Friday, September 20, 2019

It's quiz time!

Somebody took me to task about an hour ago in the comments section, sternly telling me "James, you don't understand the electoral system".  He then proceeded to 'explain' the electoral system to me - but there was just one snag.  His description bore absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the Additional Member System, or indeed to any other voting system that is used in this country!  I think possibly he'd "reverse-engineered" some of the modelling he'd seen on Wings and assumed there must be a fiendishly complicated formula involved.

It does seem to me that there's still an awful lot of confusion out there about how AMS works, so to put that theory to the test, here's a little quiz.  There are only three questions, and the answers are at the bottom of the post.  (No peeking in advance.)  If you get all three right you are officially an AMS Grand Master.

Question 1....

"There is a cap on the total number of list seats any large party can win, regardless of how many list votes they take."  Is this statement TRUE or FALSE?

Question 2....

"Small parties with enough votes are awarded a proportion of seats that is much larger than their proportion of the vote."  Is this statement TRUE or FALSE?

Question 3....

If it was possible to successfully game the system by voting tactically for a small pro-indy party on the list, would that party be more likely to take a LARGER or SMALLER percentage of seats than its list vote would normally justify?

*  *  *

*  *  *

*  *  *


Question 1.  The statement is FALSE.  If any party was to theoretically take 100% of the list vote, they would take every single list seat, and if they had swept the board in the constituencies as well, they would take 100% of the seats in the entire parliament.  As with any proportional representation system, it's much harder to win a large number of seats - you're not going to win a landslide majority of seats on 35% of the vote, which is something that can easily happen under first-past-the-post.  But there's no cap to directly prevent big landslides from occurring - you can win any number of seats providing you have enough list votes.

Question 2.  The statement is FALSE.  It's possible for a small party to get a slightly bigger proportion of seats than its proportion of votes, but the emphasis is on the word 'slightly', and there's certainly no in-built advantage for small parties.  Quite the contrary, in fact - it's the largest single party that is most likely to be significantly over-represented, due to winning an excess number of constituency seats.

Question 3.  The answer is SMALLER.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's actually quite logical when you think about it.  The whole game-the-system theory (which as you know I don't think is workable in practice) depends on the largest pro-indy party doing exceptionally well on constituency seats, but not being competitive at all on the list ballot.  If that happens, there probably wouldn't be enough list seats available to bring any of the other parties up to quite the level of overall representation that their share of the list vote would warrant - and that applies just as much to the smaller pro-indy party that is the recipient of tactical votes as it does to all the other parties.  So although the pro-indy parties in combination might end up being over-represented, the party that receives tactical votes might paradoxically end up being under-represented.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Queen forgot the first rule of rule-breaking: don't get caught

I don't usually think of myself as naive, but when the Queen made her notorious "people should think about it very carefully" comment during the indyref campaign, my first reaction was that it must have been an innocent, spur-of-the-moment reply to a member of the public that had been randomly picked up by the microphones.  I actually believed the establishment fiction that we live in a constitutional monarchy where the monarch would never dream of interfering in the political process. I thought that unionist sympathisers in the mainstream media were just mischief-making by trying to convince the public with a nudge and a wink that the Queen's remark had been intended to indicate support for Better Together.

When it later emerged that the Queen had indeed been following a script and had fully intended the microphones to catch what she said, a lot of things suddenly fell into place.  This was a clear breach of her proper constitutional role, and it required active collusion between the Westminster government, Buckingham Palace and journalists.  The crucial role of journalists, and broadcast journalists in particular, shouldn't be underestimated, because very few viewers would have read any significance into the Queen's remark unless reporters had helpfully interpreted it for them - in other words the whole exercise would have been pointless.  And yet those same reporters misled viewers by neglecting to mention that they had been briefed by sources that the comment was planned and had a specific meaning.  If it had been revealed that such briefings had taken place, the Palace would either have had to lie through their teeth and deny it, or the Queen would have been caught bang to rights doing something she knew was constitutionally inappropriate.  Everything hinged upon a ludicrous media pretence that the Queen had been randomly overheard and that journalists had independently discerned her private feelings from those few words.

As it is, she's been caught out five years later anyway, and ironically the weak link in the triangle of collusion turned out to be David Cameron rather than the media.  But there's no point in her blaming Cameron - the breach of constitutional propriety in this case was her own decision to interfere in the political process, not the failure of a politician to cover her tracks.

Incidentally, at least one broadcast journalist appears even now to be colluding with the great pretence.  I gather that the BBC's Royal Correspondent Nicholas Witchell informed viewers today that the Queen had indicated support for Better Together on her own initiative rather than at David Cameron's request, and that it had nothing to do with "politics".  We've heard this kind of nonsense from him before - that her active attempts to "maintain the Union" are somehow a natural part of her role and are entirely non-political.  Back in the real world, during a binary-choice referendum campaign on Scottish independence, the monarch can either behave appropriately by staying out of politics, or she can actively seek to "maintain the Union".  But she can't do both.

*  *  *

I was interviewed on Radio Sputnik yesterday about the fifth anniversary of the independence referendum.  I reminisced a bit about the day itself, and spoke about the Scotland in Union propaganda poll and the need for a Plan B if a Section 30 order is refused.  You can listen to the interview HERE (and also read a transcript in which I'm referred to by my cunning pseudonym John Kelly).

