Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sagacity on Saturday : Little paws, fair play and bad fleas

"Moore was considered a 'soft' in opposition to Scottish independence campaign while Carmichael has taken to teach little paws.

Much fair play and a lot left, but when the truth also know the English have bad fleas. While!"

From a machine 'translation' of an article by Barcelona-based journalist Siscu Baiges, comparing the Spanish government's attitude towards Catalonia with the UK government's attitude towards Scotland.  I feel sure there's a profound truth in there, although I must confess I'm not entirely sure what it is.

Friday, February 14, 2014

UK teeters on the brink of dictatorship as Tory government threatens to ignore referendum result

There's a very good word to describe a situation where a government sustains its power in direct contravention of a democratic vote, and that word is 'dictatorship'.  There are two very good words to describe a situation where the government of another country seeks to retain control over a nation that has freely chosen to be independent, and those words are 'colonialism' and 'imperialism'.  All three words fully apply to the threat issued by a spokesman for the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government that, unless Scotland gives way to all of London's demands in the negotiations on independence, the referendum result would simply be ignored, and Scotland would remain subject to Westminster rule against its will.

Like apologists for so many other would-be dictators down the ages, the anonymous Tory source tries to excuse the planned power-grab by indulging in a touch of victim-blaming, but his logic is utterly fantastical.  It seems an independent Scotland would have no right to consider itself a successor state to the UK, and it would therefore have no right to any of the assets of the UK such as sterling - but it would nevertheless have an absolute responsibility to take on a proportionate share of ALL of the UK's liabilities.  If we failed to dutifully bend over and accept such a ludicrous double-standard, London would feel obliged to simply carry on governing Scotland on a colonial basis, with all pretence that this is a "voluntary union" finally consigned to the dustbin.  It's rather like a divorce settlement where the husband gets to keep 100% of his assets, but the wife has to give up 50% of hers - and she's gently reminded that if she doesn't consent to this equitable arrangement she'll be locked in the attic for the rest of her days.

Although the threat is probably meant sincerely, the good news is that a) it makes a Yes vote more likely because it will help open the eyes of undecided and "soft No" voters to the profoundly anti-democratic character of the same London establishment that claims to love and respect Scotland ("welcome to reality" as Ed Balls would say), and b) it doesn't have a hope in hell of actually working in the real world.  The one and only circumstance in which the Scottish government would ever issue a unilateral declaration of independence is a situation where the people have voted Yes and London defies the people's will.  Such a declaration would command the overwhelming support of Yes and No voters alike, not to mention the people of England who have a considerably greater sense of honour and fair play than their political representatives.  The international community would also have little choice but to recognise Scotland's independence, given the right to self-determination that is enshrined in international law.  In other words, a Yes vote moves us way beyond the position where the London government can simply choose to 'keep' Scotland - although clearly that penny has yet to drop.

*  *  *

2014 has so far been notable for a significant number of particularly bizarre "referendum polls".  There's been what feels like endless polling of people who live in other parts of the UK (none of whom have a vote), and of course there was ITV's regional poll of voters in the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway (a disproportionately anti-independence region that contains just 5% of the electorate).  Now we have the weirdest one of the lot - a Populus referendum poll of over-50s (a disproportionately anti-independence age group) who live throughout the UK, meaning that only about 8% of them actually have a vote in September.  Just how many more niche No-friendly groups will the media want to poll between now and referendum day, I wonder?  Will we see a YouGov poll of Orange Order members?  A ComRes poll of Sark residents with the surname Barclay?

Unusually, the over-50s poll has a big enough sample that the results of the Scottish subsample can be considered statistically credible - but only if they were properly weighted, and its not at all clear whether they were or not.  For what it's worth, though, older Scottish voters in this poll are more likely to support independence than Ipsos-Mori have been suggesting, but a touch less likely to support independence than Panelbase have been suggesting.  That probably means that Populus will slot in somewhere close to the average if they ever get round to conducting a full-scale poll of the real electorate (ie. people over the age of 16 who actually live in Scotland).

The most encouraging set of figures are these -

20% of over-50s in Scotland have become more pro-independence over the last year.
12% of over-50s in Scotland have become more anti-independence over the last year.

