Saturday, May 1, 2010

Memo to Jackanory Jim : be careful what you wish for

Labour have been busily feigning outrage for weeks that Alex Salmond wasn't taking part in two of the three Scottish side-debates, so you'd probably imagine they will now be pronouncing themselves thoroughly satisfied with his change of heart about tomorrow's final BBC debate., actually. If the early reaction of a Labour activist on Twitter is anything to go by, it appears they're attempting a seamless switch back to the "what-does-he-want-to-take-part-for, he's-not-even-a-candidate-in-this-election" line.

Jeez. Sort it out, guys.

In spite of what I said about this a couple of weeks ago, I'm sure this is absolutely the right call by the SNP. The three rigged UK-wide debates have now been broadcast, and strategies for preventing a repeat of that outrage can be left for another day. For now, it's all about taking every last opportunity to maximise the SNP's vote in this election. Jim Murphy will be privately horrified that his slightly creepy Jackanory-style storytelling approach to debating is about to face the full Eck treatment for a second time.

Thankyou to the Guardian for scratching my three-year itch

The Guardian's decision this evening to endorse the Liberal Democrats (albeit with certain caveats) may well have considerable ramifications, but I must admit my own first reaction to the news was rather petty. I've previously documented here some of the epic online scraps I've had over the last couple of years with (for the most part) right-wingers, but as far as I can remember my very first one was on the discussion page for a Wikipedia article, back in the early months of 2007. It all started with a contribution I made to Alex Salmond's WP biography which, without wanting to blow my own trumpet (*cough*) was deemed good enough by the Sunday Times to be worth nicking in slightly altered form for part of a profile of the soon-to-be First Minister. So I was somewhat miffed to spot that my handiwork had been butchered by a contributor called 'Longlivefolkmusic' on the grounds of "bad writing", and sarcastic suggestions that the whole article had been a "campaign page" rather than a bio. Upon further investigation, however, it transpired (as is so often the case on Wikipedia) that the said contributor had something of a bee in his bonnet that was distorting his concept of 'neutrality'. He was a right-wing American who saw 'liberal bias' in every corner - hardly untypical, but for some reason his own personal fixation was correcting this problem primarily in UK political articles, which he set about doing with an affected air of teacherly condescension and utter exasperation. In particular, the word 'sheesh' seemed to feature a great deal in his edit summaries.

The problem for him, unfortunately, was that he clearly wasn't half as familiar with his subject-matter as he imagined himself to be, and in 'correcting' text he had taken one look at and assumed to be biased he frequently ended up inventing startling new facts. (A particular favourite of mine was that the Liberal Democrats had "merged" with the Pro-Euro Conservative Party.) So, as he'd left such an inviting open goal, I couldn't resist getting my own back by correcting some of these factual errors, and I naturally attached some condescending "in-the-style-of-Longlivefolkmusic" edit summaries to my revisions for good measure. It wasn't long before I provoked a reaction - but to my surprise the one that really got his goat was my rather innocuous replacement of his description of the Guardian as a "pro-Labour" newspaper with the words "left-leaning". Now, the Guardian is undoubtedly a progressive and anti-Conservative newspaper, and I could see how an American used to a closed two-party system would assume that this automatically made it a Labour publication, but it seemed to me its measure of support over the years for the Liberals, SDP-Liberal Alliance and the Liberal Democrats made the unqualified term "pro-Labour" far too simplistic, especially for an encyclopedia. 'Left-leaning' seemed to me to be a much more accurate and uncontroversial description - but to my bemusement I was informed by an incandescent Longlivefolkmusic that it was far too "affectionate"! I naturally set about defending my corner robustly, but little did I realise that the argument I was embarking upon would -

* Take up 10,000 words.

* Last for two months.

And this was a discussion about the appropriateness of two words. Only at Wikipedia.

At one point he convinced himself I was a woman (I've absolutely no idea why he would jump to that conclusion about someone calling themselves 'Sofia') - but that was one factual error I didn't bother correcting. Anyway, I now at last feel thoroughly vindicated, but I'll try to resist the temptation to pop back and say 'I told you so'.

