Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Heartbreak for Rennie as Carnoustie by-election fails to show much trace of a Richmond Park bandwagon effect

Immediately after the Richmond Park result became clear a few days ago, Professor John Curtice speculated about the possibility of an 'Eastboune effect' - a reference to a by-election gain out of the blue in 1990 that got the Lib Dems back into the game after a couple of years during which they had appeared to be fading into irrelevance.  Well, the first little test of whether we're about to see something similar came in yesterday's Carnoustie by-election, and although there was an increase in the Lib Dem vote, it was pretty trivial in scale.

Carnoustie & District by-election result, 5th December 2016 :

Independent - Cheape 43.5% (n/a)
SNP 32.1% (-4.2)
Conservatives 17.7% (+11.6)
Labour 4.4% (-1.8)
Liberal Democrats 2.3% (+1.4)

I think the reason why a full-blown Eastbourne effect is unlikely is that British politics is much more fractured than it was in 1990.  Not only are there more 'major' parties to choose between, but Scotland is also now much more psychologically detached from the rest of the UK.  People here will have regarded the Richmond Park result as almost irrelevant to us - if you want to back an unashamedly 'Remain' party here, you'll generally do it by voting for the SNP, and not for a party that incomprehensibly voted against European single market membership in the Scottish Parliament only the other week.

That said, there's clearly scope for a 'niche' Lib Dem comeback in parts of England with decent levels of Remain support.  I was shaking my head in disbelief on Thursday night at Diane Abbott's complacent line of argument that the Lib Dems' pro-European pitch will not play well in areas that voted to Leave.  It doesn't need to, Diane - they're not trying to win a general election.  46% of the English electorate voted Remain, and if the Lib Dems can win over just one-third of those people, they'll essentially double their vote and regain a number of their old seats.  Polls prior to Richmond Park suggested that the "Brexit Means Brexit" Tories were still comfortably outpolling the Lib Dems among Remain voters in England.  There is now a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to reverse that.

To return to Carnoustie, the SNP vote has actually held up much better than in the by-election in the same council area last week.  There seems to be a pattern in the north-east of some No voters switching from the SNP to the Tories, but it hasn't happened on a big scale on this occasion - most of the boost in the Tory support came from elsewhere.  Technically, this result is an independent gain from the SNP, but as is so often the case in STV by-elections, that's pretty meaningless - the SNP didn't actually win the popular vote in the ward last time around (they finished second behind a different independent).

As was the case last week, when the lower preferences of Labour voters were distributed, there were more transfers to the SNP (35) than to the Tories (20).  Has Kezia backed the wrong horse?

Friday, December 2, 2016

UK government boasts that "The Vow" was a gigantic con-trick

As we all remember, a key part of the panic-stricken last-minute "Vow" that helped to secure a narrow No victory in the independence referendum was the promise that the devolved Scottish Parliament would be made "permanent".  Implicit in that pledge was that the Sewel Convention (which, among other things, prevents the powers of the parliament from being altered without the consent of MSPs) would be put on a statutory footing.  Without that safeguard, "permanence" would plainly be meaningless - the parliament could be left as an empty shell, unilaterally stripped by Westminster of all or most of its powers.

It was widely noted that, technically, it was next to impossible to guarantee either the permanence of the parliament or the inviolability of the Sewel Convention, because the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament means that any constitutional law can simply be repealed later on.  Nevertheless, the UK government insisted that the Scotland Act 2016 provided as much assurance as was humanly possible to give within the UK constitutional framework.

A number of us were a tad sceptical about that, and couldn't help wondering whether the use of weird and seemingly redundant wording within the legislation such as "it is recognised that" and "the UK Parliament will not normally legislate without consent" were deliberately intended to be self-sabotaging, and to render the whole thing unenforceable.  Not at all, we were told. That was just paranoia.  Yet more SNP grudge and grievance.

