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.