Saturday, January 23, 2016
Friday, January 22, 2016
Long-term readers of this blog may recall that I don't believe in positive discrimination, but think there may be a case for making an exception with parliamentary selections, because it's particularly important that MPs should reflect the population they represent. As I'm sure we'll all agree, the Eurovision Song Contest is just as important, and I'm wondering if there may also be a case for some positive discrimination on that front as well. No Scot has represented the UK at the contest since Scott Fitzgerald back in 1988, which is even more incredible when you consider that both France and Cyprus have been represented by Scots more recently than that. As far as I can see, there have been just two Scottish acts in UK national selection finals since 1988, which is a shocking level of under-representation given that there were typically 6-8 acts in the final every year until the BBC introduced internal selections in 2011.
The standard of singing and song-writing in Scotland can't be that bad, so there must be something going wrong at an institutional level, and a drastic step may be required to put it right. With the national final being brought back this year, perhaps Scotland should be guaranteed at least one entry?
You know, better together? Union dividend? All that?
Thursday, January 21, 2016
There can't be another town in Scotland that says "by-election" quite like Hamilton, and there was certainly no disappointment tonight as the SNP surged into a comfortable first place in a ward that was narrowly won by Labour last time around. However, it's technically an SNP hold, as the vacancy was caused by the death of an SNP councillor.
Hamilton North & East by-election result :
SNP 42.9% (+2.5)
Labour 33.6% (-9.4)
Conservatives 18.5% (+8.4)
Greens 3.3% (+0.2)
Liberal Democrats 1.8% (n/a)
The swing from Labour to SNP was around 6%. Of course, the SNP always start from a relatively high base in local by-elections due to having won the nationwide popular vote in 2012, so perhaps a more meaningful way of looking at this result is that it's the rough equivalent of a 17% or 18% swing at last year's general election. That's handsome enough, although not as high as the SNP were actually managing in most traditional Labour areas in May.
The mystery here is the strength of the Tory vote, and I'm wondering if there are local or personal factors that might explain it. It's true that an increased Tory vote share is not unexpected in a low-turnout by-election, because Tory voters are more affluent and thus more likely to turn out. But that factor wouldn't in itself be enough to explain an 8.4% increase. Doubtless we'll hear from some quarters that this is hard evidence of the Tory progress hinted at in the most recent Ipsos-Mori and Survation polls, but it could just as easily be a completely freakish result.
Incidentally, just to amplify the point I made to Mike Small in the email exchange the other day, less than half of the Green vote transferred to the SNP after the Green candidate was eliminated on the second count. 19% went to Labour, 6% to the Tories, and 29% was non-transferable. Of the Green voters that did transfer, more than one-third went to unionist parties. Not much evidence there of the elusive "mass tactical vote for the SNP" that Mike seems to think should be treated as established fact.
UPDATE : Could I just point out to my ever-growing fan club on a certain Facebook group that their feelings about me seem to have led them to a serious failure of mental arithmetic. It is not true that three times as many Green voters in Hamilton transferred to the SNP as to other parties combined. Fewer than twice as many did. And nowhere in this post did I "have a go at the Greens" - I'm simply making a straightforward observation that a very substantial proportion of Green voters prefer unionist parties to the SNP, and that it's therefore implausible to claim that Green sympathisers will be contributing to a "mass tactical vote" for the SNP on the constituency ballot in May (the operative word being "mass").
If I've ever used the phrase "SNP 1 and 2" that several members of that group attribute to me, I'd be interested to know where I did it. Certainly I'd strongly advise people not to write '1' and '2' on their ballot papers, regardless of which party they're attempting to vote for, because the returning officer might interpret that as a spoilt ballot. The '2' would be particularly risky, because the list vote is a completely distinct ballot, not a second preference.
Denise made an interesting suggestion on the previous thread. She reckons that the recent "Scottish blog wars" (of which the total breakdown of my own relationship with a bashful RISE propagandist was but a small part) is another sign that the independence movement is working its way through the classic stages of grief after the referendum defeat, with the current stage being 'depression', which has led to us fighting with each other. I think the true explanation for the disputes is more prosaic, and actually more encouraging. We're fighting because for the next few months we're not actually on the same side - the SNP, Greens, RISE and Solidarity are in direct competition for votes. "The movement" is, at the moment, mainly just a phrase RISE supporters use to bang others over the head with as they haughtily claim an entitlement to free votes on the list.
Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but to the extent that there is still such a thing as a cross-party movement, it's actually in a much, much stronger state than it would have been if the referendum hadn't taken place. Consider this - five years ago, the Greens professed a doctrine of complete equidistance between Labour and the SNP, and were clearly prepared to install Iain "the Snarl" Gray as First Minister without any concessions on an independence referendum, or on a push for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. The 2011 edition of the blog wars centred around the claim of Greens such as James Mackenzie to be thoroughly amused by SNP supporters who thought there was anything surprising or reprehensible about the stance his party was taking. Clearly the Greens were only pro-independence back then in a fairly nominal sense - it was nothing like a priority for them. That's completely changed now, largely as a result of the post-referendum influx of members.
I don't think anyone can really doubt Tommy Sheridan's long-term commitment to independence, but it wasn't strong enough in 2011 to prevent him urging his supporters in Glasgow to elect George Galloway - a man who made no secret of his determination to use his seat at Holyrood to oppose independence tooth-and-nail. Such an endorsement would be unthinkable now, all thanks to the referendum campaign.
I can't claim to be an authority on what the SSP were saying about independence five years ago, because they weren't really on the electoral radar. But their successors in RISE could hardly be taking a much stronger position now - promising a referendum on independence within the next five years regardless of circumstances.
So, no, I don't think we're depressed, and there's no need to become depressed. If the worst happens and the SNP fall slightly short of a majority in May, they won't be short of common ground with the Greens, or with Solidarity if Sheridan nicks a seat in Glasgow. (As you know, I don't expect RISE to trouble the scorer.)
Monday, January 18, 2016
UPDATE II : Mike has resolved my ethical dilemma by unilaterally publishing the email exchange on Bella. I'm relieved to say there are no omissions, and you can read it HERE. Incidentally, I didn't receive the final email until this afternoon, after I'd published the article myself and gone back to bed for a couple of hours. But as for what Mike's final sentence is actually supposed to mean in concrete terms...well, answers on a postcard, folks.
If your blogger sounds thoroughly hacked off today, there's a very good reason for that. Yesterday, Mike Small of Bella Caledonia claimed that the endless series of articles on his site trying to persuade SNP supporters to 'vote tactically on the list' (ie. for RISE or the Greens) was not a propaganda campaign, but rather...
"just presenting a range of voices James, which is deemed intolerable."
That claim plainly made no sense whatever, because there had been several articles from multiple authors pushing the tactical voting line (including a RISE press release!), and not a single one putting the alternative view. So I asked Mike if he would be willing to publish an article from me on the topic. He said he'd consider it. I took him at his word, and spent God knows how many hours last night and this morning composing a 2000 word piece.
Having sent Mike the article and exchanged a few emails with him, it is now abundantly clear to me that he was completely wasting my time, and that he never had the remotest intention of publishing any article that took a contrary view to the Bella editorial line which he pretends doesn't even exist. The Bella mission statement could perhaps be more accurately reworded as "presenting a range of voices which Mike finds tolerable".
I'm so angry at the moment that I'm sorely tempted to publish the email exchange so that people can see the extent to which he has been playing games and acting in bad faith. I'll ponder on that, but in the meantime here is the rejected article in full.
* * *
Why “tactical voting” on the Holyrood regional list is a mug’s game
There have been persistent suggestions from supporters of parties like RISE and the Greens that it may somehow be possible for SNP supporters to “hack” the voting system for the Scottish Parliament election in May. The overall composition of parliament is supposed to be broadly determined by the result of the regional list vote, but it’s true that weird things can start to happen if one party is totally dominant in constituency seats, and yet is abandoned by many voters on the list. The system would attempt to distribute list seats as compensation to parties that are under-represented in the constituencies, but in reality would end up dumbly “compensating” voters who are already handsomely over-represented. In theory, that makes it possible for considerably more pro-independence MSPs to be elected than the combined vote for pro-independence parties would justify, as long as independence supporters vote in huge numbers for the SNP on the constituency ballot, and for other parties on the list ballot. Unfortunately, as with so many other things that are perfectly possible in theory, it’s fantastically improbable in practice. If it ever did happen, it would probably be as a result of pure luck. Trying to make it happen through deliberate action (a push for so-called “tactical voting on the list”) is fraught with enormous danger.
