Those Scottish independence polls: why the Don’t Knows mean Yes should be concerned

by Stephen Tall on September 10, 2014

Since the YouGov poll showing a narrow Yes lead was published at the weekend the Westminster Village has flailed into hyper-active over-drive. Even today’s Prime Minister’s Questions was cancelled to allow the three party leaders to descend on Scotland and bolster the flagging No campaign.

Personally I cannot begin to describe the extent of my ambivalence. As a federalist, I’m caught in a pincer of equal distaste for Alex Salmond’s and his cybernats’ nationalist aggression and the shrill Anglo-presumption of unionist politicians and commentators that the Scots need saving from themselves.

The Better Together campaign’s frayed nerves will be partially soothed by the latest poll released tonight purporting to show No leading by 53%-47%. I use the word purporting quite deliberately. Here’s why, courtesy ComRes’s blog:

Ignore the “don’t knows” at your peril

Most of the recent headlines have been generated by reports which have excluded “don’t know” respondents from the calculation. This gives a neat prediction of the final split. But it can be a misrepresentation of the polls.

An analogy: if we asked 1000 people whether they prefer Coca-Cola or Pepsi, and 400 preferred Coca-Cola, 350 preferred Pepsi, and 150 had no strong opinion or were undecided, it would then be wilfully misleading to say that 53% of them prefer Coke. This is effectively the analysis that many journalists (and some pollsters) have been making.

The truth is that while the two headline-grabbing, market-bashing polls of the week are each showing the same trend (an upward tick in “Yes” support), they are otherwise showing two very distinct pictures:

Pollwatch image - comres

The question is whether TNS-BMRB’s “don’t knows” will split evenly into “Yes” and “No”, or whether they are more likely to break towards one side. The evidence from previous referendums worldwide is that most “Don’t know” respondents will end up backing the “status quo” option on voting day. If that is the case, then “Yes” should be very concerned about their 39% figure this close to the vote.

Some will argue that there no longer is a status quo option on the ballot – that we are now into Devo Max vs. Full Independence territory. But the former clearly involves less change and less of the unknown, and we should still expect cautious and undecided voters to lean this way on voting day.

Keep your eye on the “don’t knows”.

Yes. And another thing to keep your eye on is the polling trends. You can see all the polls published to date at UK Polling Report here. Perhaps we’ll be blind-sided by a late surge, but it’s going to take more than one poll well within the margin of error to convince me Yes Scotland have a hope of winning outright.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

It’s 8 May 2015. Nick Clegg’s resigned. Who speaks for the Lib Dems?

by Stephen Tall on September 9, 2014

Imagine the following scenario…

At the next general election, 7th May 2015, there is a hung parliament in which the Lib Dems hold the balance of power. However, the party doesn’t do very well. Nick Clegg resigns as party leader, or at any rate it becomes inevitable that he will do so soon.

The party turns to its Deputy Leader (elected by MPs, not members). Then it remembers that he, Sir Malcolm Bruce, retired the previous day. So there is no longer a Deputy Leader.

The Lib Dems then turn to their Party President — the only post other than that of Leader elected by all members — who will no longer be Tim Farron. He stands down this autumn after four years in post.

In his place will be one of Sal Brinton, Daisy Cooper, Linda Jack or Liz Lynne, the four candidates currently running for election. Good people, all, in their various ways. But, as Craig Ling puts it here:

The problem any of the candidates to follow him will face is that, with the greatest respect, they aren’t box office in any way. They may get elected to President, but the media will not give them the time of day and the harsh reality is that your average stay-at-home paid-up member (who doesn’t see Conference as the highlight of their year), will simply ask: ‘who are they?’

So my question is a simple one.

In the event that the Lib Dem leader has either resigned or is on the brink of doing so, there is no deputy leader, and the party president is a largely unknown quantity within the party let alone beyond: who will speak for the Lib Dems on 8th May 2015?

Yes, Scotland should have more independence. Wales too. But don’t forget the English

by Stephen Tall on September 8, 2014

I’m a federalist which, I guess, places me somewhere between the unionists and the separatists. Which means that, as I ‘fessed up last February, I’m much more ambivalent about the case for Scottish independence than most Lib Dems:

I believe in power being as close to the people as possible. Is ‘devo-max’ or full independence the best way to achieve that? That’s the key question Scots need to be able to answer by September. Ironically, it’s the one not on the ballot paper.

