I mentioned in a post last week that sometimes important things pass by without comment. However, I am at least normally aware that this has happened.
I was rather aghast to realise later last week that, while I had reported at the time on the voting intention numbers from the BBC/ICM poll conducted in September, and had also made full details of the poll available for everyone to look at in the Opinion Polls section of the Blog, I had not discussed the many other interesting findings of this survey. I thought that I had done so. I can only apologise – and, in this and a following post, seek to rectify the situation.
The part of the poll that undoubtedly attracted the greatest comment in the media at the time was the set of responses to a constitutional preference question. The question posed was a slightly adapted version of a now-standard question; this asks people to indicate their most-preferred option for how Wales should be governed from among several options. The question used was very similar to that in a BBC/ICM poll earlier in this year and discussed here. The only difference was in the wording of the ‘No Devolution’ option: whereas in the previous BBC/ICM poll this option was worded in the following way:
‘Wales should remain part of the UK and the Assembly should be abolished’,
it now became:
‘The Assembly should be abolished and Wales governed directly from Westminster’.
The change made was probably a good thing. The previous wording had been criticised, most notably for only explicitly mentioning remaining within the UK in this abolition of the Assembly option.
Anyway, the overall pattern of responses in the September poll were:
|Wales should become independent, separate from the UK||3%|
|The Welsh Assembly should have more powers than it currently has||49%|
|The powers it currently has are sufficient and should remain as it is now||26%|
|The Welsh Assembly should have fewer powers than it currently has||2%|
|The Assembly should be abolished and Wales governed directly from Westminster||12%|
|None of these / Don’t Know||6%|
The figure that attracted a huge amount of media focus was the first one – the 3% support for independence. This was the lowest support level in a survey using such a question, or any other, that I am aware of having been recorded since 1997. And as many of you will know, I was quoted to that effect in the media at the time.
I must confess to having been surprised at the attention given to that 3% figure. Perhaps my surprise just shows why I’m not a journalist – and why I wouldn’t be any good if I was one. Still, at least some of the media coverage did strike me as strange, for several reasons.
First, it seemed odd to focus so much attention on what was a very small shift from the previous BBC/ICM poll to ask such a question, which had found 5% support for independence. The drop to 3% was therefore well within the ‘margin of error’.
Second, much of the coverage seemed odd to me because it ignored a rather obvious contextual explanation of why support for independence might be rather lower in this poll. The fieldwork had been carried out immediately after the Scottish referendum result was declared – where, of course, Scotland had rejected independence. It was hardly surprising that a poll taken at that precise moment would see a lower than normal level of support for Welsh independence – I would have been surprised to find anything else.
Third, I also think it was strange that much of the media discussion ignored other interesting aspects of the findings:
- That the poll found much lower support for abolition than in the previous BBC/ICM survey. This change was probably due at least in part to the question wording changes. Nonetheless, a fall in support for abolition from 23% to 12% strikes me as at least as worthy of note as a fall in support for independence from 5% to 3%.
- That support for ‘More Powers’ was, at 49%, at one of the highest levels ever seen in a poll asking such a question.
I daresay that news reporting, as well as the responses given by survey respondents, can be influenced by context: journalists and their editors had been ‘primed’ to be thinking about independence. So perhaps the focus adopted was understandable. But I think it was also unfortunate. It meant a neglect of the poll’s finding of very substantial support in Wales for more powers – particularly important in the new political context, rapidly emerging after the Scottish vote, of far-reaching debates about the possible further development of devolution.
There was also little discussion of the details within the poll – which showed, for instance, clear and substantial majorities in favour of ‘more powers’ not only among supporters of Plaid Cymru, but also among those intending to support Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the next general election.
Overall, I certainly don’t think there was anything wrong with using this question in the BBC/ICM poll. Nor was there anything obviously wrong with the way in which the poll was conducted. But the focus of much of the subsequent media reporting was, perhaps, rather more questionable.
Another part of the same poll that got rather little attention was a set of questions which asked about the potential devolution of three specific policy areas. Respondents were asked: “Would you support or oppose the idea of the Assembly becoming responsible in Wales for the following policy areas”, with the question then being asked in relation to:
‘Welfare benefits such as unemployment benefit, housing benefit and pensions’
‘Police and criminal justice’
‘Setting the rates of income tax’
The pattern of responses was as follows:
|Neither support nor oppose||11%||8%||11%|
Striking about these findings was to see clear majorities supporting the devolution not only of policing and criminal justice – that is something that polls have been very consistent about for several years – but also of welfare benefits. We should note that, as outlined above, the question here was quite explicit in referring to some major elements of the welfare system. Yet supporters of devolution in this area still outnumbered opponents by more than two to one.
The breakdowns by party support on these issues are interesting. Plaid Cymru supporters were, unsurprisingly, the most in favour of devolving these areas. But there were also very clear majorities in favour of devolution of both policing and welfare among Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. And on policing and criminal justice, we even see majority support from UKIP voters, and exactly half of Conservatives behind the idea as well. On income tax rates opinions are much more evenly split. But even here the balance leans narrowly towards devolution – and with a clear majority in favour among Labour party supporters.
In summary – I think there was a lot more to the September BBC/ICM poll’s findings on constitutional attitudes in Wales than was suggested by much of the media coverage at the time. But don’t take my word for it: I’d encourage you to look further into the details for yourself.