Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lib Dem efforts to save Carmichael descend into farce, as they insist he must stay because "rehabilitation is part of our core values"

You really know that Alistair Carmichael's political future is hanging by a thread when quite literally the only reason the Lib Dems can think of for him still being an MP is that "we must show forgiveness". Here's a selection of today's splendidly comical comments from the bunker over at Liberal Democrat Voice -

Willie Rennie : "As a liberal I believe that people deserve a second chance. I hope fair minded people would agree that Alistair Carmichael should be given that second chance."

Caron Lindsay : "...part of our core values is a commitment to rehabilitation."

Alex Lewis : "Fully agree with Caron. We should practice what we preach and give everyone a second chance."

Yes, you read that last one right - it's not "we should practice what we preach and not lie to the electorate", or "we should practice what we preach and not smear our opponents", or "we should practice what we preach and not breach strict ministerial protocols", or even "we should practice what we preach and admit to wrongdoing without waiting to see if we get caught". No, apparently Lib Dems should only practice what they preach when it means that a Lib Dem MP is allowed to commit wrongdoing without it having any negative impact at all on his career or on the party.

Oh, such a noble sentiment. Give me a moment while I have a Lib Dem nobility swoon.

*****SWOON*****

On the subject of "rehabilitation", I believe in rehabilitation too, but Caron seems to be redefining that word as meaning "committing an offence and then being allowed to carry on as before, as if nothing has happened". That's not how it works. Some rehabilitation takes place inside prison, for example, or it could take place alongside a community sentence. Rehabilitation for Carmichael would look something like this : Admit you were re-elected earlier this month on false pretences, resign your seat, don't stand in the by-election, go away and do something else for a few years to re-establish your integrity, and only then consider standing again for public office.

If we follow the Caron Lindsay model of "rehabilitation", we might as well abolish the criminal justice system altogether, and just make sure everyone issues a half-hearted apology when they do something seriously wrong.

What I find intriguing about this display of utter desperation from the Lib Dems is that, on the face of it, their own interests would be best served by having Carmichael stand down. There would be no inevitability about the SNP winning the subsequent by-election - the Northern Isles have the strongest Liberal tradition in the whole of Scotland, and if the party made a fresh start with a new candidate they would have a fighting chance. Even if they lost, they would draw a line under the affair, and prevent damage being done to their hopes of holding the Holyrood constituency seats next year. So why are they trying to cling on to the discredited Carmichael for dear life?

I think part of the answer might lie in an Ofcom ruling a few months ago, which stated that the Lib Dems still warrant major party status in Scotland, but only because of their performance in the 2010 general election - they were deemed to have fallen short in every subsequent election. Now that they've been reduced to just one Westminster seat, the case for them being included in the main leaders' debates for next year's Holyrood contest is extremely tenuous, and it will be non-existent if they lose Orkney & Shetland as well. Call me cynical, but I'd suggest Rennie's gospel of "we must give people a second chance" is code for "HELP ME! THIS ISN'T HAPPENING!"

YouGov poll : UK support for staying in the EU drops slightly

As things stand, it looks possible that we're going to face a long-running indyref-style lack of clarity over the true state of play in the EU referendum. The small number of telephone polls that we've seen have tended to show significantly bigger leads for the "stay in" option than online polls have.  That pattern continues today with a YouGov internet poll that shows a relatively small gap, and one that has tightened very slightly -

If there was a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union and this was the question, how would you vote:
Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?


Yes 44% (-1)
No 36% (n/c)


Admittedly the percentage change figures should be treated with caution, because YouGov have completely changed their question, to bring it more into line with what seems to be the government's current intentions. It's also worth bearing in mind that Northern Ireland, which makes up nearly 3% of the UK population, is almost never included in these polls. It wouldn't totally surprise me if opposition to EU membership was stronger there, although it's hard to be sure, because there's probably a big split in opinion between the two communities.

