On average the four Scottish polls so far this year show Labour on 27%, the Lib Dems on 5% and the SNP on 47%. This is the equivalent of a swing of 21 percent from Labour to the SNP and 20.5% the Liberal Democrats to the SNP. On a uniform swing these polls would results in the SNP taking nearly all the seats in Scotland, leaving Labour and the Liberal Democrats with a rather pathetic rump of around about five seats (depending on the poll). People seem rather reticent about believing that though… it somehow seems too sweeping to be true. That said, this is first past the post, it’s the sort of unbalanced result that First Past the Post can produce if you pump the right votes into it. However uniform swing really does becomes nonsensical when there is a sea-change of this magnitude in party support, a strict uniform swing calculation would be predicting many seats with Labour and the Lib Dems getting a minus share of the vote, for example, which clearly can’t happen. Hence there been lots of anticipation for Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polling in Scotland, waiting to see if it tells us anything about how the huge shift in Scottish opinion will translate into Parliamentary constituencies.

Below is a chart of all Labour’s seats in Scotland, by their majorities over the SNP. The first thing that is readily apparent is how few traditional Lab -v- SNP marginals there are. Ochil and South Perthshire, with a Labour majority of 10% over the SNP, is the only seat that would be regarded as a realistic target under ordinary circumstances. These are not ordinary circumstances. The dotted line across the chart shows the Lab>SNP swing that has been suggested by the four Scottish opinion polls so far this year, as you can see, it’s enough for the SNP to take the large majority of Labour’s Scottish seats.


Below is a similar chart for the Liberal Democrat seats in Scotland. In this case the swing implied by the national Scottish polls would be enough for the SNP to win all but one of the Liberal Democrats’ seats in Scotland. The surviving seat would be Orkney and Shetland, the party’s safest seat and, incidentally, the only area that managed to retain Lib Dem constituency MSPs in their 2011 Holyrood rout.


We don’t know what seats will be included in Lord Ashcroft’s poll yet and we can but hope he goes up into some of the “safer” Labour and Lib Dem seats, and with a broad enough spread to give us some area where the SNP surge is happening. We should expect to see the SNP well ahead in polls in any of the constituencies polled that are near the start of the target list (if not, then something is either wrong with the Scottish national polls or with Lord Ashcroft’s Scottish constituency polls – those SNP votes need to be coming from somewhere!), but it will be interesting to see how the SNP are doing in those seats with the largest Labour and Lib Dem majorities – will they actually be falling short of their implied national swing in those safest Lab and Lib seats, or will they be outperforming the implied national swing? Also look at the two-stage question, and whether Liberal Democrat incumbents are being insulated against the swing to the SNP at all. A third thing to watch is whether there is any obvious regional differences – in the referendum YES did better in Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire. Will that be reflected in the shift to the SNP at all (certainly it includes some of Labour’s most solid seats, so it would be bad for them if it did).

Lord Ashcroft’s results accidentally escaped overnight, so I’ve had time to look at them properly. In the end Ashcroft didn’t go for seats all over Scotland, but concentrated on Labour held seats in those areas that voting YES in the referendum, plus two high profile Lib Dem seats (both of which show the SNP ahead, returning Alex Salmond to Westminster in Gordon and ousting Danny Alexander). All the details are here.

Labour seats in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire tend to be some of their very safest, so Ashcroft’s polling included some of the SNP’s most difficult targets. Four of the seats polled were ones that Labour would have held on a uniform swing… but the Ashcroft polling shows them losing three of them. The average swing across the fourteen Lab-SNP seats polled was 25%, compared to the 21% swing implied by national Scottish polls.

