Monday, October 20, 2014

Explain yourself, Professor Curtice, for I fear there is a rather massive contradiction here

I don't pay the Murdoch levy, so I was interested to see an extract from a Sunday Times article on Wings yesterday, in which Professor John Curtice argues for a referendum on more powers for the Scottish Parliament.  He offers the following very curious reason -

"It seems to me that unless we go through a process whereby we get public buy-in to what is being proposed and which in five years' time the politicians can say 'This is what the people voted for and this is what Scotland wants', the SNP will be able to continue to say 'This is not enough' and selectively use polling evidence to show that is what people think."

If he has not been misquoted on the word 'selectively', there's a huge problem with Curtice's argument.  Just two weeks ago he wrote a post on his own blog criticising the SNP for using leading wording in the questions for a Panelbase poll that showed overwhelming public support for full Devo Max (ie. devolution of everything other than foreign affairs and defence), and pointed out they didn't need to do that, because neutrally-worded polls can be relied upon to produce the same result anyway -

"And given that many another survey that has used a more neutral wording has uncovered majority support for devolution of the nation’s domestic affairs, it might be felt that there is no need for the SNP to have adopted such an approach in order to generate findings that were supportive of its view."

In other words, if what emerges from the unsatisfactory post-referendum process falls significantly short of Devo Max, the SNP will always be able to quote polling evidence showing that the popular will has not been respected, and they will always be right. There's no question of that evidence being in any way "selective" - the people demonstrably and authentically want Devo Max, and we have Curtice's own word for that.

He must know that a fair referendum offering a menu of options for further devolution (Labour's Devo Nano, the Tories' Devo Bit More, the Lib Dems' Federalism Lite, Reform Scotland's Devo Plus and the SNP's Devo Max) would have a very predictable outcome.  So I can only assume that he's not talking about the sort of referendum that actually seeks to ascertain the popular will, but instead the sort that is used to establish a bogus mandate.  The AV referendum of three years ago is a classic example - voters were presented with a choice of two very similar options, and the vast swathe of voters who wanted a more radical option (ie. proportional representation) had no choice but to "endorse" something that they didn't actually support.  The No campaign openly pitched for PR supporters to vote against AV, and then shamelessly claimed the outcome as a ringing endorsement of first-past-the-post.

Roy Hattersley (remember him?) tried a similar trick after the 1997 devolution referendum, arguing that it was "unanswerable" that Labour should run the parliament rather than the SNP, because the Scottish people had just voted for devolution rather than independence.  The trouble is that it was a bit difficult for them to do anything else given that they were faced with a binary choice between devolution and direct rule from London.  And yet a high-profile Westminster politician was perfectly prepared to make that risible, offensive, and downright undemocratic argument with a straight face.  Professor Curtice seems to be suggesting something equally cynical with his comment about "public buy-in" - that voters would be faced with a binary choice between the status quo and the Smith Commission proposals, and if they voted for the latter, politicians could then brazenly claim the outcome as a rejection of Devo Max, even though that hadn't been on the ballot paper.

Of course, nobody actually paid a blind of bit of notice to Hattersley's witterings, because everyone knew perfectly well that the SNP had been an active part of the Yes campaign in 1997, and that victory in the referendum was jointly "owned" by supporters of independence and supporters of devolution.  Exactly the same thing would happen this time in the unlikely event of Curtice's suggestion being acted upon, because I struggle to conceive of any circumstances in which the SNP would not campaign in favour of seizing more powers for the Scottish Parliament, whatever reservations they might have about the exact proposals.

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Today has seen the publication of only the second Scottish subsample since the referendum not to put the SNP in the lead.  Like the first one, it's from Populus.  It's an ambiguous finding, though, because the SNP are actually fractionally ahead on the raw figures, and only slip behind Labour after turnout weighting.  With such small sample sizes, you'd expect huge fluctuations from day to day, so it's far too early to conclude that the SNP's surge is starting to tail off.  They remain well ahead in the latest Poll of Polls, which is based on eight subsamples from GB-wide polls - four from YouGov, two from Populus and two from ComRes.  (An Ashcroft poll will be published later this afternoon, but I can't be bothered waiting for it!)

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 38.8% (-3.3)
Labour 25.8% (+0.9)
Conservatives 19.4% (+1.2)
Liberal Democrats 7.8% (+1.4)
UKIP 5.4% (+0.3)
Greens 2.9% (+0.3)

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

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UPDATE : The Ashcroft poll is now out, and its Scottish subsample is much more 'normal' than the Populus one - it shows the SNP ahead of Labour by 49% to 27%.