As for the Guardian's recommendation of tactical voting where necessary to keep the Conservatives out, their logic would seem to clearly suggest a vote for the SNP in at least four constituencies - although I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that point didn't occur to this most brazenly Anglo-centric of newspapers. It doesn't end there, though - a large part of the rationale for a Lib Dem endorsement is that party's commitment to genuine electoral reform. As the SNP share that commitment, surely a vote for the Nationalists in seats where they are the only alternative to Labour would also be consistent with the approach the Guardian have set out?

Frankie Boyle and humanity : the other side of the coin

Having criticised comedian Frankie Boyle in a recent post for his 'lack of humanity', I must admit I'm left with a totally different impression of him after reading this lengthy statement he's released in response to the BBC Trust's decision to apologise for a joke he made on Radio 4 about Israel's treatment of Palestinians -

"The situation in Palestine seems to be, in essence, apartheid. I grew up with the anti apartheid thing being a huge focus of debate. It really seemed to matter to everybody that other human beings were being treated in that way. We didn’t just talk about it, we did things, I remember boycotts and marches and demos all being held because we couldn’t bear that people were being treated like that.

A few years ago I watched a documentary about life in Palestine. There’s a section where a UN dignitary of some kind comes to do a photo opportunity outside a new hospital. The staff know that it communicates nothing of the real desperation of their position, so they trick her into a side ward on her way out. She ends up in a room with a child who the doctors explain is in a critical condition because they don’t have the supplies to keep treating him. She flounders, awkwardly caught in the bleak reality of the room, mouthing platitudes over a dying boy.

The filmmaker asks one of the doctors what they think the stunt will have achieved. He is suddenly angry, perhaps having just felt at first hand something he knew in the abstract. The indifference of the world. ‘She will do nothing,’ he says to the filmmaker. Then he looks into the camera and says, ‘Neither will you’.

I cried at that and promised myself that I would do something. Other than write a few stupid jokes I have not done anything. Neither have you."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Are the post-debate polls grossly misleading?

It was striking on News at Ten last night that the average 'worm rating' awarded by the panel of floating voters to each of the party leaders showed a startlingly different picture to the instant polls (and indeed to Tom Bradby's omniscient pronouncements on the same programme). Clegg was the winner, with Cameron in a dismal third. Now of course this can perhaps be explained by the small sample size, but it's just as likely down to a more sophisticated method of measuring opinion. The instant polls are essentially first-past-the-post verdicts on what are (albeit rigged) three-way contests, with David Cameron being declared the 'winner' on the dubious basis that a larger minority of respondents thought he was the best of the three than thought the same about Clegg. But even in his most positive poll (YouGov) Cameron was the favourite of just 41% of respondents, and the figure is as low as 35% with both ICM and ComRes. This tells you absolutely nothing about what the remaining 59-65% thought of Cameron's performance. If second preferences or average scores out of ten had been asked for by the pollsters, I suspect we'd be looking at a much more nuanced picture today than the 'Cameron victory' being gleefully reported by the right-wing press.

Still, perception (however misplaced) is everything when it comes to generating momentum, and my fear is the reporting of last night's events may move the Tories closer to overall majority territory. Heaven help us all.

'I'm pleased to say the majority of students are now women...'

It may seem strange to single out a throwaway remark from a ninety-minute debate, but they can often be the most revealing. I really did think it was utterly extraordinary that Gordon Brown seemed to genuinely regard an area of blatant gender inequality as a point of pride - indeed it was hard to escape the impression that it had never even occurred to him that it might not be. As a society we seem to be caught in a kind of trance on certain equality issues - because it's been absolutely right and necessary over a period of decades to radically enhance women's opportunities in many spheres, no-one seems to spot that this actually becomes a bad thing at the point at which males are unfairly left way behind. Does Mr Brown really think he deserves to be congratulated for an education system in which boys and men are now clearly disadvantaged?

