Sunday Times hugely disappointed in result of its own Holyrood poll

The tone of the Sunday Times polling report is clearly one of a newspaper that is hugely disappointed, maybe even bitter, at the findings of its own survey.  The headline Nationalists on course to win supermajority is quickly followed by the subheading Poll boost for SNP and ‘unfit’ Salmond’s party.  

The poll finds Yes to independence leading No by 51% to 49% but that's not what makes it interesting.  

The Sunday Times Panelbase poll stands out in that it's the first to include the Alba party that also waited long enough after Alba's launch to have a real chance of estimating how many people might vote for them.    

There are still a number of questions about the poll’s accuracy regarding Alba due to their wording of the question. The assumption is that Sunday Times was not confident respondents would be fully aware of a party as new as Alba and it decided it needed some form of introduction and so added the description "led by Alex Salmond” when it asked the question. 

Either way this causes the following problems:

  1. The difference between Panelbase’s estimate of 5.7% support for Alba (rounded up to 6%) versus Survation's 3.3% at the beginning of last week could be partially down to the naming of Salmond or it may just be the margin of error around a true current support level of 4%-5%. In his analysis of the results John Curtice points out that if the true vote is just one point less than the Panelbase estimate then the party’s estimated list seat tally would be halved from six to three
  2. If the poll’s SNP option had a "Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister" label attached then the SNP total could also have been higher and Alba's lower.
  3. We can't compare the two different pollsters to ask about Alba so far as like-for-like because they may just have a sampling base that finds different answers. We need another two polling companies to ask the same question (Survation polled too soon after the Alba launch to be credible) and then we can use an average of the latest three polls to get a clearer picture of what is really happening on the list vote.

You can see the archived Sunday Times piece here


A supermajority isn’t actually a thing (in relation to holding a referendum), although the press are lapping up the term and that's not necessarily bad. However, a precedent was set in 2014 that a single-party SNP majority leads to a referendum. That isn't to completely discount a wider Yes majority in Holyrood. After all, a majority is a majority. There is, however, no requirement for a supermajority and there never has been. In fact, it’s dangerous to suggest that such a ‘supermajority’ is either better or necessary. If it fails to materialise Unionists will claim that as a failure. 

It is clear that a single-party SNP majority would be the most politically difficult outcome for Boris Johnson if he intends to try to say No to a Section 30-backed referendum. If the SNP achieves a majority in the May elections after having a commitment to holding a referendum in its manifesto it can legitimately claim to be speaking for the people. Obviously, additional Yes supporting MSPs from other parties would be a useful addition on top of that SNP majority.

You might be thinking that Boris Johnson can’t say no to a referendum anyway after any Yes majority and we would agree.  However, the question is just how politically damaging to the Union's cause would such a refusal be in the eyes of undecided voters?  An SNP majority would make it look extremely undemocratic and that would probably be worth a few more percentage points to Yes in a referendum than a multi-party majority.

If, however, friction within the Yes movement threatens to lower the SNP constituency tally then the political zeitgeist of the moment, that the SNP doesn’t need list seats to form a majority, goes right out the window. The Panelbase poll predicted an SNP majority of just one.

Alba’s most vocal supporters from the blogosphere and the Facebook Yes-bubble may seem to have fallen out with the SNP big time but the majority of Alba voters from the general public are simply looking for that supermajority and would switch back to voting SNP on the list if an SNP majority was at threat. Ironically the better the SNP looks in the constituencies the better Alba does on the list. 

The Sunday Times poll threw up some other surprises. It was a bit of a shock to see George Galloway's outfit All for Unity looking at 4% on the list. It must have mopped up the UKIP/Brexit party vote and maybe even taken some from the Conservatives.

Alba may have taken some list votes from both SNP and Greens but possibly also from some Yes-supporting Labour voters who can't bring themselves to vote SNP. The Greens may be benefiting from the idea that the SNP don't need their second vote and that a switch to a second Yes party is a good idea. Could some SNP supporters who are angry with and therefor will not vote Alba have switched to the Greens?

We won't know the answers to all these questions until a lot more polling has been done. Given the newness of some of the players and the chaotic nature of this campaign we may not even know until after election day itself.

We live in interesting times.

By Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp