Scottish independence vote: The fun has gone out of my referendum sweepstake

Why I plead guilty to being no good at election predictions, and to living in the Westminster bubble

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The Independent Online

Since the start of the formal referendum campaign, on 21 August, I have been running a sweepstake on the result. My sweepstakes are not like those in which you pull the name of a horse or World Cup country out of a hat. For this one, I asked entrants to pay £1 and name the percentage share of the vote for Yes, to three decimal places. Whoever is closest to the result takes the pot, which stands at £65.

Most of those taking part are colleagues on the Independent titles, fellow Westminster journalists and MPs. If I wanted to destroy the reputation of British journalism, I am well placed to do so. Colleagues, your secrets are safe with me. On Friday, I shall announce only the winner, who will be garlanded for his or her perspicacity and sound judgement.

Suffice to say that most guesses three weeks ago are not the same as the more recent ones. Mine – I am entitled to destroy my own reputation – was 40.317 per cent. I realise that I am unlikely to win. However, after last Sunday’s YouGov opinion poll, the first to show Yes in the lead, I lost interest in collecting new bets. It didn’t seem so important who won a stupid sweepstake: the future of my country was at stake. As someone who thinks both parts of the UK would be diminished by separation, I am melancholic about the prospects. The average Yes vote in last week’s polls was, to three decimal places, 48.300 per cent.

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That is a small margin to decide such a big question, and, given that I did not see the Yes surge coming, I cannot be confident that it will recede between now and Thursday.

So how did I get it so wrong? Does this not prove that the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble are hopelessly out of touch with what non-bubble people think? Well, up to a point. Not only did I fail to anticipate the shift towards Yes in Scotland over the past three weeks, but I didn’t see George Galloway’s victory coming in the Bradford West by-election two and a half years ago. There are many other crimes of poor forecasting that I would ask the court to take into consideration, but those two are good examples.

In my defence, I would say that my failure to predict Scotland was more excusable than my assumption that Labour would hold the Bradford by-election. Being blindsided by Galloway’s triumph was the product of poor information gathering. I relied on the self-interest of the Labour Party to pick up the signs that the Bradford street was turning against it, but the people who were there or had been there reported nothing to suggest that the old Galloway operation of Muslim politics was working.

Scotland, though, is different. We had plenty of information about what the Scottish people thought. Three weeks ago, the opinion polls suggested that they divided 60-40 against independence. We even had polling data about people who said they were undecided. When pressed, they, too, seemed to split about 60-40 against independence.

The problem in Scotland was not finding out how people intended to vote: it was predicting that some of them would change their minds. Naturally, Alex Salmond and many of his supporters knew that was going to happen. They could feel it in their bones. After all, had they not surprised the bubble people when the Scottish National Party surged from level-pegging to a 15-point landslide in the final weeks of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election campaign?

They had, and we bubble people knew that. But, I thought, a referendum is different from an election. Opinion might shift against the Labour establishment in Scotland again, but in referendums it also tends to shift towards the status quo. In the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011, for example, a majority for change turned on the day into one for staying the same.

What Galloway and Salmond have in common, though, is that they ride the anti-politics wave. They, and Nigel Farage – and the Westminster bubble didn’t see him coming either – are available to voters who want to curse the establishment. I know about the power of this sentiment. It has always existed in politics, and has been particularly virulent since the financial crash of 2008 and the expenses scandal a year later.

The 2011 referendum on the voting system was decided partly because the No campaign succeeded in portraying the change as a conspiracy by the political class to bamboozle people into letting it increase its power. Garbage, but it worked.

My mistake was to assume that anti-politics rage was already “priced in” to the Scottish opinion polls. What I did not expect was that more than 7 per cent of the Scottish people – or, more precisely, the voters resident in Scotland – would change their minds in three weeks. That is a net figure: support for Yes has risen by about 7 percentage points in that time and No has fallen by a similar amount. Those figures include people switching from don’t know or won’t vote to Yes, from No to don’t know or won’t vote, and direct switchers from No to Yes.

To a political obsessive such as me, that makes little sense. Surely the question of Scottish independence is so well rehearsed, and has been for so long, that everyone in Scotland knows what they think? Even if you are a disaffected Labour voter in Glasgow who hates the (London Tory) establishment, would you not have hated it for some time?

That is obviously not how it works. Even if last week’s polls appear to suggest that the movement towards a Yes vote has stalled, I cannot be sure that it will stay stalled. If I cannot understand why the voters who live in Scotland shifted towards Yes over the past three weeks, I cannot be sure that they won’t do it again this week. That sweepstake has taught me a lesson.