Hmmm.  As it turns out, all it's taken is eight months since the Scotland Act passed into law, and the UK government are already openly admitting that we were correct in each and every respect about the cynical game they were playing.  So desperate are they now to head off the risk of the Supreme Court granting the Scottish Parliament the kind of say over the Brexit negotiations that might actually befit "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world" (ahem), they've dropped all the former pretence, and have submitted a legal argument that explicitly argues that the wording of the relevant section of the Scotland Act deprives it of all credibility.

"The legal irrelevance of the Sewel convention is expressly accepted"

"the convention does not purport to prescribe an absolute rule. Its content is only that “Westminster would not normally legislate” (emphasis added). Whether circumstances are ‘normal’ is a quintessential matter of political judgment for the Westminster Parliament and not the courts. There are no judicial standards by which to measure such a question..."

"Nothing in that analysis is affected by the amendment of s. 28 of the Scotland Act 1998 (by s. 2 of the Scotland Act 2016) to include: “(8) But it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament”. All s. 28(8) does is to recognise the terms of the political convention in legislation. That does not render the application of it in any particular instance a justiciable matter for the courts. It is trite that legislation may include provisions which do not give rise to justiciable legal issues. The content of s. 28(8) is the same as that of the convention, save that its purely political nature is further emphasised by (a) the opening wording that it is “recognised”, and (b) its placement immediately after s. 28(7) which affirms the unconstrained legislative competence of the Westminster Parliament."


In plain language, this is a boast that the supposed placing of the Sewel Convention on a statutory footing was a con-trick. Further, it's an invitation to the Supreme Court to confirm that the deception was pulled off successfully. That whole section of the Scotland Act, we're being told, was the equivalent of a pretty illustration in a textbook - ie. for decorative effect only. At best, it was like forgoing a marriage certificate in favour of a small tattoo saying "Jenny and Kevin 4eva".

The eccentric notion that the government which crafted the law, and not the courts, should get to decide how to interpret the meaning of the word "normally" reminds me a touch of the F├╝hrerprinzip in Nazi Germany (ie. the government's word is above the written law), or the right of the communist Chinese National People's Congress to interpret the Hong Kong Basic Law. The rule of law in democratic countries does generally rest on a basic separation of powers - the political legislature passes the law, and then the non-political courts interpret and enforce it. That is the only way of ensuring non-arbitrary application of the law.  Apparently, Westminster's exercise of overlordship in Scotland is exempt from that general principle.

The UK government's lawyers could have saved themselves a lot of time by submitting a legal argument that simply read : "OUR CONTEMPT FOR THE PEOPLE OF SCOTLAND IS ABSOLUTE. WE LIED, WE CHEATED, AND WE NO LONGER CARE WHO KNOWS ABOUT IT. SUCK IT UP, JOCKS."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

You've dunnit again, Gov.

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website about yesterday's YouGov poll on independence.  It also rehearses some of the many shortcomings of YouGov's polling during the indyref.  You can read the article HERE.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"Engrossing" YouGov poll finds that Scotland is behind Sturgeon's drive to remain in the EU after the UK leaves - and understands this will require independence

A new full-scale Scottish YouGov poll is out today, and the most significant finding is that there is narrow majority support (albeit within the margin of error) for Scotland seeking to remain in the European Union after the UK leaves...

Would you support or oppose Scotland seeking to negotiate with the European Union to remain part of the EU after the rest of Britain leaves?

Support 42%
Oppose 41%

The subsequent question reveals that, by a massive 62%-22% margin, people understand that independence will be required to remain in the EU after Brexit.

There's particularly vexing news for Kezia Dugdale here.  As you'd expect, SNP voters are firmly in favour of retaining Scotland's EU membership, and Tory voters overwhelmingly follow the 'Brexit Means Brexit for everyone' doctrine.  But Labour voters are essentially split down the middle on this point.  It appears that Dugdale may have miscalculated in her belief that the rump Labour support (which is all she appears to care about holding onto) shares the hardline unionist DNA of the Tory support.  Incredible though it may seem, therefore, there are clear grounds for optimism that even more Labour voters could be won over to the SNP if Dugdale maintains her inflexible stance on leaving the EU.