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Flying without Wings

So let's recap.  A couple of weeks ago, a keen supporter of the idea of attempting to game the Holyrood electoral system by setting up a so-called "Wings party" made an utterly preposterous claim on social media.  Gavin Barrie informed the world that the worst-case scenario if Mr Stuart Campbell stood candidates against the SNP on the list ballot at the next election is that the Wings party would gain sixteen seats and that the SNP would lose two.  I pointed out that this was obviously nonsensical because, by definition, the worst-case scenario would have to involve the Wings party taking zero seats, which is always a possibility for any small party (let alone a new and untested party) if it doesn't secure enough votes.  It's also a statement of plain, inescapable fact that a party that takes some votes away from other pro-independence parties on the list, but without taking any seats itself, could end up costing those parties list seats.  The following truth is therefore self-evident: the worst-case scenario is that the Wings party would lead to a net loss of pro-independence seats in the Scottish Parliament, and not, as Mr Barrie ludicrously claimed, a net gain of fourteen seats.

When he saw my rebuttal, Mr Barrie became astonishingly defensive.  He refused to justify or even explain his claim, but nevertheless insisted I was wrong and repeatedly demanded that I wait for days or weeks to see his detailed modelling of various election permutations before commenting further.  I refused, because it was literally impossible for any modelling that may or may not have been done to substantiate the claim he had made.  His suggestion that the proof was just there, tantalisingly out of sight, seemed to me to be a cynical attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of people who desperately want to believe in the pretty fiction that a Wings party would be a risk-free enterprise for the Yes movement.  He became increasingly frustrated at his inability to silence my rebuttals, and ultimately the frustration gave way to outright abuse.  That led to a minor slap on the wrists from the powers-that-be at Twitter: a suspension of seven days.

His time in 'Twitter jail' having now come to an end, he's at long last published parts of his modelling - or, rather, Stuart Campbell has for obvious reasons of self-interest published it for him.  I say "parts", because at one point in the article he makes a high-flown claim about his belief in the "democratisation of information", and yet (at the time of writing) the link that is supposed to lead to his detailed data actually leads to an error message.  Presumably that's an honest mistake and we can look forward to it being swiftly remedied.  Anyway, if you haven't read the article yet, here's a spoiler alert: no, the modelling doesn't substantiate his original claim about the worst-case scenario being a net gain of fourteen seats.  Who'd have thunk it, eh?  In fact it very helpfully proves that the opposite is true, and that a Wings intervention could easily lead to a net loss of seats for the pro-indy side.

A sizeable chunk of the article is devoted to playing around with permutations that assume that the result of the constituency ballot is identical to the 2016 result, but that the list result is different due to varying chunks of the SNP list vote switching "tactically" to the Wings party.  That in itself is a bit of a nonsense, because as I pointed out umpteen times in both 2011 and 2016, one of the most important reasons that tactical voting on the list isn't viable is because it's impossible to know the constituency result in advance.  It's all very well with the luxury of hindsight to play God and to shift list votes around safe in the knowledge that the constituency ballot won't chuck a wrecking-ball into your calculations, but real-world voters in 2016 weren't able to do that, and they won't be able to do it in any future election either.  That's why I've always said that attempts to game the system are "gambling voting" rather than "tactical voting" - you're making a guess (potentially quite a wild guess) about how a large number of individual constituency results will turn out, and then trying to work out what would need to happen on the list to produce your desired outcome, assuming that your guess is correct.  But if your guess is wrong, and if the constituency results turn out differently, the "tactical" action you take on the list could easily backfire and produce an effect that is the complete opposite of what you intended.  You could end up with a worse result than you would have had if you'd simply played a straight bat and not tried to game the system.

And, no, voters did not know in advance that the SNP would win 59 constituency seats in 2016.  Most people expected the figure to be considerably higher than that, and indeed the rallying cry of many advocates of gaming the system was that the SNP were guaranteed to win the 65 seats required for an overall majority on constituency seats alone, and that they therefore didn't need any list votes at allIn the end, the SNP didn't win a majority even with the help of four list seats.  If more SNP voters had heeded the siren calls of the "tactical voting" lobby, their party would have ended up six seats short of a majority.  There would have been just 59 SNP seats, and 70 opposition seats.  Imagine the reaction of the unionist media if that had been the result.

Remarkably, having been proved wrong about the SNP being guaranteed to win a majority without needing any list votes, the tactical voting lobby is brazen enough to make the opposite claim this time: that it will be too difficult for the SNP, or even for the SNP and the Greens in combination, to win a pro-independence majority no matter how many list votes they take, and that the only possible remedy to this supposed problem is for SNP supporters to switch tactically to the Wings party on the list.  You'll notice this about the gaming-the-system brigade if you study them for long enough: the goalposts shift effortlessly and endlessly.  I wouldn't be remotely surprised if by this time next year they're back to claiming that a majority is assured and that the list vote can therefore be treated as a sort of luxury vote - which actually is a more intuitively plausible claim given the current state of opinion polling.  The scary Wings messaging of "the pro-indy majority will be lost without us" almost seems about nine months out of date - which indeed may not be a coincidence if the plan was hatched quite a while ago.  But the justifications and reasonings will doubtless "evolve" with time.

