Saturday, March 23, 2019
Now, I'm not going to tell people that they shouldn't be saying these things, because I know we're all sick to the back teeth of the holier-than-thou (and doomed) attempts from certain quarters to lecture a diverse movement on the one and only correct way to "do Yes". But all the same, my own personal opinion is that hysterical predictions about British state violence will always be counterproductive, because I truly believe that the majority of Scottish people are not idiots, and that they know perfectly well that the British army is not going to start murdering or interning Yessers, and that they will basically just stop listening when they hear that kind of thing.
Why is internment or a military massacre unthinkable in Scotland? Partly because it isn't 1972 anymore, and even the British state has learned a few lessons over the last half-century about its past mistakes. But the main reason is that there is no significant history of political or communal violence in Scotland within living memory, and that is something that very obviously sets us apart from Northern Ireland. The army wouldn't even be present at a pro-independence march - it would be a police matter, not a military one. And even if the army were present for some inexplicable reason, there would be no pretext for them to fire on civilians, because there is no threat of violence from a pro-indy paramilitary group to use as an excuse. By the same token, there could be no conceivable pretext for internment.
(When I pointed out these key differences between Scotland and Northern Ireland, one of Jason's Irish friends suggested that I complacently believed Scotland was immune to the state violence meted out in Ireland in the 1970s, because I think the Irish are "savages" and we are not. Needless to say I had not said or implied anything of the sort. To put it mildly, it was disappointing to see Jason enthusiastically applaud such cynical debating tactics, and indeed chip in with very similar remarks of his own.)
Admittedly, it's an open question as to whether Scotland would remain free of political and communal violence if we were foolish enough to heed the counsel of Jason's friends, because they clearly disapprove of the basic nature of our independence movement, which is apparently "feart" and "compliant" and full of "bottlers". Their advice was for us to educate ourselves on "revolutionary thought" and then "mobilise" and "resist" in some non-specified way. To me, that sounded for all the world like incitement to violence - a suspicion that was angrily denied, although they were curiously reluctant to set my mind at rest by clarifying exactly what "mobilisation" and "resistance" actually did mean. Eventually I managed to coax one of them into offering a manifesto of sorts...
"Step 1: Extract thumb from arse
Step 2: Take to the streets
Step 3: Occupy government buildings ...we find Post Offices a good option
Step 4: Publicise your *peaceful* occupation via independent print online and social media"
I don't know whether these people have been paying attention, because if the massive pro-indy marches and rallies of recent times don't qualify as "taking to the streets", I'm not quite sure what would. (In fairness, Irish TV coverage of our marches probably isn't that extensive.) As for the occupation of government buildings, it may or may not be possible to do that sort of thing peacefully, but it sure as hell isn't possible to do it legally, or without needless confrontation with the authorities, or without a backlash from the vast majority of the population who would think we had completely taken leave of our senses. Independence has made itself credible in Scotland precisely because its proponents do not strut around like Lenin plotting to overthrow the Tsar of Russia.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the civic/constitutional nationalism of the SNP, and the revolutionary nationalism that is part of the DNA of Sinn Féin. (I doubt if it's any coincidence that Jason is a member of Sinn Féin but not of the SNP.) I've always thought the best crystallisation of the SNP's approach was the answer Roseanna Cunningham gave during the 1995 Perth and Kinross by-election campaign, when she was asked by the Lib Dem candidate how she could possibly swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen when she was passionately opposed to the institution of monarchy. She simply pointed out that the Queen is the head of state of the United Kingdom. That may seem a nonsensical reply for someone who doesn't want there to be a Queen or a United Kingdom, but in fact it's precisely what you would expect a constitutional nationalist to say. By swearing allegiance to the legal head of state, you are symbolically committing yourself to work within the existing constitutional arrangements to bring about the radical change you seek. Sinn Féin, of course, take the polar opposite approach - they refuse to swear allegiance to the Queen and do not take up their seats in the House of Commons, a stance which symbolises their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing constitutional arrangements, and their belief that the north of Ireland is occupied territory.
So which approach is better - the SNP's or Sinn Féin's? You pays your money and you takes your choice, and Jason has made the point that Sinn Féin is the only party on these islands to have ever achieved independence from England. (That's historically dubious, because the present-day Sinn Féin is not a direct legal continuation of the original party, but nevertheless it's true that the original was very much a revolutionary organisation.) But my view is that we squander the immaculately peaceable heritage of Scotland's national movement at our peril. It's taken us a long, long way - not quite to our desired destination just yet, but a hell of a lot further than any of us would have thought possible even ten years ago. And most importantly of all, it's done that without the trauma of 25 years of low-grade civil war.
As we've discussed before, there may eventually be a limit to the utility of constitutional nationalism if the UK government are foolish enough to close off each and every option to achieve independence by democratic means. At that point you'd have little option but to go over the head of domestic law and look to international law instead. But the SNP wouldn't be the SNP if they didn't exhaust every realistic option within the UK constitutional framework first. They have not yet done so. And even if that moment arrives, I'm struggling to see how occupying government buildings is going to be of much help.
Friday, March 22, 2019
1) May's deal passes
2) No Deal
3) Softer Brexit
4) People's Vote
5) Revocation of Article 50 without a referendum
We can more or less rule out option 5 completely, because the Tory and Labour leaderships are both opposed to revocation. (Admittedly a Labour spokesperson was very careful the other day not to explicitly exclude the possibility, but that was probably just to avoid a backlash from passionate Remainers in the PLP and the party's rank-and-file.) Option 4 isn't totally impossible but looks extremely improbable in the wake of a recent vote in the Commons in which an absolute majority of MPs actively voted against a second referendum. It appears that there are more than enough committed Labour opponents of a referendum to offset any Tory supporters.
So that leaves the first three options as the only credible ones. It's still possible that May's deal will pass next week thanks to a sort of pincer movement of cliff-edges - Remainers might be spooked by the very real possibility of No Deal, while Brexiteer Tories might be spooked by the very real possibility of a softer Brexit. But if the deal doesn't pass at the third and final attempt, which still seems to be the expectation, it's murderously hard to see whether option 2 or option 3 becomes the more likely outcome. Presumably MPs will at last seize control of the parliamentary timetable from the government and will hold a series of indicative votes, in which they might vote for a softer Brexit along the lines proposed by Jeremy Corbyn. But Stephen Bush of the New Statesman, who history has shown has uncanny seer-like powers on matters such as this, seems to think there would only be a 50/50 chance of a Corbyn-type plan passing (in fact reading between the lines I get the impression that he thinks the chances may be a little less than 50/50).
And even if MPs express a preference for a softer Brexit, such a vote would not in the first instance be legally binding, and Theresa May would surely regard it as inconsistent with her government's red lines. She has proved herself to be perfectly capable of completely ignoring the wishes of parliament when they are not binding, and as incumbent Prime Minister there would be various options open to her for frustrating the watering down of Brexit. Which I suppose leads me to conclude that the risk of No Deal should be taken very seriously indeed, even if it's hard to quantify in percentage terms.
* * *
Just a passing thought: hasn't the time come for the SNP and the wider Yes movement to start pointing out to the public that rather a long time has passed since the first independence referendum? Up to now, we've tended to stress the point that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since September 2014, that there has been a material change in circumstances and so on. But we've reached the stage where it's also fair to say that five years is in itself a long period of time, even regardless of the huge change in circumstances. Nobody is pretending that five years constitutes the fabled "generation", but it is the maximum amount of time allowed from one general election to another, it's longer than the entire duration of the First World War, and it's almost as long as the entire duration of the Second World War. If you listened to the unionist parties, you'd think we had a referendum last week.
