62% polls, competent governments and viable opposition

A few weeks ago a new TNS poll made headline news across Scotland and was the subject of much incredulity amongst those of us who don’t support the SNP.  From a poll of 1029 Scots, 62% of those who declared a preference for any party indicated that they intend to vote SNP at next year’s Scottish Government elections.

Given the SNP’s continued popularity since the referendum, this figure came as little surprise.  The most newsworthy element of the poll was the supplementary questions on the SNP government’s performance.  The results would, at first glance, appear to be at odds with the voting intentions of the sample. Despite that eye-grabbing 62% figure, far fewer people seem to think the SNP are actually doing a good job.


For now, let’s leave aside my views on whether the SNP’s record in any of these areas is good, bad or indifferent.  What is important is the perception of the electorate.

The obvious initial reaction is: how can 62% of the electorate intend to vote for a party which about half of them don’t think is governing well?

I confess that my immediate response was similarly incredulous and I empathised with those who felt this was further evidence that the SNP’s support is rooted in base nationalism with no consideration for policies or governance.  Like much, if not most, of what is posted on Twitter this was vitriolic, ill-considered and, for the most part, just plain wrong.

After thinking about it for a few days, I tried to get my head around how these results could come about and, more importantly, what it means for next year’s election.

I decided to take a quick look at the numbers first.  Polls are usually reported excluding undecided respondents and the TNS poll was no different.

Holyrood voting intention
Holyrood voting intention
Voting record in 2015 General Election
Voting record in 2015 General Election

The highlighted numbers immediately stood out for me.  First, there is a large “undecided” block at 30%.  This seems to be a growing trend in Scottish politics with many of the polls prior to the General Election also having a large contingent of undecided voters.  It’s also interesting that the number of people who voted SNP in May is exactly the same as those who intend to do so next year – 366, or 36% of the full sample (8% would not vote, 5% refused to say, 30% undecided).  This would suggest that not one of the respondents has changed their mind in favour of the SNP since May; although it should be noted that the Tories, Labour and LibDems are all losing voters (-4%, -6% and -3% respectively).

As an aside, 10% of the sample “couldn’t remember” how they had voted 3 months ago.  105 people.  I don’t know what to say about that.

Comparing that 36% figure of SNP voters to the pie charts of satisfaction with the Scottish government’s performance, the results start to make more sense and the gap less pronounced.  Consider that some people could think the SNP are performing well in one area, say education, whilst indifferent to their record in another, say health, and you can start to see how these results would match up.

Something else bothered me about the results though. To save you scrolling back up, here are the results again:


In each of the questions, there is a large sector of respondents who rate the SNP government’s performance as “neither good nor bad”. Note that this is different to a response of “don’t know”, which was also recorded.  I’d argue that part of the reason behind this is a general ignorance of what is devolved and what is reserved.  Although the referendum will have increased awareness of devolved powers, I still come across a significant number of people who are unaware of exactly what Nicola Sturgeon’s government is responsible for and what is reserved to Westminster.

I’ve been thinking about that “neither good nor bad” vote for a few days, though, and I’ve come to the conclusion that these are people who simply don’t see a viable alternative in the other parties.  When you add up those who voted for parties other than the SNP in May 2015 (35%) and those who definitely intend to vote for other parties in May 2016 (21%), you can pretty much account for the majority of those who rate the SNP’s performance as “poor”, which you would expect.  Whilst the 30% undecided voters should form the majority of the “neither good nor bad” responses.

So what does this mean for 2016?

First things first, let’s face facts – the SNP are going to win.  They will win an outright majority and are very likely to extend their 2011 majority.  My own party, the Liberal Democrats, look set to have a bad time and continue the downwards trend instigated, rightly or wrongly, by the coalition.

And yet there are still, if the poll is to be believed, almost 1 in 3 voters in Scotland who are undecided and plenty that can be done to persuade them.  If I am right then these aren’t people who will vote SNP because of nationalism, because they like their policies or even because they think the SNP are doing a particularly good job – it’s simply because they don’t think anyone else can do a better job.

So whilst it’s important to highlight the numerous faults of the SNP government, this shouldn’t be our only or even our main message.  We need to offer viable policies, a positive alternative of what we would do rather than what we think the SNP’s shouldn’t be doing.

Take education as an example.  The SNP’s record is woeful.  Literacy falling, numeracy falling, 4000 fewer teachers, class size increasing, 130000 college places cut, widening attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids, the lowest student grant in western Europe, the lowest percentage of university entrants from disadvantaged families in the UK… I could go on and on. (If you want to read more I’d recommend this, this and this.)

We could list faults all day long but the public will soon switch off.  Most people don’t particularly care for dry statistics and don’t want to listen to negativity all day long.  Voters will, quite rightly, be left wondering: well what the hell are you going to do about it?

We need to be positive, we need to be imaginative, we need to be radical, we need to be more than “SNP bad”.

We need to look at the successes in England, and specifically London, and apply that to Scotland.  Pupil Premium?  Free schools?  More autonomy for headteachers?  Something even more radical like forgiving student debt for graduates who spend 10 years teaching at disadvantaged schools?

As this Telegraph article details, there is something of a miracle in England’s state schools and we can learn from it:

But each year shows what teachers can do, given enough power and trust. Battersea Park was a failing school when Harris took it over last September with only 45 per cent of its pupils securing five decent GCSEs. Yesterday, it announced this has risen to 68 per cent. King’s Maths School, a free school in London, released its first-ever results earlier this week. Its average points score is among the top 10 schools in the land. Not the top 10 per cent; the top ten schools.

This needs to be the positive message that we take to the electorate.  Your government is failing you and we can bloody well do something about it.


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