Saturday, September 8, 2018

New YouGov subsample offers reassurance for SNP

So as you'll probably remember, the first polling straw in the wind after the Alex Salmond story broke was a Scottish subsample from a GB-wide YouGov poll, and although it had the SNP in the lead, the party's share of the vote was down to 34% - breaking a long, long sequence of YouGov subsamples that had the SNP in the high 30s or low 40s.  Although no individual subsample can be regarded as reliable, YouGov's Scottish subsamples are unusual in that they appear to be separately structured and weighted - which probably explains the relative stability of the results over time.  So the drop to 34% might have been a coincidental and meaningless blip caused by normal sampling variation - but it might just have been a warning sign that the Salmond story had caused some damage.

As Marcia pointed out last night, a new YouGov subsample is now out which appears to show that normal service has been resumed...

SNP 40%, Conservatives 23%, Labour 21%, Liberal Democrats 9%, UKIP 4%, Greens 3%

If it does turn out that we're back to normal, and that's a big if, it'll be impossible to know whether the dip was real but transitory, or didn't happen at all.  But the local by-election in Fife on Thursday certainly didn't show any sign of a catastrophic drop in SNP support.

Less encouraging are three subsamples from other firms - two from Survation that have the SNP in second place, and one from BMG that have them just about in the lead but in a virtual three-way tie.  But those are based on very small samples, and probably aren't separately weighted in the way that YouGov subsamples are.  For now the YouGov figures are of most interest.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Horror show for Labour in Fife by-election

Tonight we have the result of the first local government by-election in Scotland for several months...

Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay by-election result (first preferences):

Conservatives 37.3% (+0.7)
SNP 28.1% (-2.7)
Labour 12.0% (-4.8)
Liberal Democrats 9.1% (+4.1)
Independent - Collins 8.4% (n/a)
Greens 4.2% (+0.7)
Independent - Macintyre 0.6% (n/a)
Scottish Libertarian 0.2% (n/a)

I know the SNP were talking up their chances of outright victory, but for my money this is a very creditable result in difficult circumstances. In spite of the endless stream of negative headlines about Alex Salmond over the last couple of weeks, the SNP are only down a smidgeon on an election last year in which they won the national popular vote by a relatively comfortable margin. And although the Tories usually have an inbuilt advantage in local by-elections due to the greater motivation of their supporters to make it to the polling stations, the modest swing from the SNP they achieved would not be enough to overhaul the SNP's national lead if extrapolated to the whole country.

Technically this has to be reported as a "Tory gain from Labour", but that's just one of those wildly misleading quirks of the STV voting system. The Tories won the popular vote in the ward last year, and Labour were a distant third, so the chances of Labour 'holding' the seat were always remote (although arguably not totally non-existent, because Labour did finish a strong second in the ward back in 2012). Nevertheless, Richard Leonard ought to be horrified to see Labour's vote slip back more than the SNP's. We all know that any real threat to the SNP's predominance in Scottish politics would have to come from Labour, because there is a natural ceiling on Tory support. So the fact that the SNP have somehow improved their position relative to Labour in this ward is extremely heartening in the current climate. OK, Labour would probably argue that this was a classic third-party squeeze, with Labour voters lending their support to either the SNP or the Tories depending on whether they happen to be unionist diehards or not. But if it's quite as simple as that, why did the Lib Dems and the Greens both increase their vote share in fourth and sixth place respectively?  Is Labour's lack of clarity on Brexit costing them?

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Sometimes being ruthless just means losing Ruth

Phantom Power's acclaimed Journey to Yes series is back - and the latest film is perhaps the most remarkable so far. It features Ashley Graczyk, who was elected as a Scottish Conservative councillor in Edinburgh only last year, but who has now left her party and become a passionate supporter of Scottish independence. Watch her story below.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The case for an early independence referendum has already been made - it can't and mustn't depend on transitory opinion poll results

I'm more than a little troubled by Jason Michael's latest post on Random Public Journal.  Obviously I agree with him that now is the time for the SNP to go on the offensive against the British government, but we really must be careful not to put all our eggs in the basket of what is frankly a ropey interpretation of a single opinion poll.  Jason says that the Deltapoll survey conducted for the Best For Britain campaign shows that "52 per cent of Scots think self-determination is the best option for our nation’s future...this represents a seven-point swing in favour of independence since the 2014 referendum". That simply isn't true.  As I pointed out in my previous post, the main question on independence actually shows a 51-49 split in favour of No, although admittedly it was only the tiniest of tiny fractions away from being rounded up to a 50-50 dead heat.  So in fact the swing to Yes since 2014 implied by the poll is actually around 4 or 5 points.  That's a fabulous showing for Yes by most recent standards, but it's not quite an outright lead and it's not a 7 point swing.