As the organisation that commissioned the poll has noted, the debate is clearly
shifting votes and the gap is narrowing as a consequence.  Welcome to reality, Mr Balls.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What the Yes campaign should do if the three London parties "rule out" a formal currency union

1) Although this would be the bluff of the century on the part of the London parties, and although we know that as soon as there was a Yes vote they would reverse their position and seek a currency union in their own interests, the Yes campaign should be all too eager to take the announcement at face value.  Blair Jenkins and the SNP should point out time and time again that this is bullying behaviour by London, taking action that could harm the economic interests of England and Wales out of sheer spite against Scotland and our desire to govern ourselves.  Where is London's much-vaunted "love for Scotland" in this vindictive attempt to deny us access to a shared asset?

2) The Scottish government should announce that the London parties are welcome to reverse their self-destructive position at any time, but that if they don't, an independent Scotland would move ahead with either a nominally independent Scottish currency (still called the pound) pegged on a 1:1 basis with sterling, or with the use of sterling outside a formal currency union.  Either option would maintain the sense of continuity that voters are seemingly seeking.

3) The Scottish government should announce that because Scotland will be denied access to the important shared asset of sterling, the share of the UK's debt that we will be prepared to accept will be significantly reduced.  I emphasise 'reduced' - I doubt if it will be credible to say that we will take on none of the debt at all, but voters' sense of fairness will lead them to concur that there must be a quid pro quo (no pun intended) for London keeping one particularly important shared asset to itself.

To preamble or not to preamble - is that the question?

I've been having an interesting exchange with Bill Walker (hopefully not THE Bill Walker!) at the bottom of the thread about Panelbase's 'stealth preamble', and as most people probably won't see it there I thought I'd repost it.

Bill Walker : The main explanation that's been put forward for the SNP's "Yes 1 point ahead" poll is that it contained some leading questions immediately beforehand.

Specifically, it asked whether "Scotland could be a successful independent country" (responses to this are always very positive).

Then it asked whether respondents trusted the Scottish government more than Westminster (most people say they trust the Scottish government more when this question is asked).

It was only after those two questions that they asked whether people supported independence. It's well established that the questions you ask immediately beforehand in a poll can lead people in a certain direction - given how out of synch that poll is with all the others that would appear to be a reasonable explanation for it.

None of which is to say that all of the other polls are perfect, but this is why it's useful to use averages from different polls rather than relying on any one in particular.

Me : "It's well established that the questions you ask immediately beforehand in a poll can lead people in a certain direction"

The operative word there being 'can'. It's equally well established that the wording of a question can lead people in a certain direction. The poll showing Yes in the lead used a different and much more neutral preamble, so as things stand we simply have no way of knowing whether the question sequence or the neutrality of the wording was responsible for producing such a radically different result. It may, of course, have been a combination of both factors.

Bill Walker : Of course the wording of the question/preamble is also important, but what we're talking about here is one poll that showed the Yes vote a significant margin ahead of any other poll that's been done on the subject in the past two years. Operating from the standpoint that it did something to raise the Yes vote in comparison to the rest of the polls is pretty reasonable (we have a pretty solid hypothesis given that no other poll I know of asked those questions beforehand, whereas plenty of other polls have used neutral wording in the preamble).

The same thing can also be said of the polls that showed extremely large levels of support for No, which is why an average from polls gives a better picture.

Me : "Operating from the standpoint that it did something to raise the Yes vote in comparison to the rest of the polls is pretty reasonable"

Precisely. And what sticks out like a sore thumb about that poll is that we now know that it was the ONLY Panelbase poll not to use the subtly biased preamble quoted at the top of this post. Yes, it was also unusual in that it asked two questions (which were not leading, by the way) before the main referendum question. So we have two equally plausible explanations for the radically different result, and literally no way of knowing which is the most likely.

On your wider point, trying to compare that poll with non-Panelbase polls is like comparing apples with oranges.

Bill Walker : It's a standard opinion polling technique that's been used successfully in countless other contexts. The point being that every poll/polling agency has some potential flaw in its methodology and by pooling them you can eliminate most of the noise and get a more accurate picture of voters' actual opinions(e.g. using Bayesian methods similar to Rob Ford and other academics).

