Scotland decides: Should we have opinion polls?

Polling Station Sign

Have the opinion polls used during the run up to the Scottish referendum, hindered the chance of a fair vote being cast?

Scottish citizens are today heading to the polls, to cast their votes on the biggest political decision in living history.

The Scottish Nationalist party, who led the Yes campaign to gain independence, along with those who tirelessly campaigned to maintain the Union, will be using the last hours to drum up as much support as possible. They will be mulling over the figures that various polls have shown, in anticipation of the results.

Many will be eager to see whether the polls used the past few weeks, which have done everything from scaremonger to cause intense celebration, will have successfully shown the outcome. These poles have been quoted by many newspapers as revealing the true opinion of the Scottish. However with a disparity from poll to poll, and with questions being raised over how successful the polls are, it is necessary to consider what their worth is.

Do these polls help in creating a fair election, or do they present an obstruction to it. And are the polls actually revealing the true voting tendencies of the population?

In the last week, many have spoken about the 1992 election, where opinion polls in the lead up tipped a close race, with a potential hung parliament or for Labour to win over the conservative party led by John Major. On the day, Conservative votes far exceeded that of the Labour party, leaving even the winners shocked by the result.

History has proved that the polls get it wrong. The polls themselves do not review all voters. Many are run by newspapers poling their own readers, meaning that their results are likely to swing towards the paper’s own political stance. The difference between the polls, with some reporting margins of 12% between the parties, and others claiming that it is neck and neck, indicates that not all the polls can be trusted. If you can pick and choose which poll you want to get the vote right, then there is surely no point in the polls in the first place.

The YouGov poll, released last week, which put the referendum voters ahead for the first time, may have done much to change the result of the election. Since its findings were released, campaigners have reacted to them, whether positively or negatively, and this in itself may well have altered the path of the referendum.

Many reported the panic of David Cameron in pleading with Scotland. The leaders of the parties headed to Scotland following the release of the findings.

While this may have helped both sides step up their campaigning, it has also revealed flaws for some. Many have criticised the desperation of the No voters in response to the polls, with Andy Murray claiming that his decision to back the Yes campaign was based on the recent negativity shown by the No campaign in their canvassing.

For a fair result to have been drawn from the referendum, everyone voting needs to have considered the sides of the argument and to have drawn a judgement about it. They do not need to know who is most likely to win before they vote. This in itself can skew a voter who wants to side with the majority, or someone who is unsure but wants to give both sides a chance.

It can also prevent people from voting, as they may have already drawn their conclusions about it.

Yes, the referendum is an exciting and important political event which most are eager to see the outcome of. However that outcome will be announced once the votes have been counted, after everyone has had a chance to place a considered vote.

Speculation is pointless, and, in a way that a poll of a jury in a court case might destroy the chances of justice, it should not be used to disrupt such an important issue.