What’s new in the polls?
So far I never mentioned UK-wide polls as this is a Scottish blog. But this time I feel I have to because something unexpected is happening Doon Sooth. The UK-wide trends show it. Not that it means Jeremy Corbyn will be the next PM, but it might well end up with Corbyn’s Labour doing better than Blair’s New Labour in 2005. On a strongly left-wing manifesto. And that would be good news.
I’m fully aware that it won’t make any difference for Scotland, and won’t make any for England and Wales either as Tories are still hugely favoured to win this election. Labour gaining ground is a sign that the UK might be heading back to sanity after years of delusion. And there is still the possibility that the Conservative lead will shrink even further; and that the last week will see the UK enter hung Parliament territory.
And now back to ‘too wee, too poor, too daft’ Alba.
As weeks go, the last seven days were kind of a ‘septimana horribila’ for the SNP. With the manifesto launch postponed by a week because of the Manchester bombing, the national campaign was pretty much in limbo and failed to get the proper momentum at a crucial moment. The local campaigns went ahead regardless, are working hard, and seem to be doing well especially in battleground seats. And then a new full Scottish poll from SurveyMonkey (published by the Scottish Sun) found the party at its lowest in three years, ahead of the Conservatives by only 10%.
Facing such an outlier I had to give it some thought before deciding what I would make of it. I finally decided to ignore it. Not because it’s bad for the SNP but because the underlying methodology is unreliable and not abiding by British Polling Council (BPC) rules. For the record, well-established aggregator sites like UK Polling Report ignore SurveyMonkey results entirely. Martin Baxter at Electoral Calculus confirmed to me he won’t include it either as he only uses polls from BPC members.
So here are the updated trends and rolling average:
The most intriguing part of this week’s rolling average is that the SNP, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all lost some votes. And all these votes have shifted to Labour, who are up 2% from last week. I find this surprising as it happens just after the uproar caused by Labour-Conservative coalitions in several Scottish Councils, most in defiance of Scottish Labour’s National Executive Committee decisions.
I don’t quite know what to make of it because it could mean one of two things: either voters approve the ‘SNP out’ coalitions (which I would find deeply disturbing because I had expected these situations to have the exact opposite effect); or it is just a by-product of the real Labour surge seen in the most recent UK-wide polls (and then it might change during the last week depending on which direction the UK polls go).
I also compared this week’s results with the rolling average a month ago when I started this series. The SNP (-1.2%), Conservatives (-0.6%), Liberal Democrats (-1%), Greens (-0.4%), and UKIP (-0.9%) are all down. Part of it is surely due to voters now factoring in that Greens and UKIP don’t field candidates in every constituency and reassessing their vote accordingly. But the swing away from the SNP, Conservatives and LibDems benefits Labour, now up 4.2% from a month ago. I find these results to be totally counter-intuitive; and fully expect the last week to have its fair share of surprises too.
And what does that change in the projection and prediction?
As can be expected, this week’s polling average projects into a weaker SNP result. It also makes the outcome more uncertain in a number of battleground seats (twelve now qualifying as ‘Tied’ or ‘Marginal’).
And finally my updated projection compared with two other models (Electoral Calculus and ScotlandVotes) and my updated prediction. This time I also identified the few seats who qualify as ‘Tied’ on Electoral Calculus’ seat-by-seat analysis.
I have altered my prediction to 50 SNP seats, the lowest so far. This week’s polling improved the Conservatives’ position in several marginal seats and made a number of SNP holds more unlikely. Coincidentally (or not) 50 seats is also what YouGov predict using their own model and voting intentions from a 50,000 UK-wide panel.
Seats to watch
To conclude my ‘Seats To Watch’ series, let’s have a look at two of the most important seats: Moray, Perth and North Perthshire. Both are held by SNP ‘superstars’ (Angus Robertson and Pete Wishart). Both are part of the ‘historic five’ seats that the SNP has held continuously for the last 20 years in various incarnations through boundary changes. Both are squarely in the danger zone on the current polling average. So will these two seats provide the SNP’s ‘Portillo moments’ (or ‘Balls moments’ if you want a more recent reference) on election night? Possibly, or possibly not.
