Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Just when you thought Clegg couldn't blunder any further, he starts channelling Ian Davidson

I see that Nick Clegg has had a little moan about Alex Salmond wanting to "have another crack" at the independence referendum (even though, to the best of my knowledge, no-one in the SNP leadership has proposed an early second referendum unless circumstances change), and in a disturbing echo of Ian Davidson's notorious "bayoneting the wounded" comment, has compared the outgoing First Minister to a Japanese soldier who doesn't know the war is over.

Let me put a thought to you, Mr Clegg.  You are Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, with special responsibility for constitutional reform.  I'm not entirely clear what you've been doing in that role for the last four-and-a-half years, given that I can't actually think of a meaningful constitutional reform that has occurred over that period.  But you nevertheless have an opportunity to redeem yourself now by implementing the solemn promises that secured a narrow (rather than a "pretty emphatic") win for the No side.  Once you've done that, you're then perfectly entitled to enter into a discussion with the people of Scotland about whether or not a second referendum would be appropriate.

Just to remind you, the promises you need to deliver are -

"Devo SUPER Max."  (Devo Max is the devolution of virtually all powers other than foreign affairs and defence.  It's unclear what the 'SUPER' refers to, but presumably it must somehow be even more impressive than Devo Max.)

"A modern form of Scottish Home Rule."  (See above.)

"Near federalism."  (See above.)

The guarantee of Scotland remaining within the European Union.  (This is not consistent with briefing journalists that your party will concede an in/out referendum on the EU in order to stay in coalition with the Tories after the next election.)

"The Scottish Parliament is permanent."  (This means abandoning the doctrine of absolute Westminster sovereignty, and irrevocably surrendering London's right to legislate on devolved matters unless given permission to do so by Edinburgh.)

So you get on with that little lot, Nick, and once it's all signed, sealed and delivered, you'll be in a splendid position to make the case that a repeat referendum would be totally inappropriate for the foreseeable future.  But if you fail to deliver, then quite simply you have no mandate, because the mandate received by the No campaign on September 18th was firmly tied to a "vow".  In those circumstances, I'm afraid that whether we should at some point "have another crack" will quite rightly remain an open question.

Oh, and given that the Lib Dems are on 5% in YouGov's latest Scottish subsample, and the SNP are on 49%, it's just possible that opinions may vary about which political leader most closely resembles a deluded Japanese soldier who has failed to recognise that the game is up.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The politics of language

My jaw just dropped to the floor watching the BBC News channel - there was a headline along the lines of "Cameron is defiant amid warnings that his plan to curb EU immigration could be illegal."

"Warnings"?  "Could be illegal"?  There's not the slightest bloody doubt that it's illegal!  This is fact, not speculation.  Freedom for EU citizens to live and work in any other member state is one of the most fundamental principles of EU law - which, for the avoidance of doubt, has supremacy over UK law, and that's a principle that has been accepted and enforced by the UK courts for decades.

It's highly instructive to see the way in which the broadcasters feel they have to pussy-foot around with their use of language in respect of the UK government's antics, even when it's a matter of plain, irrefutable fact that Cameron is proposing something he has no legal power to do.  Compare and contrast with the rather 'firmer' language they felt free to use only a few weeks ago in relation to scare stories about Scottish independence, no matter how fanciful those were.

Explain yourself, Professor Curtice, for I fear there is a rather massive contradiction here

I don't pay the Murdoch levy, so I was interested to see an extract from a Sunday Times article on Wings yesterday, in which Professor John Curtice argues for a referendum on more powers for the Scottish Parliament.  He offers the following very curious reason -

"It seems to me that unless we go through a process whereby we get public buy-in to what is being proposed and which in five years' time the politicians can say 'This is what the people voted for and this is what Scotland wants', the SNP will be able to continue to say 'This is not enough' and selectively use polling evidence to show that is what people think."

If he has not been misquoted on the word 'selectively', there's a huge problem with Curtice's argument.  Just two weeks ago he wrote a post on his own blog criticising the SNP for using leading wording in the questions for a Panelbase poll that showed overwhelming public support for full Devo Max (ie. devolution of everything other than foreign affairs and defence), and pointed out they didn't need to do that, because neutrally-worded polls can be relied upon to produce the same result anyway -

"And given that many another survey that has used a more neutral wording has uncovered majority support for devolution of the nation’s domestic affairs, it might be felt that there is no need for the SNP to have adopted such an approach in order to generate findings that were supportive of its view."

In other words, if what emerges from the unsatisfactory post-referendum process falls significantly short of Devo Max, the SNP will always be able to quote polling evidence showing that the popular will has not been respected, and they will always be right. There's no question of that evidence being in any way "selective" - the people demonstrably and authentically want Devo Max, and we have Curtice's own word for that.

