This is, unfortunately for me, just about the most dangerous possible moment to sit down and try to summarise the state of play in the opinion polls. If there’s one thing we should have learned from the UK general election campaign five years ago, and also from last year’s referendum campaign, it’s that all bets are off as soon as the first big debate is out of the way. The suddenness of the Cleggasm, taking the Liberal Democrats from nowhere into the outright lead, has become part of political folklore. But what we might be in danger of editing from our memories is the fact that Alistair Darling’s “victory” in the first referendum debate was counter-intuitively followed by a boost for Yes in the polls.
That may just have been coincidence – the fruits of the ground campaign randomly becoming apparent at an improbable moment. But I suspect there was actually a causal link. Darling may have technically “won” in the sense that viewers could see he had the punchier attack lines, but he won in the wrong way, with an over-reliance on his “Doctor Death” repertoire. The debate proved merely to be the starting point for a wider conversation among millions of individuals – one that had been framed by Darling in a manner that was distinctly unfavourable for the No campaign.
There’s a warning-sign here for the SNP. Everything in the garden may look rosy right now, with Nicola Sturgeon having achieved the impossible by actually topping one of the four Britain-wide post-debate polls. But it’ll take a little while to discover whether the narrative she established in the debate will render her own triumph as pyrrhic as Darling’s was. The strategy she employed could almost be described as the Britishing of the SNP – when she talked about “this country”, as she repeatedly did, it seemed clear that she was talking about the UK and not Scotland. The standard post-referendum considerations were parked for the evening, with the case for more powers for Holyrood – which could easily have been linked to almost any of the topics that were raised – left completely unmade.
It’s not hard to understand what the thinking was. Leanne Wood took the entirely opposite approach, and as a result was left looking parochial, even when she made points that would have come across as entirely reasonable in a Wales-specific debate. Sturgeon avoided that fate, but the danger is that a voter invited by the SNP to view the election through a British lens might eventually draw the logical conclusion and vote for a British party. In that regard, the schedule for the remaining leaders’ specials works against the SNP’s best interests. Sturgeon will make her final appearance in a set-piece UK-wide programme next week, and thereafter the Westminster parties will have three full weeks to re-establish a sense of “business as usual”.
I wouldn’t want to overstate the risk. Labour are very unlikely to turn things around sufficiently to win the popular vote in Scotland – that horse has already bolted. But we mustn’t forget that we’re dealing with an electoral system that is quite, quite mad. For a party like the SNP with very evenly-spread support, a relatively modest drop in support over the closing weeks of the campaign could cost a large number of seats, transforming a potential clean sweep into a much more nuanced victory. The Ashcroft constituency polls that we’ve seen so far had the SNP ahead almost everywhere, but there were a fair number of seats where the lead was far from secure. To illustrate the potential problem, let’s look at four seats with (relatively) big-name incumbents, and see whether a small swing could conceivably tip the balance.
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (held by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury) : This is a nice, stress-free one to start with. Alexander is toast. Ashcroft had him 29 points behind the SNP, and the type of swingback that would be required to get him back into the game just isn’t going to happen. The Liberal Democrats are apparently comforting themselves with private polling that suggests they have higher support when the local candidates are specifically named, but are we really expected to believe that the champion of austerity is so wildly popular in the Yes city of Inverness that simply mentioning his name is enough to substantially bridge a 29-point gap? It seems unlikely somehow.
Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (held by Tom Clarke, former Shadow Scottish Secretary) : OK, Clarke ceased to be a “celebrity” twenty years ago, but this constituency is interesting because it’s one of the safest seats in the UK, and Labour were shocked to the core when Ashcroft put the SNP ahead there. It was the perfect illustration that the number of people who voted Yes is a better predictor of Labour’s plight in any given constituency than the number of people who voted SNP in 2010, or even in 2011. Unsurprisingly, though, the SNP’s lead in the constituency poll was a wafer-thin 3%, meaning their hopes could be dashed if there is even the smallest of recoveries by Labour.
Paisley and Renfrewshire South (held by Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary) : This would arguably be the sweetest moment of election night – Labour’s Sultan of Smugness being humbled by a 20-year-old SNP candidate who has been demonised in the unionist press. But before we all get too excited, the snag is that Ashcroft had Mhairi Black ahead by just 8%. The swing required for Alexander to hold on would be equivalent to the SNP’s lead of 20 points or so in the national YouGov polls being cut to around 12 points.
Ross, Skye and Lochaber (held by Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrats) : Many people reeled in disbelief to see Kennedy trailing the SNP in Ashcroft’s poll, but the team behind the Election Forecast website reacted in precisely the opposite way. For weeks they had been predicting that the constituency was one of the SNP’s most certain gains, but as soon as the poll was released they reinstalled the Lib Dems as the likely winners. Most probably, this was because they judged that Kennedy’s incumbency bonus would be sufficient to overcome the SNP’s small 5% advantage. It certainly looks as if the SNP can’t afford any slippage at all if they are to claim a very big scalp.
All of these worries may be completely unfounded, though. When polls come out showing the SNP doing better than anyone had previously thought possible, there’s an obvious temptation to search for reasons why the true position may be less impressive. But, if anything, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. The SNP were downweighted across the board in the Ashcroft polls due to the decision to weight by 2010 recalled vote, which is known to be unreliable. Without that adjustment, the SNP would have been almost out of sight in all four of the above-mentioned constituencies.
If complacency is the enemy, perhaps we owe Lord Ashcroft and his dubious methodology a large dram.