Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

That Survation poll: a brief autopsy

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

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

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

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

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Monday, November 5, 2018

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

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

Yes 51.4%
No 48.6%

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

*  *  *

New podcast

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

Friday, November 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

There is no such thing as...

What you are about to read are all genuine comments that have been posted on Twitter over the last 48 hours or so. You might be shocked at the contempt they display towards one particular gender, and I suspect you'll find the last three tweets bitterly ironic in the circumstances.

"Lord save us from female indy bloggers and their fan base. They are a constant reminder of the dangers of women with little insight believing it’s their duty to share their daft ramblings with the rest of us."

"I for one am grateful that another female Indy blogger has written a blog about a female Indy blogger who is *innocent* of all charges despite all evidence to the contrary. So that's all sorted. We are truly blessed with female bloggers. #femalebloggersunite"

"Recent Scottish politics has involved an awful lot of white women stating that they have never thought about an issue before but feel entirely qualified to talk about it with no research or insight on their huge platforms."

"Those particular women have a tendency to announce that they don't know anything about an issue but they're going to tell you what they think anyway."

"It doesn't mean that white women don't get to have opinions, but...they should at the very least attempt to research their topics..."

"I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask middle aged white women to shut up."

"I’ve always felt quote tweeting in the middle of a debate was a form of virtue signalling for attention for people who need validation from their followers...particularly employed by fragile female egos."

"Also: misogyny is not a thing."

"It’s extremely disrespectful to accuse confident men of ‘misogyny’."

"Misogyny is a made up idea."

So, yes, all of the above are genuine tweets. Except for a very few small details. When someone used the word "man" or "men", I replaced it with "woman" or "women". And when someone used the word "male", I replaced it with "female". And when someone used the word "misandry", I replaced it with "misogyny".

If the above tweets had been displaying contempt towards women rather than men, I can well understand the disbelief with which people would have encountered the fatuous claims that misogyny does not exist.

But as it happens the contempt was directed towards men. And yet "there is no such thing as misandry", apparently.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

You don't stamp out anti-semitism by stamping all over the innocent

The SNP's suspension of Grouse Beater is of special interest to me, because like him I'm a pro-independence blogger who also happens to be an ordinary member of the SNP.  Bloggers are self-evidently at far greater risk than the average person of having a statement cynically misconstrued, or even of being caught out making an honest slip, and it would be nice to think that a fair and transparent process would at least apply before the SNP takes drastic disciplinary action in such circumstances.  If that's not the case there's a danger that we would all begin to self-censor to avoid finding ourselves suspended.  It would obviously be unhealthy if membership of a political party became incompatible with freedom of speech.

I first became concerned about this problem many, many years ago when Jeff Breslin of SNP Tactical Voting (at the time the most popular SNP-supporting blog) revealed inside information about postal vote returns, not realising that he was technically breaking the law.  It was a totally honest mistake, and he very nobly resigned his SNP membership to avoid any damage to the party.  I was a bit shocked and depressed that SNP spokespeople were all too quick to distance themselves from Jeff and to portray him as an embarrassing wrongdoer who was no longer associated with the party.  In my opinion it would have been far more appropriate to pay tribute to the honourable actions of someone who (at least at the time) had done a lot of good for the party, albeit in an unofficial role.  But we were left in no doubt that, when push comes to shove, SNP bloggers are utterly expendable.

We've seen the same sad process play out over the last day or two, with a tweet from Humza Yousaf that very strongly implies that Grouse Beater is guilty of anti-semitism, and that action has been taken against him to "stamp out" anti-semitism within the SNP.  The actual position is that it remains to seen whether his blogpost will be deemed to be anti-semitic, and that for now he has merely been suspended pending an investigation.  It's troubling that this crucial point is being regarded in some quarters as a meaningless technicality, and that the suspension is perceived as a "punishment" for guilt that is already presumed.  It was precisely that mindset that led to Michelle Thomson's political career being unjustly ruined.

I must say that the version of Grouse Beater's blogpost that is currently online is manifestly not anti-semitic.  It can't possibly be, because it specifically praises Rhea Wolfson for her stance against anti-semitism.  I gather that may not be the original version of the post, and if the screenshot I've seen is accurate, the original wording is more ambiguous.  Some people have asked: "Well, if he didn't mean that, what could he have possibly meant?" To which there are several possible answers.  Assuming the worst possible interpretation doesn't seem to be consistent with the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty'.  It's also been asked: "What is the reference to Hitler doing there, then?  Are you saying it's totally random?  Hmmm?  Hmmm?"  The problem with that argument is that there are other seemingly random and elliptical references in the blogpost as well, such as to the film On The Waterfront.  But it seems that randomness and ambiguity don't need to be explained away if the worst possible motivation can't be ascribed to them.

