Saturday, April 17, 2010

ComRes and ICM confirm that Lib Dem surge is disproportionately harming the Tories

Within the last hour we've had two more polls that confirm the story of YouGov last night - namely that, although both Labour and the Tories have taken a hit from Nick Clegg's win in the first leaders' debate, it's the Tories that have suffered slightly more (thus making Iain Dale's dreams that it would lead to a 1983-style result look even more distant!). ComRes have the Tories down four and Labour down two, although this does have the effect of pushing Labour into third place, which is what will probably dominate the headlines. According to ICM the Lib Dems haven't quite broken out of third place, but they nevertheless knock three points off the Tories, and two off Labour.

Despite my fury at the opportunity given to the Lib Dems in the leaders' debates that has been wholly and cynically denied to other parties with parliamentary representation, I'm beginning to wonder if some good may yet come out of this. To delve into the realms of the fantastical for a moment, there can be little doubt that a Liberal Democrat-led government would go furthest and fastest in providing the sort of constitutional reforms that Scotland desperately needs and that the SNP have been campaigning for - proper electoral reform for the House of Commons (not Brown's majoritarian con), an elected House of Lords, and above all else enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Of course, the Lib Dems are likely to slip back again in the coming days and this will all come to nothing...but just suppose for a moment they don't. Wouldn't it be a delicious irony if by setting up these rigged debates, the ultra-unionists have set in train a process that is now completely out of their control, and one that will indirectly further the Scottish national cause significantly?

70s-style volcanic ash militancy must be smashed NOW

BA has now cancelled all its short-haul flights on Sunday. What's going on? Have a few specks of dust really been enough to turn Willie Walsh - fearless defender of the decent, hard-working air travellers of this country - into a prize WUSS? Forget about namby-pamby negotiations and compromise, Willie - the only language these volcanic ash fragments respond to is strength. It's high time they were made to understand that if they don't call off their disgraceful secondary picket across the skies of Britain immediately, their generous package of perks will be irrevocably withdrawn.

In fact, I strongly recommend that Willie flies into the volcanic plume without delay to deliver that uncompromising message personally.

An accidental insight from the Washington Post

Via Alex Spillius' post at the Telegraph blogs, I stumbled across a rather smug Washington Post article about the leaders' debate. At first glance it seemed to confirm my pet theory that whenever Americans write about Britain, every detail about the country seems to go through a strange filter and becomes utterly unrecognisable and alien. But then I realised there was another way of looking at it entirely -

"Quite amusing that the Washington Post article repeatedly refers to the debate as ‘English’. I would normally put that down to American ignorance, but in this particular case it’s a remarkably clear-sighted appraisal of what it actually was – an English debate masquerading as ‘British’. An exclusively English audience, just the three main parties of England present with major parties of Scotland and Wales totally excluded, and to a large extent England-only issues being debated."

A barking mad result to complement a deeply flawed campaign?

For many in the political world, much of Friday seemed to be taken up with pondering whether we were about to see a big Liberal Democrat surge on the back of Nick Clegg's strong performance in last night's (closed shop, London parties only) debate, and if so, whether that would harm the Tories or Labour more. Iain Dale was this afternoon desperately trying to convince both himself and anyone else who would listen that it might well be the latter, praying in aid the 1983 election (oddly topical given the storyline of Ashes to Ashes tonight!) when a high watermark for the Liberal Democrats' predecessor parties allowed the Tories to sweep to a landslide victory.

But you only have to think of two numbers to understand why Dale was always barking up the wrong tree - 42 and 23. 42 because that was the Tories' percentage share of the vote in 1983, and not even the outlying polls in this campaign have had them that high. 23 because that was the paltry number of seats the SDP-Liberal Alliance won in 1983 on the back of their 25% of the vote. You don't need a psephologist to tell you that a 25% share this year would be yielding the Liberal Democrats considerably more than 23 seats - and that most of those extra seats are ones that would otherwise be won by the Tories.

