Referendum Conundrum 168


I genuinely find it impossible to understand the gap between the opinion polls and what my eyes and ears tell me.

In Glasgow yesterday afternoon a small group of Better Together supporters were handing out material on Sauchiehall Street. Just fifty yards away on Buchanan Street a Yes stall was doing the same thing. The difference was so marked I wanted to quantify it to explain it to you.

I watched each stall for a timed fifteen minutes, immediately one after the other. These are both very busy pedestrianized shopping streets. The crowds going by on each were very similar in size and demographic.

In fifteen minutes the No team managed to give away 7 leaflets and one balloon (the latter to a child). I saw some of the leaflets immediately discarded. The No team were actively approaching people to hand out leaflets, and were shunned by the large majority of people.

By comparison the Yes stall was actively approached by large numbers of people. In the fifteen minutes, 56 people approached the stall and spoke and of those 42 took campaign material, while at least 11 made a donation. The final statistic is remarkable. I counted exactly the next 400 people I could scrutinise reasonably closely on Sauchiehall Street. Of these an extraordinary 52 – that is fully 13% – were wearing Yes badges. There were no large groups and no event in the vicinity that accounted for this. I saw only 2 No badges and one No balloon, again a small child.

I appreciate that this may seem strangely nerdish behaviour, but when I flatly tell you that I have been experiencing a revolutionary groundswell of popular feeling on the streets, that is a perception easily dismissed. The above are hard, statistical facts that in a small way quantify that feeling. The puzzle that remains to be solved is the extraordinary incompatibility between this evidence and the opinion polls.

I can accept that there is an exuberance about the Yes campaign – a belief that a better world is possible and the neo-con dominance of Westminster can be broken – that leads it followers to be enthusiastic and wish to share that belief. By contrast, the No voters to whom I have spoken have, in my own experience, never expressed any enthusiasm for the United Kingdom, but rather fear that an independent Scotland might fail economically – a fear with which they have been relentlessly programmed. Cowardice is not something you wish to display or tell people about. So I can see the psychology is different.

But if the opinion polls are right and the No vote is in the lead, then this psychological phenomenon must be extraordinarily powerful and universal, this behavioural difference so marked as to be in itself a quite extraordinary fact.

The alternative explanation is simply that the opinion polls are wrong. I discussed this with the Yes campaigners on that Buchanan Street stall. They had a considered view which seems prima facie eminently sensible. They believed that the people mobbing their stall were in the large majority people who had never been politically active before. They were not the kind of people who would ever have signed up to be part of online polling panels – the methodology of the vast majority of polls. Those who were on such online panels may give pollsters a reasonable reflection of how party support splits among the 60% of the population who might vote in a general election, but could tell nothing about the 40% who never vote or join online polling panels. Those people were the ones now taking badges and wee blue books. The other polling method was landline telephone, and that missed another great swathe of the Yes demographic – the younger voters.

I yet again saw the BBC baffled and fail to pick up on what was happening on the street as they could not find a man in a suit to interview. The No campaigners were al men in suits and the BBC team looked visibly relieved. For me this “man in a suit” media syndrome is the principal cause of the disconnect between media reporting and what is actually happening.

Tonight is my final set speech of the campaign – Linlithgow Bowling Club at 7.30 pm.


168 thoughts on “Referendum Conundrum

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  • Ruth

    Is it possible the opinion polls are being fixed to show both parties neck and neck, which would make it much easier for the security services to manipulate the election and a No result easier to believe?

  • Amos

    Even if the No vote wins there has to be significant change for Scotland. Even if the Yes Vote is only 40%. Thats 4 out of 10 Scottish voters who are unhappy with the status quo.

    Their strong opinion has to be recognised by the politicians.

  • TonyF12

    Fixing dodgy opinion polls cannot be so difficult. Often they are from small samples. The wording can be misleading. How do “don’t knows” feature in the calculation. Organisations can choose unrepresentative areas and people to ask.

