Thursday, January 18, 2018

The ultimate betrayal: Scottish Tory MPs vote to destroy the devolution settlement as we have known it for the last twenty years

I wasn't following the notorious events in the Commons the other night very closely, so I was intrigued to see what the wording of the Labour amendment on protecting devolution actually was.  Hansard is murderously hard to make sense of sometimes, but as far as I can see this is the one -

"(4) The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament proposals for replacing European frameworks with UK ones.

(5) UK-wide frameworks shall be proposed if and only if they are necessary to—

(a) enable the functioning of the UK internal market,

(b) ensure compliance with international obligations,

(c) ensure the UK can negotiate, enter into and implement new trade agreements and international treaties,

(d) enable the management of common resources,

(e) administer and provide access to justice in cases with a cross-border element, or

(f) safeguard the security of the UK.

(6) Ministers of the Crown shall create UK-wide frameworks only if they have consulted with, and secured the agreement of, the affected devolved administrations."

And the explanatory note on the effect of the amendment -

"This amendment removes the Bill’s proposed restrictions on the ability of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on devolved ​matters and creates new collaborative procedures for the creation of UK-wide frameworks for retained EU law."

As you can see, the amendment would not, if it had been passed, have changed the status quo in respect of devolution - it would instead have upheld the status quo, and rectified the parts of the EU Withdrawal Bill that are intended to repeal the central principle of the Scotland Act 1998, namely that anything not specifically reserved to Westminster is fully devolved, without exceptions.  (You might recall that this principle has been so watertight until now that it was discovered a few years ago that powers relating to Antarctica had been devolved to Holyrood in 1999 without anyone even noticing.)

As has been well-rehearsed, if the Scottish Tory MPs had voted as a bloc for the amendment, it would have narrowly passed by two votes, and the devolution settlement they are supposed to regard as sacred would have been preserved.  Instead, they voted against what they claim to believe in, and the amendment was defeated by twenty-four votes.  It's important to stress that the Bill has now entirely completed its passage through the elected chamber, and will automatically pass into law in its current devolution-busting form unless the Lords amend it, which self-evidently is something that Scottish Tory MPs (let alone SNP MPs) can have no direct control over.  It is literally the case that the Scottish Tories have voted to rip apart the devolved settlement as we have known it for the last twenty years, and are now relying on a ragtag of hereditary peers, Anglican bishops and Tony's Cronies to put it back together again for us.  And this is standing up for Scotland, Ruth?  This is "bloody well getting it done", is it?  This is what "producing results that the SNP's grievance politics can't" looks like, yeah?

It's become the fashion among unionist commentators to scoff at the notion that the pre-referendum "Vow" was never implemented. One frequently-heard (and extremely cynical) argument is that the promises made were so vague and unspecific that the UK government could have done or not done pretty much anything and still accurately claimed to have delivered the Vow. But let's take one component of the Vow that was pretty specific, namely that "the Scottish Parliament is permanent". No reasonable person would have taken that to mean "there will permanently be an institution called the Scottish Parliament, but whether it retains any or all the powers it currently has will be decided at the whim of the UK government". The pledge was quite properly interpreted as meaning that the powers held by the Scottish Parliament in 2014 were the minimum that could now be regarded as permanently protected. As things stand, the EU Withdrawal Bill that the Scottish Tories have just voted through will therefore directly breach the Vow. That's the default position Ruth Davidson's handiwork has left us with. But perhaps the 7th Marquess of Salisbury and the Bishop of Durham will step in and save the day? Fingers crossed, eh?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Body blow for hapless Leonard as Labour slip back in first Scottish poll of 2018

Many thanks to Stuart Dickson for alerting me to the first full-scale Scottish poll of the New Year, conducted by YouGov for the Scottish edition of The Times.