In truth, the circumstances of 1983 were unique. Normally when a third party surges the extra support is drawn relatively evenly from the two larger parties, but that was not the case in 1983 due to the fact that one half of the Alliance was to all intents and purposes a segment of the Labour party that had only very recently detached itself. In spite of the huge centrist appeal of the Alliance, the Conservatives lost just 1.5% of their 1979 support, compared to a stonking 9.3% drop for Labour.

Tonight's YouGov poll confirming the anticipated Lib Dem surge shows a much more conventional pattern, with both Labour and the Tories taking a hit - indeed with the Tories being the ones to suffer slightly more. Despite Labour slipping to third place, the UNS seat projections show them still emerging as the largest single party. And, crazy though it might seem, that might just be the best result possible from this deeply unsatisfactory electoral process. If such a barking mad outcome didn't finally lead to a clamour for proper electoral reform, I don't know what would.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Are you trying to tell me you don't actually live here, my local Labour candidate?

I received my first Labour campaign leaflet today - always a thrilling moment. I must admit I didn't actually come out in a rash reading it, which is perhaps an indication that it isn't quite as stupidly offensive as so many Labour efforts in the past. However, as is often the case in this campaign, what isn't in it tells you much more than what is. Two obvious things leapt out straight away -

No sign of Gordon Brown. Not only is there no photo of him, large or small, there isn't even the slightest passing reference to him. Perhaps an indication that, even in Scotland, he isn't regarded as an asset by his own party.

Lots of mentions of the Tories, but none of the SNP. This is significant because the SNP are the challengers in this constituency, with the Tories in a dismal fourth place last time round. In fact, I think from memory there was one election where this was one of only two mainland British constituencies in which the Tories lost their deposit, so I think we can safely assume there's no great danger of a surprise Cameron breakthrough here. Thus, once again, the picking of a false fight with the Tories can be taken as a pretty sure indication that Labour are worried about how their pitch for votes would fare against the SNP's if they invited a straight comparison.

The other peculiar thing about the leaflet took a little while to sink in. The general theme is "your local Labour candidate is a local man who is the choice for local people", etc, etc. But in elaborating his local credentials, there are a number of distinctly odd choices of words - this is where he "made a start in life", where he "grew up", where he "went to school" and where he "belongs". Wouldn't it be simpler just to say "I live here"?

Unless, of course, he doesn't. Sure enough, further research reveals (I feel like Kezia 'Nancy Drew' Dugdale sleuthing out the location of Glasgow maternity hospitals in 1973) that my local Labour candidate in fact lives approximately 300 miles away. If a man who lives in the south of England has to rely on 'localism' for his USP, I dread to think what his other qualities might be.

A debate with 60 million losers

I hadn't been planning to say anything more about the leaders' debates (for a while, anyway!), but that was before I saw this headline on Nick Robinson's blog -

"And the winner is...the British electorate"

Given the very real anger out there about the way this process has from the start been driven solely by the self-interest of a narrow metropolitan political and media elite, that is an astoundingly provocative observation for someone in Robinson's position to make. His particular delight in the prospect that this could set the mould for countless similar debates to come will cause more than a few people to shudder. I left this comment -

"I'd have said the British electorate were the principal losers last night, presented as they were with a debased, false choice between three men who agree with each other on 90% of policy matters, with alternative voices (including mainstream parties with substantial parliamentary representation) cynically silenced. Forget the high-minded spin - this was a retrograde step for the democratic process, and if it does indeed set a precedent it's one we could well have cause to repent for decades to come."

