James Kanagasooriam

Chief Research Officer

Bi_Focal #6: Can Yousaf or Forbes save the SNP?

March 24, 2023

This week, I take a deep look at Scottish politics to see just how much trouble the SNP are really in.

Support for Independence is slowly on the way down

For a long time, the story of Scottish politics has been about independence. The question of leaving the United Kingdom (a prospect that, it’s easy to forget, was really quite close in 2014) has dominated everything else. But that’s starting to change.

Back during the pandemic, when Boris’ approval was riding high down South (doesn’t that feel like a long time ago right now!) support for Independence was also at a high, nudging over 50%. ‘Yes’ was leading ‘No’ in a large number of polls for a period in late 2020. As you can see from the graph, SNP support tracks independence support closely.


But there’s another more interesting thing that SNP support has tracked - if a little less tightly. And that’s approval of the UK national Conservative leader (and therefore Prime Minister). There are two possible explanations here. Both trends could be following similar “rally round the flag” effects that would benefit the both UK Prime Minister and the SNP during the COVID crisis - or the explanation could be that Scotland edges closer to independence the stronger the Conservatives are.

The main difference between the SNP and Yes ratings is in the amount of volatility: support for independence varies much more from poll to poll. This, by the way, is why the latest shock headline showing support for Scottish independence ‘down 4’ or ‘up 2’ is not something you should be paying too much attention to. It’s the long term trend that counts.

Right now, that trend is pointing in one direction: down. Support for independence is slowly ebbing. A sequence of polls have been showing that remaining in the union leads independence by 8 or so points. SNP support is decaying along with support for independence, dipping below 40% for the first time in a while. Our polling confirms and supports this wider picture.

Politics works differently north of the border

Given the separate cycle which Scotland’s politics seems to play by, it’s worth reflecting on the ways in which Scotland’s politics are different to the rest of the U.K. Unherd have been running a series (based on polling and modelling done here at Focaldata) on local area support for various beliefs across the UK. Sometimes Scotland is in line with the rest of the UK, sometimes it sticks out like a sore thumb (for instance, on lukewarm support for the Monarchy). It often veers much further to the left but occasionally, it’s more right wing than you would expect.

Scottish people are progressive on many issues. All 32 of its council areas voted to remain in the EU, and it’s much more liberal than authoritarian - most recently shown by the MRP model in Onward’s ‘After the Fall’ report. Plotting constituencies by economic and social value position shows that the SNP’s constituencies are very much socially liberal and economically left wing, more so than most of Labour’s.


But in other ways Scotland can appear very conservative (with a small ‘c’)  - as has been highlighted by the recent SNP bill making it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. Many may be surprised to learn that Scotland is much less in favour of extending trans rights than the rest of the UK. In Scotland, standard progressive/conservative distinctions mean much less.


Our own polling asked respondents to place themselves on a slider from 0 - 100, indicating not only their view but how strongly they hold it. Scottish people would, on the whole, like to make it harder for transgender people to change their gender, with a mean score of 58/100. They are in favour of raising taxes to spend more on social services by a similar amount (60/100), and lean towards prioritising the environment over the economy (54/100 for the environment).

Scottish voters are, however, very reluctant to say that they themselves are ‘left’ or ‘right’. Given that the median Scot is a green-tinged monarchist who supports higher taxes, is against making it easier for trans people to change their legal gender, and who is deeply split on independence but strongly Remain, this indecision over self-categorising as left or right makes some sense.

The other thing that stands out when we measure Scottish values in this way is polarisation. When asked about taxation or the environment, you can see above that Scottish people are often mildly in favour, or mildly against, but rarely have an undiluted view. But when it comes to independence, the distribution looks completely different. The nation is split between those totally in favour and totally against, with very few in the middle.


On constitutional and cultural issues that have been the subject of a referendum and its aftermath, polarisation always happens - we saw the same with Brexit after 2016. But what’s important is what gets left un-polarised, and as a consequence ignored. Independence has crowded out discussion of other issues, such as class, poverty, state failures, or taxation. It’s been so dominant in Scottish politics that the country hasn’t had the time or space to become as divided on taxation or the economy.

But now look over to the panel on the right. This shows how much importance people assign to independence compared to other issues. Independence might polarise the country - but people don’t see it as so important anymore. Other issues are starting to dominate. It’s early days yet, but it seems that the Scottish people’s attention is starting to turn elsewhere.

Moving on from Independence: It’s all about the NHS and cost of living

Below is an ‘issues map’ of Scotland. Frequent readers of this newsletter will know that we regularly turn to these graphs (take a look to see what you've been missing). The importance of an issue goes from top to bottom. Issues that are most important to Scottish voters are at the top, ones that they do not think are a priority are at the bottom.


What issues are most important? The cost of living and the NHS. By far. They beat economic growth and independence and into a distant third and fourth.

From left to right is delivery. We asked which party people thought was most likely to deliver on each issue. Issues on which the SNP is thought much more likely to deliver than Labour and the Tories combined (such as, surprise, independence) are towards the right. Where Labour and the Tories beat the SNP, it’s to the left - and the vertical line shows where it’s a draw. (The colour shows which unionist party is more trusted than the other on that issue.)

This shows Labour and the Conservatives collectively leading the SNP on all the key issues, apart from independence and devolution (and, just about, climate change). It’s not time for Unionists to celebrate yet - these figures are for the two main unionist parties combined. But what it does show is that people are increasingly starting to turn away from independence as the solution to their problems. They’re open to what the unionist parties are offering.

A window of opportunity for the unionists?

The SNP’s vote is driven by the issue of independence. You can see that here: people who rate themselves highly on our independence slider are far more likely to vote SNP than those who do not. The Conservative vote runs in the other direction.


