So let's recap. A couple of weeks ago, a keen supporter of the idea of attempting to game the Holyrood electoral system by setting up a so-called "Wings party" made an utterly preposterous claim on social media. Gavin Barrie informed the world that the worst-case scenario if Mr Stuart Campbell stood candidates against the SNP on the list ballot at the next election is that the Wings party would gain sixteen seats and that the SNP would lose two. I pointed out that this was obviously nonsensical because, by definition, the worst-case scenario would have to involve the Wings party taking zero seats, which is always a possibility for any small party (let alone a new and untested party) if it doesn't secure enough votes. It's also a statement of plain, inescapable fact that a party that takes some votes away from other pro-independence parties on the list, but without taking any seats itself, could end up costing those parties list seats. The following truth is therefore self-evident: the worst-case scenario is that the Wings party would lead to a net loss of pro-independence seats in the Scottish Parliament, and not, as Mr Barrie ludicrously claimed, a net gain of fourteen seats.
When he saw my rebuttal, Mr Barrie became astonishingly defensive. He refused to justify or even explain his claim, but nevertheless insisted I was wrong and repeatedly demanded that I wait for days or weeks to see his detailed modelling of various election permutations before commenting further. I refused, because it was literally impossible for any modelling that may or may not have been done to substantiate the claim he had made. His suggestion that the proof was just there, tantalisingly out of sight, seemed to me to be a cynical attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of people who desperately want to believe in the pretty fiction that a Wings party would be a risk-free enterprise for the Yes movement. He became increasingly frustrated at his inability to silence my rebuttals, and ultimately the frustration gave way to outright abuse. That led to a minor slap on the wrists from the powers-that-be at Twitter: a suspension of seven days.
His time in 'Twitter jail' having now come to an end, he's at long last published parts of his modelling - or, rather, Stuart Campbell has for obvious reasons of self-interest published it for him. I say "parts", because at one point in the article he makes a high-flown claim about his belief in the "democratisation of information", and yet (at the time of writing) the link that is supposed to lead to his detailed data actually leads to an error message. Presumably that's an honest mistake and we can look forward to it being swiftly remedied. Anyway, if you haven't read the article yet, here's a spoiler alert: no, the modelling doesn't substantiate his original claim about the worst-case scenario being a net gain of fourteen seats. Who'd have thunk it, eh? In fact it very helpfully proves that the opposite is true, and that a Wings intervention could easily lead to a net loss of seats for the pro-indy side.
A sizeable chunk of the article is devoted to playing around with permutations that assume that the result of the constituency ballot is identical to the 2016 result, but that the list result is different due to varying chunks of the SNP list vote switching "tactically" to the Wings party. That in itself is a bit of a nonsense, because as I pointed out umpteen times in both 2011 and 2016, one of the most important reasons that tactical voting on the list isn't viable is because it's impossible to know the constituency result in advance. It's all very well with the luxury of hindsight to play God and to shift list votes around safe in the knowledge that the constituency ballot won't chuck a wrecking-ball into your calculations, but real-world voters in 2016 weren't able to do that, and they won't be able to do it in any future election either. That's why I've always said that attempts to game the system are "gambling voting" rather than "tactical voting" - you're making a guess (potentially quite a wild guess) about how a large number of individual constituency results will turn out, and then trying to work out what would need to happen on the list to produce your desired outcome, assuming that your guess is correct. But if your guess is wrong, and if the constituency results turn out differently, the "tactical" action you take on the list could easily backfire and produce an effect that is the complete opposite of what you intended. You could end up with a worse result than you would have had if you'd simply played a straight bat and not tried to game the system.
And, no, voters did not know in advance that the SNP would win 59 constituency seats in 2016. Most people expected the figure to be considerably higher than that, and indeed the rallying cry of many advocates of gaming the system was that the SNP were guaranteed to win the 65 seats required for an overall majority on constituency seats alone, and that they therefore didn't need any list votes at all. In the end, the SNP didn't win a majority even with the help of four list seats. If more SNP voters had heeded the siren calls of the "tactical voting" lobby, their party would have ended up six seats short of a majority. There would have been just 59 SNP seats, and 70 opposition seats. Imagine the reaction of the unionist media if that had been the result.
Remarkably, having been proved wrong about the SNP being guaranteed to win a majority without needing any list votes, the tactical voting lobby is brazen enough to make the opposite claim this time: that it will be too difficult for the SNP, or even for the SNP and the Greens in combination, to win a pro-independence majority no matter how many list votes they take, and that the only possible remedy to this supposed problem is for SNP supporters to switch tactically to the Wings party on the list. You'll notice this about the gaming-the-system brigade if you study them for long enough: the goalposts shift effortlessly and endlessly. I wouldn't be remotely surprised if by this time next year they're back to claiming that a majority is assured and that the list vote can therefore be treated as a sort of luxury vote - which actually is a more intuitively plausible claim given the current state of opinion polling. The scary Wings messaging of "the pro-indy majority will be lost without us" almost seems about nine months out of date - which indeed may not be a coincidence if the plan was hatched quite a while ago. But the justifications and reasonings will doubtless "evolve" with time.
