On storks and babies and the SNP

by | 9 Oct 2023

There are dozens of reasons that have been given for the SNP's decline, but they're all guesswork. The party better find out soon if it is to get back in the game.

If you hang around with statisticians much you’ll have heard an old joke involving data from Germany in the 1970s. The data showed that over 15 years the stork population had been constantly declining – and so had the birthrate. This appeared to be pretty strong evidence that stork must indeed deliver babies, just exactly like some 1950s cartoon.

However you’ll probably be aware that storks don’t deliver babies and that the 1970s is both a period of biodiversity loss and is the decade after the contraceptive pill became widely available. The reason statisticians go on about this story a lot is because it highlights one of the most important rules of data – correlation isn’t causation.

So if two or more things can happen at once and yet represent absolutely no evidence of a causal relationship, the number of things happening at the same time in Scottish politics over the course of this year make it hard to have any confidence on why things are happening. And this is a problem for the SNP because, with urgency, it has to work out what is going on.

There is most certainly a booming cottage industry in explaining the current collapse in support for the SNP. Rather unsurprisingly, these explanations cleave very closely to precisely what each person offering them thought all along.

Thus those on the gender critical side can show that the the moment when it all goes wrong is exactly the moment that the Self ID legislation passes. But those who think Nicola Sturgeon is divine can show that, without her, the party goes into a tailspin. Conveniently, those who think that Sturgeon was the devil can show that, the second she was ‘exposed’, the same thing happened.

There is a strand of centrist orthodoxy in the media and it is mental about what it sees as ‘populism’ (which it never defines). And to their eyes, it was the SNP membership flirting with ‘populism’ (presumably on political Twitter because I didn’t see a group of people framing the debate in terms of ‘an enemy within’).

Meanwhile others think it was the leadership debates because they didn’t like their candidate being put under pressure, others again believe it is just because Yousaf isn’t popular, others who believe its the coalition with the Greens. And of course there is a widespread view that independence supporters have been taken for granted and are rebelling.

And I don’t really think any of these are true, or certainly not as single cause explanations. But before I explain why I suspect that is the case, I want to explain why no one knows anything about Scottish politics. Basically, Scotland doesn’t measure its politics very well. There is a basic lack of quantitative information (more complex polls) and an almost total lack of available qualitative information.

It is much more common that what does for you is mood rather than a series of rational analyses or specific issues

Put very simply, we only have the very broadest sense of where people are in terms of their opinion and we have to infer even that from the very most basic information. And beyond that we have almost no information whatsoever on why people think these things. We rely on guesswork and anecdote.

And so let you offer me my guesswork. First, it is much more common that what does for you is mood rather than a series of rational analyses or specific issues. Sure, if you’re Liz Truss and you tank the economy, you have specific issue problems. The same can be true of scandals. But mostly it is the accumulation of perception that sinks you.

Therefore if you were trying to work out why things are going wrong I’d be inclined to start to look at the range of issues and see what sort of mood or feel you might pick out of each of them. So for example, if people really were moving away from the SNP because of the Self ID legislation, you might see a mood which is ‘anti-woke’ or one of besiegement if gender critical women felt they were loosing rights.

And there are most certainly traces of that, but it was not the passing of the Self ID legislation which correlated most closely with the change in mood but the Isla Bryson affair. That mood is probably less ideological than ‘anti-woke’ or ‘gender critical’ and much more simply ‘putting a rapist in a women’s prison is a weird thing that a normal person wouldn’t do’.

Likewise there is no doubt that Yousaf is seen as a weak leader, even by his own side, but is that the mood? Is the public mood that of a recruitment agency just looking for a more accomplished performer? I doubt it. My guess is that this is more a case of ‘well if you think he’s good enough then you’re not really taking my concerns seriously’ (or something not far away from that).

That is basically complacency. Meanwhile the independence issue was more cynical and people who are motivated by independence feel tricked. The Supreme Court ruling and the failure to have a promise of a referendum to pull out a hat also closely correlated with the decline of support for the SNP. But I think that mood is probably closer to something like betrayal.

I honestly don’t get this thing about populism breaking out in the SNP. I think those who go on about it actually mean ‘a more muscular nationalism’, and if there was something in the leadership election which was blood and soil stuff, I missed it. I just don’t buy that argument, not least because people had plenty else to be put off with during that leadership election without fretting about obscure political science.

I’ve certainly never heard anyone in my civilian life raise anything that sounded anything like that being their issue. But what I do hear all the time is that Sturgeon promised massively more than she delivered. There is a sense of people feeling conned, tricked into believing that she was achieving much more than she was. People hate being tricked.

I think the SNP is suffering because its self-satisfaction about how good it is (what it presents the public) is probably mismatched with how good the public actually think it is

If there is one dominant reason for the decline in support I’d be pretty amazed if it was any of the above. Rather I’d be reasonably confident that it’s the torrent of disasters in government that is the primary factor. That’s what people raise most. Forget for a second the plethora of side issues which have got tangled up in this, in the end people want a government to govern well.

And government is not governing well; it is making a lot of mistakes. But it isn’t exactly throwing its hands up and admitting this. In fact it still goes out of its way basically to deny that these problems are its fault. Sometimes it sounds beyond complacent; sometimes it sounds arrogant.

This absolutely does not tally with people’s lived experience. Things are going wrong and they know it. What they can’t see is contrition. Or at least I suspect they can’t tally the excuses and confident swagger with, say, their experience of getting treatment on the NHS.

That is my best guess of the problem. It is the disparity, the gap between a party which always presents itself as ‘on your side’ and the reality of what people see as a political party pursuing self interest while things are going wrong. It’s electing a leader that the polling says the public didn’t want, but expecting them to welcome it anyway.

It’s going on and on about de facto referendums while public services are suffering. It’s the general sense that there are things the government says and things the government does and they don’t match.

The real ‘party killer’ is when the public comes to feel that a government is ‘out of touch’. Putting violent offenders who are biologically male into women’s prisons feels out of touch. Claiming you are leading the world on climate change while missing all the targets feels out of touch. Plebiscite elections no one really believes are really plebiscite elections feels out of touch.

That’s my guess. The reason the SNP is struggling is because, across a range of indicators, the party is giving the impression that it’s not on your side and that it’s not good at its job anyway.

But it’s a guess. And for the sake of the SNP it can’t afford to take wild guesses about why it is loosing. I’m pretty sure the simple ‘it’s this one thing’ explanations of what is going on with the SNP are wrong. Broadly that’s not how populations form opinions about government. However a range of these ‘one things’ do create a mood, and a mood can give you very, very big problems.

I think the SNP is suffering because its self-satisfaction about how good it is (what it presents the public) is probably mismatched with how good the public actually think it is. Few of us respect or like those who have that characteristic. If I was to place a bet on the best formulation of why people are walking away from the SNP, that’s the bet I’d make.

Either way, right now the SNP doesn’t seem to know why it is failing. It almost certainly isn’t because of your pet issue. But whatever it is, the SNP better find out the answer quickly. Saying ‘it’s fine’ when it clearly isn’t is (probably) how we got here in the first place.

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