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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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