Monday, March 18, 2019
SNP 38%, Conservatives 22%, Liberal Democrats 19%, Labour 11%, Greens 5%, UKIP 2%, Brexit Party 1%
I must admit that I don't keep track of all-time highs and lows in subsamples, but I find it hard to believe that Labour have ever been much lower than 11% in a YouGov subsample. OK, we all know that they aren't really on 11% (and the Lib Dems certainly aren't really on 19%), but nevertheless YouGov's subsamples tend to be a little more reliable and less volatile than those from other firms, so it's reasonable to suppose that Scottish Labour must be doing pretty badly for this to even be possible.
What makes the timing strange is that there are signs that Labour may have steadied the ship at GB level - the newest Survation poll gives them a three point boost and has them back in the lead, while both Opinium and YouGov show a reduced Tory lead, albeit due to a falling Tory vote rather than a rising Labour vote. In YouGov's case what seems to have happened is that the Tories have suddenly lost a significant slice of support to UKIP and Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party, probably due to the (dubious) perception that Brexit is now at risk after last week's Commons votes. Meanwhile, memories of the Independent Group split are fading with no further defections having taken place for weeks - which is very good news for both Labour and the Lib Dems, who had both taken a hit in polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the breakaway.
There are suggestions that Jeremy Corbyn may be contemplating another no confidence vote in the government if the Brexit deal is voted down for a third time. The only way the government can conceivably lose a confidence vote at this stage is if a smattering of Tory MPs take the nuclear option and risk their own careers by voting with the opposition. Presumably the Labour whips already know whether there is the remotest prospect of that happening, but even if there isn't, it may still be good tactics to table a no confidence motion because it will put the Independent Group (and possibly the Lib Dems) on the spot. It's one thing for former Labour MPs to talk about propping up a Tory government by abstaining, but actually being seen to do it for real is another matter. If the Independent Group start to be seen as the Tories' little helpers, it could well deter wavering Labour MPs from defecting.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
The eagle-eyed David Halliday pointed out to me earlier today that independence figures can be found in the datasets of the new Survation poll, which seems to have been a composite poll commissioned by three very different clients - the Daily Mail, the Scottish Green Party and the ever-hapless Scotland in Union. It's impossible to know what the headline independence figures would be (or perhaps what they will be if they're ever published), because the numbers in the datasets are not weighted by likelihood to vote. But for what it's worth, the figures weighted politically and by demographics - but not by likelihood to vote - appear to put Yes at 45.2% and No at 54.8%. That's basically the same as the previous Survation poll way back in the autumn.
I know the 'delay' lobby within the SNP may look at those figures and say "ooooh, there's no big breakthrough, this means we have to wait for another 64,000 years and hope that something turns up". But the reality is that if you're not even campaigning on independence, and if you're letting your opponents make all the running on the issue, then probably the best you can really expect is that your own vote will hold up. And the Yes vote is holding up impressively. If we want to kick on from there, we'll have to use the indyref mandate and actually get on with the campaign.
* * *
It's self-indulgent stats time, folks. Based on recent trends this will probably be an accolade for one day only, but I may as well shout about it while it lasts. As of this moment, and for the first time ever that I'm aware of, Traffic Estimate is showing that Scot Goes Pop has moved up to third place in the ranking of most-read Scottish alternative media sites over the last 30 days, slightly ahead of both CommonSpace and Bella Caledonia.
1) Craig Murray: 237,900 unique readers
2) Wings Over Scotland: 178,900 unique readers
3) Scot Goes Pop: 70,600 unique readers
4) Bella Caledonia: 70,200 unique readers
5) CommonSpace: 70,100 unique readers
6) Talking Up Scotland: 60,900 unique readers
7) Wee Ginger Dug: 59,900 unique readers
8) The Ferret: 37,900 unique readers
Thursday, March 14, 2019
Liberal Democrats 7.1%
Scotland has six seats in the European Parliament, and there was never any real doubt about where five of them would go - the SNP and Labour were both bound to take at least two each, and the Tories at least one. But the final seat was a dogfight, and several parties were able to make a plausible case for being in the running to win it. You might remember that the Greens did their usual thing of telling SNP voters to switch "tactically" - supposedly to thwart UKIP. But in fact if UKIP hadn't been there, the SNP would have claimed the elusive third seat that they had been trying and failing to win ever since proportional representation was first introduced in 1999.
Under the d'Hondt system, each seat is distributed individually, with the vote for each party being divided by the number of seats they have already won, plus one. So using percentages rather than absolute numbers for convenience, here is how the calculation looked for the final seat in 2014 -
Liberal Democrats 7.1%
Why does this matter for any forthcoming election in May? Because we know that the "Kipper" vote is likely to be split in a way that it wasn't five years ago. Nigel Farage, David Coburn and others will stand for their new Brexit Party, and will take a lot of UKIP voters with them - but probably not all, simply because the UKIP brand is so well-established. (Indeed, a lot of people may well vote UKIP on the false assumption that Farage is still a member or even the leader.) I suspect the two parties may 'knock each other out', and divide the hardline Brexit vote in such a way that it's impossible for either to win a seat in Scotland.
The Lib Dems have been quietly doing quite well in recent Scottish polls, but they may suffer a similar fate if the Independent Group feel compelled to enter the fray. At least in Britain-wide polls, the Lib Dem vote generally seems to be significantly lower if the Independent Group are offered as an option, presumably because the Lib Dem and TIG votes are drawn from the same centrist pool.
Effectively this means that the SNP's chances of winning a third seat this year may not be seriously threatened by either UKIP or the Lib Dems. The likelihood is that the Tories will comfortably win two seats this time, which could leave the final seat as a straight fight between the SNP and Labour. If, for example, Labour take 21% of the vote, the SNP would probably win the final seat with 32% or higher. (It may seem obvious that the SNP should be doing a lot better than 32%, but voting patterns in European elections have traditionally been a little different.)
* * *
Undoubtedly the most amusing part of tonight's votes was when the commentator on BBC Parliament revealed that David Mundell had abstained on the main motion, and mused that this might lead to resignation. Obviously nobody had bothered to tell this particular BBC employee about the only cast-iron law of modern politics - ie. that David Mundell never, ever resigns under any circumstances whatsoever. Sure enough, it turned out that the traditional rules had been relaxed to allow ministers to defy a three-line whip without resigning or being sacked, as long as they 'only' abstained rather than voting with the opposition. A government that has to go to such extreme lengths because it can't afford to lose David Mundell is in a very dark place indeed.
And I doubt it will prove to be a cost-free action - Brexiteer ministers will now expect (and demand) the same right to abstain on future important votes with impunity. Collective cabinet responsibility as we know it has ceased to exist, which could make an early general election unavoidable.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Tonight's votes mean that, one way or another, a moment of truth for the independence movement is arriving
On the narrowest of margins does history turn. If the Spelman amendent had been defeated (and it would have taken just two MPs voting the other way for that to happen), the most likely outcome might well have been a No Deal Brexit, either on the scheduled date this month or after a very short last-ditch extension. As it is, Theresa May has clearly shifted her ground and started to countenance the possibility of a longer extension. She did it in her customary "nothing to do with me guv" sort of way, but the change is real - before tonight she was definitively ruling out an extension of more than a few weeks, while now she is accepting that it could be an unavoidable and unwelcome consequence of parliament's decisions.
Which seems to leave us with a binary choice between a) the Brexiteers being spooked by the threat of delay into voting for May's deal at the third time of asking, or b) an Article 50 extension of sufficient length that the UK would be forced into taking part in the European elections in two months' time. (Admittedly the latter would cause such fury among Brexiteer MPs that the government might well be toppled.) Either way, a moment of truth is coming for the independence movement - the passing of the deal would mean that the clarity Nicola Sturgeon has been awaiting would arrive imminently, at which point we could expect a decision about an independence referendum. Or if the European elections are held in Scotland, the SNP would presumably use them to attempt to further reinforce their mandate for an indyref - with a good result being vitally important.
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
On the voting intentions for Westminster and Holyrood, it's pretty much unalloyed good news for the SNP and the independence movement more generally.
