The SNP lost 21 seats at the recent general election

The lost SNP voters — what should the party do next?

Post-election analysis shows that what hurt the SNP most was the decision of previous supporters to sit out this vote. If the party is to reverse recent electoral setbacks it needs to understand why this happened.

The story of last month’s general election in Scotland is clear; the SNP lost over a third of its Westminster seats, with the main beneficiaries being a detoxified Conservative party, with a late Corbyn-inspired surge helping Labour and the Lib Dems forensically and successfully targeting a few new seats for themselves.

So, a diminished SNP and unionism resurgent with the Conservatives leading the way?

Well yes, although that does not tell the whole story of what happened on June 8th nor should it entirely guide what should happen next.

Polling conducted by YouGov since the election has shown that the vast majority of 2015 SNP voters who did not vote for the party again this time actually stayed at home rather than switch their allegiances elsewhere.

This is important and has consequences for the ongoing constitutional debate in Scotland.

First of all the numbers — nearly a quarter (23%) of 2015 SNP voters stayed at home this time round. This equates to 334,520 (or 70%) of the 476,687 votes the party lost between the two elections! Only UKIP lost more voters to ‘apathy’, with 30% of their 2015 cohort sitting on their hands.

It goes without saying that if that third of a million lost voters had turned out and backed the SNP four weeks ago, then the result would have been very different; the party would have secured 44% of the vote share and won 52 seats, with the Conservatives picking up four, Labour one and the Lib Dems two.[1]

The entire post-election atmosphere would be very different.

And I suspect we would be heading towards a second independence referendum rather more quickly than we are now.

What does this mean for the lessons the SNP should be learning from the election?

Losing votes and seats under any circumstances requires a debate about what went wrong and a rethink about future strategy. But there are different lessons to be learned from losing support to other parties as opposed to losing support to abstentions.

Of course the party needs to seriously consider why around one in 10 of its 2015 support backed Labour in 2017 and a further 8% switched to the Conservatives. The answers to these questions probably lie in a mixture of some voters being put off by the prospect of a second independence referendum and others attracted by the popularity of Labour’s policies under Jeremy Corbyn which became apparent during the campaign.

But this research suggests that the party should be paying at least as much attention to understanding those who could not bring themselves to back the SNP again, but equally were not sufficiently persuaded to back an alternative party.

The problem here of course is that the reasons for their abstentions are likely to be more diverse and difficult to understand.

The truth is that we do not yet know why so many 2015 SNP voters abstained this time. It may be a return to voting trends seen before the energising of the electorate witnessed in the 2014 independence referendum campaign, much of which continued into the 2015 election, and from which the SNP was the main beneficiary. So these voters may be lost to the democratic process in the longer term.

It may also be that what the SNP was offering and the campaign that it ran was not appealing enough to a great swathe of its previous supporters, or that this group was unimpressed by the SNP’s record in office at Holyrood.

But if I were to give the SNP a bit of advice, it would be to begin speak to those who abstained to understand why and find out what might enthuse them to a polling station in future, including one that might be open to gauge support for independence.

Because if the party is to reverse the recent trend in losing support, it needs to understand this group as much as those who have moved allegiances.

[1] Based on a national swing. The same calculations on actual vote share from the election would have given the SNP 37 seats, Conservatives 11, Labour five and Lib Dems 6, so we can be pretty confident that these seat numbers would be approximately what would occurred with those vote shares.

Consultant, adviser and polling/public opinion/research specialist based in Scotland