Clegg averts calamity by playing his Brucie Unionist Bonus

There was a new full-scale Scottish YouGov poll of Westminster voting intentions yesterday that, remarkably, showed our prospective new party of government slipping back to a humiliating fourth place behind the Liberal Democrats. The SNP remain in second place, but their lead over the Lib Dems now stands at just three points, which raises a question that would have seemed laughable until very recently - could the Lib Dems just possibly maintain their second place in the popular vote from the 2005 election? To be clear, if that actually happens no Lib Dem will be able to claim with a straight face that they've achieved it on the merits of their pitch to the voters. Look no further than what happened in 2005 - the Lib Dems performed well in Scotland because they were opposed to the Iraq war and had a telegenic leader. But guess which other party also had both those advantages? The only - but ultimately telling - difference between the Lib Dems and the SNP was that the London-dominated media allowed one party to be heard and not the other. With the hyperbole over Clegg coming out on top in the first of the rigged leaders' debates last night, it looks almost certain that the gulf in the level of coverage is going to be even more obscene this time round than in 2005. Make no mistake - if the SNP can withstand this outrageous, anti-democratic loading of the dice against them and come out in second place, it'll be as phenomenal an achievement as winning the 2007 Holyrood election outright.

On the presentation of the debate itself, I suppose we should be grateful that Alastair Stewart at least went through the motions of flagging up when a question related to matters that are devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but there were still huge shortcomings. Why couldn't he simply have clarified the point properly by adding "which means that the discussion you're about to hear relates to England only"? It would only have taken five seconds to do so. As two of the audience questions flatly contradicted his disclaimer by using phrases like "across Britain" and "throughout the UK", I haven't the slightest doubt that many viewers in Scotland will have been misled into thinking that the answers relating to health, education and crime had at least some relevance to Scotland, whereas of course they had none whatsoever.

The other point on which viewers were cynically misled was when Stewart claimed - without any qualification at all - that the studio audience was 'representative'. It categorically was not. Residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were specifically barred from being members of the audience (as they will be in all three debates), and thus by definition the roughly 3% of the UK population who typically support the SNP or Plaid Cymru were not merely under-represented - they were literally not represented at all.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The crossing of a dangerous threshold

So the dark day has arrived. Rather than simply preaching to the (mostly) converted here, I thought I'd sum up my thoughts in the following piece that I've posted both on Nick Robinson's blog and on the Guardian website. It's in slightly abbreviated form at the Guardian due to a character limit.

"The British political process will tonight cross a very dangerous threshold. It’s long been recognised by international scrutinising bodies that, for an election to be deemed free and fair, it’s not sufficient for there to be, for example, no bar on candidates putting themselves forward, and for the principles of a secret ballot to be immaculately respected at the polling stations. In the modern world these nominal freedoms count for nothing if the powers that be allow only a select few participants to put their case on the broadcast media, with publicity for all the others choked off. The process we’re about to see unfold tonight and on subsequent Thursdays is much more redolent of what passes for ‘democracy’ in certain former Soviet republics than it is of the principles of ‘fair play’ that we are constantly told underpin the British system.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a Martian, and having tasted the warmer climes of Russia for a few years you’ve just decided to make a new home for yourself in the even warmer climes of the Ceredigion constituency. You’ve just got your head round the idea that the local choice amounts to a straight battle between the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. What, then, are you to make of the debate tonight? It’s difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the broadcasters think that only one of the two main choices in the constituency is even worthy of your consideration – the other one might as well not exist. But, of course, you won’t find this unsubtle attempt to ‘guide’ the voters towards the ‘right’ decision so strange – because you’ve seen it all before in the last set of Russian elections.

To be clear, the broadcasters are not simply ‘following orders’ from the three London-based parties as they might do in an ex-Soviet republic. But what there certainly is at play here is a conspiracy of massive shared self-interest between the broadcasters and the three London parties. The broadcasters recognised at a very early stage the potential ratings bonanza these debates represented, and were prepared to do almost anything to ensure they went ahead. As it swiftly became clear that the London parties would take their ball away and refuse to play if they were forced to share a platform with alternative voices, the broadcasters were more than happy to be their servants in ensuring those alternative voices were silenced at all costs. Michael Crick gave the game away several weeks ago when he revealed that the very name ‘Prime Ministerial Debates’ had only been dreamed up by the broadcasters as a wheeze to attempt to justify the exclusion of the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

So there it is in a nutshell – the broadcasters in an alleged western democracy working on behalf of a select group of political parties to help them defeat their opponents. Every time the words ‘Prime Ministerial Debate’ are uttered by Alastair Stewart tonight, I hope every TV boss involved in this shameful exercise quietly winces, because that phrase will forever symbolise just how far the broadcasters have abdicated their proper role in the election process of illuminating the full range of choices before the electorate, without fear or favour.