    Looking at how real elections get interfered with in other parts of the world, how might this be possible in Scotland? There have been inquiries in the past in the UK into interference with postal votes. There have been inquiries about ‘lost’ parcels of votes. There was a fuss in Tower Hamlets over intimidation of voters being managed to vote the way of bullies.

    The Establishment certainly is under a lot of pressure to deliver a “NO” vote by a margin of at least 5% or 6%, otherwise people will get upset not only in Westminster but also in Washington and in the EU. A “YES” vote would lob a large cat among the pigeons and would also encourage quite a few other regions to go for independence, and would also reopen a lot of questions here about defence policy in Trident and in interventionism.

    How, Craig, do you think it might be possible for the “NO” army to try to rig Thursday’s vote? We know this sort of thing goes on in some foreign countries – is there any way it could happen in Scotland?

  • craig Post author

    There undoubtedly will be a certain amount of rigging – I am particularly worried about the strong Labour areas in Fife. The incredible rule from the electoral commission that postal ballots must be mixed in with other ballots before counting can have no other aim that I can see than to promote rigging. The great weakness in the system is that the Returning Officer is the chief executive of the Council – in very many cases a professional Labour hack. Fortunately there will be some very clued up and good quality observers on the Yes side.

  • Abe Rene

    It could be that the referendum will be decided by people who have never been politically active before, if these are the kind of people who were mobbing the Yes stalls.

    If it turns out that you are right, perhaps a book should be written about the history of this campaign, particularly the lessons to be drawn from it for opinion pollsters (perhaps you should write it?). In particular, the selection bias affecting the results of opinion polls for the reasons you mention, which may need observation of real situations and be partly subjective, because they can’t be quantified.

  • Ron

    I just think you don’t really understand human behaviour and crowd behaviour. People do things in crowds that make them feel like they belong. At football matches people who would not normally swear at home start swearing. Later they revert to type, but while they were in the crowd they were part of it. If the mood on the street inScotland is as you say then people will be swept along with it. It doesn’t necessarily translate when they get home or to the voting booth.
    Another pointer is that people have the ability to forget what they actually did in an election. Remember around 1996 when the UK was waiting for that bastard Blair to be elected? Studies were done (don’t have time to find the links at the moment) that showed that relatively few people voted Conservative. Many people had simply managed to convince themselves that they had not voted the way they had in fact voted.
    Strange things, people!

  • Ba'al Zevul (For Scotland)

    Many people had simply managed to convince themselves that they had not voted the way they had in fact voted.

    That’s one interpretation of the data. Might another one not be that the ballot was rigged?

  • Phil

    “They were not the kind of people who would ever have signed up to be part of online polling panels”

    This sounds reasonable to me. A neighbor of mine was called on her landline a few months ago and mistrusting much to do with the establishment she simply impolitely refused.

  • craig Post author

    Ron

    If your contention is that people will walk around the streets wearing a Yes badge then actually vote No, I would have to say that I find that a most improbable behaviour. I quite accept the crowd psychology explanation for why they take the badge in the first place, but it seems much more likely it acts as a reinforcement to vote with the crowd they opted to join.

  • Ruth

    Another concern is the ballot boxes being switched en route from the polling stations to counting centres

  • Peacewisher

    @Ron: Yes, strange to us. But not to those, with advisers in behavioural psychology, who would seek to manipulated them… and are very successful. Look at the success of advertising. Is it any different… have you even bought anything and later couldn’t understand how you came to buy it?

  • John Goss

    Glad to hear the positive news in Glasgow. Hopefully it will be repeated throughout Scotland.

    Peacewisher I left a comment on the last thread regarding information about Moazzam Begg.

  • Gutter

    Part of the answer to the conundrum must be that people already know what they are voting for if they vote No; Yes is unknown territory so voters have to find out – hence more activity on Yes stalls.

