Thursday, May 19, 2022

The SNP leadership's doublethink on nuclear weapons is unsustainable - polling evidence shows the Scottish people want to join the treaty banning nukes completely

Perhaps the most insufferable aspect of the ongoing debate about reform of the GRA is the claim of those on one side of the debate that they are on "the right side of history" and that their opponents are on "the wrong side of history".  They sound exactly like Marxists when they say that, because Marxism is one of the few ideologies that insists the course of history is predetermined (and arguably it's already been proved wrong about that).  For non-Marxists, considerably more humility is required, because it's very difficult to tell whether you're on the right side of history when you're living bang in the middle of it. In 1940, for example, it seemed obvious to many people that fascists were on the right side of history, at least within the confines of continental Europe, because the fall of France and the Low Countries seemed to leave no route back.  Philippe Pétain's guiding principle in reconstituting the French state after the Nazi invasion was that the 1789 revolution's goals of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' had been defeated forever.  But then Hitler overreached himself by invading the Soviet Union and declaring war on the US. From that point on it seemed equally obvious that the course of history favoured the Allies, and that the future of Europe belonged to liberal democracy and Soviet-style communism.

Sometimes, what appear to be the prevailing trends of history can even contradict each other in the here-and-now.  Due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the momentous decisions that have subsequently been made by Finland and Sweden, it seems obvious that Europe's destiny is to unite under the NATO banner against a common enemy to the east.  But it's equally obvious that there's a trend in recent years towards challenging the assumption that nuclear weapons can never be eliminated, with dozens of countries signing up to a new and legally-binding treaty that bans nukes completely.  Those two historical trends are more or less in direct conflict with each other because NATO is a nuclear weapons alliance.  And yet somehow the SNP leadership have got themselves wrapped up in both.

How did that happen?  Support for the nuclear weapons ban treaty can be explained by the legacy of the SNP's long-standing status as a unilateralist party, which the membership will accept no overt backtracking from.  The support for NATO membership stems from the desire of self-styled 'modernisers' at the top of the SNP to make the party look more 'normal', with 'normality' being defined as centre-right militarism.  (During the SNP conference session a few years ago at which opposition to NATO membership was finally overturned, Alyn Smith infamously said that he was upset that the party's principled stance on peace was making it look 'odd'.)  There's been an uneasy narrative that NATO membership is not strictly incompatible with the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish soil, but that attempt to square the circle may have been pushed beyond breaking point by the emergence of an actual nuclear ban treaty with very strict provisions. 

The SNP's militarist wing has now been emboldened by the war in Ukraine to such an extent that the defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald felt able to openly express his willingness to allow NATO nuclear weapons to be temporarily welcomed in an independent Scotland - totally at odds with his party's supposed belief that all such weapons should be wiped from the face of the planet.  That triggered a timely intervention from CND Scotland, who pointed out that McDonald's words are not even compatible with the text of the treaty that the SNP apparently want an independent Scotland to sign and be legally bound by.

Is there any way at all that NATO membership can be squared with joining a legally-binding nuclear ban treaty?  It doesn't look easy to me.  Only three EU countries have ratified the treaty so far - Ireland, Malta and Austria.  Those are all neutral countries where there isn't even any serious debate about the possibility of joining NATO.  Sweden initially voted in favour of the treaty but later decided against joining, and that was presumably partly because NATO membership has never been a non-issue in Sweden (and in neighbouring Finland) due to geographical proximity with Russia.  Now that Sweden has actually applied to join NATO, it's surely unthinkable that it will join the nuclear ban treaty in anything remotely close to the foreseeable future.

So in the real world, the SNP leadership may have to make a straight choice between whether NATO or the nuclear ban treaty represent "the right side of history", rather than pretending that both do simultaneously.  At the very least, they need to be honest with themselves and with others that what they claim to want to do - join both NATO and the treaty - is not only unusual ("odd" as Alyn Smith might put it), it's totally and utterly unique.  An avowedly non-nuclear independent Scotland would of necessity be a very different sort of NATO member, not a full-blooded 'mainstream' member like Belgium or Denmark, and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that.  

And if a straight choice has to be made, let's remember where Scottish public opinion stands on the issue of the nuclear ban treaty.  A poll commissioned by this very blog one year ago asked about the subject, with dramatic results...

Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, 21st-26th April 2021:

Nuclear weapons were banned by an international treaty that came into force in January this year.  However, the nine countries that are currently believed to possess nuclear weapons, including the UK, have so far refused to sign the treaty. Do you think the UK should join the treaty and dismantle its nuclear weapons?  

Yes: 47%
No: 33%

With Don't Knows removed -

Yes 59%
No 41%

The other point I'd make is that if the SNP leadership think Alba's disappointing results at the local elections means they've crowded out any alternatives within the indy movement to Smith/McDonald-style militarism, they'd better think again.  We in Alba are determined to forge on - to survive as a party and then to thrive.  But regardless of whether we succeed or fail in that endeavour, the fact that the SNP have voluntarily gone into coalition with an anti-NATO party means that the alternative position is alive and well and living inside the Scottish Government itself.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Excitement about #Referendum2023 builds to new crescendo as Nicola Sturgeon uses US trip to repeat her guarantee that Scotland will have an independence referendum in 2023

Have you noticed the step-change in independence campaigning from the SNP?  The public meetings, the street stalls, the constant buzz about imminent referendum legislation?  Nope, me neither, but we know it must be going on because a referendum is DEFINITELY HAPPENING NEXT YEAR.