For the purpose of this discussion, let's follow Mr Barrie down the rabbit hole of assuming that the constituency result is somehow fixed and knowable in advance.  Even based on that impossible assumption, his own modelling shows that a Wings intervention could lead to either a net loss of pro-indy seats, or a net gain of pro-indy seats.  It all depends on how many SNP supporters switch to the Wings party on the list on a "tactical" basis, which is - once again - something that no voter can have foreknowledge of when they're standing in the polling booth.  What Mr Barrie appears to be hinting at (and this drives a coach and horses through his earlier "worst case scenario" claim) is that the risk/reward ratio favours taking a punt on the Wings party, because there would 'only' be a net loss of one pro-indy seat if between 5% and 12% of SNP voters switch to Wings, while there could be a net gain of as many as 11 or 13 pro-indy seats if one-third of SNP voters switch to Wings.  But the elephant in the room as he treats us to detail after detail from his modelling (almost an attempt to blind us with science) is that the scenarios in which a net loss of one seat will happen are many orders of magnitude more likely to actually occur than the scenarios which could bring about substantial net gains.  Nobody is saying, and nobody has ever said, that successfully gaming the system is impossible in theory - merely that it's so close to being impossible in practice as makes no difference.  With all due respect to Mr Campbell and anyone else involved in this project, the notion that one-third of the SNP's entire support (which in 2016 would have been more than 300,000 people) are going to suddenly defect to a sort of "pop-up party" is in the realms of absolute fantasy, and not worthy of serious discussion.  That elusive mind-control ray still hasn't been invented, I'm afraid.

But "aha!" says Mr Barrie - we can eliminate the risk of even losing one seat if the Wings party simply chooses to sit out the list ballot in two of the eight regions, namely Highlands & Islands and South of Scotland.  If that happens, the Wings impact will at worst be neutral, and at best (if it gets up to that aforementioned fantastical level of support) will be marvellously beneficial.  But at this point, I fear that we must leave Mr Barrie behind in his rabbit hole, because back in the real world we have absolutely no way of knowing if Highlands & Islands and South of Scotland are the only regions in which the SNP stand to lose list seats.  Anyone with a memory span of longer than three years will recall that on the only occasion to date when the SNP won an overall majority at Holyrood (which was also one of only two occasions to date in which a pro-independence majority has been secured) they took at least one list seat in seven of the eight regions.  If that scenario were to re-occur, a Wings intervention could cost the SNP list seats anywhere but the Lothians.  (And it's actually not at all hard to construct an alternative scenario in which the SNP could be harmed on the Lothians list as well.)

When I put the inconvenient example of 2011 to Stuart Campbell a few weeks ago, he came up with what I can only describe as a fatuous reply: "It's not 2011 anymore."  By which he meant that the days of the SNP getting 44% of the list vote are long gone.  And upon what did he base that remarkably sweeping claim?  I can only assume he based it on opinion polling.  Which leads me to the downright peculiar conclusion that it can't have been 2011 anymore even in 2011 itself - because according to this list of pre-election polls, not a single poll suggested that the SNP would reach 44% on the list in 2011.  Indeed, in the autumn of 2009, at roughly the same stage of the electoral cycle that we're at now, the polls put the SNP in the high 20s or low 30s on the list.  I'll be blunt about it: Stuart Campbell's claim to know eighteen months in advance that there is some sort of ceiling on the SNP's potential list vote is risible and without foundation, and nobody should waste any further time on it.

Having completed his discussion of permutations based on the assumption that the 2016 constituency result was fixed and knowable in advance, Mr Barrie goes on to repeat the same exercise based on seat projections from a recent YouGov poll.  Which of course is an even more futile task - opinion polls are just snapshots of ever-changing public opinion, and may not even be accurate snapshots.

The third section of the article takes us onto territory that concerns me greatly, ie. the possibility that things may not go according to plan for the SNP and that they might unexpectedly lose a substantial number of constituency seats, which would mean they'd be relying on their list vote holding up if they're to avoid a devastating loss of overall representation at Holyrood.  But never fear: Mr Barrie breezily informs us that if we just vote tactically on the list, Wings will take sixteen seats, which will more than make up for the loss of SNP constituency seats.  What he mysteriously fails to mention is that his accompanying graph clearly demonstrates that Wings will only be taking sixteen seats if - yes, you've guessed it! - one-third of the SNP's entire support defects to Wings on the list.  That is an utterly excruciating sleight of hand, and the fact that Mr Barrie's entire case hinges upon it leaves him with very little credibility.  He sums up by claiming that a Wings party "would in any currently-plausible circumstances pose no risk whatsoever to the Yes majority".  It would have been far more accurate to say that the only circumstances in which Wings poses no risk to Yes representation are currently-fantastical ones.

Mr Barrie's parting shot is rather passive-aggressive, and it's safe to assume it's directed at least partly at me -

"But I’m sure that certain other rather sensitive commentators will as we speak be frantically searching for permutations where it could do damage, in order to justify their increasingly-heated opposition.  The documents are below. I invite them to make their case."

First of all, the documents aren't "below" - they're still not there even two hours after I started writing this blogpost.  I look forward to perusing them if they're ever actually published.  Secondly, I would just gently note that one good way of measuring the "sensitivity" of a commentator is whether or not they react to polite disagreement by repeatedly calling someone a "dishonest c**t", and then treating the subsequent temporary suspension from a social media website as an ordeal akin to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Maybe Mr Barrie would be in a stronger position to lecture others on the subject of sensitivity if he took responsibility for the consequences of his own actions in future.  And thirdly, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint him on his prediction that I'll be "frantically searching for permutations".  I'm actually not particularly interested in specific permutations, and it was only at the request of a reader that I recently produced one illustrative example of how a Wings party could reduce the number of pro-indy seats.

