Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wisdom on Wednesday : Some politicians didn't require the benefit of hindsight to make the right judgement on Iraq

"Will the approach that is being taken work?  The argument is that it will be a salutary lesson, that a dictator will be taught a lesson and that that will help us in dealing with other dictators.  I suspect that the cost of the action - I do not doubt the military outcome for a second - will be so high in a number of ways that it will not provide a platform for an assault on North Korea or Iran, which form the rest of the "axis of evil".  I do not think that the policy of teaching one dictator a lesson and then moving on to other dictators can work.  Most of us know that it will be a breeding ground for a future generation of terrorists."

Alex Salmond, MP for Banff and Buchan, and future First Minister of Scotland, speaking in March 2003 during the parliamentary debate on committing British forces to an illegal invasion of Iraq.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

ICM poll looks robust

Many thanks to Stuart Dickson for pointing me in the direction of the full datasets for the remarkable poll that has, for the time being at least, turned the independence referendum campaign on its head. Last night I expressed a small amount of concern that the SNP's lead on European voting intentions in the poll seemed improbably high, which I thought might cast some slight doubt on the credibility of the referendum findings. However, I'm delighted to report that the datasets have entirely set my mind to rest on that point. The only real question mark anyone had raised about the poll's methodology related to the upscaling of the small number of 16-24 year old respondents, among whom there was a huge swing towards Yes. But as Oldnat pointed out on last night's thread, if a disproportionately 'Nat-heavy' sample of young people was responsible for the Yes surge, you would expect that to be reflected in huge support among that group for the SNP. As it turns out, the opposite is the case - 16-24 year olds may be the part of the poll's sample most likely to vote for independence, but they're also the least likely to vote SNP...

SNP support by age group -

16-24 year olds : 36%
25-44 year olds : 47%
45-64 year olds : 44%
65+ year olds : 38%

So there's nothing suspicious at all about the SNP's handsome lead, which in fact is derived from the responses of older age groups for which there were no sampling problems. It's admittedly still a very surprising finding, but my theory is that the order of questions in the poll may have had something to do with it (European voting intention was only the ninth question asked, and was immediately preceded by a question asking people to recollect how they voted in the 2011 Holyrood election).

As for the referendum voting intentions of young people in this poll, the truth is that no-one should be startled by them - at 44% Yes, 33% No they're in line with the finding from the most recent YouGov poll that 18-24 year olds were breaking disproportionately for Yes. If anything, a more reasonable concern might be that the traditional sampling problems among young voters led to an underestimation of the Yes vote in the last ICM poll in September (the Yes figure for 16-24 year olds in that poll was absurdly low). If that was the case, then it might cast doubt on just how big the swing to Yes has been over the last four months, but what it wouldn't do is cast any particular doubt on the headline figures that ICM are showing right now - ie. a No lead that stands at just 7%.

What really seems to be going on is that voters of all ages are gradually learning to decouple their party political preferences from their referendum voting intention. The Yes campaign still don't seem to be making much headway among Tories (if Wealthy Nation do the trick on that front it could yet prove decisive), but among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters the progress is extraordinary. When undecideds are excluded, no fewer than 28% of people who voted Labour in 2011 are planning to vote for independence, as are 26% of people who voted Liberal Democrat. And remember that both of those parties were at historically low levels of support in 2011, so these are the true core voters who are being won over by the Yes campaign. By contrast, in spite of the fact that the SNP were way, way above their core support when they secured their 2011 landslide, a mere 16% of their voters are currently planning to vote No.

In no small measure, it may well be that we have the likes of Sir Charles Gray and Dennis Canavan to thank for this breakthrough. We can only imagine what the impact will be if a few more senior Labour people are now emboldened to declare for Yes.

* * *

Would it be possible for journalists (and Blair McDougall) to stop inventing their own poll numbers?

Blair McDougall discussing the ICM poll on Scotland Tonight : "Every poll has shown Yes at between 25% and 33%." Even if we're charitable and assume the implied missing words were "until this one", he's still talking utter tripe. No fewer than ELEVEN polls last year showed the Yes campaign at a higher level of support than 33% - and that includes two polls from Ipsos-Mori, generally the least favourable pollster for Yes. The highest Yes figure of all was in fact 44%.

Ian Dunt (yes, him again) writing on : "The ICM poll is something of an outlier, however. Most surveys put support for independence at around 29%." WHAT? Where in God's name does that number come from? Even when undecideds are not excluded, the average Yes vote at present is 33.8%. Five of the six BPC pollsters showed a Yes vote of over 30% in their most recent poll (and even if the non-BPC Progressive Scottish Opinion is taken into account, it's five out of seven). Has Dunt just plucked the number 29 out of thin air because he likes the sound of it? Answers on a postcard...