The poll was commissioned by a rabidly anti-independence client (The Times), who are naturally keen to draw attention to the portions of the poll they find more palatable.  In particular, they seem to be beside themselves with excitement to discover that, for the first time since 2014, a YouGov poll has found that headline support for independence is fractionally lower than it was in the indyref.  (The operative word here is 'fractionally' - the Yes vote in the referendum was 44.7%, and YouGov currently has it at 44%.)  But the reality is that the general pattern of recent times has been a Yes vote that hovers only a little higher than the 2014 result, with a figure of 47% being particularly typical.  If that's roughly where we are, you'd fully expect the odd individual poll to put Yes slightly below 45%, simply due to sampling variation (ie. margin of error).  It's theoretically possible that this poll is the first to detect a genuine dip in support, but there's absolutely no reason to jump to that conclusion - unless of course you're indulging in wishful thinking.

By the same token, The Times are ascribing significance that simply cannot be statistically justified to minor changes on the supplementary questions.  For example, opposition to a second independence referendum being held before the UK leaves the EU (ie. within a very tight two-year timescale) has increased since the poll in August from 50%-37% to 54%-35%.  But that change can be easily explained by the margin of error - if, say, the true 'oppose' figure has remained steady at around 52%, the margin of error means that the reported figure in individual polls would be expected to be anywhere between 49% and 55%.  So The Times' liberal use of words like 'slump' is, I'm afraid, a tad over-excitable.

One thing to watch out for today : YouGov have, frankly, become notorious over the years for their lack of objectivity on the topic of Scottish independence.  After their last poll in August, they posted a ludicrous article which brazenly misrepresented their own results.  They stated baldly that a majority of Scots were opposed to a second referendum, but, in fact, respondents hadn't even been asked such a broad question - they'd only been asked whether they wanted a referendum before Britain leaves the EU, which could be very soon indeed.  YouGov also stated that, if and when a referendum takes place, a majority would vote No again.  There was absolutely nothing in their results that would even begin to justify such a wild claim.  The headline question on independence had merely asked, in line with normal practice, how people would vote on independence if a referendum was held tomorrow.  Both of those facts also apply to today's poll, so just keep an eye out in case YouGov attempt the same misrepresentation on this occasion.  At time of writing, they haven't so far.

One small piece of credit I can give YouGov, however, is that they've finally put their house in order and started interviewing the correct electorate - ie. over-16s, rather than just over-18s.  So we no longer have to worry about Yes and SNP support being underestimated for that specific reason.  It's very hard to understand why it's taken such a ridiculously long time for basic good practice to be followed - but better late than never.

It shouldn't be overlooked that today's poll makes fairly grim reading for Theresa May personally.  Her net personal rating has collapsed from +13 in August to -5 now.  Margin of error 'noise' certainly can't explain such a big change.  The Prime Minister still has a long way to go before she reaches Thatcher-style depths of unpopularity, but on her current trajectory (and bearing in mind that her honeymoon period has only really just ended), it's perfectly possible she could eventually arrive at that destination.  If she does, the consequences for opponents of independence could be catastrophic.

The final question of the poll is a bit of an oddity.  Unionists have gleefully leaped on it as proof that 'only' 13% of the population have been involved in the SNP's recent consultation process (which would actually be a pretty impressive figure).  But the wording of YouGov's question leaves a lot to be desired.  The survey is cited as the "National Conversation", whereas to the best of my knowledge it's actually been generally referred to as the "National Survey".  Respondents are also asked whether they have been "approached to take part" in the survey, which on the face of it would exclude anyone who took part without being "approached".  Whether the wording of the question is just clumsy, or whether it's deliberately intended to muddy the waters, is hard to say.

