So Catalonia Votes For Independence? Not Necessarily

Yesterday the people of Catalonia were invited by their regional government to take part in a participation exercise. This rather odd name had been adopted because the Constitutional Court in Madrid had, at the Government's request, agreed to consider whether a referendum could be legally held without Madrid’s permission. The Court ruled that all referendum plans and activity should be suspended until it had considered the case and announced its decision. In order to avoid any suggestion that a ‘participation’ might be a referendum in disguise, no official polling stations were used, no Catalan officials manned the voting stations, and voter registration was not required; the Catalan government took no part - except today to triumphantly announce the result. Over two million people voted and 80% of these were in favour of Catalonia becoming an independent state. However, before we are tempted to compare this result with that of the independence referendum held in Scotland, it would be wise to take a number of differences into account. I spent many years working in the field of consumer and social research, and so I am used to analysing and interpreting statistics. A basic principle is that the only way to know what everyone thinks is to ask everyone. That is so rarely possible that the survey researcher’s task is to draw up a sample of people to be interviewed which will (within certain knowable limits) accurately reflect the views of the entire population. Where both the Scottish and the Catalan exercises fall short of a ‘proper’ sample, is that in neither case was voting compulsory; in other words, people were free to choose whether they would bother to vote or not. In Scotland, the referendum and the question asked had been approved by the UK Government. It was a legal referendum which the Government said that it would take heed of. In that context, around 80% of those on the electoral registers voted, and the result (55% ’No’ v 45% ‘Yes’) was clear and the gap was wide enough to be able to say that overall the Scottish people had rejected independence. In Catalonia, by comparison, just under half the 5.4 million people entitled to vote did so, and their 80% vote in favour of independence looks pretty convincing. It may look convincing, but there are a number of things to be taken into account. Firstly, the consultation had no legal standing. How many of the people who didn’t vote failed to do so for that reason? Someone may carry out a survey to look into that, but right now we don’t know. Secondly, we have been told that 5.4 million people were entitled to vote, but there was no electoral register to tally votes against. No polling card entitling you to vote. I remember many years ago hearing the joke about Northern Ireland politics that the key slogan was “Vote early; vote often”. How many people yesterday voted more than once? We simply do not and cannot know, but human nature being what it is, I’m absolutely sure that some did. All they needed to do was leave one polling station and then head for another one on the other side of town. Thirdly, and crucially, whilst in Scotland the turnout was high enough for us not to be too concerned about how non-voters might have voted, in Catalonia just over half of the people entitled to vote didn’t. With a group that size it is not possible to confidently suggest that the way that their vote would have split can be assumed to be in line with the split amongst those who did vote. In social research terms, a self-selecting group of people who represent only half of the group whose views were being sought, cannot be used to draw any inferences at all about the likely responses from the self-selecting group of approximately half of the total, who chose not to vote. Obviously we are talking about politics. Claims will be made by those who support Catalan independence that this is a stunning victory, and a clear indication of the will of the majority of the Catalan people. They can say that, but they are wrong. There are other, possibly more important, things happening in Spanish politics right now. I’ll talk about some of those next time.

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