He must know that a fair referendum offering a menu of options for further devolution (Labour's Devo Nano, the Tories' Devo Bit More, the Lib Dems' Federalism Lite, Reform Scotland's Devo Plus and the SNP's Devo Max) would have a very predictable outcome.  So I can only assume that he's not talking about the sort of referendum that actually seeks to ascertain the popular will, but instead the sort that is used to establish a bogus mandate.  The AV referendum of three years ago is a classic example - voters were presented with a choice of two very similar options, and the vast swathe of voters who wanted a more radical option (ie. proportional representation) had no choice but to "endorse" something that they didn't actually support.  The No campaign openly pitched for PR supporters to vote against AV, and then shamelessly claimed the outcome as a ringing endorsement of first-past-the-post.

Roy Hattersley (remember him?) tried a similar trick after the 1997 devolution referendum, arguing that it was "unanswerable" that Labour should run the parliament rather than the SNP, because the Scottish people had just voted for devolution rather than independence.  The trouble is that it was a bit difficult for them to do anything else given that they were faced with a binary choice between devolution and direct rule from London.  And yet a high-profile Westminster politician was perfectly prepared to make that risible, offensive, and downright undemocratic argument with a straight face.  Professor Curtice seems to be suggesting something equally cynical with his comment about "public buy-in" - that voters would be faced with a binary choice between the status quo and the Smith Commission proposals, and if they voted for the latter, politicians could then brazenly claim the outcome as a rejection of Devo Max, even though that hadn't been on the ballot paper.

Of course, nobody actually paid a blind of bit of notice to Hattersley's witterings, because everyone knew perfectly well that the SNP had been an active part of the Yes campaign in 1997, and that victory in the referendum was jointly "owned" by supporters of independence and supporters of devolution.  Exactly the same thing would happen this time in the unlikely event of Curtice's suggestion being acted upon, because I struggle to conceive of any circumstances in which the SNP would not campaign in favour of seizing more powers for the Scottish Parliament, whatever reservations they might have about the exact proposals.

*  *  *


Today has seen the publication of only the second Scottish subsample since the referendum not to put the SNP in the lead.  Like the first one, it's from Populus.  It's an ambiguous finding, though, because the SNP are actually fractionally ahead on the raw figures, and only slip behind Labour after turnout weighting.  With such small sample sizes, you'd expect huge fluctuations from day to day, so it's far too early to conclude that the SNP's surge is starting to tail off.  They remain well ahead in the latest Poll of Polls, which is based on eight subsamples from GB-wide polls - four from YouGov, two from Populus and two from ComRes.  (An Ashcroft poll will be published later this afternoon, but I can't be bothered waiting for it!)

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 38.8% (-3.3)
Labour 25.8% (+0.9)
Conservatives 19.4% (+1.2)
Liberal Democrats 7.8% (+1.4)
UKIP 5.4% (+0.3)
Greens 2.9% (+0.3)

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

*  *  *

UPDATE : The Ashcroft poll is now out, and its Scottish subsample is much more 'normal' than the Populus one - it shows the SNP ahead of Labour by 49% to 27%.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Are we even closer to the UKIP nightmare scenario than we realise?

If you thought that the days were over when the chances of predicting our political future hinged on judging the merits of different polling methodologies, think again.  Just look at the huge difference between the results of two simultaneous Britain-wide ComRes polls which have just been released - the first of which "prompts" for UKIP (ie. it reminds respondents of the party's existence in exactly the same way that it reminds them of the existence of the other 'main' parties), and the second of which does not.

Britain-wide voting intentions for the May 2015 general election (UKIP prompted for) :

Labour 31%
Conservatives 29%
UKIP 24%
Liberal Democrats 7%
Greens 5%
SNP 4%
Others 1%

Britain-wide voting intentions for the May 2015 general election (UKIP not prompted for) :

Labour 34%
Conservatives 31%
UKIP 19%
Liberal Democrats 7%
SNP 4%
Greens 4%
Others 1%

Incredibly, the bizarre methodology used for the second poll is the "norm" for ComRes, as indeed it is for many other pollsters, and this calls into question whether even the unprecedented numbers UKIP have been enjoying recently may be a significant underestimate of their true support.  If they really are in the mid-20s and just seven points behind the first-placed party as the "fairer" poll above suggests, then we are well and truly into an "all bets are off" scenario, because there are still plenty of opportunities for Farage to build further momentum before the general election - most obviously there's the Rochester and Strood by-election next month, but there's also the lingering possibility of further defections from both the Tories and Labour.

Earlier this evening, I had a brief Twitter exchange on the "prompting" issue with Keiran Pedley of NOP, which used to be a big name in UK voting intention polling, although they haven't been active in recent times.

Keiran Pedley : @Nigel_Farage thinks UKIP should be prompted but where is the evidence that prompting UKIP gives a more accurate poll rating?