A general point that needs to be made about all polling at the moment : regardless of whether it's good or bad, we simply can't be sure it's reliable.  Fergus Ewing was asked about the headline independence results today, and he pointed out that polls in recent elections and referendums had mostly been wrong.  In years gone by, a politician trying to rubbish the polls would have been regarded as a bit desperate, but as things stand it's hard to deny he's got an excellent point.  It's particularly worth taking a look at the huge leads the Remain campaign had in telephone polls for such a long time.  No-one can say with any great confidence what the true support for independence is right now - let alone what it will be in a few months' time, or in a couple of years.  That's a statement of fact.  The era during which it was rational for political leaders to make strategic decisions on the basis of a couple of percentage points here or there in opinion polls is well and truly over.  At best, the polls of today are a ball-park guide - and that park seems to be getting ever bigger.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Amazement and astonishment in Arbroath, Angus as buoyant SNP bag a by-election belter

Not entirely sure why a by-election was held on a Monday - it's deeply unnatural, like an accurate John McTernan prediction, or something like that.  Anyway, here is the result...

Arbroath East and Lunan by-election result, 28th November 2016 :

SNP 35.0% (-8.8)
Conservatives 27.0% (+12.2)
Independent - Speed 17.2% (n/a)
Independent - Smith 11.8% (n/a)
Labour 6.7% (-6.0)
Liberal Democrats 2.3% (-0.6)

At first glance, that looks like a routine SNP hold on a reduced majority - but as is so often the case with STV by-elections, it's not that simple.  The vacancy was caused by the resignation of an independent councillor - so it's technically an SNP gain from independent, even though the independent was 18% behind the SNP in the popular vote in the ward last time around.  According to the 'Mike Smithson Doctrine', which ludicrously takes no account whatever of the previous result in the ward, this is therefore a result of unalloyed wonderfulness for the SNP (which is probably why Smithson hasn't mentioned it).

Back in the real world, there has been a significant swing from SNP to Tory, which very much follows the pattern of realignment we've been seeing recently - with Yes-voting ex-Labour supporters in west-central Scotland moving en masse to the SNP, and to a lesser extent No-voting ex-SNP supporters in the north-east moving to the Tories.  In a proportional representation election, that swap will always work out quite well for the SNP, but it could potentially lose them a few seats in the next first-past-the-post Westminster contest.  In retrospect, it seems a minor miracle that the post-indyref swing to the Tories in their former heartlands was delayed long enough for the SNP to clean up quite so comprehensively in last year's general election.

As the SNP candidate was elected on the sixth count, we're able to see where the various transfers went.  It's refreshing to discover that Scottish Labour's love affair with the Tories isn't shared by a majority of their own voters in Arbroath - 31 Labour transfers went to the SNP, and only 18 to the Tories.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Scot Goes Pop mourns the passing of Fidel Castro

We interrupt your normal programming with a special message for our resident troll, who had this to say earlier -

"Not even a mention of Fidel on this fash right wing Nat si blog."

Consider Fidel mentioned by this commie left-wing anti-YoonYoon-sis blog.

Actually, the serious answer is that the record of Castro and Cuban communism is a mixed one.  There have been appalling human rights violations, and Cuba is now basically the only outright dictatorship in the American hemisphere - but there have also been extraordinary gains in health care and literacy.  Which side of the coin matters more?  They both matter.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

To state the bleedin' obvious : yes, the US presidential polls were wrong

As GA Ponsonby wittily put it a couple of hours ago -

"The social media relationship between James Kelly and Stuart Campbell has broken down. Yet another reason for Humza to resign quite frankly."

Yes, it's true - after God knows how many years of following each other on Twitter and having a very amicable relationship, Stuart Campbell of Wings Over Scotland abruptly blocked me today.  He had become increasingly angry after I challenged his claims that the opinion polls in the US presidential election were not especially inaccurate, and he eventually told me in trademark fashion to "f*** off".  I have to say I find this a very sad development - over the years, I've backed him to the hilt over the totally unfounded allegations of misogyny and other assorted forms of bigotry, and to be fair he's also stood up for me on a number of occasions.  But throughout my near-decade of writing this blog, I've always felt very strongly that it's important never to let the 'patronage' of a leading blogger deter me in any way from pointing out when I think that person has got something wrong.  I did it with Mike Small in January.  I've actually done it a few times with Stuart before (for example in a debate about the morality of the Hiroshima bombing), and he has always previously reacted in a very constructive and mature way.  For some reason I simply don't understand, today was different.

