Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Thoughts on the upcoming Shetland by-election

So I've been asked by a few people to write a post about next week's parliamentary by-election in Shetland - a contest which has rather comically led the unionist parties to start talking as if Shetland is a foreign country.  (Nicola Sturgeon went campaigning there, and Labour propagandist Aidan Kerr's response was basically "how dare she leave the country on the day the GERS report is published!")  I'm not sure there's a huge amount I can usefully say, because the only people who have much chance of knowing the state of play are those with access to canvass data - but even they might not have the true picture, because there have been any number of by-elections in the past where canvass returns have proved to be misleading.  There was a "poll" of sorts in the Shetland Times at the start of this month which showed the SNP with a shock lead over the Liberal Democrats, but it had a tiny sample size of just 114, which means that even if it was conducted scientifically (and it sounds like it probably wasn't), it would have a very large margin of error.

I'd just make a couple of observations, though -

1) Nobody has ever made any money betting against the Liberal Democrats in the Northern Isles.  Pembrokeshire is known as "Little England beyond Wales", and perhaps we should call Orkney and Shetland "Westmorland and Lonsdale beyond Scotland".  Danus Skene did of course come astonishingly close to winning the Westminster seat for the SNP in the 2015 general election, but perhaps more to the point is that it was one of only three constituencies in the whole of Scotland that the SNP didn't actually win in that election.

2) There's no particular reason to expect trends in Northern Isles elections to bear much resemblance to Scotland-wide or UK-wide trends.  Two recent examples spring to mind.  In 2016, the year after Danus Skene's near miss, it was reasonable to expect that the SNP would be highly competitive in the Orkney and Shetland constituency seats for Holyrood, because their national vote had not fallen back much at all.  But Liam McArthur and Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott surprised everyone by holding the seats for the Lib Dems by landslide margins.  It was as if 2015 had never happened.  But then in the European elections in May of this year, at a time when the Lib Dems were riding high across the UK and you'd have expected them to be out of sight in their traditional heartlands, the SNP amazingly came within just 250 votes of outpolling them in Shetland.  So there's no real rhyme or reason to it, and that might be a point of encouragement for the SNP.  The people of Shetland might not be all that bothered one way or another about the media's fawning over the Lib Dems' shiny new Scottish school prefect.

If I was going to give you my gut sense of what to expect, it would be that the Lib Dems will hold the seat on a substantially reduced majority - it has that sort of feel about it.  But we won't really have a clue until the votes are counted.  If by any chance the Shetland Times poll is correct and the SNP gain the seat, it would be one of the most sensational by-election results in Scottish history, it would further boost the mandate for a pre-2021 indyref by increasing the pro-indy majority from 69-60 to 70-59, and it would reduce the Lib Dems to a humiliating all-time low of just four Holyrood seats at a time when they're supposed to be sweeping all before them.

Is the Holyrood voting system a unionist conspiracy?

One thing that has become clear in the discussions/arguments of recent days is that there is a real degree of paranoia among some independence supporters about how we ended up with the voting system for the Scottish Parliament, ie. "it was designed to shaft us, so we should use it to shaft them".  This is quite odd on the face of it, because by any objective measure the Additional Member System has so far worked out beautifully for both the SNP and the combined pro-indy forces.  There have been five elections since devolution in 1999, and three of them have produced SNP governments.  Two of them produced outright pro-indy majorities.  And in the two elections in which the SNP didn't come out on top, the list element of the system gave us far more pro-indy MSPs than we would have had under first-past-the-post.  For example, either 27.9% or 28.7% of the MSPs elected in 1999 were in favour of independence (depending on how you classify Robin Harper), but it would have been just 9.6% without list MSPs.

As far as I can see, a lot of the paranoia seems to derive from a single-word answer that a young Jack McConnell once gave at a press conference when a journalist asked him whether proportional representation was introduced specifically to stop the SNP ever getting a majority.  He said "correct".  But we wouldn't regard Jack McConnell as a reliable witness about anything else, so why we treat that particular answer as gospel is rather unclear.  What we do know for sure is that at the outset of discussions in the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, the Liberal Democrats (then known as "the Democrats") were insisting upon some form of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament, and in complete contrast to their attitude in coalition negotiations with the Tories twenty-one years later, they were actually treating electoral reform as a genuine deal-breaker.  The chances of a cross-party agreement appeared remote, because it was so obviously in the narrow interests of the Labour party to hold the line on first-past-the-post - if they did, they looked set for indefinite majority rule in Edinburgh.

