Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Most general elections in recent decades have taken place in either May or June. There were a couple of elections outside "peak months" in April 1992 and October 1974, but the last truly "unseasonal" election was in February 1974, and just like the one that's about to come, it took place in the midst of a national crisis. Edward Heath's Tory government had a perfectly sustainable majority that could have seen him through all the way until mid-1975, but buoyed by favourable opinion polls, he instead took the fateful decision to seek a fresh mandate that would supposedly send a message that it was the elected government that governs, and not the unions. Polling day was 28th February - officially the last day of winter, although as we all know, early March often feels like an extension of winter in much the same way that early September often feels like an extension of summer. As polls closed the expectation was still that Heath's gamble would just about pay off, even though Labour had managed to stall his momentum somewhat during the campaign. But early results showed a surprisingly decent swing to Labour, and although the Tories did narrowly win the popular vote, that translated into a very slight lead for Labour in terms of seats. After a short delay of a few days, Labour leader Harold Wilson was invited by the Queen to form what was effectively a caretaker government until a new election could be held later in the year. Crucial to the outcome was the fact that every Ulster Unionist that was elected was opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement, and therefore no longer took the Conservative whip. If the UUP had still been inside the Tory fold, Heath would almost certainly have clung onto power, albeit at the head of a minority government. It was also, of course, a big breakthrough election for the SNP - they jumped from two seats to a new all-time high of seven. And there was a Liberal surge that didn't really produce any meaningful rewards as far as seats were concerned.
Does this tell us that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems can expect to do well in "unseasonal" elections? Probably not. I think the main thing it tells us is that winter elections are likely to only come about as the result of a major crisis, and that the outcome of the election will be determined largely by voters' reaction to that crisis, not by the temperature outside. Although oddly enough, the only other post-war winter election wasn't (as far as I'm aware, anyway) triggered by an immediate crisis - Labour PM Clement Attlee went to the polls in February 1950, a few months earlier than he needed to, and paid the penalty. His huge majority from 1945 was all but wiped out, and although he clung on to power for another year and a half, guerilla tactics in the Commons led his exhausted (literally physically exhausted) government to feel they had no choice but to call a snap election in late 1951, which they narrowly lost to Winston Churchill's resurgent Tories.
If you watch election results programmes from the distant past, you'll find the theory always used to be that a "high poll" (ie. a big turnout) favoured Labour, which might lead us to conclude that bad weather in winter that deters people from voting could be good news for the Tories. But arguably the 1992 result gives the lie to that - there was a bumper turnout of 78% (which hasn't been repeated in any general election since), but Labour did much worse than anticipated.
For my money, the biggest issue with a winter election is the slight danger of freak weather conditions such as the Beast From The East that would make it impossible for many people to vote, and to the best of my knowledge there are no legal provisions to postpone a vote at the last minute because of the weather. If, in a parallel universe, the Liberal Democrats had gone into coalition with the SNP in 2007 and had agreed to Alex Salmond's preferred date of St Andrew's Day 2010 for an independence referendum, there would have been major disruption because of heavy snow. There probably would have been controversy for years afterwards about whether the outcome of the vote was really legitimate.
Final thought: if the EU extend Article 50 until 31st January and we need an election before that date to break the deadlock, surely it'll have to be just before Christmas? I know it's getting very tight if that's going to happen, but the alternative would be either a mid-January election that would require campaigning to take place over the festive period, or a late January election that would be right up against the cliff-edge.
The Scotsman newspaper should be deeply ashamed of lying to its readers - yes, lying - in today's headline about an independence poll
The percentage of respondents who say that they "completely support Scotland becoming independent" has increased from 24% in the previous poll (conducted in March) to 26% now. By contrast, the percentage of respondents who say that they "completely support Scotland staying part of the UK" has fallen in the same period from 40% to 37%.
If you also take into account respondents who are not on one of the two extremes, the pro-Yes trend is even stronger. The percentage of respondents who are on the pro-independence side of the 0-10 scale has increased significantly from 35% in March to 40% now, while the percentage of respondents on the anti-independence side of the scale has declined sharply from 58% to 51%.
It's rare that we can simply say that a newspaper has lied, as opposed to just misleading its readers or telling half-truths, but this is one of those rare occasions. The headline contains no quotation marks, and it doesn't say "according to Scotland in Union" or something like that (although I think we can make a fairly safe guess that's how this story came to appear). It simply tells a direct lie.