In single-member constituency elections, tactical voting can work brilliantly. Scotland surprised itself in 1987 by suddenly grasping how the combination of a four-party system and first-past-the-post could be transformed from a weakness into a strength in the battle against Thatcherism. The nationwide Tory vote was only modestly cut from 28% to 24%, but in terms of seats there was a bloodbath, as voters in marginal Tory-held constituencies flocked to whichever party had finished second locally in 1983. And the identity of that party was literally the only information that was needed to make tactical voting feasible.
But to “vote tactically” in a relatively risk-free way on the Holyrood regional list ballot, you need to have far, far more detailed information. Exactly how much you require depends on what your objectives are. There seems to be a degree of creative ambiguity over which sort of SNP supporter is being targeted by the smaller parties’ pitch for tactical votes, but we must presumably – at least in part – be talking about people whose first priority is not merely a pro-independence majority at Holyrood, but an outright SNP majority. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t constantly be hearing the soothing noises about how an SNP majority is already assured on constituency votes alone – a tacit acknowledgement that a necessary precondition for many potential “tactical voters” is a sense of certainty that the SNP will not require any list seats at all.
But is that proposition remotely credible? In the real world, no. To turn the list vote into a completely ‘free hit’ in the way that is being suggested, the SNP would need to be sure of winning at least 65 of the 73 constituency seats. To put in perspective just how murderously difficult a feat that is, Alex Salmond fell a full twelve seats short of the target figure in the landslide of 2011. The independence referendum would never have taken place if the SNP hadn’t won a considerable number of top-up seats on the list. And in retrospect it may seem a tad surprising that in the first Blair landslide of 1997, Labour won “only” 56 of the 72 Scottish constituencies at Westminster. If that had been a Holyrood contest, Labour’s support might well have been just about strong enough to win an absolute majority – but only if their voters had remained disciplined on the list ballot. They wouldn’t have been close to winning on constituency votes alone.
Now, it’s true that the SNP are currently polling higher than they did in 2011, or than Labour did in 1997. It’s also true that if the result of last year’s general election were to be replicated in May, the SNP would not require any list seats to secure a majority. But it would be a bit too close for comfort. It must be remembered that not only did the unionist parties hold onto three seats last year, they also lost only narrowly in a few others (mostly ones previously held by the Liberal Democrats). The 1987 result is a useful warning from history of how a relatively small drop in a party’s share of the national vote can help swing the balance in a large number of constituencies. In this case, it only needs to happen in a very small number for Nicola Sturgeon to find herself in desperate need of list votes.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s eminently possible that the SNP will hit the magic number of 65 constituencies. But those who tell you that it’s already certain (or practically certain) to happen are misleading you about the limitations of polling evidence. On election night last year, two completely different seats projections flashed up on our television screens. The broadcasters’ exit poll suggested that the SNP would win all but one seat in Scotland, while the YouGov on-the-day poll claimed that the unionist parties would between them hold onto eleven seats. Nobody really had a clue which poll was right, although the initial gut instinct of most politicians and pundits was that YouGov were probably closer to the mark. As it turned out, the opposite was true. If that’s the degree of uncertainty we can routinely expect to find ourselves dealing with after the polls have closed, what hope do we have at the moment we’re actually casting our votes? This, in a nutshell, is the first big disadvantage a budding “tactical voter” on the list has in comparison with a tactical voter in a single-member constituency election. The latter only needs to be able to predict with confidence the top two placings in an individual constituency, while the former needs foreknowledge of the outright winner in many, many different constituencies. That is rarely going to be realistically possible. Getting even one or two results wrong could sometimes be enough for the “tactical vote” to completely backfire.
But even if it somehow became possible to navigate that minefield with genuine confidence (it would probably require the SNP to reach ANC-style levels of popularity), that would only be the start of the story. Other unrelated pieces of foreknowledge about the likely election result would also be necessary before the risks of a tactical vote might recede to a vaguely acceptable level. Even if an SNP majority was assured, our potential tactical voter would still want to know that they’d actually be helping to increase the overall tally of pro-independence MSPs, not decrease it. Most fundamentally, they’d need to know that their vote wouldn’t be totally wasted as a result of their chosen “tactical” party failing to reach the de facto threshold for winning any representation at all.
