So Stuart Campbell's interminable drip-drip reveal of the details of his propaganda poll has finally reached the culmination that we all knew was coming. There are no surprises here - a commenter on this blog had warned us several days ago that Mr Campbell had asked a dodgy "Archie Stirling"-type question in the poll in order to generate the false impression that there was significant potential support for the new political party that he hopes to set up in direct competition with the SNP.
What is an Archie Stirling-type question? Just weeks before the 2007 Holyrood election, the wealthy businessman Archie Stirling (ex-husband of Diana Rigg and father of Rachael Stirling) commissioned a YouGov poll which asked respondents whether they would consider voting for his new centre-right political party, Scottish Voice, on the regional list ballot. 21% said they would. Mr Stirling sent the results to the newspapers, which breathlessly reported that Scottish Voice could be on course to win dozens of list seats and to hold the balance of power. But a few weeks later when the actual results came in, the party received only 0.3% of the list vote and didn't come remotely close to winning a single seat. It had won just one-seventieth (!) of the number of votes that the YouGov poll had implied was possible.
History repeated itself earlier this year when Change UK was set up. A number of polls asked whether voters would consider voting for the new kid on the block, and the results suggested astronomical levels of support. But when the European elections came around, Change UK took 3.3% of the vote and no seats. (At least that was a more respectable result than Archie managed.)
Why does the "would you consider voting for...?" question produce such wildly misleading results? It's just basic human psychology. If you ask me whether I'll consider eating a banana, I'll say "yes, of course I'd consider it, I have nothing against bananas". But if you then tell me I have to choose just one piece of food for my next snack and ask me whether it'll be a banana, or crisps, or pizza, or yoghurt, or spaghetti, or a toastie...well, it's considerably less likely that the banana will get the nod. In a similar way, voters will have just one vote in the regional list ballot in 2021, and to get a meaningful sense of how well Wings might fare you'd have to present the party as merely one of a menu of options. The question that would have cleared the mists is as follows...
If the following parties stand on the Scottish regional list ballot in 2021, which one would you vote for?
Scottish National Party (SNP)
Wings Over Scotland
Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)
Mr Campbell has no excuses for not knowing that was the type of question that needed to be asked. It's not just me that's been saying this for weeks - others have made the exactly the same point in comments on his own site, and we know he saw those comments because he directly responded to some of them. The fact that he's gone right ahead and asked the Archie Stirling-type question anyway means we're entitled to conclude that those who trusted him to use his polling as a genuine attempt to accurately measure support were wrong. This is instead a propaganda exercise to justify a decision that has to all intents and purposes already been taken.
Why does this matter? Because if, as seems overwhelmingly likely, the Wings party fails to take at least 5% of the vote in at least one electoral region, it will not win any seats at all, and any votes it does take will make it harder for larger pro-indy parties (ie. the SNP and the Greens) to win list seats. If a credible poll had been conducted showing that Wings was on 1% or 2% or 3% or even 4% of the list vote, the pressure on him to do the sensible thing and drop the whole idea would have been overwhelming, even from some of his own supporters. And he couldn't risk that, could he? So instead he's asked a dodgy question that he knew would produce meaningless results that he could spin any way he likes. And by God is he spinning - he's even making the barking mad implication that the poll shows that six out of seven SNP voters might make the jump to his party.
Incredibly, the question he asked is actually a hundred times worse than Archie Stirling's question was. At least Mr Stirling had the basic decency to actually mention the name of the party he was polling about. Mr Campbell's question doesn't even do that.
While still voting SNP with your constituency vote, would you be prepared to consider voting for a new pro-independence party with your list vote, with the intent of increasing the number of pro-independence MSPs in Parliament?
