Tuesday 15 October 2013

Looking behind the polls

I don't often comment on polls. I find it a bit of a pointless exercise. Such comments as I see on independence referendum-related polling usually fall into two categories. There's the endlessly analytical poring over the minutiae of the data that looks like a hell of a lot of work only to be rendered irrelevant by the next poll that comes along. Or, more commonly, there's the simplistic acceptance of the headline figures as if they represent a definitive forecast of the result of a referendum that is still eleven months away. Polls can tell us nothing about the result. At best, they might offer some clues as to trends and thus serve as a rough gauge of how the two campaigns are faring.

People tend to take what they want from polls. And what they take from them depends on whether they are looking for illumination or reassurance. The analysers, not unexpectedly, are generally the ones looking to shed some light on matters, while those who look no further than the basic findings are invariably the ones seeking comfort in affirmation of their preconceptions.

I am happy to leave the statistical number crunching to those better qualified and considerably more patient than myself. And I could never be so shallow as to read as far as the bit that suits my purposes and then ignore the rest. So, falling between these two extremes, what do I make of these polls?

I have long maintained that referendum polling was deceptive. Given the normal human aversion to change, it was always to be expected that, to the extent that it is perceived as representing the status quo, the No side would dominate from the outset. While much has been made of how little change there has been in findings over the past year or so, little or no account has been taken of the fact that, where the preponderance is all to one side, most of the early movement will tend to take place within that largest block. There was never going to be a straightforward shift from No to Yes. Any movement was inevitably going to be from anywhere short of a hard No towards a softer No. Or from a soft No towards Undecided.

It will immediately be noted that I do not refer to any similar movement within the Yes vote. The reason for this is that the Yes side is smaller and more committed. There is less room for movement and all those who are on the Yes side have already overcome the inertia of resistance to change. Once that barrier is torn down it is all but unheard of for it to be re-established. The Yes side is not a mirror image of the No side. There is little or no uncertainty in the Yes side. All those who are in any way unsure place themselves elsewhere on the scale.

For reasons that I will attempt to explain, all the movement is in one direction - from No to Yes via Undecided.

A recent poll from TNS BMRB (Record number of 2014 poll voters are undecided) was interesting in that it showed a small drop in the No vote and a very substantial increase in those Undecided while the Yes side remained pretty static. With all the caveats about not reading too much into a single survey, this is precisely the pattern one would expect to see if the idea of all movement occurring within the No/Undecided block was valid. The model I have suggested would predict that there would be no early signs of the campaign having any effect because all the movement is concealed within the No block. Polls would not reveal movement until some of the soft No block started to shift into Undecided territory. If this is a genuine trend, then the next batch of polls should confirm the increase in Undecideds indicated by the TNS BMRB findings. Although, given the variations in polling methodology, it would be foolish to expect that this trend will be anything other than erratic at this stage.

What is significant is that we may be seeing the first indications of the impact of the referendum campaigning. The first opportunity to find in the polls some indication of what the Yes and No campaigns are achieving, or failing to achieve. And, to the extent that these indications are meaningful, it is very good news for the Yes side. I would argue that this was inevitable. That, once the campaign gathered momentum, there was bound to be movement towards Yes that would be reflected in polling.

My reasoning on this has to do with the very different nature of the two campaigns as well as the way in which their respective messages are conveyed to the public. The No campaign is, as even unionist commentators have observed, relentlessly negative. It is almost entirely based on "smears, sneers and fears". Scare stories about the imagined consequences of independence alongside disinformation about the Yes side's case; general denigration of Scotland intended to destroy confidence; and attempts to undermine the credibility of those perceived to be the leading figures in the independence campaign by means of personal vilification - amounting at times to demonisation of the kind usually reserved for foreign despots who have fallen out of favour with the British state.

The trouble with this sort of campaigning is that it has nowhere to go. You can't keep coming up with new scare stories without reaching the point where they start to look laboriously contrived and often extremely silly. It could easily be argued that Project Fear crossed that line long ago. It is also the case that repetition of the same scare stories only serves to diminish whatever impact they might have had while offering more opportunities for refutation by the Yes campaign.

