A guest today from Mark Diffley, Director of Ipsos Mori Scotland. Thanks Mark!

IMG_5001 - Mark DiffleyIn the fevered political climate six months before a general election, the ability of party leaders to appeal to voters has never been so important. With months of campaigning and intense public scrutiny ahead, politicians understand the need for a successful messenger as well as an appealing message.

Speculation about those running for the highest office is unavoidable at the moment, from defecting Conservative MPs and their effect on the Prime Minister’s authority, to the daily travails of Ed Miliband and whether Labour will try and replace him before May.

In post-referendum Scotland however, things are a little different. The unprecedented engagement of the public during the constitutional debate, culminating in the record-breaking turnout of 85%, served to increase the profile of all our political leaders and, for some, significantly improve their standing with voters.

Better Nation article - graphicLooking at our most recent trends on satisfaction with party leaders, three interesting observations stand out. First, public recognition of Scottish party leaders has increased. We know this because the proportion of voters who answer ‘Don’t Know’ when asked about each leader has fallen during the period of intense debate over independence.

This is most evident for the leaders of the smaller parties; for example, those unable to rate the performance of Ruth Davidson fell from 38% in September 2013 to 23% in October 2014. Over the same period, the corresponding figure for Willie Rennie fell from 50% to 38% and for Patrick Harvie from 58% to 38%. This doesn’t always mean that their satisfaction ratings improve but does mean that voters are more aware of them, a clear consequence of intense media coverage during the referendum debate.

Second, we are clearly happier with those heading up Scottish parties than with the leaders of the equivalent parties at a UK level. So, while 35% of Scots are satisfied with the job being done by Davidson, just 24% are positive about David Cameron. Similarly, Rennie outperforms Nick Clegg, though by a much smaller margin (22% versus 19%) and, while we did not collect views of Johann Lamont since she had resigned, a look at her trend rating (around 40% satisfied) suggests that she would have scored significantly higher than Ed Miliband at 18%.

Third, despite the referendum result, leaders of parties which campaigned in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote in September have enjoyed the most significant boost in voter ratings. Most notably Nicola Sturgeon will take over as First Minister with an approval score of 65% among Scots, a rating not seen for any party leader in the UK since the early days of Tony Blair’s government when the new Prime Minister peaked at a satisfaction score of 75%. Harvie has enjoyed a similar, if less pronounced, rise in popularity, with satisfaction increasing from 27% in September to 45% now.

Of course such public popularity rarely lasts, and in the carefully-managed media glare of the next few months public attitudes to leaders are likely to fluctuate, just as support for the parties will ebb and flow.  But, taken with our latest polling showing a significant lead for the SNP ahead of May’s general election, these leader ratings reinforce the current public mood – there may have been a ‘No’ vote in the referendum but it is the parties and leaders who supported independence who look most likely to benefit in the next national electoral test.

All this makes the challenge for Scottish Labour clear as it goes about choosing its next leader. Media coverage can help get your image and messages recognised, but the greatest priority for the new leader is to focus solely on Scottish issues and to ensure that their stance on the new devolution settlement is in tune with voter sentiment.