Which Way Might the Don’t Knows Go? – Evidence from the Wings Poll

Full results from the Wings over Scotland/Panelbase poll are now available. (See our post of yesterday for a commentary on the initial results.) In terms of the number of questions asked at least, it is one of the largest commercial public opinion polls to have been conducted in Scotland in recent years. It is doubtful whether any newspaper or even broadcaster could afford so large a project nowadays. True, Lord Ashcroft probably could, but that only underlines how this referendum is witnessing the erosion of the monopoly that the media have hitherto largely had in commissioning publicly available polls. Their place is being challenged by finance available from the politically committed – either in the form of a wealthy individual or, as in the case of this poll, an internet gathered crowd.

Not that the Wings poll merits much criticism on the grounds that the wording of its questions reveals an attempt to paint Scottish public opinion through a partisan lens. Indeed, in this respect it represents a considerable improvement on its first foray into polling last summer. For instance, some of the results challenge the assertions that SNP politicians (and indeed some commentators) often make about the character of Scottish public opinion.  Thus, for example, the poll suggests that 55% of Scots are in favour of ‘workfare’, 47% are opposed to minimum alcohol pricing, only slightly more people (41%) are in favour of staying in the EU than would like to leave (36%), while a little less than half (47%) oppose the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons.

But so far as understanding public opinion in the referendum is concerned, perhaps the biggest benefit of having a poll that has asked so many questions is the insight it can provide into the direction in which undecided voters (who comprise 20% of the whole sample and 17% of those likely to vote) might eventually go. In particular we gain clues about their instincts, political perceptions and issue preferences.

Their instincts seem more to lie with the Yes side than with No. Asked what they would prefer ‘if all other things were equal and it was purely a mater of preference’, as many as 42% say they would ‘like Scotland to be an independent country’ while only 20% indicate that they ‘prefer it to remain in the UK’. No less than 63% agree that ‘the Scottish people would make a success of an independent country’, while just 3% disagree.  Meanwhile, as many as 34% claim that they are more in favour of independence now than they were 15 months ago (albeit evidently not enough to say they would vote Yes), while only 7% say they are less in favour.

The precise meaning and accuracy of each of these questions is perhaps open to question. But all in all the pattern of responses they obtain suggests that is not unrealistic for the Yes side to believe the Don’t Knows could eventually be persuaded to swing disproportionately their way.

At the same time those who have yet to make up their mind seem more favourably disposed to those who are advocating independence than they are to those are arguing the case for the Union. As many as 51% think that Alex Salmond has ‘been acting with the best interests of the people of Scotland at heart’, while only 18% feel he has not.  At 41% and 15% respectively the equivalent figures for Nicola Sturgeon are also clearly positive.  In contrast, David Cameron emerges with a negative balance of 5% to 60%, Alistair Darling with one of 16% to 33% and Johann Lamont, 7% to 28%.

The SNP’s top duo evidently have a credibility in the eyes of undecided voters that no unionist politician currently enjoys.  That could well prove invaluable in the Yes side’s efforts to win them over.

But what messages do Salmond and Sturgeon need to convey in order to prove persuasive? In part the Yes side evidently believes the polls can be moved by persuading people that an independent Scotland could deliver policies more in line with their own preferences. However, if such arguments are likely to be effective they probably need to touch upon issues on which existing Yes and No voters take very different views (and thus look like issues where people’s views do actually have some bearing on their attitude towards independence) and where the views of the undecided are closer to those of existing Yes voters rather than the attitudes expressed by those inclined to vote No.

However, none of the issues covered by the Wings polls exhibit this quality.  On some issues, most notably the much discussed issue of membership of the European Union, there is in fact little or no difference at all between the views of Yes and No voters. Meanwhile where there is marked disagreement between the supporters of the two sides – as is true of attitudes towards the UK’s nuclear weapons and on ‘workfare’, that is ‘forcing unemployed people to work for benefits’ – the views of the undecided appear to lie somewhere in between those of the two camps rather than align strongly with those of one side rather than the other.

This perhaps is of a piece with the finding in the poll reported yesterday that what matters most to undecided voters is not what kind of government an independent Scotland would have, but what the economic consequences of independence would be. Alas on this subject the Wings poll is otherwise largely silent. Yet it still looks like being key to the Yes side’s hopes of realising its ambitions.

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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.