THE SNP hit an electoral sweet spot in 2011. The roots of the success were traced afterwards by exhaustive polling by the universities of Strathclyde and Essex, looking at why people voted they way they did.
In all the important measurements – such as competence, image, leadership, and “standing up for Scotland” – Alex Salmond’s party beat Labour hands down. When asked to rate how well it had done, the 2007-11 SNP government had a +36 per cent rating, in a different stratosphere to Labour. What’s more, even though people felt their living standards were falling, they blamed the UK government, not Holyrood.
Last week, a significant poll by Ipsos Mori showed that, while things aren’t perhaps quite as rosy, the good times continue to roll for Mr Salmond. More than half of people – 54 per cent – said they were satisfied with the way his administration was running the country, compared with 39 per cent who were dissatisfied. This +15 per cent score is the kind of rating the Tory-LibDem coalition government in London can only dream about. Satisfaction ratings for it are down at -40 per cent.
For opposition parties at the Scottish Parliament, the poll must have jarred. It was published a day after Mr Salmond had been forced to make an apology over college funding, and just a few weeks after his EU-legal advice debacle. The SNP has had a wobbly few weeks, with the party’s Nato debate showing deep divisions over how best to campaign for independence. The Ipsos Mori poll was taken before the most recent problems faced by the SNP, but opponents could be forgiven for asking: what do we have to do?
Their problem is the truism that, in politics, most things don’t matter, especially complicated issues such as those that have hit the SNP in recent weeks. Furthermore, without any 24-hour blanket news coverage in Scotland for the crisis de jour at Holyrood, events remain even further beneath the radar than do those at Westminster. What really matter are the big impressions. And so long as the SNP remains ahead on those – on competence, image, leadership and representing Scotland’s interests – it will still be forgiven for stroking the occasional bum note.
This may explain why, in conversation, many SNP figures remain confident they are on track to win again at Holyrood, no matter how much mud is thrown at them, or whether they lose the referendum. However, the question is whether the favourable high winds that push in Mr Salmond’s favour will continue. The all-dominating referendum campaign has already changed the political weather. Will the SNP government be able to retain its ability to hit the sweet spot in that climate? The answer to that question leads to another: what else is on offer? Mr Salmond remains in command at present. As the only person with a realistic chance of replacing him, it is up to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont to show there is an alternative.