It's not a point of difference between myself and Mr Barrie that there are hypothetical scenarios in which Wings could help and hypothetical scenarios in which Wings could harm.  (Mr Barrie has only grudgingly admitted to the existence of the latter, but what matters is that he's admitted it.)  Where we actually part company is that I do not believe that any of these permutations are of concrete use in attempting to game the voting system.  The level of foreknowledge required to vote tactically on the list in a successful and risk-free way - rather than as a wild punt that could explode in your face - does not exist and will never exist.  And frankly, even if that precise foreknowledge were to become available, the likelihood is that all it would tell you is that Wings does not have sufficient support on the list to win any seats, regardless of how you vote yourself.  The vast majority of new parties flop, and the vast majority of new parties also think they're going to be the exception to that rule.

Early in the article, Mr Barrie chides me (sorry, he chides "other pollster bloggers") for relying on modelling at national level rather than at the level of the eight electoral regions.  And that brings me neatly onto the subject of one of the very few small parties that sort-of-enjoyed instant success just after being created.  In 2003, the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party stunned us all by winning a seat on the Central Scotland list, even though nationally they took only 1.5%  of the list vote.  How was that possible, given that 5% or 6% is generally considered to be the de facto threshold for representation?  Quite simply they didn't stand in every region, but in the region where they took a seat, they secured 6.5% of the vote.  So, yes, it's theoretically possible that the Wings party could nick a seat even if they're only on 2% or 3% or 4% of the national vote, and that could happen if they do significantly better in one region than in others.  I don't think that's remotely likely, though, and it should be noted that a big part of the reason why the SSCUP made their breakthrough is that Billy McNeill (and also a former Rangers star - I can't remember which one) agreed to be a nominal candidate, albeit far enough down the list not to have to worry about becoming an MSP.  That's the sort of luck you need if you're going to beat the odds as a new party.

And even if Wings does nick one seat somewhere or other (which, let's face it, would be an astonishing result), so what?  The system wouldn't have been successfully gamed.  There wouldn't be a substantially greater number of pro-indy seats.  It would just be a quirky little result that would become a footnote in the history books.  Mr Campbell has said himself that to truly make the effort worthwhile, he'd be looking for something in the region of 15% of the list vote - and if anyone thinks that'll be easily attainable, all I can do is wish them luck, because they're going to need it.

I hope you're not flagging yet, because I've yet to come to one of the most important flaws in Mr Barrie's modelling - he takes no account at all, as far as I can see, of the potentially disastrous effect if some votes for the Wings party come from the Greens rather than the SNP.  He acknowledges in passing that attempts at gaming the system have often focused on the Greens, so what happens if people who took a punt on the Greens on a tactical basis in 2016 switch to the Wings party?  We actually got very lucky in 2016 - the Greens took a little under 7% of the vote, which was only just about high enough to secure a significant number of seats.  We were at risk of falling between two stools - enough people had abandoned the SNP on the list to ensure that the SNP didn't take as many seats as in 2011, but the Greens were also in danger of not polling high enough to partially make up for that.  The greater the number of small pro-indy parties there are competing for "tactical" votes on the list, the greater the danger of falling between two stools in precisely that manner, because the votes will be spread too thin.

The way things are heading, the 2021 campaign could be truly dismal.  The Greens will be telling us that gaming the system can work but not for Wings, and Wings will be telling us that gaming the system can work but not for the Greens.  There would be a sort of poetic irony if the two parties ended up knocking each other out, but that wouldn't do much good for the independence movement.

Mr Barrie implies that Wings can succeed where the Greens have failed over the years, because there are reasons why SNP voters are "increasingly uncomfortable" about lending their votes to the Greens.  This is presumably a reference to the Greens' stance on the trans issue.  But it's a statement of the obvious that there are also any number of reasons why the Wings party might repel a large fraction of SNP voters - Mr Campbell's abusive online behaviour, his controversial interpretation of the cause of the Hillsborough disaster, his idiosyncratic abhorrence of the Gaelic language, and indeed his own stance on the trans issue, which is just as contentious at one end of the spectrum as the Greens' stance is at the other.

I personally don't see any need for a new pro-independence party.  But for those of you who disagree, this is what I think you should demand from it -

1) A party that exists for reasons other than perceived tactical advantage.  If your Party Election Broadcast is an embarrassing three minute monologue about the d'Hondt formula, you're going wrong somewhere.

2) A party that is not organised on the Il Duce principle.  Any party with aspirations to hold the balance of power in our national parliament must be controlled by its members, rather than being the personal possession of its founder - regardless of the magnetic hold that individual may have on his followers.

