Evidence and Confusion: More on Recent Scottish Polling

A further tranche of results from YouGov’s poll for The Times was released on Saturday, while additional findings from Ipsos MORI’s poll for STV are also now available. Between them they contain a few points that are worth noting – on independence, more devolution, further referendums and the party battle.


Saturday’s Times greeted us with the news that according to YouGov Scotland is apparently already regretting having voted on 18 September to stay in the Union. A majority, 52% (after excluding 6% who said, ‘Don’t Know’ or ‘Would not vote’) say they would now vote for independence. This finding has subsequently been widely repeated by many another media outlet.

But in truth it is clear from the detailed tables that have now been released by YouGov that the headline should be regarded with caution. The poll not only asked people how they would vote if the referendum were held now, but also how they had voted on 18 September. And (after weighting) as many as 48% of YouGov’s sample who claim to have voted (and as many as 96% did!) said that they had voted Yes, three points above the actual proportion in the referendum of 45%.

So the poll does reveal some movement in favour of a Yes vote since 18 September. As many as 7% of No voters in September now say that they will vote Yes, whereas only 2% of Yes voters now state that they would back No. But the swing to Yes uncovered by the poll is 4% (52%-48%), not 7% as implied by comparing the poll result with what actually happened on 18 September. And a 4% swing from the real result would, of course, leave the Yes side still slightly short of the winning post, on 49% of the vote.

We should note too that this poll’s estimate of both previous and current support for Yes is the product of some relatively heavy weighting of the data. In fact as many as 57% of the original sample (who voted) said that they voted No, a proportion that is reduced to 52% by the weighting. So a lot rests on whether YouGov’s weighting targets are correct. At the same time we should bear in mind that when a poll is heavily weighted its ‘effective’ sample size is reduced, leaving it at greater risk of being in error by chance.

The evidence from this poll is, then, insufficient to justify the bald assertion that Scotland would have voted Yes if the referendum were held now. That said, it is also clear that the advance in support for independence registered during the later stages of the referendum campaign has not disappeared, and that those who would now like Scotland to embrace its membership of the Union have a lot of persuading to do.

More Devolution

That endeavour takes us to the Smith Commission and the development of proposals for more devolution. The YouGov poll provides yet further evidence that a majority of people in Scotland are inclined to the view that most of the domestic matters that are currently the responsibility of Westminster should be devolved to Holyrood. That includes not just issues of taxation and welfare that have been addressed quite frequently by other polls but also aspects of employment law and medical matters that have not been covered by previous polls. Thus, 60% say that Holyrood should decide the minimum wage, while the same proportion reckon it should determine health and safety and competition law too. Meanwhile 50% support devolution of the law on abortion (controversially not devolved when the Scottish Parliament was first established in 1999) and embryo research, while only 40% are opposed.

However, the poll does raise questions about the scale of support for more devolution in two areas of domestic responsibility. First the poll suggests that public opinion is evenly divided on devolving responsibility for pensions (47% in favour, 45% opposed). This finding stands in sharp contrast to that of a recent poll by Survation, but perhaps is in tune with Scottish Social Attitudes findings that suggest a reluctance to see different pension rates and funding arrangements on the two sides of the border. Meanwhile, opinion is also evenly divided (43% in favour, 45% opposed) on the devolution on responsibility for broadcasting and the BBC. In this case the finding stands at odds with that of a recent Panelbase poll. Here perhaps are signs that, while still well ahead of the position adopted to date by the pro-Union parties, majority public opinion might not want something quite as extensive as full ‘devo-max’.

Further Referendums

If the moves towards more devolution do not succeed in satisfying the apparent demand for Scotland to run more of its own affairs then, of course, the pressure for independence – and thus for another referendum – is likely to continue. However, the YouGov and the Ipsos MORI polls paint a somewhat different picture as to how soon people want another referendum.

In the case of the Ipsos MORI poll respondents were presented with a variety of different circumstances and in each case invited to say whether they supported or opposed holding a referendum. As many as two-thirds (66%) said that they thought there should be another referendum ‘in the next 10 years – regardless of circumstances’, which was one of five different possibilities addressed by the poll. YouGov, in contrast, asked its respondents to choose one from a range of possible options for another referendum. That approach suggested that a more modest 45% believed that ‘there should be another referendum on independence within the next ten years’. Meanwhile, most of the support for an early referendum came from those in favour of independence.

The SNP have argued in recent weeks that the people will decide if and when another referendum on independence should be held. However, ascertaining exactly where the public stand on this issue is evidently not entirely straightforward.

The Party Battle

In the meantime, Labour has to find a way out of the electoral black hole into which both polls suggest it has fallen north of the border. YouGov’s detailed tables provide us with further insight into the task that faces it.

First, as we suggested last week, there is clear evidence that one reason for Labour’s decline is that voters are now more inclined than they were previously to vote in a Westminster election in the same way as they would a Holyrood one. Now no less than 92% of those who say they would vote SNP in a Holyrood election also say that they would do so in a Westminster election. In contrast, when YouGov last published a poll that contained details of both Westminster and Holyrood voting intentions (in May 2012), that figure stood at just 80%. At the same time no less than 94% of Labour support for Westminster now consists of people who would also back the party in a Holyrood contest. Previously that figure stood at only 85%.

Second, there is also some evidence to back the widespread speculation that Labour’s recent loss of support has occurred disproportionately amongst those of its supporters who voted Yes in September. In YouGov’s last poll before the referendum, 19% of those who said that they would vote Labour in a Scottish parliament election indicated that they were going to vote Yes. Now the proportion of Yes voters in Labour’s ranks is down to 11%.

Third, simply electing a new leader, even a relatively well-known one such as Jim Murphy, will not resolve Labour’s difficulties on its own. When YouGov asked its respondents how they would vote in the next Holyrood election if Mr Murphy were Labour’s Scottish leader, just 29% said that they would vote Labour, only one point up on the party’s current level of support. What will matter is how the new leader uses the position. And maybe one place to start will be to convince people that the party north of the border is willing and able to think for itself – for at the moment only 17% of Scots think it has much freedom to propose different ideas from those already being promulgated by the party at Westminster.

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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.