Associated Press interview with Nicola Sturgeon, 17th May 2022:

AP interviewer: "Is the plan for Scotland to still hold a referendum on independence next year?"

Nicola Sturgeon: "Yes.  I was re-elected as First Minister round about this time last year, and was re-elected on a very firm mandate to offer people in Scotland that choice."

As every good Catholic knows, it's important to renew your Vows periodically, so it's great to hear such an unambiguous and emphatic reaffirmation of the SNP-Green government's #2023ReferendumGuarantee.  It's ON, folks.  This calls for an update of the Scot Goes Pop #Referendum2023 Countdown Clock...

There are just 232 days until the earliest possible date for #Referendum2023 (5th January)

There are just 582 days until the last possible date for #Referendum2023 (21st December)

(Note: the Countdown Clock calculations assume that tradition will be maintained by holding #Referendum2023 on a Thursday, and that it will be before Christmas.)

 

Monday, May 16, 2022

#Referendum2023 : Time to unveil the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls as our guaranteed referendum fast approaches

"The key thing is that we will take these steps in a timescale that facilitate that referendum before the end of 2023, which is the commitment I made at the election and was elected on overwhelmingly at the election." - Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, January 2022 

"The Scottish Government fully intends to fulfill its manifesto commitment to the people of Scotland...Speaking on Wednesday the First Minister said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not changed her view that a second independence referendum should go ahead in 2023...Of course some people are never going to be satisfied because they have convinced themselves that the SNP 'doesn’t really' want a referendum, and nothing that Nicola Sturgeon says or does is going to shift them from that view, however for the rest of us the First Minister’s statement is a welcome confirmation that an independence referendum will indeed go ahead in the latter half of 2023." - Paul Kavanagh, SNP-supporting blogger, March 2022

It's a commitment.  It's confirmed.  It's a certainty.  It's simply a fact, and there's no going back.  Thanks to the majority SNP-Green government's #2023ReferendumGuarantee, up to four million Scots will be visiting their local polling stations (or casting a postal ballot) at some point during 2023 to decide whether or not their country should become independent, or should continue to be governed by Tories in London.  The referendum is of course coming three or four years too late to prevent Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will, as the SNP originally promised us they would do - but hey, better late than never, and thankfully because of the SNP's current promises, there is no danger whatsoever of any further delay beyond December 2023.  The absolute last date on which #Referendum2023 can be held is 21st December 2023, which thrillingly means it's now a MAXIMUM of just 584 days away!

As we're on the last lap before we enter full-blown campaigning for a 2023 referendum that is DEFINITELY taking place, it's long past time that I resurrected the Scot Goes Pop independence Poll of Polls, so we can see how public opinion evolves as referendum day approaches next year.  As in the run-up to the first referendum eight years ago, I'll be using an average of the most recent poll from each of the polling firms that have been active within the last few months.

SCOT GOES POP POLL OF POLLS FOR #Referendum2023

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 44.3%
No 46.1%

With Don't Knows excluded:

Yes 49.0%
No 51.0%

(Note: the above averages are based on seven polls - one from Savanta ComRes, one from Survation, one from YouGov, one from Panelbase, one from Opinium, one from BMG and one from Ipsos-Mori.)

So it's not at all hard to see why the majority SNP-Green government decided to guarantee that a referendum will take place before the end of 2023 - Yes practically have the support of half the population once undecideds are stripped out, which is a truly fabulous platform on which to start any campaign.  (Remember that there were polls in the early stages of the first indyref campaign that showed No ahead by a 2-1 margin.)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Introducing the #Referendum2023 Countdown Clock

It just suddenly struck me this morning how astonishingly close we are to Scotland's 2023 independence referendum. I know I speak on behalf of all readers of Scot Goes Pop when I say that I don't have the slightest doubt it's going to happen - the majority SNP-Green government have, to their immense credit, allowed us all to relax thanks to their #2023ReferendumGuarantee.  As they've said repeatedly: no ifs, no buts, no maybes, it's a nailed-on certainty, come hell or high water, Scotland will be going to the polls next year to decide whether or not to become an independent country.  Don't worry about questions like "how?" - our leaders are the foremost experts on process and strategy, and the secret route-map to Referendum 2023 has been meticulously planned for years.  All we have to do is just sit back and let it happen.  That's what the #2023ReferendumGuarantee is all about.  And 2023 is only SEVEN AND A HALF MONTHS away.  Time to get excited, people!

To celebrate this momentous landmark, I'm now going to unveil the Scot Goes Pop #Referendum2023 Countdown Clock, which will be periodically updated...

There are just 235 days until the earliest possible date for #Referendum2023 (5th January)

There are just 585 days until the latest possible date for #Referendum2023 (21st December)

(Note: the Countdown Clock calculations assume that tradition will be maintained by holding #Referendum2023 on a Thursday, and that it will be before Christmas.)


Which leaves only one question to be answered: what colour tie will Huw Edwards wear?  #ReferendumNight2023 is going to be MEGA!

