Monday, November 19, 2018

Any indyref strategy that could leave us powerless to act until 2026 is a strategy that should be rejected

You may have seen a YouTube video doing the rounds of Nicola Sturgeon being unusually candid on Saturday about her strategy for seeking a mandate for independence if the UK government refuses a Section 30 order.  Here's a transcript...

"And the same would be true if we ended up trying to have a referendum that the other side would say was illegal.  The beauty of 2014 was that it was an agreed process.  So all this is taking me to the point of: I don't have an easy answer to this, because we may get into a situation where the UK government says 'No, we're not going to agree to a Section 30 order' and you know, I think if that happens we need to look above that, we need to make a case of how unreasonable that is, and ultimately if the only way through that is to take that to an election, and ask the people of Scotland to use an election to say no, we will absolutely have the right to do this, maybe that's what that would take."

Let's start with the good news.  Although some people are interpreting this as the first concrete evidence that Ms Sturgeon might be minded to adopt the Pete Wishart "Hold! Hold! Hold! Hold! Hold! Hoooold!  Hoooooooold! HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD!" strategy and let the current mandate for a pre-2021 independence referendum expire, on my reading that very clearly isn't what she is saying at all.  It sounds much more like she is at least planning to attempt to use the mandate, and will at some point over the coming weeks or months renew her demand for a Section 30 order.  If so, fantastic, that's just what most of us are crying out for.

The bad news is that her thinking on a consultative referendum doesn't appear to have moved on since early 2017 (a time when everyone still naively thought London would accept Scotland's right to democratic self-determination).  In other words, Ms Sturgeon still doesn't believe a referendum is worth holding unless it has London's consent, and therefore if a Section 30 order isn't granted, we won't go ahead in the immediate future.  That needlessly gives London a veto of sorts, at least in the short term, and that doesn't seem satisfactory at all.  I'm particularly puzzled by her use of the word "illegal", because any consultative referendum held without a Section 30 would almost certainly only go ahead if the Supreme Court upheld the legislation, which would remove any doubt about the legality of the process.  The Tories and Labour would just look silly if they tried to claim something the Supreme Court had endorsed was "illegal".

However, a needless aversion to a consultative vote isn't the end of the world as long as there is a credible alternative plan, and that's what makes the ambiguity in Ms Sturgeon's closing words so tantalising.  Most people are interpreting it as meaning she would use the 2021 election to seek yet another mandate for a referendum, even though we already have a perfectly good one.  (As our dear old American gun nut friend Kevin Baker used to say: "Do it again, only HARDER!!!!")  I agree that's probably what she meant, but it's not at all clear.  I would suggest that it's entirely possible to interpret "use an election to say no, we will absolutely have the right to do this" as meaning that the election will be used to seek an outright mandate for independence itself if a Section 30 order is denied.  That would be a strategy most of us could happily unite behind.

But if the 'seek yet another mandate for a referendum' interpretation is the correct one, I think we're going to have to speak out against it, because the problems with that strategy are pretty obvious.  If we win a pro-independence majority at the 2021 election (not a given, of course), and Westminster still says "no" to a referendum, what do we do then?  We already know that Ms Sturgeon is unlikely to go ahead with a consultative referendum, so even if she belatedly accepts at that point that an election must then be used to seek an outright mandate for independence, there would be the rather enormous problem that another Holyrood election wouldn't be due until 2026.  Any strategy that could leave us powerless for another eight years does not strike me as being a promising one.

Of course snap Westminster elections can sometimes appear out of the blue, and might offer an opportunity to seek a mandate (of whatever sort) more speedily than would otherwise be the case.  But relying on blind chance doesn't seem like a great idea either.

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Daily Mail should be careful what it wishes for

One of the amusing subplots of the recent Brexit chaos has been the way the Daily Mail, which previously regarded any form of compromise with the EU as treason, had an overnight change of heart a few weeks ago and suddenly started portraying Theresa May as a latter-day Joan of Arc.  There's no mystery about why it happened.  The paper's new editor is a Remainer and presumably regards May's deal as the nearest thing to Remain that he has a cat in hell's chance of actually selling to his readers.  He hasn't exactly been subtle about it, though: quite apart from the suddenness of the U-turn, which must have left regular readers bewildered, he's started running excruciating front page features about how Philip May has done his bit to face down the beastly Brexiteer rebels by making his wife morale-boosting beans on toast for afternoon tea.

