Panelbase Breaks The Pattern

Hitherto Panelbase have consistently produced the most optimistic estimates of the state of the referendum race so far as the Yes side is concerned. Ever since the exact wording of the referendum question became known a year ago, their polls have consistently put Yes on 44% or 45% once the Don’t Knows are excluded. So given the advances for the Yes side registered by many other pollsters in recent weeks, there must have been some hope in nationalist ranks that when Panelbase’s first post-White Paper poll finally appeared – as it does in today’s Sunday Times and on Real Radio – it would show the Yes vote up to, say, 47% or 48%, thereby injecting real excitement into the campaign.

Not so. Instead Panelbase have reported the first widening of the No lead to be uncovered by any poll since the end of November. Yes are estimated to be on 37%, down one point on the middle of November, while the No vote is put at 49%, up two points. Once the Don’t Knows are excluded that means the Yes side are on 43%, lower than in any previous Panelbase poll that has asked how people would vote in response to the referendum question.

Now that Panelbase have reported, we have had at least one post-White Paper reading of the state of the referendum race from all those companies that have been polling referendum vote intentions on a reasonably regular basis. That means we can finally make a reasonably robust estimate of where the polls stand on average as compared with the position up to the end of November. In the dozen polls conducted wholly or mostly between September and November the Yes vote averaged 38% (after the exclusion of the Don’t Knows).  In the nine polls that have been conducted wholly or mostly since the beginning of December the Yes tally has averaged 40%.  The Yes side may have made some progress in the last couple of months, but it evidently still some considerable distance away from the winning post.

The Panelbase poll includes some questions on the economics of the referendum debate, though their findings are not always straightforward to interpret. Unsurprisingly, given the turnaround in the UK economy in recent months, Scots are relatively optimistic about the prospects for Scotland’s economy in the next twelve months.  As many as 38% expect it will get better while only 21% feel it will deteriorate. Less immediately obvious is the fact that Yes voters (54% think things will get better) are much more optimistic than No voters (29%). One might conclude from that that the Yes side could hope to advance further if the economy does indeed continue to improve. But we might note that much of the relative pessimism on the No side comes from Labour supporters. Their party is the only major one out of power in both London and Holyrood and perhaps as a result it may well be their partisanship rather than anything to do with the independence referendum that makes them reluctant to concede that the economy might be improving.

Meanwhile there is rather less welcome news for the Yes side on both taxation and the currency. In line with others, this poll suggests that arguments that an independent Scotland could be a high spending, high taxation Nordic style state is not a major selling point for the Yes campaign. Even amongst Yes supporters only 26% believe that taxes should go up to pay for better public services. Yet in practice a half of Scots (51%) – and three quarters of No voters –  believe that taxes would have to go up in an independent Scotland. Meanwhile even amongst Yes voters only just over one in ten (11%) actually think that taxes would be cut. Evidently the Yes side have still convince Scots that the finances of an independent Scotland would be better than those currently enjoyed by the UK as a whole.

On the currency, the poll uncovers an apparent mixture of unease and confusion. For a start, as many as 28% feel unable to say which currency an independent Scotland should use, while a similar proportion, 29%, say the same about which one it would end up using.  Meanwhile, no one option emerges as having majority support, albeit the SNP’s preference of using the pound in a monetary union with the rest of the UK is the most popular, with 46% in favour.

But what might concern the Yes side most is that support for monetary union is apparently lower amongst its own supporters (37% in favour) than amongst those who are opposed to independence (58%). The mood amongst Yes supporters seems, if anything, to be to go it alone, either by using the pound outside of a monetary union (18%) or Scotland having its own currency (23%). However, unlike No voters (37%), most Yes supporters (53%) believe a monetary union is what would happen in practice. Evidently for some Yes supporters assurances from Mr Salmond that Scotland would be able to keep the pound as at present is not particularly welcome news.

It is then perhaps some comfort to the Yes side that in a second tranche of the TNS BMRB poll for Sir Tom Hunter released today, only 4% say that the currency is the first or the second most important issue for them in the referendum debate. Job prospects (26%) and the economy (22%) predominate along with heath care (25%).  Equally, in further results from last week’s Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday also released today, 55% said the speech on monetary union given by the Governor of the Bank of England ten days ago had not affected their views on independence at all – and while 21% said they were less likely to vote Yes as a result of his intervention, they were almost balanced by the 16% who stated they were more likely to do so. As the recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey discovered, it is time for politicians on both sides to start painting in primary colours rather than in the shades of grey currently being produced by complex debates such as that about currency.

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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.