Scottish voting intentions for the next Westminster general election (YouGov, 12th-16th January):

SNP 36% (-4)
Labour 28% (-2)
Conservatives 23% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
Greens 3% (+2)
UKIP 3% (+2)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (constituency ballot):

SNP 38% (-4)
Conservatives 26% (+1)
Labour 23% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+2)
Greens 3% (+1)
UKIP 2% (+1)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (regional list ballot):

SNP 32% (-3)
Conservatives 25% (+2)
Labour 22% (-2)
Greens 10% (+4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
UKIP 3% (+2)
SSP 2% (-1)

It may seem obvious that a drop of four points for the SNP is significant, but it's impossible to know that for certain.  If, for example, support for the party in Westminster terms has remained steady at around 38%, the margin of error could have flattered them by two points in the last YouGov poll in October, and understated them by two points in this poll, thus producing an entirely illusory four-point shift.  It's also conceivable that there has been a genuine drop, but that margin of error effects are exaggerating it.  Certainly there was no sign at all of the SNP going backwards in the Survation poll conducted in early December, so I'd be more inclined to the view that nothing much has changed - at least until we see another poll confirming the trend reported by YouGov.

Should Scotland be an independent country?  

Yes 43% (-1)
No 57% (+1)

The Times' interpretation of the above finding is ludicrous to the point of being almost embarrassing - they claim that support for independence has "dwindled", but in fact a 1% drop is of no statistical significance whatever in a poll with a margin of error of 3 points.  The 43% share for Yes is firmly within the 'normal range' produced by recent YouGov polls - indeed the last-but-one YouGov poll had Yes on exactly 43%.  So this is essentially a no change result, and categorically not a "setback for Yes".

We'll have to see the datasets to be sure, but the likelihood is that YouGov have persevered with their reprehensible practice of excluding 16 and 17 year olds from their independence polling, which leaves open the theoretical possibility that the reported Yes vote is 1% lower than it should be (after rounding).

Much is being made of the finding that 36% of respondents want an independence referendum within the next five years, and 54% don't - but that just appears to be a 'house effect' of YouGov's polling.  They've been asking that question for quite a while and have always produced a negative result, in complete contrast to the 50/50 splits that have often been reported in Panelbase's polling on whether there should be an independence referendum within as little as a couple of years.  We can only speculate as to whether YouGov's panel is for some reason more hostile to a referendum than Panelbase's, or whether there's something about the way YouGov pose the question that produces such markedly different results.

In fairness to The Times, it's not just the SNP and the independence movement they're spinning against - they're also reading far too much into a small drop in Labour support that may or may not prove to be genuine.  However, one detail from the poll can't even conceivably be explained away by the margin of error - Jeremy Corbyn's net personal rating has dropped catastrophically from +20 in October to -3 now.  I would imagine that has been caused quite simply by the fact that we're three months further away from the hoo-ha of the general election campaign, and that people are gradually reverting to the view they held of Corbyn before the Labour surge during May and June.  The million dollar question is whether they would once again swing to a more favourable opinion in the heat of a general election campaign - and on the answer to that question may hang the fate of several SNP-Labour marginal seats.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Do the SNP have three times as many members as the unionist parties combined?

Just thought I'd pass on a snippet of information sent to me by Stuart Dickson.  He spotted on Stormfront Lite that the ESRC-funded Party Members Project has found that 5% of Labour members live in Scotland, as do 6% of Liberal Democrat members, and 10% of Conservative members.  If those numbers are accurate (ie. if they're not a wildly misleading approximation or out of date), it's possible to use the UK-wide membership numbers to estimate how many members each party has in Scotland.  It would put the Lib Dems on roughly 6500, Labour on about 28,500, and the Tories on about 10,000.  That compares to an SNP membership of 118,000 as of August - roughly three times as much as the apparent combined membership of the unionist parties.

The Labour figure may seem a little higher than expected, but it's broadly in line with what we learned at the leadership election a few weeks ago, in which 17,664 full members cast a vote on a turnout of 62.3%.  The party does seem to have demonstrated a certain cockroach-like resilience during its historic crisis over the last three-and-a-half years.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Cable to the unknown

Just for the sake of completeness, and also because it happens to be a favourable one, here's what is presumably the last Scottish subsample from a GB-wide poll that was conducted during 2017.  It's from YouGov...