Scottish voting intentions for Westminster:
SNP 40% (+1)
Conservatives 24% (-2)
Labour 23% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (n/c)
Like the recent Panelbase poll, the above figures represent a swing to the SNP from both the Tories and Labour since the June 2017 election, but the swings are bigger, and the SNP's own vote share is up on 2017 as well. In the unlikely event of a totally uniform national swing, this would see the SNP win 46 seats (up 11), the Tories just 8 (down 5), the Lib Dems 4 (no change) and Labour 1 (down 6).
In a perverse way, Labour might think their 23% vote share is not too bad, because it's within their normal range for recent Survation polls, albeit at the lower end of it. Panelbase, by contrast, had put Labour on a post-June 2017 low, which appeared to reflect the impact of the Independent Group breakaway.
Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:
SNP 43% (+5)
Conservatives 24% (-2)
Labour 22% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 9% (n/c)
Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:
SNP 32% (n/c)
Conservatives 22% (-1)
Labour 19% (-4)
Greens 11% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 11% (+2)
Remarkably, the Scotland Votes predictor suggests that the pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament would slightly increase on these numbers - the SNP and Greens between them would have 70 seats, rather than the 69 they won in 2016 when the mandate for a second independence referendum was secured. That once again gives the lie to Robin McAlpine's claim from a few weeks ago that all recent polls have suggested the pro-indy majority would be lost. In all honesty, though, Survation's methodology is making it very difficult to work out what would really happen, because it's been blindingly obvious for ages that the question wording they use for the list vote ("your second vote") is confusing respondents and producing distorted results - the SNP's vote share is likely to be a few points too low and the Greens' vote share is likely to be a few points too high.
Saturday, March 9, 2019
Westminster seats projection from Panelbase poll:
SNP: 41 seats (+6)
Conservatives: 12 seats (-1)
Liberal Democrats: 5 seats (+1)
Labour: 1 seat (-6)
On what planet is that a blow for the Yes movement? If the SNP winning more than two-thirds of Scottish seats in the House of Commons is bad news, I can't wait to see what a good poll would look like. Indeed, this may confirm that Scottish politics has quietly crossed a Rubicon over recent weeks. If you remember, in the aftermath of the general election there was considerable concern that the momentum behind Labour could result in the SNP being replaced as the leading party in Scotland - and we knew that only Labour could ever achieve that, because there is still a natural ceiling on Tory support. It now looks like the fallout from the Independent Group breakaway may have finally killed any lingering chance of Labour overtaking the SNP in the foreseeable future, and that an SNP victory at the next Westminster election is close to being assured - with the only real question mark being over the scale of the triumph. There's always an outside chance of another twist in the tale, but at the moment it looks like 'success' for Labour would just mean holding what they have.
As far as Holyrood is concerned, SNP support is holding steady at a creditable 41% of the constituency vote. It's true that there's been a two point drop in the SNP's list vote, but given that there's no change in the party's popularity on other ballots, that could well be just a random polling fluctuation that doesn't really signify anything. The seats projection puts the combined pro-independence forces four seats short of an overall majority, but that's been the story of the majority of recent polls and isn't especially newsworthy in itself. In any case, the last three Holyrood elections have all produced results that bore little resemblance to pre-campaign polls. In 2007, the SNP started with a substantial lead that was whittled away to almost even-stevens by polling day, probably due to cold feet over putting a pro-indy party into power for the first time ever. In 2011, a huge Labour lead evaporated at astonishing speed and the SNP ended up with an overall majority - probably largely due to the fact that nobody could imagine Iain Gray as First Minister, while Alex Salmond seemed made for the role. And in 2016, wildly implausible pre-campaign numbers for the SNP (which led to irresponsible claims from some quarters that SNP supporters didn't need to vote for their own party on the list ballot) came back down to earth with seeming inexorability.
For my money, it's the leadership factor that could once again be the game-changer in the next Holyrood campaign. Richard Leonard may well look totally out of his depth against Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson in the TV leaders' debates, which could lead to a further substantial squeeze in Labour support. And it could be that all we'd need to maintain the pro-indy majority in the Scottish Parliament is for a reasonable percentage of Yes-supporting Labour voters to migrate to the SNP.
Thursday, March 7, 2019
Scottish voting intentions for Westminster:
SNP 37% (n/c)
Conservatives 27% (+1)
Labour 22% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Independent Group 2% (n/a)
Greens 2% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (n/c)
Scottish Parliament voting intentions (constituency ballot):
SNP 41% (n/c)
Conservatives 27% (+2)
Labour 19% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+2)
Greens 3% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (+1)
Scottish Parliament voting intentions (regional list ballot):
SNP 36% (-2)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 19% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 9% (+2)
Greens 6% (n/c)
UKIP 3% (+2)
I don't think we should be too concerned that the SNP appear to still be stuck on the 37% they achieved at the 2017 Westminster general election, because that's looking increasingly like a 'house effect' of Panelbase's methodology. They've consistently shown the SNP at around 36-38%, while other firms have often put the number a bit higher. Even on 37%, the SNP would be gaining seats, because there has been a 1% overall swing from Tory to SNP since the election, and a 2.5% swing from Labour to SNP. 22% is Labour's lowest Westminster share in any Panelbase poll since June 2017, and indeed in all but one poll from any firm. The slump is likely to be largely caused by the fallout from the Independent Group breakaway, and of course has been mirrored in GB-wide polls.
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
First of all you'd have to be clear on what your objective is - are you trying to replace the SNP as the largest pro-independence party, or are you trying to pressure them from the outside into changing course? If the former, it's a pipe-dream, and if the latter, it's a very, very dangerous game, because to have any chance of applying that external pressure you'd have to take significant numbers of votes away from the SNP, which could cost us the pro-independence majorities both at Holyrood and among the Scottish contingent at Westminster.
Take the example of Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party, which by historic standards actually achieved relative success for a new party by securing 2.6% of the Britain-wide popular vote in its first (and only) general election in 1997. But its aim was to either replace the Tories as the government for long enough to hold a referendum on the future terms of EU membership, or more realistically to pull the Tory government in a more Eurosceptic direction. All it actually succeeded in doing was increasing the huge parliamentary majority of the newly-elected pro-European Labour government (indeed, if Tony Blair had got his way, that was a government that would eventually have taken the UK into the euro).
Imagine if a new pro-independence party succeeded in taking 2.6% of the vote away from the SNP at the next Westminster general election. If everything else stayed the same from last time, the SNP would lose no fewer than TEN of their 35 seats. That's the immense damage relatively small changes can do under the first-past-the-post system. The SNP would win just 25 seats, the Tories would go up to 16, Labour would go up to 13, and the Liberal Democrats would go up to 5. There would be a clear unionist majority among Scottish MPs, purely because a small number of voters had moved from one pro-independence party to another. Similar damage would be done in the constituency section of the next Scottish Parliament election.
One or two people suggested last night that the new party could avoid this problem by sitting out Westminster elections and Scottish Parliament constituency votes altogether, and only standing on the Holyrood list. I'm not sure it's realistic to think it would do that - more likely is that it would feel obliged to build its profile by standing in at least a few constituencies, as the Greens have done over the years. That would mean less damage to the pro-independence cause, but still some damage. (For example, it seems highly unlikely that Ruth Davidson would have won Edinburgh Central in 2016 if the Greens hadn't put up a candidate.) But even in the unlikely event that the new party only stood on the list, nobody should be under any illusions that it wouldn't probably still be doing harm. On 2.6% of the vote or lower, it wouldn't be coming close to winning any list seats, and those are wasted votes that would otherwise presumably be mostly going to pro-indy parties that do actually have a chance of winning list seats (ie. the SNP and the Greens).