We've heard many similar jaw-dropping claims before. There was an article in the Scotsman a year or two back about the decreasing proportion of medical graduates who are male, and it included a contribution from an expert who didn't bother proposing ways of reversing the trend, but instead suggested we should accept it and embrace the advantages of the 'feminisation of medicine'. Now, you can quite often measure the absurdity of a statement by saying the complete opposite out loud and seeing if it sounds right. Can you imagine the reaction if, in a hypothetically reversed situation in which women were still grossly under-represented amongst medical graduates, someone recommended that instead of bleating about it, we should simply celebrate the 'masculinity of medicine'?

Doubtless, there are many, many walks of life where women still face outrageous levels of discrimination and barriers to achievement. But the logical and just response to that is to tackle the problems in those specific areas, rather than trying to 'even the score' in some way by welcoming outright female supremacy in other spheres.

Labour on the wrong side of the true dividing line on electoral reform

Wonderfully symbolic that, just a week out from polling day, a motion was passed in the Scottish Parliament supporting the principle of proportional representation for Westminster elections - and that it was opposed outright not only by the Tories, but also by Labour. There could hardly be a more eloquent exposition of where the true dividing line lies on electoral reform, with only the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats in favour. What continues to baffle me is why Nick Clegg didn't nail Gordon Brown on that point in the first two leaders' debates, when the PM repeatedly and cynically tried to plant the bogus idea in voters' minds that his proposed change to the voting system is the same reform proposed by the Liberal Democrats and others for years. What was so difficult about saying "you are not proposing proportional representation, so no, we don't agree with you"? Clegg presumably had a tactical reason for not doing so, but it's beyond me what it could have been - at face value, it seemed to offer Labour a means to pinch PR-friendly voters from the Lib Dems and others on a wholly false prospectus.

Also in the Scottish Parliament, we had the surreal retro spectacle of Iain "the Snarl" Gray openly boasting about having 'led' the 1980s teachers' strike. Now could this be the same Labour party that in well over a decade of government at Westminster has never, to the best of my recollection, conceded the vague possibility that a strike might be justifiable? Perhaps Gray was the warm-up act for the abrupt 180-degree turn on industrial relations we might be about to witness if the party returns to opposition down south next week.

The moral consistency of the Labour animal is a truly wondrous thing to behold.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Today is Bias Freedom Day

There's a concept called 'Tax Freedom Day', which is the theoretical calendar date at which you've earned enough in a year to cover your annual taxes, and thus for the rest of the year whatever you earn goes into your own pocket. Well, perhaps this is the day in the election campaign that should be dubbed 'Bias Freedom Day', as at 10pm tonight the obscene bonus coverage for the three London-based parties in this campaign - over-and-above the disproportionate coverage they usually receive anyway - will finally come to an end. Will the remaining week of relative normality help the SNP to right the wrong that's been done both to them, and to the Scottish public who've been deprived thus far of the chance to properly consider the full range of choices before them? Let's hope so, although Angus Robertson summed up the problem better than anyone so far on Newsnight Scotland last night - "when we speak to people on the doorstep, they often tell us they're waiting for the final debate to make up their minds how they're going to vote". If the SNP and Plaid Cymru aren't even allowed twenty seconds of exposure on the main forum which the voters are using to inform their choices, how can this election possibly be regarded as free and fair?


It doesn't exactly inspire huge confidence that this weekend's Scottish and Welsh "leaders'" debates are being regarded as anything other than tokenistic by the broadcasters when the backdrop to tonight's showdown appears to be the words 'THE FINAL DEBATE' in huge capital letters.


I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I saw 'Chris g00', one of Political Betting's resident Jockophobes, 'satirically' suggesting that an English court should be asked to block Alex Salmond's "throw them a bone" appearance on Question Time this evening. Yep, a programme in which the three London-based parties have mere parity with the SNP really is discriminatory beyond belief, isn't it?

Could Lardner's suspension impact upon the national popular vote?

A small point, but an intriguing one. With only 59 constituencies in Scotland, the withdrawal of official status from homophobic/climate change denying/Rhodesian white supremacist sympathising/all round Tory good egg Philip Lardner means that nearly 2% of the entire population of the country are now no longer being actively invited to vote Conservative. Given the psychological impact of the national popular vote figures, could this make a small but significant difference to the outcome of the election in Scotland? Not impossible, although I can't rid myself of the nasty thought that Lardner may actually have made himself a more attractive proposition for some voters with his bigoted views (if I can dare to use the taboo word of the moment).

