Salmond remains the Scottish Yes campaign’s biggest asset

Despite recent setbacks, the First Minister's ratings remain higher than those of any party leader.

There is little doubt that Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the "Yes" to independence campaign have had a bruising few months. Ipsos-MORI's June poll clearly illustrated this triple whammy with support for independence falling to 35%, SNP ratings dropping by four points and net satisfaction with the First Minister falling by nine points since December to +13%.

Salmond has long been held in high esteem by other politicians and commentators across the UK and beyond. Admired by supporters and colleagues and respected by opponents, he has long had an aura of dominance not seen since the early days of the Blair premiership.

So is the recent slump in the First Minister’s popularity a blip from which he will recover or a sign of more bad news ahead? Of course, given it’s the issue dominating Scottish politics at present, the public’s view of Salmond is going to be parly tied up with attitudes towards independence. Some commentators interpret recent setbacks as explicable in the context of a summer where Britishness is being celebrated through the jubilee and the Olympics, in the aftermath of a criticised launch of the "Yes" campaign and amidst the continued economic gloom which may lead voters to feel more anxious about their jobs and mortgages if Scotland were to break away from the rest of the UK.

Yet despite these setbacks, the First Minister commands higher levels of satisfaction than any party leader in Holyrood or Westminster and a look at Ipsos-MORI data from the 1970s onwards shows that even his reduced ratings in recent polls make him the envy of most political leaders.   

Our August 2011 poll, conducted with the SNP still basking in the glory of its unprecedented election victory, showed 62% of Scots satisfied with the job the First Minister was doing. Put in context this is only surpassed in any meaningful way by the early days of the New Labour government when Blair enjoyed approval ratings of up to 75% among British voters in late 1997 and in 1998. When you consider that Salmond has been in power since 2007, his approval ratings are still high when compared with those of any Prime Minister after the same length of time in office.

There are two other noteworthy aspects of Salmond’s ratings. First, his personal approval rating far outweighs support for independence. Second, his rating is high among that vital group in the electorate, those who support greater powers for the Scottish Parliament but who oppose independence.  This is the group that the "Yes" campaign has to win over if it is to stand any chance of winning the referendum in 2014, 48% of whom think Salmond is doing a good job. Both these factors point to the First Minister’s ability to appeal to those who don’t necessarily agree with everything he stands for.

There are significant challenges ahead for the First Minister, not least the need to address the fact that support for him and for independence is lower among women and older people than among other groups of voters. There is also the fundamental problem that support for independence is not moving beyond around a third of voters in any poll, with little sign of this changing. But this is a long campaign and there is time to address these challenges. And as things currently stand, the First Minister remains Scotland’s dominant politician and a clear asset to the "Yes" campaign.

Mark Diffley is research director of Ipsos-MORI Scotland. He tweets as @markdiffley1.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond arrives at the world premiere of Disney Pixar’s "Brave" at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mark Diffley is research director of Ipsos-MORI Scotland. He tweets as @markdiffley1.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.