Here, again, we come up against the limitations of polling. Fortunately, it’s at least possible to make a judgement with a degree of certainty in respect of RISE. Recent polls have been unanimous in giving the SSP virtually zero support, and there’s no reason at all to suppose that RISE – with its weaker brand awareness – is faring any better. Unless things change radically over the coming weeks, it would be totally irrational for any SNP supporter to switch to RISE on the list. The SNP have a realistic prospect of winning at least one list seat in any given region, while RISE have virtually no chance of a list seat anywhere in Scotland. I say ‘virtually’, because there is one previous example of a fringe party coming from zero support to snatch a list seat – that was the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party, which achieved a sensational result in 2003 with the help of some Old Firm stardust on their election leaflets. So RISE do have an outside chance of a breakthrough, but it’s a very, very small one. Nobody sensible will be betting the house on it.
In seven out of eight regions, exactly the same is true of Solidarity, who are also languishing on virtually zero support. However, past form suggests that they may have a small concentration of support in Glasgow that the polls are unable to pick up. If so, it’s just conceivable that Tommy Sheridan may be able to recapture past glories, and seize a single list seat. But SNP supporters in Glasgow should still have massive doubts over whether Solidarity are really better placed to make an impact on the city’s list than their own party. Even if the SNP win every single Glasgow constituency seat – a very big if, for the reasons I’ve already discussed – they should still have a good chance of a list seat as long as their list vote holds up. Sheridan is a long-shot by comparison.
With the Greens, the situation is more complex. Polls have been sending mixed signals about whether they are in line for a breakthrough. But even if we ignore the more pessimistic polls, it should be noted that we’ve been here before. In both 2007 and 2011, the Greens seemed on course for substantial gains, but in both cases ended up with just two seats. Anecdotally, I know of several SNP supporters in the North-east region (including party members) who voted “tactically” for the Greens in 2011 on the basis of two assumptions – that the Greens would reach the de facto threshold for a seat in the region, and that the SNP would win so many constituencies that they would be totally out of the running on the list. Both of those assumptions proved to be wrong, and indeed the SNP took a list seat in spite of winning every single one of the region’s constituencies. Fortunately, the misjudgement didn’t cause any damage, but it could easily have done – if just 2000 more SNP voters had switched “tactically” to the Greens, and 600 more had switched to the SSP, the final list seat would have been won by the Tories rather than the SNP, and the overall pro-independence majority at Holyrood would have been cut from 72-57 to 71-58. That wouldn’t have been a great day’s work by any standards.
Look at it this way – if you cast a well-founded tactical vote in a single-member constituency election, there are only really two possible outcomes. Either your tactical choice of candidate will win and your objective will have been achieved, or they’ll fall short and you’ll be no worse off than you otherwise would have been. But a “tactical vote” on the regional list is a very different beast. Since you will rarely (if ever) have sufficient foreknowledge to make a tactical switch on a rational basis, there are four potential outcomes. You might get lucky and achieve your objective. Your vote might backfire and lead to an increase in the number of unionist MSPs – and in a worst-case scenario bring about an anti-independence majority. The result might be no different to what it otherwise would have been. Or you could end up replacing a pro-independence MSP from your first-choice party with a pro-independence MSP from your second-choice party. (The latter wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would certainly be rather irritating.)
The phrase “tactical voting on the list” should really be outlawed under the Trade Descriptions Act. What we’re actually talking about here is gambling voting. If you fancy a flutter, my suggestion is Betfair. The future of our country shouldn’t be entrusted to blind chance.
* * *
UPDATE : Mike Small has posted a bizarre claim on Facebook that he never rejected the article. That is categorically untrue. You can read more details HERE.
Apologies that I haven't written anything yet about yesterday's Panelbase poll. Although most of the excitement concerned the finding that Scotland would vote in favour of independence in the event of Brexit, the standard independence question actually showed a small increase in the No lead. The change looks very much like margin-of-error noise, but it will have the effect of pushing No back into a slight lead in the Poll of Polls when I update it.
The reason I haven't had a chance to update it so far is that I've been working on a submission for Bella Caledonia. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may be aware that eyebrows were raised yesterday when Mike Small claimed that the endless banging of the drum on Bella for "tactical voting on the list" was not a propaganda campaign, but rather...
"just presenting a range of voices James, which is deemed intolerable."
I defy anyone to say that's an accurate reflection of reality. There have been several recent articles on Bella (from multiple authors) claiming that tactical voting on the list is both feasible and a moral necessity, and not even a single one putting the alternative point of view. So I asked Mike whether he would accept a submission from me on the topic - he was non-committal, but said he'd consider it.
