Do Lord Ashcroft’s Polls Tell Us Anything New?

One of the ways in which former Tory treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, spends his money these days is on commissioning his own polls and focus groups. Many of them, such as one he released last week on attitudes to immigration, are unusually big. Indeed they are sometimes big enough to permit robust comparison of attitudes in Scotland with those in England. Buried in the recent 20,000 case immigration poll, for example, was the finding that, for all the claims that attitudes in Scotland are more ‘progressive’, 58% of people in Scotland (sample size, 1554) think that on average the disadvantages of immigration into Britain have outweighed the advantages – almost identical to the 60% figure for Britain as a whole.

Today, the noble Lord turns his attention – not for the first time – to Scotland, backed by the evidence of one mega 10,000 case poll, two more regular sized polls, plus some focus groups, and featured in Holyrood magazine. Yet for all the weight of evidence that is brought to bear, we learn surprisingly little that is new.

So far as the referendum is concerned there would appear to be a major headline. According to the mega poll, only 26% say Yes to the proposition, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’, while 65% say No. At 39 points, that is easily the biggest No lead in referendum voting intentions yet, outdistancing the 30 point lead recorded by YouGov in their recent poll for the  Devo Plus group. It would seem the hint in the most recent YouGov and TNS polls that the Yes campaign is going backwards is now clearly affirmed.

However, Lord Ashcroft’s mega poll was conducted (by an unspecified mixture of internet and phone polling) not last week but months ago – between February and May.  So at most it means the Yes side was starting from even further behind than we thought at the time – indeed even more so than was suggested by a poll Lord Ashcroft himself released at the beginning of May, which put Yes on 30% and No on 56%.

Or indeed according to another apparent reading of referendum voting intention that is to be found buried in the tables in the first of the more conventionally sized polls Lord Ashcroft has released today.  Conducted online in June (so still not an up to date reading), this poll appears to have put Yes on 32%, No on 57% – again a rather narrower lead that is not dissimilar to the results of a number of other polls conducted at around the same time. In truth, the finding from the mega poll that Lord Ashcroft has chosen to headline looks as much of an outlier as some of Panelbase’s polls have done in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile Lord Ashcroft’s June poll confirms the findings of previous Panelbase and Ipsos-MORI polls that whatever headwinds the SNP may be facing on the independence referendum, they still find favour when it comes to running Holyrood. The SNP, at 40%, are five points ahead of Labour on the constituency vote, with everyone else trailing a long way behind. (Note, however, that this poll’s figures for the list vote – SNP 36%, Lab 24% – should be treated with caution; the question asked how people they would use their ‘second vote’ and thus ran the risk of collecting their second preferences rather than their list vote).

Back in the somewhat ageing mega poll, we ascertain that Mr Salmond too remains remarkably popular – as both Ipsos MORI polls and last week’s SNP/Panelbase poll found. True, at -4 the First Minister’s net satisfaction rating is a little behind that of the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont (+3), but not only have Ipsos MORI also previously found much the same, in fact the figure flatters to deceive because as many as 40% of Scots still have to make their mind up about her either way.

The second of the regular sized polls, conducted by phone in early August, does contain some rather more interesting findings – in particular about people’s perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the institution at the bottom of the Royal Mile. MSPs come out ahead of MPs when it comes to being committed to their local communities and ‘representing people like you’. At the same time, however, opinion is more evenly divided over which group of politicians makes ‘the decisions that are important to you’ and whether a Scottish or a Westminster election is the more important contest. But even here much of the material can be regarded as but an embellishment on previous Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) findings that show the Scottish Parliament as more trusted to look after Scotland’s interests but is thought to be no more influential than Westminster.

Redolent of previous SSA findings also is the finding that people in Scotland believe that giving the Scottish Parliament more powers within the framework of the UK could result in higher taxes while not necessarily delivering better public services. Trouble is, it is far from clear from previous research that expectations on tax and public services matter much in shaping people’s views about ‘devo max’ – and lacking a question on attitudes towards ‘devo max’, we cannot tell from this poll whether they are or not.

Any effort to get beneath the headlines on where Scotland stands on the constitutional issue is to be welcomed. It is just a pity that in this instance at least Lord Ashcroft did not get more bang for his mega bucks.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.