There are also health warnings that need to be put on the poll.  Even the main question had a non-standard wording.  (It's not a wording that in any way contained a pro-independence slant, but nevertheless the question should really have been 'Should Scotland be an independent country?')  It appears from the datasets that the only political weighting in the poll was by recalled EU referendum vote.  It's not unheard of for pollsters to eschew political weighting, but it's certainly unusual - the majority of firms would have weighted by recalled indyref vote and recalled general election vote.  This is also Deltapoll's first foray into independence polling, which means there is no baseline to judge from.  In other words, there is no hard evidence in this poll of a recent surge for Yes.  The unusually good result may just be a 'house effect' generated by how the poll was conducted.  That doesn't necessarily mean the figures are wrong - as Scottish Skier pointed out in the previous thread, it's perfectly possible that weighting by recalled indyref vote is making other firms' results less accurate, not more so.  The fact that Ipsos-Mori (who don't weight politically) were a No-friendly firm before the indyref but are now more towards the Yes-friendly end of the spectrum might conceivably lend some weight to that theory.

But the bottom line is that if No-friendly firms like YouGov and Panelbase were to publish independence polls tomorrow, there's no reason to automatically think they'd show anything other than the type of No leads they usually show.  So if we get too wedded to a narrative of "a referendum is coming because the polls now show a Yes lead", we're just setting ourselves up for a fall in very short order.  The case for a referendum should not depend on whether Yes are currently at 43% or 47% or 49% or 52% - all of those are potential platforms for victory (or indeed for defeat).  I'm particularly aghast to see Jason unintentionally echoing the rhetoric of those who want to see the referendum kicked into the long grass by stating that Yes now need to use their current momentum (which may not even exist) to kick on and reach an utterly fantastical and unattainable target figure of 60% by the date of Brexit, which is less than seven months away. 

If we're serious about wanting an early referendum, we simply cannot afford to run away with ourselves and set unrealistic expectations of what the polls will show over the coming weeks and months.  If a significant swing to Yes occurs, it's much more likely to be after the referendum is called, and not before.

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

Deltapoll delirium as new survey finds Scotland split down the middle on independence

There's a lot of excitement tonight because of an independence poll featured on the frontpage of The National which sort-of-shows Yes support at 52%.  The problem is that Deltapoll asked a non-standard question based on the hypothesis that Britain will leave the EU.  Although this is obviously a hypothesis that is extremely likely to come to pass, some respondents may have felt that they were 'supposed' to adjust their current view on independence when the imagined future was taken into account, which could make the results unreliable.  People are notoriously bad at answering hypothetical questions - 'bad' in the sense that their answers don't tally up with how they actually react when the event comes to pass.

But never fear, because there is something very interesting and encouraging about this poll.  Before the hypothetical question was posed, respondents were first asked a more neutral question about independence.  Unfortunately it's still not the standard independence question (ie. 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' Yes/No), so it can't be directly compared with other independence polls.  But there's absolutely nothing about the question that would artificially steer respondents towards a pro-independence position - if anything, the opposite is true.  The results are startling.

In a referendum on independence for Scotland held tomorrow, how would you vote?

For Scotland to remain as part of the United Kingdom: 50.6%
For Scotland to become an independent country: 49.4%

That's as good a result for Yes as we've seen in a long time - essentially a dead heat.  I haven't been able to track down the fieldwork dates yet, so if anyone knows what they are I'd be very interested to hear.  That could obviously be a point of great significance given recent events.

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UPDATE: Stuart Campbell kindly sent me the methodological note from the poll last night, which states that the parallel Northern Ireland sampling took place between the 27th and 30th of August, but irritatingly doesn't specify the fieldwork dates for Scotland.  The National article states that polling took place between the 24th and 29th.  Either way it appears to be entirely after the Alex Salmond story broke, which is very encouraging.

