Salmond should change the question

Scottish First Minister criticised for "loaded" question on independence.

Our poll on Scottish independence, showing that the gap between the Yes and No camps has narrowed to just a point, has caused quite a stir north of the border, providing the Herald with its front page splash today (see below).

The full question we asked voters was "Do you support Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?" But Alex Salmond's version - "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" - is already the subject of furious debate. Though commendably simple, it is has been rightly criticised as a leading question.

Alistair Darling, who has become something of an unofficial spokesman for Unionism, said:

The question is loaded. He is inviting people to endorse the separation of a successful independent nation. He is not asking if you want to remain part of the United Kingdom, which I would prefer.

It is asking for trouble and if he tries to push through unfair wording someone will go to court. It's typical of Salmond who wants to call the shots on the rules, the conduct, the wording and ultimately what the result means.

A

Robert Cialdini, an American psychologist with no stake in the race, told the Today programme:

I think it's loaded and biased because it sends people down a particular cognitive chute designed to locate agreements rather than disagreements. It's called a one-sided question or a loaded question... [pollsters] for a long time have warned us against those sorts of questions.

There's a very simple fix to de-biasing those sorts of questions. Instead of saying how much do you agree with this policy or option the survey takers simply have to say how much do you agree or disagree... That produces an even handed and unbiased approach.

So far, Salmond, who has conceded that the UK Electoral Commission should run the referendum, has said that the commission will have "a role in assessing the questions" but has refused to say whether it would have a veto over the final wording.

One can't fault his Machiavellianism but if the referendum is to be credible, it is hard to see how Salmond can avoid amending the question.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.