The only comparable situation I can think of to this was in a 1994 by-election, when the Liberal Democrat candidate rather cynically defected to Labour before polling, and just as now, it was too late to withdraw his name from the ballot paper. So voters had the almost unique thrill of two Labour candidates to choose from, one of whom was urging them to vote for the other!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Time to call the London establishment's bluff with a UK 'Free Alliance'?

So the SNP have failed in their bid to secure fair representation (or indeed any representation) in tomorrow's final leaders' debate, but if anyone had lingering concerns that the decision to take legal action was a tactical error, I'd suggest the considerable publicity generated over the last thirty-six hours or so ought to dispel them. In a sense what this has all been about is simply reminding people that the SNP do actually exist and are an option in this election - that may sound a silly point, but given the obscene disparity of coverage fuelled by the rigged debates, there are a lot of people for whom the SNP haven't registered on the radar yet. I'm not necessarily suggesting that what has happened will be sufficient to help the Nationalists close the gap that appears to have opened up in the polls with the Liberal Democrats, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's been worth an extra 1% or so in the popular vote. If so, it's been well worthwhile - as the Tesco evil empire would have it, every little helps.

The main reason I always thought it was so important that this matter be tested in court is that the format of the leaders' debates isn't just a one-off issue for this election alone - it sets a precedent for all future Westminster elections. Tragically (and it genuinely is tragic for the democratic process, not just for the SNP and Plaid) that precedent will now stand. Crucially, however, the spurious rationale the broadcasters and London parties have put forward for the debates as constituted will also now stand, and I'd suggest - ironically - that provides the nationalist parties with a considerable opportunity for the next general election, assuming plans are put in place well in advance. Alex Salmond has mused a number of times over the last few weeks that perhaps the SNP and Plaid should put up candidates in England to gain access to the debates - he seemed to be saying it facetiously, but if that really is all that's required, and there are now four or five years to organise things, why not? The main obstacle would of course be financial, but the events of the last few days have shown how generous small donors to the SNP can be when there's the clear incentive of righting the wrong of this democratic outrage.

So how much would it cost to stand in all 632 seats across Great Britain? (Note - it's not necessary to stand in Northern Ireland, as the broadcasters bizarrely seem to regard that as a complete irrelevance to the issue of who qualifies as a 'national UK' party.) Well, the SNP of course already routinely stand in all 59 Scottish constituencies, and Plaid Cymru in the 40 Welsh constituencies. The Cornish party Mebyon Kernow, allied to the SNP and Plaid at European level, would hopefully be keen to join the alliance. That brings us to 104 seats already, leaving 527 to be filled (according to convention the Speaker's constituency can be ignored). It would be ideal if there was a pre-existing English party, however small, to fill the breach, but as far as I can see there isn't one that fits the bill - the English Democrats have sometimes claimed to be an English equivalent to the SNP, but their right-wing chauvinism suggests otherwise. The stunt of standing candidates in Monmouthshire in the Welsh Assembly election (on the pledge to take the county back into England) said it all - can you imagine the reaction if the SNP made an explicit territorial claim on Berwick-upon-Tweed? The EDs are essentially just UKIP draped in a St George's Cross rather than the Union Jack.

So unfortunately it'll be probably be necessary to bite the bullet and put up the remaining candidates independently. To fund the deposits for that would cost £263,500. But if it was possible to raise £50,000 over a day or two, surely it would be eminently achievable to raise five times as much over a four or five-year parliament, especially if donors knew how immense the potential reward was?