Presumably the intention is to appeal over the heads of parliamentarians by presenting May to the public as a plucky John Major-style underdog, building on the apparently spontaneous comments that have been made in surprising quarters along the lines of "you know what, whatever you may think of her politics, you have to admire her stoicism".  Hmmm.  Quite honestly, this is a Prime Minister who has sought to deny our country its democratic rights, and for my money there are no personal qualities that can really mitigate that.  I struggle to see much appeal in her personality anyway.  But it doesn't matter what I think.  The question is whether the public will be impressed by the propaganda effort, and they just might.  If so, it's possible that the Mail could, by helping to prolong May's tenure, be unwittingly putting the SNP into a position of greater influence.

It was suggested the other day that "senior DUP sources" were saying that the confidence-and-supply deal was effectively dead until and unless Theresa May is removed as Tory leader.  If that's true (and admittedly it's an "if"), the government no longer has a majority and Britain reverts to having a hung parliament in every sense of the term.  The SNP thus become by far the largest of several parties that hold the balance of power between them.  That doesn't make them as powerful as they would be if there was a centre-left majority available, but nevertheless their 35 votes do suddenly matter - as we saw from Kenny Farquharson's hapless attempts to 'shame' Nicola Sturgeon into propping up May's government.

She won't do that, of course.  It would be political insanity to bail out a Tory Prime Minister in return for absolutely nothing.  But here's the thing: Theresa May has made the choice to offer nothing.  Few mainstream media commentators seem to have considered this point, but May could solve her seemingly impossible problem at a stroke by simply offering the SNP a generous enough trade.  It wouldn't even necessarily have to be a Section 30 order if that's so politically unthinkable - alternatives would be to reverse the power-grab and devolve substantial new powers, or to extend the Northern Ireland arrangement to Scotland.  The SNP are rational actors - they'd probably let the May blueprint pass for England (which voted for Brexit, after all) as long as Scotland is properly protected.

It probably won't happen, if only because May is the most pig-headed PM in post-war history.  But make no mistake, if she gets to the point where there is no other way to save her own skin, the arithmetic makes it a theoretical possibility.  And that's a mark of the SNP's increased power now that the DUP have seemingly abandoned May.

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It's clear that the political crisis is shifting public opinion - Labour have surged into a GB-wide lead in new polls from Opinium and ComRes.  It remains to be seen what is happening in Scotland, but it's at least mildly encouraging that the SNP's share of the GB vote has increased in the Opinium poll from 4% to 5%.  By contrast, the ComRes subsample for Scotland has the SNP in a very typical 36% to 26% lead over the Tories.

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Rare GB-wide Panelbase poll has Labour and the Tories locked together at 40% apiece

This isn't strictly a Scot Goes Pop exclusive, because the figures were attached to the Scottish Independence Foundation press release that went out several hours ago.  But as far as I can see no media outlet, even on Twitter, has yet picked up on the fact that the new poll includes the first GB-wide voting intention figures from Panelbase since last year.

Westminster voting intentions (GB-wide, Panelbase):

Labour 40%
Conservatives 40%
Liberal Democrats 8%
SNP 4%
Greens 3%
Plaid Cymru 1%

Which is all very interesting, because of course most other polling firms have been showing a modest Conservative lead recently.  It may be that Panelbase's methodology, like Survation's, is closer to the Labour-friendly end of the spectrum.  (And, as we all remember, Survation's results were rubbished in the run-up to last year's election, but they ultimately turned out to be the most accurate.)

Christian Wright asked a question on the previous thread about the treatment of EU citizens in current polling, which was rather uncanny, because I was always planning to address that very point tonight.  At the weekend, when I saw the original datasets from Panelbase, I queried whether EU citizens and 16 and 17 year olds had been included in the sample - because it seemed to me if they had been, that in itself could be sufficient to explain why the Remain vote in Scotland had apparently risen slightly from 62% at the 2016 referendum to 64% now.  I didn't see Panelbase's response, but it was read out to me.  If I understood it correctly, they said that 16 and 17 year olds were excluded from the EU referendum question, but that they were relying upon a "how likely are you to vote?" question to screen EU citizens out.  That seemed to me to be a bit unsatisfactory, because it means that you'd need all EU citizens to be fully aware of their right to vote in Scottish elections, but not in Westminster elections or in any repeat EU referendum, to be sure that you're interviewing the right sample for each question.  It's highly likely, I would suggest, that some EU citizens are unclear about the likely legal position.  So they may, for example, be wrongly screening themselves out of indyref polling, but also wrongly including themselves in EU referendum polling.