It should be noted that the two sitting SNP MPs held their seats in recent years with a relatively low share of the vote (40% or below) and thanks to a fractured opposition. Both seats are no longer safe as they turned into the now classic SNP-Conservative one-on-one, with a much stronger Conservative vote than before endangering the SNP. And both are also prime targets in an Unionist ‘coordination scheme‘ revealed by STV.
In both cases I will provide some statistics on recent elections. These will clarify why my perspective on Moray has changed since my first article. Trends in both constituencies clearly show why the SNP should be worried and pay special attention to both constituencies. Basic statistics also show how the SNP vote (and to a lesser extent the Conservative vote) evolved on strikingly similar patterns in both seats. These were once SNP heartland. This year they might turn into Conservative base camp. Or not.
The Moray House of Commons (HofC) constituency covers the same area as the Moray Council. It is also the area covered by the Moray Scottish Parliament (SP) constituency except for one-and-a-half wards that are part of Banffshire and Buchan Coast. So here comparisons between the HofC, SP and Council votes seem relevant even if different elections follow different patterns. The widely similar trends in recent years are what matters.
Moray (and its almost predecessor seat Moray and Nairn) was a Conservative stronghold from 1923 to 1987, except between 1974 and 1979 when Winnie Ewing held Moray and Nairn for the SNP.
It is also worth remembering that (apart from the 2015 landslide) the SNP never did better than 44.5% in the current Moray (Margaret Ewing in 1992). Sitting MP Angus Robertson (again apart from 2015) was elected three times on less than 40%. So there are clear hints that 2015 was an outlier and the SNP is not as safe here as you might think at first glance.
Martin Baxter at Electoral Calculus gives the Conservatives a 58% chance of winning here. His demographic statistics also point to a more favourable profile than average for the Conservatives (older, larger proportion of ‘UK born’, equal split on EU membership). His projection of vote shares and mine are pretty close, with a Conservative lead of about 4% to 6%. Not coincidentally in my opinion, the Conservative lead over the SNP in last month’s Council elections was within that range.
Finally the most significant statistical result is that, unlike other parts of Scotland, there has been a real Conservative surge here recently. Conservatives nearly doubling their vote share in 2016 and more than doubling it in 2017 is obviously a bad sign for the SNP. The Unionist vote visibly coalescing around the Conservatives here also makes this seat a golden opportunity for a gain.
The SNP candidate is Angus Robertson, who obviously needs no elaborate introduction. As the party’s Group Leader in Westminster since 2007 and Depute Leader since last October, he has been one of the most visible SNP figures recently, second only to Nicola Sturgeon. Robertson was the SNP panelist in yesterday’s Election Debate instead of Sturgeon for genuine practical reasons. But the extra media exposure it offered him was obviously welcome as he faces a tough re-election.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats will obviously play third and fourth fiddle here, so I will not discuss the merits of their candidates, especially as both are complete unknowns to me.
The Conservative candidate is Doug Ross (this one, not that one), assistant football referee and list MSP for Highlands and Islands. Also the Conservative spokesperson for Justice in Scottish Parliament. Ross had his fifteen minutes of fame last September when he was away for a whole week on a ‘referee trip’ to Switzerland. He missed a Justice Committee meeting and also a key vote on the Council tax that the SNP government won while they should have lost it (63-63 with the Presiding Officer casting the tie-breaking vote in favour of the government as convention requires). At the time Kezia Dugdale’s vote ‘failing to register’ made headlines. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Ross had been present; then the government would have lost 64-63.
Though Ross supported ‘Remain’ during the EU referendum campaign, the newly-found ‘best Brexit deal’ talking points might go down well with voters in a constituency which supported ‘Remain’ by only 122 votes. He will of course campaign on ‘No to independence’ like all Scottish Conservative candidates. And probably also attack Robertson on the SNP’s record on devolved matters, just as Ruth Davidson did during the BBC’s abysmal Scottish leaders’ debate. That this is irrelevant in a General Election campaign probably doesn’t matter as a precedent has been set. And unfortunately it might very well work if Robertson falls for it as Nicola Sturgeon did.