Unlike the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals have their voters coming from both sides of the independence spectrum. Voting Labour or Lib Dem in Scotland is not an ‘anti-independence’ vote in the way voting Conservative is. This means there’s opportunity for these two parties to snatch up SNP voters who no longer see independence as such an important issue.

Another way to see this is the triangle below. It shows where our respondents placed themselves between the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives, in terms of their warmth of feeling for each party. Someone placed in a corner only feels warm towards that party - and in the middle, warm to all three parties equally.


Many people stuck themselves right in one corner. They’re committed to that party, and not entertaining the thought of supporting any other. But many others indicated that they are open to more than one party - in particular, to both Labour and the SNP. That’s shown in the cloud of points to the left of the triangle. These are voters feeling as if they could vote for either Labour or the SNP. They’re the potential swingers, who both Labour and the SNP need to woo.


What do the people of Scotland think of those that would lead them? We ran a poll with a slightly unusual format, using our own Focaldata platform.

Each respondent was shown a video of the leader delivering a speech. They were then presented with a set of leadership characteristics - for instance, “They are an effective leader and get things done” or “They are true to their own values and always do what they feel is the right thing” - and asked to pick which ones they thought applied to each leader.

Separately, we asked respondents to rank which characteristic was most important. The detailed results are shown below.


That’s a lot to digest - people’s opinion of leaders has many facets (lovers of detailed data, please do get stuck in!) To show a more straightforward picture, we’ve combined the characteristics into an index, weighting the more important ones higher. This creates a clearer ranking:


What’s going on? Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon outperforms everyone else by a Scots mile. She outscores every other leader on almost every single measure, by a long way. She may have recently seemed rather embattled, but her resignation is nevertheless a huge electoral loss for the SNP. This is a big deal for the three candidates who would replace her. None of them is a carbon-copy replacement, and given how popular Sturgeon still is that’s what the SNP really need. Her would-be successors have a mountain to climb.

Meanwhile both Conservative and Labour leaders struggle on current polling. Given that the most important characteristic for the Scottish electorate was “Understand the problems faced by the people of Scotland”, it seems that Sunak and Starmer’s lack of Scottish focus counts strongly against them. In the middle come all the SNP candidates, Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf, and Ash Regan, along with the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

Kate Forbes outperforms the other two SNP candidates. She is seen as someone who would be a more competent leader, and her commitment to her own values attracts people who aren’t turned off by them. Although our methodology is very different, that reflects the findings of the latest YouGov poll, who find that Forbes is more popular than her two rivals, though all three trail Sturgeon by far.

However, when looking at only people who are warmly inclined to both Labour and the SNP - that is, the target voters Labour would like to target and the SNP need to defend - Forbes performs only slightly better than her two rivals, well within the margin of error. She might be seen as a potentially strong leader, but not necessarily among the voters the SNP really need to be targeting. This picture is backed up by latest Ipsos leader ratings out yesterday. They show Yousaf leading Forbes among 2021 SNP voters (+11 to + 6 net approve/disapprove respectively) - but Forbes leading among the country as a whole (by -8 to -20)

So, where do we stand?

If a Westminster General Election was held tomorrow, our polling records vote shares of SNP 39%, Labour 28%, Conservatives 18%, Lib Dems 9%. That’s very much in line with other recent polls. We’re a long way from the 2019 election: the result back then was SNP 45%, Con 25%, Labour 19%. Labour have made some big gains. On a uniform national swing, using the new boundaries that we calculated for our fourth Bi-Focal issue, that would leave the SNP on 36 seats, Labour on 12 (+11), Conservatives on 6 (unchanged) and the Liberals on 3 (+1).

The resilience of the Scottish Tory vote is an interesting side result here. Against the backdrop of the Conservatives’ UK-wide numbers being extremely low, 18% in Scotland is a very respectable amount. If Scottish Labour were to gain another 2.5% and SNP lose another 2.5%, the number of SNP seats at Westminster could drop into the mid twenties, which may threaten its position as the third party at Westminster. That said, the SNP are still firmly in the lead, and if an election were held today our polling shows that they would still hold just under two-thirds of all seats in Scotland.

The really interesting thing comes when we asked how people would vote if either Kate Forbes or Humza Yousaf was the SNP’s leader. Headline vote intention is almost identical between the two of them. But who votes for whom completely changes.


As many as a quarter of people who said they would vote SNP under Humza Yousaf would not vote SNP if Kate Forbes was leader. But Kate Forbes makes up the numbers by attracting others to the SNP cause. (Do note that the SNP figures here look lower because 'Don't know' and 'Would not vote' are included.)

Humza Yousaf is the continuity candidate: SNP supporters if he were leader are very similar to current SNP supporters. But Kate Forbes drives voters away and attracts them from Labour and the Conservatives in equal measure. She realigns the SNP away from the progressive voters they currently have. (If she were leader, the Greens would gain the most, taking a sizable chunk of SNP support.)

That said, both of these options are ‘Sturgeon-minus’. The SNP’s halcyon days of dominating Scottish politics look to be slowly slipping away. Scottish voters are turning towards other issues, looking for someone to offer them an answer on the cost of living and the NHS. There are no good options for the SNP here.

One final note: a funny thing about Scottish politics is how hard it is to model. SNP and independence support is very hard to predict. While it’s associated with certain groups (young professionals, central urban belt), most of the demographic statistics that are so key to understanding political affiliation in England (university degree, social class, housing tenure etc.) are comparatively much less predictive.

With Sturgeon gone, there will be a lot of volatility as her replacement tries to assert themselves as the new champion of independence. Meanwhile, many voters will be asking themselves - for the first time in a while - if the SNP is really the party that will help them with the cost of living. It will be fascinating to see what happens.

You can find tables for the full poll results here.

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