So I’m not as fazed as many down south are by the apparent tightening of the polls suggesting Yes Scotland have drawn level with Better Together. It now seems likely the result will be close. If Yes loses, but narrowly, it won’t settle the issue: it will merely postpone it. After all, the UK voted in 1975 to stay in Europe by a convincing 2:1 margin but that debate hasn’t gone away. The Nationalists will be back – and as the older generations are the most indy-sceptical it’s quite possible demography will be on their side. Even if the Union is saved this time, it may not be next time (and there would be a next time).

I’ve been surprised by quite how central Better Together has made the currency to its campaign. That’s not to say I think Alex Salmond has given satisfactory answers to the questions raised: he hasn’t. But (and I realise this risks sounding glib) I can’t be alone in thinking that, if the Scots do vote to become an independent country, the issue will be resolved. I’m not sure how, and I’m not sure Scots will like the results of how it’s resolved. But resolved it will be.

By focusing so intently on the currency, and giving Salmond time to work out some rebuttals, Better Together has forfeited the opportunity to take the wider fight to Yes Scotland. If you’re going to run an overtly negative campaign — and when you’re asking people to vote No that’s not an unreasonable campaign pitch: it didn’t, after all, do No2AV any harm — at least do it properly. Spray every issue with a mist of uncertainty: the possible threat independence poses to jobs, the health service, the welfare state, schools, transport, the environment, etc.

And then don’t forget the positive. Belatedly, perhaps too belatedly, the talk is of further devolution, of empowering the Scots. But this isn’t a Scots-only issue, or even a Scots- and Welsh-only issue. The rise of Ukip in part reflects the upsurge in English nationalism, allied to the view that government is too remote, too centralised in a Westminster elite which doesn’t understand life beyond SW1. The key difference is that the SNP vote is concentrated in one nation of five million where the electoral system accurately reflects how the public votes. Yes, we should repatriate more powers to local communities. Not only in Scotland, though: across the UK.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Lib Dem pre-manifesto launched: includes policies to reform drugs laws and bus pass discount for under-21s

by Stephen Tall on September 8, 2014

pre manifesto documentLast week’s pre-manifesto launch by the Lib Dems was postponed owing to the international situation. Thankfully no important news has broken over the past couple of days which might over-shadow today’s launch. Unless, that is, you think the potential break-up of the UK or a new Royal Baby are headline-grabbing events.

You can read the Pre-Manifesto in full below.

The party trailed its publication today with a couple of announcements intended to highlight key policies:

  • ‘Exclusive: Liberal Democrats to announce decriminalisation of all drugs’ headlined
  • Personal possession of all drugs should be decriminalised, the Liberal Democrats will announce today. The policy will feature in the party’s ‘pre-manifesto’, which is being unveiling this morning as it lays out its priorities in the next parliament. While the document will not use the word ‘decriminalisation’, Liberal Democrat sources have told it will formally adopt a policy document proposal which called on the UK to adopt the approach used in Portugal. … Under the system, police would decide whether someone caught with possession of a drug is a dealer or user. For those only using the drug, the onus would be on medical responses rather than criminal sanctions. The move goes a step further than Nick Clegg’s previous pledge to stop sending people to jail for drug use. It is the latest in a line of increasingly liberal positions on drugs from the party, as it becomes more confident in demanding wholesale reform of Britain’s drugs laws.

  • Lib Dems pledge cheap bus travel for young said BBC Online
  • Young people aged 16-21 would get a 66% discount on bus travel in England under Lib Dem plans outlined by Nick Clegg. The scheme would be paid for by cutting the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for better-off pensioners, the party’s “pre-manifesto” proposes. Mr Clegg told reporters: “We are telling you today that we are choosing to put the next generation front and centre of our plans.” The proposals are part of the Lib Dem pitch for next year’s general election.

    These can be added to the 21 policy announcements the party has already issued based on the pre-manifesto.

    As I wrote last week:

    When the pre-manifesto is launched, there will be three key questions unanswered:

    First, how do we pay for it all? The party has committed to balance the budget but has also committed to some major new spending initiatives, albeit some are openly billed as aspirational. Take, for instance, the party’s pledge to continue raising the personal allowance until it reaches £12.5k (the current minimum wage level), and then, as an aspiration, to start raising the national insurance threshold to £12.5k too. Each is hugely expensive. Combined with other spending commitments and the need for continuing severe austerity to reduce the deficit and something will have to give.

    Secondly, what are our top-lines? In 2010, the party listed four top priorities: tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank, and political reform. Four years later, we can put ticks against the first three, and a cross against the fourth (though that’s mostly the result of Labservative opposition). What will be our equivalents in 2015? That’s still to be decided.

