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The New Normal
Is the 'age of the referendum' really over?
A new YouGov poll today confirms Labour momentum, with the party now in a statistical tie with the SNP. The poll suggests that Labour has taken 17% of SNP supporters from the last general election. That comes after a Panelbase poll at the weekend which, for the first time, showed that Labour’s momentum in Westminster voting intentions has also now spilled over into Holyrood polling.
Until now, Holyrood election polling had been a bit of a lagging indicator for Labour, raising concerns that we might be heading towards a situation where voters opted for change at the General Election but backed the SNP incumbents when it came to Scottish elections. Not anymore.
Former SNP strategist Stephen Noon went as far as to declare at the weekend “we are in a new era of Scottish politics, I think the age of the referendum is over.” Keir Starmer in his conference speech this afternoon claimed “old wounds of division exploited by the Tories and the SNP beginning to heal.”
Could normal politics be returning to Scotland, where incumbent governments are no longer able to distract voters by waving flags and are instead punished for their failings? There is some evidence it might.
Redfield and Wilton’s polling series on the most important issues for Scottish voters as they decide how to vote is revealing. In November last year, 29% of all voters said that independence/maintaining The Union was one of their top three issues. Exactly half of 2019 SNP voters said the same. Last week that number had fallen to just 19% of all voters and 36% of 2019 SNP voters listing it as among the top three issues. A 10-point drop in importance overall but a 14-point drop among the coalition of voters Nicola Sturgeon had assembled.
Ipsos Mori has a longer time series asking a similar question. Immediately prior to the last General Election in 2019, when voters were asked about the most important issues at the election 56% mentioned Brexit, 34% mentioned independence. When Ipsos asked voters what the most important issues facing Scotland were in May, 25% chose independence and Brexit had slipped to 8%.
The landscape of this General Election is completely different. As constitutional issues have become less important to people, they have been replaced by the economy and the NHS. So there is less space for the SNP and the Conservatives to replay previous elections where they seek to have a noisy fight on an imaginary referendum. Worse for them, voters are now focused on their areas of weakness: management of the economy and public services.
Elections are not just a battle of policies and personalities, they are about deciding what the proposition of the contest is in voters’ minds. In recent Scottish elections, the SNP and Conservatives succeeded in convincing voters that the real question at the election was either who would best fight against another referendum or who would deliver one. It appears that many voters have decided that is no longer the question, instead, they are asking: who is best placed to deliver change?
The new landscape frees Labour from their strategic dilemma. If constitutional preference no longer drives voting behaviour then Labour don’t have to spend time arguing against the voters they should be persuading. Rather than trying to convert voters on an entirely hypothetical disagreement they can now have a conversation about what they have in common with these voters.
For the SNP it creates new dilemmas: how do they stand on a mediocre policy record and how can they offer change when a party standing in fewer than one-in-ten constituencies cannot win?
Culture Corner: Robin Takes on Nationalism
The final series of the brilliant Ghosts on the BBC is a joy. As ever, my favourite character, and obviously the favourite of the writers, is Robin the caveman ghost. He swings between bounding around like a happy dog and offering wisdom garnered from his tens of thousands of years of experience. Click below for his thoughts on nationalism.