Me : To be fair, there seems very little chance that it would give a less accurate rating.

Keiran Pedley : we don't know yet - thats the reality

Me : Is there any reason why it wouldn't be a sensible precaution to prompt for UKIP?

Keiran Pedley : historically only prompt on 'main' parties, thing to remember is pollsters job not to be 'fair' but to be 'right'

Keiran Pedley : but given uniqueness of situation - v difficult to judge whats right approach re UKIP. Big challenge for pollsters

Me : But if you prompt for the fourth most popular party but not the third...surely that's bonkers?

Keiran Pedley : probably - get where you are coming from but then what if pollsters overstate UKIP as did LDs in 2010...its tricky

Keiran Pedley : thing about polling is it is literally both art and science

The comment about the "uniqueness of the situation" will perhaps remind you of the problem we faced before the independence referendum - in spite of the complacent boasts that certain pollsters (naming no names, but Peter Kellner) were making about the accuracy of their results, we knew that they were all fumbling around in the dark to some extent because they didn't have any previous independence referendum to "work backwards from" to ensure that their methodology worked in practice as well as in theory, ie. the "art not science" part of the process. Hence the gulf between the Yes-friendly and the No-friendly pollsters, and we're now seeing a similar gulf between polls that prompt for UKIP and polls that don't.

On reflection, I would concede the point that it is theoretically perfectly possible that the surveys which do not prompt for UKIP will turn out to be the most accurate, but if polling firms are depending for their accuracy on seemingly random decisions about which parties they remind respondents about the existence of, then I'm not sure that merits the billing of either "art" or "science". It's more like the method by which a broken clock occasionally manages to be more accurate than a clock that is consistently two minutes slow.

The reality is that when voters are faced with a ballot paper next May, they will be "prompted" for all parties, so pollsters should surely be doing their level best to replicate the voting experience as closely as possible. Perhaps the objection would be that voters are "frivolously" telling pollsters that they will vote UKIP, even though they will not actually do so when the government is being chosen. But there is simply no realistic way of controlling for that possibility, and pollsters shouldn't even try. Discouraging people from remembering that UKIP even exists seems like a particularly insane way of trying to control for it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

SNP notch up astonishing 17% lead in Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls

I'm in a mad rush this afternoon, but I thought I'd give you a lightning-quick Poll of Polls update, because once again it makes for rather pleasant reading.  It's based on the Scottish subsamples from ten GB-wide polls - four from YouGov, two from Populus, one from Survation, one from Ashcroft, one from ICM and one from Ipsos-Mori.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 42.1% (-0.7)
Labour 24.9% (-2.1)
Conservatives 18.2% (+2.5)
Liberal Democrats 6.4% (-0.6)
UKIP 5.1% (+0.8)
Greens 2.6% (+0.5)

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

There is a full-scale Scottish poll out today from TNS-BMRB, but it's of no use for the Poll of Polls because it doesn't have any voting intention figures (either for Westminster or Holyrood). There are some interesting findings, however, and I'll hopefully be able to do some analysis soon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

OK, London broadcasters, so tell us : just what WOULD be enough for a Jock party to get into your debates?

Of the many reprehensible things about the broadcasters' proposal to ban the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the TV leaders' debates, and indeed to ban them from even taking part in the negotiations about the debates, the most disgraceful of all is the fact that it is based on no objective criteria whatever.  In fact, the polar opposite is true - we have evidence that their starting-point is that the SNP and Plaid must be excluded ("why, the idea is patently absurd, Felicity!"), and that they work backwards from there to come up with a justification that fits.  It doesn't matter a damn to them what that justification is, or whether it is logically consistent with the other excuses they've used in similar situations in the past.  Last time around, Michael Crick (who was still with the BBC) openly admitted that the whole "Prime Ministerial Debate" wheeze was specifically concocted as a thin excuse to bar the door to the nationalist parties - if the debates had been billed as parliamentary leaders' debates (which is self-evidently what they actually were) it would have been much harder to explain away the absence of parties that have enjoyed unbroken representation in the House of Commons for decades.  Well, they've had to dilute the Prime Ministerial cover story this time to accommodate their beloved Nigel Farage, so what excuse are they left with now?  As of this moment, they just appear to be waffling, and hoping desperately that people will get used to the idea of the exclusion as a "normal" thing.