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Thoughts on Eurovision 2022 (with a prediction)

Scot Goes Pop more or less started life as a Eurovision blog, so I try to keep that tradition going to a small extent every year with a little bit of Eurovision coverage.  Last year that came in the form of a podcast, and I was planning to do the same thing this year, but alas, the clock has beaten me.  There was an Alba NEC meeting this morning (which was a very upbeat affair, by the way), so I didn't dare burn the midnight oil too much with all the finickity edits that would have been required to get a podcast ready in time.  But instead, here's a blogpost with a few thoughts about what to expect from the grand final tonight.

In the podcast last year, I was looking ahead to a truly fascinating showdown between two entries - France and Italy - which were practically level in the betting, but which couldn't conceivably have been more different from each other.  That made the outcome very unpredictable, because it was hard to judge which way the juries would jump, or which way the public would jump, or indeed what the synthesis of those two results would look like.  This year it's a very different story, because we have an overwhelming odds-on favourite - on the betting markets Ukraine are estimated as a roughly 70% chance to win outright, which is pretty incredible in a field of 25 songs.  But there's still a really interesting story beneath the surface, because it's by no means clear that Ukraine is actually the best song.  I'd probably have it in my own top six or seven, but I'm not convinced that it's objectively better than the UK, or Italy, or the Netherlands, or even Estonia, which is absolutely nowhere in the betting but leaped out at me in the semi-final as a possible dark horse.

The reason Ukraine are strong favourites is, of course, that they have a decent song at a time of massive public sympathy across Europe for the country's plight.  So it's assumed they'll win the public vote comfortably, and I'm inclined to agree with that assumption.  But the public vote only accounts for 50% of the points, so it's still conceivable Ukraine could fail to win if the juries go heavily against them.  OK, even the juries are composed of human beings who may be influenced either consciously or subconsciously by outrage at the brutal, unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country.  But I recall back in 1993-4 that there was speculation that Bosnia-Herzegovina (then in the grip of a horrendous civil war) might win the contest on a sympathy vote, and that didn't even come close to materialising.  In those days, points were 100% determined by national juries.

Basically if Ukraine finish in the top three in the jury points, they should have enough public votes to power to victory.  But if they slip below the top three, it might be more of a challenge for them.  For what it's worth, the current betting for the jury vote alone has the UK ahead and Ukraine in second place.  That could conceivably be based on a leak of the actual results, because the jury vote took place last night on the basis of the performances during what is known as either a "rehearsal" or the "jury final".  So if it is a leak, we're perhaps looking at an overall Ukraine win - but I've lost count of the number of times people have assumed that movements in the betting markets were caused by leaks, and then been proved wrong.

The other big story here is that the UK, perennial also-rans in the contest in recent years, look like one of the two or three most probable beneficiaries if Ukraine stumble.  I'm not quite sure how to feel about that - I always used to wholeheartedly support the UK entry until about a decade ago, and then my attitude changed completely.  As we know, anything that creates a feel-good buzz about the UK "brand" can be potentially non-optimal for the Scottish independence movement.  Not that a UK Eurovision win would be a killer blow or anything remotely like that, but it would certainly be on the front pages of all the papers, and then there'd probably be a campaign to bring the 2023 contest to the Hydro in Glasgow (a campaign that would likely fail, so it would be a double-edged sword for the Better Together brigade).  However, although the UK are now clearly in the top three in the betting, they're still only rated as less than a 10% chance to win, so we probably shouldn't be panicking just yet.  

We may need to brace ourselves for the UK being in first or second place for long stretches of the scoring, though, because the public votes are only added into the mix right at the end. 

For what it's worth, here's my prediction, which is not a particularly radical one - 

Winners: Ukraine (Stefania - Kalush Orchestra) 
2nd place: Italy (Brividi - Mahmood and Blanco)
3rd place: UK (Space Man - Sam Ryder)

I'll actually be pretty happy if Ukraine win, because it would be the second year in a row that an entry sung entirely in a language other than English has come out on top - I think that would be a very good thing for the contest.  But a big talking-point after any Ukrainian victory will be whether it's feasible to actually host the 2023 contest in Ukraine - because for forward planning to take place, there would need to be stability.  There's a non-trivial chance that next year could be the first time since 1980 that the previous year's winners haven't hosted the contest.  (Israel won on home soil in 1979 but the Netherlands hosted in 1980, with Israel not even taking part.)

As I said earlier, Estonia and the Netherlands look like possible dark horses to me for tonight.  Estonia is the sort of song that would have easily stormed to victory twenty or thirty years ago - it's strongly anthemic, with a country tinge, a charismatic singer and a gimmick (he lugs a guitar around on his back).  It might be a value bet for a decent placing, at the very least.  And the Czech Republic entry is lifted by very eye-catching staging, which is probably why they've been given the opening slot in the running-order.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

It's backfired AGAIN - Survation's latest propaganda poll for Scotland in Union shows a DECREASE in support for Scotland "remaining part of the United Kingdom"

I was asked by someone yesterday (or possibly the day before) to cast an eye over the latest propaganda poll conducted by Survation on behalf of anti-independence pressure group Scotland in Union.  There's actually a good news story here for the independence movement, or moderately good anyway - not that you'd have noticed that from the reporting of the poll in the mainstream media, which as ever just lazily followed whatever was in Scotland in Union's own press release.  However, before I get into that, I must just note yet again my genuine astonishment at the total lack of balance in some of the questions Survation have approved, and the blatant nature of the leading wording used.  Survation sometimes give the impression of wanting to be seen as having much stronger standards than other polling firms, but that high-mindedness seems to conveniently go out of the window whenever Scotland in Union pick up the phone - perhaps because these polls are repeat commissions that presumably generate an awful lot of ongoing revenue.