  1. There is possibly a very real issue with the weighting of all polls with regards to the Scottish subsection if, as I believe and I'm sure others, people identified as Labour supporters no longer identify that way.

    If the weighting tries to reflect a split between party identification to balance out with the 2010 election and this no longer exists the weighting will naturally bias (quite heavily) against the SNP.

  2. Populus also weight on ” which political party would you say you have usually most closely identified yourself with”.

    That seems a pretty sensible factor to weight by in “normal times”

    However, if the times are not “normal”, then the Populus decision to weight the Scottish respondents down by 1% (185 to 183), while weighting down those with an SNP affiliation by 25% (56 to 42) would be somewhat bizarre.

    If the Populus weighting is accurate, then Lab & SNP are on level pegging. If weighting a real current situation to a past position is inaccurate, then the level pegging is artificial.

  3. Ashcroft Scots crossbreak today -

    SNP 49% : Lab 27% : Con 8% : UKIP 7% : Green 6% : LD 2%

  4. I can't see any appetite for a referendum on more devolution.

    When 45% voted for FULL INDEPENDENCE, it seems obvious that a good majority of people want significantly more powers at the very least.

    Any referendum on limited powers that actually hurt Scotland's finances would surely be boycotted as a stitch-up, or people would be urged to write DEVO-MAX on the paper.

    Let the unionist parties reap the results at the ballot box if Scotland is let down, not claim fake legitimacy for the status quo.

  5. "Any referendum on limited powers that actually hurt Scotland's finances would surely be boycotted as a stitch-up, or people would be urged to write DEVO-MAX on the paper."

    I hope we never go down the boycott/abstention/spoilt ballot road (and I don't think we would). The thing to do in those circumstances would be to campaign for Yes, and redefine what a Yes actually means in terms of mandate.

  6. I am really worried about a bad devo deal. Labour have no incentive to get Scotland a good deal. They will see a good devo deal as helping the SNP. Labour's strategy will be to try to make life as hard a possible for the Scottish government so that SNP gets the blame and the parliament falls into disrepute - So expect a stitch up.

    I am an ex-Labour member so know how they think.

  7. James,

    Would it be worth increasing the sample size on the Poll of Polls. Maybe to include all polls in the past 2 weeks?

    This would reduce the jerking about that's going on at the moment with a single sample moving the needle by 3% or more.

    Sure it would mean that the data is slightly less up to date, but what we are looking for here is a feel for direction of travel which is difficult to see when the PoP moves about so much.

    Just a thought


  8. To quote populus:

    "We have found that past vote weighting online does not seem to lead to the politically balanced samples obtainable by using this same method on the telephone.

    Populus has therefore sought a different way to make its samples more politically representative consistent with the fact that it doesn’t profile its panellists in advance, preferring instead to ask them their demographic characteristics afresh each time and to use random online sampling for a significant proportion of our responses. We weight by Party ID using British Election Survey studies of party identification conducted around the time of the last General Election."

    Note that last bit... Which would explain how their weighted 2010 numbers don't quite add up.

    Times have moved on a wee bit since then and it explains why SNP identifying respondents are heavily down-weighted by populus as shown in tables towards the end.

    Even still, average of the last 4 of them has SNP 10% ahead of Labour.

  9. Scottish_Skier

    Thanks for that explanation of the Populus methodology.

    It's a bit reminiscent of a French aristocrat in 1794, on his way to the guillotine, explaining to his companions that "It's OK. We're quite safe. My ancestor surveyed the peasantry on the estate in 1692, and most of them thought aristocracy was a good thing.

  10. What's interesting from the Ashcroft (though a subsample of 89 only), is that 72% said they would vote, compared with 59% for England as a whole. It looks like the engagement is continuing after the referendum.

    I doubt the Cons have dropped to 5% or the Libs to 2% yet though! But it's encouraging.


    Interesting idea

  12. Slightly off topic, but noting that Stewart Hosie has come out in favour of an electoral alliance with the pro-indy parties, is there actually any merit in this idea? Looking at the 2010 results, absolutely no seat would have altered had all 'other' votes gone to the SNP. Very (very) crudely factoring in current opinion polls, the result remains the same. Am I missing something?

  13. Vronsky : Yes, I think there's huge value in making people realise that they're voting for a broad movement, rather than a single political party operating on a business-as-usual basis. Remember that Hosie is talking about organisations and not just political parties - Business for Scotland, Women for Independence and so on.

    In any case, a crude calculation can never tell the whole story. Electoral pacts are often greater or smaller than the sum of their parts.

  14. I can only understand it as offering a home to disillusioned Labour voters who can't bring themselves to jump all the way to the SNP.