What should happen from here is that the investigation should proceed, it should be fair and not have a predetermined outcome, and Grouse Beater's explanation of his intent in writing the controversial paragraph should be listened to and considered with the seriousness it warrants.  In the meantime, he should be given the respect he deserves by the SNP leadership, and not subjected to a premature kicking, no matter how politically expedient that would be.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Are online polls superior to telephone polls?

You may have seen that Professor John Robertson has a blogpost about Saturday's Survation poll, which he regards as less reliable than a recent YouGov Scottish subsample, because he thinks "landline telephone" sampling is inferior to online sampling.  The post is actually based on a false premise, because Survation have confirmed today that their poll was conducted online - and it goes without saying that a full-scale online poll should be taken more seriously than an online subsample.  The confusion probably came about because of an ambiguously-worded tweet from Survation on Saturday evening.

Even if the Survation poll had been a phone poll, though, there would still have been a number of problems with John's argument.  First of all, although YouGov subsamples can probably be regarded as more credible than subsamples from other firms (because they appear to be correctly structured and weighted), they obviously have a bigger margin of error than full-scale polls because of the smaller sample size.  So to get a meaningful picture you have to look at the pattern over a number of YouGov subsamples, and it's pretty obvious that the SNP's 47% showing in the subsample John is talking about is an outlier.  High 30s is much more typical - in other words pretty similar to what the Survation poll found.

Secondly, it's highly unlikely that Survation would conduct a landline-only phone poll, so the concern John raises about certain demographic groups being less contactable by landline doesn't really apply.  It may be that response rates to phone polls are unacceptably low because people these days are unlikely to answer an unexpected phone call, regardless of whether they're on a mobile or landline.  But that's a somewhat different point.

Thirdly, there's the standard Mandy Rice-Davies objection to the quote John provides from YouGov about the supposed greater accuracy of online polling.  YouGov are, and always have been, an online-only pollster, so "they would say that, wouldn't they?"

Fourthly, John points to the fact that online polls were much more Yes-friendly during the indyref.  But in fact there was a dramatic convergence between the online and phone polls as the campaign drew to a close, and by polling day they were more or less showing the same thing - a very, very slender No lead.  So it's impossible to know for sure who was getting it right earlier on.  Anecdotally, a lot of campaigners did detect a large swing to Yes in the closing weeks, which would lend more support to the theory that the telephone polls were more accurate.  (YouGov were the only online firm to report a big swing, and they only did so because of their notoriously convoluted "Kellner Correction".)

Lastly, John mentions a ScotPulse online poll showing a handsome Yes vote.  Unfortunately ScotPulse polls can't be taken seriously because they're not properly weighted.  The (allegedly) best data collection method doesn't really help much if the other basics aren't being done correctly.

*  *  *

Saturday, October 27, 2018

SNP with 12-point Holyrood lead in new Survation poll

I woke up this morning to people fretting about a 'bad' Survation poll in the Daily Record, although in fact it's not as bad as you'd think if you inhaled the Record's reporting.  For some unknown reason (well, we can probably guess), they've used percentage changes from the Holyrood election of 2016 rather than from the last comparable poll - giving the misleading impression of a very sharp and sudden drop in SNP support.  They don't actually make clear whether this is an online or telephone poll, but assuming it's online (the vast majority of Record-commissioned polls are), here are the correct figures with percentage changes measured from the last online Survation poll that was published around three weeks ago -

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 38% (-5)
Conservatives 26% (+2)
Labour 25% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 9% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 32% (n/c)
Labour 23% (n/c)
Conservatives 23% (+2)
Greens 9% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 9% (+1)


SNP 36% (-5)
Conservatives 27% (+1)
Labour 26% (+2)

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 45% (-2)
No 55% (+2)

Although the changes aren't as dramatic as the Record are making out, the SNP are significantly down on two of three ballots (strangely they're not down at all on the Holyrood list).  It's hard to make much sense of that, because three polls were published at the time of the SNP conference (two Survation, one Panelbase), which all agreed that the SNP had come through the reporting of the Alex Salmond story unscathed.  So if there has been a setback, it must have occurred over the course of October, and I can't think of any obvious recent trigger for a 5-point drop.  My own instinct is that this is much more likely to be random sampling variation - ie. within the standard margin of error, the sample Survation interviewed this time may have been a bit SNP/Yes-light.  We'll have to wait for the next poll or two to find out for sure.