What we do know, however, is that support for the EU is much stronger in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. In the Scottish subsample of today's poll, continued membership is backed by a whopping 59% to 28% margin. That's very similar to the findings of a separate full-scale Scottish poll from YouGov in today's Sunday Post, which uses a completely different question -

If there is a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, how will you vote? (Scotland-only poll) :

I will vote to remain a member of the European Union : 54%
I will vote to leave the European Union : 25%

So unless something dramatic happens, it looks extremely likely that there will be a Yes vote in Scotland, which means that one-half of the "2017 scenario" (or perhaps even the "2016 scenario") that could lead to quick Scottish independence is now firmly in place. We'll just have to wait and see whether public opinion in England and Wales drifts more towards No, thus bringing the other half of the equation into play.

The Sunday Post poll also contains figures on independence, but I don't know what they are yet, because the datasets aren't up, and the Post's political editor is doing the tedious #buyapaper routine on Twitter. I'm quite happy to buy a paper, but I'd be no further forward, because it wouldn't be THAT paper. However, this is what we have been told so far -

* No still have the lead.

* Yes are in the lead among every age group apart from over-60s.

* The SNP wouldn't suffer much loss of support if they pledged a second referendum in their 2016 manifesto.

That last point is hugely significant, because it drives a coach-and-horses through one of the causes for optimism that the unionist parties have been clinging to. They've probably realised there will have to be some kind of conditional pledge for a referendum in the SNP manifesto (in the event of Brexit, for example), and they will have been hoping that might prove to be a massive turning-point. It seems not.

Finally, we've been told that John Curtice reckons that Yes will have to be polling at 60% before the SNP can be sure of victory. That sounds to me like a number plucked out of thin air - there's no such thing as certainty. Much bigger leads than 60-40 have crumbled over the course of a referendum campaign, and needless to say much smaller leads have remained intact. What really matters is the solidity of the support for either side, and that's something that supplementary questions and focus groups would be able to shed some light on.

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I've just stumbled across two City AM headlines from a few months ago that seem rather amusing in retrospect -

'Why the Salmond surge won’t happen – and the Scots will back Labour in 2015'

'Labour's comeback kid: Jim Murphy slashes SNP poll lead'

We're gonna ra-ba-bab, ra-ba-bab, we're gonna ra-ba-bab tonight

So Sweden have overtaken Luxembourg, the UK and France to become the outright second most successful country in Eurovision history, and the way things have been going in recent years, there must be a very good chance that they'll eventually overhaul Ireland to become the most successful.  Ever since I first saw Heroes at Melodifestivalen, I've been wondering what percentage of its popularity can be put down to the ingenuity of the staging.  If you strip all that away, would the song have defeated Russia tonight on its own merits?  The result probably would have been closer, although the flip-side of that argument is that Russia only got as close as they did with the help of the usual neighbourly voting.  (Sweden benefitted from that as well, of course, but the Nordic bloc vote is much smaller.)

This year's contest wasn't one of the harder ones to predict, but allow me to blow my own trumpet anyway - my prediction was pretty close to the nail.  I was spot-on about the winner, the runner-up and 5th place.  I was just one place out with Italy, who finished third rather than fourth.  My only real error was Serbia.  I've gone from one extreme to the other with them - I massively underestimated them in the semi-final, but significantly overestimated them tonight.

Apologies to anyone who took my semi-advice about the 8/1 bet on Montenegro finishing in the top ten, but hopefully you can see what I meant about it being a value bet.  They finished 13th out of 27 entries, so self-evidently they had a much better than one-in-nine chance of making the top ten (which is what the odds implied).  Actually, their biggest piece of misfortune was that Croatia no longer participate in the contest - that made the Balkan bloc vote smaller, and arguably cost Montenegro the chance to finish as high as 11th.

I bristled when Graham Norton said that Montenegro had done "much better than it deserved".  The complete reverse is true - in the absence of Ireland, it was my own personal favourite.  But for some reason, UK commentators seem to have long-standing "issues" with Balkan songs penned by Željko Joksimović - you might remember Terry Wogan's bewilderment when Lane Moje came within a whisker of winning in 2004.

Even though the bookies favoured Belgium, I'm still slightly baffled by the success of Rhythm Inside.  I have a feeling that may have been down to the juries more than the voting public, because it was a somewhat 'challenging' entry, to say the least.

