Thoughts from Comres - Were 'Yes' ever in the lead?
Were 'Yes' ever in the lead?
We are all experts with the
power of hindsight. The airwaves this weekend will be packed with post hoc analysis of what happened in
Scotland, fitting the final result to a preferred narrative. This makes a
change from the approach sketched out in our
The media love a tight battle. From now
until the date of the referendum this will be a “knife edge” contest with
“everything still to play for”.
Now that the results are in,
the commentariat have switched effortlessly from the John Motson,commentary box style of punditry, marvelling at the ebb and flow of the contest, to a back in the studio, post-match critique of the “shocking defending” on show,
replays and tactical diagrams galore.
So which explanations can be fit to the actual results?
Maybe it was Gordon Brown’s speech of his life,
perhaps it was the “Shy Noes” who were afraid to admit their position to
pollsters, or you might prefer to argue that people changed their minds at the
last minute when they realised the enormity of the situation.
Proving exactly what has
happened over the course of a political campaign is difficult. Some pollsters
showed a sudden surge for “Yes” in the closing weeks, while others showed a
more consistent position from June onwards. Following a political campaign can
be like standing outside a football stadium listening to the crowd and trying
to get a feel for which team is ahead. Nobody knows the score until the final
whistle has blown.
“Yes” ever stand a chance?
There were some strong bits
of evidence that were ignored by many observers, though. In our previous
Pollwatch we argued:
The evidence from previous referendums
worldwide is that most “Don’t know” respondents will end up backing the “status
quo” option on voting day.
Essentially, this means that
to win a referendum, the “change” option needs to be polling above 50% – before
“Don’t knows” are excluded from the tally. This never happened at any point in
the contest. As the eminent psephologist Professor
Michael Thrasher has said, “I doubt the Yes campaign were ever
Talk of the
difference being within the margin of error rather missed the point. Yes, a
single survey result typically has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage
points, but the average of a series of polls ought in theory to be much more
accurate than that. Better Together were always ahead on this “poll of polls” measure:
Likewise, the idea that
differential turnout could have swung the result towards “Yes” overlooked the
fact that all the demographics historically associated with higher turnout –
older people, more affluent ABC1s, and those who have voted previously – were
skewing heavily towards a “No” vote. (Contrast the 75% voter turnout in Glasgow
with the 84% of the electorate who cast their ballot in Edinburgh.)
moment or knee-jerk reaction?
If we accept this analysis,
then it has big implications for the Westminster politicians who changed tack just
over a week ago to offer a much more comprehensive devolution settlement to
David Cameron, Ed Miliband,
and Nick Clegg will be keen to argue that their decisive move worked to shore
up the “No” vote and was the reason that the eventual lead for the pro-Union side
was wider than any pollster had predicted.
The Scottish Yes side needs a very major
event in order to gain the support of a majority of Scottish people.
redistributed “don’t know” responses far more heavily towards “No” than towards
“Yes”, in line with Quebec's experience. Throughout September, she repeatedly showed that
while “Yes” had made small gains each week from the beginning of August, it had
still not come close to threatening an upset.
The best that can be argued
for Gordon Brown’s cross-party deal on Scottish powers (agreed on 8th
September) is that it may have prevented the “Yes” vote from climbing further,
to around 46%. Or indeed the polls may have systematically overestimated stated
“Yes” support in a way not factored into Prof Durand’s model.
Either way, the move to
afford Scotland greater powers looks like a knee-jerk reaction – opening a
Pandora’s box in Westminster that creates problems for both Mr Cameron and
Mr Miliband in the run-up to the General Election.
next for Westminster?
Our latest research
for ITV News shows that a majority of British people (54%) now support a move
to prevent Scottish MPs in Westminster from voting on issues that do not impact
on Scotland. More controversially, two fifths (40%) of the population now
support the creation of an English Parliament, and nearly half (48%) support
devolution of powers to major cities and regions in England and Wales.
The noises coming from
Conservative MPs since the Brown-Cameron Pact are likely to be only a hint of
what is yet to come. Major constitutional change is something that scares many
Conservative and Labour politicians alike.
ComRes will be
polling MPs, Future MPs, MSPs, and the general public across the UK in the
coming weeks to assess what impact this could have. But with the law of
unintended consequences now in play, we are very much back in the commentary
box with John Motson: “it’s nil-nil, and anything could happen.”
Follow ComRes on Twitter for the latest polls and analysis:@ComResPolls
Author: Andy White, Senior Consultant
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