Denigration of Scotland is dangerous territory. It can very easily backfire. Which is why we see the blatant hypocrisy of British politicians indignantly disowning the old, "Too wee! Too poor! Too stupid!" line while continuing to peddle stories which rely on the assumption that Scotland really is too wee, too poor and too stupid to be as other nations. From one side of their mouths they offer platitudes about Scotland of course being perfectly capable of surviving as an independent nation, while from the other side of their mouths they insist that independence would lead to economic catastrophe, social disintegration, global isolation and very possibly alien invasion. The problem for anti-independence campaigners is not only resentment of their insulting portrayal of Scotland, but the fact that their acknowledgement of the viability of independence remains even after the scare stories have been comprehensively debunked.

As for the smear campaign, mostly directed at Alex Salmond, it has been a complete failure. Other than fuelling the antagonism of those who already harbour an irrational hatred of the man, the effort to "Get Salmond!" has achieved precisely nothing. He remains a popular and respected figure with the sort of approval ratings that other political leaders can only fantasise about. Short of some tabloid publishing photographs of Alex Salmond microwaving babies in the kitchen of Bute House (At Taxpayers' Expense!!!), that seems unlikely to change. The smear attempts just look petty and are a massive turn-off for the public.

The final point about the No campaign relates to the way their message is carried by the mainstream media. Better Together has been able to rely on the almost exclusively pro-union press and broadcast media - particularly the BBC - to follow the anti-independence agenda. Without getting into the ethics of all this or the disservice that such widespread bias does to the referendum debate or democracy itself, we should note only the fact that the No campaign's message has already been heard. The fact that the media has always trumpeted anything that oozes out of Blair McDougall's little band of doom-mongers and nay-sayers means that the No campaign's message has already achieved maximum penetration. Not only do they have nothing new to say, everybody has already heard everything they have to say.

The crucial point being that the No campaign has already had pretty much all the effect it can ever hope to have. Having given it their best shot, the anti-independence campaign has made no impact at all on the Yes side of the polls. And, if the TNS BMRB poll is any indication, it is failing to hold the soft No vote.

On the Yes side we have a totally different story. The Yes message is not only positive and aspirational, it is open-ended. It grows as the campaign grows. The independence debate has widened and enlivened political discourse in Scotland allowing all manner of fresh, innovative, radical thinking to feed into the Yes campaign. The Yes campaign not only has inherent appeal, it has ever-widening appeal as more and more people find in the diverse possibilities and potential of independence now being explored by various parties, organisations and groups, something that resonates with them.

And the Yes campaign's message has yet to reach anything like the level of penetration that the No side has managed thanks to the support it has received from the mainstream media. The full impact of the Yes message has yet to be felt. The effect of the Yes campaign has yet to be reflected in the opinion polls.

It may well be that those polls are going to get a lot more interesting in the coming weeks and months. I may even be moved to comment on them again.
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  1. Good, sensible observations, Peter.

  2. Neat analysis, and although polls at the moment are merely a diversion, I look forward to seeing a trickle from the no side increase as the referendum date draws ever closer. Will the likes of the BBC and most of the Daily and Sunday Rags be able to ignore polls that start to show consistent leads by the Yes camp? I think not, I hope not!

    1. You make an interesting point, Stevie. It may well be interesting to ponder on how the media will respond to polls showing a consistent lead for the Yes campaign.

      To date, there has been a tendency to portray the No lead as indicating that the final result is pretty much a foregone conclusion. It is difficult to imagine the mainstream media taking the same line when the poll results are switched. I can't quite see the likes of Alan Cochrane advising his British nationalist chums to fold up their tents and go home 'cos it's all over bar the proverbial song from an overweight woman.

      Speculating about what line the unionist media might take we should bear in mind that they are not constrained by any embarrassment at their own hypocrisy. They are perfectly capable of maintaining that a 20 point lead for one side is conclusive while asserting with just as much conviction that an identical lead for the other side is meaningless.

  3. Go for it Scotland, go for it. I believe that independence for Scotland will be the catalyst needed for meaningful political reform in England.