So let's be clear about what we're actually implying here. This isn't about the natural uncertainty over how one particular bit of wording or question sequence can skew the results; what we're saying is that this one isolated Panelbase survey has the most neutral wording/question sequence of all the professional polls published on the subject in the past two years. That's the only reason we could have not to use an average - i.e. if all of the other polls are systematically flawed or subject to bias in some way.

Incidentally, I completely agree with RevStu that the preamble isn't particularly leading in any case. It's only marginally different from the preamble used in the SNP poll. Instead of saying independent from the UK it says an "independent Scotland" - that might on some subtle level have an impact (and potentially a misleading impact at that), but it's a bit far fetched to expect that to cause the kind of radical swing we're discussing here. We'd certainly need far more evidence to go on before arriving at that conclusion and effectively writing off methods like the one I've linked to above.

Don't get me wrong, it would be nice if you were correct, but from a political science perspective I think we're a bit out on a limb here.

Me : "The point being that every poll/polling agency has some potential flaw in its methodology and by pooling them you can eliminate most of the noise and get a more accurate picture of voters' actual opinions"

That seems to me like a utopian vision of what it is possible do with statistics. The reality is that there are countless examples around the world of the "extreme outlier" poll turning out to be the correct one, and it usually happens when most pollsters share certain methodological mistakes in common, and are reinforced in their false belief that they are getting it right by the results produced by their competitors. In a UK context, the most obvious examples are 1970, where just one eve-of-election poll had the Tories ahead, and 1992, where all pollsters underestimated the Tories' true position to such an extent that even the most extreme outlier during the entire campaign failed to predict how convincing the Tory win would be. Lesson : pollsters should be going back to basics and concentrating on getting their own methodology right, rather than slipping into the kind of group-think you are suggesting of assuming that they must be right if they're producing numbers that are somewhere close to the average.

You're talking as if the preamble issue is the only criticism anyone is making of the other pollsters. It isn't. For example, it was just two days ago that Scottish Skier pointed out that YouGov have a disproportionately high number of people in their sample who were born outside Scotland, and have a suspiciously low number of people who choose "Scottish" as one of their national identities. Similar criticism has been levelled at Ipsos-Mori (who incidentally also appear to use a 'stealth preamble', so we have no way of judging how neutral or leading it may be). Survation's weighting procedure in their one poll to date was so plainly wrong that even Professor Curtice didn't mince his words - they were clearly understating Yes and overstating No.

I think you (and RevStu if he takes the same view) are absolutely, fundamentally wrong in believing that this Panelbase preamble is innocuous. We have considerable evidence that the wording most likely to lead respondents towards No is "completely separate from the rest of the United Kingdom". As I've stated several times now, this preamble isn't quite as extreme as that, and you're quite correct that the word 'independent' is neutral in a way that 'separate' is not. But the words "from the rest of the United Kingdom" are present, which means that this preamble is 'on the spectrum' of bias. Those words are entirely superfluous in explanatory terms, so what you have to ask yourself is this - what are they actually doing there, and what effect are they having? Unless you have hard evidence that they are having no effect, it's naive and complacent to assume that must be the case.

"That's the only reason we could have not to use an average"

I assume from those words that this must be your first visit here, because I've been running a Poll of Polls based on three different averages of BPC pollsters for several months now - and to the best of my knowledge I'm the only person doing anything like that in such a structured way at this stage. But I pointed out from the outset that the best claim that can be made for an average is merely that it is likely to be less inaccurate than any other system that might be devised, as opposed to there being any firm basis for thinking that it is necessarily going to be particularly accurate. To go back to the 1970 example, an average of the polls would have shown a picture much further from the truth than the one outlying poll. The BBC Poll of Polls in 1992 showed a Labour lead of 1% on the eve of polling day. Actual result? Tory lead of 8%. Again, the most extreme outlying poll was closer to the truth.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A friendly plea to Ben Riley-Smith of the Telegraph : please get your facts straight

It says something about how dire the Telegraph's coverage of the referendum has been that an article containing several outright inaccuracies, half-truths and distortions is still somehow one of the most balanced pieces I've read there in ages. To be fair to Ben Riley-Smith ("a Telegraph political reporter covering the Scottish independence referendum") I don't think he's necessarily lying to his readers consciously - I get the impression that he's relatively unfamiliar with the Scottish political scene, and is therefore probably taking his cue from the drivel churned out by his more seasoned colleagues, who have no such excuse.