I know some people have truly boundless optimism and will argue that a new party can defy historical precedent by winning a lot more than 2.6% of the vote, and will therefore be in contention for list seats. But I would suggest that to have any chance of doing that, it will need to recruit some very well-known people from the Yes movement. And if it succeeds in rivalling the SNP to that extent, it's very hard to imagine it being content to be a second-string party and to sit out the majority of electoral contests, which takes us back to the original problem of splitting the vote under first-past-the-post.
It's noted in some quarters that UKIP succeeded in doing what this new party would be trying to do - ie. by changing another party's stance on holding a referendum. I'm not sure that's quite right - although in the long-run it turned out that UKIP was indeed a genuine threat to Conservative chances at the 2015 general election, it was far from clear that would be the case at the moment David Cameron actually embraced an in/out referendum on EU membership. But even to the limited extent that UKIP did play a part, it shouldn't be forgotten just how perilously close they eventually came to defeating their own objective. They won 12.6% of the national vote in 2015 - if they hadn't been around, and if the bulk of their votes had instead gone to the Tories, David Cameron would have won an overwhelming majority and a referendum wouldn't have been in any doubt. As it was, he won a wafer-thin overall majority of just 12 seats. If UKIP had deprived him of just a few more seats, a referendum would never have taken place, and Britain would not be currently leaving the European Union. All because too many people voted for a hardline anti-European party. Bonkers, but true.
It's also worth considering the varying fortunes of those who abandoned a major party when they were unhappy with the direction it was taking, and those who stayed put and fought their corner. The MPs who broke away from Labour in 1981 to form the SDP had given up hope of pulling Labour back to the centre, and intended to replace the two traditional parties with a new centre-left party of government. Instead they delivered an extra decade-and-a-half of hard-right rule from the Tories, and by the time that was over, Labour had grotesquely somehow ended up as a right-of-centre party as well. Contrast that with the fate of the Corbynites, who appeared to be in a 'nuclear winter' situation during the Blair/Brown years (Tony Blair even openly joked about the idea of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader as if that was the most improbable thing he could think of). And yet they didn't break away. They stayed, argued for what they believed in, and eventually the pendulum swung back in their direction and they took control of the Labour party. Corbyn even came pretty close to the keys of 10 Downing Street in 2017.
I know that some of you are not just unhappy with the SNP for its excessive caution on a second independence referendum, but also for its recent full-on embrace of identity politics - for example, the role that Fiona Robertson played in Grouse Beater's expulsion from the party after a highly dubious allegation of anti-Semitism. Mhairi Hunter quite accurately pointed out to someone at the time that Ms Robertson had only just been elected "by your fellow SNP members" as Equalities Convener. But the correct response to that fact is not to give up in despair and think that you have to make a straight choice between a) agreeing with everything Ms Robertson says, and b) leaving the SNP. The best course of action is to stay in the party, fight your corner and seek a better result in future internal elections. One thing is for sure - those internal elections will not go your way if you and enough of the people who agree with you walk away from the SNP.
* * *
Here's the latest in Phantom Power's acclaimed Journey to Yes series of films - this time featuring Jenny Constable, who supported the Better Together campaign in 2014 but now wants to see an independent Scotland.
Monday, March 4, 2019
So if Murray defects, it could be a double-whammy - it would generate anti-Labour momentum that might make it even more likely that the other six seats will fall, while also depriving Labour of the one seat they thought they could bank on. But even if they were completely wiped out in Westminster, would it actually matter in the long-run? After all, the Scottish Tories were wiped out in 1997, but regained a toe-hold in 2001 and then eventually came back with a vengeance in 2017. Perhaps the difference is that the Tory core vote had nowhere else to go (or nowhere credible) even when the game seemed to be up, whereas there are a great many alternative homes for hitherto committed Labour supporters - if they're pro-indy, there's the SNP, if they're socially liberal, there's the Lib Dems, if they're dogmatic unionists, there's the Tories, and if all else fails there's the Independent Group itself. Voters might just take a signal from a wipeout in the Commons that would lead to a total and irreversible collapse of the Scottish Labour vote. I'm not making a prediction, but it's a plausible possibility.
Having said all that, Murray might be given pause for thought by the latest Opinium poll including the Independent Group as an option on a standard voting intention question. Opinium are the only polling firm to be taking that approach, and it's unsurprising that they're producing much lower numbers for the Independent Group than firms who ask hypothetical questions that make a song and dance of reminding respondents about the group's existence.
Britain-wide voting intentions including the Independent Group (Opinium):
Conservatives 37% (-3)
Labour 33% (+1)
UKIP 7% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+2)
Independent Group 5% (-1)
SNP 4% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)
Plaid Cymru 1% (n/c)
Scottish subsample: SNP 44%, Labour 25%, Conservatives 23%, UKIP 3%, Greens 1%, Independent Group 1%, Liberal Democrats 1%
That's probably the most reliable guide we have to the Independent Group's true popularity at present, and it's not hard to see how it could deter further defections. And yet, ironically, the only way the group are likely to improve their standing is by attracting a lot more defectors.
There's a famous quote attributed to Peter Hitchens that always does the rounds when an opinion poll that people don't like the results of is published: "Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense." Of course that's not true, or at least it's not the whole truth - opinion polling is a spectrum, with cynical American-style push-polling at one extreme, polls produced with the honest intention of discovering the current state of play at the other extreme, and all sorts of shades of grey in between. But what we're living through at the moment is a clear-cut example of a scenario in which decisions made by pollsters and those who commission polls are likely to shape the outcome of future elections. There's a clear incentive for those sympathetic to the Independent Group to downplay the credible Opinium results and instead commission (or talk up) more of the fantasy polls that purport to put their heroes in the teens or even higher. As misleading as those polls are, they could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if they hoodwink potential defectors into thinking they would be joining a party that is already a going concern.
There's a sub-plot here, though, because Heidi Allen has told ITV in a new interview that the Independent Group are actually trying to discourage any more than two or three Tory MPs from defecting for the time being, because that would "destabilise the government". As bonkers as that may sound, you can kind of see her point - even if a much-expanded Independent Group abstain on confidence motions, the likelihood is that a Conservative-DUP alliance without a working majority would not be able to plough on, and a snap election would see the Independent Group project snuffed out before it really got started. And yet if the Independent Group limit their own critical mass in the Commons, they'll make a breakthrough less likely anyway. It's a real Catch 22 for them - it's certainly hard to see how they'll overtake the SNP as the third largest group in the Commons without a decent number of Tory defectors.
Friday, March 1, 2019
If we really must "reinforce" the mandate we already have for a referendum, let's do it soon and make clear we won't go round in circles forever
* First of all, it's encouraging that the expectation is still that Nicola Sturgeon will shortly renew her demand for a Section 30 order. There was a brief spell a few weeks ago when the mood music from one or two key people in the SNP seemed to suggest that even the Section 30 request might be subject to an indefinite delay, so I'm relieved that doesn't appear to be the case after all.
* There's no mention (as far as I can see) that the Section 30 request will be accompanied by an announcement of an intended date for the referendum. On the other hand, there's no indication that it won't be. My own view is that specifying a date would be highly desirable, because it would bring into sharper relief the fact that Westminster are attempting to obstruct an exercise in Scottish self-determination.
* Obviously the indications from Tory sources that Theresa May will deny a Section 30 request are no great surprise. We may have all been shocked two years ago when the Prime Minister reversed decades of British government policy by announcing that Scotland no longer had an unconditional right to democratic self-determination, but we now fully understand that the United Kingdom has become Scotland's prison, and the only question is what action we are going to take on our own initiative to escape.
* I'm heartened that the SNP leadership have clearly been giving serious consideration to that question, but I'm troubled that they might be coming up with unwise answers. We seem to be looking at the next Holyrood or Westminster election (whichever comes soonest) being used to produce an even more emphatic mandate for a referendum than the mandate we already have. Essentially that means that unless a snap Westminster general election happens to be called prior to May 2021 (something we have very little control over), the current mandate for an independence referendum will be allowed to expire. That seems to me a wholly unnecessary admission of defeat - albeit defeat only in one battle, rather than the whole war. But if it's really deemed necessary to seek a renewed Holyrood mandate, surely consideration should be given to doing so via an early election held well before 2021. Yes, that would be a drastic step, but if we're serious about Brexit being an emergency situation, there's nothing inappropriate about taking emergency action. If an early election is called for the express purpose of securing an indyref mandate, and if that mandate is duly secured, it would arguably become politically much more difficult for Westminster to continue saying "no".
