Video Special: What are voters making of this?
Watch videos from a focus group with the voters who have lost faith in the SNP.
The opinion polls suggest a significant chunk of voters may have left the SNP. The polls give you the statistics but they don’t tell the story of why those voters have lost faith.
When I started paid subscriptions to this newsletter, I promised every penny would be spent on new content. This edition starts to make good on that promise with videos of a fascinating focus group discussion with disaffected former SNP voters.
Focus groups are structured conversations about current events that seek to probe the deeper feelings, motivations, and concerns of a carefully selected group of voters. In this case the selection, made by an independent marketing firm, was of Scots who voted for the SNP in the past but no longer intended to.
I love watching these discussions. People have an endless capacity to surprise you, move you, and educate you. Below are six videos from this focus group discussion and analysis around the themes of the discussion. Inevitably the analysis is subjective. A different writer would draw different political lessons and I’m sure you’ll draw your own conclusions watching them. Hopefully though, having been immersed in this sort of voter research for much of the last 20 years I have some insights that are of interest.
The first two videos are shared with everyone. As a thank you to paid subscribers, they will get the first look at the other four videos, including voters’ reactions to Humza Yousaf’s first month in office.
In the videos you will hear:
What they make of Yousaf’s calamitous first month.
How the cost of living crisis is hurting their families.
People’s fears for the future of Scottish services.
What score, between one and ten, the voters gave the SNP government.
How independence has gone from being a source of hope to becoming the barrier to the change they want to see.
How they are searching for something new that will give them hope.
Thank you to the voters who took part and for agreeing to share their videos and thank you to Kempcock and Co for moderating the discussion.
Politics is secondary to making it to the end of the month.
The first reflection from the discussion is perhaps unsurprising. The cost of living dominates these voters’ lives at the moment. The stories told in this video are a reminder that inflation isn’t about a rise in a percentage figure, it’s about a fall in the everyday quality of life for working people, missed opportunities for kids, and hardship for parents.
In such tough circumstances, it feels that these voters have less patience for unserious people in government. They are working harder and making hard decisions every day and expect the same from politicians. Around the world, we might expect populists to thrive from rising inflation, but perhaps there is another dynamic here: maybe when people are struggling so much they have less tolerance for politicians who they sense are playing politics.
The NHS is a priority, but they worry if it can survive.
While one participant was keen to stress how grateful she was for the service she received from her local GP, others shared troubling stories of long waits for treatment, the impact of cutbacks and the costs of mismanagement. Some worry whether the NHS we have depended on will survive.
Listening to this discussion, it feels like, in an economy that causes such worry, the NHS which was a source of reassurance is now an additional source of anxiety. In that sense, the SNP’s mismanagement of the NHS is part of an overall sense of insecurity felt by these voters, rather than a separate story about public services.
Humza Yousaf is the “captain of a sinking ship”.
Recent scandals and longer-term failings in public services have coloured opinions of the new First Minister. If for some reason, Humza Yousaf subscribes to this newsletter he should look away now because this next video isn’t pretty.
For some Yousaf’s image is already tarnished by his poor record in government. Not surprising given experiences in the NHS. Others feel they don’t know him yet and will give him time, but the image of the novice leader is entangled with a sense of disappointment in a distracted SNP. Compared with Nicola Sturgeon, Yousaf is not rated, but even the former First Minister’s legacy is now being reassessed by voters shocked by recent events.
Note: we were unable to share much of the conversation about recent events due to rules around contempt of court. To quote the new First Minister though, “it isn’t great for the SNP.”
Incumbency is working against the SNP and people want to try something else.
Asked to rank the performance of the SNP’s management of public services, here were their scores:
I have sat through (too) many focus groups in Scotland. This is the first where there was a sense that incumbency was catching up with the SNP. For the first time, I heard people who had voted SNP thinking that they had had enough time to prove themselves and that they had failed. There was still a lingering reluctance to criticize our public services because of a feeling it was unpatriotic, which accounted for the participant scoring them 8 out of ten. However normal politics, where a governing party is blamed for its failings may be slowly returning to Scottish politics.
Independence is distant and disconnected from more urgent realities.
Most of this group had been Yes supporters, and might yet be in the future, but throughout the discussion, it was notable how absent independence was. The idea of us leaving the UK already seems far off, a pipe dream that is distracting the SNP Government from crises people are living through. We might revisit the question at some point, they feel, but there are bigger things to worry about right now.
This was volunteered without stimulus. When various statements about how independence is not going to happen any time soon, made by Humza Yousaf, Shona Robison and Mike Russell, were presented to them something interesting happened. They hoped that this was the start of a different approach by the SNP which put the campaign to separate from England behind an effort to improve services.
There is an opportunity for Yousaf here, but can a weakened leader afford to deliver such an unpopular message to a party in crisis, even if it would prove popular with these swing voters? The First Minister is committed to a series of assembles with his members to discuss independence strategy. He shows all the signs of setting himself on the same pathway that saw Nicola Sturgeon lose her way. He may find himself trapped between what his members want and what the voters who could save his leadership want.
Overall, the feeling was that this is a group of voters voicing dissatisfaction with the status quo, desperate for change, but losing hope.
They are searching for an alternative that offers hope.
Many of these voters say they will vote Labour at the next election, but for the most part, they have arrived there by default.
Memories of Kier Starmer dissecting Boris Johnson over covid parties in Downing Street were positive. Perhaps contrary to the existing narrative about perceptions of Starmer, people liked his personality and found him more relatable than previous leaders.
However, they had little knowledge of Labour’s radical plans for improving pay and conditions for workers across the economy or of the plans for massive investment in green energy. They felt these were positive but returned again and again in the discussion to the desperate need for a more substantial pay rise. Worryingly, at present talk of big investment into green energy is seen as a policy for the environment rather than about securing new industries, good jobs and replacing the role oil has played in Scotland’s economy.
The potential for an even greater move towards Labour is there, but voters will have to hear more about the party’s vision. People want to be part of change. While 16 years into their time in office the SNP is no longer a convincing route to that change, they need to know how Labour’s change will make their life easier. The pain of recent months has raised the bar on this - the level of Labour’s ambition will need to feel like it matches the scale of the hardship people are experiencing.