At the very least, the broadcasters must now be forced to set out firm criteria (which will not be conveniently altered in future) that the SNP and Plaid Cymru can meet to secure representation in the debates - and I do mean the real debates, not Mickey Mouse second-string debates which nobody pays a blind bit of attention to.  Is there a magic number of candidates that they must put up?  If so, what is that number?  200?  350?  If they could be guaranteed access to the debates with a specific number, I'm sure they would consider working together (perhaps with the aid of a dedicated fundraiser) to put up candidates in parts of England - the required deposit per constituency is £500, so the money involved would be significant, but not impossibly high.  It's certainly hard to see what additional hoops they could be expected to jump through beyond the number of candidates - the number of currently-held parliamentary seats can't be an issue, because between them they already have nine times as many seats as UKIP (who are pencilled in for inclusion in one debate), and nor can opinion poll support throughout Great Britain be an issue, because the 5% they have been getting in many recent opinion polls is in the same ballpark as the 6-9% enjoyed by the Lib Dems (who are pencilled in for inclusion in two debates).

But even if it is going to be one law for some (London-based) parties and another law for (non-London-based) others, there still does need to be clarity.  For example...

The SNP have six times as many seats in the House of Commons as UKIP.  If they had twelve times as many, would that be enough?

The SNP are the third-biggest party in the entire UK, with far more members than either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP.  If they were the second-biggest party, would that be enough?

The SNP currently hold the lead in Scottish voting intentions for Westminster.  If their lead over Labour was even bigger, would that be enough?

The SNP are currently projected to be ahead of UKIP as the fourth-largest party (at least) in the House of Commons after the general election, according to all Britain-wide opinion polls other than one.  If they were projected to be ahead of the Lib Dems as well as UKIP, would that be enough?

Tell us, London broadcasters : would anything ever be enough for a Jock party?  You'll have to forgive our scepticism.

The reason why this matters is illustrated perfectly by the latest update of the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls, which is based on the Scottish subsamples from the nine GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided - three from YouGov, two from Populus, two from Ashcroft, one from Survation and one from ICM.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 42.8% (+1.8)
Labour 27.0% (-0.4)
Conservatives 15.7% (-1.9)
Liberal Democrats 7.0% (-0.2)
UKIP 4.3% (+0.9)
Greens 2.1% (-0.7)

It's easy to look at these figures and conclude (as someone did on Twitter a couple of hours ago) that Scotland now constitutes a different polity from the rest of the UK.  But if you think for one moment that the SNP's lead is strong enough to withstand the broadcasters' Grand Exclusion Strategy, then you're dreaming.  Consider the one previous occasion when the SNP broke through the 30% barrier in a Westminster general election, in October 1974.  Do you think they would have had a cat in hell's chance of achieving that result if the run-up to the election had been punctuated by three leaders' debates between Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe?  Of course not.  The momentum would have drained away.  The message sent out to viewers would have been : "The party you're thinking of voting for is not a serious party.  They're not part of the real contest.  Forget about them, and think about one of the main options instead."

On the morning after the referendum, I suggested that the broadcasters hadn't simply predicted the result, but had authored it.  (The glorious irony of the running vote tallies being projected onto Pacific Quay will live long in the memory.)  But their active participation in the London establishment's 'shock and awe' campaign during the referendum was positively subtle compared to the straightforward cause-and-effect of depressing the SNP vote in a general election by leaving them out of the debates - we saw how the party slumped in the opinion polls immediately after the first debate in 2010.  The broadcasters might as well be saying "we don't like the Scottish result currently suggested by the opinion polls, so we'll shape a result more to our taste instead".

Broadcasters are there to facilitate democratic debate, not to shape election results.  It is no part of their business to arbitrarily decide that a ceiling will be permanently placed on the support of any party that does not stand candidates in England.  This little game must be stopped.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A democratic outrage : the broadcasters plan to totally exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the televised leaders' debates

After the debacle of the rigged 2010 leaders' debates (which not only saw the SNP and Plaid Cymru totally excluded but also saw their voters literally banned from being part of the audiences!), there were signs that one or two of the more thoughtful broadcasters realised that an Anglocentric framework had let viewers down badly and couldn't be sustained in future elections.  Sky's Adam Boulton, for instance, wrote a very good article reflecting on how the debates had totally dominated the campaign to the exclusion of everything else, and proposed that in the interests of fairness the SNP should be given some form of involvement in at least one debate next time around.  Well, those good intentions seem to have gone completely out of the window.  The joint proposal that has just been released is as follows -

A Sky/Channel 4 debate hosted by Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley (why not chuck in David Starkey and make our lives complete?), featuring the Conservatives and Labour only.

A BBC debate hosted by David Dimbleby, featuring the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats only.

An ITV debate hosted by Julie Etchingham, featuring the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP only.

Once again, the SNP (who have had continuous parliamentary representation since 1967) and Plaid Cymru (who have had continuous parliamentary representation since 1974) are being invited to accept that they should be completely excluded from debates for a parliamentary election.