There are three obvious potential reasons for that gap. One is just methodology – perhaps Ashcroft’s method is just picking up a bigger swing per se. Unless we have constituency polls from every seat in Scotland to tot up and compare to the national polls we can’t tell. The other two would be more interesting. It could be a sign of a “floor effect” – uniform national swing projections work on the assumption that parties gain or lose the same amount of vote in every seat in the country. This is very crude of course, but normally produces pretty good estimates of party seats. In a case like this when one or more parties have seen their support really collapse it runs into obvious practical problems – Labour and the Lib Dems have lost 15% or so support, yet there are seats where they didn’t have 15% support to begin with, so they can’t have lost that much support there. They must therefore have lost more support in seats where they began with more in order to make up the deficit. If things work this way then Labour should expect to perform even worse than uniform swing would suggest… just like these polls show.

The other possibility is that Labour are doing worse in those areas where YES did very well in the Scottish referendum. This makes a lot of sense in theory, but as Lord Ashcroft only polled in YES areas we don’t have the data necessary to make the comparison. We’ll have to wait for some Scottish constituency polling in places like Edinburgh to see if Labour are performing any less badly there.

The bottom line of the polling is that Labour are doing awfully in Scotland and face losing the large majority of their seats. We already knew from the national Scottish polls that the SNP were performing extremely strongly, so these figures shouldn’t come as a surprise… but there’s a certain reluctance to believe that astounding things will actually happen in real life. “Sure, the polls all show the SNP with enough support to win 50 seats, but they won’t actually win that many”, “Sure, the SNP are twenty points ahead, but they can’t win in ultra safe Labour places like that” is the sort of train of thought. Well, if things keep going as they are, they might. Strange things do happen, especially with the vagaries of First Past the Post (for an example that looks mind boggling in hindsight, look at London in 1968). Landslide election results can result in extremely skewed seat distributions under FPTP, we may be about to see one in Scotland. Labour have three months to pull it back.

434 Responses to “Ashcroft Scottish polling – a primer”

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  1. Well YG ends a pretty bad polling day for Labour. I suspect these long awaited Scottish constituency polls may well puncture the disbelieving atmosphere around Labour prospects in Scotland. The rferendum shake out has been extremely unkind to them, and as some have said, their response appears to be struggling.

    I think I’m with @John B’s post from 5.42pm. There is space here – or more like a pressing need – for a coherent UK wide constitutional reform, that answers in a much more comprehensive manner the issues raised in Scotland and the effects on England, but Labour are virtually silent on this. They’ve lost Scotland, while allowing themselves to be battered in England on EVEL, by a party actively talking to the DUP about an alliance. The logical incoherence of Tory plans is astounding, and entirely political, but Labour seem to have no policy answer.

  2. Statgeek

    I may have been out-Hmmmed, Check my post in the morning!

  3. “8% for Others. Hmmmmmmm!”

    SNP starting to pick off English seats I expect.

  4. Well TNS end a pretty good polling day for Labour……

  5. @Shevi

    I think that there is a huge amount of first mover advantage in negotiations. It will set the tone of the debate, and create positions that will be very hard to move from.

    Clearly Cameron has the advantage here, as if it is reasonably close he will undoubtably have the first chance to form a government.

    But if Labour are a fair way ahead it will be a PR challenge for him to claim he automatically has the right to take the first bite, however technically right he is. Of course if Labour are a good way ahead it will also be more challenging for him to put together a plausible coalition or C&S agreement anyway…

  6. @R&D

    Sheffield Hallam perhaps. :))

  7. the markets have totally given up on the idea of a labour majority, and are now quite firmly backing the tories to be the largest party..

    I think

    280 Tories
    28 liberals
    5 UKIP
    11 DUP

    makes 324 seats which can control the house. the position of the liberal is key; they would have to prop up the tories, which they may find duty bound to do, if the tories came out on top.

    They would not, under a Farron or someone, take government posts, but they could be critics who supported or abstained …

    this 324 bloc would essentially be an anti-left front…I can see Cameron clinging on for a year or two under such a scenario, in a fairly impotent government….if this happened, I think labour would force Mili out willy nilly. he has been a disaster for the left generally.

  8. Blimey – just listened, very briefly, to a remake of Please Please Me [2013 on BBC tv for 50 year anniversary]

    Wotta load of rubbish – only Mick Hucknall did any of the songs justice and some were truly appalling versions.