Once established as a Great Britain-wide force, this new alliance could then appoint a nominal 'Prime Minister-designate', just as the SDP-Liberal Alliance did in 1983. Realistically this would be either Angus Robertson or Elfyn Llwyd, assuming they were still the Westminster group leaders of their respective parties. At that point, it really becomes very difficult to see how the broadcasters could continue to justify the alliance's exclusion from election debates. They would be standing in as many seats as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and they would have an identifiable leader who would not only have the theoretical capacity to become Prime Minister, but who would also be - in the convenient new jargon - "trying" to do so. Crucially, this alliance would be in a different category to the likes of the Greens and UKIP (although quite honestly I see no reason why those parties shouldn't be involved in the debates either) because, like the Lib Dems, it would have a long, settled history of continuous parliamentary representation. If you look at the SNP and Plaid Cymru in combination, they've had an unbroken presence in the Commons since Gwynfor Evans won the Carmarthen by-election in 1966.

So all that's left is the tricky question of what this new political force should call itself. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have of course been referring to themselves collectively as the 'Celtic Bloc' (perhaps inspired by the Bloc Québécois) but that wouldn't seem quite appropriate for an alliance spanning the whole of Britain. My next thought was 'Nationalist Alliance', which has the beauty of doing exactly what it says on the tin, but of course the word 'nationalist' means different things to different people, and can be easily misconstrued. So perhaps the simplest thing to do is look to the name of the European political family the SNP, Plaid and Mebyon Kernow are already part of. Time for a UK 'Free Alliance' to step forward?

Haven't the Tories noticed the SNP and Plaid are also in favour of electoral reform?

A bizarre story in the Financial Times this evening, suggesting that the Tories may be looking to do deals with nationalist and unionist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to avert the need for an arrangement with the Liberal Democrats. In one sense, the fact that Tory sources are even talking like this is a huge moral victory for the SNP, because it drives a coach and horses through the claim we've repeatedly heard from all the London-based parties that the SNP would only be a peripheral presence, even in a balanced parliament.

However, the point at which you realise that the Tories are indulging in wishful thinking here (or perhaps playing some unspecified psychological game) is when the report mentions that the reason they want to avoid dealing with the Lib Dems is to circumvent the need for concessions on electoral reform. Given that the SNP have repeatedly listed PR for the Commons as one of their top priorities in a balanced parliament, it's very hard to see how the Tory first-past-the-post Neanderthals are going to find any greater comfort in a nationalist embrace. Democratic Unionist MPs in Northern Ireland are a very different story, of course - but they could only seal the deal for Cameron if he is within at least ten seats of an outright majority.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You know when you've been Paxoed - even if your name is Jeremy

I've long thought that the question of whether Jeremy Paxman's almost absurdly belligerent interviewing style serves - or is an irritant to - the democratic process is a bit like the question of whether it's a good thing that Prince Charles uses his privileged position to speak out on issues of political controversy. In other words, it all depends on whether you agree with the point he is making at any given moment. I'm sure there have been occasions when I've found myself cheering Paxman on - but equally there was one incident that made my blood boil like no other. During the 2001 election campaign, the then SNP leader John Swinney was invited onto Newsnight for what was billed as an 'interview', but what actually unfolded was little more than a prolonged Paxman sneer-fest. His introductory remarks were "OK, Mr. Swinney, you're on national TV now". He then spent almost the entirety of the exchange demanding to know why the SNP manifesto contained pledges that they could never implement, since they wouldn't be forming the UK government. But when you think about it, what was Paxman actually getting at there? That the SNP shouldn't have the temerity to stand candidates at all? Or that those candidates should stand without publishing a manifesto or telling anyone what their policies are? A line of attack that basically amounts to "justify your existence, not your policies" can scarcely be said to aid the democratic process. Naturally, Swinney as one of the most mild-mannered political leaders in recent history found the forbearance not to inform Paxman he was being an oaf and storm off, but I'm not quite sure how.

So how delicious to see Paxman try a similar job on Plaid Cymru last night and be made to look an utter fool for his troubles. Once again, there was a sneering introduction intended to undermine the credibility of the interviewee before he had even spoken a word - "I'm joined now by Eurfyl ap Gwilym, who's Deputy Chairman of the Principality Building Society, in which august position he's also Plaid Cymru's senior economics adviser". But, once underway, the exchange quickly spun completely out of Paxman's control. When he claimed that public expenditure in Wales was higher than in any region of England, Gwilym was able to point out that spending per head is actually higher in London, and with single-mindedness worthy of Paxman himself admirably refused to move off the issue until that point had been conceded. "Do your homework!" he repeatedly said, to Paxman's evident fury. The telling thing was that Paxman clearly started to twig at an early stage that he had probably got his facts wrong, but boneheadedly refused to simply acknowledge that, ultimately resorting to utterly risible bluster about how London wasn't really a region of England. And that, surely, is the Paxo problem in a nutshell - if his belligerence is to serve any real purpose it must be to break through the obfuscation of politicians, not to assist in his own obfuscation, or to shout down those who challenge him when he's clearly in the wrong.

