Alex Salmond’s appearance on Scotland Tonight this week raised an issue we’ve been meaning to address for a while, so let’s do it now before we forget again.
Of the numerous polls of the last few months, the most encouraging for supporters of independence was the one conducted by Panelbase for the Sunday Times in late October. It showed a pretty tight race at 37% Yes to 45% No, but the most interesting aspect was how the numbers changed when voters were asked for their opinion in the hypothetical scenario that they expected the Conservatives be returned as either a majority or coalition government at the 2015 Westminster general election.
In that scenario, independence leapt ahead with a massive 10% swing, to lead by 52% to 40%. But much less reported by the media was another finding of the poll.
So much so, in fact, that the only place we could locate the rest of the numbers was Newsnet Scotland, which noted that if voters were presented with a Labour majority or coalition administration to contemplate, the numbers still got more favourable to independence than on the bare question. Here are the full results:
SUPPORT FOR INDEPENDENCE (no conditions)
SUPPORT FOR INDEPENDENCE (likely Labour-led UK government)
SUPPORT FOR INDEPENDENCE (likely Tory-led UK government)
Weirdly, as far as we’ve seen it’s never occurred to anyone to ask the obvious question that arises from those numbers: if 52% support independence from a Tory government and 44% support independence from a Labour government, what the hell other outcome of a UK general election are the people in the 37-45 result expecting?
After scratching our heads for a bit, we eventually figured out that more Labour voters would embrace independence as an escape from a “hostile” Tory government than vice versa. (That is, Scottish Tory voters would be prepared to put up with a Labour UK government more readily than Scottish Labour voters would put up with a Tory one, most probably because Scottish Tory voters know that independence wouldn’t be likely to deliver anything they’d like any better.)
But nevertheless, the fact is that ONE of those two scenarios IS going to arise. Either the Tories or Labour are going to form the next Westminster administration, and the chances are that with the referendum being barely six months before the election, people are going to know which one it is.
So the 37% figure – which in context becomes a purely abstract theoretical reaction to the notion of independence rather than an actual guide to voting intention – is in fact meaningless. The reality is somewhere between the other two figures, which for the sake of completeness average out to 48% Yes, 44% No. And that’s a long way from what you’d believe if you read the press.
Those numbers come from the end of autumn 2012, when the UK was still basking in the last of the glow from the Great Year Of Britishness. The “likely Labour government” figures are probably pretty much set in stone, and with the bulk of austerity cuts still to come it’s unlikely that a Tory government is going to get any more attractive to Scots.
But south of the border, David Cameron seems to have steadied his party’s poll ratings with his EU speech. More than halfway through the coalition’s term, Labour’s 5% lead is nowhere near what they need to realistically entertain hopes of victory. They must be praying that life for poor people in England gets a LOT worse in the next two years.