I wasn't planning to make any further comment on the exchange, but the nature of having a dispute with someone who has several times as many followers as you do is that some of those people pile in after the event, demanding that you answer certain points.  So, free of the 140-character restraint on Twitter, here is my response.

One thing I've felt about Stuart for quite some time is that he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the standard 3% margin of error in public opinion polls.  I seem to recall that after last year's polling disaster at the UK general election, he argued that the polls hadn't really failed, because they averaged out at a level-pegging race, which was more or less within the margin of error of the commanding 7% Tory lead we ended up with.  But that simply isn't how it's supposed to work.  The margin of error takes account of one type of error, and one type only - namely error caused by random sampling variation.  It assumes that everything else - demographic targets, weighting, etc - will be absolutely bang-on correct.  What that means in practical terms is that, although small errors in individual polls will always be commonplace, they should be distributed in a fairly random way.  If, for example, the polls had been correct to within the margin of error at the general election (leaving aside the complicating factor of a possible late swing), we might have seen a pattern in the final polls along the following lines...

Poll 1 : Tory lead of 5%
Poll 2 : Tory lead of 11%
Poll 3 : Tory lead of 5%
Poll 4 : Tory lead of 7%
Poll 5 : Tory lead of 6%
Poll 6 : Tory lead of 8%
Poll 7 : Tory lead of 3%
Poll 8 : Tory lead of 8%
Poll 9 : Tory lead of 6%
Poll 10 : Tory lead of 5%

In that hypothetical example, six out of ten polls underestimate the Tory lead, three overestimate it, and just one is absolutely correct.  That's the sort of thing that can easily happen by random chance.  But what you're NOT seeing there is every single poll underestimating the Tories, and almost all of them doing it by an amount that is either at the extreme end of the margin of error, or that exceeds the margin of error.  According to Wikipedia, and excluding a Survation poll that conveniently only appeared after the election result was already known, these were the actual last ten polls of the 2015 campaign -

Populus : Tied race
SurveyMonkey : Tory lead of 6%
Ashcroft : Tied race
Ipsos-Mori : Tory lead of 1%
YouGov : Tied race
ComRes : Tory lead of 1%
Survation : Tied race
ICM : Labour lead of 1%
ICM : Tied race
Panelbase : Labour lead of 2%

Not only did all of those polls underestimate the Tory lead, but the majority of them did so by slightly more than the margin of error.  That is not the sort of pattern that is remotely likely to occur by random chance - which tells us that the error wasn't primarily caused by the sampling variation allowed for by the margin of error, and that significant methodological mistakes were probably to blame.  (Again, that conclusion leaves aside the possibility of late swing, but it's probably correct to do so, given that YouGov's on-the-day poll was wildly inaccurate.) 

What Stuart would say, and what he effectively did say eighteen months ago, is that because on average the final polls 'only' underestimated the Tory lead by around six or seven points, they were basically accurate to within the margin of error (ie. with Labour overestimated by around 3% and the Tories underestimated by around 3%).  That just doesn't stack up.  The 3% margin of error only applies to each individual poll.  Random statistical noise should to a decent extent balance itself out over a large batch of polls, leaving you with a much smaller error.  In my hypothetical example above, the polling average underestimates the Tory lead by only 1% after rounding, which is much more typical of what you'd expect if the polls were essentially 'right'.

In my exchange with Stuart today, I was only really interested in disputing his points about margin of error, but he tried to sidetrack me into discussing other factors - in particular that polls are snapshots not predictions, and that the US presidential election is not decided by the national popular vote.  Technically, those are reasonable points to make, but when you put them together to try to construct a case that the polls didn't really get it wrong, you do start to get into the realms of the fantastical.  According to the final polls, Hillary Clinton had a national lead of around 4% going into election day.  It is simply not credible to claim that Trump could have won the election if that had actually been the result.  In any case, the possibility of a freak outcome in the electoral college is precisely what the state polls are there to warn us about - and they were even more inaccurate than the national polls!

