Can any opposition parties halt an SNP landslide in May?

A poll by Ipsos Mori for STV News suggests the SNP are on course for a majority at Holyrood.

Can any opposition parties halt an SNP landslide in May? Getty Images

So the party conference season, in so far as it resembled one, is over. Our tribunes will now go through the parliamentary motions until Christmas, ready for the battle ahead and the sixth election to the Scottish Parliament since its inception in 1999.

Yesterday’s Ipsos MORI poll for STV gives the SNP a commanding lead and should the figures of that poll translate into hard votes, then the party would win an outright majority next May. 

Based on voting preference, the SNP would win 73 seats as against 27 for the Tories, 19 for Scottish Labour and five each for the Greens and Lib Dems.

In so doing, a pro-independence majority would herald a period of entrenched wrangling with Westminster over the holding of a second referendum. With 55% of the vote in Scotland’s constituencies in our poll, the Nationalists will argue their mandate is beyond reproach if such a scenario plays out.

The poll is consistent with others and begs a simple question, can anything prevent an SNP landslide?

Psephologists will always animate their health warnings: a poll is not an election, it is a mere snapshot of opinion. Events can change and so can voter responses to them, altering electoral dynamics.

But given the election will still be fought in the shadow of Covid and bearing in mind the First Minister’s approval ratings for her stewardship of public health messages, it is difficult to see what can happen to throw the established order of the polls off course.

Opposition MSPs had hoped that the parliamentary committee probing the government’s handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond would lead to a run on Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership and ignite a publicly fought war within the SNP which would lead to a fall in support.

From a distance it seems to this observer that the efforts of the committee are akin to sprinting on ice and it does not look likely, at least at this stage, that it will lead to the kind of schism that will lead to voters thinking twice about their support for the SNP.

The government has frequently been on the backfoot these last five years. From health waiting time targets that are missed to inadequate progress in closing the attainment gap in education, in policy area after policy area the report card on any objective reading concludes ‘must do better’. 

And yet there is no voter revolt, there is no downside when things go wrong. In part, that is down to two factors. Many voters haven’t left the post-2014 referendum bubble and continued support for the SNP is a reflection that constitutional concerns trumps any misgivings over the party’s record in government. Brexit has hardened that attitude.

The other factor that works in the SNP’s favour is the failure of the opposition parties to make any real progress. Our poll gives Scottish Labour 14%. The support for the Scottish Conservatives at 22% reflects their status as choice for the more hardened unionist.

Given the number of times ministers are on the backfoot in parliament, it is impossible not to conclude that a large section of the voting public prefer the SNP because they simply would not entrust government to any opposition party.

The poll ratings for the SNP are remarkable given they have been in power for 13 years. In part, they are also an excoriating indictment of Holyrood’s opposition parties. Over a decade of the SNP in government, the opposition and not the party in power preside over electoral decline.

This is especially true of Scottish Labour. There was a rather clumsy attempt to politically assassinate Richard Leonard a few months back but the hit squad brought pea shooters to the gunfight.

Scottish Labour’s position is in contrast to the party south of the border. A poll this week put the party within a point of the Tories a year on from the Johnson landslide. Sir Keir Starmer is generally well regarded by voters in sharp contrast to the aforementioned Leonard.

If Labour’s poll ratings translate to actual votes in Scotland then Leonard will go the same way of Jeremy Corbyn. At FMQs he often picks good subjects but frequently fails to make an impact. Older party heads must think, oh for a John Smith or a Donald Dewar, how different things might be.

It is not only the lack of gravitas that afflicts Scottish Labour. They have nothing sellable, let alone unique, to say on the constitution and that does not bode well when it is the very issue of how the country is governed that takes primacy over policy areas in the eyes of voters who not so long ago gave Labour their support.

The Tories made progress last time around replacing Labour as the main opposition party but the brakes on further progress appear have been hit. The ‘Boris’ factor may be a positive, albeit a diminishing one in England but he simply does not play here and Scottish Tories know that.

Add Brexit to the mix and you sense that the setback the Scottish Conservatives endured last December will orchestrate an uncomfortable mood music going into the election.

Objectively, it’s hard to see the SNP being blown off course. In politics nothing is certain. Events can recast the status quo at frightening speed.

For all that, the current trends would suggest removing Nicola Sturgeon from Bute House is an eviction beyond the ken of Messrs Ross, Leonard, Rennie and Harvie.