Let's be clear about this - there is no such thing as a 'national party' in the UK, so that type of excuse for excluding parties who you think your London audiences will find boring doesn't work.  The UK has four constituent nations, and there is no party - not one - that has MPs in all four.  Three parties have representation in three of the four nations, the SNP and Plaid between them (who form a single parliamentary group in Westminster) have representation in two of the four nations, while UKIP have representation in just one nation - as do the Greens.  How exactly do we get from that state of affairs to the inclusion of UKIP and the exclusion of the SNP, Plaid and the Greens?

Nor does an excuse about "at least standing candidates throughout the country" work, because Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not stand candidates in Northern Ireland.  And nor does an excuse about "standing enough candidates for your leader to become PM" work, because in a parliamentary system a party participating in a complex coalition can supply the Prime Minister even with a tiny minority of seats - there are numerous examples of that happening throughout the world.  And that's before we even get to the inconvenient fact that the SNP are now the third biggest party in the UK, with far more members than either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP.

I presume the proposed Cameron v Miliband head-to-head debate would take place before the official campaign period, otherwise by definition it would fall foul of the broadcasting regulations.  But it wouldn't surprise me if the debate involving UKIP is being pencilled in for a date closer to the election, in which case the broadcasters are getting into very dangerous territory - including UKIP on the basis of one or perhaps two MPs, but excluding the SNP and Plaid on the basis of nine MPs.  To adapt George Bush Senior's words after the invasion of Kuwait, "this must not stand".  Mass complaints to the broadcasters are probably now in order, and perhaps even an early legal challenge if the SNP are shut out of the negotiations.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

SNP soar to 41% in Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls

We'll soon see what the Sunday YouGov poll brings, but as of this moment, it remains the case that there has been just one Scottish subsample since the referendum that has not put the SNP in the lead.  The odd one out was a Populus poll, but the most recent subsample from that firm could hardly be more different - it puts the SNP at 44% and Labour at 26%.

The average below is drawn from five Scottish subsamples - four from YouGov and one from Populus.  That's the lowest number of polls that any Poll of Polls update has been based on so far, and therefore the standings should be treated with even more caution than usual.  The reason that the SNP lead has soared is that the full-scale Panelbase poll that gave them a mere 2% lead, and that previously made up more than half of the sample, has now dropped out due to being more than seven days old.

There is no percentage change listed for the Greens because they weren't included in the previous update.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 41.0% (+5.2)
Labour 27.4% (-4.0)
Conservatives 17.6% (-0.1)
Liberal Democrats 7.2% (+2.1)
UKIP 3.4% (-2.1)
Greens 2.8%

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

If you haven't made your submission to the Smith Commission yet, it might be an idea to avoid the small but intensely irritating error that I made, which was to offer immigration as an example of the very limited number of powers that are essential to maintaining the United Kingdom as a single state.  In fact, both the SNP and the Greens have used their submissions to identify the post-study work visa as one aspect of immigration policy that can and should be devolved (in the case of the Greens they argue for joint control between Edinburgh and London).  OK, it's only a technical distinction, because both parties implicitly acknowledge that the bulk of immigration policy will have to remain reserved to Westminster, so in that sense what I wrote is correct.  But I'm still annoyed with myself for not qualifying it (or for not using a more straightforward example).

It's interesting to compare the SNP and Green submissions, because the former is a model of detail and clarity, while the latter is radical in many respects but also strangely hesitant - it's full of language like "it may now be appropriate to devolve X" or "we see no reason in principle why Y should not be devolved".  I presume that's an attempt to sound open-minded and consensual, but I'd have thought it would be much better to be confident in your proposals and then flexible in the negotiations.  I'm guessing that's very much the SNP plan - they would never have nominated bridge-builders like John Swinney and Linda Fabiani unless they were serious about getting a deal if humanly possible.

The one part of the Green document that profoundly disappointed me in terms of the content rather than just the tone was the bit about broadcasting - they do propose a degree of devolution, but of a distinctly underwhelming variety.  That shouldn't be surprising, though, because they've often gone out of their way to defend the BBC when the SNP have been critical.  It's an oddly conservative strand of Green thinking, and it would be interesting to know where it originates from.

Friday, October 10, 2014

What does UKIP's breakthrough mean for Scotland?

Oddly enough, I didn't see Ruth Davidson tweeting the words "Well done, Clacks!" this time.  The Tories' crushing defeat in the Clacton by-election is a landmark moment in UK politics - it's easy to lose sight of that in the midst of post-referendum fever, but it's true.  It's on a par with Hamilton 1967 as marking the moment that a one-time fringe party entered parliament, never to leave (or never on any imaginable timescale).  Even if we assume the most pessimistic scenario for UKIP at next year's general election, they will at least retain the one seat that they now have.  Douglas Carswell clearly has an enormous personal vote, and to be fair it's not hard to understand why - leaving aside some of his political views, he seems like a decent enough bloke, and now that he's made his move there's suddenly such a thing as "the sane wing of UKIP".