"For the last 18 months – some would say since the 1970s – the fundamentals of the Scottish independence debate haven't budged. Give or take a percentage point here or there, it's two anti-independence Scots for every one nationalist."

Ah, the old "2-1 majority" fairy-tale. Tell me, Ben, how exactly does that square with the most recent poll from ICM, the UK's "gold standard" pollster, showing support for independence at 46%, and opposition at 54%? How does it square with the most recent poll from Panelbase, showing support for independence at 43% and opposition at 57%? How does it square with even YouGov of all pollsters showing just a 3-2 majority against independence?

Numeracy really doesn't seem to be the strongest point for London media folk. And as for the "since the 1970s" bit, it's worth remembering that as long ago as 1992 there was a poll showing support for independence at 50% - a result made even more impressive by the fact that it was a multi-option poll. It was the lead headline on News at Ten (back in the days when it was a news programme), so there really is no excuse for the Telegraph not knowing about it!

"Including 16- and 17-year-olds on the ballot is a first for the UK in a major vote. Which way they'll go is largely unknown, as major polling tends to start at 18."

Actually, most of the serious pollsters are now including 16-17 year olds in their samples for referendum polling, although YouGov are still inexplicably failing to do so.

"Mr Salmond was banking on their support when he pushed to expand the ballot back in 2012, but early indications suggest that could backfire."

'Early indications' like the succession of recent polls showing that the youngest voters are in fact the most likely to back independence?

"ScotCen researchers found they were more anti-independence than other young voters, partly due to a stronger sense of British identity."

Based on research methodology that has been largely discredited.

"The only hint we've had into that rough age group came from a Glasgow University mock referendum early last year: independence was hammered by almost 2:1."

You mean "the only hint" apart from the aforementioned succession of recent polls, and several other straw polls taken after debates in schools and universities showing majorities for independence? As far as 16-17 year olds are concerned, the school straw polls tell us far more than the Glasgow University mock vote, because most university students are over 18. The student population of Glasgow University also includes a huge number of people from other parts of the UK (who we know are disproportionately likely to be No voters) and relatively few low-income people (who are disproportionately likely to be Yes voters). As I pointed out at the time, on a 'real terms' basis the Glasgow Uni mock vote was a moderately good result for the Yes campaign.

"Spin doctors from all sides agree Salmond's is a feared performer when he gets in the chamber. If he can exhibit that dominance in the debates – as was reportedly the case in 2011, helping inspire a dramatic comeback in the polls – it could yet prove the game-changer the Yes campaign have their fingers crossed for."

A very fair point, but (and I know this is unkind of me) I couldn't help but laugh at the "as was reportedly the case" bit. Does this mean that the Telegraph's referendum correspondent didn't actually see any of the 2011 debates? It's a bit like appointing a UK political editor who only read about the 2010 general election in a book (albeit that would admittedly still be a vast improvement on Tom Bradby!).

"Do you agree? Have I missed any? Thoughts welcome below."

I'd be delighted to, Ben, if only the Telegraph would enable comments on your article!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Breaking : Panelbase confirm that they have used a 'stealth preamble' in their Sunday Times polls

You might remember that Calum Findlay revealed in a comment on this blog that Panelbase secretly use the following preamble to the actual referendum question in at least some of their referendum polls, without owning up to it in their results tables -

"As you may know, the Scottish government intends to hold a referendum this year on Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. The question on the ballot is expected to be as below. How would you vote in this referendum?

Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Earlier this afternoon, Alasdair Stirling wrote to Panelbase's Ivor Knox to seek clarification on how often the preamble has been used. To his credit, Mr Knox replied extremely swiftly, indicating that the preamble has been used in "all of our Sunday Times polls", with the obvious exception of the replacement of the words "next year" with "this year". This confirmation is more significant for what it leaves out than for what it says. It presumably implies that the preamble wasn't used for the Wings over Scotland-commissioned Panelbase poll (there have been two Wings polls so far, but only one asked directly for voting intention), or for the SNP-commissioned poll that was conducted in August. That may well indicate that the preamble is artificially boosting the No lead, because of course the SNP poll showed Yes in a one-point lead, well outside Panelbase's normal range. The Wings poll showed an eight-point No lead, which is at the very bottom end of the normal range - it was sandwiched between two polls using the Sunday Times preamble that showed slightly bigger No leads of ten and nine points respectively.

