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Sunday Politics - Referendum consultation debate

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Published on Apr 1, 2012

THE REFERENDUM CONSULTATION DEBACLE

This blew up this morning because of the competing UK and SNP Government online consultations in progress, with allegations by Labour that the SNP online poll is deeply flawed, because it permits multiple responses, anonymous responses, etc. (I call it a poll, because it is online polling through a series of questions to establish the opinions of individual voters).

In a word, it is deeply flawed, and although Labour's attack is motivated by jealousy over the high responses rate versus that to the UK poll, and they are grinding axes, and are clearly the pot calling the kettle black, my feeling is that the referendum consultation outcome is now badly damaged by this debacle.

I could kick myself for not seeing the consultation's inadequacies when I completed it, and for not testing its robustness -- as I routinely do with other online polls/consultations -- by trying additional submissions, etc. Only last night, I was urging voters to respond to the consultation on Twitter, and supplying the link.

I have done this today, and the flaws are patently and belatedly evident to me.

At base, the criticisms come done to failure to require registration or any proof of identity, failure to block multiple submissions under the same or alternative identities, allowing anonymity, etc. I have completed online polls and questionnaires by reputable newspapers, e.g. Financial Times and Guardian, where none of these things were possible, so the technology clearly exists to avoid them.

My spirits rose when Stewart Hosie appeared for the SNP to answer Anas Sarwar's criticisms (originating with Labour's Patricia Ferguson) but were speedily dashed when it became evident that he was ill-prepared and had no answers and, most uncharacteristically for this most considered and calm of SNP ministers, resorted to bluster to defend the indefensible.

His arguments came down that this was how it had been done previously on other consultations by other parties, that some mysterious process by an unknown organisation after the consultation would scrutinise the responses, weed out the problem, and all would be well, and in effect, that we were no better and no worse than the unionist parties, so there -- yah boo!

Not remotely good enough as answers for a process on which the SNP, Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government have all placed great significance, and one which will critically influence the structuring of the referendum ballot paper and the referendum process.

I am also deeply disappointed that my party, the SNP, has not appeared big enough to acknowledge their inadequacies on this issue, and that many online SNP supporters seem to prefer bland cover-up to addressing something that matters to Scotland's democracy.

The rigging allegation by Sarwar is offensive, but some SNP supporters have asked how an online consultation -- or indeed any consultation -- can be rigged?

The answer is in the analysis of the responses and the acceptance/rejection criteria. I don't believe for one moment the SNP would do such a thing as rigging the response, but we have left ourselves wide open to such an allegation, and no matter what we do or say now, the outcome will be fiercely disputed and the results possibly discredited -- an insult to, and a betrayal of all those who honestly completed the online survey.

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