A galvanising effect either way

Jeff's post on today's court action is interesting - I of course agree with him that it would be a huge boon for the SNP if they win, but I think it's wrong to suggest that it would break the spirit of those who donated to the fighting fund if they lose. I think, even if that happens, the decision to take legal action will have had a galvanising effect on the party, and there will still be clear electoral benefits. It has reminded Scots exposed to the debates that the notion that there are only three 'main' choices in this election is not an objective reality accepted by every serious person (Martin Bell's support for the SNP's case is testimony to that) - it's simply the preferred worldview of a London establishment determined to exclude alternative political voices.

Why Tom Bradby is wrong about proportional representation

Probably the best way to sum up ITV's news output of late would be 'of variable quality', but one aspect of it that is particularly hard to defend is political correspondent Tom Bradby's trademark editorialising monologues. I of course have no way of knowing how he votes, so it would be a lazy assumption to brand him a Tory sympathiser, but it's nevertheless almost impossible to escape the conclusion that he feels his proper role is not to report the world of politics in a neutral manner, but instead to apply the values and worldview of the 'average voter'. The problem with this approach is that by aiming for an 'average' you're just as likely to end up instead arriving in an 'imaginary middle', ie. a place derived from your own unconscious assumptions and prejudices, and perhaps even the pervasive populism of the Daily Mail and the tabloids. More fundamentally, even if it was possible to speak from the viewpoint of an objectively average citizen, you'd still be excluding far more valid perspectives than you'd be giving voice to. The middle is by definition always a minority.

So, for instance, a few days ago, Bradby challenged Nick Clegg on his pro-European policies. And instead of simply letting the answers speak for themselves and allowing voters to make up their minds on that basis, Bradby felt the need to vocalise what his imagined 'normal' voter would be thinking at that moment in the following terms - "hmmm, not the Lib Dems' strongest area...we're only just starting to get to know their policies". Obvious question - who is the 'we' in this instance? Given the context, it can only really be the mildly conservative, mildly Eurosceptic inhabitants of middle England.

Another choice example was a year or two back on the topic of welfare reform, when Bradby mused that "politicians of all parties need to show the public that they really 'get it', and they haven't so far". That statement pretty brazenly shuns the perspective of countless millions of vulnerable people who stand to suffer if and when, as Bradby puts it, the politicians 'get it'.

But last night, he went a step further by wading in with his own thoughts on the subject of electoral reform. With the best will in the world, it's difficult not to interpret what he said as an attempt to shape voters' choices, rather than inform them. "Ask yourself this," he challenged the watching electorate, "is a change in the voting system the burning issue you want this election to be about? That keeps you awake at night?" Call me cynical, but I'm guessing he didn't really expect his imagined 'normal' voter to answer 'yes' to either of those loaded questions.

He also mused that proportional representation was a bizarre response to the anger over the expenses scandal, since the current system allowed for a direct link of accountability between a constituency representative and his/her electorate. Hmmm. I'd say Bradby needs an urgent refresher course on the basic principles of the Single Transferable Vote, and how it maximises voter choice, ends jobs for life for MPs, and creates a relationship between a representative and the electorate that completely bypasses the party machines.