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First Scottish subsample since the Alex Salmond story broke has the SNP still in the lead

When news of the complaints against Alex Salmond was irresponsibly broken by the Daily Record, I said that we'd just have to wait for opinion poll evidence to see whether there would be much (if any) negative effect on the SNP.  Frustratingly, the end of August has seen an unusual dearth of polls even at Britain-wide level.  (It goes without saying there was never much chance of a full-scale Scottish poll when you really wanted one.)  However, we do at last have a Britain-wide YouGov poll which was conducted on the 28th and 29th of August, and the Scottish subsample shows the following:

SNP 34%, Conservatives 27%, Labour 24%, Liberal Democrats 8%, Greens 3%, UKIP 3%

Now, to state the obvious, any individual subsample cannot be regarded as statistically reliable, and I normally wouldn't dream of looking at one in isolation.  However, when a major event has occurred and you're waiting for any clues at all about the impact, obviously you're going to be interested in the first straw in the wind, no matter how many health warnings have to be attached to it.  The good news is that the above figures are not at all untypical for Scottish subsamples since last year's general election, but the bad news is that they're less impressive for the SNP than the most recent batch of subsamples from YouGov.  The previous eight had the SNP on 38%, 39%, 42%, 40%, 40%, 42%, 38% and 42%.

The dip to 34% might easily be explained as the meaningless effect of random sampling variation, but obviously it could also be a sign that the media hysteria of recent days has had a genuine effect on public opinion.  If it proves to be the latter, I think we should take heart from the fact that there's no sign yet of the SNP losing their lead outright, and that it's perfectly possible that any setback will be quickly reversed once the media obsession eventually blows itself out.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

On the subject of faith, wealth, and personal choice

It's with great trepidation that I even think of writing a little more about the current Alex Salmond story, because no matter what I say, some unionist journalist will doubtless interpret it as a sign that I am taking a side in their fictitious "SNP civil war".  But a few general points that I feel need to be made -

1) It's deeply offensive to suggest that people who have donated to Alex Salmond's crowdfunder have done something wrong by not donating to Women's Aid instead.  That portrays the issue as a zero-sum conflict between the perpetrators and the victims of violence against women, and is self-evidently inconsistent with the principle that Mr Salmond is innocent until proven guilty.  There is obviously a division of opinion within the SNP on the wisdom of Mr Salmond's legal challenge, but the fact is that at the moment he is challenging the complaints process he has been subject to, and therefore any funds raised will not be used for his defence against the complaints themselves.  As has been pointed out multiple times, any deficiencies the judicial review may identify in the complaints process (for example the very obvious lack of confidentiality) could well have negatively affected both Mr Salmond and the complainants, so contributors to the fundraiser are perfectly entitled to say that they are acting in the best interests of both sides.  Not that people have to justify what they choose to spend their own money on, of course.  Every penny ever spent by anyone could always be challenged by a third party as not going to the most worthy cause.  Labour membership fees could perhaps be more usefully spent on expanding access to clean water in Africa, for example.  Rather than playing that moronic game, it's probably best to let people choose to support the causes they personally feel most strongly about.  If someone like Danielle Rowley feels that Women's Aid is an underfunded cause, by all means she should start donating a bigger portion of her own salary to that charity.

2) The people who are saying that Mr Salmond is an independently wealthy man and therefore has no need to run a fundraiser don't appear to have a clue what they are talking about.  Do they know: a) the current state of his bank balance, and b) how much the legal challenge will cost?  If not, they should have the courtesy to allow a fellow citizen to get on with funding legitimate access to the legal system by any legitimate means.  (Oh, and memo to Suzanne Moore: Mr Salmond does not have income from a "Kremlin-backed TV show".  His own production company makes a TV show which is screened on an Ofcom-licensed station that happens to be funded by the Russian state - an important distinction.)

3) There has been a lot of sneering commentary about how the widespread backing for Mr Salmond is "faith-based".  And yes, some of the people who have contributed to the crowdfunder do have fairly wild, unproven theories about the sexual harassment complaints being a dirty tricks operation by the British state (theories that Mr Salmond is not responsible for and does not need to assume responsibility for).  But how is that any different from the faith-based convictions held by Mr Salmond's critics that the complaints would never have been made unless they were probably true?  The reality is that only the people present when the alleged incidents were supposed to have taken place know the truth of what did or didn't happen.  Anyone else passing comment on the facts at this stage (other than to say "I don't know") is guilty of faith-based assumptions.  It would be better for us all to keep an entirely open mind on what any investigation will uncover - and to adhere to the principle that until then, Mr Salmond is entitled to a presumption of innocence, just as anyone else would be in the same situation.