The obvious question that forms in my mind now is - if the preamble is truly only used for the Sunday Times series, is that at the newspaper's suggestion/insistence? Because if so that would obviously cast some doubt on the credibility of the results, given that the Sunday Times has an explicitly anti-independence agenda.

Although it isn't quite as bad as YouGov's notorious Dodgy Preamble which effectively transformed a question about independence into a pejorative one about "leaving the United Kingdom", the Panelbase preamble nevertheless has a number of problems with it that might be pushing some respondents who would otherwise be in the Yes or undecided columns into saying 'No'. Stating that Scotland would be a country independent "from the rest of the United Kingdom" is firmly unionist language, because it conjures up for some people images of breaking links with the monarchy, which is the opposite of the SNP's vision of independence (more's the pity, some of us would say). It is, in any case, negative wording - albeit of a subtler variety than YouGov's. A further subtext of the preamble is that there is still some uncertainty over whether the referendum will even take place, which is clearly no longer the case. And associating the referendum so firmly with the Scottish Government in the opening words may prompt a few respondents to express displeasure with that government rather than with independence itself.

We know what the response of the less thoughtful anti-independence commentators would be to these criticisms - the wording is strictly speaking accurate, so what's the problem? If it really needs to be spelled out, the problem is that accurate wording can very easily be extremely leading, and in either direction. How about...

"Later this year there will be a referendum on whether all of the most important decisions affecting Scotland should in future be made by the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh rather than the UK parliament in London. The question that will be on the ballot is provided below. Do you think you will vote Yes or No?"

Would you be quite so thrilled with that one, chaps?

* * *

UPDATE : I'm going out for the evening, so I'm in a mad rush, but I'll quickly post this email I've just received from Ivor Knox -

"Just seen the report on Scot Goes Pop - I should point out that we used this same wording on the Wings Poll. It originates in earlier polls when "devomax" was still being discussed (so we were describing one scenario within the UK and one separate from the UK) - we then reduced the introduction to its current form once it became a straight Yes/ No to independence.

Hope this helps."

So there's nothing suspicious about the Sunday Times polls generally showing a higher No lead than the Wings poll did, but the question over why the SNP-commissioned poll showed a Yes lead of one point remains. The datasets for that poll clearly seem to suggest that a different preamble was used. As I noted yesterday, commentators were far too quick at the time to leap to the conclusion that the question sequence must have caused a freak result - in retrospect it's just as likely that a different preamble may have produced a better result for Yes.

Of course, the biggest concern of all is over the secrecy surrounding the preamble - most other BPC pollsters (including even YouGov to some extent) have been much more open and transparent about the full wording of the questions they use.

Curling : A Scolympian Story

The men's and women's curling competitions are getting underway today at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Great Britain are as usual represented by all-Scottish teams, composed of exactly the same players who competed for Scotland at last year's World and European Championships. The women's team skipped by Eve Muirhead are the current world champions (as Team Scotland), and are therefore the slight favourites for the gold medal, although two months ago they were defeated in the European Championship final by the same Swedish rink that they got the better of in the world final last spring. The men's team led by former two-time world champion David Murdoch should have at least a 50/50 chance of a medal, having won a bronze at both the worlds and Europeans last year.

Ever since curling was reintroduced into the Olympic programme for Nagano 1998, I've been a passionate supporter of the Great Britain teams, without reservation. (In spite of the gold medal won by the Rhona Martin-led women's team in 2002, it's actually been more frustration than elation along the way, with a succession of near misses.) But after the grotesque spectacle of the UK government and the anti-independence campaign shamelessly politicising the events of London 2012 (and continuing to do so even just a few days ago with Cameron's speech), I can't deny that I'm struggling against a slight feeling of ambivalence this time. We know precisely what will happen if Muirhead and co win the gold - they'll be wrapped tightly in the Union Jack by the BOA and the London media, their Scottishness will be downplayed or even denied, and they'll be harassed and cajoled into making 'helpful' comments that can be spun in a political way just in time for the referendum. It's worth remembering that Sir Chris Hoy has never explicitly declared himself an opponent of independence (OK, we all suspect that he probably is, but he's kept his position private), and yet that hasn't stopped the anti-independence campaign and the UK government ruthlessly appropriating him as their poster-boy.

