Polls, damned polls and Lord Ashcroft

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By Dave Taylor

Tory peer Lord Ashcroft commissioned a poll from YouGov on different versions of the referendum question. Three separate groups of around 1000 Scottish adults were each asked a different version of the question.

Interestingly, none of the questions allowed anyone to respond “unsure/Don’t Know”.  They were “forced choice” questions, which the referendum question certainly won’t be, people won’t be forced to answer a question which Ashcroft has rigged in advance. 

When the question is field tested and studied by the Electoral Commission, that is one of the critical factors that will be looked at.  Does the question actually confuse people? [1]

Much has been made by Unionists that the “Do you agree” structure was “rigging” the question, so a variant was asked

“Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should be an independent country?” as well as “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

There was no significant difference between the responses to these.

On the SNP wording – 41% said Yes and 59% said No.  On the variant wording – 39% Agree and 61% Disagree.

However, if you look at the sub samples, support for independence rose among women and 40-59 year olds when the changed version was asked, as opposed to the original. That 2% difference is well within the margin of error on a sample of that size.

However, we know that the Unionists ARE desperate to rig the question by including an emotive phrase regarding the UK “leave/remain in the United Kingdom” in the question.  The phrase is key here and Ashcroft’s poll shows why.

“Should Scotland become an independent country, or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?”

“Become an independent country” was chosen by 33%, while “Remain part of the United Kingdom” was the response of 67%

Comparing the responses to “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country” and “Should Scotland become an independent country, or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?” produces interesting differences.

Among men, the Yes vote drops by 11%, while among women by 4%. There is virtually no difference in social class response, 7-8% in both groupings. In most age groups, there is little difference, 6-8% but among 18-24 year olds the drop is 14%.

All very interesting, but crucially, we don’t know the level of “Don’t Knows”, because Ashcroft structured the possible answers in a way that hid that crucial information!

Lord Ashcroft said “Mr Salmond is not a pollster, he is a politician.  Though he is committed to asking the Scottish people whether they want independence, he is equally determined to get the answer he wants.  The question is too important to be asked in such a partisan way.”

Equally, Ashcroft “is not a pollster, he is a politician”.  If people didn’t understand before why it is so critical for the Scottish, as opposed to the UK Parliament, to set the question – weel, ye ken noo!

[1] The technical aspects of how the Electoral Commission looks at a referendum question are well worth a look. Click here for their report on the Welsh Referendum Question last year.