As Scottish Labour overtakes Conservatives, here's what it needs to do to pose challenge to SNP – Rachel Ormston, Ipsos Scotland

It is no understatement to say that when Anas Sarwar took over as leader of Scottish Labour, the party’s electoral prospects looked dire.

In 2015, it had plummeted from holding 69 per cent of Scotland’s Westminster seats to a single Scottish MP. In 2017, Labour suffered the further ignominy of being pushed into third place in Scotland, behind a dominant SNP and Ruth Davidson’s resurgent Scottish Conservative party.

And Boris Johnson’s snap December 2019 poll saw Scottish Labour’s share of the vote drop to a historic low of 18.6 per cent (six points behind the second placed Scottish Conservatives, on 25.1).

In February 2021, when Sarwar became leader, if anything, Scottish Labour appeared to be faring even worse. That month’s Ipsos polling found that just 15 per cent of likely voters planned to support Labour with their constituency vote in the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections.

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Between February and May 2021, however, the polls began to indicate a small but significant recovery in the Scottish Labour vote. In the end, 21.6 per cent voted for Labour for their constituency on May 6, 2021, just behind the Conservatives on 21.9.

This was clearly a long way from success – it was Scottish Labour’s worst performance in a Scottish Parliament election since the beginning of devolution, and the party remained in third place behind the Conservatives (with 17.9 per cent on the List vote, versus the Conservatives on 23.5). But it was a better outcome than they might have feared at the start of the year and will have given its supporters cause to hope that Scottish Labour might be at the start of a journey to recover its lost electoral fortunes.

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The latest Ipsos Scotland phone polling, conducted 23-29 May, may provide some further encouragement to Scottish Labour. It indicates that, were a general election to be held now, Scottish Labour would likely regain second place, with an estimated vote share of 23 per cent, well behind a still dominant SNP (on 44), but ahead of the Conservatives, on 19.

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Moreover, Anas Sarwar, whose popularity appeared to be a key factor in Scottish Labour’s better than expected performance last May, has maintained his relatively positive ratings; 46 per cent are satisfied with his performance as Scottish Labour leader, with 27 per cent dissatisfied.

But there remains a large gap to bridge between regaining second place and seriously challenging the SNP for seats at either Westminster or Holyrood. What else can recent polling tell us about the prospects and challenges for Labour in bridging that gap?

In May, Ipsos asked people what they see as the most important issues facing Scotland today. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis is clear: inflation and the rising cost of living tops the list of the most important issues, up 27 percentage points since the question was last asked in November 2021.

Concern about the cost of living arguably ought to work in Labour’s favour. People in Scotland are much more optimistic about their future standard of living if Keir Starmer’s Labour Party win the next general election than if Boris Johnson’s Conservatives stay in power – 64 per cent think they would be worse off if Johnson’s Conservatives win, compared with just 30 per cent if Starmer’s Labour do.

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However, the problem for Scottish Labour is that the Conservative Party are not the party they primarily need to take votes from north of the Border to secure a more substantial reversal of their electoral fortunes.

And while people might think Labour would do a better job than the Conservatives on cost of living, the SNP remain the party people in Scotland are most likely to trust to handle the crisis – 33 per cent trust the SNP most to address this, compared with 20 per cent for Scottish Labour and just 12 per ecnt for the Scottish Conservatives.

In fact, the SNP remains the most trusted party across all the issues Ipsos asked about – including education and schools, in spite of the extensive criticism levelled at the Scottish Government on this issue in recent years.

A second issue that may limit the scope for Scottish Labour to increase its share of the vote in future general elections is the Scottish public’s relative lack of enthusiasm for Keir Starmer.

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While 38 per cent are satisfied with how he is doing his job as leader of the UK Labour Party, 40 per cent are dissatisfied, and 22 per cent are unsure or don’t know enough to form an opinion. Given the enormous unpopularity of Boris Johnson in Scotland (83 per cent are dissatisfied with his performance as Prime Minister, the lowest rating yet recorded), this is hardly a ringing endorsement of his main opponent in the Commons.

Last, but certainly not least, is the issue of independence. While concern about the cost of living may have knocked independence down the list of issues currently exercising the Scottish electorate, there is no doubt that it remains a key dividing line.

Those who favour independence remain very strongly inclined to vote SNP: 81 per cent of those who would vote Yes in a second referendum would vote SNP in an immediate general election. And with support for independence finely balanced – 50-50 yes/no in Ipsos’ latest poll – this leaves the three main unionist parties fighting between them for roughly half of the electorate. This makes it extremely difficult for any of them to seriously contend with the SNP on vote share.

If Scottish Labour wants to grow its recovery beyond tentative green shoots, it must engage with these three key challenges: convincing voters it is more competent and trustworthy than the SNP on the policy areas that matter to people; further enhancing the profile and perceptions of its leaders; and, crucially, persuading those who favour an independent Scotland that a vote for Scottish Labour is nonetheless in their interests.

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Rachel Ormston is a research director at Ipsos Scotland

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