But, of course, Labour eventually made the seemingly irrational decision to give way.  Why?  I can think of three plausible explanations, and it may well have been a combination of all three.  Firstly, Labour did have some enthusiasts for electoral reform in their own ranks, so those people may have made their presence felt.  Secondly, given that the Thatcher/Major government seemed firmly entrenched in power at Westminster, Labour may have felt that a common front with the Lib Dems was essential to build the moral pressure for devolution.  And thirdly, it may have occurred to the likes of Donald Dewar that however dominant Labour appeared to be in Scotland, the SNP would only need a relatively short burst of popularity at some point in the future to win an outright majority under first-past-the-post - and just one SNP majority might be enough to make Scotland an independent country.  So proportional representation may have been partly an insurance policy against that distant eventuality.

But even if that was the reasoning, we have to bear in mind that once Labour had conceded the principle of proportional representation, they then hedged their bets by trying to limit how proportional the system would be in practice.  They brought in a regional list system rather than a national list, which effectively gives a dominant party a "winner's bonus" in its strongest regions.  They refused the possibility of German-style levelling seats which could have more or less guaranteed full proportionality.  And they insisted on there being fewer list seats than constituency seats, which makes proportionality even less likely to be properly achieved.  In fact, at one stage Labour were openly pushing for a ratio of just 40 list seats to the 73 constituency seats, which would have made single-party majority government very easily attainable, as has proved to be the case under a similar ratio in Wales.

All of these things were done to put Labour in command of the Scottish Parliament, but Dewar and co must have known that a somewhat less proportional system was bound to start working in favour of independence if the SNP ever became the most popular party.  And so it has proved.  Labour's greed for short-term power led them to effectively downgrade their own insurance policy, and in the long run they paid the price for it.

It's also worth making the point that the insurance policy was proportional representation as a general concept - the selection of an exact type of proportional representation wasn't so important.  There's nothing about a mixed system of constituency and list MSPs that in itself constitutes a conspiracy against independence.  In 1999, exactly half of the list seats were won by the SNP, and those SNP list members then proceeded to set up "shadow constituency surgeries" in Labour-held constituency seats across the central belt.  Unsurprisingly, that infuriated Labour activists, who demanded that the 'unelected' list MSPs should know their place.  SNP supporters were entirely guilt-free about the whole thing: the list seats had merely given their party something closer to its fair share of representation, and it was about time that Labour got used to not having a completely free run on a minority vote.

The only thing that's changed since then is that the boot is on the other foot because the SNP have replaced Labour as the dominant party in the constituencies.  There's nothing unfair or crooked about the fact that the list seats are now mostly held by unionists - that's the case simply because the list seats are there to make the overall composition of parliament roughly proportional to how people cast their votes.  If one side of the constitutional debate is under-represented in the constituencies, they'll be automatically compensated for that on the list.  The pro-independence side has benefited from that process in the past, and may well benefit from it again in future.

We would be foolish to casually throw away a system that is infinitely fairer to all sides than first-past-the-post.  However, it could certainly be improved - scrapping the regional lists in favour of a national list would increase proportionality at a stroke, and having a single vote to elect both constituency and list members would put an end to all the interminable nonsense about "tactical voting on the list", which - for the reasons that have been rehearsed on this blog a million times - is practically a contradiction in terms.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Wings party, and the cautionary tale of Mr Archie Stirling

Remarkably, the debate over the wisdom of the proposed Wings party is still raging after the best part of a week, and it's started to take on a noticeably 'harder' tone.  Many of Wings' keenest supporters already seem to be identifying as partisans of an electoral force that doesn't, we should recall, actually exist yet.  That means they're instantly taking offence at any hint of scepticism towards the proposed party, and in some cases at anything that falls short of total enthusiasm.  Every time I log onto Twitter now, there are dozens of new notifications that tend to fall into three broad categories: people are either irate that I don't accept that a Wings party can successfully game the Holyrood electoral system, or they're professing incredulity that I could possibly think that way, or they're trolling me about it. 

This was one of the comments I found particularly exasperating -

"Why don’t you try & find a way that will work. That would be of help, rather than it will nae work"

To remove any doubt that she was trolling, she added a 'crying with laughter' emoticon to the end of her tweet.  But actually it's me who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at comments of that sort (and there have been a good few of them).  They imply that it's somehow imperative that the Wings proposal be made to work, because it's the solution to a problem that has to be addressed, and that it must be possible to make it work with sophisticated number-crunching and strategising.

Both of those assumptions are misplaced.  In fact, the Wings party is a solution in search of a problem that as of yet doesn't exist.  We have a pro-independence majority at the moment, we've had it for eight years, and current polling suggests that we're on course to hold onto it.  Of course the polling situation can change between now and May 2021 (and it can change for either the worse or the better), but the time for highly risky, panicky measures is when we actually have something to panic about.