As far as I can see, the only conceivable justification for excluding parties from TV coverage is that they are thorough-going fringe parties, meaning they have failed to demonstrate that they have any realistic hope at all of success at the election – which in a parliamentary election means hope of winning seats in parliament. The SNP have had continuous representation in parliament since 1967, and Plaid Cymru since 1974. Parties representing no fewer than 31 of the 646 seats in parliament prior to dissolution will be banned from participating tonight. The proposition that these parties have no stake in this election is risible and offensive, and yet that is the proposition upon which tonight’s broadcast will be based.

Oh, and before anyone responds to my Ceredigion example by suggesting that the leader of Plaid Cymru has no chance of becoming Prime Minister, in point of fact both the leading candidates in that constituency are in precisely the same boat. Both their parties’ parliamentary leaders theoretically COULD become PM (there are numerous examples both in Britain and around the world of parties supplying the head of government while being well short of a majority of seats), but in practice everyone knows neither will. In any case, the post of Prime Minister will not be on the ballot paper in Ceredigion, but the post of member of parliament for Ceredigion will be. It seems the powers that be have already decided for the voters what the result of that particular election should be.

Talking of who is and who isn’t on the ballot paper, none of the three parties lucky enough to be represented tonight are on the ballot in every constituency in the UK – the Conservatives are missing in two constituencies, while Labour and the Lib Dems are absent in no fewer than nineteen apiece. If Liam Byrne’s strictures on Question Time a few weeks ago were being followed to the letter, there would in fact be an empty platform tonight – because apparently participation in these debates is appropriate only for leaders of parties ‘standing in every single seat’."

I'm searching for a silver lining, and apart from the SNP's excellent PEB tonight the best one I can think of is the stiff competition the TV debate is facing from the schedulers on the other side - not just Have I Got News For You but also Outnumbered, which as far as I can remember is the only genuinely funny sitcom (for a family audience) Britain has produced in the last five years.

The underwhelming underbelly of the Tory manifesto

Yesterday on the BBC's Campaign Show, Matthew Parris repeatedly made reference to the Tory manifesto pledge on 'English votes for English laws', suggesting he was genuinely surprised by how far it went. Having just caught up with the relevant section of the document courtesy of A Pint of Unionist Lite, I must say I'm slightly baffled as to the basis for Parris' excitement - perhaps he's just seeing what he wants to. All I can see is the reiteration of a platitude about general principles that we've heard many times before - there is absolutely no detail about an actual proposal for change. I don't think it's too hard to imagine how "new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries" could fall short of a specific bar on Scottish MPs voting on the Third Reading of such legislation. And, quite honestly, given the impact on Scotland via the Barnett Formula of much legislation that is supposedly "purely English", it may well be right if it does fall well short of that.

But this is typical of the mealy-mouthed and half-blooded nature of just about every area of the Tories' constitutional proposals. The segment on the Calman Report reminded me of Mo Mowlam's mischievous dig at the Tories' attitude towards the peace process in Northern Ireland - "I welcome their support for the Good Friday Agreement. I now look forward to that support extending to the actual contents of the Good Friday Agreement." It really is hard to see how 'support for Calman' is consistent with a pledge merely to implement their own proposals to "deal with the issues raised by Calman". The one point of potential reassurance is that there is at least now a firm pledge that these proposals will be legislated for within the lifetime of the coming parliament. But as we don't have a clue what they are, it's impossible to know if that pledge is worth the paper it's written on - if we're in for another magical mystery tour along the lines of the 1993 'Taking Stock' proposals, it could all turn out to be distinctly underwhelming.

However, the bit that made me laugh out loud related to the extension of Welsh devolution -

"We will not stand in the way of the referendum on further legislative powers requested by the Welsh assembly."

Wow. You are spoiling us with your enthusiasm for self-government, Ambassador. The truly depressing thing is that absence of direct hostility actually marks dramatic progress for the Conservative party. But can you imagine if they applied similar language to their headline policies?