    Another part is perhaps that people don’t wish to be insulted by random passers-by, (or branded as “cowards”, or “traitors in our midst” by mischief-making statistic-compiling bloggers.

    A wee state is a weak state.

    Vote ‘No’.

  • Porkfright

    Ruth, 8.52a.m. Very likely indeed. Amos, 8.53a.m. “Their strong opinion has to be recognised by the politicians.” Should be the case, yes. But this is now Britain-De Facto police state.

  • frazer

    I wonder what Cameron’s next move is. Walking down the Royal Mile dressed in sackcloth and ashes ?

  • Phil

    Ruth
    “Another concern is the ballot boxes being switched en route from the polling stations to counting centres”

    A contributor here, Vronsky, has said he is going to be following a ballot van on his motorbike for this reason. So sounds like the yes campaign are doing their best to monitor for rigging.

  • Peacewisher

    @Ba’al; A good example of “rigging” and manipulation together was the 1992 election. Remember John Major saying he could “feel it in his bones” that the Conservatives would win, in spite of the polls.

    Two facts:

    1. At least a million people (I knew some of them) didn’t register to vote to avoid paying the newly introduced poll/council tax.

    2. All the polytechnics overnight became universities so all those aspiring parents could now say – thanks to that nice Mr Major – that their son/daughter was a university graduate.

    This would have been obvious to psephologists, but it didn’t filter out more widely until after the election. Otherwise, some might have voted differently.

  • Ron

    Craig
    I think you are reinforcing my point; you don’t understand this stuff well enough. I’m certainly no expert, but I have read a little on the subject. The football crowd example is perhaps not the most apposite, but I have seen it many times. If I can take a mild-mannered person with little or no allegiance to a team playing and watch him become swept along in the fervour of the crowd and hear him swear like a trooper, why could someone not take a badge, feel good about it, wave a balloon or banner and then go home and without that support around them feel differently?
    Another point is that people will believe what they want to believe. You are a case in point. A few years ago you wanted to believe that mainstream politicians from the Lib Dems wanted to create and were willing to create a better Britain. There was plenty of evidence against that view, but you were able to delude yourself and go along with it. I and many others had hoped you were right, but you were not.
    On the subject of independence, I support is as a concept and if it would permit Scotland to become a different kind of society I would be truly excited, but (sorry to burst your bubble) you still have the same sort of politicians who will go along with the neo-con view of the world and you will still ultimately be a province of the EU, just like the rest of the UK. That’s not to say any of that is especially terrible in and of itself, but it isn’t independence by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Barbara Brown

    when I am replying to a yougov poll politics my computer “goes down”. It doesn’t happen when the questions relate to brands.

  • Habbabkuk (La vita è bella) !

    “Is it possible the opinion polls are being fixed to show both parties neck and neck, which would make it much easier for the security services to manipulate the election and a No result easier to believe?”
    _________________

    No, I don’t believe that this is what’s happening.

    Comments like this reveal at worst paranoia and at best that excuses are being prepared in advance for the event of a No vote.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Just as a matter of interest, is the commenter “Ruth” Scottish and does she have a vote? (Same question to the other vehement Yes campaigners posting frequently on here).

  • TonyF12

    Thanks Craig. Agreed.

    I just feel in my bones the axis of Westminster, Washington and EU will do everything in their power to undermine the “YES” vote. Just look at how they came together over interference in Ukraine to poke Putin with a very sharp stick. Just look at the restart of the Iraq War and intervention in Syria. Nothing to do with democracy here – intervention to pursue Westminster, Washington and EU agendas.

    The control of our media over all three issues has been very heavy-duty, telling us what to believe and telling us to accept their version of events. The control is obviously not working when it comes to promoting the Scottish “NO” vote

  • Peter Kemp

    There undoubtedly will be a certain amount of rigging

    That is sad Craig, it needn’t be so.