It really is a disgrace that we can't all feel 100% comfortable uniting, nationalist and unionist alike, behind our country's finest athletes. The fact that we can't is entirely the responsibility of the unionist media, anti-independence campaigners and the London government. But for me personally, some loyalties run too deep, and I'll find it impossible not to support the same teams that I've cheered on for Scotland in so many previous world and European Championships, so I'm sure my ambivalence will soon clear and I'll get behind them all the way, regardless of which country's name is on their back.

Incidentally, if anyone trots out the old chestnut "they may be Scottish but they couldn't have done it without Britain", just remember that this is one case where that is absolutely, demonstrably untrue. Any medals won by the curlers will be a success made entirely in Scotland - the players are Scottish, the facilities are in Scotland, and curling would inevitably be just as high a funding priority (possibly higher) for a Scottish Olympic Association as it currently is for the BOA. The only difference would be a welcome removal of the BOA's right to interfere in selection policy - if memory serves me right, it was the BOA that insisted on selection by individual player rather than by team from 2006 onwards, which did not work out at all well for the women's team in either 2006 or 2010 as the players failed to gel.

* * *

Yesterday was something of a landmark for this blog, with it receiving its second-highest number of visitors in its six-year history. (The only busier day was a freakish occasion in 2011 when one of my posts went viral on Twitter.) Many thanks to anyone new who dropped by!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The distorting average

I know that a number of us feel that John Curtice's polling analysis is now noticeably fairer to the Yes campaign than it was back in the summer and autumn. However, this pronouncement from him today really bugs me, because it makes no logical sense whatever -

"Now that Panelbase have reported, we have had at least one post-White Paper reading of the state of the referendum race from all those companies that have been polling referendum vote intentions on a reasonably regular basis. That means we can finally make a reasonably robust estimate of where the polls stand on average as compared with the position up to the end of November. In the dozen polls conducted wholly or mostly between September and November the Yes vote averaged 38% (after the exclusion of the Don’t Knows). In the nine polls that have been conducted wholly or mostly since the beginning of August the Yes tally has averaged 40%. The Yes side may have made some progress in the last couple of months, but it evidently still some considerable distance away from the winning post."

Even if we take those numbers at face value, they're clearly moderately encouraging for the Yes campaign. But are they telling us the whole story? First of all (on a point of pedantry), even counting the non-BPC Progressive Scottish Opinion, I simply cannot find twelve polls that were conducted wholly or mostly between September and November. But of the ten that were, this is the breakdown -

Panelbase (Yes-friendly) 3 polls
TNS-BMRB (mover) 3 polls
Progressive Scottish Opinion (No-friendly) 1 poll
Ipsos-Mori (No-friendly) 1 poll
ICM (mover) 1 poll
YouGov (No-friendly) 1 poll


And of the nine polls that have been conducted since the start of December (presumably that's what Curtice meant rather than the start of August), this is the breakdown -

YouGov (No-friendly) 3 polls
TNS-BMRB (mover) 2 polls
ICM (mover) 1 poll
Survation (No-friendly) 1 poll
Ipsos-Mori (No-friendly) 1 poll
Panelbase (Yes-friendly) 1 poll


So comparing the crude polling averages of the two periods is the equivalent of comparing apples with oranges.  The September-November period contained a much greater proportion of polls from Panelbase, which has persistently been a much more favourable pollster for the Yes campaign than YouGov, which in turn contributed a lower proportion of polls in the same period.  Although it isn't possible to project what the figures would be if the relative contributions of each pollster had been the same in both periods, it's virtually certain that the average Yes vote for December-February would be higher than 40% if, in line with the earlier period, there had been a greater number of Panelbase polls and a smaller number of YouGov polls - meaning by extension that the average increase in the Yes vote would probably be higher than 2%. 