And there's no Baldrick-style cunning plan that can be devised to make the plan work, because the problem I and others have identified is a very basic one - that the Wings party is unlikely to have enough popular support to win list seats in any region.  That being the case, any list votes it takes will simply make it harder for other pro-indy parties to win list seats (and by extension easier for unionist parties to win list seats).  There's nothing I can do about a basic shortfall in the required number of votes - other than winning the lottery and helping to pay for Wings billboard ads.  Remember that the broadcasters will feel able to largely ignore the Wings party because there's no evidence of significant support in previous elections.  There'll almost certainly be no invitation to leaders' debates.  The newspapers may give the party an occasional mention, but only in an attempt to whip up mischief.  Social media will therefore have to carry the weight of any campaigning, which is a tough ask when the party won't have an especially distinctive policy platform (except on gender self-ID).

Stuart Campbell has pointed out that we don't yet know exactly what the potential level of support for the party is, and that he'll be conducting more opinion polling before making a decision about whether to stand candidates on the list.  That's fair enough, but when this polling appears, I would urge people to look closely at the format of the question before getting carried away with the results.  Questions along the lines of "how likely would you be to vote for Party X?" are notorious for producing wildly misleading results. 

The classic example was in the run-up to the 2007 Holyrood election, when Archie Stirling used his wealth to set up a new centre-right party called Scottish Voice.  (I know very little about Archie Stirling other than that he's the father of actress Rachael Stirling, who dutifully came out in support of the doomed party.)  He commissioned a YouGov poll that supposedly showed that 21% of the electorate would consider voting for the party, and on that basis managed to convince the newspapers to breathlessly report that Scottish Voice was on course for 20+ list seats and maybe even the balance of power.  In the event, of course, Archie didn't even trouble the scorer - he took just 0.1% of the constituency vote and 0.3% of the list vote, and didn't come within light-years of taking any seats.

How could a poll be so misleading?  Basically if you ask about a party in isolation, people will think "well, I'm a reasonable person, this party sounds fine, of course I would consider voting for it".  But when they see the name of that party in a menu of options, it gets lost in the crowd and they instead focus on the party they prefer the most.  We saw the same problem earlier this year with polls offering wildly inflated suggestions about the electoral potential of Change UK.  Other polls that asked "if the Independent Group stood in the next election, who would you vote for?" produced somewhat more realistic results, but I think they were still problematical because they artificially drew people's attention to the new party in the question's preamble. 

For my money, to get a meaningful sense of how well a Wings party might do, a poll would need to ask...

If the following parties stood on the regional list ballot, who would you vote for?

Scottish National Party (SNP)
Labour
Conservatives
Liberal Democrats
Greens
Brexit Party
Wings Over Scotland
Change UK
UKIP

If 5% or more of voters selected Wings unprompted on a robust question of that sort, then we might not necessarily be looking at a suicide mission.  And if 15% said they would vote Wings, then Stuart might be on to something.  I don't think that would be the result of such a poll, but realistically that's the test.

*  *  *

Stuart has been protesting over the last couple of days that he isn't trying to "game" the Holyrood voting system, and that standing candidates in a democratic election isn't "gaming" the system.  The latter point is strictly speaking true - standing candidates on the list isn't in itself an act of trying to game the system, but it becomes one if 90% of your pitch to the voters is about gaming the system!  I defy anyone to read Stuart's posts on the subject and conclude that isn't what he's trying to do.  For the most part he hasn't been talking about policy but about tactical voting - about how the number of pro-indy MSPs can supposedly be increased by voting SNP on the constituency ballot but switching to Wings on the list. 

To me, this is an academic point, because I would have no moral objection to gaming the system if I thought for one moment it was actually going to work.  But words do have meanings, and yes, the Wings party would be a clear attempt to game the system and win a bigger number of pro-indy seats than the size of the pro-indy vote would normally warrant.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

No, Jeremy Corbyn didn't make a strategic mistake with his offer to stop No Deal

I was surprised to see an article on Stormfront Lite by Alastair Meeks today suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn has made a strategic mistake by offering to head a caretaker government to stop No Deal.  To me, it seems pretty obvious that an alternative government of any complexion isn't viable this side of an election - because the likes of Change UK won't back one led by Corbyn, and the vast bulk of Labour MPs will not feel able to back one led by anybody else.  That's exactly why Corbyn's move makes strategic sense.  He has the SNP and Caroline Lucas on side to demonstrate that if anyone is best-placed to form a government, he is, and that the only roadblock to a solution is a small number of dogmatic holdouts like Jo Swinson and Anna Soubry who themselves can't offer a remotely credible alternative.  The fourteen Lib Dem MPs plus Change UK plus Ken Clarke plus Harriet Harman does not exactly equal a majority.