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Will the SNP take an electoral hit from the Daily Record's cynical reporting of the allegations against Alex Salmond?

The inconvenient truth for the unionist parties is that polling evidence suggests last year's general election was not some kind of staging-post on the way to a total SNP collapse, as the media narrative optimistically suggested in the immediate aftermath of last June.  All full-scale Scottish polls since the election have suggested that the SNP vote has held up well, and the majority of them have actually put the SNP a little ahead of the 37% achieved on polling day.  If anything, the SNP appear to be on course to gain seats, not to lose them.  Little wonder, then, that the unreconstructed Daily Record reacted with such glee at the opportunity to publish allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond, which they clearly feel will be harmful to the SNP regardless of whether the complaints eventually prove to be well-founded or not.

Is that correct?  Certainly the experience of the Liberal party in the late 1970s, when their former leader Jeremy Thorpe was charged with (but eventually acquitted of) conspiracy to murder, gives the lie to the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  It's telling that Thorpe's replacement David Steel was warmly congratulated after the 1979 election for severely limiting the damage that had been widely anticipated.  Probably damage limitation is the most that can be hoped for in such circumstances - but of course the allegations against Mr Salmond, although they appear to be relatively serious, are obviously not in the same order of magnitude as the allegations against Mr Thorpe.

Another thing in the SNP's favour is that the public have become used in recent times to the proliferation of sexual complaints against leading public figures, and have learned that sometimes those complaints prove to be accurate and sometimes (for example in the case of Cliff Richard) they don't.  That will hopefully help people to keep an open mind as this process unfolds.

The situation would also have been far worse from an electoral point of view if Mr Salmond had only just stood down as leader, or indeed if he was still a sitting MP.  (The Labour activists who let themselves down by openly celebrating the Tory gain in Gordon will surely be reflecting on the irony that if Mr Salmond had held his seat, the SNP would now be faced with a much more serious dilemma.)  Nicola Sturgeon is clearly now seen to be in total control of both the SNP and the Scottish Government, a point she has underscored by putting out a statement that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, making clear that the Scottish Government will vigorously defend itself against the criticisms made by Mr Salmond.

I'd suggest the public will find her statement rather impressive, taking account as it does of the complainants' right to be taken seriously, the need for a process that is blind to the seniority and political affiliation of the person under investigation, and also the hurt and upset this is causing within the SNP.  The only thing that is perhaps missing is a reminder that Mr Salmond, just like anyone else in the same position, is entitled to a presumption of innocence until and unless proven guilty.  That crucial point seems to be increasingly falling under neglect in the current climate.

We'll just have to wait for new polls to see if the Daily Record get their wish by seeing the SNP vote fall back.  But I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that any electoral impact will be relatively minor or even non-existent.

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

What actually is a "People's Vote" anyway?

It's sad to see an intelligent and talented man such as Rory Bremner (who I genuinely used to be a big fan of and in some ways still am) making a bit of a fool of himself with a hopelessly contradictory attack on the pro-independence movement.  He claimed on Twitter that Yessers need to accept the result of the 2014 independence referendum, stop demanding a rerun, acknowledge that Brexiteers are now the real enemy, the campaign for a rerun of the 2016 EU referendum.  Quite why the 2014 result must be regarded as sacred for all time and the 2016 result must be immediately set aside isn't entirely clear.  Perhaps it's because the Leave campaign only won in 2016 by telling voters a pack of lies, which is completely different from how the No campaign won in 2014 in absolutely no way whatsoever.

Elsewhere, I was one of several people who "profoundly saddened" the leading anti-Brexit campaigner Professor Tanja Bueltmann yesterday.  There was an awful lot of "profound sadness" emanating from that direction, mainly because SNP supporters were challenging her view that any failure to support a UK-wide rerun of the 2016 referendum (a unionist project if ever there was one) constituted harmful "division". She pointed out that "until a couple of hours ago" she had been a supporter of Scottish independence, which begs the obvious question of just how meaningful or thought-through that support had ever been if an argument on Twitter was capable of ending it in the space of a single afternoon.  I mean, if arguing with people on your own side was enough to do the trick, James Mackenzie and the Richard gang would have converted me to No years ago.

