Low-income voters in Scotland could be key battleground in next General Election

The Conservative and Labour parties need the votes of people on low incomes in Scotland to help secure a majority in Westminster, while the SNP’s fortunes hinge on whether they can attract struggling households to turn out and vote.

According to a new report for the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), Brexit, general election and Indyref: the role of low-income voters in Scotland, the three main parties need to broaden their appeal in Scotland beyond issues around Scottish independence and Brexit in order to secure the breakthrough needed to win the next General Election.

The research, by Professor Matthew Goodwin at the University of Kent and Professor Oliver Heath at the Royal Holloway University for JRF, draws on data from the British Election Study (BES) from the 2017 General Election.

It finds that the independence referendum in 2014 and EU referendum in 2016 have presented openings for the main parties to appeal to voters beyond their traditional base of supporters.

And with the Parliamentary arithmetic finely balanced in Westminster, the implications of what happens in Scotland are likely to be profound for the outcome of the next General Election, which looks set to be a tight race. 12 of the 31 most marginal seats in Britain are in Scotland (see Notes to Editors for full lists).

The report found:

  • People on low incomes are more likely to vote SNP, but their lead among this group over the other parties has fallen in the last couple of years. There has been a noticeable increase in support for the Conservatives among low-income voters. The reported vote share amongst low-income voters was 40 per cent for the SNP, compared to 26 per cent for Labour and the Conservatives. Labour made a late surge among low-income voters during the short-campaign to catch up with the Conservatives, but still finished short of where they had been before the 2014 independence vote.
  • Low-income voters were split on both the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums and do not have cohesive political preferences on the two major referendums. This suggests attempts to mobilise them on these issues will only have limited success and that parties may have more to gain by pitching to other issues.
  • People who thought their own personal finances had got worse or that the national economy had got worse were both more likely to vote SNP than Labour or the Conservatives. This appears to indicate that people were more likely to blame the Conservative government in Westminster for their economic difficulties than the SNP government in Holyrood.

Vote intention of low-income voters in Scotland, 2014-2017

The report highlights lessons for the three main parties in Scotland.

  • For the SNP, the need to galvanise low-income voters ahead of the next election, particularly with no second independence referendum in sight and amid signs people who previously supported the party are less willing to vote.
  • For the Conservatives, the analysis suggests there is a ceiling on how much support can be gained from an appeal based around Brexit and the Union and the party are still seen as further to the political right than the public. They need to focus on a compelling offer to attract more low-income voters from both Labour and the SNP, and to mirror their gains among working-class voters in England.
  • For Labour, making an offer to address voters’ day to day struggles. Both the SNP and the Conservatives have a track record of being in power in Holyrood and Westminster respectively, but many ordinary people feel like their own personal economic situation has deteriorated.

Claire Ainsley, executive director of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said:

“With British politics on a knife-edge and the main parties unable to secure a majority, how low income households vote at the next General Election could pave the road to Number 10. Yet political debate is fixated on Brexit at a time when millions of families are locked in poverty and struggling to make end meets.

“It’s clear that party leaders need to address voters’ day to day struggles – such as in-work poverty and the cost of housing – and ensure everyone has the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families.

“Low-income voters in Scotland are an important battleground and will have a bearing on who leads the country in Westminster. The party that unlocks more opportunities for people on low incomes could be the one that is more likely to secure a parliamentary majority at the next election.”

Professor Matthew Goodwin said: “What happens in Scotland will likely determine whether Labour or the Conservatives hold the keys to Number 10 Downing Street after the next election. Our analysis shows why all of the parties have clear incentives to reboot and make a far more compelling offer to voters on low incomes and those in poverty.”

Professor Oliver Heath said: "Recent elections in Scotland have been very volatile – and none of the parties can take their votes for granted. Whichever party succeeds in the next election will therefore need to pay close attention to the needs and aspirations of low-income voters.”