For the purpose of this discussion, let's follow Mr Barrie down the rabbit hole of assuming that the constituency result is somehow fixed and knowable in advance. Even based on that impossible assumption, his own modelling shows that a Wings intervention could lead to either a net loss of pro-indy seats, or a net gain of pro-indy seats. It all depends on how many SNP supporters switch to the Wings party on the list on a "tactical" basis, which is - once again - something that no voter can have foreknowledge of when they're standing in the polling booth. What Mr Barrie appears to be hinting at (and this drives a coach and horses through his earlier "worst case scenario" claim) is that the risk/reward ratio favours taking a punt on the Wings party, because there would 'only' be a net loss of one pro-indy seat if between 5% and 12% of SNP voters switch to Wings, while there could be a net gain of as many as 11 or 13 pro-indy seats if one-third of SNP voters switch to Wings. But the elephant in the room as he treats us to detail after detail from his modelling (almost an attempt to blind us with science) is that the scenarios in which a net loss of one seat will happen are many orders of magnitude more likely to actually occur than the scenarios which could bring about substantial net gains. Nobody is saying, and nobody has ever said, that successfully gaming the system is impossible in theory - merely that it's so close to being impossible in practice as makes no difference. With all due respect to Mr Campbell and anyone else involved in this project, the notion that one-third of the SNP's entire support (which in 2016 would have been more than 300,000 people) are going to suddenly defect to a sort of "pop-up party" is in the realms of absolute fantasy, and not worthy of serious discussion. That elusive mind-control ray still hasn't been invented, I'm afraid.
But "aha!" says Mr Barrie - we can eliminate the risk of even losing one seat if the Wings party simply chooses to sit out the list ballot in two of the eight regions, namely Highlands & Islands and South of Scotland. If that happens, the Wings impact will at worst be neutral, and at best (if it gets up to that aforementioned fantastical level of support) will be marvellously beneficial. But at this point, I fear that we must leave Mr Barrie behind in his rabbit hole, because back in the real world we have absolutely no way of knowing if Highlands & Islands and South of Scotland are the only regions in which the SNP stand to lose list seats. Anyone with a memory span of longer than three years will recall that on the only occasion to date when the SNP won an overall majority at Holyrood (which was also one of only two occasions to date in which a pro-independence majority has been secured) they took at least one list seat in seven of the eight regions. If that scenario were to re-occur, a Wings intervention could cost the SNP list seats anywhere but the Lothians. (And it's actually not at all hard to construct an alternative scenario in which the SNP could be harmed on the Lothians list as well.)
When I put the inconvenient example of 2011 to Stuart Campbell a few weeks ago, he came up with what I can only describe as a fatuous reply: "It's not 2011 anymore." By which he meant that the days of the SNP getting 44% of the list vote are long gone. And upon what did he base that remarkably sweeping claim? I can only assume he based it on opinion polling. Which leads me to the downright peculiar conclusion that it can't have been 2011 anymore even in 2011 itself - because according to this list of pre-election polls, not a single poll suggested that the SNP would reach 44% on the list in 2011. Indeed, in the autumn of 2009, at roughly the same stage of the electoral cycle that we're at now, the polls put the SNP in the high 20s or low 30s on the list. I'll be blunt about it: Stuart Campbell's claim to know eighteen months in advance that there is some sort of ceiling on the SNP's potential list vote is risible and without foundation, and nobody should waste any further time on it.
Having completed his discussion of permutations based on the assumption that the 2016 constituency result was fixed and knowable in advance, Mr Barrie goes on to repeat the same exercise based on seat projections from a recent YouGov poll. Which of course is an even more futile task - opinion polls are just snapshots of ever-changing public opinion, and may not even be accurate snapshots.
The third section of the article takes us onto territory that concerns me greatly, ie. the possibility that things may not go according to plan for the SNP and that they might unexpectedly lose a substantial number of constituency seats, which would mean they'd be relying on their list vote holding up if they're to avoid a devastating loss of overall representation at Holyrood. But never fear: Mr Barrie breezily informs us that if we just vote tactically on the list, Wings will take sixteen seats, which will more than make up for the loss of SNP constituency seats. What he mysteriously fails to mention is that his accompanying graph clearly demonstrates that Wings will only be taking sixteen seats if - yes, you've guessed it! - one-third of the SNP's entire support defects to Wings on the list. That is an utterly excruciating sleight of hand, and the fact that Mr Barrie's entire case hinges upon it leaves him with very little credibility. He sums up by claiming that a Wings party "would in any currently-plausible circumstances pose no risk whatsoever to the Yes majority". It would have been far more accurate to say that the only circumstances in which Wings poses no risk to Yes representation are currently-fantastical ones.
Mr Barrie's parting shot is rather passive-aggressive, and it's safe to assume it's directed at least partly at me -
"But I’m sure that certain other rather sensitive commentators will as we speak be frantically searching for permutations where it could do damage, in order to justify their increasingly-heated opposition. The documents are below. I invite them to make their case."