Later, Panelbase agreed to recalculate the results in line with the concern I had raised.  To be perfectly honest, I was hearing about all of this second-hand, so I couldn't quite make sense of which particular concern they were addressing or exactly how they had addressed it.  Apparently the methodological tweak made no difference at all on the GB-wide numbers, and only a 1% difference on the Scottish numbers - but, again, I'm not quite clear about which question the 1% difference occurred on.

The important point here, of course, is that it seems intuitively likely that EU citizens have swung disproportionately from No to Yes on the independence question because of Brexit.  If independence polls aren't incorporating EU citizens correctly, it may be that there's a little something going on beneath the surface that the polls are currently unable to detect.

Here are the other numbers from the Panelbase poll...

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Scotland only):

Yes 45% (+1)
No 55% (-1)

Westminster voting intention (Scotland only):

SNP 37% (-1)
Conservatives 28% (+1)
Labour 25% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Greens 2% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (-1)

EU referendum vote (GB-wide):

Remain 53%
Leave 47%

EU referendum vote (Scotland only):

Remain 64% (+1)
Leave 36% (-1)

Holyrood constituency ballot:

SNP 39% (-2)
Conservatives 27% (+1)
Labour 24% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
Greens 3% (n/c)
UKIP 1% (-1)

Holyrood regional list ballot:

SNP 37% (+2)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 22% (+2)
Greens 6% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-2)
UKIP 2% (n/c)

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Palpably pleasing Panelbase poll puts support for independence at eighteen month high

It's not very often that I'm given advance sight of a full-scale Scottish poll, so I was very grateful to the Scottish Independence Foundation for giving me a sneak peek a few days ago at the new Panelbase poll they've funded.  I was able to contribute some analysis for the press release they've just sent out.  Of most interest is the fact that support for independence is at its highest level in any Panelbase poll for eighteen months.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 45% (+1)
No 55% (-1)

In normal circumstances, 45% would be a disappointing Yes showing, but it's high by recent Panelbase standards.  Paradoxically, what used to be the most Yes-friendly polling firm during the indyref is now very much on the No-friendly end of the spectrum.  Yes support has been hovering at 43% or 44% in Panelbase polls since the spring of 2017.  Obviously a small increase to 45% is not statistically significant and may be caused by random sampling variation, but the fact that this result is even possible gives considerable reassurance after a recent Survation poll that put Yes on an unusually low 45%.  (Survation's normal Yes range is a bit higher than Panelbase's.)  So it may well be that Panelbase are just randomly showing a slightly higher Yes vote than usual, and that Survation just randomly showed a slightly lower Yes vote than usual, and that in reality nothing much has changed at all.

Slightly embarrassingly, even though I've already seen the Westminster and Holyrood numbers, I can't actually post them just at the moment, because I'm on my mobile phone and I can't seem to open the Excel file properly!  However, from memory, the SNP are on 37% for Westminster, which is a statistically insignificant 1% down on the last Panelbase poll.  Although 37% is exactly what they received at last year's general election, their lead over both the Tories and Labour is slightly higher than it was in June 2017.  On a uniform swing, the 9-point lead over the Tories would be enough to win back Stirling, and the 12-point lead over Labour would be enough to win back four Labour seats.  North-East Fife would remain on a knife-edge between the SNP and Lib Dems, meaning that the SNP would end up with either 39 or 40 seats, up from the current 35.

On Holyrood voting intentions, the SNP are two points down on the constituency ballot since the last Panelbase poll, but two points up on the all-important list ballot.  I ran the numbers through a couple of seat projection models, and they both put the SNP on 57 seats (significantly better than the 52 seats projected by the Record from their recent Survation poll) and the Greens on 4 seats.  So the pro-independence parties would have 61 seats in combination - just 4 short of maintaining their overall majority.

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New BOMBSHELL Scottish poll suggests Ruth Davidson could face ANGUISH in snap election

As you may remember, one of the points of confusion about Channel 4's recent Survation poll was a set of Scottish voting intention figures for Westminster, which eventually proved to be merely a subsample (albeit an unusually large one) that hadn't been correctly weighted.  However, Survation have now reweighted the results in line with Scottish target figures, and it turns out that the position for the SNP is as favourable as it originally appeared.

Scottish voting intentions for Westminster (Survation, 20th October - 2nd November):

SNP 40% (+4)
Conservatives 27% (n/c)
Labour 23% (-3) 
Liberal Democrats 7% (n/c)

The percentage changes listed above are measured from a Survation poll for the Daily Record that was conducted just slightly earlier (with a small amount of overlap between the fieldwork for the two polls).  I have a feeling Survation would probably argue that the Record and Channel 4 polls are not directly comparable because they were conducted slightly differently, but at the end of the day they're both online polls weighted to Scottish target figures.