* Nevertheless, there is a chance they will continue to say "no", and we need to have a Plan B ready for that eventuality. The Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter suggested a few weeks back that we should respond to every successive rejection of a Section 30 order by just "campaigning some more for a referendum". That is not a sustainable position - if we go to the people asking for yet another mandate for a referendum, we have to be clear that if the mandate is secured we will expect it to be respected this time, and that we won't just keep going round in circles forever. That would mean moving forward to an alternative method of winning independence if there is a further refusal to grant a Section 30 - probably either a consultative referendum or a decision to use the next available election to seek an outright mandate for independence. Why the SNP leadership appear so squeamish about those options is beyond me, given that they would both be perfectly legal (a consultative referendum could only take place if it was upheld by the Supreme Court). And as it happens, the SNP have already moved beyond strict constitutionality anyway - as I understand it, Mike Russell has said that the Scottish Government does not accept the legitimacy of the EU Withdrawal Act as it affects the devolution settlement, even though there is no dispute that it is the law of the land.
* In a perverse way it's helpful that an SNP source from the 'delay' lobby was more specific than usual in claiming that we won't be ready for a referendum before 2025 at the earliest. Leaving aside the fact that this seems to be a random date plucked out of thin air, it makes abundantly clear that at least one of the 'delay' parliamentarians does not take seriously the manifesto commitment he or she was elected on to hold an independence referendum in the event of Brexit. I don't think any SNP voter who read that pledge would have thought they were in fact voting for a referendum six years after Brexit, and four years after the parliament they were electing had been dissolved.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Remember: if the UK and EU can't reach agreement on the length or purpose of an extension, No Deal next month remains the default outcome, regardless of how parliament votes
Once again today, we've been treated to a depressing display of slipperiness and imprecision in the way that journalists have reported the latest twist. The BBC website claims that the vote on the day after the deal is rejected would be on "ruling out no deal". My understanding is that it would actually be about avoiding a No Deal exit in March, but wouldn't seek to remove the option of No Deal at a later date. And in any case, it's not actually in parliament's gift to rule out No Deal (unless it revokes Article 50 altogether). Any extension would have to be agreed with all of the other 27 EU member states, and the mood music suggests that the EU would only grant a temporary extension if the UK has come up with a credible Plan B. If there is no clear alternative way forward, the EU would be looking for a very lengthy extension lasting almost two years. As things stand, there is no sign of a Plan B, and May has ruled out an extension beyond the end of June, so once again we're heading for a direct collision between two irreconcilable positions, with No Deal on 29th March remaining the default outcome if neither a deal nor an extension is agreed.
Avoiding No Deal is in the mutual interest of both the UK and the EU (although it's obviously more important to the UK side), so you'd think some sort of halfway house compromise on an extension would be the most likely outcome, although at the moment it's murderously hard to see what form that could possibly take, especially if the Prime Minister is as hellbent as she says she is on avoiding UK participation in the European Parliament elections in May.
In fairness, the show kicked off with a genuine news story - Jeremy Corbyn finally committing Labour to a second EU referendum. But there was no actual report to cover that story - just a couple of two-ways with BBC journalists in London and Brussels, and then a live interview with Neil Findlay of all people. The subsequent stories were packaged more conventionally, but none of them (as far as I could see) covered actual 'news of the day' events. They were more like 'magazine' items that you might see on Scotland Tonight, or Eorpa, or in some cases even on an entertainment programme like The One Show.
A lot of people are complimenting The Nine for its relaxed presentational style, and are suggesting that sort of distinctiveness might carve out a niche and help attract viewers against the stiff competition from the network news programmes. But the thing is, if you depart too far from what is recognisable as a news bulletin, you're defeating the whole purpose of winning those viewers. I mean, if something almost indistinguishable from Scotland Tonight qualifies as "an integrated news programme", what have we actually been campaigning for all these years?
It's early days, of course. Maybe there were a disproportionate number of pre-cooked stories simply because it was the opening night. We'll see what the rest of the week brings.
* * *
For what it's worth, Jeremy Corbyn's decision has not changed my long-standing view that we are unlikely to be heading towards a "People's Vote". Both the Tories and the DUP are opposed to a referendum, and those two parties still hold a slender majority in the Commons between them. That essentially means pro-referendum Tory rebels would have to outnumber anti-referendum Labour rebels if the government is to be defeated. And as it happens, Stephen Bush (who in the past has often proved himself to be near-omniscient on such matters) seems pretty confident that the Labour rebels handily outnumber the Tory rebels. He's not completely ruling out the possibility that the arithmetic might change, and that being the case it can maybe be said that Corbyn's change of heart has made a referendum a bit more likely - but only a bit. Frankly, even in the unlikely event that parliament votes for a referendum, I think Theresa May would be brazen enough to sidestep it.
The real significance of tonight's announcement may be to staunch the Labour bleeding - ie. to deter further defections to the Independent Group, and maybe even to reverse some of the recent damage in the opinion polls, assuming that Remain-minded voters in England now start to coalesce around Labour as the best available vehicle for frustrating Brexit.
Sunday, February 24, 2019
The Independent newspaper interpreted Allen's words as meaning that the Independent Group will "back Theresa May" on any no confidence motion. I suspect that's not quite right - I presume their plan would be to abstain, because it would be a dreadful look for the eight Labour defectors to be immediately voting to prop up the Tories. But the practical effect of abstentions will be exactly the same as voting with the government - it gives May a slender DUP-proof majority, and means that a general election can only now happen in the foreseeable future if May or her successor as Tory leader decides to call one in search of a more decisive mandate. That's far from impossible, as we know from recent experience, but it's still reasonable to conclude that the chances of an early election are now somewhat lower than they were before the breakaway. The only thing that might change that calculation would be if there's yet another breakaway, this time from the Tory right, although that will probably only happen if May softens her stance on Brexit in a way that nobody really expects her to do at the moment.
Would there be anything good about this parliament trundling on for another two or three years? Well, at least it would secure the SNP's position as the majority party in terms of Scottish seats at Westminster. At the moment, polls suggest that the SNP would make a few net gains in any snap election, mostly from Labour, but in the 2017 election campaign we saw how quickly things can turn around. The arithmetic is scarily tight in a lot of SNP-held seats, so if anything went wrong during the campaign, the outcome could be disastrous. There's also the point that 35 SNP MPs might actually have more influence in a hung parliament than 40 SNP MPs would have in a post-election parliament with a Tory majority. I know we haven't seen much sign of SNP influence over the last two years, but that might change if there are a few more Tory defections, because that would mean May or her successor can no longer cobble together a majority with the DUP alone.
On the whole, though, I've been hoping for an early election, if only because of the SNP's own hesitancy about getting on with an independence referendum. Psychologically, they might feel more ready to take a risk (and an indyref will always be a risk whenever it's held) if they've got firmly onto the front foot by gaining seats in the most recent election to be held. There's still some sort of chance of a European Parliament election being held in the UK in May, and that could be the best available substitute for a snap general election, although what worries me is that the SNP have repeatedly underperformed in European elections since proportional representation was introduced in 1999 (probably because the voting system has encouraged SNP voters to drift off to smaller parties). But who knows, past history is no guide to future performance, and this would be a very different type of European election campaign from any that have been seen before.