By my reckoning, the contest finished at two minutes to midnight, which is surely the latest finish ever - it was 12.58am in central Europe, and 1.58am in Russia and Finland. The EBU have really got to get that sorted - it would have been so easy to trim down some of the preliminaries at the start of the show, or of course they could have read the riot act to the national spokespeople, and told them to dispense with all the "thankyou for a wonderful show" malarkey. But I'm not complaining - I think this year's Eurovision will go down as something of a classic, and it was so nice to have genuine tension and uncertainty in the voting, rather than the procession for one country that we've been used to in recent years.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Eurovision 2015 prediction : Saturday's grand final

I must report that I still haven't made up my mind whether I'm going to be watching the final live tonight. I'm trying to work out whether I would be slightly more annoyed with myself for missing out on Eurovision night for the first time in twenty years, or for not using a ticket I spent good money on. Whichever way I jump, I'm really going to have to get my diary in order from now on - for the last week, I somehow seem to have had it in my head that I was going to simultaneously be in two different places. That's almost as challenging a concept as Alistair Carmichael being blissfully unaware of a leak that he personally authorised.

The biggest thing I took away from Tuesday and Thursday is that if Sweden are going to be beaten, the challenge is unlikely to come from any of the other songs we saw in the semis. You could just about make a case for Russia, who I'm sure must have won Tuesday's semi by a clear margin, but I don't think they hold quite enough aces. So the chances are that either we're heading back to Stockholm/Gothenburg/Malmö next year, or that one of the seven pre-qualified countries will step up to the mark.

On that front, we can safely discount the UK, France, Austria and Germany. In theory Spain have a very strong entry, but there's a growing consensus that their live rehearsals just haven't been cutting the mustard. That only leaves Australia and Italy. I've had a couple of looks at the YouTube video of Australia's rehearsal, and I must say I'm a bit underwhelmed. I may be missing something, because of course rehearsal videos don't show what the cameras on the night will be picking up, but there doesn't seem to be anything particularly eye-catching about the staging. Is the song strong enough to win on its own merits, without gimmicks or tricks? I'm not so sure. It's very, very catchy, but unlike Sweden (or indeed Russia) it doesn't burst out of the screen at you, and it doesn't build up to a big finish. So I'm inclined to say it's probably going to fall short, and I wouldn't be totally surprised if it ends up much further down the leaderboard than anyone thinks possible at the moment.

Italy is a trickier one to judge, because it's one of the most distinctive entries, and it has a dream place at the end of the running-order. If viewers do go for it, they might just go for it big, and for that reason I'd say it's the entry with the best chance of beating Sweden. But I also think the more likely scenario is that viewers won't go for it big, in which case it might not even finish second or third.

So by a process of elimination, I just can't see past Sweden as the probable winners. Here's my wild guess as to how it might turn out -

Winners : Sweden (Heroes - Måns Zelmerlöw)
2nd : Russia (A Million Voices - Polina Gagarina)
3rd : Serbia (Beauty Never Lies - Bojana Stamenov)
4th : Italy (Grande Amore - Il Volo)
5th : Australia (Tonight Again - Guy Sebastian)

Possible dark horses : Montenegro, Cyprus, Slovenia


Although Heroes isn't really my cup of tea, I do have a soft spot for Måns Zelmerlöw, who sang one of my favourite Melodifestivalen songs of the last ten years. I'll never understand why Cara Mia didn't make it through in 2007.

Now, then.  This isn't a recommendation, because I wouldn't want to be responsible for anyone losing money, but I've just spotted that Betfair are offering 8/1 on Montenegro finishing in the top ten. That must surely be a value bet, because it implies they only have a one in nine chance of pulling it off. Remember they have a big name singer, a songwriter with an unparalleled Eurovision pedigree (four previous entries and none of them have finished lower than sixth), and they'll also have the Balkan bloc vote behind them.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Will the Spectator apologise for continuing the lies about Nicola Sturgeon?

This is absolutely extraordinary.  Even after Alistair Carmichael's grovelling apology to Nicola Sturgeon, which admits the smears made against her were totally without foundation, the Spectator are STILL idiotically trying to insist that the original story was true.  This seems to be based on a simple failure to understand plain English.

This is what they're saying -

"Interestingly, the Cabinet Office has confirmed that the memo did exist and the civil servant believes it was an accurate representation of Sturgeon’s conversation...the fact that an independent investigation has shown she did say she’d prefer Cameron to be PM makes for an interesting postscript to the election."