    Thirdly, what are our red-lines? In 2010, the party vetoed a number of Tory manifesto ideas, such as prioritising inheritance tax-cuts for the wealthy. However, we infamously didn’t draw a red-line around our tuition fees commitment (the Coalition Agreement enabled Lib Dem MPs to abstain, though when it came to the vote the parliamentary party split three ways). It’s safe to say the leadership has learned its lesson: there will be no open-ended commitment to vote for/against individual policies no matter what the circumstances. That does, however, run the risk of looking slippery.

    On the first of those – balancing the budget – the position is no clearer. The pre-manifesto notes the Lib Dems would introduce a Mansion Tax “help[ing] enable us to continue to protect NHS spending, extend the protection of schools’ budgets to include early years and 16-19 education, and ensure 0.7% of GNI is spent on international development aid.” It’s amazing how far c.£2 billion will stretch. Other decisions about spending are parked in favour of a full Spending Review “after the General Election”. Breezily, the document then notes, “Once we have balanced the books…” Of course, the Lib Dems are no different any of the other parties in this regard: none are saying what cuts will be needed and where to meet their aims of continuing to reduce the deficit.

    As for top-lines and red lines, it looks like we’ll have to wait a while for those. The pre-manifesto is divided into eight sections: Responsible Finances / Balancing the budget / Green Britain Guarantee / Family Finances / An Opportunity Society / A Better Place to Live / Secure Communities / Power to the People / Britain in the World. I imagine the final, streamlined version will focus on emphasising policies where the party has already achieved success in government, such as tax-cuts for low-earners, extending the Pupil Premium to early years, family-friendly policies, pro-green economy initiatives, and (perhaps) something on political reform.

    Anyway, here’s the full document for you to read…

    Liberal Democrat Pre-Manifesto 2014

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    ‘Yes Scotland’ takes first poll lead of campaign. Peaked too soon or Big Mo timed just right?

    by Stephen Tall on September 7, 2014

    st Andrews flag saltire scotland Some rights reserved by Fulla TTwo polls in the Scottish independence referendum debate were published last night. The one that’s (understandably) getting all the attention is YouGov’s showing a wafer-thin Yes lead, 51% to 49%. It’s only the second poll to have found a pro-independence majority (the previous one was over a year ago). The other poll, commissioned by the SNP, continues to show No in the lead, 48% to 44%.

    Peter Kellner in the Sunday Times has a good summary of the factors that will likely decide the outcome in the final 10 days’ campaigning:

    Factors that could favour a Yes vote

  • Momentum. The change in mood of the past four weeks may prove infectious, with more voters being swayed by the excitement and optimism of a surge in Yes support and wanting to go with the flow.
  • Superior campaigning. Yes Scotland is not only seen as more positive, it is also winning the ground war. Our poll finds that it has delivered more leaflets, put up more posters, set up more local stalls and sent more emails than Better Together.
  • Women continuing to lose their fears of independence. The gender gap has narrowed, but not disappeared. If men don’t start swing back to No, any further shift to Yes by Scotland’s women will guarantee victory for Salmond.
  • Factors that could favour a No vote

  • Turnout. Our poll points to a high turnout among voters of all ages. But experience tells us that the over 60s usually vote in larger numbers than any other group, and they still divide 62%-38% in favour of No.
  • Return of the fear factor. Until last week, a Yes victory looked unlikely. Now it is on the cards, the warnings from those opposed to independence will gain a fresh urgency and may make a bigger impact.
  • The Quebec precedent. In 1995 Quebec voted on whether to secede from Canada. With a month to go, No held a steady lead. Then the mood changed. The final polls pointed to a 53-47% victory for Yes. But on the day, some voters pulled back from the brink, and Quebec voted to remain part of Canada by 50.6% to 49.4%.
  • Kellner also looks at the implications for next May’s general election if the voters of Scotland do vote Yes. Here’s his best-guess forecast of what the result would be according to current polls:

      Labour 316 seats
      Conservative 280
      Lib Dem 27
      Others 27

    As he notes, “That would leave Labour just ten seats short of an overall majority, and with the option of going into coalition with the Lib Dems, or running a minority government on its own.”

    And what happens if Scotland were to secede? Something like this, he estimates:

      Conservative 278
      Labour 274
      Lib Dem 18
      Others 21

    Bit of a turnaround. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Andy Burnham and the Labour party are regretting scaremongering (inaccurately) about NHS privatisation quite so much.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    David Rendel selected as Lib Dem PPC for Somerton and Frome

    by Stephen Tall on September 7, 2014

    David Rendel - Some rights reserved by Martin TodCongratulations to former Lib Dem MP for Newbury, David, Rendel, who was last night selected by Lib Dem members in Somerton and Frome as the party’s parliamentary candidate for the May 2015 general election. David will be attempting to retain David Heath’s seat, won in 2010 with a majority of 1,817 over the Tories.