It may be that Corbyn made very sure he had the SNP on side with carefully-choreographed comments from himself and John McDonnell about not blocking a second indyref.  We might have to wait for the memoirs to discover whether there was some sort of informal understanding between the Labour leadership and the SNP that brought us to this point.

So if a pre-election change of government isn't a runner, how can No Deal on 31st October be averted?  If MPs can't seize control of the process directly, I think what we might end up with is a successful vote of no confidence, followed up immediately by legislation to amend the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and prevent Boris Johnson delaying the general election until November.  It would be an awful lot easier for a majority of MPs to reach an agreement on that sort of legislation than on the identity of an alternative Prime Minister.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why a Wings party is probably a bad idea: Part Two

A kind of fever has swept through parts of the Yes movement over the last 48 hours.  A number of people who were clear-sighted about the risks of "tactical voting on the list" (sic) in 2011 and 2016 have been enthusiastically embracing the proposal for a Wings party, which looks set to make exactly the same "tactical voting" pitch that RISE did last time around.  I've even had one or two people huffily announce that they are unfollowing me on Twitter for simply pointing out that "tactical voting on the list" doesn't magically become any more viable just because we're talking about a blog-based party rather than a radical left party.

Stuart Campbell himself, of course, warned of the dangers of misguided "tactical voting" in the run-up to the 2016 election.  As I understand it, his explanation for changing his view comes in two parts.  Firstly, he thinks that the result of the 2016 election changes the equation, because it demonstrates more clearly than before that list votes for the SNP are largely "wasted".  And secondly, he believes the Wings party would be more mainstream and have much wider popular appeal than RISE or the Greens, and therefore sheer weight of numbers would ensure that vote-splitting isn't a problem, because the party would easily clear the de facto threshold of 5% or 6% for representation in each of the electoral regions it stands in.

The first point makes no sense at all, and the second point probably doesn't make much sense either.  I say "probably", because I do have a couple of caveats to place on my doubts.  There's a story in The National today based on a claim from an SNP "insider" that Alex Salmond is behind the plans for a Wings party.  (The fact that something as paranoid-sounding as that is being said in private raises troubling questions about the extent to which the current SNP leadership have cast their popular former leader - who remains entirely innocent in the eyes of the law - out into the cold.)  Stuart Campbell has strenuously denied the claim.  However, it wouldn't be the first time in history that a denied story has turned out to have a grain of truth in it, so let's suppose for the sake of argument that Alex Salmond either led the Wings party or was one of its leading candidates.  Would that make a difference?  Of course it would.  Alex Salmond is a hero for a huge number of independence supporters (myself included) and it's not at all difficult to imagine a new party in which he takes an active role securing a very healthy haul of list seats.  But my question is this: in the unlikely event that Alex Salmond was looking outside the SNP for a route back into politics, does it seem plausible that he would choose the Wings party as his vehicle?  I think he'd be more likely (and it would make more electoral sense) to build a new party around his own personal 'brand'.  Theoretically, it's possible that he might be allowing someone else to make the running until legal proceedings against him are resolved one way or another.  But my guess is that the SNP "insider" is probably just letting their imagination run away with them.

My second caveat is that there is at least one well-known international precedent for what Wings may be attempting to do.  The Five Star Movement, which is currently the senior partner in the Italian coalition government, essentially started life as a blog.  But there are a couple of key differences between Wings Over Scotland and the Beppe Grillo blog.  The latter is written by a hugely familiar TV celebrity, and put forward a policy prospectus that was radically different from anything the existing parties had to offer.  What is the gap in the market that a Wings party would be filling?  As far as I can see it would basically be the SNP without gender self-ID and with more urgency on the independence issue.  I'm not convinced those points of distinctiveness are sufficient to capture the public's imagination and to sweep the board on the list vote - or at least not without the backing of a public figure of Alex Salmond's stature (and to be honest that means Alex Salmond himself, because off the top of my head I can't think of any other public figure who would have the same effect).

Which takes me back to where I came in - the likelihood is that a Wings party would secure less than 5% of the vote in each electoral region, which means that any votes it does manage to take away from the SNP and the Greens would simply reduce the overall number of pro-indy seats in the Scottish Parliament.  People struggle with this idea, but it's entirely conceivable that moderate success for the Wings party (by which I mean something like 3% of the list vote) could reduce the chances of retaining the pro-independence majority in Holyrood that we've had since 2011.