First of all, the documents aren't "below" - they're still not there even two hours after I started writing this blogpost. I look forward to perusing them if they're ever actually published. Secondly, I would just gently note that one good way of measuring the "sensitivity" of a commentator is whether or not they react to polite disagreement by repeatedly calling someone a "dishonest c**t", and then treating the subsequent temporary suspension from a social media website as an ordeal akin to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Maybe Mr Barrie would be in a stronger position to lecture others on the subject of sensitivity if he took responsibility for the consequences of his own actions in future. And thirdly, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint him on his prediction that I'll be "frantically searching for permutations". I'm actually not particularly interested in specific permutations, and it was only at the request of a reader that I recently produced one illustrative example of how a Wings party could reduce the number of pro-indy seats.
It's not a point of difference between myself and Mr Barrie that there are hypothetical scenarios in which Wings could help and hypothetical scenarios in which Wings could harm. (Mr Barrie has only grudgingly admitted to the existence of the latter, but what matters is that he's admitted it.) Where we actually part company is that I do not believe that any of these permutations are of concrete use in attempting to game the voting system. The level of foreknowledge required to vote tactically on the list in a successful and risk-free way - rather than as a wild punt that could explode in your face - does not exist and will never exist. And frankly, even if that precise foreknowledge were to become available, the likelihood is that all it would tell you is that Wings does not have sufficient support on the list to win any seats, regardless of how you vote yourself. The vast majority of new parties flop, and the vast majority of new parties also think they're going to be the exception to that rule.
Early in the article, Mr Barrie chides me (sorry, he chides "other pollster bloggers") for relying on modelling at national level rather than at the level of the eight electoral regions. And that brings me neatly onto the subject of one of the very few small parties that sort-of-enjoyed instant success just after being created. In 2003, the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party stunned us all by winning a seat on the Central Scotland list, even though nationally they took only 1.5% of the list vote. How was that possible, given that 5% or 6% is generally considered to be the de facto threshold for representation? Quite simply they didn't stand in every region, but in the region where they took a seat, they secured 6.5% of the vote. So, yes, it's theoretically possible that the Wings party could nick a seat even if they're only on 2% or 3% or 4% of the national vote, and that could happen if they do significantly better in one region than in others. I don't think that's remotely likely, though, and it should be noted that a big part of the reason why the SSCUP made their breakthrough is that Billy McNeill (and also a former Rangers star - I can't remember which one) agreed to be a nominal candidate, albeit far enough down the list not to have to worry about becoming an MSP. That's the sort of luck you need if you're going to beat the odds as a new party.
And even if Wings does nick one seat somewhere or other (which, let's face it, would be an astonishing result), so what? The system wouldn't have been successfully gamed. There wouldn't be a substantially greater number of pro-indy seats. It would just be a quirky little result that would become a footnote in the history books. Mr Campbell has said himself that to truly make the effort worthwhile, he'd be looking for something in the region of 15% of the list vote - and if anyone thinks that'll be easily attainable, all I can do is wish them luck, because they're going to need it.
I hope you're not flagging yet, because I've yet to come to one of the most important flaws in Mr Barrie's modelling - he takes no account at all, as far as I can see, of the potentially disastrous effect if some votes for the Wings party come from the Greens rather than the SNP. He acknowledges in passing that attempts at gaming the system have often focused on the Greens, so what happens if people who took a punt on the Greens on a tactical basis in 2016 switch to the Wings party? We actually got very lucky in 2016 - the Greens took a little under 7% of the vote, which was only just about high enough to secure a significant number of seats. We were at risk of falling between two stools - enough people had abandoned the SNP on the list to ensure that the SNP didn't take as many seats as in 2011, but the Greens were also in danger of not polling high enough to partially make up for that. The greater the number of small pro-indy parties there are competing for "tactical" votes on the list, the greater the danger of falling between two stools in precisely that manner, because the votes will be spread too thin.
The way things are heading, the 2021 campaign could be truly dismal. The Greens will be telling us that gaming the system can work but not for Wings, and Wings will be telling us that gaming the system can work but not for the Greens. There would be a sort of poetic irony if the two parties ended up knocking each other out, but that wouldn't do much good for the independence movement.
Mr Barrie implies that Wings can succeed where the Greens have failed over the years, because there are reasons why SNP voters are "increasingly uncomfortable" about lending their votes to the Greens. This is presumably a reference to the Greens' stance on the trans issue. But it's a statement of the obvious that there are also any number of reasons why the Wings party might repel a large fraction of SNP voters - Mr Campbell's abusive online behaviour, his controversial interpretation of the cause of the Hillsborough disaster, his idiosyncratic abhorrence of the Gaelic language, and indeed his own stance on the trans issue, which is just as contentious at one end of the spectrum as the Greens' stance is at the other.
I personally don't see any need for a new pro-independence party. But for those of you who disagree, this is what I think you should demand from it -
1) A party that exists for reasons other than perceived tactical advantage. If your Party Election Broadcast is an embarrassing three minute monologue about the d'Hondt formula, you're going wrong somewhere.
2) A party that is not organised on the Il Duce principle. Any party with aspirations to hold the balance of power in our national parliament must be controlled by its members, rather than being the personal possession of its founder - regardless of the magnetic hold that individual may have on his followers.