SNP 38%, Conservatives 24%, Labour 24%, Liberal Democrats 9%, UKIP 5%

Thirty-two of the last thirty-five subsamples have now put the SNP in the lead.

In the Britain-wide results of the poll's supplementary questions, one thing that leaps out at me is that Vince Cable clearly isn't setting the heather alight.  19% of respondents think he's doing a good job as Lib Dem leader, 29% think he's doing a bad job, and 53% don't know.  The stock excuse for the high level of don't knows on personal ratings for a new Lib Dem leader is that he hasn't had a chance to build up his profile yet, but that doesn't really apply to a readymade household name like Cable.  I'm inclined to wonder whether the bulk of those 53% of people weren't actually aware that he's become leader.  Either that or they can't think off the top of their heads of a single thing he's said or done as leader.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

To lead or not to lead - that is the question

As you may have seen, there's been a new outbreak of the intra-Yes culture wars today, triggered by a post on Wings about another question from the Panelbase poll, showing that by a margin of 58% to 18% the Scottish public are opposed to the proposal that individuals should have the right to change their own legally-recognised gender without reference to anyone else.  I'm not going to get involved in any discussion on the substance of this issue - life's too short (elements of the radical left have spent a fair bit of the last twelve months complaining about me writing a light-hearted Christmas poem, for pity's sake), and as it happens my views on this particular subject aren't especially well-developed anyway.  However, what I do want to offer a view on is the dispute over whether the question the Wings poll asked was "leading" or not.  Here it is in full -

A new government review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has proposed that people should in future be allowed to legally decide which sex they are simply by self-definition, without the current medical or psychological assessments which can take two years or more.  This would mean abolishing all current single-sex public spaces, such as women-only changing rooms and men-only toilets, and it would become a hate crime to disagree with someone about which sex they were.  Broadly speaking, what is your view of this proposal?

My simple verdict is: yes, of course that's a leading question, but that doesn't make it an illegitimate question.  This is an unfamiliar topic for most people, which means you're not going to get a considered response from them unless the question goes into a reasonable amount of detail about what the proposal actually is.  And as soon as there's detail, there's a bias, because the person framing the question is effectively making an editorial judgement about what to put in and what to leave out.  There's no such thing as absolute neutrality in such a long question.  This particular question was clearly framed by someone who thinks that the perceived negative consequences of the proposal are more worthy of mention than any positive effects.  Personally, I'd say the final bit about 'hate crimes' seems a bit gratuitous - it reads as a 'chucking in the kitchen sink' addition.  Nevertheless, it's valuable to learn how people react when confronted with the perceived negatives, and it would be equally interesting to see how people react when confronted with the positives - presumably other polls can enlighten us on the latter point.  I think, however, that it would be naive to assume that the result would be dramatically different even if the most favourable and reassuring slant was put on the question.  We know from the debate over equal marriage that social attitudes can sometimes change very, very rapidly, and that may well prove to be the case once again.  But as of right now, at this very moment in January 2018, legally-binding self-definition of gender doesn't seem to be something that the majority of the public are ready to fully embrace.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"Don't you DARE try to stop us!" say Scots in landmark Panelbase poll that REJECTS any Westminster veto on an independence referendum

OK, you've probably already seen this story earlier today on Wings, but you know me - I just couldn't resist the headline.  (It's a fond tribute to a characteristically unhinged headline that was run by either the Express or the Mail - God knows which - not long after Indyref 1.)

Which government do you think should make the decision about whether there should be a new referendum on Scottish independence? (Panelbase, Don't Knows excluded)

The Scottish government: 57%
The UK government: 43%

Tellingly, even if Don't Knows are taken into account, there is still an absolute majority (51%) in favour of the Scottish Government making the decision.