If that seems a counterintuitive point in the light of the trend in today's poll, bear in mind that, notwithstanding the recent narrowing of the differential between YouGov and Panelbase, the former are currently showing a Yes vote of 39% with undecideds excluded, while the latter are still showing a Yes vote of 43%.  That, in a nutshell, is the reason why this blog's Poll of Polls only takes account of the most recent poll from each pollster - it's the only way we can be sure of like-for-like comparisons and meaningful trends.  It's not a perfect system by any means - for one thing I'll have a dilemma about how long to keep taking account of Angus Reid's most recent poll from the summer if they don't conduct a new one soon.  But with the best will in the world, I just don't see how the conventional approach of crudely averaging all polls within a set period is going to work in a campaign in which different pollsters are producing headline figures that are light-years apart.

* * *

Although I still haven't seen the datasets for today's Panelbase poll, it seems to be the case that the SNP's Holyrood support has gone back up to landslide territory.  That's very good news in more ways than one, because it reinforces the point that there was nothing suspicious about the whopping SNP vote suggested by the unweighted data in last week's Survation poll, and that there was therefore no conceivable rationale for downweighting both the SNP and Yes votes on the industrial scale that happened.  It also means that there was nothing suspicious about the 19-point SNP lead in European Parliament voting intentions found by the ICM poll that showed a big swing to Yes.

New Panelbase referendum poll

There's a new Panelbase poll out tonight on referendum voting intentions, which as you'd expect shows a more favourable picture for Yes than most other recent polls - although, perhaps slightly surprisingly, the "gold standard" ICM remains in harness for the moment as the best pollster for the pro-independence campaign.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 37% (-1)
No 49% (+2)

The trend figures are on the face of it at odds with what we've seen recently from every other pollster, although it has to be borne in mind that John Curtice pointed out last time around that Panelbase had made a significant methodological change to correct for the fact that they had previously underrepresented older voters.  If I recall correctly, Curtice implied that such a change ought to have artificially generated an increase in the No lead of up to 4%, but in fact the increase was just 1%.  It may be that margin-of-error effects flattered Yes in the last poll, and that as a result the change is only now making itself felt in the headline numbers - in other words, the apparent slight increase in the No lead may be a mirage.

As of this moment, Curtice hasn't yet posted an analysis of this poll on his blog and the datasets aren't available on the Panelbase website, so it remains to be seen if there are any other new contributing factors.  One revelation about Panelbase's methodology that I did find rather troubling, though, came from someone who took part in one of their polls about ten days ago - it may well have been this very poll, although I haven't seen the fieldwork dates yet.  In case you didn't see what Calum Findlay had to say at the time, here's the exchange in full -

Calum Findlay : We should expect a new Panelbase poll in the next few weeks, I've just taken one.

I've taken part in their surveys before, and I thought you might be interested to know that they always use a preamble they don't show in their results tables:

"As you may know, the Scottish government intends to hold a referendum this year on Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. The question on the ballot is expected to be as below. How would you vote in this referendum?

Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Me : Hi Calum, that really is appalling, in two ways - firstly, because the wording is tortured and potentially leading, and secondly, because they don't own up to it.

Are you sure that they've always done it? Because if (in the nightmare scenario) this is a new wording it might affect the results quite significantly. We know what happened when YouGov finally dropped the leading words from their own preamble last September.

Calum Findlay : This is maybe my 4th survey on independence over the last year, and I am 100% that they have always used that preamble.

The wording of the question isn't that big of a surprise considering that the Sunday Times commissioned it, but the fact you would never have known unless you had taken the survey is strange.

I'd say the exact same about Ipsos as well. They mention in their summaries they ask respondents how they would vote tomorrow (I remember a man from Ipsos even saying that on STV News), but no sign of a preamble has ever been in their results tables. Judging by the No leads they manage to produce, there's a chance that it is very leading indeed.

If Calum is right that the 'stealth' preamble has been in use for some time, then it obviously wouldn't be responsible for the trend in this poll, but the possibility can't be excluded that it's been harming the Yes vote all along in the headline numbers - and that is where the anti-independence agenda of Panelbase's client is bound to raise a few concerns. It seems fairly clear from the datasets that the preamble wasn't used in the SNP-commissioned Panelbase poll a few months ago that produced an outright Yes lead. At the time, commentators rubbished that poll on the grounds that the sequence of questions had probably generated a freak result, but in retrospect it's just as conceivable that a different preamble was producing a different answer from some respondents. Was the more usual preamble originally put in place at the bidding (or under the influence) of the Sunday Times, or was it genuinely Panelbase's own decision? We simply don't know, but when a pollster proves to be unnecessarily secretive about a point like this, suspicions are bound to arise.