First of all, as ever, we have the "independence question" that quite simply is not an independence question. Instead of asking "Should Scotland be an independent country?", Scotland in Union always get Survation to ask "Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?", and then present the results as if they are about independence - which they are not, because if Scotland left the United Kingdom, that would not automatically result in independence. Scotland could "leave" to become a crown dependency like Jersey, or to become part of another state.  (For example, if Northern Ireland "leaves the United Kingdom", it almost certainly would become part of a united Ireland, rather than an independent country.)  Such a hopeless lack of clarity is precisely why the Electoral Commission would never approve the Scotland in Union question for an independence referendum - and yet a question that would never be good enough for the Electoral Commission in a million years is apparently good enough for Survation.  I'd gently suggest that's something Survation should reflect on - and if they're not prepared to simply say no to Scotland in Union's requests for an inappropriate wording, they should at least put out a disclaimer on each poll, stating that however interesting the results on this question may be, they do not directly relate to the issue of independence.

The reason that Scotland in Union always insist on such an ambiguously-worded question is, of course, that it almost always produces a "Remain" figure that is several points higher than the "No" vote in genuine independence polls.  No-one knows for sure exactly why that happens.  It's been speculated that because the question mimics the wording of the EU referendum question, some respondents may not read it properly and assume they're being asked about the EU rather than the UK. That may be happening at the margins, but my own personal view is that the word "kingdom" is making a significant number of people wrongly assume they're being asked about leaving the shared British monarchy.

Anyway, let's get to the good news.  In the latest poll, 38% of respondents say they want to "leave" the United Kingdom, and 52% say they want to "remain" - thus a 14-point lead "for "remain".  That's a two-point narrowing of the gap from the previous poll in the series, which had "remain" ahead by 16 points.  In fact, four of the previous seven polls in the series had a "remain" lead of more than 14 points, and none had a gap smaller than 10 points.  That would suggest support for remaining in the UK is a tad on the low side at present - and that's consistent with recent Panelbase and ComRes polling on independence which by recent standards showed a relatively high Yes vote.

Other examples of leading or unbalanced questions in the poll: 

"For each of the following please say whether it is or is not a reason for why you have you changed how you would vote in another referendum on Scotland's future - the stability of the UK economy."  What "stability"?  Yeah, exactly.  That's a subjective assessment, and yet it appears to be one that Survation are more than happy to endorse in the question wording.

"For each of the following please say whether it is or is not a reason for why you have you changed how you would vote in another referendum on Scotland's future - Scotland exporting more to the rest of the UK than it does to the rest of the world combined."  Seriously, guys?  What's next - "the fact that we are better together and our union is so vewy vewy pwecious"?

Last but not least, there's the appallingly sneaky wording of the question on whether a referendum should be held next year, which is deliberately designed to draw supporters of a referendum towards backing an option that is later presented as anti-referendum.  "Another referendum on leaving the UK should not be held before the end of next year" - that's literally the only 'anti-referendum' option offered, and yet if you support a referendum in 2024 or 2025, that's the one you'd be forced to pick.  Oh, and let's not forget the unbalanced and inaccurate wording about "another referendum on leaving the UK", which implies we've already had a referendum on "leaving the UK". The 2014 referendum was in fact about something far more specific - it was about whether Scotland should become an independent country.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

"There's nothing you can do, so DO SOMETHING!"

There have been two articles in The National over the last couple of days about the future of the Alba Party, one by George Kerevan, and the other by Gerry Hassan.  Both men express scepticism, although each is coming from a very different place - George Kerevan is an actual member of Alba (or at least he was the last time I checked), while Hassan has been irrationally indignant at the party's very existence from the outset last year.  One point of view will thus be regarded as having far more credibility than the other, and quite rightly so.  Hassan's piece is full of half-truths, distortions and preposterous debating tactics.  He repeatedly claims that Alba took just 0.7% of the vote last week and gives the impression that this represents a decline from the 1.7% they took at the Holyrood election last year - while completely failing at any point, naturally, to clarify that Alba only actually stood in one-third of wards and therefore only one-third of the electorate had the opportunity to vote for them, in contrast to the Holyrood election in which 100% of the electorate had the Alba option on their ballot paper.  As if that isn't brazen enough, Hassan then adds the cherry on the cake by wheeling out as an 'expert option' the unhinged anti-Alba rant from the other day penned by the partisan Green party member who runs Ballot Box Scotland - the very man responsible for starting the misleading "0.7%" narrative in the first place, and whose utterly blatant vendetta against Alba is presumably rooted mainly in the identity politics zealotry of his own party.

