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Polls boost both sides but no-one is cheering

The first flurry of post-White Paper polls fell this week, carpeting campaign offices with a crisp, crunchy layer of statistics.

They brought some cheer for both the SNP and Labour. Christmas must be just around the corner.

Ipsos MORI for STV News, YouGov and Progressive all reported and together the surveys suggested the SNP's blueprint for independence has given the Yes campaign a small but welcome boost of a couple of percentage points.

Yes are still trailing by a wide margin: in his indispensible What Scotland Thinks blog, Professor John Curtice averages them out at 36% for Yes and 64% for No, discounting the don't knows.

Support for independence is back to where it was at the start of the year after a summer dip, he concluded.

Despite their rather undramatic findings, the polls were pored over and pulled apart at Holyrood, reflecting the White Paper's stranglehold on debate in the fortnight after its publication.

This week, however, the more mundane business of running the country gatecrashed the referendum party.

First, official Scottish Government figures showed average primary school class-sizes have risen to 23.2, the highest since the SNP took power in 2007.

The number of teachers in all schools fell by 175 compared with last year.

Perhaps most embarrassingly, the figures revealed just 13.6% of children in the first three years of primary school were being taught in classes of 18 or fewer, after Alex Salmond's promise that all children in P1 to P3 would be in classes of 18 or fewer by 2011.

Then came a report from public spending watchdog Audit Scotland showing only three health boards had consistently managed to carry out operations within 12 weeks of their treatment being agreed, since that target became a legally binding obligation in last year's patients' rights legislation.

A second target, to treat outpatients within 12 weeks, was also being increasingly missed.

Only 5% of patients are waiting too long but the numbers have nearly doubled in a year, prompting fresh warnings from doctors and nurses leaders that the NHS is struggling to cope.

Ministers attempted to defend their record with varying degrees of success.

Alex Salmond blamed a combination of Westminster spending cuts and Glasgow City Council for the rise in class sizes and fall in the number of teachers.

He was more effective than his Education Secretary, Michael Russell, who tried to deny the rise in class sizes during an excruciating encounter with Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland.

Inevitably, the news provoked claims from Holyrood's opposition parties that ministers have taken their eyes off the ball.

You didn't have to ask what might be distracting them.

The accusations made for some good knockabout across the debating chamber but no-one really believes that Mr Russell has forgotten that he has Scotland's schools to run or that Alex Neil has absent-mindedly misplaced the NHS.

If anything, their remoteness from the frontline of the referendum campaign has been striking.

The stories were, though, damaging for an SNP Government that has built its reputation on claims of running things efficiently.

They also handed an opportunity to Labour in week when - returning to those polls - they appeared to getting back in the race for the next Holyrood election.

Ipsos MORI's poll for STV news had Labour closing the gap to a couple of percentage points on voting intentions.

YouGov had them slightly in the lead.

This was encouraging for a party that trailed the SNP by 26 points in the aftermath of its crushing election defeat two years ago -- but no more than that.

Mr Salmond's mid-term figures remain formidably good and, as his spin-doctors pointed out, Labour were well ahead at the corresponding stage of the previous parliament.

Paul Martin, Labour's chief whip at Holyrood, has been Scrooge-like about the polls, insiders say, refusing to read them and berating colleagues who have dared to look remotely pleased.

He's surely right.

Floating voters who backed the SNP in 2011 might be having second thoughts and some are returning to Labour.

But until we get nearer to the 2016 election, and Johann Lamont unveils her policies for schools and hospitals, Labour celebrations would be premature to say the least.

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