YouGov gave Labour a 32% lead (43% lead in Inner London and 26% in Outer) which is the largest lead that the party has recorded since 2010 (Lab 55%-Con 23%). More alarmingly for the Tories, a J.L.Partners poll for Channel 4 News showed that if there was a general election tomorrow, Labour would regain 42 of the 45 former Red Wall seats which it lost in 2019. It is those former Red Wall seats that responded most favourably to the Boris effect in 2019 who appear to have been most repulsed by his behaviour now. Partygate has not only toxified Johnson, it also appears to have at least partly toxified the Tory brand as well.
The damage done by Partygate to the electorate’s perception of the Tories’ competency to govern across a wide range of important areas is likely to be significant within this electoral cycle. From supporting the Tories in December on crime, education, the environment and the Union, the Red Wall electorate’s perceptions have now swung dramatically to Labour in all these areas in just one month. Even Labour’s weakest suit – the economy – has seen a dramatic uptick from 15 points behind in December to only 5 behind in January.
And it is not just Channel 4’s poll which has demonstrated a dramatic improvement in perception of trustworthiness in Labour’s stewardship of the economy. An Omnisis poll for Byline Times has also demonstrated that there is now optimism in how Labour is perceived on the economy throughout the UK. 58% of all responders stated that they now trusted Labour rather than the Conservatives with the future of the economy.
If Labour is going to win the next general election it is not only vital that it continues to win the confidence of the electorate in its economic competence, it also needs to make a dramatic recovery in Scotland. Recent polling suggests this might just be beginning to happen. The only Scottish Westminster poll that has taken place since the beginning of Partygate showed a 4% increase in support for Scottish Labour, making it for the first time in a long time the second most popular party in Scotland. And the Scottish subset of of Ipsos Mori’s 25th January UK poll – which obviously comes with a large health warning since the sample size is tiny – puts Labour ahead even of the SNP among those likely to vote! We are however long overdue some Scotland-specific polling which could give us a clearer picture on this.
If there is one person who will be praying that the Prime Minister doesn’t resign over Partygate it is Nicola Sturgeon. If the First Minister could pick a Prime Minister to help her paint the UK in a bad light to a significant majority of the Scottish electorate, she would pick Boris Johnson every time. Johnson is the SNP’s dream Prime Minister. His upper-class Bullingdon boy persona acts as a lightning rod for anti-English sentiment which makes him a vital recruiting sergeant for the independence cause.
Partygate has also made a second significant impact on Scottish politics that seems to have slipped under the media radar; it has drawn a horse and cart through the nationalist trope that the Scottish electorate would be so outraged by the unfolding Westminster omnishambles that it would trigger a surge of revulsion against the Union in favour of an escape route to independence. The results of the two Scexit polls that have been published since the onset of Partygate must have made devastating reading for the First Minister as they have both shown little if any shift in support. Opinium had Yes 50% (-1) No 50% (+1) and Savanta ComRes had Yes 50% (+2) No 50% (-2).
This is important because it provides further evidence that people’s appetite for constitutional change in response to poor UK government might not be as voracious as Nicola Sturgeon hopes. She must be thinking that if eight weeks of high-profile exposure of Johnson’s serial mendacity does not increase the demand for independence, what will? Especially as she has committed herself to the onerous task of holding a legal referendum in the latter half of 2023, something which she knows she has no power to deliver.
It is now gradually beginning to dawn on some Scexiteers that the First Minister has promised them a referendum every year since 2016 and they are still waiting for her to deliver – and the evidence would suggest that their patience is wearing thin. The ironically named All Under One Banner marches are held in ever dwindling hundreds rather than in thousands as previously. A recent well-advertised Scexit rally held in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall featuring prominent independence supporters was two-thirds empty. Leading luminaries such as Robin McAlpine have stated that there is absolutely no chance that the SNP is going to deliver a referendum next year. The notorious blogger Wings Over Scotland has gone so far as to offer Pete Wishart MP, a Sturgeon stalwart who believes a referendum will take place next year, a £5000 bet that it won’t.
Could there now be a creeping realisation amongst some independence supporters that constantly voting SNP in Westminster elections and ending up with a Conservative government is not going to deliver another referendum now or any time in the future? If so, what are the tactical alternatives to voting SNP in the next General Election if you are a disgruntled nationalist?
To my mind there are three tactical options for Scexiteers who are fed up with the SNP.
The first is to abstain, like thousands of SNP supporters did in the 2017 election, which contributed to Labour grabbing an additional 6 seats.
The second option is to vote Alba, the unknown factor in the next general election. Will Alex Salmond do what Nigel Farage did with the Brexit Party and threaten to run in every seat if the First Minister doesn’t bend to his demands on faster movement on independence? Relations between Salmond and Sturgeon have deteriorated to such an extent that one could not see the SNP accommodating any demands Alba might make, which would make it highly likely that the bafflingly well-funded Alba could contest not only the two seats that they already hold but most of the other 57. One could easily see an acrimonious ideological battle breaking out during the election campaign itself, the fallout from which could drive disgruntled nationalists into the arms of Alba. But surely Alba wouldn’t be so stupid as to split the nationalist vote, would they? Well, if their recent announcement to stand candidates in every mainland council in Scotland in the forthcoming May election is anything to go by – oh yes they would.
The last tactical option for nationalists who have given up on the SNP is to hold their noses and vote for a resurgent Labour Party in the hope that the SNP would hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. The only reason nationalists cling to this hope is because in the last general election Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell hijacked Scottish Labour’s unambiguous policy of no more referendums and no coalitions by deliberately creating ambiguity by saying that Labour will not use parliamentary devices to block a referendum if Holyrood votes for one. This resulted in Scottish Labour going into the last general election trying to clarify its constitutional position rather than fighting on its manifesto commitments. No wonder many nationalists now believe that the only route to another referendum is to pressurise a minority Labour government into delivering one.
Unlike the Corbyn regime however, under Kier Starmer and Anas Sarwar’s leadership there has been no constitutional ambiguity whatsoever regarding Labour’s current position, which is no referendum and no coalitions with the SNP or any other party, before or after the vote. If the SNP do hold the balance of parliamentary power under a Labour minority government they will be free to vote down that government, but they would then surely face the wrath of the Scottish electorate for causing a second election which might usher in another Conservative regime.
Of course we are probably more than two years away from any general election and the UK Government has a 75 seat majority. Anything could happen between now and election day. The PM might be out of office; the Met could arrest and charge him with breaking his own lockdown laws; the SNP could take bungling political incompetence to new heights by being found to have campaigned on a manifesto for a second referendum without first checking to see if it was within Holyrood’s jurisdiction to pass the legislation. All these events may or may not happen in the future.
But one thing we now do know for certain is that Labour, not just in England and Wales but also in Scotland, is very much back in business.