The most incoherent point Hassan makes is that the fate of Alba "seems to be beyond" that of the two small parties that have previously made a breakthrough in modern Scottish politics, namely the Greens and the SSP.  The Greens got a very healthy 35 seats in this election, he notes. But that's an odd thing to say, and it proves the complete opposite of what he thinks it proves, because Alba's electoral performance so far is in fact pretty similar to what the Greens managed during the long number of years before they gained any critical mass.  If memory serves me right, the Greens didn't have a single elected representative anywhere in Scotland until they won a Highland Regional Council seat in 1990 - and yet they had existed in one form or another since the 1970s.  If the Greens could repeatedly get a very modest share of the vote and yet live to fight another day, why can't Alba? If the Greens could eventually move up into a different league and actually start winning representation, why shouldn't Alba?  The point literally makes no sense.

Hassan goes on to compare Alba instead to Jim Sillars' Scottish Labour Party of the 1970s and Tommy Sheridan's Solidarity, on the basis that it's built around the charisma of a single individual.  Again, there's an obvious contradiction here, because the SSP - which Hassan has classed as an example of a successful smaller party - also depended heavily on the charisma of Tommy Sheridan.  But even leaving that quibble aside, I'm not sure the comparison is as unflattering as Hassan believes, because the Scottish Labour Party was a serious endeavour - it succeeded in getting local councillors elected (under first-past-the-post, no less!), and Sillars himself came pretty close to being re-elected as MP for South Ayrshire in the 1979 general election.  Probably the reason the party eventually ceased to exist is that the ground it stood on was colonised by larger parties - Labour embraced devolution, while the SNP moved to the left.  Alba could yet be crowded out in an equivalent way if the SNP rediscovers its sense of urgency on independence and at least becomes somewhat more tolerant of gender critical feminist views - but at the moment there's precious little sign of that.

As for George Kerevan's piece, although it can't be dismissed as agenda-driven in the same way as Hassan's, it's still rather exasperating because it implores Alba members to do something drastic to change the party's trajectory, but doesn't make any concrete suggestions other than ones George thinks aren't actually viable.  You can't make Joanna Cherry leader, he says, because she'll never leave the SNP.  You can't find a new leader from among Alba's current ranks, he says, because there's supposedly nobody with sufficient appeal to younger voters.  And yet he insists that there's a massive problem that has to be addressed.  Is the subtext that Alba should just throw in the towel? If so, where would the members go?  Back to the SNP?  Would they even be allowed to re-join?  And even if they were, what would it achieve?

One thing I would say is that if we eventually get to a position where the SNP clearly renege on their promise of a 2023 referendum, and if there is consequently a large new wave of SNP parliamentarians and councillors who want to find a new political home, I don't think those people would find Alba inflexible or unimaginative if they have any genuine concerns about Alba that cause them to hesitate about making a straight switch to the party in its current form. There are all sorts of potential ways of squaring the circle, such as (to give just one example) loose pro-indy electoral alliances in which Alba could be a participant.  But let's cross that bridge when we come to it.  In the meantime, Alba is filling a crucial gap, and frankly if it didn't exist we'd have to invent it.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Why did the Alba Party do so remarkably well in Nicola Sturgeon's own backyard?

I concluded my previous blogpost by saying that one of two things will happen from here: either the SNP-Green government will honour its solemn commitment to hold an independence referendum next year, or it won't.  And if it doesn't, the likelihood is that many newly-disillusioned SNP activists, members and voters will be on the search for a new political home.  The chances are that home will be Alba, despite that party's disappointing results in the local elections. And with as little as a couple of extra percentage points of support, Alba could find itself on course to have its first MSPs elected in 2026.  The SNP leadership will have naturally worked through that logic for themselves, which may explain their rather frantic attempts since polling day to weave a narrative that Alba is totally finished. (All of the above has to be taken with the caveat that any small party can only survive and thrive with the continued support and enthusiasm of its members.)

So even without having won any seats in the two elections it has fought so far, Alba is continuing to apply a measure of pressure on the SNP simply by continuing to exist, because that constitutes the potential for an electoral threat at future elections if the SNP fail to deliver an indyref.  Nevertheless, it would obviously have been far more optimal for Alba if that electoral threat was already playing out as a reality in the here-and-now, rather than remaining a hypothetical for the future.  SNP leadership loyalists have come out of the local elections with the most they could have hoped for, and everything they said they wanted - the SNP won the election, they made gains in the election, and they don't have a batch of newly-elected Alba councillors as a tangible manifestation of the independence movement's growing frustration with the endless sense of drift at the top.  

But that does now leave those loyalists looking rather naked.  Perhaps they should have been careful what they wished for.  They said the SNP would deliver a referendum in 2023 without needing any external pressure to hurry the process on.  That proposition is now quite simply going to be proved right or wrong, with no middle options in between, because the SNP have the means and the electoral momentum to hold a 2023 indyref, but they don't have any external pressure (other than Alba's simple continued existence) keeping them honest.  They'll either keep their word on their own initiative, or they won't.  They'll get all the credit they could ever want for honouring their commitment, or every bit of the blame they deserve for breaking it.

