One observation I made in Michael Greenwell's podcast the other day was that there is, in fact, something positive that campaigners can do about polls, in the sense that (if you have the money) you can simply commission one that pushes your own priorities, and in which the dice are loaded in your favour in terms of getting a favourable result. The findings can then be used to shape the media narrative. Lord Ashcroft has just proved that point by effortlessly getting his latest 'research' featured as the lead story in the Scotsman, although I'm sure it's just pure coincidence that a billionaire No-supporting Tory peer of the realm was able to pull off that trick where crowd-funding Yes supporters failed just a few weeks ago.
So how do we know that this poll was tactical, rather than a dispassionate attempt to uncover the views of the electorate? Well, apart from the obvious point that Lord Ashcroft is Lord Ashcroft, we need look no further than this part of his commentary on the results -
"I also found many voters deeply sceptical about the idea of giving the Scottish Parliament more powers"
Er, no. If you want to know whether voters are deeply sceptical about giving the Scottish Parliament more powers, what you do is ask voters whether they think the Scottish Parliament should be given more powers or not. Lord Ashcroft mysteriously (well, let's face it, not very mysteriously) failed to ask that question, and instead chose to grill his respondents about a string of Tory hobby-horses such as the likelihood of fiscal discipline under devo max. Those results may well be of great interest to him, but shouldn't be of much interest to the rest of us - unless of course we've been hoodwinked by his spin into thinking they mean something that they don't.
But if that part of his commentary is a touch cynical, Ashcroft's closing line is just plain risible -
"Besides, as one of our participants put it, Alex Salmond has quite enough power as it is."
Which is about as meaningful as me saying that I met a guy called Barry down the pub who made some cutting comments about Jackson Carlaw. Seriously, your lordship, a general rule of thumb in polling is that one person's opinion is not statistically significant, no matter how pleasing that opinion may be to your own ears.
Unsurprisingly, the Scotsman has also misrepresented the poll to some extent -
"Researchers also found voters believe the Scottish Government cares more about independence than issues such as jobs, the economy and the NHS, and say this priority is wrong."
Not true on the latter point. We know that 61% of respondents said that the Scottish government should have a different priority from the one it currently has, but since less than half of respondents actually thought that the Scottish government's priority is independence, that isn't sufficient to substantiate the Scotsman's claim.
The referendum voting intention figures from this poll can also be safely filed away as little more than a historical curiosity, as the fieldwork is between four and seven months out of date. (The main referendum question was also asked FIFTH, which ought to instantly destroy the poll's credibility in the eyes of certain unionist commentators if they are interested in maintaining at least a semblance of logical consistency.) The Scotsman valiantly attempt to breathe some relevance into it by pointing to the unusually high sample size, but the reality is that a normal-sized sample of 1000 only carries a very slightly greater margin of error. Meanwhile, the Holyrood voting intention figures (showing SNP leads of five points on the constituency ballot and twelve points on the regional list ballot) are "only" three months out of date.