Bradby went on to suggest that PR would lead to the Liberal Democrats perpetually holding the balance of power. But if that were true, how come that in the only hung parliament to have occurred in recent history, the Liberals in fact did not hold the balance and would have been unable to form a majority coalition government with either Labour or Tory? That was admittedly an extreme outcome, but the reality is that in most hung parliaments, the arithmetic would not permit the Lib Dems a free choice of who to 'put into office'. The inevitability of parties other than the largest three holding a substantial chunk of seats means that the "perpetual kingmaker" scenario is a myth. In any case, in a situation where the GB-wide polls are showing a genuine three-way split, it's outdated and faintly ludicrous to still be painting the Lib Dems as the kingmakers. Even in third place they would only hold that role in a balanced parliament if Labour and the Conservatives choose to bestow it upon them - those two parties could always work together if the idea of Lib Dem influence is so objectionable to them. Now, there's a thought - but one that has apparently yet to occur to either party, much less to Bradby.

But the part of Bradby's monologue that really gave the game away about his own prejudices was when he talked about the strengths of the current electoral system in semi-mystical, almost Burkean terms. He explained that it had "evolved over a very long time" - the implied message being 'tamper with it at your peril'. This is demonstrable nonsense. First-past-the-post is not a complex system that carries some kind of unfathomable collective wisdom drawn from centuries of tweaking and honing by trial-and-error - it's in fact a very simple system that has stayed exactly the same for centuries for the straightforward reason that it has always suited the political elite of the day to maintain it unaltered.

Remember - given Bradby's status as a broadcast political journalist in the middle of an election campaign, it's not even necessary to prove that he didn't have an arguable point in order to demonstrate that his monologue was inappropriate and stepped way over the mark. It's sufficient merely to show that he wasn't putting forward objective 'facts' that are beyond reasonable dispute. And he quite clearly wasn't.

Monday, April 26, 2010

YouGov : SNP storm back into Holyrood lead

Naturally the headline figures attracting all the attention from yesterday's full-scale Scottish YouGov poll for Sky were the Westminster voting intention numbers, but the SNP will be hugely heartened to be back in the lead for both Scottish Parliament ballots. Here are the full figures -

Constituency ballot

SNP 34% (+4)
Labour 31% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 19% (+3)
Conservatives 12% (-2)
Others 5% (-)

Regional list ballot

SNP 29% (+2)
Labour 28% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 18% (+1)
Conservatives 13% (-2)
Others 12% (+2)

It's particularly encouraging for the Nationalists that the 'Clegg factor' appears to have only limited carry-through into the Holyrood sphere, and if anything seems to be harming the Tories rather than the SNP.

Iain Dale : The SNP seek power and influence. How very dare they?

An utterly bizarre little rant from Iain Dale a few hours ago, declaring that he is "sick of listening" to Alex Salmond's "bleatings" about how much he wants a balanced parliament, and suggesting that the SNP's "real agenda" is extracting more cash from the hard-pressed English taxpayer (yawn). The obvious irony here is that Dale's post has far more of the character of a bleating about it than anything Salmond has said, because what the Tory blogger is essentially complaining about is the SNP simply doing the following - a) seeking an election result that will maximise its power and influence, and b) seeking to use any such power and influence to further its own priorities, and the priorities of its voters. You know, Iain, like the Conservative party's top priority is inheritance tax cuts for millionaires, because those just happen to be the type of people who vote Tory. (And I presume it goes without saying that Dale would not deem it 'tiresome' for the Tories to be seeking power and influence in this election.)

This idea that seeking the best possible deal for the people who elect them is somehow a minus point for the SNP is rather reminiscent of George Foulkes' legendary objection "but they're doing it deliberately!". As it happens, though, most of the SNP's top demands in a balanced parliament would be just as good for the whole UK as they would be for Scotland - most notably proportional representation for the House of Commons, an elected upper chamber, the total scrapping of the UK's nuclear arsenal, and a proper high-speed rail network.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Win or lose in the courts, the SNP have scored a psychological victory today