When I put that point to Stuart Campbell directly, he said that the SNP couldn't be harmed because they hardly had any list seats to lose (they have four at the moment).  That's a sort of "truthy" observation that is going to sound like a killer point to people who don't really understand the voting system - and it therefore worries me greatly.  I've been trying to think of a helpful analogy, and the best one I can come up with is this: saying that the SNP only have four list seats to lose is a bit like saying that Bill Gates only has $4.50 to lose because that's what he currently has in his pocket.  List seats are distributed in a compensatory way to bring a party's overall representation in parliament up to roughly the level of its regional list vote.  If the SNP had won fewer constituency seats in 2016, they would have won more list seats to compensate for that.  So in fact the SNP could potentially lose up to dozens of their current seats on the list ballot next time around, because if the first-past-the-post element doesn't go their way to the same extent as in 2016, they would be relying on list votes to hold on to a healthy level of representation in parliament.

To see the truth of what I'm saying, you only need to look at the result of the 2011 election - which was, after all, the only occasion to date that the SNP have won an overall majority, and one of only two occasions to date that a pro-independence majority has been secured.  How many list seats did the SNP win?  Sixteen.  I'll say that again: sixteen.  If they hadn't won at least twelve of those, there wouldn't have been an SNP majority.  And if the SNP, Greens and Margo MacDonald between them hadn't won at least eleven list seats, there wouldn't have been a pro-independence majority at all.  Remember that, and in particular remember it the next time someone tells you the SNP don't need any list votes.

It's perfectly possible that 2021 could produce another 2011-style result, with the SNP taking fewer constituencies than in 2016 despite its popular vote holding up, which would make the result on the list absolutely critical.  Some of the seats that the Tories took at Westminster in 2017 are still held by the SNP in Holyrood, so it's not hard to see where the constituency losses might occur if the Tories are riding high in eighteen months' time - and it's anyone's guess whether they will be, because much depends on whether Boris Johnson delivers Brexit on time and thus wins back the Tory votes lost to the Brexit Party in May's Euro election.

And it's also important not to lose sight of the worst-case scenario.  What if the wheels come off and there is no chance at all of a pro-indy majority?  What if there's a 2007-style result with a clear unionist majority in parliament, but there's still a chance of maintaining a minority SNP government?  Would we really want to play silly buggers on the list, and make it easier for some sort of unionist coalition government to be cobbled together?  Stuart's response to that scenario is "if that happens we're all screwed anyway", but I just don't take that 'win or bust' approach to life or to politics.  A setback is a point on a spectrum, and it's important to keep the indy flame burning as brightly as possible.

Some have suggested that the threat of a Wings party might be a good thing if it helps the SNP leadership find a greater sense of urgency on independence, and actually I entirely accept that.  But if the threat is actually carried through, then I fear that for some of the reasons George Kerevan outlined yesterday, it's bound to be a lose/lose for all concerned.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Nothing has changed: vote-splitting in Holyrood elections is still a mug's game

So I've just been catching up with today's news (gleefully announced by Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson) that Wings Over Scotland editor Stuart Campbell is pondering the idea of setting up a new pro-independence party to stand in the 2021 Holyrood election, in direct competition with the SNP.  As you know, I've always been very sympathetic towards Wings, but I'm not going to be a hypocrite about this: vote-splitting in Holyrood elections is still a mug's game, irrespective of whether we're talking about a Wings party or RISE or any other small party.  What do I mean by vote-splitting?  I mean people who want an SNP government, but are lured into wrongly thinking they can somehow maximise the number of pro-independence seats by only voting for the SNP on the constituency ballot, and giving their list vote to another pro-independence party.

You might recall that analysis by John Curtice suggested it was possible that "tactical voting for the Greens" was directly responsible for costing the SNP their overall majority in 2016 - without vote-splitting by SNP supporters, the SNP could potentially have won an extra two list seats, which would have given them an overall majority of exactly one.  Vote-splitting enthusiasts like Kevin Williamson had been absurdly claiming for months before the election that the SNP were absolutely guaranteed to win at least 65 of the 73 constituency seats, and therefore didn't need any list votes at all.  Kevin was proved hopelessly wrong about that, as many of us had pointed out was pretty likely.  You just can't know in advance how many constituency seats a party will win - opinion polls are snapshots, not predictions, and often they're not even accurate snapshots.  A few percentage points one way or another can make the difference between winning 50 constituency seats and winning 20.  And if you don't have a clue how many constituency seats a party is going to win, by definition you also don't have a clue whether that party will be in desperate need of as many list votes as it can possibly get.

How much difference would it have made if the SNP had got their overall majority in 2016?  It's impossible to know, but it would at least have made a psychological difference, and the debate over whether the mandate for a second independence referendum is a "real" mandate might have followed a slightly different course.  (Doubtless the unionist parties would have still come up with some excuse for denying the mandate, but they'd have really been scraping the bottom of the barrel.)  I don't want us to repeat the mistake of 2016 by giving the unionist parties any more gift-wrapped excuses.

