The National:

SINCE becoming Scottish Labour leader in February, Anas Sarwar’s personal reputation has gone from strength to strength, but this has failed to translate into growing support for his party as they continue to be squeezed out on the issue of Scottish independence.

Shortly after he became Scottish Labour leader, in early March, YouGov asked Scots whether Sarwar was doing a good job. 18% said he was doing well, and 15% that he was doing badly. In the same poll, 17% of voters said they would vote Scottish Labour with their constituency vote, and 16% with their regional list vote.

READ MORE: Labour manifesto vows hardline indyref2 stance – despite union backing

Since then, Sarwar has turned in two praiseworthy performances in the leaders’ debates. Some commentators feel he has had the strongest campaign of any individual leader so far, and he certainly has been more impressive than his Conservative counterpart, Douglas Ross.

Sarwar’s “adult in the room” approach, encouraging cooperation across the political spectrum to tackling the Covid recovery, has been noticed by voters.

Ipsos MORI’s Election Diaries, which follow the experiences of a group of undecided voters, have found significant concern about political polarisation and appetite for a less confrontational politics. Their participants praise Sarwar, while criticising Ross.

This has been reflected in Sarwar’s personal polling. In YouGov’s new poll, 39% say he is doing well as Scottish Labour leader – an increase of 21 points since March. That puts him well ahead of Douglas Ross on 18%, and second only to Nicola Sturgeon on 60%. It also makes him Scottish Labour’s most popular leader since they entered opposition in 2007.

The National:

Yet, as Sarwar launched Scottish Labour’s manifesto today, two new polls found that they continue to lag behind the Conservatives. Despite Sarwar’s positive and improving personal reputation, Scottish Labour are poised to lose seats.

The reason why is clear. When Ipsos MORI asked the public in early April which issues are very important to them in helping decide which party to vote for, 49% said Scottish independence. This proportion is only growing, up 5 points since February, and is comfortably the highest of any issue area.

Issue salience is crucial to deciding elections. Voters are motivated by the most important issues to them, and you want to fight elections on issues that you’re strong on. Independence is practically the only game in town and Scottish Labour are trapped between two parties with significantly stronger positions on that issue than their own.

Centre-left voters might like Sarwar, but independence is a key issue to them and so they’ll vote for a pro-independence, centre-left party like the SNP.

READ MORE: WATCH: SNP candidate dismantles Unionist argument against indyref2

And for Unionist voters, Scottish Labour continues to be relatively soft on independence – Savanta ComRes’s early April poll found that 30% of voters trusted the Conservatives the most to protect the Union. Just 16% trusted Scottish Labour the most. It’s clear to those voters that, to save the Union, they should hold their nose and vote Conservative, even if they prefer Sarwar.

Their positioning on independence has haunted Scottish Labour since 2014. While there is still time for a late swing, that swing feels increasingly unlikely to materialise. Anas Sarwar will almost certainly survive as leader, but the lesson of 2021 could end up being that no matter who leads Scottish Labour, unless the independence issue is resolved they will remain trapped between a rock and a hard place for a long time to come.

By the time we know the results of the election, Scottish Labour could have registered their worst Holyrood election result in the history of devolution, despite having their most popular leader in over a decade.