There is one extremely well-known SNP loyalist blogger who has practically staked his entire credibility and reputation on the notion that the Scottish Government's promise to hold a referendum next year can be taken absolutely literally, without qualifications or conditions - it's simply something that is going to happen, because the SNP leadership have said it's going to happen.  To my mind, the only real question is at what point that blogger will start the process of shifting the goalposts, because if he doesn't get his skates on, he won't be able to do it gradually enough for his readers not to notice what he's up to.  There are less than eight months to go until 2023 begins, and less than twenty months until it finishes.  Preparation for the inevitable excuses and get-out clauses can't be put off forever.  My guess is that we'll see yet another variant of the old favourite: "Of course the SNP would have held a referendum in 2023 if it hadn't been for totally unforeseeable event X, but nobody in their right minds would expect them to go ahead while X is happening - have you taken leave of your senses?  Once X is out of the way, though, we can be assured of a referendum in 2027, that's an absolute guarantee, and only the most appalling cynic would think an absolute guarantee can't be taken at face value."

Alba can't stop the promise of a 2023 indyref from being betrayed.  Our job is instead to snap people out of their trance and to make them notice what is happening.  The election counts on Friday gave an opportunity for Alba and SNP people to mix, and anecdotally, a significant number of SNP activists confided that the 2023 date was a line in the sand for them, and that if it wasn't kept, they'd either move over to Alba or at least give up on the current SNP leadership.  We must constantly remind them of that line in the sand over the next year-and-a-half, rather than allowing them to be incrementally beaten down into accepting inaction on the basis that: "well, as long as we're still making progress towards a referendum..."  (Once again, I'd recommend seeking out the early 1980s Doctor Who story Full Circle, in which a population is told by their leaders to keep 'repairing' and 'preparing' a spaceship with the aim of returning to their home planet several decades later.  "Towards the embarkation!" is the rallying call.  At the end of the story, you discover that the leaders have known all along that the spaceship is in perfect working order, but they maintained the pretence that it needed decades of repairs because they didn't actually know how to fly it.)

It's entirely conceivable that Alba will find itself with local councillors once again, long before the 2027 elections, because many of the newly elected or re-elected SNP councillors are serious about independence and may defect if they're strung along too much further.  I wouldn't even rule out Alba having an MSP or two before the 2026 Holyrood election for the same reason.  But once again, I want to caution Alba against doing anything counter-productive at the 2024 Westminster general election.  Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill are incumbent MPs, and thus have every right to seek re-election if they wish to do so.  But if Alba stand in any of the other constituencies, all we'll succeed in doing is taking a small percentage off the SNP's vote in first-past-the-post contests.  If that leads to the SNP losing seats to unionist parties, a mythology will spring up that Alba are the unionists' "little helpers".  We must be smart enough not to walk into that trap, and keep our brand untainted for the real opportunity in 2026.  In any case, if we don't stand in any of the Westminster seats we don't currently hold, we'll be able to pour all our resources into the two that we do, thus increasing the chances of successfully defending those seats.  It really would be the best of both worlds - or a way of avoiding getting the worst of all worlds.

Because of BBC Scotland's astonishing failure to cover the local elections, I found myself watching quite a bit of BBC Northern Ireland's Assembly results programme, and I was struck once again by how startlingly civilised Ulster politics can be at times.  You had unionist politicians sincerely commiserating with nationalist politicians for losing their seats (and vice versa), and singing the praises of their opponents' personal qualities.  Contrast that with the sheer hatred - that word is not too strong - that some SNP and Green supporters displayed on social media towards pro-independence Alba candidates, as they took unadulterated delight at those candidates suffering defeats and severe personal setbacks.  Nor was this ugly phenomenon confined to a few foolish young foot-soldiers.  Nicola Sturgeon herself used somewhat dehumanising language about Alba members when she unconvincingly tried to tell the media that she had seen voters in her own constituency "visibly wince" upon receiving Alba leaflets because they found the people involved in the party to be so unappealing.  (If you think for a moment about the circumstances in which the First Minister might actually see anyone look at an Alba leaflet, it's highly likely that she was talking about her own friends and fellow travellers.  I dare say there are quite a few supporters of other parties in Southside who "visibly winced" upon receiving a Mhairi Hunter leaflet, but sadly Ms Sturgeon wouldn't have been around to witness that.)  

The implication is that Alba, and uniquely Alba, are composed of freaks.  Ms Sturgeon doesn't use that kind of language about her unionist opponents - with Tory and Labour people, it's always "as much as I strongly disagree with his/her views, I have enormous respect for him/her as an individual and I admire the way that he/she stands up for his/her constituents".  It's a bit disingenuous to claim to live by a "be kind" principle when you selectively apply it only to the people you don't actually hate.

But amid all this anti-Alba bile, the boot was at one point briefly and unexpectedly on the other foot.  Mhairi Hunter, probably the least popular SNP councillor among Alba members (in fact it's no exaggeration to say that the views Hunter espouses effectively sum up why Alba needs to exist) lost her seat out of the blue.  There was a degree of jubilation in some quarters, and as unedifying as that was, SNP members didn't have any credibility in criticising it, given the way that some of them had been dancing on the graves of defeated Alba candidates all day long.  It was particularly ironic that Hunter blamed her defeat on a strong vote for Alba and the Greens - because of course Hunter's ward is in Nicola Sturgeon's constituency, the place where voters are supposed to "visibly wince" when they receive Alba literature.  It turns out, in fact, that Alba are more popular in Nicola Sturgeon's backyard than anywhere else in Scotland.  They received a remarkable 8% of the first preference vote in Hunter's ward.