The article I've just sent to him is a straightforward analytical piece. If I'm being cynical, there are two reasons why it may conceivably be rejected - a) it dismisses RISE's hopes of winning any seats this year, and b) it mentions Solidarity, which RISE supporters have the Orwellian habit of pretending doesn't exist. But of course neither of those reasons are valid if Mike is serious about simply presenting a range of views. We'll see.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
A day or two later, though, I noticed that Mike Small had been rather rude on Twitter about bloggers who hadn't instantly and enthusiastically endorsed his spoilt ballot campaign. I knew his comment was mainly directed at the likes of Jeff Breslin and James Mackenzie, who were the leading pro-independence bloggers at the time. But I was still a tad miffed, because the criticism effectively extended to me and a few others. So when Mike started banging the drum at Bella again in April 2011 with just a few days to go until the referendum, I decided to leave a number of forthright comments. In particular, I noted the glorious irony that Mike was charging people who didn't want to abstain in an important referendum with the crime of "sitting on the fence". I was stunned to quickly receive the following condescending email from "Bella Baxter" -
I don't know why your getting so exercised.
You don't like the campaign. Fine. Don't take part.
Why does it feel so important?"
In other words, and as Jacques Chirac might put it, I had missed a great opportunity to shut up. To be fair, Mike became much more conciliatory after I replied and stood my ground, but nevertheless I felt - and still feel - that it was an extraordinary episode. As pro-independence bloggers, we were clearly expected to just fall into line with the scheme, or at the very least to have the good manners not to disagree with it in public. Don't be in any doubt - comments were warmly welcomed, but only if they came from cheerleaders, not dissenters.
If this all sounds startlingly familiar, it's probably because Mike is currently taking exactly the same passive-aggressive approach with anyone who dares to disagree with his latest "tactical voting" wheeze. Perhaps you've pointed out why the claim that all SNP list votes are wasted is a statistical nonsense? Oh, that makes you really boring. And narrow. You've got no imagination, son. The grown-ups are disappointed in you.
Again, it seems our function as independence supporters is simply to buy into Mike's narrative (disseminated by means of RISE press releases on Bella) about the necessity of tactical voting (sic) on the list. Or failing that, to keep quiet about it. The idea that anyone might actually challenge it is absolutely bloody outrageous. You can tell how furious Mike is, because he simply refuses to engage when it's pointed out to him that genuine tactical voting on the list isn't feasible, and can backfire horribly. He doesn't have any sort of response or rebuttal at all - he just regards it as an illegitimate point of discussion. The people who raise the objections are pathologised as purveyors of the old politics, who probably want to go back to having all-male panels or something like that. In other news, two plus two makes twenty-two.
The biggest irony on this occasion is that Mike has titled his latest diatribe "Shsh for Indy", as if it's the tactical voting brigade who are being told to shut up. Actually, Mike, the expression of dissent isn't censorship. The mentioning of inconvenient facts may be infuriating if you're unable to rebut them, but that isn't censorship either. The freedom to express dissent is a fundamental part of free speech. Nothing narrows the range of debate so dramatically as an attempt to pathologise dissent. If you really believe in the broadest possible debate with the widest number of voices, stop telling people their analysis is out of bounds.
Having said all that, Mike is still an amateur at this stuff in comparison to excitable Common Space columnist David Carr, who apparently thinks that failing to vote for RISE or the Greens on the list amounts to "terrifying zealotry". Hmmm. I gather that voting for any party other than Zanu-PF is also considered unwelcome in some quarters. Who knows, though, democratic principles may one day catch on in both Zimbabwe and RISE HQ. And Bella Caledonia might even eventually realise that giving extensive coverage to a small party like RISE is a perfectly healthy thing, but is not actually the same thing as simply publishing their press releases.
* * *
SCOT GOES POP POLL OF POLLS
I didn't get round to updating the Holyrood Poll of Polls after the Survation poll the other night, so here it is now...
Constituency ballot :
SNP 52.8% (-0.2)
Labour 20.8% (+0.1)
Conservatives 16.3% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 5.8% (+0.5)
Regional list ballot :
SNP 46.8% (-1.5)
Labour 19.8% (+0.1)
Conservatives 15.8% (+0.1)
Greens 7.8% (+0.5)
Liberal Democrats 6.3% (+0.6)
(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the firms that have reported Scottish Parliament voting intention numbers over the previous three months, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are four - YouGov, Survation, TNS and Ipsos-Mori. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample.)