I'm a bit puzzled by the whole "People's Vote" schtick in any case.  It seems to be intended to contrast with the 2016 referendum, which must have been some kind of "Elite Vote", in spite of the fact that 33 million people took part in it.  Yes, OK, it was a deeply unsatisfactory process because of the fact that the Leave campaign broke the rules, but how do you prevent that happening again?  Rules can always be bent or broken and nothing is likely to be done about it until long after the vote is over.  What else could be made different from the 2016 People's Vote?  Theoretically the franchise could be widened to include EU nationals and 16 and 17 year olds, and yes, that should be done as a matter of principle.  But in practice it would simply mean that Brexiteers wouldn't accept any narrow Remain vote as valid, and would immediately start campaigning for a third referendum.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Let's state the obvious again: waiting until Yes support is at 60% is a recipe for Scotland never becoming an independent country

You might have seen that I was name-checked the other day in an article by Iain Macwhirter about a supposed danger of SNP disunity after Nicola Sturgeon makes her long-awaited decision in the autumn.  I think the first thing to say here is that any implication that there could eventually be a threat to Ms Sturgeon's own position as leader is faintly ludicrous.  She's by some distance the party's greatest asset, and it's obvious that any replacement in the foreseeable future would be a step backwards.  The two most credible alternative leaders are Humza Yousaf, who is probably the long-term heir apparent but needs more experience, and Angus Robertson, who has left active politics for the time being.

Nevertheless, Iain claims that Ms Sturgeon "wants to see support for Yes heading in the direction of 60% before she acts".  And it's quite true that, if this reading is correct, I and a great many others within the SNP would believe she's about to make a terrible mistake.  But my question is the same one I've asked of the BBC's Sarah Smith: how does Iain actually know that Ms Sturgeon intends to 'wait' for the impossible 60%?  Is he guessing?  Does he have a reliable source?  Has he had direct conversations with Ms Sturgeon on the matter?  He doesn't tell us, and doesn't even give us any clues.  I'll be more open and concede I have absolutely no private insight into Ms Sturgeon's thinking, but I do find it incredibly hard to believe that she would be foolish enough to set herself a fanciful target for pre-campaign Yes support that every scrap of logic suggests will not and cannot be met.  Even amidst the initial shock after the Brexit referendum result, Yes support only reached the low 50s.  Bearing that precedent in mind, how can anyone expect to get close to 60% without even campaigning?  The only people who would seriously set a 60% target are those who don't want an independence referendum to take place, and who don't want Scotland to become an independent country within their political lifetimes.  I believe Ms Sturgeon does want independence as soon as humanly possible.

Iain also suggests that Ms Sturgeon might use her autumn statement to abandon an independence referendum in favour of a push for a second EU referendum, but that sounds even less plausible than the 60% claim (which makes me suspect the whole thing may be wishful thinking on Iain's part).  In doing that, she would be endorsing the right of the UK electorate as a whole to overrule Scotland's own constitutional preference.  In short, she would be embracing the logic of unionism.  That is quite simply unthinkable for any SNP leader.  She could of course stipulate that the SNP would only support another EU vote if a double mandate was required (ie. the UK as a whole would only leave the EU if Scotland voted Leave), but as that would mean she would remain opposed to any referendum that might actually take place in the real world, what would be the point?  It would just be a monumental distraction from the real task in hand, which is to keep Scotland in the EU by means of independence.

I was interviewed about this subject on Radio Sputnik a few days ago, and you can read a transcript HERE (the audio file is also available at the bottom of the page).  Of course when you speak off the cuff you always forget to mention one or two things - basically the point I was trying to make is that the whole purpose of delaying a decision until the autumn of this year was to make sure there was clarity on the shape of Brexit at the time a referendum is called, and to demonstrate that the SNP had sincerely tried (but failed) to keep Britain as a whole in the single market and customs union before turning to an independence referendum as a last resort.  If the necessary clarity arrives on schedule this autumn, a decision can still be made at the planned time.  If it doesn't arrive, a nonsense would be made of the SNP's strategy if they pushed ahead immediately with an indyref just because of a date on a calendar, and I suspect most of the party membership would have no great problem with Ms Sturgeon deciding upon a very short further delay of a few weeks or months until we know whether there is going to be a no deal Brexit or not.  But what would not be accepted is any suggestion that the delay will be open-ended and could lead to the current mandate for a pre-2021 referendum expiring altogether. 

And I just don't believe that the membership will be asked to accept any such thing.

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