  9. “the markets have totally given up on the idea of a labour majority, and are now quite firmly backing the tories to be the largest party..”

    Will the public at large still be allowed a vote or is that it then?

  10. So two polls out tonight and both have the Greens above the Lib/Dems.

    It;s not good for them…………………the Lib/Dems!

  11. One other consideration is today’s IFS report. They are saying that Tory plans represent more austerity than we’ve already had, and more cuts and tax rises than any other advanced economy.

    The early years of a parliament are the key years for the hard graft, but under a 2,3 or 4 party coalition this is going to get very hard to manage. Without a stable majority, life will be very tough indeed.

  12. @R&D – do you have an opinion on the Mercury’s new look?

    Personally, I think it’s a disaster – it looks like every other local rag now. Completely lost it’s sense of class.

  13. “the markets have totally given up on the idea of a labour majority, and are now quite firmly backing the tories to be the largest party..”
    Will the public at large still be allowed a vote or is that it then?

    the betting markets judge what the public will do. and they are pretty shrewd. I wasn’t talking about other financial markets.

    on Alec’s point, I don’t think Osborne really expects to deliver on his deficit reduction plan. I don’t really think the tories expected to be in government until the mili meltdown in scotland started looking like a reality at the end of last year.

  14. @ Alec

    Labour’s answer is a constitutional convention to examine the issue. Is there a better answer?

    “the markets have totally given up on the idea of a labour majority, and are now quite firmly backing the tories to be the largest party..
    I think”
    280 Tories…….Mixed views on Europe
    28 liberals……..Pro Europe
    5 UKIP………Hates Europe
    11 DUP……..Hates Ireland

    Good lord if that cocktail of misfits doesn’t spook the markets then what will?

  16. Must say I find analysis based on speculation about the precise, but completely theoretical, figures for individual parties following the GE, both pointless and boring

    Even more so when it then goes into great detail about what will happen to individual party leaders following this fictional result.

  17. Allan Christie,

    this parliament we had

    306 Tories…Mixed views on Europe
    57 Liberals…Pro Europe

    and they held together a coalition govt. that last 5 years.

    I actually think the scenario I outlined would be a tory minority government. It would depend on confidence and supply on the other three parties. I don’t expect any ministers to come from the other parties. but the important point is that it would be blocking device to keep the snp and labour out.

    If Cameron gets the first call, he will be desperate to bring something like this about. My point is that it probably wouldn’t last 5 years, but it could last a lot longer than people expect.

    Labour would be out for a while, and might use the opportunity to get a semi-decent leader. I think any of Liz Kendall, Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis and others are far better communicators than Miliband.


    what a killjoy/spoilsport you are!

  19. alec

    There’s a poll for every mood at least twice a day….

    Re the Merc – last copy I bought was xmas issue which I didn’t read and then lit the fire with. Is it new since then? I shall buy one and let you know my profoundest thunks.

    I have always assumed that Roland wrote the column entitle “Barney Li*ar.” by the way.

  20. @Peter Crawford

    It wasn’t a EM meltdown in Scotland. It has nothing to do with EM. It was an exclusively Scottish party capturing the mood in Scotland in a way that no UK wide party could challenge.

    Was this lucky for the Tories? Well, yes. But it’s never just luck is it? The SNP wanted the referendum to take place 9 months from a GE and the Tories let them have that date knowing the potential impact a rise in Scottish nationalism could have on the next UK GE.

    But the Tories are fools if they think that this means they will end up as the largest party. Look through the constituencies in England and Wales. Labour are still far more likely that the Tories to win the most seats in those parts if the UK.

    Anyway, we’ll see.

  21. R&D

    Bug I’ve been looking forward to reading the great detail as to what style of gown the party leaders will be wearing at the Queen’s Speech.

  22. Please interpret “Bug” as “But” or “Bugger”, according to taste.

  23. Sir Tom Devine on NewsNight confirmed what so many non-SNP supporters have been saying ie. if Ed Miliband says no to coalition with SNP, there would be a real possibility of having another 5 years of a Tory government if Scots elected large numbers of MPs instead of voting Labour.