Anniversary HAMMERBLOW for Boris Johnson as unionist propaganda poll spectacularly backfires: support for a second independence referendum has SOARED to 63%, and support for Scotland remaining in the UK has FALLEN

First things first: happy fifth anniversary of the day that Scotland's largest and fourth-largest cities voted decisively to end Westminster rule, and the day that almost half of voters throughout Scotland did the same.  Hapless anti-independence group Scotland in Union (who may or may not have finally broken their ties with Neil "Alligators" Lovatt) have decided to mark this momentous milestone by commissioning another of their comical propaganda polls, and in fairness to them have somehow succeeded once again in persuading a number of mainstream media outlets to regurgitate their press release about it almost word for word - although that says rather more about the publications concerned than about Scotland in Union's public relations skills.

The basic tactic in these propaganda polls is to ask a question that is not about independence and then to convince the media to earnestly report the results as if they were taken from a genuine independence poll - and to that extent the deception seems to work all too easily.  The Herald, for example, are reporting that the poll shows "41% of those surveyed supporting independence" - which is categorically an untrue statement.  Respondents were asked whether they wanted Scotland to "remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom", and the 41% figure actually refers to those who wanted to "leave the United Kingdom".  We have no idea whether those people wanted to leave the United Kingdom in order to become an independent country, or to become part of another existing state, or to become a crown dependency like Guernsey, or to become a freely associated state like the Cook Islands.  It is, in a nutshell, a dud question, and the results tell us absolutely nothing whatsoever about levels of support for independence.

And in fact there's an even greater problem than the fact that the question doesn't actually ask about independence.  There's also a very severe risk of accidental confusion, because the terms "Remain" and "Leave" have become so synonymous with the Brexit debate that many respondents may have taken only a cursory look at the question and assumed they were being asked whether they wanted to remain in the European Union.  (Although maybe I'm being too generous when I say "accidental confusion" - it might have been exactly what Scotland in Union were hoping would happen when they framed the question in that way.)  I also think there's a degree of uncertainty about whether voters actually understand what "the United Kingdom" is.  It's quite possible that some respondents may have assumed that "remaining in the United Kingdom" refers to the retention of the monarchy, and that they would have answered the question completely differently if they had been aware that it's possible to leave the United Kingdom and still have the Queen as Head of State.

All in all, then, the results of this poll are essentially worthless apart from the trend since the last comparable poll, and what that tells us about the declining enthusiasm in Scotland for Our Precious Union.  It's very much in line with recent polls from other firms in showing that support for the Union has dipped.

Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?

Remain: 59% (-2)
Leave: 41% (+2)

It's also in line with other recent polls in showing a sharp increase in support for the holding of a second independence referendum - although that's obviously not the impression you'll get from reading the lightly rewritten Scotland in Union propaganda press release in the newspapers.  A grand total of 63% of respondents now want a second indyref, up six points from 57% in the last comparable poll in April.  Only 28% of respondents are opposed to a referendum, down six points from April.  In terms of timing, 42% want the referendum to take place within the next five years, up a dramatic eleven points on the 31% recorded in the April poll.  And 27% want it within the next eighteen months - almost identical to the number who don't want a referendum at all.

Some unionist politicians are beside themselves with excitement at the starkness of the difference between the results of genuine independence polls and these Remain/Leave polls, and clearly think that all they need to do to win next time is to rig the referendum question.  But they're barking up the wrong tree.  Above all else, the Electoral Commission seek in their research to avoid unclear or confusing questions, and for the reasons given earlier in this blogpost, there are at least three very obvious ways in which a Remain/Leave question would be unclear or confusing.  And the irony is that even if the Electoral Commission could somehow be coaxed into endorsing such a question, it probably wouldn't even make the difference to the final result that unionists expect.  Past history shows that the effect of different question wordings diminish as a campaign progresses, because voters become better educated about what they are being asked.

Final thought: why on earth didn't the Yes side commission their own propaganda polling to mark the anniversary?  Maybe something like "Should Scotland be a country?" or "Should Scotland be a country in the European Union?"  I think we can guess what the outcome would have been...

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How the unionists' secret weapon may blow up in their faces

As regular readers know, I think one of the very few potential clouds on the horizon for the SNP at the moment is the Swinson Factor.  We know from past history that London parties often fare better in Scotland when they're led by a Scottish MP, and indeed there's already evidence in a new YouGov poll that Jo Swinson may be more popular in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK - or perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is that she's less unpopular here than elsewhere.  Across Britain she's rated favourably by 26% of respondents and unfavourably by 38%, whereas in the Scottish subsample it's a tie of 29% apiece.  Scotland is the only part of Britain where she's not firmly in negative territory.

And yet so far there's no sign of the SNP taking a hit.  That might yet happen if there's some sort of Cleggasm-style bandwagon effect during the election campaign, but on the other hand it might not.  I have a sneaking suspicion that what might insulate the SNP from the Swinson Factor is what is sometimes called "the Ulsterisation of Scottish politics" - a term that, according to a recent article by Stephen Daisley, was coined by his one-time protégé Aidan Kerr.  That's a richly ironic origin, given that few people have done more to entrench the Ulsterisation than Kerr himself during his time as a Scottish Labour propagandist.  In the overall scheme of things, it's not that long ago that people who were sympathetic to Scottish independence saw no contradiction in voting Labour or Liberal Democrat, but those days are well and truly over thanks to the near-sectarian attitude of the likes of Kerr.