"We don't have a major problem with lifting the inheritance tax threshold."

"Allowing parents to set up their own schools - och, I suppose we can live with it."

"Scrap the rise in National Insurance? Sigh. If we must..."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Labour's PEB may not have mentioned the SNP once, but it was all about them

It may seem a peculiar thing to say about a broadcast that virtually from beginning to end was devoted to listing a roll-call of the Tories' crimes against Scotland in the 1980s and 90s (even at one point evoking the spectre of 'Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher' from the early 70s), but Scottish Labour's PEB last night was all about an attempt to defuse the threat from the SNP. It's rather like thinking up a joke - you start with the punchline and then build the rest of the joke around it. The single line the creators of last night's broadcast will have started with is "this election is a two-horse race" - which, presumably, is the only line of attack against the SNP's positive message that Labour are confident will have the slightest traction. It doesn't say much for Labour's faith in how their pitch for votes would fare in a straight comparison with the SNP's that they so obviously feel their best hope lies in bypassing all that and instead browbeating the voters into thinking the SNP aren't 'really' a choice in this election at all.

So all that the rest of the PEB really tells you about is the context in which Labour's creatives felt they could place their key line for maximum effect, ie. the reaction they hope for is "oh yes, the Tories must be stopped at all costs, so if this election really is a 'two-horse race', I must make sure I back the horse that isn't Tory...wait a moment, doesn't that mean voting Labour and not SNP?". Talk about treating the electorate like children.

In truth of course, all this talk about 'two horse races' is an utter nonsense in Scotland's four-party politics. Due to the inequities of the majoritarian electoral systems so beloved of both Labour and the Tories, many constituencies do indeed have only two candidates who can win - but in only in a tiny minority of cases is that choice between Labour and Tory. If stopping a Tory government is the only thing that counts in this election, how would Labour advise people to vote in, for example, SNP/Conservative marginals like Perth and Angus? There can only be one credible answer. Small hint - it isn't Labour.

Is Britain learning to 'do' balanced parliaments?

One thing that's been most notable from my exchanges with CyberTories over the last few months has been the synthetic outrage from them whenever anyone dares to suggest that a balanced parliament might just - whisper it gently - be quite a desirable outcome, not merely because of the extra clout it would give the SNP, but also because it represents Britain's one chance for meaningful political reform. No no no, chant the Tory thought police as they shout us down - such talk is reckless irresponsibility at a time of national crisis. And you should be careful what you wish for - the British public simply don't "do" balanced parliaments, so the more you talk the prospect up, the more 'responsible' people will coalesce around the leading party to ensure a decisive mandate. (Note the convenient and rather patronising narrative that, while this election is nominally a free choice, everyone knows in their heart of hearts that the only 'responsible' choice is a Tory vote.)

Well, if the latest Populus poll for the Times is to be believed, our CyberTory friends may need to urgently update their most basic assumptions. Not only is a balanced parliament the single most popular of the possible outcomes to this election, but it's also becoming increasingly difficult to see why voters would suddenly coalesce around the Tories to head off the "threat" of a balanced parliament, when fewer people want a Tory majority government than are actually planning to vote Tory. It rather looks like anyone 'Tory-minded' who is currently flirting with the Lib Dems or other smaller parties is among the group thoroughly unperturbed by the prospect of a balanced parliament, so that particular scare tactic is highly unlikely to gain traction with them.

It really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone to learn that the fundamentalists and the absolutists are already firmly in the Tory or Labour camps, but sometimes the most obvious things do need to be pointed out.


