The Referendum is Unpredictable

Yesterday, Yougov published a poll which put the ‘No’ vote at 59% and the ‘Yes’ vote at 29%.  This gave the No vote a lead of 30% – as far as I’m aware, the highest lead it’s ever had since the campaigns began.  So is this a sign of Scotland increasingly rejecting independence.  Should Alex Salmond be worried?  Well, it appears not.  Today, Panelbase published a poll which, for the first time in two years, actually showed the Yes vote ahead at 44% with the No vote at 43%.  It’s worth bearing in mind that this poll was commissioned by the SNP* but it doesn’t appear to be biased any particular way**.  This is only a lead of 1% and could easily be an outlier, but there’s no way a difference of 31% between polls can merely be statistical.  I’m not suggesting either poll is biased; I think the referendum is just that hard to predict.

I’m still not convinced that the Yes campaign will achieve a shock rise in the polls in time for September 2014, but this poll has shown that the referendum isn’t entirely a foregone conclusion nonetheless.  In some ways, the proportion of people who vote ‘Yes’ might be just as significant as an actual Yes victory.  If 30% or less were to vote Yes to independence, it would be easy for Westminster to consider it supported by a minority, but if the result were to be much closer it would certainly be a worry for whoever’s Prime Minister.  If 46% of Scots want to leave the country, that could easily tilt over 50% in the coming years if he or she is not careful.

Perhaps a close vote may inspire Labour, the party most likely to gain power at Westminster in 2015, to repeat their actions of 1997 and grant more powers to the Scottish parliament in an attempt to reduce support for independence.  On one hand, these potential future Labour ministers might believe that this clearly didn’t work last time, yet they might also point to the fact that the Scottish people have consistently shown in polls that we would prefer full fiscal autonomy to independence.

Well, this is going into too many what-ifs.  The point I’m trying to make is that I think that the referendum is too unpredictable for either campaign to be assured of a victory.  If we can accept this, perhaps both campaigns can move on from their ugly scare-tactics and foul-play, and maybe even respect the other’s viewpoints.  Then we can begin a fair debate on the real issues.

*No doubt this will overwhelmingly discredit the poll for those people who seem to think Alex Salmond and the SNP are fascist wannabes, but for those of us who prefer to take a more balanced look at Scottish politics this shouldn’t necessarily be an issue.

**Since posting, that article has been updated with a potential explanation for the result.  Two questions were asked beforehand which, it’s claimed, could have boosted those voting ‘Yes’ in the survey.  While surveys ought to be as simple as possible and I agree this could be a reason for the unusual result, I personally struggle to understand how structuring this survey in such a way would convince people to vote differently.  Are people’s views when taking a survey really that subject to change?  Nevertheless, considering the wide range of results we’ve seen in other polls, I believe my point still stands.

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Scottish Polling Update (August 2013)

By Barryob (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Opinion polls for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood aren’t published as often as I would like; generally they appear on a quarterly basis produced by either the Ipsos MORI or Panelbase polling companies.  Here’s a reminder of how the 2011 Scottish Parliament election went:

Scottish National Party – 69 seats
Scottish Labour Party – 37 seats
Scottish Conservative Party – 15 seats
Scottish Liberal Democrat Party – 5 seats
Scottish Green Party – 2 seats
Other – 1 seat
(65 seats needed for a majority)

This result allowed the SNP to form a majority government – a remarkable feat, considering the Scottish Parliament was given a proportional electoral system with the clear intention of avoiding majorities, so to reduce the chance of nationalists gaining power and seeking to achieve independence for Scotland.  Uh…  That went well.  Since then the SNP has lost three of its MSPs; Bill Walker was expelled after allegations emerged implicating him of domestic violence – he currently sits as an independent – while Jean Urquhart and John Finnie resigned after the party’s decision to support NATO membership – they too sit as independents.

The question everyone has been asking is whether the SNP’s popularity would decrease after such a stunning victory.  Surely the only way now is down?  Well, not according to the opinion polls.  Of those I have been able to find, all have shown the SNP continuing a lead over the other parties in both the constituency vote and the regional vote*.  Using this handy tool, we can figure out what kind of seat allocation each poll would result in.  Very roughly, half the polls indicate an SNP majority government could be formed while the other half show an SNP minority government.  A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition is a possibility, but not a very likely one at this stage.

I would take an average of all the polls published recently, but Ipsos MORI don’t appear to ask for voting intention in the regional vote, which largely invalidates any predictions for seat allocations.  Instead, I’ll simply have to describe the most recent Panelbase poll, which would give a result for 2016 resembling:

Scottish National Party – 71 seats (+2)
Scottish Labour Party – 34 seats (-3)
Scottish Conservative Party – 16 seats (+1)
Scottish Green Party – 5 seats (+3)
Scottish Liberal Democrat Party – 3 seats (-2)

This would indicate merely a small reshuffle consolidating the SNP’s majority, whilst the opposition becomes more fragmented.  Because of the irregular and complex nature of opinion polling in Scotland, it’s difficult to say whether this indicates an upturn in the SNP’s fortune or whether it’s just a quirk of data sampling.  What we can say with certainty is that there is still plenty of wind in the SNP’s sails, and that if current trends continue we are more than likely to see the SNP somewhere in government in 2016.  Considering the SNP has now been in power for six years, their continuing popularity is quite incredible – though we mustn’t forget the importance of national politics in Westminster.  I suspect the continuing unpopularity of every major party from Westminster is playing its fair share in producing these results.