The way that Ulster politics works is that unionist voters almost always vote for unionist parties, regardless of whether there's a politician or policy they like on the nationalist side of the divide.  And, of course, vice versa - nationalists don't vote for unionist parties.  By taking such an extreme stance on an independence referendum (ie. that they will block it even if there's a clear mandate for it), the Lib Dems may have disqualified themselves in the minds of Yes voters as thoroughly as the DUP have disqualified themselves in the minds of Irish nationalist voters.  Which means that any extra votes that the Lib Dems take in Scotland thanks to the Swinson Factor may well come disproportionately from other unionist parties - and under a first-past-the-post voting system the main beneficiaries of that would, ironically, be the SNP.  Most seats are either SNP-Labour or SNP-Tory battles, and if the Lib Dems start taking votes away from Labour and the Tories in those seats, it's bound to make it somewhat easier for the SNP to win.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Liberal Democrat FAQ on how liberal democracy works

Q. Is the No vote in the 2014 independence referendum the final say on the matter?

A. Absolutely.  You're not allowed to change your mind.  Not ever.  That's it.  Even if you were too young to vote.  Your elders decided for you.  Accept it.

Q. Is the Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum the final say on the matter?

A. God, no.

Q. Should the Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum at least be implemented before being revisited?

A. No, it shouldn't even be implemented.

Q. Would it have been OK not to even implement the result of the 2014 independence referendum?

A. No, ignoring the result of the indyref would have been a democratic outrage.

Q. In that case, isn't ignoring the result of the 2016 EU referendum a democratic outrage as well?

A. No.  The British people have had plenty of time to change their minds since 2016 and they have every right to do so.

Q. Haven't the Scottish people had even more time to change their minds since 2014?  Don't they have every right to do so?

A. No.  The Scottish people spoke in 2014 and that's it forever.  See above.

Q. Doesn't this suggest that the British people have more democratic rights than the Scottish people?

A. Look, we need tactical votes from Tory supporters in Edinburgh West and East Dunbartonshire, so if you're trying to get any consistency out of us you're wasting your time.

Q. Should a referendum be required to overturn the result of another referendum?

A.  Nope, no need for that.  An election victory would be enough.  (As long as it's the EU referendum result we're overturning, not the indyref result.)

Q.  But you could win an election on as little as 35% of the vote?

A.  So what?

Q.  Well, aren't you supposed to believe in proportional representation?  How can 35% of the vote possibly be sufficient to overturn a 52% Leave vote?

A.  We didn't choose the electoral system, but we have to accept the results it produces.

Q.  Don't you therefore have to accept the results the electoral system produces when it gives the SNP a majority of Scottish seats?

A.  No, in that particular case the result produced by the electoral system isn't what's important.  The SNP only got 37% of the vote - that's what counts.

Q. Doesn't it therefore follow that you'd have to accept the pro-independence parties' mandate to hold a second indyref when they win an impeccable mandate under the proportional representation voting system for Scottish Parliament elections?

A. No.  The Scottish people spoke in 2014 and aren't allowed any further say.  See above.

Q.  Aren't you complete hypocrites for saying that you can overturn an entire referendum result on 35% of the vote, but that 51% of the vote wouldn't be enough for the SNP and the Greens to simply hold another referendum?

A. We've already said you shouldn't expect consistency from us.  Weren't you listening?

Q. Why did the Liberal Democrats propose an in/out referendum on EU membership, years before David Cameron did, if you didn't think the result of such a referendum needed to be honoured?

A.  God, did we actually do that?  What are we like, eh?

Q. Did you enjoy serving in government with Iain Duncan Smith?  Any favourite IDS anecdotes?

A. No comment.

Friday, September 13, 2019

SNP break through 50% barrier in sparkling subsample from YouGov

The Scottish subsample in the latest GB-wide YouGov poll is worthy of note, because it's the first time that I can remember for a very long time that the SNP have been above 50% in a YouGov subsample.

SNP 52%, Conservatives 19%, Liberal Democrats 11%, Labour 8%, Brexit Party 7%, Greens 3%

Of course it's extremely unlikely that the SNP are really on 52%.  Assuming that YouGov still structure their Scottish subsamples correctly, the margin of error would be in the region of 8%, so the true vote share for the SNP could easily be something like 44% - a much more plausible figure.  But nevertheless the SNP wouldn't be getting results like this, even as a freakish one-off, unless their vote was holding up exceptionally well.  They'll take particular heart from the underwhelming showing for the Lib Dems and the disastrous showing for Labour.  There's no scenario in which the wheels can truly come off for the SNP (by which I mean that they would do worse than 2017 and fail to take a majority of Scottish seats) without there being a pro-Labour swing.  As things stand, it looks like Labour are going to have to make up huge ground over the course of the campaign just to get anywhere close to being back to where they were two years ago.  Nothing is impossible, but it seems pretty unlikely that the SNP will be losing any seats to Labour this time.  Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are polling lower in Scotland than in any other part of GB, in spite of having a shiny new Scottish leader.

*  *  *

You may have seen the comments by Tory rebel Oliver Letwin suggesting that there is now a majority in the Commons for holding a second EU referendum before the general election, which he thinks could be delayed until next year.  I'd suggest this should be taken with a pinch of salt, because we've heard confident claims many times in the past about the inevitability of a second referendum, but whenever it's been put to the test parliament has voted against the idea.  One major obstacle is surely that the Labour leadership want any referendum to take place after the election.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that Letwin is right and that a Referendum Bill is passed in this current parliament.  What does Boris Johnson do then?  He can't strike legislation down by decree, but by the same token it would be unthinkable for him to allow the 31st October deadline to pass and a second referendum to take place on his watch.  That would be a humiliation that would surely finish him as leader of the Tory party.  Which leads me to an inescapable conclusion: he would preempt matters by submitting his resignation as Prime Minister.