One of the problems we've had since the EU referendum is that a lot of voters seem quite ambivalent on whether a second vote on independence should take place over the next few years, meaning that polls asking about that point produce very different results depending on exactly how the question is framed.  As most polls are commissioned by anti-independence clients, it's unsurprising that in the majority of cases the question is worded in a way that produces a result that can be spun negatively.  That has given the UK government some cover for their "now is not the time" delaying tactics, but of course what those polls generally don't bother asking is whether this should even be any of the UK government's business.  Quite clearly, the majority view is that it should not be.

Indeed, given that it's common knowledge that the SNP are minded to hold a referendum in the relatively near future, it's highly significant that an absolute majority of voters are content that the Scottish government - not even the parliament as a whole, but a government consisting of the SNP only - should be left to make a unilateral decision.  That finding may well come in very useful over the months to come, depending on exactly what Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers have in mind.

*  *  *

I have a new article in the January issue of iScot magazine, and it's considerably more topical than I expected it to be, because it's partly about Neil Oliver.  If you're not a subscriber to the print edition of the magazine, a preview of the article can be found on Twitter HERE, and a full digital copy can be purchased HERE.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year hammerblow for the pro-nuclear wing of CND as Leonard fails to move Scottish Labour out of third place in latest Panelbase poll

I'm fairly certain I've never done this on New Year's Day before, but here is the latest Scottish Parliament voting intention poll, gleaned from datasets published today on Wings.

Scottish Parliament voting intention, constituency ballot (Panelbase):

SNP 39% (-3)
Conservatives 26% (-2)
Labour 25% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
Greens 2% (n/c)

Percentage changes are from the last Panelbase poll a few months ago. 

We've been gradually getting used to the idea that Labour have regained their previous place as Scotland's second party and have pushed the Tories back to third, but perhaps we should hold our horses.  Across all firms, this is actually the fourth of the last five polls to show a virtual dead heat for second place in the Holyrood constituency vote, which suggests that Labour have made progress in recent months, but that it hasn't been sufficient to even get them over the first big hurdle as of yet. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Jo Swinson CBE - is this some sort of joke?

More than a few eyebrows were raised when the news leaked out that Nick Clegg was to be knighted in the New Year's Honours list.  He is, after all, the man who inherited a party that won a post-war record of 62 seats under Charles Kennedy in 2005, and somehow managed to reduce that to just 8 by the time he stepped down in 2015.  There was also a touch of scepticism as to whether Britain's fourth party collectively deserved the bumper number of knighthoods they have received of late.  But at least you can make a semi-plausible case for Clegg getting some sort of recognition from the honours system - he was party leader for seven-and-a-half years, Deputy Prime Minister for five years, and he was also the first Liberal or Liberal Democrat to lead his party into government at Westminster level since the wartime coalition of the 1940s.

No such excuse can be made for Jo Swinson, who I've just seen has been given a CBE.  Does anyone have the faintest idea what she's supposed to have done to deserve that?  She hasn't yet been party leader, she's only been deputy leader for a few months, and in the coalition government she never made it beyond junior ministerial rank.  Perhaps more to the point, she's only 37 years old, which in all likelihood means the meat of her political career is still ahead of her.  Honouring her at this stage is an unfathomable decision, and one that surely brings the system into further disrepute.  The obvious suspicion is that the Lib Dems, who pose as radicals but are establishment to their bones, have given up on collecting votes and are getting their kicks by collecting undeserved gongs instead.

Ironically, this development coincides with an article in the Guardian the other day which suggested that senior Lib Dems are increasingly looking towards Layla Moran as their party's future.  Swinson's name wasn't even mentioned.  That's an astonishing turnaround from a few short months ago when it looked like Swinson would only need to wait a couple of years for Vince Cable to step down, and then enjoy a coronation.  She may have miscalculated very badly by sitting out this year's leadership contest.  And that could well be a stroke of luck from our point of view, given that home-grown leaders tend to produce at least a modest vote boost in Scotland.

Not that I'd want to take sides in a matter that doesn't concern me, of course, so here's my totally unrelated Eurovision video of the day.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Was the SNP's victory in June 2017 the last time Scotland will participate in a UK general election?

