Issue 12


By Mark Diffley, Director, Ipsos MORI Scotland

The current Scottish Government, led by SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, will head into the May 2016 election in good spirits; buoyed by the return of 56 MPs in May’s general election. The SNP is significantly ahead in polling for next year, has a leader with unprecedented levels of popularity and a main opposition party struggling to find its voice.

… a new ‘Scottish Rate of Income Tax’ will come into force in April 2016.

That doesn’t mean that next year’s election won’t be hotly contested and that there aren’t significant areas of disagreement between the parties. I think the election will be fought under three broad headings.

The first concerns the ‘bread and butter’ issues which fall under the Parliament’s remit, most importantly education and the health service. My analysis on why the SNP won so convincingly in 2011 argued that it was their ability to mirror the mood of the public on key areas, particularly the council tax freeze and the ring-fencing of NHS spending, which was crucial in delivering the overall majority which had hitherto been viewed as impossible.

The opposition parties will hope that some of the recent criticism levelled towards the government, particularly around falling literacy levels, teacher numbers and education spending, will resonate with voters and make the election more competitive than it currently appears.

But the uncomfortable truth for those parties is that there is little sign of that happening. As a recent TNS poll found, voters have a far from universally positive view of recent government performance on key devolved issues (and are more negative than positive on crime and justice in particular). Yet the same poll had support for the SNP at a record 62%, leaving the obvious conclusion that it is not the government’s record of delivery which is influencing voter choices ahead of the election.

This may change when we see the offers of all parties in their Holyrood manifestos. The First Minister has already hinted at significant offers on education policy and stressed that current disparities in attainment levels are ‘unacceptable.’ And on the equally important issue of healthcare all parties will hope to have a nuanced approach to the ambitious government strategy of integrating health and social care services. So, approaches to core public services may be more important to the outcome of the election than they appear at present though, I would argue, not as important as in 2011.

The two other levels on which this election will be fought explain why the traditional devolved issues may be of less importance this time. The first concerns the plethora of new powers which are currently making their way to Holyrood, via the ‘Smith Commission’ and the subsequent Scotland Bill progressing through the UK Parliament.

What is also often overlooked is that, as a result of powers devolved in the 2012 Scotland Bill, a new ‘Scottish Rate of Income Tax’ will come into force in April 2016. This will enable future Scottish Governments to amend the rates of income tax paid by Scots to a greater extent than they can at present.

This development, coupled with the range of other measures flowing from the Smith Commission, mark significant new territory and signal the onset of new powers particularly in terms of economic and fiscal policy. What is not yet clear is how each of the parties will react to this additional economic muscle and how they propose to change Scotland as a result.

We have seen the current Scottish Government enjoy levels of popularity which are very high after being in power more than eight years (in January, 66% said they were satisfied with the job the Scottish Government was doing). This is undoubtedly down in part to the policies pursued by the government and what has been widely seen as its impressive stewardship of the powers available to it. However, it may also be, in part, due to the fact the no Scottish Government has yet been able (or forced) to make the types of decisions that tend to affect an administration’s popularity, such as changing how much tax people pay to the extent that it will be in the future. The arrival of these new powers may well make future Scottish Governments much more susceptible to a greater roller-coaster ride in terms of public opinion.

Despite the importance of delivering key public services and of managing the new economic powers, it is likely that it is the constitutional question that will continue to dominate much of the election campaign and at least the early part of the new parliamentary session, depending on the election result.

Such is the level of support in current opinion polling that many commentators and analysts think that the SNP’s decision over whether to back a second referendum in its Holyrood election manifesto, and the conditions it attaches to backing a new vote, is likely to be a key moment both in the campaign and in the next session.

Although a second referendum is unlikely to involve a campaign as long as that leading up to the 2014 vote, it would undoubtedly still dominate the political discourse. Of course, even if the SNP backs a second referendum, it won’t happen unless the party (or a group of parties who back indyref2) win a majority of seats next year.

That looks likely as things stand but does not make it a foregone conclusion for two reasons. First, there is little evidence that Scots see a second referendum as a key priority in the next few years.

Second, and more importantly, there is little evidence to suggest that attitudes towards independence have significantly shifted since 18th September 2014. Until they do, there is unlikely to be a second referendum.

… not yet clear is how each of the parties will react to this additional economic muscle and how they propose to change Scotland as a result.

I suspect that won’t prevent the issue dominating column inches during and immediately after next year’s vote.

Mark Diffley is Director, Ipsos MORI Scotland 

By Mark Diffley, Director, Ipsos MORI Scotland

Issue 12


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