As for the question of why this poll format produces such different numbers from standard Yes/No polls, there's something of a mystery. We know from David Halliday's screenshot that at least some respondents were confusingly asked to regard the number zero as being the pro-independence end of the scale, and the number ten as being the anti-independence end of the scale - which may well explain why a wildly implausible 16% of Yes voters from 2014 are now supposedly expressing "complete support" for Scotland remaining in the UK. (The equivalent figure from the March poll was almost identical.) And yet the Survation datasets suggest that the opposite was done, and that the number ten was in fact the pro-independence end of the scale. Are the datasets inaccurate? Was there a dummy poll conducted in a different way for research purposes? Either way, it does seem very surprising that Angus Robertson's Progress Scotland have persisted in commissioning polls using this format after the results produced in the spring proved to be so totally out of line with the results of conventional independence polling.
UPDATE: I see The Herald have done much the same thing as the Scotsman - their headline is "New poll suggests shift in support away from Scottish independence". I don't think any of us are going to faint with amazement if it turns out that both papers have just lightly rewritten a Scotland in Union press release without bothering to check whether its factual claims are accurate.
Monday, October 21, 2019
Basically respondents were asked to express their degree of support for independence on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 indicating total support and 10 indicating total opposition. I speculated at the time as to why that might have produced an artificially low result for independence, but now we have a stronger clue. The pro-independence Twitter legend David Halliday contacted me three weeks ago to say that he'd just taken part in a Survation poll using exactly that question format - and that he'd accidentally indicated total opposition to independence.
"Just had a really interesting - if embarrassing - experience taking a Survation poll. It started out about me - where I lived (which region in Scotland - clearly Scotland only), age, children, income - then on to how I voted in 2017, 2016 and 2014. Then - this is the interesting and embarrassing bit - it asked a question about independence on a scale of 0 or 1 to 10. I went straight to 10 ("Totally in favour of") and clicked next and only then realised that 10 was "Totally in favour of staying within the UK" (or similar) while 0 or 1 was "Totally in favour of independence". I tried to go back but couldn't so stopped the poll, in the hope my vote won't be counted. A real life example of how the wording of the question in a different way (and one that confusingly harked back to the 1 to 10 questions Yes canvassers asked in 2014 where the 10 was dead in favour of independence) can skew the result. I'm wondering if it was deliberate."
It's obviously unlikely that any poll commissioned by Angus Robertson would have tried to achieve that effect deliberately, but it does illustrate why any numbers produced by this question format should be taken with a pinch of salt. If someone as intelligent and politically-engaged as David was capable of misreading the question and saying the opposite of what he intended to say, it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to suppose that plenty of other respondents may have done exactly the same thing. Even if you hadn't encountered the 1 to 10 questions asked by Yes canvassers in 2014, it's entirely natural to assume that the highest number would indicate the maximum support for the proposition you are being asked about.
Here is a screenshot that David took of the question when he managed to revisit the poll later - would you have been confused? Particularly if you weren't looking too carefully?
Based on other questions that were asked, David is very confident that the poll he was taking was the latest one for Progress Scotland, and yet oddly the datasets for that poll suggest that the question was asked the other way around, with 10 indicating total support for independence and 0 indicating total opposition. So what's going on? Are the datasets wrong? Were two different halves of the sample asked the question in different ways? No idea. For what it's worth, though, this poll is slightly better for Yes than the one in the spring, with exactly 40% of respondents putting themselves on the independence-friendly end of the spectrum, and another 6% choosing the neutral option of 5.
Sunday, October 20, 2019
FACTCHECK: Have the SNP "gone into alliance with the DUP to kill independence"? (Spoiler: No, they haven't.)
The basis for this latest ludicrous Wings claim is a tweet from James Melville claiming that the DUP are "on board" for a second EU referendum and that it's likely that the votes are now there to make that referendum happen. Now, first things first: we do actually have to test the accuracy of Mr Melville's claim. I'm sure he's a great bloke, but he's also well known on Twitter as a bit of a Remain/People's Vote propagandist, so naturally he's going to sometimes say things that turn out to be a tad over-optimistic from his own point of view. I can't see any evidence at all that the DUP have come out for a second referendum - there's speculation that they might do, but to the extent that they've commented on the record, they've given the firm impression that they won't. And even if they do, I'm doubtful that would be enough to swing the balance in itself.
If the SNP and the DUP do end up walking through the same lobby in favour of a People's Vote, does that mean they're "in alliance" with each other? No, it does not. That's one of the silliest and laziest allegations in politics. In a binary vote, all you can control is which way you vote and your reasons for doing it. You have no control whatsoever over how other parties vote, and in many cases you may not even know what they're planning to do until the vote is actually underway. Parties can sometimes end up voting in the same lobby for polar opposite reasons - indeed, that happened only yesterday. The SNP voted for the Letwin amendment because (among other things) they think the new deal gives Northern Ireland an unfair advantage over Scotland, and the DUP voted for the Letwin amendment because they think the deal is bad for Northern Ireland.