You might remember that a few months ago Alastair Meeks royally entertained us by claiming, in all apparent seriousness, that the SNP could never even hope to 'recover' from the terrible setback of comfortably winning the general election in Scotland unless it ditched Nicola Sturgeon as leader.  Quite honestly, even if the narrative of 'SNP crisis' hadn't been so obviously bogus, Alastair's advice would still have been pretty dreadful because the alternatives to Nicola Sturgeon would all - at least for the moment - be a step backwards.  Humza Yousaf is presumably the long-term heir apparent, but he's still a bit too young and inexperienced if a vacancy were to occur any time soon.  Angus Robertson would be the best available replacement for now, but he doesn't currently have a seat in the Scottish Parliament and trying to engineer one for him via a constituency by-election would be fraught with danger.  That would probably leave us with John Swinney as a safe pair of hands - but we know from his own track record as leader between 2000 and 2004 that he'd be unlikely to prove more of an electoral asset than Nicola Sturgeon.  In a nutshell, regardless of your interpretation of the election result in June, the SNP would be completely nuts to change leader.

Alastair still seems to be banging the same drum today, albeit with a tad more circumspection: "The SNP meanwhile...[lost] seats to both Labour and the Conservatives in a unionist pincer movement. The risk of this being extended at a future election is obvious to all. The SNP need a strategy for dealing with this, and fast." That's fair comment as far as it goes, but it is, of course, only one side of the coin.  The SNP now hold a number of ultra-marginal seats that could be lost on a tiny swing, but exactly the same is true of the two main unionist parties, and especially of Labour, who could find themselves once again facing a near-wipeout if they suffer the kind of modest swing to the SNP that was being suggested by a couple of opinion polls in the early autumn.  Presumably Labour need a strategy for dealing with that risk - and fast - every bit as much as the SNP do.  For some strange reason we don't hear as much about Labour's extreme vulnerability, though.

As far as the SNP's electoral strategy is concerned, it's surely pretty obvious that they made a tactical error in May and June by downplaying their own USP.  People who voted Tory believed they were voting "against Indyref 2", and people who voted Labour reckoned they were voting for a real Labour government of the type that hadn't been seen since at least the 1970s, if not earlier.  The SNP weren't offering anything that could compete with the clarity of those pitches - which is ironic, given that the party's whole raison d'etre is as radical and inspiring as you can possibly get.  They did make a half-hearted attempt to mobilise the pro-independence vote by suggesting that if they won a majority of Scottish seats, that would constitute a triple-lock mandate for a second independence referendum - but then mystifyingly gave the impression of backtracking a little on that pledge for the first few days after the majority was duly achieved, which will have sent the dangerous message to some indy supporters that their vote for the SNP was not the vote for a referendum that they were explicitly told it was.  What is needed is the rectification of those tactical mistakes - not a change of leader.

However, all of the above assumes that the SNP will actually have to face another national election prior to independence, and it's by no means clear that they will.  The only one that is sort-of-scheduled to take place before May 2021 is the European election of 2019, which will not go ahead in the UK if Brexit happens on the planned date (although to be honest I don't have a clue if it'll go ahead if Brexit is delayed by a few months).  There is no better strategy for avoiding any risks attached to the next UK general election than making sure that Scotland is an independent country by the time it is held.  As I've noted many times, the SNP will have no option but to do their best to help bring about an early general election if the opportunity arises - but at the moment no such opportunity is on the horizon, and if that continues to be the case, a Yes vote in a 2019 indyref would ensure that the last ever Scottish contribution to a UK general election was the handsome SNP victory of June 2017.  Now, there's a thought to conjure with.

*  *  *

Five new Scottish subsamples from GB-wide polls have been published since my last update...