And then what?  One of the stupid things about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is that the resignation of a Prime Minister or government does not in itself set in train the 14-day deadline by which parliament will be dissolved unless an alternative government can win a confidence vote.  A dissolution can only occur if MPs vote to bring it about by one of two specific mechanisms.  If they choose not to do that, the current parliament continues and there has to be some sort of government.  By convention, the Queen is supposed to appoint a Prime Minister who can command a majority in the Commons, but even if no such person exists, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would effectively force her to appoint somebody anyway - she wouldn't be able to do the sensible thing and simply dissolve parliament with a view to finding a PM with a clear mandate.  If the Tory leadership have vacated the pitch, and if the Labour leadership continue to show no interest in Jo Swinson's ideas for a compromise PM, the Queen would presumably have to appoint the available person who is closer than any other to enjoying the confidence of the Commons, and that person would be Jeremy Corbyn.

So that might well be the last-ditch plan to overturn any Referendum Act that is passed.  Boris Johnson resigns, allows Jeremy Corbyn to become PM for a few days, and then seeks to bring him down by simple majority in a confidence vote - which would start the clock ticking for a general election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.  The Tories would then stand on a platform of scrapping plans for a second referendum.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

No, of course today's legal ruling isn't bad news for independence. Don't be silly.

I'm rather bemused to see a certain pro-independence website claim today that SNP politicians should never have taken legal action to challenge prorogation, because that supposedly harms the cause of independence.  This seems to be part of a thinly-disguised but none-too-subtle daily campaign to chip away at faith in the SNP: "The current pro-independence party isn't fit for purpose, so what on earth are we going to do about that, readers?  I'm blowed if I know.  What big teeth you've got, grandmother!"

I'm not a great believer in the scorched earth theory of politics, ie. the idea that if you actively contribute to making post-Brexit Britain a wasteland, independence will become inevitable.  There are two obvious flaws in that theory: 1) voters are likely to spot what you're doing, will probably think it's a touch irresponsible, and will be turned off from your political project as a result, and 2) whenever an indyref is held, the result is likely to be close, and none of us can guarantee that we won't actually end up living in that Brexit wasteland for an indefinite period.  I know the website in question takes the 'win or bust' approach to politics, but I don't subscribe to that either - responsible politicians always have to think about how we'd live to fight another day if Plan A doesn't work out.

In any case, the logic for believing that the ruling of the Court of Session makes independence less likely is thoroughly unsound.  The jury is out on whether this will give the impression that Scotland does after all "have influence in the UK", because that entirely depends on the view the UK Supreme Court takes on appeal.  I'd have thought it's pretty likely that the UK government's appeal will be upheld.  (Joanna Cherry takes the opposite view, but of course it's sensible for her to be as upbeat as possible to create a sense of momentum.)  I can't think of a better demonstration that Scotland is not an equal and influential partner in the Union than for the Supreme Court to strike down a ruling by an uppity Court of Session.

In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court upholds today's ruling and prorogation is nullified, I'm struggling to see how that would make Brexit - and thus the casus belli for Indyref 2 - any less likely to happen.  The whole point of prorogation was to prevent the opposition and Tory rebels passing a law designed to stop No Deal on 31st October, and that's already happened anyway.  I suppose it's possible that a sitting parliament might find it easier to force the publication of sensitive documents, or to give Jeremy Corbyn more flexibility in his options for seeking to bring the government down.  But that's all highly speculative.  My guess is that the overturning of prorogation would have huge symbolic significance, and huge long-term significance for UK constitutional law, but relatively limited practical significance in the here and now.

Lastly, the website claims it would be "astonishing" if a non-prorogued parliament actually chose to sit during the party conference season.  Astonishing or not, I'm extremely confident that's exactly what it would do in the light of the current crisis.  I don't think the conferences would necessarily be cancelled - MPs would just juggle them as best they could.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The next indyref question will not be Remain/Leave, because that would be based on a false premise

So our old friend "TSE", Deputy Editor of Stormfront Lite and the man who famously once made up a story about a family tragedy to avoid settling a private bet, thinks he's had another wizard idea.

"Perhaps this explains why Yes did so well in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. In any future Independence referendum the Unionists should ensure the question on the ballot paper is ‘Should Scotland remain a member of the United Kingdom?’ Yes or No."

It's no secret that some unionists are angling for something like that to happen, and Stephen Daisley has already gone into propagandist mode by taking it as read that their scheme will succeed - in his articles he casually refers to the No side in any future indyref as "the Remain side".  But to some extent they're whistling in the wind.  Whatever doubts there may be about the impartiality of the Electoral Commission (and for the first time I'm starting to share those doubts), the chances that a question based on a false premise will be endorsed are vanishingly small, and TSE's preferred question is undoubtedly based on a false premise. 

Scotland is not a "member" of the United Kingdom.  That is not a matter of interpretation, it's a matter of fact.  The UK is not an organisation with members in the way that the European Union is.  Notwithstanding devolution, the UK is a unitary state and the territory of Scotland is simply a part of it.  You cannot rescind membership that does not exist.

