Poll Facts

‘Don’t believe the polls. Either side could win the Scottish referendum’

Guest Speaker Scotland UK Politics

A consensus is forming that the nationalists will lose the referendum on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom, scheduled for September 2014. This seems to be based in part on recent opinion polls indicating support for Union. But those polls can be discounted.

In 2004 there was a referendum in the north-east of England on whether to establish a regional assembly. For two years every measure of opinion had indicated a solid majority in favour of an assembly. The last poll published ahead of the effective start of the campaign in September 2004 predicted the Yes side would win 64 per cent of the vote. Yet on polling day in November, the Yes campaign managed only a humiliating 22 per cent.

In 2011 there was a referendum across the UK on whether to replace the first-past-the-post method of electing MPs with the alternative vote system (AV). Opinion was erratic (particularly don’t knows) but most surveys during 2010 gave the Yes side a lead of around 10 per cent. Polls published just before the formal start of the campaign in February 2011 indicated that the Yes side would get at least 60 per cent. Yet on polling day, May 5, the Yes campaign managed only 32 per cent.

Memory can be selective. Nobody in the commentariat would now advocate regional assemblies for England or the AV system for parliamentary elections. They are obviously silly ideas because of the majorities by which they were rejected. Yet before both referendums, the sensible consensus was that the measures would pass.

It is often claimed that there is an innate advantage for the no-change side in a referendum because voters who are not already committed will choose the status quo. This theory has been heard a lot since the AV referendum. It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t true with devolution.

In this case the change side usually wins: Scotland 1979 (the measure failed because of a turnout restriction, but it was a Yes victory in raw votes); Scotland 1997 twice, on the establishment of a parliament and its tax-varying powers; Wales 1997 (narrowly); Greater London 1998; and Wales 2011. The no-change side has won only in Wales 1979 and north-east England 2004. That is an anti-status quo bias of 6 to 2. This is even more pronounced if Northern Irish referendums are included.

Consider how referendum campaigns work. Imagine some enthusiasts wish to outlaw lollipops. Normally, anti-lollipop activists will have a spectrum of views and support a variety of parties. However, on the crucial lollipop question, they unite for the sake of change. A referendum is called. This pressure group goes on to be the core of the Yes campaign. So, the change side starts the referendum possessing the formidable advantages of cohesion, motivation and the initiative. But they are almost certainly a minority. If there was widespread public demand to outlaw lollipops, every party would pledge it in its manifesto. There would be no need for a referendum. The task facing the Yes campaign, then, is to snap out of being a pressure group geared towards persuading politicians and become a campaign to persuade a majority of voters.

By and large people do not establish Save the Lollipop groups on the off-chance that someone might one day try to ban them. Anti-change campaigners start behind, forced to react to the Yes group. Before now their political differences have always been more important than their shared love of lollipops. Thus, anti-change campaigners must first learn to sink their differences. That is another source of delay as they catch up with their opponents. Although the anti-change side represents a potential majority, support will still have to be mobilised. Their ability to do so depends on how successful they are in assembling a unified No campaign.

Every referendum can be explained by the dynamic between these two factors: can the Yes campaign break out of its minority position; can a coherent No campaign mobilise its blocking majority? The two extremes were demonstrated in 2011. In the Welsh referendum in March it was not possible to form an effective No campaign. The change side received a free pass and won with 64 per cent. The AV referendum held in May saw a broadly-based No campaign drawn from Conservatives, Labour supporters and even advocates of other rival voting systems. The change side was pinned down on 32 per cent.

Academic commentators often conclude that referendums display a pro-status quo bias. This is because they wanted a change and are trying to explain why a Yes campaign failed. They forget that referendums are fought on the precise terms on offer in each proposal. Also, the campaign, and how each side conducts itself, will have a significant impact on the outcome.

In 2004 the polls suggested most people in the north-east were sympathetic to some sort of regional assembly.  When the actual powers on offer were examined, however, voters agreed with the No campaign that an assembly would be a useless talking-shop and not worth the cost, which would be added to their council tax bills. A “hopey-changey” Yes campaign relying on celebrities and local pride did nothing to dissuade them from this hard-headed analysis.

The referendum on September 18, 2014 will turn on the terms of the relationship between an independent Scottish state and the UK — perhaps most of all, on which questions the Scottish National Party has been unable to answer by polling day. Until the two sides begin to engage on these issues, which won’t be for another year, answers to any opinion poll will be soft.

Referendums are also fought within their own legal rules. In the Referendum Bill now before the Scottish Parliament, the SNP wants to write those rules in a way which, by an amazing coincidence, hampers its opponents.

From here, either side could win the Scottish referendum. Let’s hope they do so after a fair fight.