The likelihood of the party system in the House of Commons fragmenting further has increased significantly with this result, and that will offer a huge opportunity for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the coming years to use the seemingly improbable Westminster route to bring about radical change.  We could well be heading for an Indian-style situation where we retain the God-awful first-past-the-post voting system, and yet still end up with the PR-type outcome of a hung parliament in every future general election, thus enabling small parties to squeeze substantial concessions out of the larger ones.  To understand how profoundly things have changed, you only need to look at the way that Labour people were jumping up and down with joy last night at the news that YouGov were putting them ahead of the Tories by 35% to 30%.  I mean, seriously?  35% is good news?  There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when there were thoughtful people in both of the two largest London parties who realised that, notwithstanding their own personal distaste for electoral reform, serious questions of moral legitimacy arose for any single-party government that had been elected on a relatively small minority vote.  That kind of decency in Westminster politics has long gone - now Labour are quite content to win an absolute majority by a freakish quirk of the electoral system, and to hell with moral legitimacy.  Unfortunately for them, it's open to severe doubt whether they're even going to do that.

As I see it, we're now looking at a slim one-off opportunity for Labour to get a majority, because we're currently in a transitional phase where the Liberal Democrats are going to take a big hit, and where UKIP haven't yet put down enough roots to win anything more than ten seats at the absolute most.  That means a hung parliament will only come about this time if the result happens to be close enough between the two main parties.  But by the election after next, UKIP will be in line to make a second-stage breakthrough, the Lib Dems' fortunes may at least have stabilised somewhat, and the Greens might even be looking to take a few more seats.  From that point on, it may well become next to impossible for the Tories or Labour to ever win an outright majority again.

If so, the SNP will only need a little bit of luck for the cards to fall in their favour as they did in the late 1970s, when the party effectively held the balance of power with just 11 seats.  They skillfully used that arithmetical good fortune to steer the Labour government down a road that very nearly led to a devolved Scottish Assembly being established. ('Very nearly' doesn't sound terribly impressive, but it shouldn't be underestimated just how close devolution was to happening - it was probably only the unfortunate timing of the winter of discontent that thwarted it.)

And what about the other potential indirect route by which it's frequently speculated that the Scottish independence movement might reach its objective quite rapidly, namely a British exit from the EU?  It's actually hard to judge whether Clacton has brought that prospect closer or made it more distant.  Obviously the stronger and more credible that UKIP become, the more plausible it is that the "out" side could win an in/out referendum.  But a prerequisite for that referendum taking place is that there is a Tory-led government after the general election, and as tedious as the Tory warnings last night were that a UKIP surge might help Ed Miliband into Downing Street, there may be a grain of truth in that.  We generally assume that Labour can't win because the public don't take Miliband seriously as a potential PM, but if it's getting to the point where it's arithmetically possible to win a majority on 33% or 34% of the vote, just how seriously do they actually need to take him?

Suppose Labour fall short, though.  Suppose they fall so far short that their only hope of forming a government is to involve both the Lib Dems and the SNP.  That was exactly the position last time around, and it turned out that they found the idea so distasteful that they preferred to see the Tories take office.  But after five years frozen out of government, would they be hungry enough for power to deal with the SNP?  I suspect they might just be, but that poses an even bigger question : would they be prepared to make a generous enough offer, given that as things stand (incredibly) the Tories are more radical on devolution than they are?  It's an interesting one.

On the BBC results programme last night, Professor Curtice was once again expressing his scepticism about the theory that the referendum has permanently changed the game in Scotland, and said that he didn't expect the SNP to make more than a handful of gains from Labour in the Westminster election.  He may yet be proved right, because the apparent lead that the SNP hold at present will be very vulnerable to the media blackout they generally suffer in the run-up to any UK-wide contest.  But if so, Curtice is right for the wrong reasons, because he actually seems to doubt that the SNP's current position is favourable, which I struggle to tally up with the available evidence.  For starters, he's completely ignoring the almost uniform message from recent Scottish subsamples that the SNP have the lead.  Doubtless he'd justify that by pointing to the inherent unreliability of subsamples, but when they're showing such a consistent message I'm not sure that doctrine works so well.  He's also pointed a number of times to the fact that Survation's full-scale post-referendum poll showed a weakened SNP position in Westminster voting intentions, but has failed to qualify that by noting that it was a telephone poll, and therefore not directly comparable to the previous polls from the firm.  For some reason he has also failed to call out the obvious flaw in the only other full-scale Scottish poll that has been published since the referendum, namely that it used the discredited procedure of weighting by 2010 vote recall (although even then it still managed to produce a small SNP lead over Labour).