The biggest danger of the proposed Wings party is that it might fall between two stools, ie. it could take enough votes on the list ballot to do the SNP and the Greens significant damage, but still fall below the de facto threshold for winning any seats itself - in other words, it could lead to a net increase in the number of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat seats.  We don't yet have enough information to judge whether that is likely to happen, but I have to say I'm a tad sceptical that the Wings party would top 5% of the list vote. Stuart has today pointed to Panelbase polling showing that Wings is a highly recognised 'brand', with only 45% of respondents saying they had never heard of it.  But the reality is that online polling is likely to produce skewed figures on that sort of question, because people who read a great deal about politics are disproportionately likely to join volunteer online polling panels.  Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt that Stuart has an absolutely enormous following - but Esther Rantzen and Robert Kilroy-Silk are also both household names, and they still failed to break the mould of British politics when they attempted to do so.  It's always a mistake to underestimate people's tendency to revert to the major parties in a key election.

I'd imagine Stuart would point out that his proposed initiative isn't just about attempting to game the Holyrood system - it's also being mooted because the SNP aren't pursuing independence strongly enough at this moment of national crisis, and are also in danger of disappearing into a US-style identity politics quagmire.  Voters, he would say, are crying out for an alternative.  And I'm not going to deny that if we ever reached the point where it was rational to conclude that the SNP are never going to be serious about delivering independence, I'd probably be looking for an alternative myself.  But we are a long, long, long way from reaching that point, especially when the bulk of the SNP membership are itching for action on independence as soon as humanly possible.  I'm not any keener on the identity politics stuff than Stuart is: for example, it's now (at least on paper) SNP policy to introduce the Swedish model on prostitution law, which I've always felt infantilises women and is discriminatory against men.  But there's a bigger picture here, and that sort of thing would never make me walk away from the SNP.  You're never going to find a party with a set of policies that you can agree with 100% on every dot and comma.

Imagine what would have happened if Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the rest of the Labour left had prematurely concluded during the Blair years that the game was up and that they should set up a new socialist party to compete with Labour.  Would they have achieved anything?  Well, the new party might have recorded a respectable 3% or 4% of the vote in general elections, thus making it easier for the Tories to win.  And that would have been about it.  They'd never have got anything like as close to power as they did in June 2017.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Every Loser Wins: How "democracy" works in Scotland as part of the UK

Scottish Labour seem to be slipping deeper and deeper into an Alice Through the Looking Glass world where the acceptance of reality is, at best, an optional extra.  First we had a letter from Labour candidates waffling about the "uncertainty and economic upheaval that leaving the UK would cause", and then adding as an afterthought that the Tories are also "threatening our place in Europe".  Er, the Tories aren't "threatening" anything, this isn't David Cameron in 2012 making vague noises about an EU referendum in the medium-term.  The Tories are actually taking us out of Europe, probably without any deal, in a matter of a few short weeks.  Scotland is indeed facing "uncertainty and economic upheaval", and that'll be caused entirely by the prospect of a No Deal Brexit, which itself has been caused indirectly by the mistake of voting to stay in the UK in 2014.  We've essentially reached the point where it's intellectually dishonest to claim (as the likes of Alex Cole-Hamilton do) to be in favour of both EU membership and remaining part of the UK.  Those two things are now irreconcilable, and a choice will have to be made.  And that hasn't happened as a result of some sort of dastardly SNP plot - the people of England freely chose in the 2016 referendum to change the nature of the 'deal' that was on offer for Scotland as part of the UK.

Then we had Richard Leonard "slapping down" John McDonnell (a slightly odd thing for a branch office manager to be doing to the Shadow Chancellor) by insisting that the majority of people in Scotland are opposed to a second independence referendum.  To state the bleedin' obvious, he's making himself look a bit bloody ridiculous saying that sort of thing, because the last two opinion polls - including one published just two days ago - showed a slim majority in favour of holding a second indyref within the next couple of years.

To reiterate, though, the whole notion of a Scottish party branch pulling its errant London leadership "back into line" is really rather peculiar.  The logic of saying that Nicola Sturgeon can't just hold a referendum when she wants to is that "constitutional matters are for the United Kingdom government to decide", not for devolved politicians.  In other words, if there's a Labour government in the near future, it's for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to decide.  And yet the likes of Ian Murray and Richard Leonard are indignantly saying: "Oh no no no, this is not a matter for the UK government, but for a Scottish party.  And not for the party that was actually elected to government in Scotland, but for the second-largest opposition party in the Scottish Parliament."

What do you have to do to decide the future of Scotland?  Stand for election and be soundly beaten, it seems.

*  *  *

UPDATE: And the ever-reliable Stephen Daisley has joined Scottish Labour through the looking glass...