    The debate begins at the 28 min mark:


  24. ole nat

    I am looking forward to hourly opinion polls, day and night, so that we can get even more forecasts, of even greater variety and invention, telling us what is going to be happening over the course of the next ten years or so.

    If there are any young children, not yet born, who are – given the latest polling figures – maybe almost quite possibly going to be probably PM in 2035, then I want to know their names and I want to know them NOW.


    Yes the top half worked rather well but the further down you go then the more revolting it becomes.

    I do agree minority government (based on polling) will probably be the most likely outcome and I reckon it will survive the 5 year term.

  26. R&D

    Sounds fun! With all those polls, we can miss the actual elections, and all those bloody politicians.

  27. @ Fraser

    SNP’s red line is: what would the shopkeepers get (unless they significantly change their manifesto).

    This is perfectly fine, and I would even support it if I lived in Scotland. But it’s terribly annoying when some posters portray it as a radical, anti-austerity, quasi-socialist policy.

    Of these only the first adjective is correct.

  28. The TNS poll that’s been wafting around the twittersphere for a couple of days does appear to be genuine. Press release with link to tables is here:


    Headline VI:

    LAB 33% (+2)

    CON 27% (-4)

    UKIP 18% (+2)

    LIB DEM 6% (-2)

    GREEN 8% (+1)

    OTHER 8% (+1)
    (SNP 4%, PC *, BNP 1%, Other 2%)

    (Being TNS it’s is a different place from normal).

    The headline is a bit silly. It says “Voters prefer UKIP as coalition partner” (shock horror!), but it’s rather misleading. Asked Imagine that the Conservative Party win the most seats in the 2015 UK general election but need to form a coalition with another party to create an overall majority government. Which ONE of the following parties would you MOST like them to partner with in a coalition? UKIP came in first with 29% with the Lib Dems runner up on 25%. But this was mainly because UKIP voters overwhelmingly supported their own Party. Among Conservative supporters the Lib Dems led 42% to 33%.

    For the equivalent question about Labour, UKIP led the Lib Dems 26% to 23%. But among Labour supporters the Lib Dems led the Greens 24% to 20% (UKIP 17%, SNP 15%).

    So basically we discover that UKIP supporters think it would be a jolly good idea if their Party was in power. Who’ have thought it?

  29. ON

    Should be like musical chairs – musical polls say – with the party leader still standing, without a seat, when a poll is really ORFUL asked to leave.

    Or, as you say, if we just base the GE on expert analysis of the most recent polling we can just cut straight to the drive to Buck Pal to tell her Maj who somebody thinks will probably have won and get on with governing the country.

    As this will save money and is jolly sensible – doing the right thing by hard working families who play by the rules – then I shall declare for Cammo immediately, based on a combo of polling, betting and Daily Mail leader columns.

    And you really can’t be fairer or more accurate than that.

  30. New Thread…

  31. Though we may not like minority government, it does represent more of the people than single-party government. for instance, Con + Lib this time represent 38.4% of the electorate, whereas the last two Labour governments were less than 25% and even in the landslide of 1997 they only just got over 30% of the electorate.

    Indeed you have to go back to 1959 to beat the 38.4% and that was only marginal.

  32. Rosieanddaisie ….

    Bookies have a great track record at predicting outcomes to all sorts of events – otherwise they’d all be penniless. Betting odds can shift markedly without any money being wagered. Polls, momentum shifts, news stories (e.g. Rotherham), gaffes, policies (or lack of) and so on can all play a part in persuading bookies to change their GE odds one way or another.

    The weight of money theory behind all betting odds movements is just complete rubbish.

  33. Peter

    Is the Land Reform question having any influence in the Highlands, do you think?

    General agreement between SNP and Lab, Con against, and I don’t know the current LD position.

  34. Peter

    Thanks for that.

    Might be of more interest in next year’s election, I suppose. – in which case all the candidate’s will have to have read Andy Wightman’s “The Poor Had No Lawyers”!

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