And in the unlikely event that a People's Vote is actually held, would that have the automatic effect of "killing independence"? No, of course it wouldn't, for the obvious reason that we don't know what the result of the People's Vote would be yet. If, for a second time in four years, the people of Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the European Union but were outvoted by people in another country, that would strengthen rather than weaken the case for independence. And it's perfectly conceivable that could happen. Although most recent polls show a Remain lead, it's usually not an enormous one, and in any case the referendum choice would be framed as "Deal v Remain" rather than "Leave v Remain". The Brexiteers will have something positive to sell, and that could make all the difference as the campaign unfolds - especially with the financial muscle of the Tory party firmly behind them. I have a sneaking suspicion that the dread words "best of both worlds" might be given another outing.
Now, don't get me wrong - I'm on the record as being sceptical about the SNP's strategy of backing a People's Vote, and I do still worry about the danger of throwing away the casus belli for an early indyref. But I also think it would be a rather good idea to avoid hyperbole and hysteria about the effect of the decision that the SNP have made. It's far from clear that it's going to be the unmitigated catastrophe that Wings is so vividly painting in his readers' minds.
And why in the name of all that is holy is an alleged independence supporter trying to push the self-destructive narrative that the SNP need 50%+ of the vote (as opposed to the SNP and Greens winning a majority of Holyrood seats between them) to claim a renewed mandate for an independence referendum in 2021, if required? And why does he chuck in gratuitous attacks on other miscellaneous SNP policies such as the fictional "car park tax" and tail-docking of working dogs? Is he trying to do the unionists' work for them?
Oh no, I was forgetting, he wants to be Deputy First Minister. Silly me. (Although that probably amounts to the same thing.)
If there's any light at all at the end of the tunnel, it's the approaching clarity on the date of a general election. In principle, Johnson appears to have the numbers to pass his deal - but the devil is in the detail, and all it would take to kill the deal (at least this side of an election) is a successful amendment that makes the legislation depart significantly from what was agreed with the EU. If the DUP seek to amend the arrangements for Northern Ireland, for example, it's not impossible to imagine some Tory Brexiteers abstaining rather than voting with the government. Either way, though, we'll know very soon. If the legislation is passed to the EU's satisfaction, Britain will officially leave the EU in less than two weeks' time and it would make obvious sense to then move on to an election to ensure a proper mandate for whichever government enters into the next round of negotiations with Brussels during the transition period. If, on the other hand, the legislation hits the rocks, it's likely that the EU will reluctantly agree to parliament's request for a three month extension, which on the face of it would satisfy Jeremy Corbyn's stated condition for agreeing to an election.
Would Labour still look for an excuse for further delay, given their unpromising showing in most current opinion polls? Maybe, although it's no longer clear that playing it long will actually improve their position. They had previously thought that if they just held on for a bit, Boris Johnson would be boxed into campaigning for No Deal at the election, which would have allowed Labour to portray themselves as the only viable alternative to an extremist government. But whenever the election is held now, Johnson will be able to sell his deal as a grand compromise, and so arguably Labour might as well just get on and face the music.
If they do seek an excuse for a delay, it'll probably be the old favourite of "we can't annoy the voters at Christmas". But pretty much any party would be quite happy to interrupt people's Christmas preparations if they thought there was the remotest tactical advantage. Back in the day on Stormfront Lite, Tory posters used to complain that polls conducted over Christmas underestimated their party due to voters being away on holiday and whatnot, so who knows? Maybe Labour will calculate that they're better off going to the country while Tory voters are disproportionately likely to be away skiing in Saalbach-Hinterglemm.
If the election is held before Brexit, each party is going to have a very obvious pitch -
Conservatives: Get Brexit done with our compromise deal and bring the country back together
Labour: Only we will let the people decide on Brexit
Liberal Democrats: Stop Brexit
SNP: Stop Brexit and reinforce our mandate for an independence referendum next year
All of those sound like potential winners, but self-evidently they can't all be.
* * *
Regular readers might remember that a few months ago I wrote about the absence of a Scottish Gaelic course on Duolingo, and urged people to add their name to the campaign for that to be rectified. After that post, I spoke to a couple of people who had been seeking to engage with Duolingo on the subject for many years, and they were extremely pessimistic that progress would be made any time soon. But just for once, there's an unalloyed good news outcome to report: Gaelic will shortly be added to the site! You can sign up in advance HERE. It'll still be a few months before the course is fully up and running by the looks of things. In the meantime, I can recommend the free Gaelic course on Glossika that someone directed me to. (Glossika is mainly a pay-site, but Gaelic is one of a small number of languages that are currently offered for free, presumably due to being endangered.)