I think the SNP will do a little better here than statistics say but not by much, even if I predict they will lose less votes here than the national average. I also have a hunch that even the incumbency factor will not be enough to overturn the projected Conservative lead. In the end I go with the statistical evidence and the high probability of a major upset, so reluctantly…
I rate it as a Conservative gain from SNP
Conservatives 47% (+16%), SNP 46% (-4%), Labour 6% (-4%), LibDems 2% (-1%)
Perth and North Perthshire
This constituency has an electoral history pretty similar to Moray’s. It and its ‘near-predecessor’ seats were held by the Conservatives from 1924 to 1997 except for a short Liberal Unionist interlude in 1935. Its near predecessor Perth and East Perthshire was also held by the SNP between 1974 and 1979, with Douglas Crawford as its MP. Then as North Tayside it was John Swinney’s seat from 1997 to 2001. When Swinney stood down to avoid double-jobbing as MP and MSP, Pete Wishart took over. As in Moray the SNP’s vote share under current boundaries was always below 40%, except in the 2015 landslide. And the 2015 result was pretty similar in both seats.
I based the comparisons with SP and Council elections on the Perthshire North SP constituency on one hand, and the eight wards covered entirely or mostly by the Westminster constituency on the other. Perthshire North does not exactly overlap Perth and North Perthshire as it does not include the whole of the city of Perth, but the boundaries are close enough to identify a trend.
I have to disagree with Martin Baxter on this one. His projection includes an ‘Other’ candidate while in fact there is none here. The 2015 Independent candidate Xander McDade (an opposition independent councillor on the current Conservative-led Perth and Kinross council) appears to be quite left-leaning on a number of major national policy issues, so I expect his absence this year to benefit the SNP.
Just like Angus Robertson, sitting SNP MP Pete Wishart does not need an elaborate introduction. As the keyboardist for Big Country and Runrig he was in the public’s eye long before his first election. Since then he has done his best to maintain a high profile and high visibility, even (or perhaps especially) when it implies taking provocative and controversial positions on some issues. His Twitter account draws a lot of attention since he was awarded ‘Parliamentary Tweeter of the Year’ in 2014.
The outcome here will probably be decided by the differential turnout between the rural wards (leaning Conservative) and Perth itself (leaning SNP). So I think the SNP’s decision to hold their rescheduled manifesto launch in Perth (instead of the original venue in Edinburgh) was also clearly devised to bring the constituency and Wishart into the spotlight at a key moment.
The Conservative candidate is Ian Duncan MEP. Duncan campaigned in 2014 on a platform of EU reform and was an early proponent of an EU membership referendum. But his blog posts both before and after the referendum were ambiguous, carefully worded to not explicitly reveal which side he was on. This might not go down too well here as Perth and Kinross voted 61% ‘Remain’, just 1% below the national average. Duncan is surely aware the ‘best Brexit deal’ talking points will mostly fall on deaf ears here and he was careful not to mention it when he announced his candidacy. Duncan might be an accomplished MEP but he does not strike me as much of a campaigner. Even his blog post about the second independence referendum sounded long-winded and bland. And did not even include the magic words ‘No To Independence’.
Labour’s David Roemmele and Liberal Democrat Peter Barrett will compete for a distant third place. Both of them can’t expect more than watching the SNP-Con one-on-one from the sidelines.
Statistically this seat is a tie, with the Conservatives slightly favoured. But even the Daily Record is very careful not to speculate on the outcome. Unlike Moray, I believe this one is close enough for the incumbency factor to work and get Wishart re-elected.
I rate it as a SNP hold
SNP 46% (-4%), Conservatives 45% (+12%), Labour 5% (-3%), LibDems 2% (-2%)
And this concludes my ‘Seats to watch’ discussions. Next update will be on Election Day so I will only discuss the broader picture: what will this GE deliver for Scotland? And, to stay on the cautious side, I will give one straight answer but also propose some possible alternative scenarios.
As we all know psephology is not an exact science, the accuracy of polls is in doubt, and even seemingly minor events can switch voters in sufficient numbers to make the outcome even more uncertain. I’ll deal with that next week.
Saor Alba gu bràth
Jeremy Blackwell, 1 June 2017
Jeremy Blackwell is an analyst and statistician living and working in Edinburgh. You can follow him on Twitter at @WeAreThe59.