OK, you might say, surely TSE's question would work with a slight modification?  How about...

"Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?  Yes or No."

Nope, that doesn't work either, because it doesn't tell you anything about what will happen if and when Scotland ceases to be part of the United Kingdom.  Does it become part of another existing state?  Does it become a Crown Dependency outside the UK like Guernsey?  Does it become a freely associated state like the Cook Islands?  Or does it become an independent country?  It's not clear from the question, and the one thing the Electoral Commission are bound to insist on is clarity.  Frustrating as it may be for the Daisleys of this world, a referendum question about independence will self-evidently have to actually mention the word 'independence' or 'independent'.

Which takes us back to the 2014 question - "Should Scotland be an independent country?"  Short, succinct, crystal-clear and understood by all.  The Electoral Commission suggested it for a very good reason, and they're going to need to dream up a very good excuse if they intend to muck about it with it.

YouGov poll shows support for holding an independence referendum has soared

So this is a sort of request post - a couple of people asked me to write about a detail in last week's full-scale Scottish poll from YouGov that perhaps didn't receive due attention.

In principle, do you think there should or should not be a referendum on Scottish independence at some point in the next five years?

Should be a referendum: 45% (+3)
Should not be a referendum: 44% (-4)

The choice of question may seem a tad odd given that the Scottish government are proposing to hold a referendum a lot earlier than five years from now, but the wording was used to maintain consistency with the question that's been asked for a couple of years.  That means we can make a direct comparison with previous results, and I've commented a number of times before on the odd results this question has tended to produced.  Even when Panelbase were suggesting the public were split right down the middle on whether there should be a referendum in as little as two years, the YouGov question was stubbornly producing a solid majority against a referendum within the next five years.  It wasn't immediately clear why that was happening, as the YouGov question isn't in any way leading, so the diverging results could only have been a 'house effect' caused by the composition of YouGov's panel, or by their sampling, or by their weightings.

But whatever the reason, the fact that there is now a slim pro-referendum majority (once Don't Knows are excluded) must be seen as highly significant.  According to the What Scotland Thinks archives, this is the sixth time the question has been asked since April 2017, and on four of the five previous occasions 51% or more of respondents were opposed to a referendum.  The narrowing of the anti-referendum lead to just six points in the last YouGov poll looked dramatic enough, but now that it's been wiped out completely, the question arises as to whether other polling firms that have previously shown an even division in public opinion would show a decisive pro-referendum majority if they released a poll now.  It doesn't necessarily work that way, but it's a logical possibility.

Of course the main independence question in the new YouGov poll showed a no change position - it was 49% Yes in the spring, and it's 49% Yes now.  I saw a few silly suggestions from unionist commentators (taking their cue from Willie Rennie) that this was a sign that Scottish voters are shying away from independence due to the current demonstration of the chaos caused by a constitutional upheaval.  The reality is that as the Brexit crisis deepened earlier this year, the Yes vote in YouGov polling jumped to an unusually high 49% - in recent years the normal range in YouGov polls has been between 43% and 45%.  And that 49% has been maintained in the new poll - the new converts to Yes don't seem to be developing cold feet.  The most that can be said is that Scots perhaps didn't find Brexit under Theresa May any more palatable a prospect than Brexit under Boris Johnson.  But the changes on the 'do you want a referendum?' question suggest that there may indeed have been post-Boris movements in public opinion beneath the surface that haven't fed through to the main independence question yet.  Sometimes supplementary questions do give you a better guide than voting intention questions (for example leadership ratings are sometimes better predictors of election results than standard party political polling).

Regardless of the majority in favour of a referendum, it's still not clear how a referendum will actually come about.  Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the obvious, so I don't think we should totally exclude the possibility that the SNP will secure the balance of power at the forthcoming general election, and will be able to win the concession of a Section 30 order as part of a deal to install a Labour-led government.  In the past, journalists have tended to assume that the SNP would have no real leverage in that scenario because they'd know they would pay too high a penalty for doing anything that might return the Tories to power.  But the electoral threat from Scottish Labour may now have receded to the point where the SNP won't feel they have much to lose from playing hardball with Labour in post-election negotiations.  And I'd suggest any future Section 30 order should permanently transfer the power to hold a referendum, rather than just for a time-limited period.

*  *  *

John Bercow's last stand against "not a usual" prorogation a couple of hours ago is surely destined to become the stuff of political folklore, but we're also seemingly heading towards something else that is highly unusual: a general election in November.  Since 1979, the practice has always been to hold elections somewhere between April and June, presumably to take advantage of longer days and better weather.  Snow isn't totally unheard of in November, and given this country's inability to cope with unusual weather, that could cause chaos.  For example, if an independence referendum had been held on St Andrew's Day 2010 as the SNP government had originally wished, it would have taken place on a day of heavy snow and severe traffic disruption.  The credibility of the result would probably have been called into question.

*  *  *

As expected, Stuart Campbell has topped off several days of abusive behaviour directed at this blog by blocking me on Twitter - which means I am now automatically on the notorious 'block-list' that he tries to persuade all his followers to use.  So please be aware of that if you're one of my followers on Twitter and if you wish to continue following me - using the block-list will lead to you blocking me without realising it (along with, I believe, another couple of thousand accounts, including some very surprising names that no indy supporter would want to block without good reason).