Last but not least, although I didn't see Question Time last week, I was told on Twitter that David Dimbleby lied through his teeth yet again by claiming polls were showing a 2-1 majority against independence, and that (almost as unforgivably) none of the panel bothered to correct him. This just ain't on - not even Dimblebys have the right to unilaterally decide that undecided voters are really No voters in denial. Not only should he immediately stop peddling this falsehood, he should apologise for having grossly misled his viewers for so long. And even if he is genuinely unaware that he's been reciting fictional numbers, the fact that he didn't even bother to check speaks to an almost unbelievable lack of professionalism on his part.

Monday, January 27, 2014

SNP enjoy huge 19% lead over Labour in ICM poll

Further details of this weekend's extraordinary ICM poll have been released by the Scotsman. Unfortunately, however, the party political voting intention figures raise more questions than they answer, because the newspaper's report on the poll is a masterclass in ambiguous language. We are told that "the Liberal Democrats have slumped to fifth place in Scotland ahead of this year's European elections", but what does that actually mean? Is it meant to imply that this is a poll of European Parliament voting intentions, or merely that this is a Holyrood poll that just happens to have been conducted in the run-up to European elections? That isn't a point of pedantry, because we know that people vote very differently in different types of elections (they even vote differently on the Holyrood list ballot than they do on the Holyrood constituency ballot). Doubtless the mystery will be solved when ICM post the datasets, or hopefully even before then, but for now all I can do is give the figures without really having a clue how to interpret them.

SNP 43%
Labour 24%
Conservatives 14%
Liberal Democrats 6%

I think the main thing to take away from this is that any SNP supporter attracted by the siren voices from the Green corner suggesting that a tactical vote is the way to prevent UKIP winning the sixth European Parliament seat should forget the whole idea. On these figures, it would be the SNP gaining the sixth seat from the Liberal Democrats, with UKIP and the Greens not really in contention at all. Lallands Peat Worrier has already explained in considerable detail why a tactical vote is likely to backfire (or to have no effect) in this post. But a more fundamental point is that it isn't just the seat breakdown that matters - at the last European elections the SNP and Labour both won two seats, and yet there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Labour had been gubbed, because the SNP had handily beaten them on the popular vote. So misguided tactical voting wouldn't just endanger the SNP's chances of an extra seat - it could also cost them bragging rights on the popular vote, which may prove crucial in terms of momentum going into the referendum. Because frankly I don't expect them to be 19 points ahead of Labour on European polling day.

Which brings me to my other point of concern. Perverse though it might seem, I would actually have been more reassured if the SNP's lead had been more modest in this poll, because it would have made the spectacular referendum voting intention figures from last night look more robust. As it is, ICM seem to be contradicting recent polling evidence from Ipsos-Mori and YouGov, both of which suggested a pro-Yes swing coupled with a simultaneous decline in the SNP vote, in line with what appeared to be happening in Cowdenbeath. So this raises the slight worry that this may yet prove to be a rogue poll, ie. not within the standard 3% margin of error, which is something that pollsters acknowledge happens one time in every twenty - and in reality happens far more often than that due to methodological shortcomings. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed for the second full-scale poll of referendum year, and hope it's just as good as this one.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

This is the bit where everything changes - sensational ICM poll shows pro-independence campaign just 7% behind

At moments like this you're supposed to punch the air in delight, but I'm so dumbfounded that I think I've only managed to do it in my head so far. ICM, regarded by many as the 'gold standard' of UK pollsters, have released the first referendum poll of 2014, and it shows that the pro-independence campaign have slashed the No lead from 17% to 7%.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 37% (+5)
No 44% (-5)

I had a funny feeling a couple of hours ago that something special was in the offing. Normally when a new poll is on its way, the anti-independence campaign's troll-in-chief Blair McDougall can't resist a "scene-setting" tweet, but there was only deafening silence from him tonight, which left open the possibility that he'd seen the figures and knew that this time there was absolutely no way he could spin them in his favour. Some of the other usual suspects (notably our old friend Mike "can't be arsed" Smithson) indicated that they had no idea what the poll showed, suggesting an unusual level of secrecy that you wouldn't expect for a poll with a routine result.