    The party has previously selected a PPC for the seat. Sarah Yong was selected in February this year, but stood down five months later. There had even been speculation that the party was gently arm-twisting David Heath to throw his hat back into the ring.

    David Rendel needs no introduction to most Lib Dems. He was the victor of the famous 1993 Newbury by-election, who held the seat in 1997 and 2001. He stood for the party leadership when Paddy Ashdown retired in 1999 (I was one of those who voted for him, but it did him no good: he finished fifth). He attempted a comeback in Newbury in 2010, but to no avail. Famously, he was the only member on the Lib Dems’ Federal Executive to vote against the Coalition.

    He knows it’ll be a tough fight in Somerton and Frome. Until 2010 David Heath had held the seat at three consecutive elections with majorities below 1,000. But at 65 there are few more tireless campaigners.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 3

    by Stephen Tall on September 6, 2014

    Congratulations to Jon Featonby, who leads the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after the third week, with 198 points. It’s an impressive tally which means he’s in 2,550th position in the global league of 3.2 million players (ie, the top 0.08%). And he’s done that even with Wayne Rooney as his team captain.

    But George Murray (189 points), William Jones (187) and Lucy Keating (186) aren’t far behind: in fact, just six points separate the next six places. You can see the full top 10 below.

    There are 144 players in total in our league and you can still join it by clicking here.


    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Liberal Hero of the Week #74: The Independent front page

    by Stephen Tall on September 5, 2014

    Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

    cf hero - indy front page

    The Independent front page

    UK newspaper
    Reason: for reporting a terrorist murder without sensationalising it

    You’re a newspaper editor and a big international story breaks: a US journalist is seemingly murdered by a British member of the terrorist organisation, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), and the gruesome video of the crime released.

    You know it’s a front page story. Do you (a) splash a still photo of the murder on your front page for impact even though you know it gives his killers the victory they were looking for, or (b) report it without resorting to advertising the terrorists’ crimes for them?

    If you answered (a) you’re qualified to run most of the UK’s national newspapers. Only The Independent (along with the Financial Times) had the courage to go with (b). Zach Green put it best:

    Kudos, then, to The Independent and its editor Amol Rajan for showing it’s possible to publish a punchy, newsy front page that gives readers the facts without giving the terrorist what they want.

    * The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

    My must-reads this week September 5, 2014

    by Stephen Tall on September 5, 2014

    Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

    Clacton and the Lib Dems’ post-2015 wastelands problem

    by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2014

    Clacton Pier.The Clacton by-election triggered by Douglas Carswell’s defection from the Tories to Ukip will take place on 9th October – David Cameron’s birthday, but also the day after the Lib Dems’ autumn conference concludes.

    That’s not great news for the Lib Dems on two counts. First, it means the media will likely be obsessing more about Clacton than what’s happening in Glasgow (unless, that is, Yes Scotland has won the referendum).

    And secondly, the party’s not expecting a great result. There have been two constituency polls conducted to date (Survation and Lord Ashcroft): both have pointed to a sizeable win for Carswell, who will will become Ukip’s first elected MP, and both have shown the Lib Dems likely to lose their deposit, with just 2% of the vote. That would be down from the respectable 15% we scored in May 2010.

    If that happens, it would be the 10th deposit the party has lost this parliament. The singing of “Who’ll come a-losing deposits with me…” at Glee Club, the traditional end-of-conference knees-up, may have a certain anticipated poignancy.

    Of course, it’s not seats like Clacton that will determine how the Lib Dems do next May: it will be the 75 battleground seats which the party is looking to defend or where it could advance. On one level, then, it can join the ranks of by-elections like Newark and Wythenshawe and Sale East. The party needs to focus its resources, financial and human, where it can win.

    But that means that in vast swathes of the country the Lib Dems will, if we’re not careful, disappear from view. At the last election, there were some 300 seats where the Lib Dems finished either first or second. I’d be surprised if we make three-figures this time around. That leaves a lot of barren areas where a handful of Lib Dems will do their best to fight the good fight but without the means to make anything of it.

    A big priority for the party, post-2015, will be to re-build in those areas. The alternative would be to accept a retreat into our heartlands and ceding our claim to be a national party.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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