Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cameron's Syria setback - what impact on the independence referendum?

I have a new article up at the International Business Times (in fact it's been up for over 24 hours now, but I forgot to check). It considers the potential impact on the referendum campaign of last week's dramatic Commons vote. You can read it HERE.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

McDougall still in no particular rush to find a leg to stand on

I've just spotted this truly extraordinary tweet from the anti-independence campaign troll-in-chief Blair McDougall -

"he [Salmond] is refusing to debate against anyone in Scotland! We choose Alistair Darling on our side..."

OK, so the No campaign affirm the right to put up whoever they want for a public debate, and they have chosen Alistair Darling. So what happens if the Yes campaign say "yes, fine, it's not quite the Cameron v Salmond showdown that everyone wants to see, but nevertheless we'll happily put up Dennis Canavan to debate against his direct counterpart Mr Darling"? Does that second-string debate go ahead, because the No campaign respect the fact that Yes have exactly the same right to put up whoever they like? Er, no. Apparently not. Apparently No get to pick whoever they want, but Yes can only pick anyone who happens to be called Alex Salmond.

Remind me - who decided these rules?

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UPDATE : You can breathe a sigh of relief - this TNS-BMRB poll that No campaign insiders (and a certain Mr Smithson) have been licking their lips about all day has essentially turned out to be a no change affair, albeit with both Yes and No curiously losing a significant amount of support to the Don't Know column. Usual rules apply - if "support for independence is waning", then by definition "support for the United Kingdom is plummeting". I'm afraid you can't have your cake and eat it, chaps.

Yes 25% (-5)
No 47% (-4)

This means of course that TNS-BMRB have rejoined the ranks of pollsters showing that fewer than half of Scots actively support continued membership of the UK. The 22-point No lead is also a full eight points lower than the YouGov poll with the dodgy preamble. Does this mean that YouGov are, to use Alex Massie's line about Panelbase, an "extreme outlier"? No, but it does mean that they remain at the extreme end of a very broad spectrum which ranges from a No lead of thirty points to a Yes lead of one point.

Why Alex Massie is wrong

Alex Massie has a new post up at the Spectator website, weighing up the respective merits of the YouGov and Panelbase polls, and concluding to everyone's amazement that YouGov are probably closer to the mark. Alas, some of the points he makes are just plain factually wrong, so I felt moved to leave the following response in the comments section -

"There was much chuntering and whispering and people asking if YouGov could be trusted. Had they asked the same question as will be posed in the independence referendum itself? (Yes they had)."

Er, no, Alex, they hadn't. This, in fact, was the tortuous and leading question that YouGov asked -

"If there was a referendum tomorrow on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom and becoming an Independent Country and this was the question, how would you vote? Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Now, then. I can absolutely promise you that voters will not be faced in September 2014 with a ballot paper that reads as follows -

"This is a referendum about leaving the comforting warmth of the United Kingdom, and being cast adrift in the North Atlantic without food, shelter or warmth. But please note that the official question in this referendum is "Should Scotland be an independent country?" Now have a very, very careful think and tell us how you want to vote."

Moving on -

"So, if pushed, I would guess that YouGov’s poll is considerably more likely (though not certain) to be more accurate than Panelbase’s. It is certainly more in line with the findings reported by other pollsters. It is Panelbase versus the field."

Er, no, Alex, it is not. The most recent Angus Reid poll showed a relatively modest No lead of thirteen points, which is slightly closer to Panelbase's one-point Yes lead than it is to YouGov's thirty-point No lead. More to the point, however, it is far closer to the more typical Panelbase figures showing a 4-10% No lead than it is to the figures from the unionist-friendly camp of pollsters (TNS-BMRB, Ipsos-Mori and YouGov).

"But taken as a whole I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect that this [Panelbase] is a poll nudging people towards affirming support for independence."

And what in heaven's name do you think YouGov's ludicrous preamble was nudging people towards? Studied neutrality?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Pro-independence campaign storms back into the lead for first time since 2011

It was fairly obvious from the hints being dropped on Twitter last night that a new Panelbase poll on the independence referendum was on its way, and that it was far more favourable for Yes than yesterday's YouGov poll (which we now know was indeed tainted by using a leading question that painted independence in a pejorative light). However, I couldn't have imagined quite how favourable it would prove to be -

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 44% (+7)
No 43% (-3)

This is the first time that the pro-independence camp have been in the lead with any pollster since a TNS-BMRB poll in the late summer of 2011 put Yes ahead by one point.

So what can possibly explain the extraordinary divergence between two polls published in successive days, one which puts Yes one point ahead, and another which puts No thirty points ahead? Methodology, obviously, but what in particular? It's easy to home in on the outrageously leading preamble that YouGov use when posing the referendum question, but as I've said on previous occasions that's unlikely to be anything more than a small part of the explanation - if I was going to hazard a guess, I'd say that it probably doesn't make more than 2% of a difference. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle it's extremely bad practice for YouGov to continue behaving in this way, and it's high time that greater pressure was brought to bear on them, both from their peers and from psephologists. In case you're wondering, the Devoplus campaign that commissioned the poll almost certainly aren't to blame in this particular regard - as far as I can see, the preamble is identical to the one YouGov have used on several previous occasions. Peter Kellner just seems to have a bee in his bonnet that he can 'improve' on the actual, Electoral Commission-approved referendum question.

