Can polling data help us work out where things went wrong for Scottish Labour, and find a route forward?
Polls show that the referendum had a big negative impact on the view of Labour. 42% of those polled in November were less likely to vote Labour, including 22% of 2011 Labour voters. 31% of those polled in January said the campaign had made them less likely to trust Labour, and again around a fifth of 2011 Labour voters were in this camp.
The immediate post-referendum switch in the voting intention for the general election can be traced in this graph based on YouGov sub-samples. But still more than a third of people made up their minds about who to vote for after the turn of 2015 and 40% of those asked in December said they would seriously consider voting Labour – compared to around 50% seriously considering voting SNP. So the referendum is definitely not the whole picture.
It was always going to be an uphill struggle, but by the time of focus groups in late April (1, 2) and May, researchers reported that many had stopped listening to Labour. The cementing of the growth in support for the SNP in the final month of the campaign can be seen in this poll of polls.
Way back in 2014, two polls conducted around the deadline for submissions to the Smith Commission in late October show the appetite for significant devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament, and not just on behalf of those intending to vote SNP. There was also a keen desire for there to be parity of esteem between Westminster and Holyrood (for example, by compelling MPs to appear before Holyrood committees and any package of devolution to be approved by the Scottish Parliament).
Labour went into the Smith Commission with a set of proposals far short of many of their own supporters’ aspirations, and short of what was ultimately agreed. This might account for a majority of people in late January thinking it was unlikely that the Commission’s proposals would be delivered, including nearly a quarter of those intending to vote Labour.
The resignation of Johann Lamont as leader meant that Scottish Labour were seen as divided, and Jim Murphy’s appointment didn’t appeal to those intending to vote SNP, with a full third saying it made them less likely to vote Labour.
We know that the direct loss of voters from Labour’s 2010 showing to the SNP were key. Analysis of the British Election Study in February suggested that voters lost to the SNP from Labour were unlikely to be frightened into voting for Labour (“vote SNP get Tories”) – mainly as they were not persuaded that Labour was any better than the Conservatives.
Whilst voters overall, including SNP supporters, showed a strong preference for a Labour government at the UK level, polling in March showed that more than half of those intending to vote SNP thought it would make no difference to the likelihood of a Labour government.
That’s not to say it made no difference. Scottish Labour drew level with the SNP in terms of which would be best at preventing a Tory Government over the period from early February to that poll in mid-March. Unfortunately the people being persuaded most seemed to be those intending to vote Conservative.
Some progress seemed to have been made in demonstrating that Scottish Labour had freedom from London, moving from 66% saying it had little or no freedom in October to 38% identifying the party as being “too ready to do what London wants” in May.
But people wanted a party that would “stand up for Scotland’s interests” and the SNP were clear winners on that front: for example, Nicola Sturgeon was preferred by twice as many respondents (41%) to Jim Murphy (19%) in a question about who would try to get the best deal for Scotland. Even around half of those intending to vote Labour in late April thought a big cohort of SNP MPs would be good for Scotland. By this time, a full 50% of voters, including a fifth of Labour supporters thought the SNP would be best placed to protect Scotland from spending cuts.
Before this raft of polling, the first Scottish leaders debate had been held in early April and Nicola Sturgeon had easily come across best – with Jim Murphy rated just behind Ruth Davidson. And once the results were in, the campaign in Scotland (15%) was seen as a bigger factor for Labour’s poor performance, as compared to England and Wales (5%) – with Ed Miliband being viewed as the most important reason.
But the campaign and the leader can only be accountable for so much. There is a perception problem for Scottish Labour that built up over time (“something for nothing” was voiced in September 2012 and left as a straw hanging in the wind), was crystallised in the referendum campaign, and was given full voice by the electorate at the general election.
Labour is not seen as a party to trust on the NHS and is not viewed by a majority as being in favour of a fair society (with 24% thinking the party is actively against a more equal society).
Okay. But there are glimmers of hope in amongst this.
People do like the policies that Labour were offering – including those who intended to vote SNP: in March there was 66% support for the 50p top rate (SNP voters 70%) and for public contracts to pay the living wage (72% agree overall, 80% of SNP), whilst a poll in February recorded 69% support for the “mansion tax” (and 72% of SNP voters).
Nearly a quarter of SNP voters would consider a vote for a unionist party if they liked their policies and the most important policies are those relating to Scotland (38% SNP more likely to vote Labour).
Although popular policies weren’t effective this time, most likely due to the raw proximity of the referendum and the relentless focus on new powers rather than what would be achieved with them, there is time now to build on the redistributive policy platform and scrutinise the SNP’s record. Health seems like a good place to start, as people – including ⅕ SNP voters – think quality of care and waiting times have worsened since 2007 and the SNP have chosen not to spend Barnett consequentials on health.
People will be watching what Labour says and does in the coming months, and the electorate is always ready to be persuaded. In every crisis lies an opportunity.