On another subject, has it not occurred to the Tories that an open invitation to the entire population to "join the government of Britain" must, by definition, extend to Gordon Brown as well? Not to mention Tony Blair (shudder). Will we never be free of them?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Let's go fly a kite, up to the highest height

All this "invitation to join the government of Britain" business, the solemn launch against a stark industrial background, the 'little blue book' that really does look like a terribly sober induction guide for eager new recruits to the civil service...somehow I couldn't get out of my head a scene from Mary Poppins. You know the bit where the bank manager tries to 'inspire' the young boy Michael with thoughts of all the things he'll have a stake in if he will just hand his money over to them -

"You see, Michael, you'll be part of
Railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile
Fleets of ocean greyhounds
Majestic, self-amortizing canals
Plantations of ripening tea
All from tuppence, prudently
Fruitfully, frugally invested
In the, to be specific,
In the Dawes, Tomes
Mousely, Grubbs
Fidelity Fiduciary Bank!"

In which case, this is the cue for the electorate to run away, clutching their ballot papers tightly, shouting "but I don't want to join the government of Britain! I want to use this to feed the birds!"

Monday campaign notes

Andrew Rawnsley could hardly have chosen a more ironic moment to make the cynical observation on the BBC's The Campaign Show that, the way things are going with the presidentialisation of the campaign and the relentlessly trivial focus on leaders' wives, perhaps Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Clegg should simply settle the election with a wet T-shirt contest. I couldn't have been the only viewer to wince when Jon Sopel's next words were "and we're joined now by the Deputy Leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman". But, to be fair, the High Priestess of Labour feminism showed admirable restraint and didn't respond to the jibe. If she'd wanted to be partisan, though, she could of course have pointed out that one of the three women has indeed shown interest in the past in becoming a glamour model, and it wasn't Sarah Brown.


Given that one of my main preoccupations in this election is the hope that the Conservatives will fall short of an overall majority, and given also that the polls show it is currently very much on a knife-edge whether they will or not, my blood was boiling somewhat to see ITN give David Cameron a free party political broadcast in the first five minutes of their evening bulletin. Of course it's utterly outrageous that the three wealthy ex-Labour MPs facing charges related to their expenses claims are able to claim Legal Aid. But for David Cameron to set himself up as the 'voice of the people' on the subject? This from the leader of the party that brought us state-financed moat-cleaning for the landed gentry. (Not to mention state-financed floating mansions for the wildfowl of the landed gentry.)


On the other hand, the segment of Cameron's interview on Tonight that dealt with the death of his son was clearly utterly sincere and almost unbearable to listen to. I suppose there is a question mark over whether the official campaign period is the most appropriate time for this very personal type of interview, but for better or worse the genie now seems to be out of the bottle. I haven't looked at Political Betting or ConHome for a good few days, but my strong guess is there would have been no repeat tonight of the utterly disgraceful 'Tears for Piers' meme that was doing the rounds with the usual suspects when Gordon Brown showed similarly sincere emotion in his interview with Piers Morgan a few weeks ago. Well, you wouldn't really expect consistency from the CyberTories, would you?


The most surreal moment of Nick Clegg's grilling by Jeremy Paxman was when he not-very-subtly smuggled in the line "I've actually co-authored a book on this subject", chuckling slightly in a vain attempt to make it sound spontaneous. Did he think he was on Wogan or Parkinson? Ah well - he certainly won't be making it to Downing Street on the back of that performance, so flogging a few copies of his book on Amazon isn't a bad Plan B. I trust he's not holding his breath on that score either, though.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The wayward voice of the Record

Via SNP Tactical Voting, I see that - right on cue after my earlier post - Torcuil Crichton has revealed the results of a new Scottish YouGov poll of Westminster voting intentions. It should pretty much lay to rest any notion that the SNP and the Tories are "virtually neck-and-neck", as it in fact shows the Nationalists increasing their lead over the Tories from six to seven points. Admittedly, the SNP will probably be very glad to have something of a buffer, given the obscene bonus coverage the London-based parties are about to receive. Nevertheless as things stand they appear to be reasonably well-placed to secure second place in the popular vote in a Westminster election for the fourth time in their history (the previous occasions were October 1974, 1997, and 2001).

Chrichton is eager to make the point that these figures indicate very little change in terms of seats. If you assume uniform swing, that's of course right, although we all know that in practice the swing is likely to vary considerably from constituency to constituency, and the SNP will be confident of disproportionately high swings in Labour-held target seats such as Aberdeen North and Dundee West. But what leapt out at me in Crichton's post is this rather desperate piece of spin -

"the SNP could go back up to 7 MPs if they gain Ochill and South Perthshire though Labour’s Gordon Banks is favourite to hold the seat."

