Peter Jones: Referendum not just about the economy

HOW people perceive MSPs and MPs may swing the referendum vote, no matter what the polls say, writes Peter Jones

Voters' feelings on the economy are far from the only issue in next year's referendum, argues Peter Jones. Picture: Esme Allen
Voters' feelings on the economy are far from the only issue in next year's referendum, argues Peter Jones. Picture: Esme Allen

Any opinion poll that samples 10,000 voters and finds that they currently reject independence by a margin of two-and-a-half to one has to be taken as a serious blow to the Yes campaign. So, it’s all over bar the shouting? No, not necessarily.

A first cautionary note is that this mega-poll, paid for by a wealthy Conservative peer, Lord Michael Ashcroft, was run over ten weeks between February and May this year. During that period, a number of other polls used the same “should Scotland be an independent country?” question to be used in next year’s referendum. These polls, on average, found 32 per cent support for independence, which is significantly different from the 26 per cent discovered by Lord Ashcroft.

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Lord Ashcroft’s political affiliation can be discounted as the source of this apparent difference. He spends a lot of money on opinion polling, all of which he says he publishes, and no expert commentator has questioned the authenticity. And since the same question was used, that doesn’t cause any bias.

But the questions that go before the one on the referendum can steer the interviewee in a particular direction. We can be pretty sure of this because of the recent Panelbase poll, which declared Yes on 44 per cent, just ahead of No on 43 per cent. It is the only poll to have produced that result – every other poll in the past six months has said No is ahead by between 15 and 25 percentage points.

The Panelbase poll asked people whether they agreed or disagreed that “Scotland could be a successful independent country” (52 per cent agreed and only 37 per cent disagreed). Then they were asked: “Who do you trust to make the best decisions for Scotland: the Scottish Government or the Westminster government” (60 per cent said they trusted the Scottish Government and only 16 per cent trusted Westminster).

As expert psephologist John Curtice concluded, these questions look to have given strong cues to the respondents to say “yes” to the referendum question, an impression that looks to be confirmed by other polls that have given negative cues and found bigger margins against the Yes campaign as a result.

But in the megapoll, according to all the detailed results tables published by Lord Ashcroft, the only questions that were asked prior to the referendum one were whether people had a favourable or unfavourable view of the party leaders at Holyrood.

This doesn’t seem to be a source of bias, unless you think that when reminded who might be most likely to be running an independent Scotland, voters think they an unprepossessing lot and, therefore, are more likely to say No to independence.

It is a pretty flimsy hypothesis, I admit, but I can’t think of any other reason. This analysis, however, does lead me to another conclusion. It is that if the opinion poll results on referendum voting are as easily skewed by prior questions as they appear to be, then public opinion on independence is not as deeply rooted as seems to be the case.

It also suggests that the last two months of this campaign are going to be pretty important. If, for example, the coalition government and Westminster do some unpopular things while Salmond and his government do some popular stuff, then the referendum result could be a lot closer than the 65:26 rejection of independence found by Lord Ashcroft.

Material in the other two polls that he has published tends to confirm this. The findings from these have tended to get conflated in media coverage as though they are all one poll, which is unfortunate because they are not. The two other polls have samples of about 1,000; one was conducted in June, the other was done in August, but neither seems to have asked about Yes/No voting in the referendum. Instead, they asked a lot of questions around the edges of that issue, one being what people thought the Scottish Government’s priority should be. Only 3 per cent said it should be independence, while fully 41 per cent said it should be concentrating on the economy and jobs. Rather curiously, only 7 per cent of SNP voters think independence should be the priority.

But when Lord Ashcroft’s pollsters asked people what they thought Salmond is actually concentrating on, almost half reckoned he was focused on independence, while only 7 per cent thought he was making the economy and jobs his top priority.

Two contrasting conclusions can be drawn from this. One is that Salmond has completely failed to make the case, even with his own supporters, that independence is all about the economy and jobs. If he could do that, then support for Yes could go up.

On the other hand, perhaps the No campaign has succeeded in persuading people that independence would be bad for the economy and jobs, which might be why the polling trend is getting steadily worse for the Yes campaign. Hammering away at that theme could depress the potential Yes vote even further.

Indeed, an overall theme that emerges across all three polls is how disconnected the constitutional debate appears to be from people’s main concerns about the economy, the health service and education.

One question in the August survey asked people what they thought would happen if all taxes and welfare spending were devolved to Holyrood, leaving only defence and foreign affairs at Westminster, the so-called devo-max option.

By an astonishing margin of eight to one, people believed taxes would rise rather than fall and five times more people thought government borrowing and debt would rise than expected that to reduce. And yet only 29 per cent reckoned that public services would improve, the rest thought they would stay the same or get worse.

Unless the majority of Scots think that high taxes and public debt is the best way to run an economy, which I don’t believe is the case, then the argument (and apparent public support) for more devolution is based on not much more than one other finding – that people think MSPs at Holyrood are much more likely to do a better job for them than MPs at Westminster.

If that is the basis for wanting more devolution or independence, so be it. But let’s not pretend it means a better economy, more jobs, a better health service, and so on. The people don’t seem to believe it.