One small point I would make in Panelbase's favour, though, is that at least they don't ask respondents to imagine that they are taking part in a hypothetical referendum "tomorrow".  The same is true of ICM and TNS-BMRB, and it may well be no coincidence that all three pollsters are showing a significantly lower No lead than either YouGov or Ipsos-Mori, both of whom insist on the "tomorrow" qualifier.  The point being, of course, that some voters may be thinking to themselves : "I would have to vote No if I was rushed into a decision tomorrow without having heard all the arguments, but if I'm reassured by what I hear I may vote Yes in September."

* * *

So what can we say about the trend between the late summer/early autumn of 2013 and early 2014? We can now compare the findings of four different BPC pollsters, and to put it mildly the pictures they paint are varied...

ICM are suggesting a big swing of 5% to the Yes campaign since September. There is some reason to believe that the swing may have been slightly exaggerated due to sampling issues relating to young respondents, but even allowing for that the movement looks substantial.

TNS-BMRB are also suggesting a big swing of 4.5% to the Yes campaign since late August/early September. Again, there is some reason to believe that this may be a slight exaggeration due to clear methodological mistakes in the Aug/Sept poll, but those were rectified in the late September/early October poll, and even since then there has been a significant swing of 3% to Yes. A gradual month-on-month decline in the No lead has bolstered the impression that the swing is genuine and potentially ongoing.

YouGov have shown a huge swing of 6% to Yes since their August poll which used their old methodology, but just a 1% swing to Yes since their September poll which used a vastly improved methodology. The latter swing would be well within the margin of error, whereas the former would obviously not be.

Panelbase are showing a tiny swing of 1% to No since their late August/early September poll, which is well within the margin of error. Taking into account the recent No-friendly methodological changes mentioned earlier in this post, the position can essentially be regarded as unchanged, leaving Panelbase as the only remaining pollster showing a picture of seemingly relentless stability.

So the situation is as clear as mud, but what you can't do is just cherry-pick the pollster whose story suits you best (which with supreme irony the No campaign are suddenly trying to do with Panelbase!). Taking the four together, it seems highly unlikely that the small swing to No reported by the new Panelbase poll is real, but equally it also now seems unlikely that the swing to Yes is quite as high as ICM suggested. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, with a small-to-middling movement towards Yes, perhaps amounting to a swing of between 1% and 4% over the last five months. To put that into perspective, in mid-September an average of the polls suggested that Yes required a 9% swing to draw level, so anything between one-ninth and just under one-half of that may have already been achieved. The Poll of Polls figures given below would be bound to lag behind any movement on the higher end of that scale, because they include one poll that is several months old, and have also been distorted by the recent intervention of Survation.

The next indication may be provided by TNS-BMRB, who are apparently planning to release another poll in mid-February (ie. in a few days).

*  *  *


This is the ninth update of the Poll of Polls, and only the second to show a small swing towards No.  Six of the previous updates have shown pro-Yes swings, with one showing an unchanged position.

MEAN AVERAGE (not excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 33.9% (-0.1)
No 49.0% (+0.3)

MEAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 40.9% (-0.2)
No 59.1% (+0.2)

MEDIAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 40.8% (n/c)
No 59.2% (n/c)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the pollsters that have been active in the referendum campaign, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are seven - Angus Reid, YouGov, TNS-BMRB, Survation, Panelbase, Ipsos-Mori and ICM. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample. Changes in the Poll of Polls are generally glacial in nature due to the fact that only a small portion of the sample is updated each time.)

One interesting quirk caused by Panelbase's marginal move "back towards the pack", as it were, is that we are now closer to convergence between the mean and median averages than ever before.

The pro-independence campaign now require a swing of 7.6% on the headline average to take the lead.

* * *

I see that Blair McDougall, the No camp's embarrassment of a campaign chief, is crowing about the Panelbase poll on Twitter, which I must say is a rather odd thing for him to do. If he doesn't want to make himself look even more of a fool for his bizarre lie on Scotland Tonight the other week that "every poll has shown Yes at between 25% and 33%", I'd have thought he'd want to keep very, very quiet about a poll showing the Yes vote falling to 37%! (And it's as high as 43% with undecideds excluded...)