Where do you even begin with the nonsense of that question? Given Mr Campbell's supposed pride in the brand recognition of Wings, why would he be so shy about actually identifying this "new pro-independence party" as the Wings party? It can only be because he thought he'd get a more favourable result by being as vague as possible and making it sound as if he might be talking about an entirely different sort of pro-independence party. It's the ultimate 'catch-all' polling question. And why on earth didn't he end the question with the words "with your list vote?", rather than adding the unnecessary leading wording about "increasing the number of pro-independence MSPs", which was bound to make it harder for respondents to give a negative reply? Well, quite, I've answered my own question there. The results would probably have been very different without those words, which are a) downright misleading, and b) superfluous to the issue of whether voters are actually looking for an alternative to the SNP, let alone an alternative called Wings. If I asked you "Would you be prepared to consider changing jobs with the intent of getting more money?", it would be hard to say "no", but what would I actually be proving? I wouldn't be surprised if some respondents gained the false impression that they were being asked what they would "consider" doing if a new pro-indy party stood on the list ballot with the SNP's blessing. The question does read as if it's implying some sort of masterplan on behalf of the wider Yes movement.
I would go so far as to say the results of such a ridiculous question should be regarded as completely worthless, but for the sheer hell of it I'll try to make some sense of them. 19% of respondents say they would "definitely consider" (whatever that means) voting for this unspecific new party. Remember that we're only talking about SNP constituency voters here, so that's probably only around 8% or so of the total electorate. If I was cheeky enough to suggest that history will repeat itself from 2007 and that only one-seventieth of those people will actually end up voting for Wings, that means Mr Campbell is on course for a humiliating 0.1% of the list vote. Oh, but then of course there's the additional 56% who say they would "perhaps" consider voting for the party "depending on its policies". Well, no shit, Sherlock. Voters who will decide whether or not to "consider" voting for a party when they actually find out what it is and what its policies are? HOLD THE FRONT PAGE.
This is an insult to the intelligence of people who have been giving Mr Campbell the benefit of the doubt over recent weeks, and they have every right to be angry with him. Doubtless there will still be many Wings readers who are wide-eyed enough to take the preposterous "six out of seven" claim at face value, and they're going to be in for a nasty shock one of these days - because sooner or later a media organisation will run a credible poll about the Wings party along the lines that I suggested above. Then we'll see the true picture, and there'll be no hiding place left. (Although probably a few people will be so deep into the trance by that point that they'll accuse whoever ran the poll of "rigging" it.)
I know that some people will innocently protest that Mr Campbell says in his write-up that he plans to ask more "specific" polling questions on the subject himself in future, but come on. Let's get real. If he was remotely serious about doing that in timely fashion, he would have done it in this poll. I defy anyone to come up with a plausible explanation for why he hasn't.
Incidentally, any time Mr Campbell has been challenged on the series of absurdly leading questions he's asked in this poll, he's come up with the rather weak stock reply of: "Take it up with Panelbase, they okayed it, and here's an email they sent me as proof." See for example this exchange of last night and today. To avoid having to repeat the same thing another 57 times, here's what I've been saying in reply:
"No, I won't do that. What polling companies do to make money is ask questions that clients want asked in return for thousands of pounds. They tend to be pleasant and accommodating to those clients for entirely understandable reasons, regardless of the agenda that the client is pushing. That can be seen, for example, in Survation's willingness to ask a certain 'voting intention' question on behalf of Scotland in Union that I doubt if any of us - including you - consider to be a genuine attempt to measure public opinion on independence.
He who pays the piper calls the tune. I'm far more interested in holding the person who calls the tune accountable, rather than some unnamed person from Panelbase who may have fallen into your little trap of saying something unwise when they were trying to please a paying client and when they presumably thought they were speaking in confidence.
Basically your complaint here is that your polling is being regularly analysed in a polling blog. With all due respect, it's hard to think of a more fatuous and futile complaint than that. If being mentioned in a polling blog really bothers you so much, all I can suggest is that you stop publishing polling results on an almost daily basis. Alternatively you could just chill out and accept that when you step into the political arena in a free society, people have the right to comment on your decisions and actions."