Nobody is venturing an exit poll for the Scottish referendum. We will have to find out the result the old-fashioned way.
The reason for this requires some explanation. British pollsters have, over time, fine-tuned their skills in exit poll predictions in general elections. The painstakingly thorough (and expensive) poll in 2010 was extraordinarily accurate, and did a lot better than the assembled pundits at predicting the deflation of the Cleggmania bubble. But, methodologically, how to do it was relatively clear – take large samples in the marginal seats, enough to be able to make some general conclusions about the national swing, regional variation, the effect of incumbency, tactical voting and the Liberal Democrat vote, and then apply the results. Voting intention polling between elections has also become highly sophisticated: although different companies have different approaches they try to adjust the raw figures to get a representative sample, using findings like past voting behaviour and assessing the likelihood to turn out.
The Scottish referendum, by contrast, is a one-off; there is no comparable last vote to base the sample upon, and the results of the Westminster election in 2010 and the Holyrood election in 2011 were so radically different that commentators have got confused about terms like ‘Labour voters’ (42 per cent in 2010, 26 per cent and 31 per cent in the two ballots in 2011). There is also no recent experience of an electoral event with an 80 per cent plus turnout. The best poll guidance one can offer is to look at the last polls of voting intention, and then assume that most of the remaining ‘don’t knows’ will end up voting ‘No’, but even this is speculation based on past patterns in referendums.
The count will take place overnight, starting from close of poll at 10pm. Each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities will count the votes in its own area. The first stage is verification of all the ballot papers, which may take some time if there is the expected heavy poll. If there is a clear win for one side, rumours should start to seep out of the counts at this point. These things are never certain, but it is expected that some of the smaller authorities will declare first, although the big South Lanarkshire council often manages rapid general election counts, so may come ahead of the pack.
We have no real way of knowing how referendum results will vary between local areas – the high turnout and the intensity of the campaign will no doubt shift some of the geography. The Welsh referendum of 1997 looked lost for devolution until Carmarthenshire came in, last, with a big ‘Yes’’ majority (‘the Cook County of Wales’ as some dubbed it). But we have a few indicators. An area with a high ‘Yes’ vote to tax-varying powers in 1997, and a high Scottish National party vote in recent elections, may be predicted to be better ground for ‘Yes’ in 2014, while a poor ‘Yes’ vote in 1997 and little local SNP success will probably produce a ‘No’ majority in 2014.
Of the smaller authorities, ‘Yes’ is in trouble if it is not winning easily in Clackmannanshire (46 per cent SNP vote in 2012 local elections, 69 per cent ‘Yes’ in 1997) and East Ayrshire (39 per cent SNP in 2012, 70 per cent ‘Yes’ in 1997). If ‘Yes’ is winning, or coming close, in Dumfries and Galloway (20 per cent SNP in 2012, 49 per cent ‘Yes’ in 1997) then it is all over for the union. Jim Murphy’s local council in East Renfrewshire, a prosperous suburban area south of Glasgow, will be another probable ‘No’ (20 per cent SNP in 2012, 52 per cent ‘Yes’ in 1997), as will the island councils of Orkney and Shetland.
The intriguing results will be in two sorts of area. These are places where the SNP is strong as a party but the pro-devolution vote in 1997 was comparatively weak and where social values tend to be conservative (like Aberdeenshire and Moray), and conversely those where Labour is historically strong (and carried ‘Yes’ to a victory in both votes in 1997) and so are radical values of the sort that have dominated the ‘Yes’ argument.
There is no provision for a national recount in the event of a close vote, and any local recounts will have been concluded before the results are reported to the national centre in Edinburgh. The final announcement of Scotland’s verdict will be made on Friday morning once all the local results are in, but – unless it is as close as Wales in 1997 – we will probably know some time before that. It will be a long night.
Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit
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