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Serious challenges ahead for a party losing its optimism

Date:19 October 2012
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Social Research
This article originally appeared in The Times

At the beginning of 2012, the SNP were looking ahead with optimism. The party was basking in the continued glow of their historic 2011 election victory, support for independence was on the rise and Alex Salmond enjoyed enviable satisfaction ratings. Nine months on, the picture has changed dramatically.

In our January poll 39% of Scots who said they would definitely vote in the referendum backed independence. Since then, support has fallen considerably and only 30% now agree that Scotland should be an independent country.

This might have been expected during a year in which a sense of ‘Britishness’ has been celebrated so fervently through the diamond jubilee and the hugely successful Olympics and Paralympics. These events, combined with a lacklustre launch to the ‘Yes’ campaign and growing criticism of the First Minister, mean nationalists face a considerable challenge to win in 2014.

Our poll highlights where the challenges are most acute. Support is particularly low among women as fewer than a quarter would vote ‘Yes’. It is also clear that key groups have yet to be convinced about the economic benefits of independence. It is those in work (29%), owner-occupiers (28%) and those living in more affluent areas (23%) that are most lukewarm about the prospect of an independent Scotland.

There has also been much debate recently around the possible impact of allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum. While our poll did not include people in those age groups, a look at the views of those aged 18-24, 27% of whom favour independence, does little to suggest the nationalist cause will be boosted by extending the franchise. In any case, those aged 16 and 17 are unlikely to be numerically significant in 2014 unless future polls suggest a much closer race. They are also considerably less likely to turn out and vote. Nearly three quarters of those aged over 55 tell us they will definitely vote in autumn 2014, compared with fewer than half in the 18-24 group.

So, where next for the two campaigns? Nearly three in five disagree that Scotland should become an independent country. While this is a healthy lead for the ‘Better Together’ campaign, it is not insurmountable, particularly when one in ten Scots remain undecided. One potential source of discomfort for unionists is the issue of further devolution for the Scottish Parliament. Most voters are in favour of more powers, yet this option will be excluded from the ballot paper, while the main unionist parties hold differing views on the issue. Failure to articulate a coherent vision of what a ‘No’ vote would actually mean risks driving some supporters and floating voters into the hands of the ‘Yes’ camp.

However, it is clear that the ‘Yes’ campaign faces the stiffer test. Constructing an economic argument that convinces voters they will be better off separate from the rest of the UK will be just as important as appealing to their sense of ‘Scottishness’. This test becomes more difficult in light of the significant slump in satisfaction with the First Minister, whose popularity has slipped from +35% in December 2011 to just +10% now. He and his party also face an increasingly robust challenge from Johann Lamont’s Labour. In Holyrood voting intention, our polls have shown a ten point swing in favour of Labour since she became party leader in December 2011.

History tells us that there is precedent for the ‘Yes’ campaign to overcome the deficit if the 1975 EEC referendum is any guide. A poll in January 1975 found only 45% reported they were likely to vote in favour of Britain staying in, while 55% intended to vote to leave. Yet six months’ later the Referendum was won, 67% to 33% (59% to 41% in Scotland).

The phoney war over dates, the franchise and number of questions is now over. The campaign for hearts and minds of Scots can now begin. It is those campaigning for an independent Scotland with most work to do in the months ahead.

Click here to access full details of the poll

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