Friday, October 18, 2019
Thursday, October 17, 2019
No, of course the SNP wouldn't get a Section 30 order by offering to back Johnson's Hard Brexit deal
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
Yesterday's Women's Convenor result was a moral victory, not a defeat - but only if people hold their nerve and don't walk away from the SNP
Nevertheless, I'm sure nobody would have been too worried about Ms Robertson's victory if a symbolic result had been achieved in the Women's vote - but instead Rhiannon Spear won by a narrow margin. This double victory by supporters of self-ID, and the gloating that has followed it, has led a few people to conclude that the SNP is now completely and hopelessly in the grip of entryists and that there is no longer any place in the party for gender-critical feminists or for people who are opposed to self-ID for any other reason. And that is a fundamental misreading of the situation. I thought our old friend James Mackenzie unwittingly put his finger on something in his comment on the vote -
"Pleased to see the pro-equality slates won the SNP's internal elections. The experience within the Greens is you need to win a couple of times in order to settle this issue - some bigots will leave the first time, but others will try to dig in. Eventually they leave, though."
Obviously this is a repugnant comment, because it seems phenomenally unlikely that there were ever any "bigots" in the Green party in the first place, but it's clear that there was certainly a chilling intolerance towards those who dissented from the doctrine of the majority (a doctrine that is not central to the Greens' reasons for existence, any more than it is to the SNP's).
But think about what he's actually saying. He's implying that the pro-self-ID lobby haven't really won, and won't do until and unless the other side actually walk away from the SNP. And he's right, because even with their new mandate Fiona Robertson and Rhiannon Spear aren't going to decide the SNP's priorities. The leadership will do that, and the main relevance of yesterday's vote was in guiding the leadership on whether the members will be solidly behind them if they push ahead with full-fat self-ID. And the answer is clearly "no". It would suit the pro-self-ID lobby down to the ground if their opponents left the stage, but it would not suit Nicola Sturgeon if a substantial minority of SNP members leave the party. That would not be any kind of victory for her, and she's unlikely to take action that would drive members to that point. But once those people leave, Ms Sturgeon would have nothing left to lose. So if they just hold their nerve for now, they can avoid turning what was actually a moral victory yesterday into a defeat later on.
And needless to say that siren voices outside the party offering a counsel of despair should be treated with enormous scepticism, because they have their own agenda.
The other obvious point is that a 32 vote defeat is close enough to suggest that it could be fully reversed in future years if people just bide their time and remain within the party. Jeremy Corbyn would not be leader of the Labour party now if he had given up the ghost when it was 'nuclear winter' for the Labour left under previous leaders. In democratic parties, there's always another chance somewhere around the corner.
* * *
Some good news for the SNP from YouGov's latest Scottish subsample -
SNP 42%, Conservatives 23%, Labour 13%, Liberal Democrats 10%, Brexit Party 9%, Greens 2%
These figures are very much 'normal' by recent standards, and bolster the impression that the little run of bad results that the SNP had in YouGov subsamples a couple of weeks ago was probably caused by random sampling variation, rather than by real changes on the ground. It's particularly encouraging to see another underwhelming result for the Lib Dems.
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
In a nutshell: false alarm.
* * *
I've just caught up with yet another polling post on Wings Over Scotland, and I really do have to reiterate that it's deeply reprehensible for him to be seeking to pass the blame onto Panelbase for his own biased and leading questions about the trans issue (and indeed about other issues). Here's what he said this time -
"Some of those polls have been conducted by this site, and are invariably leapt on by trans activists as having featured supposedly “leading” or “unfair” questions, even though we check all our questions with Panelbase first and the results have without exception been identical, often to within a single percentage point, to those revealed in polls featuring differently-worded questions commissioned by extremely trans-friendly organisations like Pink News."
If I thought for one moment that he'd asked Panelbase "are these questions leading?" and that they had said "no", then I would be criticising Panelbase and saying they had to accept a share of the blame. But I just don't believe that's what's happened here. This is the question he published a few days ago -
"The SNP has announced its intention to implement 'self-ID' legislation, whereby physically-male people will have unrestricted access to all female-only spaces and services (eg. toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, sporting competitions and women's refuges) if they declare themselves to be women, whether or not they've had any medical treatment or surgery to change their sex.