Nope. The independent investigation shows the complete opposite of that, and bizarrely the Spectator prove that point themselves by directly quoting the relevant segment of the findings -

"He confirmed under questioning that he believed that the memo was an accurate record of the conversation that took place between him and the French Consul General, and highlighted that the memo had stated that part of the conversation between the French Ambassador and the First Minister might well have been “lost in translation”"

How difficult is this, even for a deranged right-wing rag like the Spectator? The investigation found that the conversation between the Consul-General and the civil servant who wrote the memo was accurately recorded. The conversation between Nicola Sturgeon and the Ambassador was an entirely different conversation, involving entirely different people, and the investigation reiterates that the civil servant thought the second-hand account of that conversation was "lost in translation".

How in God's name the Spectator get from there to "the independent investigation has shown she did say she’d prefer Cameron to be PM" is anyone's guess. It's the absolute polar opposite of the truth, and I look forward to it being corrected and apologised for immediately.

Now this is rare - I actually thought Carmichael was better than this. I'm truly shocked.

Am I alone in being genuinely flabbergasted to discover that Alistair Carmichael was directly responsible for the 'Frenchgate' smearing of Nicola Sturgeon during the election campaign, and had lied through his teeth when asked for his version of events?  He says that, if he was still a minister now, he would consider this to be a matter requiring his resignation - oh, how frightfully honourable.  Well, he was a minister when he did what he did, and moreover he knew perfectly well that he had done what he did (even though the rest of us didn't), and if it's a hypothetical resignation matter now it was sure as hell a real resignation matter then.

So if he's such a man of honour, why didn't he come clean immediately and step down as Scottish Secretary?  Oh, that'll be because he would have lost his Orkney & Shetland seat (which he only barely clung on to), and the Liberal Democrats would have been left with zero Scottish seats rather than one.

The fact that he still has the letters 'MP' after his name is a direct consequence of his act of dishonour.  If he doesn't now resign from parliament (and he probably won't), nothing could better symbolise his party's thoroughly deserved demise - their only ghostly parliamentary presence is a disgraced politician who everyone knows shouldn't be there.

How I fell out of love with George Galloway

A guest post by Alex Skinner

My first clear memory of George Galloway is of him being interviewed on TV assailing the blind, anti-Scottish unionism of the Major government, which had just been re-elected, as one of the founders of the pro-devolution Scotland United group. I was eighteen and I liked his oratory and his politics: a left-winger standing up for Scotland and demanding change.

Later I came to love him, in the way some people love able political rhetoricians who seem to embody their most cherished political beliefs. The apogee came with the Iraq War of 2003, as George stood against the Bushite drive to make the world a much more dangerous place. I was one of the million who marched in London against that disaster. Later I cheered as he took Bethnal Green and Bow from a New Labourite and his performance – and that really is the right word – before the US Senate was one of the most striking pieces of political theatre I’d ever seen. I and thousands of others on the left lapped it up.

As a supporter of independence I was disappointed that George was against, but I accepted it as the one major area we disagreed on. Hell, the wonderful Tony Benn was against too. You can’t have it all.

Then came two events that changed everything.

The first was the referendum. It’s not that George campaigned against it. That was predictable. It was the strangeness and weakness of the arguments he put forward: there are too many borders already in the world, independence would trigger a race to the bottom, Sturgeon is Thatcher in a kilt.

The anti-borders stance has validity in certain contexts, no doubt. But in Scotland’s case? Surely if you are horrified by the idea of a Scottish state emerging, logically you ought to campaign – putting a difficult history behind us – for Ireland to re-join the UK. Surely you ought to bewail the fact that Norway became independent in the early 20th century, leaving a union with Sweden. The unionist logic is that the world is definitely a worse-off place because of those two countries sharing the Scandinavian peninsula. That seems, well, let’s be polite - a pretty strange idea.

The race-to-the-bottom theory seems deeply flawed as well, and has in fact been comprehensively debunked on Wings Over Scotland. It seems to me far more likely that a surging Scotland would breathe new life into these islands both economically and politically. A race to the top, if you will.

