Voting reform, Scotland, Wales and the 'nurse' factor

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 3:47 AM GMT+0

Labour is heading for victory in Wales and frustration in Scotland, according to the final devolved-election YouGov surveys published this afternoon. (See this link for topline results.)

YouGov’s final Britain-wide survey on the Alternative Vote will be published later this evening. Our penultimate survey, published in today’s Sun, showed a 59-41% lead for keeping first-past-the-post. Unless there is a very late swing, it is likely not only that ‘No’ will be triumphant, but that there will be a clear ‘No’ victory in every region – including Wales and Scotland.

In Wales, our final survey for ITV Wales suggests that the remaining question is whether Labour will win an absolute majority in the 60-seat Assembly. With 47% of the constituency vote – up 15 points on the 32% it won four years ago – Labour might just win 30 or more of the 40 individual seats (it is likely to gain one regional top-up seat at most). Whether Labour enjoys an absolute majority or just falls short is likely to depend on the outcome of a handful of tight local contests.

The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru are in a tight fight for second place in both the constituency and regional top-up votes. The Liberal Democrats have slipped badly: they are likely to lose most, and just possibly all, of the six seats they won last time.

In Scotland, we show the SNP narrowly ahead, by seven points in the constituency section and just three points in the regional top-up section. Allowing for margins of error and the nature of the electoral system, we would expect a close race with the SNP probably, but not certainly, ahead. However, they are likely to remain well short of an overall majority – in contrast to a YouGov survey two weeks ago which showed them much further ahead.

Indeed, there could be a common thread to the Scottish vote and the Britain-wide referendum on AV. Elections are sometimes characterised as contests between hope and far, or the future versus the past. But they are sometimes also battles between ‘the grass is greener’ and ‘keep a hold of nurse’ (from Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tale about Jim, who was eaten by a lion; he failed to obey the injunction, ‘always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse’).

Polls conducted in ‘peacetime’, when no election or referendum is imminent, frequently find an appetite for change, on the grounds that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence – only for that appetite to subside as decision-day approaches. When people are invited to vote for change, rather than express a general preference for something different, they often find the status quo more appealing than they previously thought. That is when the ‘grass is greener’ sentiment gives way to ‘keep a hold of nurse’.

This appears to be what has happened with the AV referendum, where the ‘No’ vote has hardened as referendum day approached; and perhaps something of the same may thwart the SNP’s hopes of a victory big enough to revive their plans for a referendum on independence. Our polls for the Scotsman have found (as they did in the run-up to both the 2007 and 2010 elections) that independence lost some of its allure during the campaigns.

So while most Scots hold a favourable view of the SNP’s stewardship of Scotland’s government, and far more prefer Alex Salmond as First Minister to his Labour opponent, Iain Gray, SNP’s support may have been held back because of a fear of triggering a chain of events that could lead to independence. As a result, if the SNP does come out ahead tomorrow, the chances are that it will be precisely the government that most Scots want – Salmond to lead an administration that remains firmly within the Union.