That's written in such a matter-of-fact way that I initially assumed there must be something to it. I should have known better. The SNP need a swing of just 0.75% from Labour to win Ochil and South Perthshire, and this poll suggests a national pro-SNP swing of 3.5%. So perhaps there is a different trend locally that has been picked up by the bookies? Er, no. Ladbrokes shows the SNP as 4/6 favourites for the seat, with Labour way back as joint second favourites with the Tories at 3/1.

In precisely what sense is Gordon Banks the favourite to hold the seat, then? In the sense, I can only presume, that Torcuil Chrichton is employed by the Daily Record, and is paid in large part to write such nonsense.

Back in the real world, Annabelle Ewing seems set for a welcome return to Westminster.

The 'seasonal lag' in owning up to Britain's slump in the international rankings

I believe there's a concept in climatology known as 'seasonal lag', which basically just means that, while in theory we receive the most warmth from the sun on June 21st each year, it takes several weeks more for that to actually translate into the warmest temperatures of the year on the ground. The same applies to the coldest temperatures typically occurring several weeks after December 21st. After taking a first cursory glance at the 'Scottish' Labour manifesto (which barely makes even a superficial pretence at being anything other than the British document with a few opt-outs) it occurred to me that this phenomenon is roughly analogous to the extraordinarily long timelag between the UK slipping in the international GDP rankings, and unionist politicians being willing to acknowledge that is has actually happened. It seemed to take at least two years from the moment the UK was overtaken by China before the likes of Jim Murphy could quite bring themselves to cease referring to the UK as the "fourth-largest economy in the world". It's since got even worse for them - the UK has been overtaken by France, and according to this Telegraph article from last October, has now slipped to seventh behind Italy.

So how exactly do Labour think they are going to get away with the manifesto claim that Scotland draws "added strength" from being part of the fifth-largest economy in the world? Did they think no-one would spot this 'innocent error'? Given the incurious nature of much of the media when it comes to scrutinising the basic assumptions of unionist rhetoric, they might even be right.

Polling sleights of hand

I don't really want to get into paranoid nit-picking about the Scottish press' treatment of the SNP in this campaign (although of course in the case of the Record there'll be no need for paranoia - they really are out to get us) but someone urgently needs to call the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday on their recent blatantly selective use of opinion poll figures. The principle objectives seem to be to underplay the resilience of the SNP vote, and to convey the impression that the SNP and Tories are now "roughly level-pegging" in Scottish voting intention for Westminster. Evidence of the first objective came when they tried to have their cake and eat it after YouGov's recent revision of its Scottish polls, using new weightings that are more favourable for the SNP. In their reporting of the first poll conducted under the new system, Scotland on Sunday used the modified figures from the previous poll in calculating the percentage change in each party's support, thus showing no progress for the SNP. Which would have been perfectly fair enough - if they had explained that the previously published figures from the last poll had been erroneous, thus clarifying that the somewhat hysterical reporting of that poll in terms of the implications for the Nationalists had been grossly misleading. They conspicuously failed to do so.

Evidence of the second objective came a few weeks ago (before YouGov's methodological shift) in a report that explained that "a recent YouGov poll" had shown the SNP just one point ahead of the Tories. Quite true...except somewhat misleading, given that it wasn't the most recent YouGov poll, which just happened to show the SNP in a clear lead over the Tories. Just a sloppy error? Well, the conclusion of this article in today's paper does make me wonder. Once again, the most recent YouGov Scottish poll showing a solid second place for the SNP in Westminster voting intention doesn't seem to be good enough, so the paper casts around for convenient alternative figures - this time resorting to "an analysis of the Scottish responses to the last five UK wide YouGov polls". In other words, a back-of-the-envelope subsample aggregate. Now, I'm happy to stand by my often-expressed view that subsamples are not totally meaningless - looking at the pattern over time can give you a rough sense of what's going on. But even a long-term average of subsamples can never be as reliable as a properly weighted, full-scale Scottish poll - and since we have figures from a relatively recent poll of that kind available, what on earth are the Scotsman playing at?