Regardless of the outcome of the SNP's legal challenge, I now in a strange way (and I suspect I'm not alone among SNP supporters) feel a sense of peace at last about the whole TV debates issue. Assuming lack of funding doesn't derail the party's day in court - and presumably they wouldn't have risked such a public announcement had they thought that was likely - we can now rest assured that every conceivable avenue for securing fair representation in the TV coverage of this campaign has been thoroughly explored (barring hostage-taking). By making clear they were prepared to be very flexible about the format of the debates, the SNP gave the broadcasters every chance to do the right thing voluntarily. Then they gave the broadcasters' internal appeals procedures every chance to do their job properly. Now the focus shifts to the courts, which depressingly was probably always the SNP's only realistic hope of securing the mere basic fairness they have been seeking from the outset. If even that doesn't produce results, the outrageous injustice will of course remain, but we can at least rest assured that it is not the SNP that have failed or made the wrong decisions here. Others will have to answer for the abandonment of the basic principles of a 'free and fair election' in an allegedly advanced western democracy. But on the other hand, if by any chance the SNP win even a partial victory in the Court of Session, the rewards will be considerable, not just in this election, but in many elections to come.

DougtheDug raised the question on a previous thread of whether the best time to take legal action would not have been before the outset of the campaign, when a very clear contrast could have been drawn between what was being proposed this time, and the much fairer way the SNP were treated in 2001 and 2005. My instinct was to agree. But, on reflection, the beauty of doing it now is that Alex Salmond's suggestion that "the debates haven't dominated the campaign, they've been the campaign" is no longer a point of mere speculation. Now that we've seen the effect of two debates happening for real, everyone knows that proposition is correct - including, presumably, any judge who will hear the court case. The contrary argument that the 'balancing coverage' from the Scottish side-debates would prove just as important in helping to inform voters' choices is simply no longer credible given what has unfolded over the last ten days.

And win or lose in the courts, the SNP have already secured a small psychological victory today - they've confounded those insufferable wind-up merchants on the Scotsman boards who have gloatingly claimed for months that the reason the SNP hadn't announced legal action was that they already knew they would lose.

Cameron's half-baked wheeze to out-American the Americans

It really comes to something when the leader of the British Conservative party appears to want the UK not just to adopt a presidential system, but a system that is in fact more presidential than the United States itself. In the US, there is no provision whatsoever for an extraordinary general election to be held to elect a new president should the incumbent resign in office - instead there is a line of succession to determine who will see out the remainder of the normal term of office. The most famous example is of course Gerald Ford, who was the wholly unelected American president for roughly the same period of time Gordon Brown has now served as Prime Minister without "his own mandate".

A number of commentators are scratching their heads and wondering aloud whether this new "no unelected PM" policy of Cameron's really is the impulsive, back-of-the-envelope job it appears to be. But it could just as easily be that this was always a planned move, designed as a pretext for recycling tried-and-tested vote-winning jibes about Gordon Brown running away from the verdict of the electorate, which would otherwise have been impossible to sustain beyond the date for the election being set. If that is the case, it simply makes it an even more disgraceful tactic.

Even today, there are still some arch-unionists who accuse the pro-devolutionists of 'constitutional vandalism' in the late 1990s for introducing an unstable settlement for partisan gain that was always going to have to be revisited later - well, it's difficult to know how else to characterise a proposal to essentially end the UK's status as a parliamentary democracy, purely for the short-term benefit of some positive headlines during just one day of an election campaign.

And make no mistake, the effective end of parliamentary democracy (already on its last legs) is exactly what Cameron's idea entails. Once it's established in law that general elections are de facto elections for the office of Prime Minister, the principal role of parliament becomes something akin to the American electoral college, ie. simply to rubber-stamp the electorate's 'choice of Prime Minister'. And if they fail to sustain the correct person in office for a full five years, they become 'faithless electors' against whom action will be taken - ie. automatic early dissolution. The idea that what is needed to restore trust in politics at this particular moment is to demand that members of parliament behave as lobby fodder to an even greater extent is deeply depressing.

But the reason that this proposal, if ever enacted (which I doubt) would have to be swiftly revisited is that it's based on an utterly half-baked premise. You simply can't credibly complain about a new Prime Minister who takes office in mid-term being 'unelected', if you're apparently quite happy that it remains the case that all Prime Ministers - including those who win general elections - are not directly or indirectly elected. They are, of course, appointed by the monarch. Logic dictates that if the law insists upon a direct personal mandate for an incoming PM in mid-term, it must do so at all other times as well.

A true constitutional reformer would have recognised that from the start.