There's an absolutely nonsensical section of the Record article which observes that a small swing from SNP to Labour since last year's Westminster election would see Labour gain eight seats, pushing the Tories back into third place.  That's true as far as it goes, but the rather more salient point is that the Record's own poll shows that no such swing has occurred - the SNP's lead over Labour stands at ten points, exactly the same as June 2017.  On a uniform swing, the SNP would lose no seats at all to Labour, and would gain one seat (Stirling) from the Tories.  And if the Record are so keen to go off on a tangent and talk about hypothetical swings that were not detected by the poll, it's mysterious that they neglected to mention that a small swing from Labour to SNP could see the SNP gain six seats, practically wiping Labour out once again.

As ever, the SNP and Green showings on the Holyrood list have to be regarded as extremely suspect.  A relatively low SNP list vote, and a relatively high Green list vote, seem to be standard 'house effects' of Survation's online polling - perhaps because the question characterises the list vote as the "second" vote, thus giving some respondents the false impression they are being asked for a second preference vote.  Nevertheless, given the direction of travel elsewhere in the poll, it's perhaps surprising (and reassuring) that the SNP haven't slipped down to the 20s on the list.

John Curtice is quoted in the Record piece as saying that the poll shows the "fragility" of the SNP's position.  But in fact, the Holyrood seats projection puts the pro-independence parties just four seats short of retaining their majority.  It's pretty remarkable that they could be so close to doing that when the SNP are in the 30s on both ballots - which arguably illustrates the in-built strength of the SNP's position, providing they can retain a handsome lead over the second-placed party on the constituency vote.  So you can look at the situation in more than one way.

UPDATE: Survation have belatedly tweeted about the poll, and have done so in this annoyingly ambiguous way -

New Scotland polling with fieldwork 18th-21st October in today's @Daily_Record. (Changes vs 3rd-5th Oct*)

Westminster voting intention;
CON 27% (nc)
LAB 26% (nc)
LD 7% (+1)
SNP 36% (-1)
AP 3% (nc)


Does the placing of the asterisk indicate that they are making a potentially misleading comparison between an online poll (this one) and a telephone poll from earlier in the month?  Or does it mean that the new poll was conducted by telephone as well?  I hope it's not the latter, because if so it would mean that half of the above blogpost is based on a false premise, but we'll find out when the datasets are published...

Friday, October 26, 2018

SNP vote holds up in agonisingly close Coatbridge South by-election

So unfortunately it turns out that I was correct earlier tonight in suggesting that Labour's chances in the Coatbridge South by-election were being underestimated - they ended up pipping the SNP by just 0.4% of the vote on first preferences, which made it all but inevitable they'd win on a later count due to the greater propensity of Tory voters to transfer to Labour.

Coatbridge South by-election result:

Labour 41.5% (+12.0)
SNP 41.1% (-1.6)
Conservatives 15.1% (+3.2)
Greens 1.4% (n/a)
UKIP 0.4% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 0.4% (n/a)

[UPDATE, Friday, 5pm: I've had to correct the above figures, because the original version of the result that appeared on Twitter last night turned out to be slightly inaccurate.  It's amazing how often that happens.]

Technically this was a Labour hold rather than a gain, meaning that they won't have any more councillors in North Lanarkshire than they previously did.  Nevertheless, on paper it appeared that the SNP should have won tonight, because they topped the popular vote in the ward quite comfortably in May 2017.  This follows the same pattern as a few other by-elections in former Labour heartlands since the general election in which Labour have done significantly better than the national opinion polls would have led us to expect.  So what is going on?  Is there a localised Labour renaissance that the opinion polls aren't picking up?  In this particular case there may be a more prosaic explanation.  Although there was a technical swing from SNP to Labour, the SNP's own vote barely dropped at all.  On the face of it, the big increase in Labour's vote may have come almost entirely from people who voted for independents in May 2017.  And it just so happens that the independents were disgruntled former Labour councillors.  Perhaps, then, the SNP victory in the ward eighteen months ago was a bit illusory, and the 'real' Labour vote was always significantly higher than the 2017 result suggested.

Of course it may well be a bit more complex than that, but I'd be surprised if that isn't at least part of the explanation.  So let's not over-react to what is admittedly a very frustrating result.