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How SNP could win and lose at the same time

Bill Miller. 20 April 2007

After a week in which some polls gave very erratic indications of voting trends, the new Populus poll suggests that the number of voters without a party preference has declined from 37 per cent to 32 per cent since the poll in March.

And although the SNP is still ahead of Labour on both the constituency vote and the top-up list vote, its lead on the constituency vote has declined by six percentage points – though its lead on the regional list vote has increased by two points. All that is bad news for the SNP. Its predicted lead over Labour is down from seven seats to only four. That suggests that the SNP bandwagon is no longer rolling. It may still emerge as the top party in the Parliament, but it looks unlikely to win a decisive victory. It could be the winner and the loser at the same time.

The March poll suggested that an SNP/Lib Dem coalition would have had a majority but a Labour/Lib Dem coalition would not.

On the new poll, an SNP/Lib Dem or a Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have a majority, however narrow. Moreover the Lib Dems are up 3 or 4 per cent in voting preferences and the predicted number of Lib Dem MSPs is up from 18 to 23. That would strengthen their power and influence within any coalition.

Already the Lib Dems have said that Nicol Stephen would be willing to take a phone call from Alex Salmond on the day after the election, but that if Mr Salmond still demanded a referendum on independence then that call would be the end of any negotiation. And if the Lib Dems not only have a choice of majority coalitions, but also contribute a greater share of the MSPs to the coalition, then they are likely to be as tough with Labour as with the SNP.

There are some dealmaker issues that could sway the Lib Dems. The SNP could offer them a share of government in return for a referendum that did not offer independence as an option, but only authorised the Scottish Executive to open negotiations for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament.

In an era of devolution and European Union, independence is no longer a yes/no issue but a matter of degree, and the Lib Dems are in the vanguard of the call for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. Moreover, a majority of Scots would probably vote for greater powers but against independence. The Populus poll suggests that support for a fully independent state is low — 22 per cent, and declining (5 per cent down on last month).

But support for greater powers is high and rising: 56 per cent are in favour (5 per cent up). Indeed, even among SNP voters, slightly more (47 per cent) now want a more powerful parliament than complete independence (45 per cent).

In a yes/no referendum on more powers, those in favour of complete independence would probably vote yes to give a 78 per cent victory. But in a yes/no referendum on complete independence, those who wanted more powers would be divided.

Even Mr Salmond may be content with a gradual increase in powers. His problem is that some, perhaps many, within his party would not.

What could Labour offer the Lib Dems in competition? More of the same, as junior partner in a Labour-dominated coalition, may just be too boring. But they could accept Mr Stephen as First Minister.

If the SNP does get the most MSPs, but is excluded from government by a coalition of smaller parties, then SNP voters will feel cheated. And many who voted against the SNP would sympathise. A recent poll showed that 57 per cent of all Scots felt that the SNP should be in government, either in coalition or as a minority government, if it emerged as the largest party. But only 18 per cent felt it would be right for a Labour/Lib Dem coalition to form the government if neither were the largest party.

Excluding the SNP in those circumstances could trigger more, and more bitter, nationalism and erode respect for the Scottish Executive. Conversely, letting the SNP form a minority government could erode respect for the SNP.

Bill Miller is Professor of Politics at the University of Glasgow
See also
The great destroyer 13-04-07
The final highland fling? 14-04-07
Solving devolution 11-04-07
Do policies add up? 09-04-07
Questions of Independence 25-03-07
Election predictions 05-04-07

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