In one of the most in-depth opinion polls conducted across Scotland, next year’s Yes campaign looks doomed to failure at the referendum – but we may yet still see an SNP government re-elected in 2016.
The headline figures – from a poll of 10,007 adults – gave the Yes campaign only 26 per cent, with a resounding 65 per cent saying No. More ominously for the Yes camp, even if all of the remaining 10 per cent of undecided voters chose to say Yes they would still lose by a majority of nearly two-to-one.
The poll has been conducted by the entrepreneur, philanthropist, author and former Conservative treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, who now conducts independent opinion polls aimed at establishing what the public really thinks no matter how uncomfortable it may be for our political leaders.
As a result, he is viewed by some commentators as a critic of David Cameron and his policies, although one only has to read his articles and statements to establish that he remains a supporter of the party and wishes to see it re-elected. However, on some issues – such as Europe and immigration – he seeks to correct his party’s assumptions about what is and is not popular with the electorate. Recently, I wrote about how Ashcroft embarrassed the Unite trade union leader Len McCluskey by showing how little of the union’s members actually support Labour or the policies it campaigns on.
In this latest survey of Scottish political opinion there is much detail to provoke thought and discussion – not least because of the scale and quality of the polling.
For instance, Ashcroft’s poll also reveals that for all the Yes campaign’s financial and moral support towards its Labour for Independence splinter group, only 14 per cent of Labour voters are likely to vote for independence while nearly a third of SNP voters will vote No or are yet to make up their minds – including an embarrassing 20 per cent who are saying No already.
Despite the unequivocal rejection of independence there is some solace for the nationalists where a sample of 1,000 adults shows the SNP remaining as the largest party in a Scottish Parliament election with 40 per cent, Labour on 35 percent, Conservatives 15 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 5 per cent. The comparison with the 2011 election shows some improvement by Labour in the first vote (when the share was SNP 45.4; Lab 31.7, Cons 13.9 and LDs 7.9) but nowhere near enough to make it the largest party.
This is not, however, the whole story, as the figures for the second vote show the SNP at 36 per cent against 44 per cent in 2011, Labour dropping 2 points to 24 per cent, the Conservatives falling to only 10 per cent from 12.6 per cent – with the Lib Dems overtaking them on 13 per cent, and more ominously for the Tories, Ukip on 11 per cent.
The likely outcome would be the SNP as the largest party but without a majority – and needing to form a coalition or obtain agreement with one of the other parties. After coming through a gruelling and no doubt bitter referendum campaign this might be too much to ask from any of the unionist parties, or indeed for the nationalists.
The second vote share would almost certainly mean Ukip having some MSPs in Scotland at the probable expense of the Conservatives, considering the Greens managed two members in 2011 on a second vote share of only 4.4 per cent.
Of course, with the Holyrood elections being just under three years away in May 2016, a great deal can and will happen that can still influence voter intentions.
Next summer we have the European elections where Ukip can be expected to raise its profile further. After the independence referendum in September 2014 there is the Westminster General Election of 2015 – ten months before the Scottish Parliament poll.
Apart from events such as international terrorism or conflicts like Syria there are domestic issues such as fuel poverty, welfare reform and sustainability of the economic recovery that could all wreak havoc on voters’ current intentions.
During that three-year period there could also be a change in the leadership in some, if not all of the parties, most likely after a poor general election result when introspection abounds.
Depending on the scale of any No referendum victory and the possible utter rejection of the SNP’s raison d’etre, Alex Salmond might feel it is time to depart and ease in his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, so that she has a couple of years to impress the public before the Scottish Government goes to the polls.
Likewise, a poor showing at the general election for the Scottish Conservatives could see its leader, Ruth Davidson, stand down so that the party also has a year to regroup. Ashcroft’s polling shows Davidson as the least popular of all the leaders at a net -20 per cent, maybe not surprising for a minority party but the Lib Dems’ Willie is on only -8 per cent – although half of those polled had never heard of him or could offer no opinion.
The prospects for Johann Lamont are much better, being the only politician with a positive rating of +3 per cent (compared to Salmond on -4) but she too has to become better known, with 40 per cent not knowing her well enough to comment, compared to 38 per cent for Ruth Davidson.
We could therefore go into a 2016 Holyrood election with different performers leading the parties – and influencing the outcome – from what the polling tells us now.
The other stand-out finding is that 61 per cent of the electorate believe the SNP has the wrong priority in focusing on independence, with 41 per cent putting the economy and jobs as the top priority.
After a referendum defeat for the SNP, an electorate awakening to the waste of money and three-year distraction of an independence referendum instead of dealing with the main issue may well choose to punish the SNP and keep it out of power for a generation.