So why did Alba do so well in Southside Central?  I asked someone in the know, and it appears there was a combination of factors at play.  Alba's campaigning was superior to many other wards in Scotland because the team was large enough in number to do full-on face-to-face campaigning, rather than confining themselves mostly to leaflet drops.  But there was also dissatisfaction locally with Nicola Sturgeon's failure to deliver for her own patch, with a perception that parts of her constituency that had once been relatively prosperous are now going backwards.  And Mhairi Hunter herself is personally unpopular, perhaps in part due to the very sense of entitlement she betrayed after her defeat.

A further clue can be gleaned from how Alba's votes transferred after their candidate Kamran Butt (by all accounts a superb candidate) was eliminated.  The good news is that the majority of the votes did transfer, so Alba voters were mostly heeding the 'vote till you boak' advice.  But the destination of those transfers was really startling.  Just over 40% went to SNP candidates, while more than 54% went to Labour.  That suggests Alba's success hinged to a large extent on reaching out to parts of the electorate that the SNP simply don't appeal to.  Whatever Mhairi Hunter may think, these are not voters that would have been 'owned' by her in the absence of an Alba candidate - they would instead have been first preference Labour votes in many cases.  Alba succeeded in growing the collective support for pro-indy parties - something the SNP should actually be thanking us for.  

And, incidentally, even to the limited extent that Alba voters would have otherwise voted for the SNP on first preferences, they still wouldn't have voted for Hunter personally.  She received an astoundingly poor 8.4% of Alba transfers, compared to 31.7% for the other SNP candidate, Alexander Belic.  That can be partly explained by Belic having the alphabetical advantage over Hunter on the ballot paper, but I doubt if that's the whole explanation.  Hunter should just be grateful that she received any Alba transfers at all, because at least Alba told their voters to rank all pro-independence candidates - the polar opposite of what the SNP did, let's not forget.

Incidentally, a freakish statistical curiosity occurred in the ward - the Green candidate Elaine Gallagher just happened to land on the exact quota of 1544 votes when she was elected, meaning there were no Green surplus votes to transfer.  So we'll never know whether Hunter is as unpopular with Green voters as she is with Alba voters.

*  *  *

I see that Ballot Box Scotland has responded to people calling him out on his rather daft anti-Alba propaganda.  He's now arguing that it's perfectly reasonable to calculate Alba's national vote share by assigning them zero per cent of the vote in the two-thirds of the wards they didn't stand in, because other parties didn't stand in all of the wards either, and he's calculating their national vote by exactly the same method.  Hmmm.  The snag is, Mr Faulds, as you know perfectly well, that those other parties stood in a far, far higher percentage of the wards, and you're therefore not producing a like-for-like comparison.  Any analysis you base on that comparison is therefore bound to be intellectually dishonest - especially when you deliberately conceal from readers how the calculation was made.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Ignore the silly partisan propaganda from Green-supporting Ballot Box Scotland: in fact, Alba took a respectable 2% of the vote in the local elections

So first of all, I'd like to deal with some of the more colourful 'feedback' that my analysis piece received yesterday.  There were attacks from completely opposite directions, which means that if I was the BBC, I would just shrug and say "well, if both sides are criticising me, that must mean I'm getting it just about right". However, I won't stoop to such a lazy approach, and I'll try to engage specifically with the points that have been made.

Firstly, an Alba supporter said that I wasn't being honest in my assessment that the local elections produced a good outcome for independence parties - he reckoned that no result without an Alba breakthrough could possibly be good for independence, because the SNP and Greens aren't serious about holding a referendum.  Now, let's be clear: I was as disappointed as anyone that Alba didn't manage to win any councillors, but a breakthrough for Alba would have meant perhaps five, ten or twenty seats.  The bulk of pro-indy representation was always going to have to come from the SNP, so yes, it absolutely does matter that the SNP made gains in this election.  I said exactly the same thing after the Holyrood election last year - I'm always going to celebrate a win for a pro-independence party, because if unionist parties were to suddenly move into the ascendancy, all hope for independence would be extinguished for the foreseeable future.  Even if the current SNP leadership don't intend to honour their promise of a referendum (and I firmly believe they don't), what a good result for the SNP and Greens does is keep the flame burning.  For as long as pro-indy parties run the Scottish Government with electoral momentum behind them, there's always the hope that something will turn up.  Nicola Sturgeon could take that UN job she's been auditioning for over the last decade, leaving space for a more radical leader of the SNP to emerge.  Or the current leadership themselves could actually change course if pressure from the rank-and-file starts to build.

On the other end of the spectrum, an SNP leadership loyalist complained about me referring to the SNP's progress in the election as "modest".  He/she argued that the results must in fact be stellar because they exceeded what the Britain Elects model said would be a good outcome.  Hmmm.  I'm not speaking with hindsight when I say that the Britain Elects model was total mince as far as Scotland was concerned - I made that point rather robustly on the night before the election, and if you don't believe me you can check.  It's there in black and white at the bottom of this blogpost.  Britain Elects were pumping nonsense in and getting nonsense back out.  Their central forecast was that the SNP would actually lose seats, which was ludicrous given the party's continued dominance in the opinion polls, and particularly given that their underperformance in 2017 left them with plenty of scope for gains.  The claim that a net gain of just three seats was the best-case scenario was even more laughable, and has actually been comprehensively disproved by the results - the notion of 'outperforming a best-case scenario' is a contradiction in terms.  

