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Who do polls suggest will be the next first minister of Scotland?

The Scottish National Party will soon announce its new leader. Polls suggest that party members are choosing between one candidate with the support of most SNP parliamentarians and one who is more popular with the public. During the campaign, discussions of Scottish independence have been limited.

Members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) are currently choosing between three candidates to be their next leader – and thus Scotland’s next first minister. But most of the opinion polling has been of voters in general rather than members of the party, who are the individuals that actually have a vote.

This polling has proved highly informative. It has revealed that SNP members appear to face a choice between backing a candidate who has the support of most SNP parliamentarians (members of both the UK and Scottish parliaments, MPs and MSPs) and one who is more popular with the wider public.

It is far from clear which option they will choose after a campaign in which there has been relatively little discussion of how the party might best advance the economic case for Scottish independence.

What polling has taken place?

Polling for the SNP leadership election has had a curious quality to it. The outcome will be decided by the votes of the 72,186 people who are party members. Yet with a single small exception, this is the one group whose views the pollsters have not canvassed.

Instead, nearly all of the polling has been of the general public – and while these also provide evidence on the views of SNP voters, it tells us little, directly at least, about the views of members.

There is, of course, one good reason for this state of affairs, which stands in sharp contrast to the position of polling of Conservative and Labour leadership contests over the last two decades. Although the party’s membership represents a higher proportion of the Scottish electorate than the Conservative and Labour memberships do of the UK as a whole, it is inevitably still a relatively small group in absolute numbers.

Scotland, after all, represents less than 10% of the UK electorate – and the SNP membership is far smaller than the body of 172,437 people who were eligible to vote in last summer’s Conservative leadership contest.

Those who belong to a political party are more likely to have joined one or more of the panels of people who have signed up as potential respondents to opinion polls conducted over the web (as most are these days). Nevertheless, securing the participation of enough SNP members to have a reasonable chance of obtaining a representative sample is inevitably relatively difficult.

While it may not provide us with a clear guide as to who might emerge the winner when the result is unveiled at noon on Monday, the polling has proved highly informative. It has revealed that SNP members face a far from straightforward choice.

Further, whoever wins may well be faced with significant challenges, both in their role as Scotland’s first minister and as SNP leader. As the former, they will need to steer the country’s public services towards post-Covid-19 recovery; and as the latter, they will be looking to increase support for independence.

Indeed, support for Scottish independence is currently languishing at little more than 45%, after having been closer to 49% for most of the last four years. As all the leadership candidates have acknowledged, that figure needs to be well above 50% if the party is to have a good prospect of being able to win any future referendum on independence.

Who are the candidates?

All the polling of the leadership contest – be it of all voters, SNP supporters or party members – suggests that it is a race between two members of the current Scottish cabinet: Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes.

Over the last two years, Yousaf has had the difficult job of being Scotland’s health secretary, having been justice secretary for three years before that. Forbes was promoted to finance secretary in February 2020 after her boss resigned (for sending inappropriate texts to a minor) just a day before the Scottish budget was due to be unveiled.

The third candidate, Ash Regan, is a former junior minister who resigned last autumn because of her opposition to legislation that is designed to make it easier for transgender people to secure legal recognition of their acquired gender. This legislation was passed by the Scottish parliament just before Christmas but then vetoed by the UK government,

Yousaf is well ahead among SNP MPs and MSPs, of whom 55 (out of 106) have publicly declared their support for the health secretary. Forbes, on the other hand, has just 16 supporters among her parliamentary peers.

Indeed, as a member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland and relatively socially conservative in her views, she lost the support of four MPs/MSPs after declaring that, if she had been an MSP at the time, she would not have voted for gay marriage.

Forbes is also inclined to be more supportive of the concerns of business. In addition, compared with many SNP parliamentarians, she is more prone to emphasise the need for a growing economy, albeit that view is accompanied by a commitment to better public services and a reduction in inequality.

Meanwhile, Yousaf has emerged as the ‘continuity candidate’ who would be less likely to change the policy direction of the Scottish government. This would apply to his stance on business and the economy, as well as in adopting a liberal stance on social issues. He should have relatively little difficulty in uniting his parliamentary colleagues behind him.