Whether Curtice is right or wrong, though, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the SNP still have a golden chance to make significant gains at the election even if Labour hold everything they have.  There really is very little doubt that there will be huge swings in Lib Dem-held seats, and it's just a question of whether the SNP will be the prime beneficiary of that.  Until recently it looked almost certain that they would, but there is now a school of thought that the referendum may have decoupled a section of rural No voters from the SNP, and that the Tories might prosper instead (or indeed Labour in East Dunbartonshire).  As things stand, that's completely unknowable - the SNP's strength in the opinion polls makes it seem unlikely, but we can't be sure that a decline in support in rural areas isn't being more than offset by what might be a short-lasting surge in traditional Labour areas.  Even if that's true, though, a post-Clacton UKIP bandwagon effect is the last thing the Tories need, because a split in the right-wing vote will make it harder for them to pip the SNP in Lib Dem-held seats (and indeed in the three most vulnerable SNP-held seats).

*  *  *

The SNP have published their submission to the Smith Commission - it can be read HERE.  It's really important that as many people as possible make their own personal submission, in order to improve the negotiating hand of the SNP and the Greens.  You can find out how to make a submission by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Now is the time to act (again) : make your own submission to the Smith Commission

Well, it's only a few weeks since we all took a few minutes out of our time to vote for the independence of our country, so surely we can all spare an hour or so to argue the case for the maximum amount of powers to be transferred to our national parliament? A few days ago, the Smith Commission started accepting submissions from the public - you can read the guidelines, and find the email address to send submissions to, by clicking HERE.

Here's the submission I've just sent in...

As I understand it, the commission is particularly keen to hear about the principles or 'unifying themes' that underpin any proposal for a package of powers that should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. In my view there are two principles which must apply, and they are both simple and largely self-evident. Firstly, there is the logic upon which the current devolution settlement is founded, namely that any powers which are not specifically reserved are deemed to be automatically devolved. This means that the burden of proof does not properly lie with the proponents of devolution when they explain why any given power should be devolved, but rather with the devo-sceptics when they explain why it should remain reserved. Looking at the extraordinary "everything but the kitchen sink" list of powers that are currently reserved, it's hard to imagine that a large portion of it would survive such a test.

The second principle is that the new settlement must reflect the democratic will of voters as expressed in the independence referendum on 18th September. The insistence of the UK government that Devo Max (universally defined as the transfer of all powers to Scotland other than the small number absolutely essential to the functioning of a unified state) should not be included as an additional option on the ballot paper was presumably motivated by a desire to thwart the likelihood of the referendum resulting in a mandate for that option. However, there is overwhelming evidence that the two parties represented in the UK government, plus the Labour party and the official No campaign as a whole, abandoned that desire in the latter stages of the campaign and instead invited the electorate to vote No on the specific basis that it would be interpreted as providing a mandate for Devo Max, as opposed to a mandate for no change. This was most explicitly stated by Mr George Galloway, who was nominated by the official Better Together campaign to speak on their behalf in a major televised BBC debate in the Hydro in Glasgow one week before polling day. He pledged that a No vote would automatically result in "not just Devo Max, but Devo SUPER Max". Many viewers were startled by the apparent implication that more powers will somehow be devolved over and above the maximum amount that is actually possible, but nevertheless they were left in no doubt that a No vote was a vote for Devo Max at the absolute minimum. Mr Galloway's fellow representative from Better Together in that debate was Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party, who made no attempt to correct or even to qualify the Devo Max pledge. Nor did the Better Together campaign issue a retraction or clarification after the debate. So the pledge made by their official representative must be regarded as a solemn and binding contract with the electorate, which the commission should assist in delivering now that the mandate that was sought for Devo Max has been secured in the form of a No majority. Statements from other Better Together representatives backed up Mr Galloway's pledge - Gordon Brown, for example, promised that a No vote would lead automatically to a "modern form of Scottish Home Rule" and something close to "federalism".

There is also ample opinion poll evidence that the referendum vote in favour of the option tied to Devo Max (or "Devo SUPER Max") accurately reflects the popular will. A Panelbase poll conducted between 29th September and 1st October found that voters support the transfer of all powers other than foreign affairs and defence to the Scottish Parliament by an emphatic margin of 66% to 19%. The exit poll conducted by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft on referendum day itself found that no fewer than 25% of people who voted No did so primarily and specifically on the basis of the promises of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. When combined with the 45% of the electorate who voted Yes, this means that a grand total of 59% of people were consciously voting in favour of either full sovereign independence or Devo Max (or indeed "Devo SUPER Max").

In a nutshell, then, the principles that I have outlined demand the transfer of absolutely all powers to the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of foreign affairs and defence, and a very small number of other powers that can realistically be regarded as essential to maintaining the United Kingdom as a single state, such as currency and immigration.  [UPDATE : The Scottish Government's submission calls for some immigration powers, and specifically the power to reintroduce the post-study work visa, to be devolved.]