The reality is that there were three opinion polls that specifically asked for local election voting intentions - the Panelbase poll that I commissioned myself towards the end of last year, and two more recent polls from Survation.  All three polls suggested that the SNP would take a first preference vote share of over 40%.  Few commentators believed that was likely due to past precedent, but nevertheless it was thought perfectly possible that the SNP would reach the high 30s, and indeed the highly respected polling expert Mark Diffley predicted they would take around 40%.  If that had been the case, they would have made dozens and dozens of seat gains.  Instead, they finished with 34% of the vote and made just over twenty gains.  So I think it's more than fair to point out that the gains were "modest" compared to what some of the pre-election expectations had been.  Nevertheless, as I noted in my article, what really mattered is that those gains were sufficient to take the SNP to their all-time best result in a local election.

Someone also took issue with my point that Alba's vote share was generally creditable in the wards where they stood.  The individual prayed in aid a piece from Ballot Box Scotland claiming that Alba received 0.7% of the national vote, and suggested that meant Alex Salmond's party was on the "lunatic fringe".  Now, I fully appreciate that some people find Ballot Box Scotland to be a very useful service, in spite of the comical pomposity of the Green party member who runs it and his extreme touchiness about even the most minor criticisms of his "project", which he seems to regard as having the sanctity of a holy temple.  I myself found myself turning in desperation to BBS at times on Friday, because he was doing the bread-and-butter stuff (actually posting the election results) that our public service broadcaster should have been doing but neglected to do.  But that doesn't change the fact that BBS is not politically neutral - it pretends to be, and a tantrum will generally ensue if anyone dares to point out that it isn't, but the mask well and truly slipped during this campaign with a naked anti-Alba agenda.  I defy anyone to read the comments BBS has made about Alba's results since Friday and conclude that they're coming from a place of studied objectivity.

As far as the 0.7% figure is concerned, that's pretty much meaningless, because it's calculated across all the wards in Scotland, of which Alba only actually stood in approximately one-third.  In other words, BBS is regarding the Alba vote as zero in two-thirds of the wards in Scotland, which can be justified on a technical basis but is bound to result in some pretty silly analysis if you make the mistake of taking it remotely seriously.  It's impossible to exactly say what Alba's share of the national vote would have been if they had stood everywhere, because we don't know if they'd have done quite as well in the wards which they sat out.  But it seems entirely reasonable to suspect that they would probably have been somewhere close to the 2% mark, in other words very similar to their result on the Holyrood list vote last year.  And 2% is roughly the average figure they got in the wards where they did stand.  So it looks like the pre-election opinion polls that showed Alba firmly registering on 2% or 3% were broadly right - in spite of the bizarre eagerness of BBS to rubbish those polls.

(By the way, even if the 0.7% figure hadn't been totally meaningless, I'd still strongly take issue with any notion that a low share of the vote demonstrates that any given party is on the 'lunatic fringe'.  It might show that they're a 'fringe' party, but 'lunatic'?  There have been any number of moderate, centrist parties over the years, for example the SDP, that have polled poorly.)

With the benefit of hindsight, ie. if we'd had a crystal ball handy and had known that Alba were going to fall short of winning seats, there would have been a strong case for putting up candidates almost everywhere in Scotland to demonstrate beyond all dispute that the respectable national vote share was there - in other words, we could have treated the national vote share rather than seats as the real 'prize'.  OK, the number of candidates who stood reflected the natural limit of the number of people who actually put themselves forward (with the caveat that there was a vetting process), but the shortfall could probably have been made up by encouraging people to stand as 'paper candidates'.  But, there again, hindsight is always a wonderful thing.

It's really important to bear in mind that, although the local election voting system is a form of proportional representation, the proportionality is actually pretty weak compared to other PR systems.  That's because there are only three or four councillors elected in each ward, meaning you need a really strong performance in specific geographical areas to have any chance of getting any seats at all.  That makes the system surprisingly similar to first-past-the-post, and completely different from the Holyrood system, where you can win seats even if your vote share on the list is modest and thinly spread.  With approximately 2% of the national vote at present, it's not hard to see the path towards Alba becoming a party with representation in the Scottish Parliament in 2026.  If they could climb up to 4% they might well win the odd seat here or there, and if they get up to 6% or higher they'd win a really strong haul of seats.  And where will those extra votes come from, you might ask?  Well, it's not rocket-science.  Either the SNP will honour their solemn promise to hold an independence referendum in 2023, or they won't.  And if they don't, there are going to be an awful lot of disgruntled SNP members and voters looking for a new political home long before the 2026 election comes around.

I have lots more to say about the local election results and what they mean for both the SNP and Alba, but for now I'm going to pause for breath!  There'll be another blogpost along soon, probably tonight.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Analysis of local election results

Just a quick note to let you know that I have an analysis piece in today's edition of The National about the local election results and what they tell us about the future of Scottish politics.  You can read it HERE.