Nicola-as-Maggie is almost too stupid to comment on, and ironically I reckon she and George would agree on most things with the obvious exception of independence. There was a surreal moment during the referendum campaign when George sat next to his fellow unionist Ruth Nae-Vision, facing Nicola and Patrick Harvey. George painted a horrific picture of – get this – the financial sector fleeing Scotland in the event of independence! Astonished as I was at what my icon had become, at least it let Nicola come back with a nice slapdown.

Though I was rapidly falling out of love with George by this point, the camel’s back was finally broken by something rather more than a straw. I’d never bought the right-wing attacks on George over his critiques of the Israeli government. It seemed to me he was merely speaking the truth about, frankly, a bunch of criminals. But then he said something that sickened and stunned me: that he didn’t want Israeli tourists to come to Bradford (probably not the number one holiday hotspot that they dream about in the cafes of Tel Aviv – but that’s not the point). This was not a valid attack on the Israeli state and its disgusting policies. This was the demonisation, at least potentially, of every Israeli citizen, logically including even those who disagree with their government and campaign against it. That may not have been what he meant, but it’s what he said, and to my knowledge he’s failed to correct it. A line had been crossed.

My love affair with George is over, though I’ll always acknowledge his progressive credentials, particularly his anti-war leadership. I must admit I’m curious what he’ll say when Scotland really does emerge as a progressive beacon, ridding itself of nukes, pushing renewables, protecting the NHS and free higher education and – I dare hope – lifting a million Scots out of poverty.

Who knows, if he can admit he was wrong about independence and his grotesque comment about Israelis, maybe one day the spark of love can flicker to life again. But I’m not holding my breath.

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This is guest post no. 5 since I launched my 'appeal'.  Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

And before I leave, let me show you Tel Aviv

Disaster struck within ten minutes of me sitting down to watch the second Eurovision semi - it suddenly dawned on me that I've double-booked myself for Saturday night.  I bought a ticket for something last week without checking the dates closely enough, so now I'm going to have to make a decision about whether to miss my first Eurovision final since 1994 (and even in 1994 I managed to catch the second half, complete with Riverdance).  OK, I suppose I could just watch it on the iplayer when I get home, but that would mean having to go to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads lengths to avoid hearing the result for several hours.  I dunno what to do.  I'm so stoopid.

Anyway, to the extent that I was actually able to concentrate on tonight's proceedings after that realisation, here are my impressions -

1) Disappointed for Ireland, but not surprised in the end.  It didn't come across as well as in the national final, possibly because she was trying to project her voice to such a huge crowd.

2) Delighted for Montenegro, and not just because they qualified.  The staging was much more powerful than I expected from having watched the rehearsal videos.  This is the first Željko Joksimović entry that hasn't really been touted as a potential winner, but I now think it could potentially do some damage (maybe top eight).

3) Serbia was the obvious qualifier that I failed to pick on Tuesday night, and tonight it was Israel.  I did have them in my initial long-list, but unfortunately that included at least fourteen of the seventeen songs.

4)  I wasn't totally convinced by Sweden's status as favourites before tonight, but now I am.  It's not my cup of tea, but I can absolutely see how people are going to pick up the phone to vote for it.  My only lingering doubts are that the main challengers (with the possible exception of Russia) are all countries that haven't performed yet, so we'll still have to see how Australia and Italy come across live.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure I caught sight of a large saltire at one point.  A DIY Eurovision presence is better than nothing, I suppose.

Which Scottish electorate will turn up in 2016, and what effect will this have on the outcome?

A guest post by Hapleg

Until this year, the received wisdom was that Scotland was settling into a pattern of voting Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood. This view was predicated on the observation that Labour landslides in 2005 and 2010 alternated with SNP victories in 2007 and 2011. 2015, of course, seems to have blown that theory to bits but I will return to that later.

Turnouts for Holyrood elections have (so far) tended to be a good 10% lower than those for Westminster and those voters that have turned out have tended (until this year) to be more SNP-friendly than the Westminster electorates (and more Green-friendly too, for that matter, but it's unclear how much of this is down solely to the electoral system - my guess would be a lot). Is it the case that those who have turned out for Westminster but not for Holyrood have been people sceptical or scornful of the 'wee pretendy parliament' and therefore, for obvious reasons, much less likely to vote SNP? If so, will this continue and what are the implications?