If Professor John Curtice was prepared to go out of his way to criticise the recent WoS poll for using leading wording in one particular question, then he really has no excuse left for not issuing a warning to YouGov that their polls will have a question mark hanging over them for as long as they continue to steer their respondents in such a blatant way towards giving an anti-independence response on the headline question.

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Undoubtedly the daftest comment about today's poll was made by former "senior Labour MSP" George Foulkes - but did he do it deliberately?  He claimed that it was "astonishing" that the Courier had led on the results of a poll conducted by an organisation that pays its online panel for responses - apparently unaware that all online pollsters use a paid panel, including YouGov, who carried out the poll that George's campaign were quite content to see Scotland on Sunday lead with yesterday.  When this rather obvious double-standard was pointed out to him, George mumbled something about YouGov being an "established" pollster.  Oh-kaaay.  So the difference in credibility is that YouGov merely pay their respondents in an "established" way?  How does that work?

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A quick appeal - does anyone reading this have an account at Political Betting? If so, I'd be grateful if you could write a quick comment there about the sensational news from the Panelbase poll - I can't see any reference to it so far, and I'm obviously not in a position to put that right. The reason it might be important to do so is that some London journalists still seem to take their cue from PB when summarising the lie of the land in polling terms. Inexplicable, but there it is.

Even if you don't have an account, it would only take a minute or two to set one up (although your first comment might have to go through pre-moderation).

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UPDATE (6.30pm) : At last - John Curtice speaks out on YouGov's dodgy preamble...

"Conversely, at the other end of the spectrum YouGov’s poll for Devo Plus described the referendum as a ballot on ‘Scotland leaving the United Kingdom and being an independent country’ a description that might have been thought capable of discouraging some respondents from saying Yes."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Battle of the pollsters

When I first heard whispers a couple of hours ago that there was a new poll out showing a substantial No lead, I can honestly say the first thought that went through my mind was "I just hope to goodness it's a YouGov poll". Reasons? Well, there were three main ones -

1) It would mean that No have nothing much to celebrate, as there has only been a very modest increase in their lead since the last comparable poll (which, remarkably, was published almost a year ago!).

2) YouGov are notorious for using a leading preamble when posing the referendum question, and can probably be assumed to have done the same thing this time, thus detracting somewhat from the credibility of the results (although I'll happily apologise tomorrow or on Monday when the full tables go up, if it turns out that for the very first time they have let the official Electoral Commission-approved question speak for itself).

3) There are increasing question marks over YouGov's Scottish sampling. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the 2003 Holyrood election, when YouGov towered over their old-school competitors as by far the most accurate pollster of the campaign. They also performed reasonably well in 2007, but by 2011 the tables had well and truly turned, and YouGov were now the 'establishment' pollster being outshone by their less prestigious rivals. They continued to show a tight race right up to polling day, entirely failing to pick up the impending SNP landslide. The problem seems to have got even worse since then - the Scottish subsamples in most YouGov daily polls this year have shown the SNP trailing Labour badly, and in many cases even languishing in a thoroughly implausible third place behind the Tories. By contrast, the subsamples of all other pollsters have typically shown the SNP either in the lead, or only very slightly behind Labour. It doesn't automatically follow that YouGov are getting it wrong - we have to at least entertain the possibility that they are getting it right and everyone else is getting it wrong. But intuitively it seems much more likely that there is an ever-growing rift between real-world Scotland and YouGov's Scottish samples.

Thankfully, this weekend's poll did indeed turn out to be a YouGov poll. That means we don't learn anything new, but we do have a reaffirmation of the gulf between the two pollsters that are showing a relatively modest No lead (Angus Reid and Panelbase), and the three pollsters that are showing a more substantial one (YouGov, TNS-BMRB and Ipsos-Mori) - although YouGov find themselves at the extreme end of the latter group. So which group is getting it right? Or is the truth somewhere in between the two? You pays your money and you takes your choice, although it's worth pointing out that media commentators who tell you that "No have a handsome lead, full stop" are failing to take account of the complete picture - probably willfully.

Curiously, this YouGov poll was commissioned by the Devoplus campaign, with the apparent intention of producing results that would demonstrate to the No camp that they would have a better chance of victory if they committed to increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. That doesn't seem to have really come off - the Devoplus crowd would probably have been better advised to use a pollster that doesn't routinely produce inflated No leads in the headline figures.

By the way, have you noticed that when we see a poll showing a modest increase in the No vote, there are headlines screaming about "the No vote hardening up", but when Angus Reid showed a two-point increase in the Yes vote a few days ago, it was billed as a "no change" poll? I'm confused...