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19 June 2024

Who’s really winning in Scotland?

A poll putting the SNP ahead has not stopped Scottish Labour increasing its number of target seats to the mid-30s.

By Chris Deerin

Either Labour are about to demolish the SNP’s long Scottish hegemony at this general election, or the nationalists will remain the largest party. Both outcomes cannot be true. Both have been predicted by recent polls.

At the weekend, an MRP poll by Survation suggested the SNP would win 37 of the 59 Westminster seats on 4 July, putting them comfortably ahead of Scottish Labour and dealing a severe blow to Anas Sarwar’s hopes of becoming first minister in 2026. However, the eight other polls by seven different companies taken since the election campaign began, using the uniform national swing (UNS) model, have more commonly put Labour in front. 

The party certainly believes it is winning, with sources suggesting this week that it has increased its predicted haul from the mid-20s to the mid-30s, which would give it a majority of Scottish seats. 

So what is going on? Scottish pollster Mark Diffley, of the Diffley Partnership, believes the MRP approach taken by Survation and some others, based on demographic characteristics, may fare less well in Scotland. This is in part, he says, because of the complex pressures affecting Scottish voting intentions. “In the SNP, we have a big party that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the UK, which makes projection harder,” said Diffley. “There is also a key cluster of seats in the central belt, a number of which look likely to go to Labour – however a small reversal of fortunes could swing them in SNP’s favour. They involve tactical voting on grounds of constitutional preference, but also on the grounds of getting rid of Tories. Layer all these across each other and the situation is hard to read.”

Diffley says there is some consistency creeping into the UNS polls, at least. The eight surveys have put Scottish Labour on somewhere between 34 per cent and 39 per cent, and the SNP between 29 per cent and 36 per cent. While the Nats still tend to trail Labour, the sense is that new leader John Swinney has at least stabilised the ship somewhat.

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The Tory vote in Scotland, which had been holding up relatively well compared to the party’s English performance, has begun to decline, from around 17 per cent at the start of the campaign to 13 per cent today. This has coincided with a rise in support for Nigel Farage’s Reform north of the border, a microcosm of the UK trend.

Whatever happens on 4 July, Scottish politics will run straight into the devolved election campaign. This much became clear yesterday when Sarwar launched Scottish Labour’s general election manifesto.

It contained as much about what Labour would do if it was in charge at Holyrood as it did about what Keir Starmer would do as PM. Sarwar ruled out further tax rises in Scotland, where voters earning above £28,800 already pay more than their equivalents elsewhere in the UK, and promised he would look to cut taxes when economic growth made this feasible. 

Scottish Labour would reduce the number of health boards in an attempt to limit bureaucracy, as well as giving healthcare staff access to dedicated changing facilities, rest rooms for breaks, and round-the-clock hot meals 24/7. There would also be a review of whistleblowing practices in the Scottish NHS, and an embrace of the kind of technology that is transforming the patient relationship south of the border.

The manifesto includes further Scotland-only promises in areas such as community policing, anti-social behaviour and crimes against women and children, the liberalisation of planning laws and a boost to housebuilding, and reforms to the under-performing education system.

Sarwar can’t do any of this unless he is elected to lead the Scottish government – a choice not on offer this July. He was, therefore, at pains, repeatedly, to say that the general election manifesto was only a starting point. Scotland needed “a change of direction at Holyrood as much as we need one at Westminster,” he said. “We know change for Scotland is a two-stage process – voters want to know about the changes a future Scottish Labour government would make, using the [devolved] powers we already have.”

The Scottish Labour leader did his chances no harm at the manifesto launch. In a white shirt and red tie, with his sleeves rolled up and one hand in his pocket, he was slick, eloquent and passionate, and dealt confidently with potentially tricky media questions on issues such as the two-child benefit limit. He is beginning to look and sound like a first-minister-in-waiting.

[See also: Can Keir Starmer prove the Union works for Scotland?]

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