Analysis: Real test for SNP and independence support is during a Labour government, say experts

The comments were made at a fringe event at SNP conference.

The SNP are leaking votes to Labour due to concerns around competency, the simple possibility of a Labour government, and the lack of star power around Humza Yousaf.

That was the message from a fringe panel discussion at the SNP conference, organised by the Scottish Election Study.

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It was a difficult session for many of the members in the room as they were taken through data showing why their party appears to be losing grip on power.

“It’s the reverse of the Scottish Labour story,” said Professor Ailsa Henderson of the University of Edinburgh, pointing at the decline in how voters view the SNP’s competence.

Between 2021, the height of their support under Nicola Sturgeon, and 2023, Labour have overtaken the SNP in trust on key areas such as education and health.

And while the SNP remain well ahead on ‘standing up for Scotland’, the first competency issue that declined for Labour, they have fallen back.

This, the experts said, was a potential demonstration of the “cost of government”; the idea that all parties of governments lose support over time simply by being in power.

Humza Yousaf’s lack of star power, in direct contrast to that of Sturgeon’s and as voters become more cynical about all politicians, is also hurting the SNP.

But competency and leadership is not the only issue, the credibility of a UK Labour party is also eating away at SNP support.

"UK Labour now seems capable of removing the Conservatives from office in a way that they haven’t for a very long time,” said Prof Henderson, highlighting the “negative partisanship” of the Scottish electorate who simply do not like the Tories.

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"Therefore it is presenting a trade off to voters in a way that just didn’t exist before. That’s the issue,” she added.

Switchers are not moving away from the SNP due to the Bute House Agreement, said Professor Christopher Carman.

Instead they are softer Yes supporters, don’t naturally support any party, and have similar views of Anas Sarwar and Humza Yousaf.

These are voters who prioritise booting the Tories out of government before delivering as many pro-independence MPs as possible.

The story of the SNP’s decline is therefore the convergence of a newly credible Labour party and a soft underbelly to the Yes support.

But what about after the general election? It is this, the experts say, that could be existential for the SNP and for the independence cause.

For the first time in the history of devolution, there will a pro-independence Scottish Parliament alongside a Labour party in power in Number 10.

"That is the big test for independence,” said Dr Fraser McMillan.

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“The people who are now having a look at Labour, they would be the most instrumental pro-independence voters.

"They would be supporting independence because that’s the mechanism of getting rid of the Conservative government.

"You don’t need independence to get rid of the Tories because Labour are going to do that instead.

"The big test for independence support in general, and over time that also means SNP support, is what happens to Yes support when Labour are in government, when they are given a crack at solving the issues that people perceive with the UK in general.”

As many in Labour hope, their return to Number 10 could kill off independence as they attempt to deliver for all of the UK, including Scotland.

Or, as those in the SNP hope, a cautious Labour unable to turn around the UK post-Brexit could re-galvanise the cause.



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