* * *
Last night, Opinium became the first pollster to produce a Britain-wide poll featuring the Independent Group on the standard voting intention question, as opposed to asking a convoluted hypothetical question about how people would vote if the Independent Group stood. As could probably have been anticipated, the results are less favourable for the Independent Group than the hypothetical polls have been, although both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still taking a big hit, while the Tories are mysteriously unscathed after the onslaught from Soubry and co -
Conservatives 40% (+3)
Labour 32% (-5)
UKIP 7% (n/c)
Independent Group 6% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-3)
SNP 4% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)
Plaid Cymru 1% (+1)
So it looks like Chuka shouldn't start measuring up curtains for 10 Downing Street just yet. The Independent Group are going to need a lot more critical mass if they're to get anywhere (indeed if they're to have any chance of holding onto even a handful of their current seats), and just for the time being the defections seem to have ground to a halt.
Incidentally, just as a matter of principle I think Opinium have made a mistake by including the Independent Group as a standard option. The defectors have been quite explicit that for now they are not setting up a political party and that they are not standing candidates. That will probably change, but I believe I'm right in saying that the SDP were not included in polls until they had formally launched as a fully-fledged party. If I was in the Labour party, I'd be extremely annoyed with Opinium for taking a premature decision that will artificially deflate the reported Labour vote. It's also a bit odd that Opinium are including the Independent Group but not Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party, which is a registered political party, and already has a bigger contingent than UKIP in the European Parliament.
* * *
For what little it's worth, the very small Scottish subsample from last night's GB-wide poll from Deltapoll suggested that the SNP's lead increases when the Independent Group are offered as a hypothetical option...
Without the Independent Group:
SNP 41%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 26%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 2%
With the Independent Group:
SNP 45%, Conservatives 29%, Labour 13%, Independent Group 9%, UKIP 2%, Liberal Democrats 2%
Friday, February 22, 2019
If the 35-strong SNP group don't appear on network TV significantly more often than the Independent Group over the next few months, serious questions will be asked of the broadcasters
"And off we go. Watch as these 11 MPs rapidly rack up more appearances than the 35 SNP MPs."
Now, in fairness, Question Time often tries to be topical with its choice of guests, so perhaps it would have been odd if the Independent Group hadn't been represented this particular week. But it's certainly a point worth keeping a close eye on for the future. When it's observed that political coverage from the BBC and other broadcasters doesn't seem to reflect the fact that the SNP are by some distance the third-biggest party in the UK Parliament, we're often directed to the popular vote as a handy excuse - ie. across the UK, the SNP were outpolled by the Liberal Democrats in the 2017 election. That shouldn't cut any ice with anyone, because if the insanity of first-past-the-post is sometimes good enough to give us a government that 65% of people voted against, it ought to be more than good enough to decide who gets third-party status as far as the broadcasters are concerned (unless of course the establishment are trying to have their cake and eat it).
But if the Independent Group end up receiving more network TV coverage than the SNP, the broadcasters won't even have an excuse. The Liberal Democrats may have received almost 2.4 million votes at the 2017 election, but as things stand the Independent Group have received zero votes in any election that has ever been held. Constitutionally it's quite correct to say that, as individuals, the defecting MPs still technically represent the voters of their constituencies. But collectively, the Independent Group represent literally no-one, because no-one has ever voted for them or even had the chance to vote for them. Unlike the Lib Dems, the one and only basis on which the new group can possibly be receiving invitations onto programmes like Question Time is the number of seats they hold in the House of Commons - and the SNP hold more than three times as many seats. So if, over an extended period of weeks or months, the SNP appear on network TV less often than the Independent Group, something will have gone very seriously wrong. It'll be an open and shut case, and the broadcasters will have no conceivable defence. And yet I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's exactly what happens. We'll see.
* * *
Ex-Labour MP Gavin Shuker (nope, me neither), now of the Independent Group, was interviewed yesterday about the possibility of propping up the Tory government, and said this -
"We need a general election like a hole in the head right now"
You're quite right, Gavin, you're in no fit state to fight an election just yet, and the chances are that all eleven of you would lose your seats. It would be utter carnage. What's that? Oh, when you said "we", you were referring to the British people and not your own self-interest? Ah yeah right, I'm with you now. Totally. I should have realised. Silly old me. *Winks*
Just a friendly piece of advice for the Independent Group - if you're seeking to enter into negotiations with Theresa May to win a People's Vote and other concessions in return for a confidence-and-supply deal, it's probably best not to publicly advertise on a daily basis just how petrified you are of facing a general election in the near future. Because if you do, the Prime Minister will know the "confidence" part of the equation is already sewn up without her having to concede a single thing. She'll realise that if a no confidence motion is tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, the Independent Group will abstain even without a deal, and that will leave the government with a DUP-proof majority (albeit a slender one).
* * *
Jackson Carlaw treated us to a thrilling display of Tory logical gymnastics yesterday, when a reporter pointed out to him that what he calls "the SNP car park tax" is in fact a discretionary power for elected councils that they are free to use or not use. Carlaw retorted that this is a special case, because many people who pay the "tax" will be travelling for work into local authorities where they do not live, and where they therefore did not have any say in electing the council imposing the charge.
Hmmm. Actually, I think most people readily understand the principle that if you travel into a different jurisdiction for a day or a week or a month, you're subject to the laws and regulations of that jurisdiction even though you don't have a vote there. That includes being subject to the car parking charges that Tory councils have been imposing since time immemorial. (And if the Tories object to that principle for whatever reason, they had a great many decades in charge of the Scottish Office during which they could have stripped local authorities of the power to charge anyone for parking their car.)
Carlaw's belief that people cannot possibly be subject to rules they haven't had a vote on does of course have wider implications. The Tories must obviously now abandon any suggestion that another independence referendum cannot be held for "a generation", because over that period hundreds of thousands of young people will reach voting age and will have been given no say on whether they want to remain trapped in the United Kingdom. And naturally the EU referendum will have to be re-run, this time giving a vote to the millions of EU citizens who are having their status changed in spite of being given no say on the matter in 2016. (Let's not forget that if non-British-born EU citizens had been given a vote in the EU referendum in exactly the same way that non-Scottish-born UK and EU citizens were given a vote in the independence referendum, Remain would have won with a bit to spare.)
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
Prepare to be STAGGERED: new YouGov poll shows the Independent Group have less support in Scotland than anywhere else
The new YouGov poll testing potential support for the Independent Group was mentioned on the previous thread, because unlike the recent Survation poll it shows Labour taking a substantial hit, with the Tory lead increasing from 8% on the standard question to 12% when the new group is offered as an option. The Independents themselves are hypothetically on 14% of the vote. However I don't think those are meaningful results for all sorts of reasons. Fieldwork preceded the three Tory defections, so it would seem logical that the hit Labour were taking before today might be more evenly split between Labour and Tory from now on. And the question in the poll that included the Independent Group made a song and dance about drawing special attention to the splitters, so that might have led more respondents to indicate support for them than would have been the case on a more neutral question. We won't really know the true level of support for the group until they become a fully-fledged party and can be included in polls on a normal basis.
Where the YouGov poll is perhaps more useful is in showing differences in the support for the Independent Group across different regions of the UK, and I don't think any of us are going to faint with amazement at the discovery that they're significantly less popular in Scotland than anywhere else.
Independent Group support by region:
South of England: 17%
North of England: 15%
I suppose theoretically that picture might change if one or two Scottish MPs like Ian Murray were to defect, but I have my doubts.
The results of the Scottish subsample where the Independent Group is given as an option appear to be roughly: SNP 39%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 13%, Independent Group 8%, Liberal Democrats 5%.
On the standard question without the Independent Group, the figures are: SNP 41%, Conservatives 29%, Labour 14%, Liberal Democrats 6%.
So certainly no sign there that the breakaway will give the SNP any greater headache in a first-past-the-post election for Westminster than they currently face. In a Holyrood election under proportional representation it might be a slightly different story, but will there be any space at all for this new group in the 2021 Holyrood election? Perhaps only, paradoxically, if they have established themselves as major players at Westminster by then.