On a scale of 0 to 10, how do you feel about this proposal?"
It's absolutely fatuous to suggest that any polling company would have said the above question is even-handed or neutral, and yet Mr Campbell is trying to give us the impression that Panelbase did exactly that. In the comments section of this blog, he even provided a direct quote from an email sent to him by his Panelbase contact to try to bolster that impression. Given how emotive this subject is, I would imagine that Panelbase are not exactly over the moon that one of their clients is effectively telling people that they've picked a side in the trans debate. That's the inescapable implication of what Mr Campbell is saying, because anyone suggesting that his question is neutral would undoubtedly be picking a side.
My very strong suspicion is that Panelbase were answering a completely different query - I suspect they were asked if Mr Campbell's question was acceptable, and they said it was. Acceptability and even-handedness are two entirely different things. Every day of the week, polling companies ask questions on behalf of paying clients that are calibrated to produce the best possible results for that client from a presentational point of view. The threshold for saying "no" to a paying client is extremely high - but one reason for doing so might be that there are factual inaccuracies in the way that the question is worded. Panelbase would certainly have been able to confirm to Mr Campbell that there were no inaccuracies in his question, and that it was therefore within the bounds of acceptability. For Mr Campbell to portray that reply as some sort of official seal of approval, and as proof that his question is non-leading and even-handed, is deeply disingenuous and downright cynical.
He goes on to make the point that the results of his poll are similar to others with different wordings. That's something I've noticed myself, but it doesn't give him a free pass. Not all polls with leading questions produce misleading results, but that doesn't magically mean that the questions are all fine.
Today he's published new polling that finds only 25% of respondents think people should be able to change the sex on their birth certificate. He insists that the wording of this latest question wasn't remotely leading. That's fine - I actually accept that. But I would just make the point that "Do you think that people should be able to legally change gender?" is a somewhat different question from the one he asked, and that people who answer "yes" on that point may also take a different view on whether an individual who has gone through the necessary legal process should then be able to seek an amendment to their birth certificate. Mr Campbell's question is more legitimate than his previous ones and it does tell us something interesting, but it doesn't tell us everything. Some of the people answering his question may not even have been taking the existence of trans people into account, and may have just answered on the basis that an individual "shouldn't be able to falsify details on their birth certificate" without realising how their responses would be interpreted. I rather suspect that was Mr Campbell's intention, given that he was also asking people at the same time whether individuals should be able to change their date and place of birth to something false. (Indeed the specific question asked was "which of these facts do you think people should be able to change on their birth certificate if they want to?", with the word "facts" implying that any change would be a departure from accuracy.) So not a leading question as such, but a potentially deceptive question in a slightly different way.
And remember I say all of this as someone who is broadly opposed to the proposal on self-ID. Propaganda polls just make me bristle, even when they're commissioned by people on my own side.
Monday, October 14, 2019
Panelbase poll is the latest to suggest we're on course to RETAIN the pro-independence majority in 2021
Many thanks to a fellow James for alerting me to the Holyrood voting intention numbers from the new Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times, which he found deep in the polls section of What Scotland Thinks - I'm not sure if they've been published elsewhere yet, or if they've merely been under-reported.
Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:
SNP 42% (n/c)
Conservatives 21% (+1)
Labour 19% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-1)
Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:
SNP 38% (-1)
Conservatives 21% (+1)
Labour 18% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 11% (+1)
Greens 6% (-1)
That's a similar-ish pattern to the Westminster numbers, although the mystery is that Labour seem to be the party that have recovered most. The two big things that have changed about the political weather since the last Panelbase poll in June is the tide going out somewhat on the Brexit Party, which ought to benefit the Tories more than anyone else, and the ascent of a Scottish MP to the leadership of one of the London parties, which ought to benefit the Liberal Democrats. And yet the Lib Dems are essentially flatlining, there's only the faintest of signs of Tory recovery, and it's Labour that have put on three points on the constituency ballot. I suppose I'm a tad sceptical, and I'm wondering if the Labour boost is an illusion caused by a sampling quirk.
This is yet another poll suggesting that we're on course to retain the pro-independence majority at Holyrood in 2021, although it would perhaps be a slightly smaller majority than at present. The Scotland Votes model suggests the SNP would retain the 63 seats they won in 2016, but the Greens would slip back from 6 to 3. So there would be 66 pro-indy seats altogether, slightly outnumbering the 63 unionist seats. It's important to stress that Panelbase have in recent times reported less favourable numbers for the SNP than other firms have (on the constituency ballot at any rate), so it's conceivable that the true situation is somewhat better than this.