It's therefore largely self-explanatory which powers should be devolved - there are a vast number of them, and I won't go through them all individually. I will, however, highlight just a few, because it is particularly important that these are not permitted to slip through the cracks -

1) The Scottish Parliament must be constitutionally entrenched, and Westminster must permanently relinquish its right to legislate on devolved powers except when granted specific permission to do so by the Scottish Parliament via the Sewel Motion process, which should be given a statutory basis. There can really be no dispute about this - the most unambiguous part of the No campaign's "vow" to the Scottish people was that "the Scottish Parliament is permanent". It would be a clear breach of faith if legislation was not passed to that effect, because there is literally no other way in which it is possible for the three political leaders who put their name to the vow to bind their successors in perpetuity. 'Permanent' is a slightly misleading word, however - the important principle is that Westminster must relinquish its right to take powers back, but it would still be open to the Scottish Parliament to voluntarily return powers. It's highly unlikely that it would ever choose to do so, but it's nevertheless important that enthusiasts for Westminster rule retain a clear democratic route by which to achieve their goal, just as supporters of full independence will have a clear democratic route by which to achieve theirs as soon as a majority of the electorate have been persuaded of the case.

2) The power to hold referenda on Scotland's constitutional future must be unambiguously transferred to the Scottish Parliament. The route by which the Scottish people can most appropriately exercise their inalienable right to national self-determination has now been established by precedent - namely the election of a majority government at Holyrood that has a commitment to a constitutional referendum in its manifesto(s), followed by the holding of that referendum. It's clearly an unsatisfactory and unsustainable situation that there is any legal ambiguity over the ability of the people to replicate that process, if they so choose, after 31st December of this year. It also runs counter to the logic of existing legislation that establishes the means by which the people of Northern Ireland can exercise their right to self-determination at any time, not just in the year 2014.

I gather that concerns have been expressed about the possibility of a so-called "neverendum", but there will be a clear safeguard against that eventuality after powers over constitutional referenda have been permanently transferred to Holyrood. That safeguard is called 'democracy'. If the electorate agree with the Prime Minister's view that there should not be a second independence referendum for "a generation, perhaps a lifetime", then all they need to do to maintain that principle is to vote against any party that proposes a referendum. If, on the other hand, what the politicians who oppose a future referendum really mean is that it should not take place even if the electorate wishes it to, then that is plainly an anti-democratic view, and one that the commission has no business entertaining even for a microsecond.

3) Control over oil revenues should be transferred to Holyrood. I understand from listening to the official No campaign, and also to an impressive number of informed commentators in London, that oil is a dwindling resource and is really more of a burden than a blessing. So this should be a relatively uncontroversial reform in the corridors of power in Whitehall, and I imagine it will trigger little more than a disinterested shrug of the shoulders.

4) Broadcasting should be devolved. The referendum campaign perfectly illustrated how inadequately Scotland is currently served by news and current affairs programmes in particular, and it's likely that only devolution can ever hope to address that. There need be no fears about this reform leading to Scotland decoupling from UK broadcast networks more generally - that would only occur if there was a clear democratic will for it to occur. It's also worth noting that the recent Panelbase poll asked a specific question about this topic, and found that the devolution of broadcasting is supported by an overwhelming 54% to 30% margin.

5) Abortion law should be devolved. There is no rational basis for the current position of abortion law being reserved to Westminster, because the two policy areas that touch upon it (health and criminal law) are both generally devolved. The anomaly seemed to come about because of a view in the late 1990s that abortion was a grown-up subject that mustn't be entrusted to a 'junior' legislature - such patronising views are clearly now long outdated. The oft-cited concern about 'abortion tourism' occurring if Scotland adopts a different law is something that the Scottish Parliament is perfectly capable of taking account of in its deliberations, and it's conceivable that MSPs will opt to keep the law closely aligned with England and Wales for that very reason. But the decision should be properly made in Edinburgh, not in London.

6) Appeals in criminal cases over alleged breaches of the ECHR should in future be made to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, not to the UK Supreme Court. The current position is eroding the integrity of Scots Law, and the argument that removing the Supreme Court's jurisdiction would lead to Scots becoming second-class citizens in respect of human rights protection is an obvious red herring. A Scottish court is perfectly capable of processing ECHR cases with the same speed as the Supreme Court.

The almost (but not quite) total devolution of powers to Scotland outlined above would have numerous advantages. It would trigger a democratic revolution, repatriating the levers of power necessary to revitalise our economy, create jobs, protect the environment, and reinvent public service broadcasting as something that actually serves the public. But most importantly of all, it would represent the honouring of a solemn vow. At a time when public trust in politics is understandably at an all-time low, a keeping of faith now would light a beacon of hope that will radiate warmth to the entire democratic world.

Once again, if you'd like to make your own submission to the Smith Commission, here is the link.  (Submissions don't necessarily have to be very long - even just a few bullet-points would be fine.)