Interestingly, despite that latest poll suggesting that pro-independence parties would control 59% of the seats in parliament, we really aren’t seeing any particular movement in polling towards favouring independence itself.  Every single poll since the referendum was announced has shown a ‘No’ vote has a very large lead, ranging from 8% to 28% just in the last few months.  I think as we get closer to the referendum in September next year the polls will become increasingly volatile, though I have a hard time imagining a scenario where the ‘Yes’ vote would actually win.

*Scotland uses the Additional Member System, allowing voters to vote twice: once for a candidate to represent their constituency and again to vote for candidates on a party list.  This second vote distributes seats to parties in a way which creates a roughly proportional result.


Brief University Post: Edinburgh (and the Scottish Parliament!)

Yesterday, my university trip continued with the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. I have long considered Edinburgh to be my favourite UK city (alongside Brighton, which gets ‘honourary mention’).  I feel instantly at home whenever I step along the cobbles and gaze at the skyline dotted with spires, unlike the sense of foreboding and oppressiveness I feel in most cities.  So I dearly hoped the university would thrill me in a similar way.

And, on the most part, it did.  It isn’t quite as visually pretty as the other Scottish universities I have visited, like Glasgow, Stirling or Heriot-Watt, though it has its charms.  I can imagine George Square becoming a splendour of reds, yellows and oranges in the Autumn, and there’s something lovely about Bristo Square (pictured to the left).

Several particular features of the university excited me.  From a literary perspective, there’s such a charged atmosphere: the Literature Society has regular activities, including meetings with a range of figures, from Owen Jones to J. K. Rowling.  Edinburgh was UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature’, and there’s a wide variety of festivals in which to engage in both reading and writing.  The city contains the National Library of Scotland, and a pretty hefty lending library.  The university library’s pretty nice, too.  These activites make Edinburgh seem an especially good destination for someone not at all interested in the drinking scene.

I was also fascinated by a talk for the History degree (I’ve applied for a joint English Literature and History degree at Edinburgh).  We were treated to an example lecture on the economic history of the UK, which turned out to be far more fascinating than it sounded.  Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, dating its large-scale growth far back before the Industrial Revolution – unlike Glasgow.  Along one street you’ll see Gothic style buildings, along another they’re almost Medieval, and then you’ll come across a classical display of pillars and gold.

There is also a lively political atmosphere in Edinburgh, which appeals to me highly.  Walk along any street, particularly near the university itself, and you’re likely to see a variety of posters advertising protests: to scrap the Trident nuclear missiles, to oppose the ‘Israeli Apartheid’, to oppose the totalitarian regime of North Korea, etc.  We even stumbled upon a petition-signing event protesting against the ‘Bedroom Tax’, organised by the Scottish Socialist Party, though it was wrapping up just as we arrived and so we unfortunately never had chance to put our names down.  There’s a variety of fundraising movements we witnessed, ranging from collections for children’s hospitals to firefighters marching for the National Union of Firefighters (or something along those lines).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the the 2011 Occupy Movement in Scotland survived longest in Edinburgh.  Having grown up in a small island where the height of political activity is spars over whether or not to build a cinema, bridge, wind turbines, and so on, this was an amazing environment to find myself in.

This brings me on to the more exciting aspect of the trip.  I fancied a quick glance at the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, so we took a walk down the ‘Royal Mile’ and ventured in.  After a security check, we took a cautious walk into the public gallery of the debating chamber.  To our extreme fortune, it turned out that a session of the First Minister’s Questions were about to start.  My geek-credentials were proven with the fact that this excited me more than anything has in a long time.  One by one, high-profile figures in Scottish politics began to file in.  Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour leader), Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader), and, finally, Alex Salmond (First Minister, and the Scottish National Party leader).  We watched him spar with figures such as Lamont and Davidson, and also debate with my own MSP, Tavish Scott.  I noticed Patrick Harvie, one of the few Scottish Green Party MSPs, in the chamber but unfortunately he never spoke.  It was strange, being so close to objects and people of intense interest to me.  I suppose, as I never personally interacted with any of it, the experience was not a lot different from watching the proceedings on TV, except the former never leaves me buzzing in excitement for the rest of the day.

Overall, I truly love Edinburgh.  I liked Glasgow more than I expected, but it would take a lot for me not to choose here as my place of study for four years.  From what I’ve seen of St. Andrews thus far, I don’t think my opinion will be changing.