    The people who run elections or referenda in Australia have to be seen to be independent and impartial. In contradiction to that, I seem to recall Katherine Harris, Florida’s Attorney General who wiped tens of thousands of African Americans from the rolls. That probably was the major factor that got GWB2 elected. That sort of behaviour makes a mockery of democratic principles and told us that the so called ‘land of the free’ means freedom of corrupt politicians to rig elections.

    Now if Scotland get’s its independence, (and I think it will), and assuming dear Craig has a part to play in that, in the future, (and I think he will): have a look at Australia’s Federal Electoral Act Craig: anyone here down under, with half a brain has complete confidence that our federal elections are utterly fair and never ever corrupted. Any disputes and our highest court in the land (High Court of Australia) adjudicates as the Court of Disputed Returns.

    Here it is: Commonwealth Electoral Act
    http://www5.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/cea1918233/

    An Electoral Commission is part of the legislation, they control input, ie registration to to the rolls and organise the elections or referenda. Public servants who work for the Commission are subject to scrutiny at many levels. Transparency, fairness with the highest court in the land available to resolve disputes. Woe betide anyone who cheats.

    Just saying…electoral rigging need not be so.

  • Gaia Hepburn

    Are pencils still provided to mark X on the ballot paper? Using a pen seems wiser in every circumstance! Bring your own!

  • Ba'al Zevul (For Scotland)

    I just feel in my bones the axis of Westminster, Washington and EU will do everything in their power to undermine the “YES” vote.

    That’s a given. Even China is unhappy. A Yes vote on the 18th is very far from meaning a done deal. Please assume this to be the case. Your bones are correct.

  • Habbabkuk (La vita è bella) !

    Peacewisher

    “@Ba’al; A good example of “rigging” and manipulation together was the 1992 election. Remember John Major saying he could “feel it in his bones” that the Conservatives would win, in spite of the polls.

    Two facts:

    1. At least a million people (I knew some of them) didn’t register to vote to avoid paying the newly introduced poll/council tax.

    2. All the polytechnics overnight became universities so all those aspiring parents could now say – thanks to that nice Mr Major – that their son/daughter was a university graduate.”
    _______________________

    I see you have a rather wide definition of “ballot rigging”, which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that each and every act of government and election promise is an attempt at ballot rigging.

    Your first point only makes (minimal) sense if you believe that the poll tax was introduced deliberately in the hoope and expectation that some large numbers of people (presumably likely to vote Labour) would not wish to pay it and would therefore not register on the electoral rolls. Is that what you’re saying?

    If not, I’d suggest that the phenomenon you describe is not the result of ballot rigging but an attempt by numbers of people to illegally avoid paying a tax voted by the UK parliament.

    On your second point, you know perfectly well – and if you don’t, you should bone up on the subject a little – that this was an attempt to combat the perception of many that polytechnics were “inferior universities” and, by enhancing their “public perception” status, boost the numbers of people in tertiary education studying science and technology**.

    To oppose the change would mean, logically, that you should also be in favour of the old division of secondary education into grammar, secondary modern and technical schools and be against the move towards comprehensive schools. Think about it.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    ** needless to say, however, with every tertiary institution being able to do its own thing, many of the new universities immediately boosted their intake of “arts” undergraduates. But that was not the fault of the then govts, except insofar as it could be argued that they should have yaken a firmer line with them as regards admissions policy, etc.

  • Peacewisher

    @Habby: I’ve thought about it long and hard. You forget how angry the nation was about Margaret Thatcher’s proposed poll tax. One of my neighbours was as true blue as you can get and she was incensed. Those who didn’t register to vote would most likely be the younger voters – those who didn’t understand our political system, but also those who, historically, would have been least likely to vote conservative.

    Point 2… that was a highly cynical political move to get votes, and the country has been suffering from a lack of proper high-level technical education ever since, as the former polys got stuck into “arty farty” degrees that might be useful for future BBC producers but not for the aspiring working class. So put that in your pipe and smoke it!

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