The Record poll caused some concern by showing an unusually low SNP vote by Survation's normal standards.  Many of us wondered at the time if it was just a freakish result caused by random sampling variation, and the swift recovery in the new poll would tend to support that theory.  So the 4% gain for the SNP should really be seen as a reversion to the mean rather than as real progress - the last-but-one online Survation poll had the SNP on 41%, and the one before that had them on 42%.  Nevertheless, if replicated at a general election, the new figures would see the SNP making substantial seat gains, especially at Labour's expense.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

We're about to see the difference between a real political party (the DUP) and a branch office (the Scottish Tories)

So there's a deal in principle between the UK government and the EU, but whether it will ever get through the various stages of ratification remains to be seen.  It seems likely that the text must incorporate another convoluted fudge on the Irish backstop, with Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK in a way that drives a coach and horses through Theresa May's supposed red line, but with some sort of political commitment that the backstop can never come into play and therefore doesn't matter.  I suspect that won't be good enough for the DUP, and that in turn will put the Scottish Tories in a very awkward place.

After last year's general election, one of the political correspondents on TV (I think it may have been Faisal Islam, but correct me if I'm wrong) notoriously claimed that the Scottish Tories were now "technically the fourth largest party in the Commons".  That was nonsensical on all sorts of levels - even if you could somehow justify regarding branch offices as separate parties, Welsh Labour would still comfortably outnumber the Scottish Tories.  But to be charitable, maybe he misspoke and intended to say "effectively" rather than "technically"- ie. he believed that Ruth Davidson combined a certainty of purpose with a hold over her Westminster group, and that they would therefore act in practice like a distinct party.  If so, we're now about to be treated to yet another demonstration that he couldn't have been more wrong.  Mundell and Davidson will swiftly backtrack on their supposed threats to resign on the basis that a worthless political assurance can be treated as gospel, whereas Arlene Foster will see the situation as it actually is and will stand her ground.  And that's the difference between being a real party leader and a puppet.

A couple of other points.  We're now closer than ever before to the clarity on Brexit that Nicola Sturgeon was looking for before making an announcement on a second independence referendum.  It won't be clarity on the long-term shape of a post-Brexit economic relationship, but it could be clarity on where the UK will find itself on 30th March next year, which I presume is all she can realistically hope for.  Could we be just weeks away from the First Minister pressing for a Section 30 order once again?

And secondly, what happens if the DUP pull the plug and there's a snap general election?  Can the Scottish Tories fit both "No2Indyref2" and "No2EURef2" on their campaigns posters in the north-east?  If not, which message do they prioritise?  Decisions, decisions...

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

That Survation poll: a brief autopsy

In the end there was very little point in fleshing out last night's blogpost about the Survation mega-poll, because a lot of what had been reported about it on social media (and even in one or two newspaper articles) turned out to be fictional.  There was no direct independence question in the poll at all - the reported numbers of Yes 51.4%, No 48.6% were a silly confection, justified with logic of the "two plus two equals twenty-two" variety.  The irony is that we've seen in recent weeks that if you ask poll respondents how they would vote in an independence referendum if they assume that a hard Brexit is going ahead, you get a Yes vote in the low 50s anyway.  So I'm not entirely sure what the point of inventing fantasy results was.

The Westminster voting intention numbers that were mentioned on Twitter also turn out not to be what they first appeared - according to Survation, they are from a Scottish subsample that was not separately weighted.  So the apparent significant uptick in SNP support since the last full-scale Scottish poll from Survation cannot be regarded as meaningful.  The next proper poll may well show a boost of that sort, but we'll just have to wait and see.

The one and only piece of Scottish data in the poll that did turn out to be authentic is that 38% of respondents say that Brexit would make them more likely to support independence, and only 25% say that it would make them less likely to support independence.  And that, I would suggest, is plenty enough to be getting on with for now.

As far as the UK-wide figures from the poll are concerned, I have to say the People's Vote brigade are getting a bit carried away.  They've been pointing to maps showing there has been a swing to Remain almost everywhere, and saying it's "astonishing" and "extraordinary".  Hmmm.  Up to a point, Lord Copper.  If Survation are right, there has been a 6% swing from Leave to Remain since the 2016 referendum, which is not insignificant, but the Leave vote has scarcely fallen through the floor.  A mere 4% swing back in the opposite direction would see Leave draw level - and that sort of shift can happen in the blink of an eye in the heat of a referendum campaign.  And it's scarcely unprecedented in British politics for a national swing to be replicated to varying degrees in most localities (even assuming that localised figures from the poll based on very small subsamples can be regarded as remotely reliable).

