These findings, the last in a series of polls stretching back to October 2010, show a tightening at the top. For whatever reason, voters have paused for thought. It’s as if we’re in a communal changing room, unable to decide between the golden yellow and the poppy red. Which suits us best? Having opted for the yellow, a last minute wobble has got us trying out the red, one more time, just to be sure.
What’s caused the SNP to slip several percentage points in both votes and Labour to gain? Could be any number of things.
Labour’s much pilloried re-launch might just have hit the mark with Lib Dem and Conservative switch voters. Until now, they were prepared to plump for the SNP but that was before a stark reminder that a near majority for the Nats would result in a referendum for independence. Seeds of doubt will have been sown with some.
Or could it be that with the election losing top billing to the big wedding build up, the SNP’s ability to dominate the air war was dented, allowing the effective ground battle being fought by Labour to gain a little traction at last?
Labour is now piling resources into key seats, and even in some much less winnable ones on paper. This week, this household received a very good candidate leaflet, hitting the right note on all the local issues. It was delivered before 8am, by a big team with Geordie accents. We also received two target letters – one for me, talking a lot of tosh about Tory policies that only apply south of the border, but deliberately included to appeal to me as a *hard working family* type; and one for the Big chicklet, talking about key Holyrood pledges on youth issues. This, dear reader, is voter targeting at its most sophisticated.
As this is nowhere near a target seat for the SNP, it’s hard to know if they were matching Labour’s offensive. One hopes so, because this kind of bombardment and ratcheting up of momentum in the last ten days of the campaign counts.
More conjecture: the narrowing of the SNP’s poll lead might be down simply to all those don’t knows making up their minds at long last. Or perhaps it is the arrival of April’s payslip that is finally focusing minds.
I’ve banged on before that Scotland has been in a phoney war in relation to the cuts and would only start to get it when the first UK budget changes kicked in. Well, now they have. Increased National Insurance contributions, benefit changes and reduced tax credits combine this month with pay freezes for many and whacking big rent rises for others, as well as other council fees going up. Suddenly, we are in real economic time.
One final possible reason – and this one’s a googly – the Scots like an underdog. For much of this election campaign, the SNP has rolled through town in a Panzer tank demolishing everything in its wake, pushing Labour on to the defensive and making them look incompetent all along the way (though they also managed to do a fair bit on the incompetency front themselves). Now, this is not to suggest that folk have decided to vote Labour because they feel sorry for Iain Gray and his party. But Labour is the home that Scots love best, and just as the Scots reacted badly to the doing Gordon Brown got day in, day out on the stump in the 2010 General Election, could there be a similar kind of reaction going on in the final denouement of this Scottish election campaign?
Whatever, it’s now going down to the wire. Yes, the SNP are still ahead – and it should be pointed out that the Mail on Sunday poll by Scottish Progressive Opinion has them ahead by a country mile, and only a handful of seats short of an overall majority – and that is where they are likely to stay. Especially as we have two leaders’ debates between now and polling day. If Alex Salmond is on as good form as he has been all campaign, he’ll wipe the floor with the other leaders and not even get out of second gear. He and the SNP thoroughly deserve the endorsements received today from the News of the World, Scotland on Sunday and Sir Tom Farmer (UPDATE – and Scottish Sunday Express)
But staying just ahead ain’t enough to win this election. The SNP has to win on the constituency vote to hold the seats it has (or needs to retake, thanks to boundary changes). As was seen in 2007, a narrow win will do and returning 21, and maybe one or two more, constituency MSPs sets the party on its way back into government. An eight point lead is nice to have but doesn’t translate into a big enough swing to start toppling Labour’s dominoes across the central belt. The majorities are just too big in most seats.
Which is why a convincing and resounding lead on the regional vote is so necessary. A two point lead on the lists will ensure enough MSPs are returned to increase the majority. But it’s tight – well within the margin of error tight. If Labour picks up regional MSPs at the expense of the other parties, that is not good news for the SNP. Not only will the SNP have more MSPs but so will Labour. Moreover, it might even mean that Labour wins the popular vote which some in their ranks will interpret as a good enough mandate to seek a coalition deal.
There are still four days of campaigning left: whisper it, but Labour could still be gaining ground. As one of the SNP’s dream team, Stephen Noon, tweeted tonight: *it’s the numbers on Friday that matter most. Got to turn good polls into votes.* Indeed.
For once, every vote really will count.