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  2. Polling
4 December 2023

Is Labour or the SNP leading in Scotland?

Contradictory polls are explained by different estimates of the scale of defections from the SNP to Scottish Labour.

By Ben Walker

Who’s leading in Scotland? On independence, the No side – those not in favour – has a narrow lead. But in party terms, it’s much closer. The previously moribund Scottish Labour has enjoyed a resurgence in fortunes, while support for the SNP has plummeted since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. 

This polling transformation was most clearly seen in the October by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, where Labour far outperformed forecasts. While the numbers pointed to Keir Starmer’s party winning by five to ten points, Labour beat the SNP by 31 – 23 more points than it got at the previous election in the constituency. If the same swing was replicated across Scotland, the party’s number of MPs would increase from two to 42.

However, recent polls suggest results could be more mixed for Labour. One Ipsos poll on House of Commons voting intention gave the SNP a lead of ten points, while a Redfield and Wilton survey put them two behind. Both reinforced the ambiguity over who’s leading in Scotland.

[See also: Kate Forbes: The rooted nomad]

What’s going on? One answer is that, at a general election Scottish voters may behave rather differently than current polling suggests.

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In Scotland, as in England, tactical voting is likely to play a key role at the next election: traditional Scottish Conservative supporters may lend their support to Scottish Labour – now confirmed as the SNP’s biggest rival – with fewer Labour voters moving in the opposite direction in Tory-SNP contests.

One of the joys of Scottish local elections is that they operate according to a preferential voting system, allowing us to see how many Scottish Tory voters have been willing to give Labour their second-preference vote. Analysis of recent by-elections shows this applies to as many as 20-30 per cent of Conservative supporters (with 10-20 per cent of Labour voters second-preferencing the Tories).

For logged-on activists in England, Labour voters willingly going Tory and vice versa may seem baffling. But in Scotland, proportional voting systems and divisions over independence have promoted “unionist fluidity”. Since Labour’s poll ratings make it the SNP’s strongest opponent in a majority of seats, enough Tory voters may back Starmer’s party to hand it overall victory.

Watch: Chris Deerin reports from the SNP conference, where even "statesmanlike" Humza Yousaf couldn't outshine a guest appearance from his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon.

As well as the risk of unionist tactical voting, the SNP faces the challenge of defections to Labour and general apathy (which will keep some supporters at home). Redfield and Wilton records Labour attracting 21 per cent of the Tories’ base and 21 per cent of the SNP’s. Ipsos, meanwhile, has Labour winning 22 per cent of the Tory base but just 9 per cent of the SNP’s.

The swing in the Rutherglen by-election proved Labour isn’t only winning because SNP voters are staying home. But how many defectors is it attracting? Until we know that we can’t be sure which party is leading in Scotland.

[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

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