That said, there are plenty of important votes other than no confidence motions, and if a shrunken Tory parliamentary party makes it increasingly difficult for Theresa May to get her routine business through the House, an early general election might become likely anyway. There's also the possibility that the Independent Group are just looking for some time to get organised as an election-fighting machine, and at that point will magically become bullish about bringing the government down.
There's a paradox here for the Labour defectors: obviously they'll be pleased the group has grown today, but as a vehicle for destroying Corbynism, the group suddenly looks somewhat less effective than it did yesterday. It can no longer be said that the split is caused by the uniquely awful problem of having Jeremy Corbyn as leader of a major party, and the sharing around of political pain between Labour and Tory will give Corbyn much-needed cover he didn't have before. Now that the new group is no longer a "Labour moderates' retreat" but a mixed-DNA proto-party incorporating clear centre-right elements and apparently happy to prop up a Tory government for now, mainstream Labour MPs are going to find it harder to resist pressure from activists to attack their former colleagues and treat them as turncoats and ultimately as political opponents.
* * *
For anyone worried about the outside chance of the SNP being overtaken as the third-largest group in the Commons, bear in mind that they have a close relationship with the four Plaid Cymru MPs, and it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that an agreement could be reached to form a joint group of 39 (probably in return for allowing Liz Saville Roberts to lead at PMQs every few weeks). In fact I believe I'm right in saying that the SNP and Plaid used to form a joint group in the Commons, but that seems to have quietly fallen by the wayside at some point.
* * *
Another classic Mike Smithson comedy moment today: he said that "four times as many" Tory MPs have now defected to the new group than defected to the SDP. Which means he's claiming that 0.75 Tory MPs joined the SDP. (In case you're wondering, there was one Tory MP defector to the SDP - Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, who long after losing his seat in 1983 ended up joining Labour under Tony Blair.)
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Even at the upper end of the rumoured number of defections, it's hard to see the new group quite reaching 36, so there's no reason for the SNP to panic just yet. I suppose if they reached 25, they could theoretically form a marriage of convenience with the 11 Liberal Democrats to become the third-biggest group, but I suspect the Lib Dems would prefer to retain their independence for the time being. In the early 1980s, the attraction for the Liberals of going into an alliance with the Labour defectors to the SDP was summed up by a succinct exchange between Liberal leader David Steel and one of his colleagues -
"David, the SDP know nothing about doorstep campaigning."
"But they know about government."
That logic doesn't hold in the current situation, because thanks to the disastrous coalition of 2010-15 there is actually more ministerial experience among the Lib Dem parliamentary party than there is among the Gang of Seven. Vince Cable as a former Business Secretary easily outranks the insufferable Chris Leslie, who appears to have been the only one of the Independent Group to have reached full ministerial rank during the Blair/Brown years, and who never got anywhere near to Cabinet level. (As an amusing aside, Leslie claimed in his statement yesterday to have been a Labour member of parliament for "more than three decades". He was actually 16 years old three decades ago. No wonder he only lasted a few months as Shadow Chancellor, a position in which good mental arithmetic is presumably at something of a premium. The truth is that he became an MP for the first time 22 years ago, ousting the equally insufferable Sir Marcus Fox, and subsequently lost his seat in 2005, ironically due to the fading popularity of the Blairite centrism that he reckons people are crying out for. He then went on a chicken run and got back into parliament with a safe seat in 2010, but that means he's actually been an MP for a combined total of less than 17 years. Novice...)
We can also safely dismiss keen letter-writer Mike Smithson's characteristically eccentric notion that Caroline Lucas of the Greens will be throwing in her lot with the Independent Group. She agrees with them on Brexit, but on very little else.
Mehdi Hasan said on Twitter that the only question the Independent Group should be asked by the media is whether they will support a May-led Tory government or a Corbyn-led Labour government. That's not entirely fair, because the precedent of the SDP shows that it is possible for a breakway party of sufficient size to take the lead in national opinion polls. It happened for a sustained period in 1981-2, and if it hadn't been for the Falklands War, it's conceivable that the SDP would have succeeded in their aim of breaking the two-party system. But it looks like the Independent Group will need to build up a lot more critical mass if they are to have any chance of emulating their predecessor. A new Survation poll reveals that, in spite of voters having more sympathy for the splitters than for the Labour leadership, they generally stick with the established parties when offered a "new centrist party" as an option. Just 8% say they would vote for the new party, and it is the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour who suffer the most.
The poll brings home how difficult it's going to be for pollsters to work out how to deal with the new group. I would guess if there's a general election within the next few weeks, the Independent Group would only defend the seats they already hold, and perhaps put up candidates in a small number of other carefully targeted constituencies. Whereas if the election is more than a year away, they might by then have become a fully-fledged party with a full slate of candidates. So at what point will pollsters be justified in routinely offering them as an option in national polls? I'm not quite sure.
Tom Watson's public display of disloyalty is one of the most extraordinary spectacles in recent political history
Bizarrely, though, the Deputy Leader of the Labour party is doing the complete opposite. Tom Watson's reaction video posted on Facebook after the breakaway must be one of the most extraordinary spectacles in the recent history of British politics. He barely even made a token effort to suggest that the splitters had done anything wrong (the best he could muster was that they had acted "prematurely"). He left viewers in no doubt that the splitters had the right prescription for the future, and that the current Labour leadership have the wrong prescription. As there is no prospect whatever of Jeremy Corbyn resigning as Labour leader any time soon or substantially changing course, the calculated effect of Watson's intervention is to aggravate the electoral damage of the split, rather than to mitigate it. With Labour having used the 2017 election to almost miraculously reverse the disunity and self-harm it had been indulging in for a year or longer, Watson has weirdly seized an opportunity to intentionally drag Labour back to its pre-election state. He's cheering on the splitters in the hope they will do roughly what the SDP did - ie. fail as a party, but remake Labour in its own image with the help of the fellow travellers who stayed behind. And as we all know, the SDP only 'succeeded' at the cost of an extra decade and a half of Tory rule.
Watson and others are self-evidently not prioritising the removal of the Tories from power, but instead are solely concerned with winning a Labour civil war, even at the expense of many more years of Tory government. The "moderates" will squeal with indignation at any accusation of "betrayal" from the left, but if your loyalty as Deputy Leader is to a faction rather than to the party you were elected to serve, you don't really have much defence against the charge.
The conclusion of the video saw Watson call for a more broadly-based Labour front bench - a not-terribly-subtle way of saying that Jeremy Corbyn has appointed the wrong people. In truth, there is nothing unprecedented about the lack of balance on the front bench - Tony Blair came from one extreme of the party just as Corbyn did, and he had only a sprinkling of token left-wingers in his team, all in junior positions (Chris Mullin, for example). But somehow the sidelining of people on ideological grounds is beyond criticism when it's the right that does it. Can you imagine what would have happened if John Prescott had posted a video in his time as Deputy Leader saying that Blair had appointed the wrong ministers? His position would have been instantly untenable. And in any normal party functioning normally, Tom Watson would just have made his own position untenable.
Monday, February 18, 2019
I would guess that, other than not being quite ready, there are a couple of reasons why they've held off from launching a formal party just yet: a) to leave the door just about ajar to reverse their defections if there is an unexpected change of direction within Labour, and b) to make it easier for their former "Labour moderate" colleagues to avoid attacking them in the way that would be inevitable if they had officially made themselves electoral opponents. Right on cue, the likes of Kezia Dugdale and Blair McDougall seized the opportunity to attack their own party leadership rather than the splitters, which is nevertheless an extraordinary thing for them to do, because it makes clear that their instinctive first loyalty is to people who are trying to destroy their own party from the outside. And although I suspect both Dugdale and McDougall know full well that a Labour split in Scotland would be electoral suicide for both the new party and whatever is left behind, their statements today will make it very difficult for them not to make the jump if they see the bulk of their fellow travellers in England defect in the long run.