As far as very late swing is concerned, yes, that can happen, but it won't generally be on an enormous scale, and it should show up in the exit polls (the only polls that are genuinely predictions, rather than shapshots of opinion).  As you can see HERE, the exit polls pointed to a clear Clinton victory in the electoral college.  In the vast majority of states polled, Trump was underestimated.  In almost half of the states, he was underestimated by a greater amount than the margin of error could - even theoretically - explain.

No matter how big the error, it's always possible to attempt to cobble together some kind of tenuous narrative that gives the polling firms a free pass.  If a 40% Labour lead vanishes into thin air on polling day, you can argue that 20% of voters may have changed their minds at the very last second.  But in the real world, there comes a point where you have to accept that the emperor has no clothes, and that the polls were just plain wrong.  They were wrong on Netanyahu, they were wrong on Cameron, they were wrong on Brexit, and they were wrong on Trump.  As I acknowledged the other week, everything is relative, and I would still pay much more heed to polls than to other so-called 'predictors' such as betting and financial markets.  But as of this moment, polls are plainly nowhere near as reliable as they are supposed to be.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The corner of Scotland that will be forever Trumpton

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website, about the terrifying lessons Scotland has learned about Donald Trump from our own ill-fated dalliance with him a few years ago.  You can read the article HERE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Winning With Willie (again)

Much of the mainstream media breathlessly and uncritically reported Willie Rennie's claim at the weekend that the Scottish Liberal Democrats were "winning again".  For those with short memories, here is how the Lib Dems actually fared at the Holyrood election in May...

* SLIPPED from fourth place to fifth, after being overtaken by the Greens for the first time.  To put that in historical perspective, in 1999, 2003 and 2007 they were within just one seat of tying the Tories for third place.

* FAILED to make any seat gains, remaining on the miserable 5-seat tally they've held since 2011.  For comparison, they won 17 seats in both 1999 and 2003, and 16 in 2007.

* SLUMPED to their lowest-ever share of the vote on the constituency ballot - just 7.8%.  For comparison, they took 14.2% in 1999, 15.3% in 2003, and 16.2% in 2007.

If all of that amounts to "winning again", the mind boggles as to what a humiliating defeat would look like.  Apparently on Planet Willie, they can tell that they're winning from the "howling" of "Cybernats".  But back in the real world, we can tell that they're losing simply by checking the results of the election.

The losing streak continued today in the Scottish Parliament as the Lib Dems grotesquely joined forces with the Tories to vote against continued Scottish membership of the single market, but mercifully were defeated by the combined forces of the SNP and Greens, with the pro-European motion being comfortably passed by 65 votes to 32.  This means that an absolute majority of Scottish parliamentarians have now explicitly backed continued single market membership, and the taking of any steps necessary to ensure that.

Labour are taking a lot of flak for abstaining on the motion, but for my money it's the Lib Dems who deserve the opprobrium on this occasion.  You can make an arguable case for abstaining on an elaborate motion that contains several different points, some of which you agree with, and some of which you don't think are ideally worded.  But for a party that was once the most passionately pro-European outfit in Scotland to actually vote against single market membership is nothing short of extraordinary.  They have abandoned all pretence of being anything other than British nationalist zealots - for them, as for the other unionist parties, it's now Brexit or Bust.

Friday, November 11, 2016

New Podcast : Trumpocalypse Now

Just a quick note to let you know that myself and Paul Kavanagh (of Wee Ginger Dug fame) are the guests on the latest edition of the Newsnet podcast, hosted as always by Derek Bateman.  Topics under discussion this week include...well, DONALD TRUMP, basically, although we do also touch on the progression of Brexit, and a possible timescale for the second independence referendum.  You can listen to the podcast HERE.