BMG: SNP 36%, Labour 24%, Conservatives 22%, Liberal Democrats 8%, Greens 7%, UKIP 2%

ICM (a): SNP 34%, Conservatives 29%, Labour 23%, Greens 6%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 3%

YouGov: Conservatives 37%, SNP 34%, Labour 21%, Liberal Democrats 4%, UKIP 2%, Women's Equality 1%

Opinium: SNP 37%, Labour 27%, Conservatives 25%, Greens 5%, UKIP 2%, Liberal Democrats 2%

ICM (b): SNP 41%, Conservatives 27%, Labour 26%, Greens 2%, Liberal Democrats 2%, UKIP 1%

No cause for alarm in any of that.  The YouGov results are a bit of an oddity, because since the election YouGov subsamples have more or less consistently put the Tories in third place, and yet this time the Tories are suddenly in the lead - but that just demonstrates what a large margin of error any individual subsample has, even when it's correctly weighted (as YouGov subsamples apparently are).

Across all firms, thirty-one of the last thirty-four subsamples have put the SNP ahead.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Momentous Panelbase poll suggests Brexit could lead to majority support for independence

You've probably seen by now that Wings has a new Panelbase poll out.  It looks like this is merely the first of several questions from the poll that will be published over the coming days (making it an almost unique example of a political poll that was commissioned with the specific intention of keeping people entertained over Christmas!).

The UK is currently scheduled to leave the EU in March of 2019.  If a referendum on Scottish independence was held around this time, and if a Yes vote meant that Scotland would definitely stay in the EU when the UK left, which way do you think you would vote?

I would vote for an independent Scotland in the EU: 49%
I would vote for Scotland to stay in the UK and leave the EU: 51%

For the avoidance of doubt, this can't be taken to indicate a recent increase in support for independence, because the poll asks a non-conventional and hypothetical question, and indeed offers a choice between two non-conventional and hypothetical answers.  It's not directly comparable with more standard independence polls, which over the last few months have had the Yes vote hovering between 43% and 47%.  Nevertheless, it's an extremely interesting finding because it directly contradicts a narrative that is almost beginning to be regarded in some quarters as indisputable fact - namely that the SNP leadership made a serious miscalculation in 2016 and early 2017 by assuming that Brexit could in itself bring about majority support for independence.  The theory is that the Yes side has lost as many (or perhaps more) votes as it has gained, because too many people who voted Yes in 2014 and Leave in 2016 do not regard continued membership of the EU as a price worth paying for independence, while not enough Remain voters regard independence as a price worth paying for EU membership.  This poll suggests the opposite is the case - that explicitly tying independence to EU membership actually produces a net gain in Yes support, which is precisely what the SNP leadership thought would be the case all along.

As it happens, the proportion of Remain voters in the poll who say they would vote against independence (32%) is significantly higher than the proportion of Leave voters who say they would vote in favour of independence (21%).  But because there are far more Remain voters than Leave voters in Scotland, that's still enough to produce a net boost for Yes.

Of course, some will argue that the results of the poll are meaningless because the hypothetical scenario presented by the question will never come to pass - ie. if there's an independence referendum in early 2019, voters won't have absolute 100% certainty that an independent Scotland would remain in the EU (or rejoin after a short hiatus, which amounts to the same thing).  But if EU leaders are interested in the unexpected bonus of retaining one-third of the UK's land mass after Brexit, and it's not hard to see why they might be, it's quite conceivable that they could find a way of dropping sufficiently heavy hints about how easy an independent Scotland is likely to find it to remain a member.  That might produce much the same effect on public opinion as absolute certainty would.

By the way, don't be dismayed by the fact that the No side are slightly ahead even on the hypothetical question.  This poll is the quintessential statistical tie - meaning it's not possible to know which side is really ahead due to the standard 3% margin of error.  Looking at the raw numbers in the datasets, the result appears to be fractionally closer than even the headline numbers suggest - something like Yes 49.2%, No 50.8%.

One slight reason for caution is that people minded to vote No on a standard independence question seem to have been disproportionately likely to have said "Don't Know" to the question tying independence to EU membership, and thus many are excluded from the headline figures.  But that in itself is an intriguing finding.