"Every so often, Jeremy Corbyn pops up to throw the SNP a bone, much to the horror of his Scottish foot soldiers, who know how toxic the independence issue is with their voters."

Well, it can't really be all that toxic, can it, Stephen, given that the Ashcroft poll shows 40% of Scottish Labour voters want an independent Scotland?

Monday, August 5, 2019

Has Ashcroft poll turned Our Precious Union to ASHES? Westminster in shock as a MAJORITY of Scots now support independence

Apologies for the slight delay in getting this post up - I was writing an article for The National about the Ashcroft poll, which you can read HERE.  But here are the rather wonderful figures that you've probably already seen...

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 52%
No 48%

It's not possible to give percentage changes from the last comparable poll, because Ashcroft hasn't been polling on independence in recent years.  That means, strictly speaking, that we shouldn't talk about "Yes moving into the lead", because it's conceivable that previous Ashcroft polls (if they had existed) would also have shown a Yes lead.  However, even the most Yes-friendly pollsters had No consistently in the lead last year, so it does seem overwhelmingly likely that the Ashcroft methodology would have shown a No lead giving way to a Yes lead at some point - but what we don't know is exactly when that would have happened.  Is the Yes breakthrough a direct consequence of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister?  We'll only find out for sure if Panelbase (the only firm to have polled fairly regularly on independence this year) shows a Yes lead in their next poll.

Before I proceed any further, I'd just like to observe again that Mike Smithson, known and loved by thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as a keen letter-writing impartial Lib Dem election expert, is utterly unspoofable.  Here we have a poll that shows a majority in favour of independence for the first time in two years, that shows a majority want a second independence referendum by 2021, and that shows Nicola Sturgeon is comfortably the most popular leading politician in Scotland, well ahead of Ruth Davidson and Jo Swinson.  And yet what is Smithson's choice of headline?  "Lord Ashcroft poll has Swinson beating Johnson, Corbyn and Farage in Scotland."  Technically true, Mike, but I'd gently suggest to you that there's a bigger picture here that you might be missing through those Lib Dem goggles of yours.

In fact, a direct comparison between the personal ratings of Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson makes for pretty depressing reading for the new Lib Dem leader.  Respondents were asked to give each politician a score between 0 and 100, with 0 being the worst possible figure and 100 the best.  In spite of the hatred (I don't think that's too strong a word) that some unionists feel towards Ms Sturgeon, and in spite of the fact that Ms Swinson is significantly less well-known than Ms Sturgeon, the 30% of voters who gave Ms Swinson a basement rating of between 0 and 10 is virtually identical to the 34% who did the same for Ms Sturgeon.  Meanwhile, a measly 4% gave Ms Swinson a high rating of between 81 and 100, compared to a very substantial 24% who did so for Ms Sturgeon.

Although it's true that Ms Swinson's average rating of 31 (that's 31 out of 100, remember!) is higher than that of deeply unpopular politicians such as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, it's not that much higher in the overall scheme of things.  She's only seven points ahead of Mr Johnson on 24, and nine points ahead of Mr Corbyn on 22.  That's not really much to write home about.

Average (mean) rating of each politician out of 100:

Nicola Sturgeon 45
Ruth Davidson 36
Jo Swinson 31
Willie Rennie 30
Boris Johnson 24
Jeremy Corbyn 22
Richard Leonard 22
Nigel Farage 18

Average (median) rating of each politician out of 100:

Nicola Sturgeon 50
Ruth Davidson 26
Jo Swinson 25
Willie Rennie 25
Richard Leonard 10
Jeremy Corbyn 9
Boris Johnson 3
Nigel Farage 2

You can just imagine the mounting panic of unionist politicians and strategists when they first read through this poll.  Normally it's possible for them to find a silver lining to cling to somewhere, but on this occasion the Yes side seem to have managed a full house...

Majority for independence - CHECK
Majority in favour of holding an independence referendum by 2021 - CHECK
Majority who think maintaining EU membership is more important than staying part of the UK - CHECK
Majority who think Brexit strengthens the case for independence - CHECK
Majority who think Brexit makes independence more likely - CHECK
Majority who predict a second independence referendum would result in a Yes win - CHECK
Nicola Sturgeon the most popular politician - CHECK

I'm slightly dubious about the wording of the question that asks whether EU membership or staying part of the UK is more important if it's not possible to have both, because there's an implicit presumption there that it would be desirable to have both, which may have caused some pro-indy people to opt out of the question altogether.  In spite of that, though, 45% say EU membership is more important, and only 43% say remaining in the UK is more important.