Perhaps it is better to ask it this way: are unionists less likely to vote in Holyrood elections? I make a distinction here between those who voted No last year out of concern (fear?) over the consequences of independence and hard-bitten unionists/Brit Nats. While acknowledging that there are many sincere devolutionist Brit Nats, e.g. Adam Tomkins and most Tory MSPs, I will refer to a portion of this unionist group as 'direct-rulers', as in pining for 'direct rule' from Westminster à la pre-1999, in opposition to 'home rule'. This sub-group is vehemently opposed to independence for reasons other than economics and is opposed to Scottish self-government in any form (polling suggests somewhere between 10-20% of the population*). It would seem to follow that those who are sceptical or contemptuous of devolution per se are less likely to be motivated to vote in elections for the devolved legislature. Equally, it seems likely that those committed to independence (and therefore, it is reasonable to assume, to devolution) are correspondingly more likely to turn out for elections to 'Scotland's parliament'. My guess is that, by and large, No voters who vote SNP are, on the whole, at least pro-devolution in some form.

Those who continued to vote Labour at Holyrood and Westminster but who were initially at least open to, and then latterly committed to and voted for, the prospect of a more socially just, independent Scotland have been sheered away from Labour by its despicable shenanigans during the referendum campaign, moving en masse to the SNP (for 2015, at least – I don't discount a decent portion of them voting Green/SSP next year). Labour's remaining constituency seats in the central belt must now look very vulnerable to SNP. Indeed, there is now only one Labour Holyrood constituency the nearest Westminster equivalent for which the SNP does not hold (Dumfriesshire, whose approximate Westminster counterpart is Tory-held). Will Edinburgh Southern, a constituency with very different boundaries from its Westminster near-namesake, remain yellow, especially without (surely?!) a Cybernat scare thrown into the mix?

There is also a second group that I would posit is less likely to turn out at Holyrood than Westminster: older Labour No voters. My unscientific impression is that a large proportion of the residual 'traditional' Labour vote which still cleaves to the People's Party is composed of older folk whose parents won the Second World War and built the post-war welfare state. For many of them, George Galloway's characterisation of Holyrood as the 'White Blether Club' strikes a chord, while Westminster is still thought of as the 'real deal', the arena of giants like Attlee, Bevan and John Smith. Many of these people will vote Labour at Westminster but not see Holyrood as being worth the bother. Many who might otherwise have been included in this category, as I have experienced from canvassing, have simply given up on politics altogether and will likely never vote again, save for possibly another indyref, when scares over pensions inevitably rear their heads again. They are disgusted by Westminster but remain dismissively hostile to Holyrood, despite the enormous influence it already wields over their lives.

A big anomaly presents itself however - do Tories always vote? The Tory vote appears to have stagnated, standing at around 15-17% at every Westminster and Holyrood election since 1997. It seems that the Tory party is now only gaining supporters roughly in line with the mortality rate. Interestingly, however, there doesn't seem to much, if any, evidence to suggest that Conservative voters, arch-unionists though they generally are, are any less likely than the average voter to turn out in elections to Holyrood, despite the fact that they are the most anti-devolution of the main parties' voters. Perhaps being a Tory in Scotland requires a particular doggedness or even eccentricity?

Another counter to this point would be that, despite the low turnouts they attract, European elections record much higher levels of support for UKIP than other elections do. This may seem to fly in the face of my argument, as it would seem to follow that those who vote for a virulently anti-EU party (Eurosceptic feels far too gentle a term) are plainly not turning out to vote for an institution about which they feel enthusiastic. I would posit that the European parliament is far less well understood by its opponents than Holyrood is by the direct-rulers. Kippers view the EU as a growing but distant and obscure foreign threat against their wholesome British way of life, whereas direct-rulers are resigned to life with devolution. Since UKIP dropped their commitment to repealing the Scotland Act 1998 a few years ago, no party even remotely close to electoral success now advocates a return to direct rule and so their options are rather limited.

The 'energised electorate' trope, something anyone with eyes in their head can see is both true and an unalloyed blessing (although the smug self-back-slapping around it is close to becoming a sickening ritual), is an obscure variable. Its consequences are difficult to predict but, based on the scant and contested evidence which we can draw from the indyref and GE 2015, it seems more likely to be of benefit primarily to the SNP and probably also the Greens and SSP. The question has been posed rhetorically many times before, but how many people are likely to have broken their habit of abstention to vote No in 2014 or Labour/Tory/Lib Dem in 2015? Some, but not many. On the other side, however, the Yes movement in general, and RIC in particular, were superb in creating the engagement which has continued to flow to this day.

