Beware the polls of March

While there has always been tension within the Scottish Labour party about how and where to target resources during elections, never have we enjoyed such a ringside seat to the internal drama. Such is the panic in their breasties that it’s all being played out publicly for our delectation. It makes for a very bad farce. Or even a Greek tragedy.

This weekend, we’ve had unnamed sources calling for the West of Scotland and Glasgow, those previous citadels of Labour electoral dominance, to be abandoned in favour of seats that can still be saved in the East of Scotland. Then there’s been the criticism of the amount of support going into Margaret Curran’s Glasgow East constituency at the expense of others. Finally, some have questioned how it was worked out which seats would benefit from £1,000 of Blair’s filthy lucre, while some of the beneficiaries appear to have tried and failed to not accept the donation.

Every day provides another round of apparent Labour in-fighting. And there’s still weeks to go to polling day. For observers and commentators, and hard pressed and harried political journalists everywhere, this is, as the saying goes, the gift that will keep on giving.

For the SNP, well do they even have to turn up?  What need is there of a campaign when Labour is managing to dig its own political grave, with little help from any of the other parties? I’ve taken to listening to BBC Question Time on the radio: it’s a much more edifying and interesting experience. Tuning into last week’s show, never in all my days have I heard an audience in Scotland so hostile to the Labour party; poor Kezia Dugdale couldn’t even finish a sentence before being shouted down or eliciting collective disapproval or worst of all, the audience guffawing. In Glasgow.

And setting the mood music are all those polls: doesn’t matter who runs them, the numbers are largely similar. The SNP is in unprecedented territory for a Westminster election, Labour is in freefall, the Conservatives are static and the Liberal Democrats are finished as a political entity.

Everything – every nuance, detail and scrap of information at macro and micro political level – suggests that something huge is going to happen on Thursday 7 May in Scotland. The SNP is going to win, Labour is going to lose. It’s going to be massive.

And yet.

Call me Cassandra but some caution is required.

I worry that those leading the SNP campaign are not quite managing to contain their glee and successfully play down expectations.  “We’re taking nothing for granted” is not the same as “the only poll that counts is the one on election day and there are a lot of votes out there yet to be won”.

What if what the polls are predicting doesn’t quite come to pass?  What if Labour manages to narrow the gap by even just 5%? How would a gain of say 20+ seats, taking the SNP’s tally to a remarkable 30 look like a loss because the 50 seat total predicted by these wild February and March polls did not in the end materialise? That’ll be the mainstream media’s role.

Suddenly, Jim Murphy looks like a miracle worker and his party didn’t do as badly as predicted. The surge towards the SNP was a mirage, momentum has halted and it is portrayed as having lost the General Election, putting the party on the back foot right at the start of its campaign for 2016. Headlines abound like “Can Jim Murphy build on this to regain lost ground in 2016?” “Is the end nigh for the SNP?” “Is this the high point for the SNP’s electoral fortunes?” “Is it all downhill from here?”

So, I – and I know I’m not alone – would feel a lot more comfortable if the SNP was talking down the polling, as well as working away on the ground to turn opinion into fact.

Because it is not entirely clear that the polls will translate into results – and given the providence of some of the pollsters, we need to beware their March polls.

There is no such thing as a uniform shift as predicted by the headline, aggregated results in all the polls, as discovered by any activitists this weekend who were out in No voting constituencies in the referendum and in particular, those better off areas which did indeed vote No in considerable numbers. Clearly, people can only provide anecdotal snapshots but what they found on the ground is at least a live possibility of the beginnings of an anti-SNP tactival voting alliance among those whose antipathy to the SNP is all-consuming. In short, those who voted No might well be considering holding their noses to vote for another party to thwart the SNP’s landslide.

There are clues too below the headlines. Let’s look at the Ashcroft poll in the 14 Labour held constituencies which voted yes, in which a swing to the SNP of over 25% was predicted. Taken together, the polling results suggest that 37% of people intend to vote SNP compared to only 27% Labour. There is little difference between men and women, though Ashcroft suggests a much closer split among women with only 33% saying they will vote SNP compared to 29% for Labour. Taking socio-economic data, the SNP appears to enjoy a lead across all groups, including a remarkable 16% gap among AB voters, narrowing to only a 1% lead among DE voters.

But the most interesting breakdown relates to age. There is no doubt that the SNP enjoys astonishing levels of support among younger voters. The gap is around 20% for everyone aged 18 to 44 – that’s a huge chunk of the potential voting population in May. But we all know who actually can be relied upon to turn out and vote, whatever the weather and largely, whatever the election and among older voters, the gap narrows. In Ashcroft’s poll across 14 Labour seats in Yes voting areas, the SNP only leads by 5% among 55 to 64 year old voters. Among the over 65s, Labour still enjoys majority support, with 39% of those voters intending to stick with Labour compared to the 22% preparing to twist with the SNP.

And in that one statistic lies the seed of my disquiet. Everyone enjoying poll leads in the stratosphere would do well to check this one out.  It would seem the pensioners are still not shifting and just as their intransigence was a key factor in the outcome of the referendum, they may well yet decide the outcome of this historic election.

In short, all those pensioners opting to stay with what they know might cause Labour-held constituency dominoes to wobble but not fall down.  Which could well result in a quite different overall result to this Westminster election. And then what happens?

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