In particular, some of McDougall's tweets today have been mind-bogglingly disloyal to "his party". Here are a couple -
"Well done. You’ve spent two years desperately trying to make Labour smaller. You’ve succeeded. Now you can spend two years moaning that the MPs and voters you’ve driven away mean Labour can’t get elected. As if you care about getting into government. A terrible day for my party."
"I’m in a party that Luciana Berger can’t stay in and that Jim Sheridan can’t get thrown out of. What a s*** show."
The Scottish media are going to look pretty silly if they continue trying to push their "SNP civil war" narrative with all this going on. The face of Mr Blair McDougall is what a real civil war looks like.
What is the biggest threat to SNP hegemony in Scotland? It sure as hell isn't the Tories, in spite of the most cherished dreams of the commentariat. There still appears to be a natural ceiling of around 30% on Scottish Tory support, and they'll struggle to even reach that at the next election. No, the real threat is the enduring cultural and tribal affinity to the Labour brand among working-class and "working-class-minded" voters in the central belt. We thought briefly that we'd slayed that beast in 2015, but both the local elections and the general election two years ago showed yet again just how unthinkingly some voters, including many pro-independence voters, default back to Labour, even when it appears to most people that the game is up.
But Labour is about providing an alternative to Tory rule at Westminster, or it is nothing. Dugdale and McDougall could be killing their own party, while failing to replace it with an alternative force that is remotely viable in Scotland. If this breakaway eventually swells to the point where Labour no longer looks like a credible opposition, the SNP may start to feel like the only game in town for the traditional Labour vote, and at last we'll have a reliable, united, stable, pro-indy, centre-left vote at both Westminster and Holyrood elections, with a huge in-built lead over the Tories, which can only make independence a somewhat more probable outcome.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
"We get two votes in the Scottish elections. One for constituency & one for the list. Can anyone tell me what would happen if some of us used our first vote for the SNP and didn't cast a second vote? Cos I know that SNP x 2 works against us."
You can kind of see the "logic" here - because the Greens, RISE and others are so adamant that giving both votes to the SNP is a bad thing, people take that literally and assume that voting SNP on the list is actually harmful and decreases the number of pro-independence MSPs, and therefore conclude that not voting on the list at all must by definition be better than voting SNP. Not to put too fine a point on it, that conclusion is completely nuts, and it should give the tactical voting lobby pause for thought about the grave dangers of the confusion they are sowing.
In one sense, voting on the list is no different from voting in constituencies - ie. there's a chance your vote might help to elect someone, and there's also a chance that it won't. It just depends on whether enough people vote in the same way that you do. But if you don't vote at all, all you're doing is letting other people make the decision entirely for themselves. If you take it to an extreme and no pro-independence voters at all take part in the list ballot, all that will happen is that every single MSP elected on the list will be a unionist. It really is that simple.
List seats are distributed on a compensatory basis to make the overall composition of parliament roughly proportional to how people voted on the list ballot. That is why, in principle, the list ballot is the most important of the two ballots, and also why people should vote for their first choice party on the list, regardless of what that first choice is.
Nevertheless, it's possible that a vote for a large party like the SNP on the list might not help to elect anyone if that party has already won a large number of constituency seats in your region, and if its list vote is not overwhelming enough. It's also possible that a vote for a small party like the Greens on the list might not help to elect anyone if that party falls below the de facto threshold for representation in the region, which is perhaps around 5% or 6% of the vote. The position of the tactical voting lobby is effectively that the former is guaranteed to happen, and that the latter is guaranteed not to happen. Both of those claims are self-evidently bogus and are disproved by the results of previous elections. But even if they were true, there is still no planet on which abstaining would do any good, or indeed do anything but harm.
Friday, February 15, 2019
In a way it's rather helpful that Andrew Wilson has started to denigrate and mock some of his comrades in the Yes movement, because it shows up his pious calls for love and harmony and kindness for the facade that they always were. Now perhaps we can discuss his views frankly. Many of us defended him from attacks by the radical left after the Growth Commission reported, because we recognised that there is no coalition available for winning independence that doesn't include centrist voters. But pragmatism isn't just about centrism, it's also about accepting the facts of the world around us. What is Andrew's answer to the national crisis that faces Scotland, ie. that as things stand, we will be dragged out of the EU, the single market and the customs union in around six weeks, causing immense economic harm? As far as I can see, his response is:
"Let's pretend it's not happening."
There can be no other explanation for Andrew's implicit call for the SNP's manifesto commitment for an indyref in the event of Brexit to be ripped up. There can be no other explanation for his insistence upon the softest possible form of independence, maintaining maximum ties with the rest of these islands. That cheerfully ignores the fact that an independent Scotland will be seeking membership of European institutions that England and Wales will almost certainly no longer be part of. A degree of rupture will be inevitable - that's not necessarily a good thing, but it's a direct consequence of decisions taken by our neighbours, not by ourselves.
The tendency within the SNP that Andrew represents clearly never wanted the independence campaign to be linked to Brexit. They wanted a UK-wide Remain vote, and then a gradual build-up to a second indyref in the distant future. They were horrified by Nicola Sturgeon reacting to Brexit by committing to a swift independence referendum, and were relieved when she pulled back somewhat. But what they don't seem to realise is that delaying an independence referendum hasn't made - and can't make - the crisis of Brexit vanish in a puff of smoke. The option of SNP gradualism within Remain Britain no longer exists, because Britain really is leaving Europe, and it's doing so pretty much right now.
Sticking our heads in the sand and basing our strategy on the conviction that "what is happening shouldn't be happening and should go away and stop ruining our plans" is not an especially promising recipe for success.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Monday, February 11, 2019
Ms Sturgeon's comments in the US would tend towards the latter theory, because they're not really consistent with plans for an indefinite delay. She was asked whether Scotland would be applying for EU membership as an independent country within three to five years, and she said she thought it would. As we all know, there would inevitably be a gap of at least two years or so between Scotland voting for independence and actually getting it, so that leaves only three possibilities: a) the mandate for a pre-2021 referendum will be honoured, b) the referendum will be delayed until beyond the 2021 election but with an intention to hold it on an extremely tight timetable immediately after that election, or c) a forthcoming election will be used to double as an independence referendum.
Any of those options would be preferable to the highly inappropriate "ca' canny" mood music of recent weeks (haven't you noticed we're facing a national crisis right now, guys?), so let's hope Ms Sturgeon's words foreshadow some positive action in the weeks to come. I'm coming round to the idea that we may need a snap Westminster general election to save the SNP from its own caution, though - the leadership may need seat gains and the feeling of being on the front foot before they're quite ready to take a risk. And calling a referendum would always be a risk - starting with Yes at 60% or whatever would be an entirely illusory comfort blanket. In a referendum campaign you can lose or gain a third of your votes in the blink of an eye.
* * *
To confirm that the SNP would have a reasonable chance of seat gains in an early general election, YouGov have produced new figures from their seats forecast model, which predicted the last election more accurately than conventional polling. The central forecast for the SNP is 39 seats (up 4 on the current position), with the likelihood being that they would fall somewhere between 35 and 43. There are five Labour seats listed as having a 50% or greater chance of falling to the SNP - Rutherglen & Hamilton West, Glasgow North-East (thoroughly deserved, Mr Sweeney), Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, Midlothian, and Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill.
I can't remember this happening during the 2017 election, but a projection for the Scottish popular vote has also been provided -
SNP 40% (+3)
Conservatives 28% (-1)
Labour 20% (-7)
Liberal Democrats 9% (+2)
That appears to represent a substantial adjustment on the raw polling numbers, which put the SNP on a massive 48% of the vote. Even on the adjusted figures, though, there is a clear swing to the SNP from the Tories as well as from Labour, which makes it a tad surprising that no Tory seats are forecast to fall to the SNP. On a uniform swing, Stirling ought to switch hands extremely easily.