In short, therefore, I am speculating that there is a turnout differential that benefits the pro-indy parties. Speaking as an SNP member, this is not a call for complacency in any way. I am also not in any way celebrating the fact that our opponents' supporters may not deign to cast their votes – in my view every citizen has a responsibility to cast their vote and low turnouts harm the legitimacy of our democratic processes. I am simply positing that the electorate that turns out for Holyrood tends to be more favourable to the SNP, Greens and SSP and that, if anything, this effect will be amplified by the massive switch away from Labour witnessed since the referendum. If I am correct about this trend, is there any good reason to believe it will not continue? Well, for one, I certainly would not rule out an SNP Holyrood manifesto pledge of indyref2 prompting No voters to turn out in greater numbers than hitherto observed. For us on the Yes side, the referendum was a joyous awakening; for most on the No side, it was a deeply traumatic and risk-fraught process that they will not be keen to repeat. We will see if I am proven correct.

*The level of support recorded in opinion polls for abolishing the Scottish Parliament varies considerably, principally because the choice of options presented alongside it is not consistent. Indeed, abolition itself is rarely presented as an option at all, with most pollsters preferring to present 3 options: independence, status quo (whatever that happens to be at the time) and 'more powers'/devo-max. When this is the case, we can only presume that direct-rulers opt for a mixture of the status quo and 'don't know'/'refused'/'none of the above'. I am convinced, however, that it accounts for a steadily diminishing but still non-negligible portion of the public.

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This is guest post no. 4 since I made my 'appeal' the other day.  Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why "tactical voting on the regional list" is likely to backfire, part 2

The SNP have been criticised in past Scottish Parliament elections for saying that "the first vote chooses your MSP, the second vote chooses your government", but there's more than a grain of truth in that claim. The "second" vote, ie. the list vote, is the more important of the two, because the composition of parliament is in theory supposed to reflect how people vote on the list ballot only.

There's a common misconception that the Holyrood voting system is only "semi-proportional". I once pointed out that an eminent academic had made that mistake on a radio show, and he actually emailed me afterwards to insist that "semi-proportional" is correct! But it's not correct. A semi-proportional system would simply give 30% of the list seats in a region to a party that wins 30% of the list votes. Even if the party in question is already wildly over-represented in the region due to having won all the constituency seats, a semi-proportional system would say : "that's fine, you're still getting your list seats, and we'll just leave the imbalance of constituency seats as it is".

That's not how it works at all. Instead, the list seats are distributed in such a way as to bring the overall composition of parliament (on a regional basis) into line with the percentage of votes each party received on the list ballot. In principle, only the list vote really matters - the constituency vote shouldn't decide the final outcome at all.

The reason it's not quite as simple as that, of course, is that in some situations there aren't enough list seats available to bring the overall result into line. If Labour win 40% of the list votes in a region, but win all nine constituency seats in that region, then with the best will in the world it's not possible to distribute the seven list seats in such a way as to bring Labour down to just 40% of the total number of seats. Labour obviously won't get any of the list seats, but they'll still be significantly over-represented in the region, thanks to their performance in the constituencies.

This is the 'bug' in the system that advocates of "tactical voting on the list" claim can be exploited to vastly increase the number of pro-independence MSPs. The theory goes like this : if we know that the SNP are going to win all the constituency seats in this region, we also know that winning 40% of the list vote will do them no good, because they'll already have all the seats they are entitled to before the list seats are even allocated. Wouldn't it be better if those 40% of voters switched their list vote to another pro-independence party, like the Greens? That way, the voting system would attempt to get the Greens up to 40% of the seats - it wouldn't succeed, but because there aren't enough list seats to go around, Labour would end up with fewer seats than they are entitled to, and pro-independence parties would end up being significantly over-represented.