So what does this mean? For years now, there has been an ongoing 'intra-nationalist debate' between those who think that polls are basically meaningless ("OK, they asked 1000 people, but what about the other five million?"), and those of us who think that we can certainly be critical of polls and point out their mistakes and limitations, but that there's no point in sticking our heads in the sand and trying to convince ourselves that polls don't matter at all. After all, there is a perfectly straightforward scientific basis for the idea that you can ask 1000 people for their opinion and get a result that is representative of the general population to within a margin of error of 3% (but only if you have your methodology absolutely bang on, which is the caveat that is too often overlooked). And perhaps more pertinently, I remember that when I took part in the For A' That podcast back in September, I made the point that the prevailing media narrative that is so unfavourable for the Yes campaign has been largely driven by poll results, and that everything would be completely different if we could only get those numbers to change. Make no mistake about it - a transformed narrative matters. Voters who previously thought that there was no point in wasting their mental energy thinking about the arguments for independence because Yes were too far behind will think again. Newspapers and other media outlets who previously thought that they were playing it safe and giving the audience what it wanted by churning out relentless anti-independence propaganda will realise that their interests are not quite so clear-cut. More specifically, a spontaneous surge for Yes in the polls is probably a prerequisite for securing unambiguous newspaper endorsements for independence in September.

We can now expect the long-awaited changed narrative to begin to unfold as a direct result of this poll - on one crucial condition. If there is a second poll in the coming days (in theory a TNS-BMRB poll should be due before the month is out), and if that poll contradicts ICM, the media will be all too keen to believe the figures that give them the easiest life. But if the next poll doesn't tell them what they want to hear, all hell will break loose. There's one thing even the most die-hard of unionist scribes will know in his/her heart of hearts - if Yes really have closed the gap from 17% to 7% since the last ICM poll four months ago, they are perfectly capable of closing the gap from 7% to zero over the next eight months. That's especially true given that the official campaign period (with the regulations to ensure balanced broadcast coverage) has not even started yet. The "Yes has already lost" fairy-story so beloved of Ian 'Complacency' Smart and his ilk is now utterly dead in the water.

* * *


Regular readers will remember that I provisionally updated the Poll of Polls after an Ipsos-Mori poll was released on January 12th, and that I then reluctantly had to reverse it after it transpired that the poll hadn't asked a straight Yes/No question, and probably wasn't properly weighted. I say 'reluctantly' because it was rather a good update for Yes, but I'm delighted to say that the first genuine update of referendum year shows much the same story anyway, with the pro-independence campaign closing the gap for the fifth time in succession...

MEAN AVERAGE (not excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 33.8% (+0.8)
No 48.0% (-0.8)

MEAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 41.3% (+1.0)
No 58.7% (-1.0)

MEDIAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 40.9% (+1.3)
No 59.1% (-1.3)

As ever, the Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of six polls - the most recent one from each of the six pollsters that have conducted properly-weighted nationwide referendum polls during the campaign, and that adhere to British Polling Council (BPC) rules. If any other BPC pollsters enter the fray at some point (for example ComRes or Populus), they'll be taken into account as well.

Obviously, with only one-sixth of the sample changing with this update, it's not possible for the movements to be as dramatic as seen in the headline ICM figures. However, Yes have still reached another new landmark, breaking through the psychological 40% threshold on the median average for the first time. The median was previously calculated as the mid-point between TNS-BMRB and ICM (as the 'middle' pollsters), but ICM have astonishingly just replaced Panelbase as the outright most favourable pollster for Yes, meaning that the median is now the mid-point between Angus Reid and TNS-BMRB.

On the headline average figures, Yes are left requiring a swing of just 7.1% to draw level - but the reality is that it'll almost certainly be much less than that by now if the trend picked up by ICM is genuine. Indeed, on that trend it's quite possible (arguably likely) that Panelbase would be showing either a dead heat or a narrow Yes lead at the moment. If I was a decision-maker in the SNP, I'd be sorely tempted to commission another Panelbase poll right now - the impact on the media narrative could be huge.

* * *

"You're better together with a Tory government you didn't vote for!" say panto stars John Barrowman and the Krankies. "Oh no we're not!" retort the audience.

When the news of this poll broke, I was in the middle of writing a post about the rather more trivial matter of John Barrowman's characteristically self-effacing Burns Night 'Address to the Nation', but I don't think I'll bother finishing it now. Suffice to say I spent my own Burns Night at the Hydro in Glasgow watching pro-independence singers Dougie MacLean, Rachel Sermanni and Karine Polwart performing for Celtic Connections. In particular, Polwart brought a tear to my eye with her beautiful rendition of Green Grow the Rashes. (I mean, obviously it wasn't a patch on Barrowman's timeless cover of Baby Give It Up by KC and the Sunshine Band, but we can only make do with the scraps of entertainment that are actually available to us here in the far provinces.)

Oh, and I think I would have been left with marginally more respect for Barrowman if he'd done his faintly pathetic "kilts, Irn Bru and Salmond is fat" routine in the American accent he uses on every other occasion he's on television. His weird decision to go Scottish for one night only reminded me a bit of the advice Margaret Thatcher apparently received in the 80s with a view to improving her dismal personal ratings in these parts. It was suggested that she adopt a mild Scottish accent on her forays north - a comic spectacle of truly epic proportions that we were cruelly denied from witnessing.