Nicola Sturgeon has a tricky balancing act at SNP conference

The First Minister must keep activists on side without risking her main cause. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Recent SNP conferences have become most eagerly anticipated for observing the high-wire balancing act that the First Minister has to perform on the issue of a second independence referendum.

On the one hand, she has the voice of party members and ‘Yes’ activists, urging her to fire the starting gun on another campaign; on the other the stubbornly static polling data screams caution and further thought before embarking on indyref2 which, if unsuccessful in persuading a Yes majority, would kick the issue into the longest of long grass for the foreseeable future.

So, what to do?

A look at the most recent polling is a useful starting point; with the exception of a short-term bump in support for independence immediately after the EU referendum, we are broadly where we were in September 2014, with support for ‘Yes’ at an average 45 per cent in the ten most recent polls.

With some justification, supporters of independence see this as a solid foundation from which to start a fresh campaign, pointing out that they started the first campaign from a far lower base and made significant progress. “We only need to persuade a fraction of those we successfully won over in 2014” is a familiar refrain.

If only it were that straightforward for the First Minister! A further look at the polls highlights the need for caution. Most obvious is the fact that fewer of us are on the fence now; in the last ten polls an average of six per cent of voters are undecided, making the task more daunting than during the last campaign, the start of which was characterised by polls which showed up to 20% undecided.

On top of this there is no majority support for a second referendum any time soon; the most recent polling suggests that 40 per cent support holding a second vote in the next three years (before the next Holyrood election) while 47 per cent are opposed; unsurprisingly 85 per cent of ‘No’ voters are opposed to such a notion, suggesting they’ll begin any second campaign particularly disinclined to engage.

Despite this, there are signs of groundwork being laid for another vote; last week’s Sustainable Growth Commission report is a big moment since it is likely to form the prospectus of the economic offer in a future ‘Yes’ campaign, addressing head-on the very issues that cost independence supporters victory in 2014. It is a vision that deals directly with the economic challenges that an independent Scotland would face but argues that they can be overcome; politically it is aimed squarely at the ‘head says No, heart says Yes’ group who ultimately voted to stay part of the UK four years ago.

All of this continues to leave the First Minister with an impossibly tough choice. Parking another vote indefinitely would alienate the tens of thousands of activists and foot soldiers, while going for it before the next Holyrood election in 2021 is risky given the polling numbers and the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit. Which leaves the third way; campaigning in that 2021 election on the cast iron promise of another referendum in the next parliament, hoping that this sufficiently galvanises enough Yes voters to back the SNP to secure another majority in parliament, while buying the First Minister more time to hope that public opinion swings in her favour on the constitutional issue.

Meanwhile, this weekend is likely to see another tightrope walk!

Mark Diffley is a pollster. He tweets at @MarkDiffley1