As we discussed on the earlier thread, this strategy could in theory work brilliantly.  In the real world, however, it is highly unlikely to work, and carries a significant risk of backfiring catastrophically.  As a voter considering going down this insane route, there are two vital questions you would really need to ask yourself first -

1) What if I make the "tactical" switch from the SNP to the Greens on the assumption that 40% of voters are doing the same - but they're not?  What will the impact of my decision be if, as is far, far, far more likely, only a tiny percentage of voters are acting in the same way?

2) What if I make the "tactical" switch on the assumption that the SNP are going to win all the constituency seats in a region - and they don't?  What will be the impact of my decision then?

Here is a fictional example to illustrate the problem.  Suppose an election prediction website was suggesting that the results in one particular region are likely to work out as follows...

Constituency seat 1 :

SNP 43%
Labour 39%
Conservatives 9%
Liberal Democrats 8%

Constituency seat 2 :

SNP 38%
Labour 37%
Conservatives 20%
Liberal Democrats 3%

Constituency seat 3 :

SNP 51%
Labour 24%
Conservatives 18%
Liberal Democrats 6%

Constituency seat 4 :

SNP 42%
Labour 38%
Liberal Democrats 10%
Conservatives 8%

Constituency seat 5 :

SNP 39%
Labour 36%
Conservatives 21%
Liberal Democrats 3%

Constituency seat 6 :

SNP 48%
Labour 28%
Conservatives 17%
Liberal Democrats 6%

Constituency seat 7 :

SNP 47%
Labour 32%
Conservatives 17%
Liberal Democrats 3%

Constituency seat 8 :

SNP 40%
Labour 39%
Conservatives 12%
Liberal Democrats 7%

Constituency seat 9 :

SNP 39%
Labour 35%
Conservatives 20%
Liberal Democrats 5%

List votes :

SNP 41%
Labour 33%
Conservatives 16%
Liberal Democrats 6%
Greens 2%
SSP 1%

Constituency seats :

SNP 9
Others 0

List seats : 

Labour 5
Conservatives 2

Overall seats :

SNP 9
Labour 5
Conservatives 2

Now, it's easy to look at that and think : SNP votes on the list are wasted.  If those votes switched to the Greens or the SSP, they wouldn't be wasted.  But in reality, only a small percentage of people will be thinking in the same way (short of a campaign of mass-hypnosis, that is).  Let's be ultra-generous and say for the sake of argument that 3% of the electorate "tactically" switch from SNP to Green on the list, and a further 1% switch from SNP to SSP.  On the face of it, no harm is done - the Greens and SSP still fall short of the threshold for winning a seat, but the SNP still have their nine constituency seats in the bag, so the unionist parties are no better off.

But what if the constituency predictions aren't quite right?  Look closely at them - the SNP are claimed to be winning all nine seats, but six of them are too close to call, with the SNP ahead by 4 points or less (well within the margin of error).  What if, thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post, the SNP don't win nine constituency seats, but only three?  Where is your masterplan then?  Suddenly the SNP need every single list vote they can lay their hands on - and those wasted "tactical" votes for the Greens and the SSP may be doing some real damage.  Here's how it would work out -

List votes :

SNP 37%
Labour 33%
Conservatives 16%
Liberal Democrats 6%
Greens 5%
SSP 2%

Constituency seats :

Labour 6
SNP 3

List seats : 

SNP 3
Conservatives 3
Liberal Democrats 1

Overall seats :

Labour 6
SNP 6
Conservatives 3
Liberal Democrats 1

Without any "tactical voting" (ie. if the SNP had been on 41% of the list vote), it would have been :

SNP 7
Labour 6
Conservatives 2
Liberal Democrats 1

So in this example, "tactical voting" has completely backfired - it has cost the SNP one seat, and gifted it to the unionist parties (more specifically to the Tories).

The best way of looking at the list vote is as your "banker" vote.  You give it to the party that you want to be in government, and you can be absolutely sure that it'll count if it's needed.  It will only be "wasted" if it's not needed - ie. if the party has already won enough constituency seats.  That's something you cannot know in advance.

In 1999, Dennis Canavan stood as an independent in both the Falkirk West constituency, and the Central Scotland regional list.  Anyone who voted for him twice knew, in a sense, that one of those votes would be "wasted".  But it wasn't an irrational choice, because it maximised the chances of him being elected by one method or the other.  Without a reliable crystal ball, that's about the best any voter can do.