A few people have been asking whether it's true that 16 and 17 year olds were not interviewed for the poll.  As far as I can see from the datasets that's the case, so it's possible that the Yes vote should be a little higher and the No vote should be a little lower.  It's unlikely that it would make more than a 1% difference in each case, although that would still be enough to turn a 4% Yes lead into a 6% Yes lead.  That said, it's worth pointing out that there was a poll a few months ago that appeared to exclude 16 and 17 year olds...but that turned out to be an error in the datasets.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Remaining open-minded about a Remain alliance in Scotland

I have a new article in The National about the Brecon and Radnorshire result, entitled 'Could by-election-winning Remain alliance work in Scotland?'  You can read it HERE.

I see that the reference to a Remain alliance has already attracted one or two hostile comments on social media.  In fact, that point is only a small part of the article, but to avoid any misunderstanding about what I'm suggesting (and more importantly what I'm not suggesting), I'll expand on it here.

In my view, offering a Remain alliance to the Liberal Democrats in any pre-Brexit snap election would be a good each-way bet for the SNP,  because...

1) There's a 95% chance that the Lib Dems would say no.  That would allow the SNP to fight the election exactly as planned, while claiming the moral high ground and demonstrating that the Lib Dems are not serious about stopping Brexit at all costs or about working with others to stop Brexit at all costs.  Why would the Lib Dems say no?  For a number of reasons.  A pact would destroy their long-term strategy in Scotland, which is based on dogmatic, unyielding British nationalism and the securing of tactical votes from natural Tory supporters in selective seats.  It would also be humbling for a self-styled "national UK" party to have to stand aside in more than 90% of Scottish  constituencies, which is bound to be the condition of any pact.  (The Lib Dems are only the strongest Remain party in the four Scottish constituencies they currently hold.)

2) Even in the highly unlikely event that the Lib Dems say yes, the pact would actually work in the SNP's favour.  The four seats they would be standing aside in are among the small handful of seats they'd be highly unlikely to win anyway, while Lib Dem support for SNP candidates on an "emergency stop Brexit" basis could be a game-changer in Tory-held seats.  There's a Remain majority even in Moray.

3) As you know, I'm a strong supporter of the McEleny/MacNeil plan to use an election to secure an outright mandate for independence in the event that a Section 30 order is refused.  For the avoidance of doubt, if the SNP were to accept that plan for the next general election, an alliance with the Lib Dems would be completely out of the question, because there would have to be a pro-independence candidate in every single constituency.  But we've all heard the mood music from the SNP leadership: in a snap pre-Brexit election, they're more likely to emphasise their plan to stop Brexit, albeit with a pledge to hold an independence referendum.  That being the case, they might as well maximise the number of seats they win.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The real winner in Brecon and Radnorshire was the Welsh language

So a few quick thoughts about the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election result...

* The big paradox is that the Liberal Democrats won, and they won essentially because they are a Remain party, and yet this is a constituency that voted Leave in the referendum and that voted for Leave parties again tonight.  Even if you don't count Labour as a Leave party, there was a narrow majority for the Tories, Brexit Party and UKIP in combination.  The Lib Dems were able to come through because the minority Remain vote was united and the majority Leave vote was badly split.

* The narrowness of the result means that it's pretty likely that the Tories would have held on if a) Boris Johnson had become Prime Minister before the postal ballots went out, or b) the Brexit Party hadn't put up a candidate.  It's also quite conceivable that the Lib Dems would have fallen short if it hadn't been for the unprecedented decision of Plaid Cymru to stand aside in their favour.  Many Plaid members must be privately wondering whether that was a wise tactical move.  The leadership may have thought that the Lib Dems were going to win anyway, so it was best to get a share of the credit...but now that it looks like Plaid may have swung the balance, there could be some regrets if considerable momentum is generated for the Lib Dems in Wales.  But who knows, maybe the Lib Dems will act honourably for once in their lives and return the favour in constituencies where Plaid are the strongest Remain party.

* The real victor tonight was the Welsh language.  Although Brecon and Radnorshire is very much in the more Anglicised part of Wales (hence Plaid's relative weakness in the constituency), the result was intended to be announced in both Welsh and English, but in the case of the main candidates, the returning officer only read out the numbers in Welsh and forgot to give the English version.  The BBC and Sky well and truly got their comeuppance for covering a Welsh by-election without thinking to have a Welsh speaker on hand, because they literally didn't know what the result was for several minutes after it was announced.  A far cry from the Welsh devolution referendum of 1997, when the BBC results programme was presented by a young Huw Edwards, who in one or two cases translated the results from Welsh in real time so that viewers would know them a few seconds early.

* As was widely trailed, the Tory/DUP majority in the House of Commons has been technically reduced to just 1, although in practice it's slightly higher than that because Charlie Elphicke remains a Tory MP in all but name.  The majority will also revert to being 2 temporarily if Jared O'Mara sticks to his plan to resign his seat after the summer recess.