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Unionist chuntering heard all the way from Chichester after chipper Channel 4 poll gives massive boost to independence

I've been out enjoying Bonfire Night, so I wasn't watching Channel 4's big Brexit show, and I'm trying to make sense of the Scottish figures from their Survation mega-poll, based on the limited information available on Twitter.  Supposedly there are independence figures showing...

Yes 51.4%
No 48.6%

...but I have a sneaking suspicion that'll turn out to be a non-standard question asking respondents to take Brexit into account.  If so, that wouldn't be out of line with similar polls we've seen in recent months, although I certainly wouldn't diminish the significance of it in any way.

I've managed to track down the exact wording of another question in the poll...

From what you have seen and heard so far do you think that Brexit makes it more or less likely that you would vote to support an independent Scotland?

More likely: 38%
Less likely: 25%
Neither more nor less likely: 31%

Which bolsters the impression that Brexit has the potential to secure the small net swing that would be required to produce a Yes majority.

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UPDATE: It has been suggested to me by several people that the 51.4% and 48.6% figures are not from a specific poll question at all, but are just extrapolations of what would happen if you adjusted the 2014 referendum result on the assumption that No voters who say Brexit makes them "more likely" to support independence have in fact switched to Yes, and vice versa.  If so, what we're being treated to this evening is the most ludicrous misreporting of a poll that you could ever wish to see.  I can only admire the impudence of whoever came up with the idea.

There are Westminster voting intention figures being quoted from the poll as well, but I think I'll wait to see whether those turn out to be genuine.  On the face of it they show a boost for the SNP.

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New podcast

Just a quick note to let you know that myself and Peter A Bell are the guests on this week's edition of the Through a Scottish Prism podcast. Topics under discussion are the Budget, the prospects for a Brexit deal, the "anti-semitism" row concerning the Grouse Beater blog, and the timing of the second independence referendum. You can listen to the podcast HERE.

Friday, November 2, 2018

If a so-called People's Vote actually happened, what would be the consequences for independence?

After the events of a few months ago, it's refreshing to be able to get back to actually agreeing with Pete Wishart about something, and I do agree with him that there are dangers attached to the SNP's recent change of heart about a so-called "People's Vote". In fact I think what troubled me the most was Nicola Sturgeon's enthusiastic embrace of the dubious term "People's Vote", because in spite of her caveat that she would be seeking assurances that Scotland's voice would be respected in a second referendum, she also made clear that her support for a referendum was unconditional. It's obvious that the desired assurances will not be forthcoming and that any second referendum that could possibly command a majority in the House of Commons would be a straightforward UK-wide vote, exactly like the one that was held in June 2016. If it went ahead, what sort of hostage to fortune would we have just given? How could we denounce a second vote that overturned Scotland's wishes as a democratic outrage if the First Minister had warmly described the process in advance as a "People's Vote"?

There's also the problem of a precedent being set for Scottish independence: if the Leave vote of 2016 doesn't actually lead to Britain leaving the European Union because it's overturned by a second referendum before the result is implemented, why couldn't unionists attempt the same stunt after a future Yes vote in Scotland? However, as I pointed out to Labour MP Paul Sweeney recently, the precedent can't be set simply by SNP support for a referendum - it can only be set if a referendum is actually held, and it probably won't be, partly because of Labour's own stance. And there's the rub: the logic of the SNP's new strategy surely hinges entirely on the assumption that they are supporting something that will never come to pass. Which is fine, and probably justified, but it's a bit of a high-wire act all the same.

Peter Curran asked on Twitter recently what would happen to the plans for an indyref if the SNP's best efforts succeeded, and Britain remained in the EU, or there was an extremely soft Brexit. And the answer can only be that an indyref would be off the table at that point, because there would be no chance of success - Remain supporters in Scotland would breathe the biggest sigh of relief on record, look back on the chaos of the last two years, and refuse to countenance any constitutional upheaval (such as independence) for many, many years to come. But if a Hard Brexit actually happens, the opposite applies - independence in Europe will start to look like the antidote to the chaos.

During the 2016 EU referendum, the SNP leadership were often accused of secretly wanting a Leave vote to further the cause of independence. That was almost certainly an unjust charge - my impression is that they genuinely wanted the peace and quiet of a Remain vote, and would afterwards have looked to build towards an indyref at some point in the 2021-26 parliament. But once the Leave vote happened, it's probably fair to say that any potential overturning of that result started to look inconsistent with keeping the flame of independence burning bright. So, on paper, the SNP are now campaigning for something that is the polar opposite of being in their own best interests.

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