Who do voters want to win?

In contrast to the views of SNP parliamentarians, the polls have revealed that Yousaf is relatively unpopular among Scotland’s voters, perhaps because he has found himself under relentless criticism from the opposition parties in the wake of the post-pandemic difficulties of the NHS.

Four polls conducted since the beginning of March have found that on average 30% of voters would prefer Forbes as their next first minister, ahead of Yousaf on 20%. Regan trailed on 10% and the rest of the respondents did not express any preference.

Meanwhile, five other polls that have asked voters their views on each of the three candidates have, on average, reported that slightly more people evaluated Forbes favourably than unfavourably, giving her a net score of +3. In contrast, Yousaf emerges with an average score of -22, while Regan has a tally of -13 (although, in her case, many more voters have been unable to express a view).

What do SNP voters think?

Much of Forbes’ relative popularity is to be found among those who do not support the SNP. Among those who do back the party, she is no more than neck and neck with Yousaf.

In the four polls that asked people who they would prefer as their next leader, on average 29% of those who voted for the SNP in the 2021 Scottish parliamentary election backed Forbes. But exactly the same proportion, 29%, supported Yousaf (with Regan again trailing on 13%). Meanwhile, at +11, Yousaf’s average net evaluation score among SNP supporters is a little higher than the +6 recorded for Forbes.

This contrast in the standing of the candidates reveals the potentially difficult choice facing SNP members in this contest.

Do they follow the example of most SNP MPs and MSPs and back Yousaf? Doing so would, perhaps, maximise the chances of reuniting a party whose divisions and differences have been exposed during the leadership campaign.

But it would also bring risks, as Yousaf will have limited appeal for many of those who are not currently backing the SNP. This may mean that he could prove less adept at the party’s crucial task of increasing support for independence.

Or do the party members choose Forbes whose socially conservative views on matters of sexuality and gender are anathema to some of her parliamentary colleagues (as well as to some SNP members themselves), but who might, potentially at least, be better able to persuade voters of the case for independence?

It is not the first time that a party has faced the choice between a leader and a policy direction that affirms the beliefs of the party faithful and one that might prove more popular with the wider electorate.

What about the economics of independence?

One remarkable feature of the contest has been how little attention the economics of independence has received during the campaign.

People’s views on the economics of independence were closely related to how they voted in the 2014 referendum. For example, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 81% of those who thought the economy would be better as a result of independence voted Yes, while 87% of those who believed the economy would be worse backed No.

Now, much of the impetus for holding another referendum arises from the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). Brexit was opposed in Scotland by nearly two to one and has turned independence from a simple choice to one between being inside the UK but outside the EU versus being inside the EU but outside the UK.

Support for independence is unlikely to increase unless voters in Scotland are convinced of the relative economic merits of the latter choice. Yet there has been little debate or discussion of the economic arguments that the candidates believe would help to convince the electorate.

This has been the case even though much polling suggests that voters in Scotland are, as in 2014, still somewhat more inclined to believe that independence would be bad rather than good for the economy. Last August, for example, a Survation poll found that 43% thought that independence would be bad for the economy, compared with 38% who believed that it would be good.

It is far from clear that the current leadership contest will leave the SNP better placed to prosecute what it believes is the economic case for independence.

Who will win?

In truth, we know little about how SNP members will decide to resolve the dilemma with which they appear to be faced. The one poll of SNP members that has been conducted put Yousaf ahead of Forbes by 31% to 25%, with Regan on just 11%.

This would seem to suggest that SNP members themselves are even more likely than SNP voters to have a different view of the candidates. But this was a relatively small poll of just over 500 people that was conducted very early in the campaign when as many as one in three did not have a view.

Indeed, all of the polling we have discussed so far was conducted before the middle of March – that is, when the online voting facility that is being used to conduct the ballot became available. Still, we will have to wait and see whether further polling between now and Monday provides any clearer guidance.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • John Curtice
  • David Bell
  • Stuart McIntyre
  • Graeme Roy
Author: John Curtice
Photo by Nigel Stripe for iStock

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