Today is Liberation Day

Karl Marx once famously observed that the English are a free people for just one day every few years - general election day - and are slaves to their government the reminder of the time. (It's an open question whether he used the word 'English' in error or if he meant that the Scots, Welsh and Irish remain enslaved even on election day!) But the election process also brings about another kind of liberation that, while similarly transitory, at least lasts for a good few weeks. Perhaps you, like me, live in one of Labour's Scottish rotten burghs where the first-past-the-post electoral system has obediently delivered a Labour MP since the year dot. If so, congratulations - you don't anymore, at least for a little while. Your "local Labour MP" has no right to call themselves by that title from this day on - he or she is merely a humble candidate, on an equal footing with the SNP candidate and all the others.

So feel free to enjoy the clean, fresh air of your constituency's Labour-free status for the next three and a half weeks - but this time, for the good of everyone, let's hope that state of affairs is extended for considerably longer.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cortina bronze for Scotland

Congratulations to Scotland for winning the bronze medal at the men's world curling championship in Cortina - it wasn't quite the colour they were looking for, but after a fairly torrid run of form at the end of the week, I'm sure they'll just be delighted to get some kind of tangible reward for their excellent play at the start of the tournament. They did it the hard way, surrendering the slender advantage they'd held early on in the bronze medal decider against the USA to go into the final end with the scores level and without the hammer, but then took a steal of two to claim what had been starting to look like an improbable victory. This also marks the first time since 2002 that Scotland have won medals in both the men's and women's worlds in the same year, which is not a bad way to bounce back after the bitterly disappointing Olympic campaigns for the 'Great Britain' teams.

After my harsh words about British Eurosport during the women's event, I suppose to even things up I should say that they haven't been quite as bad this time - there were still a couple of occasions when they didn't join live coverage of a Scotland game being shown on Eurosport International, but at least they partly made up for it by showing recorded coverage later in the evening. There were even (shock, horror) one or two occasions when they joined coverage of a Scotland game early, although the cynical side of me knows that's only because they simply didn't have any recorded footage of a French road cycle race to hand.

Were we too hasty in extending the franchise to newspaper columnists with the initials SS?

Sarah Sands' suggestion in the Independent on Sunday that the voting age should be raised to 25 is, I suspect, carefully calibrated to sound tongue-in-cheek when in truth she probably would be quite happy not just to block votes at 16, but to see a return to the pre-1969 age of 21. Her reasoning is so laughable that, when you think about it for a moment, perhaps we ought to urgently reconsider whether she has demonstrated sufficient 'maturity' to warrant her right to vote...

When asked to discuss politics, a group of teenagers quickly became bored and much preferred to talk about "talent shows or football or sex". But that sounds like just about every self-respecting thirtysomething I've ever met. Voting age of 45?

A 16-year-old girl would prefer to vote for a political leader of her own gender, and reasonably close to her own age. Tut, tut, how unutterably absurd. But, wait a moment - aren't a lot of 50-year-olds quite keen on the same principle? Voting age of 60, then?

Teenagers do not seek political participation, and have "other things on their mind". (Once again, Sands seems to have sex on the brain herself.) Well, forgive me for pandering to stereotypes, but I know rather a lot of pensioners who live for nothing else but bingo and bowls. Maximum voting age of 72?

Teenagers vote more on how they feel than how they think. Well, that one really opens up a Pandora's Box - I dare say someone could whistle up some convenient psychometric 'evidence' that women of all ages are slightly more prone to that tendency than men. Back to the male-only franchise?

So by my reckoning that works out at an electorate wholly comprised of 60-71 year old men, pretty much guaranteeing perpetual Tory rule. Which should suit Sands rather well, because (reading not too far between the lines) her main problem with teenagers having the vote is that they display an infuriating reluctance to vote Conservative. Now, that'll never do, will it?