Labour’s two-pronged road to gaining ground in Scotland

Adam McDonnellResearch Director of Political and Social Research
May 10, 2023, 8:14 AM GMT+0

The party are currently winning voters from both the SNP and Conservatives

The 2019 general election saw Labour receive a historically low share of the vote in Scotland, with just 18% of the public voting for them, six points behind the second-placed Conservatives and a massive 27 points behind the SNP.

Four and half years on, things look a little more positive for Labour north of the border. YouGov data from between January and April this year shows the SNP still leading comfortably on 40% (down five points on 2019), with Labour second on 28% (up 10) and Conservatives in third on 17% (down seven).

A key problem for Labour since 2014 has been how to straddle the issue of Scottish independence, with the SNP dominating the vote amongst those who voted to leave the UK. Indeed, four in five Yes voters (79%) backed the nationalist party in 2019, compared to just 8% who voted for Labour and 7% the Conservatives. On the other side of the independence debate, the Tories managed to cement themselves as the best choice for unionists, picking up 42% of the vote while Labour won 24% and the SNP 17%.

Labour’s improvement since the last election hasn’t just come from one side of the debate, though, with the party winning increasing support from both Yes and No voters. Amongst unionists, the party’s vote share has increased by 15 points, largely at the expense of the Tories (down 12), while amongst independence supporters they are up eight points, with the SNP losing the same percentage of voters.

This only tells part of the story, however. While around the same proportion of Scots say they would vote for independence if there was a referendum now compared to 2014, when asked about the top three issues facing the country at this time, just a third (33%) pick independence. This places it third in the list amongst ‘yes voters’, way below healthcare (62%) and the economy (53%).

Splitting these Yes voters by whether or not they see independence as a top order issue shows that where Labour are really gaining ground amongst this cohort is amongst those who don’t feel it is a priority right now. Labour are up 12 points with this group, and while the SNP still hold the majority of these more agnostic independence supporters (59%) they are down 12 points since 2019. Those who do see independence as a priority right now are far more loyal to the SNP, with 90% planning to vote for the party to Labour’s miniscule 4%.

This implies that Labour are on course to gain ground in the next election from both sides of the independence debate, although their main gains so far are coming from the unionist side, aided in part by the downfall of the Conservatives UK-wide.

But with Nicola Sturgeon standing down and new leader Humza Yousaf receiving lukewarm reviews in early polling, there is no reason to suggest that Labour could not also further chip away at the vote share amongst those less-enthused independence supporters, particularly if they are able to keep the conversation away from the topic and focus on other issues facing the country.

See the full results here

Photo: Getty

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