Friday, April 1, 2011

'Scottish Labour don't make mistakes, Stevie'

It’s happened at last – a newspaper has finally challenged Labour on its bizarre claim that Iain Gray has "beaten Alex Salmond three-nil" since he became leader. The bad news is that the newspaper in question is the Larkhall Chronicle. Still, it's a start, and in the forlorn hope that it might shame the national papers into doing their job properly, I thought I'd post Steven Brodie's article here in its entirety (it's only available in the print edition of the paper).

A local Labour councillor has launched an astonishing attack on his own party chiefs – for being too MODEST. Gavin McCulloch, elected to South Lanarkshire Council for the first time in 2007, reckons that Scots Labour leader Iain Gray's claim to be leading the SNP’s Alex Salmond 'three-nil' in elections doesn't go far enough.

"The 'three-nil' basically just refers to national elections, like the general election, and the Glasgow North-east by-election a couple of years back," explained Councillor McCulloch at the weekend. "As a local representative I find it typical that local elections are getting scrubbed out of the picture yet again, and I’m slightly ashamed that my party are the culprits! The truth is that if you take local by-elections into account, the score is a sensational eight-nil to Iain Gray. He's a phenomenally popular leader."

Councillor McCulloch later drove the point home by taking to the streets of Larkhall, and handing out stickers featuring a picture of Iain Gray – who didn't appear to be smiling – along with the slogan "Go Go Gray, let's make it nine in a row".

But since then the Chronicle's minions have been doing some ferreting, and have discovered that the 'eight-nil' claim may not be all that it appears. Armed with a dossier of facts, dates and figures, I paid a visit to Labour's headquarters in the town to challenge the councillor on some of his facts. First of all, I put it to him that even the original suggestion that Mr Gray had beaten Alex Salmond three times in a row since becoming leader doesn't really make sense.

Councillor McCulloch seemed bemused. "I was anticipating that people might not be ready to take local by-elections seriously, but even the Larkhall Chronicle can't deny the wonderful results Labour have been enjoying at national level since Iain first electrified us with his visionary leadership."

But, I replied, doesn’t the 'three-nil' claim airbrush from history the European elections of June 2009, which the SNP won by a significant margin? That, after all, was a national election, and therefore surely more important than by-elections. It also took place in between Labour’s victories in Glenrothes and Glasgow North-east, which on the face of it would make it impossible to truthfully claim that Gray’s successes had occurred 'in a row', or indeed that Alex Salmond was on a score of 'nil'.

Councillor McCulloch paused. "Look, Stevie. I’m a local man, I’ve got my roots in this area, I live and breathe Larkhall. I’m not steeped in these strange international elections that involve other countries."

But, I persisted, the European election was a national election, it took place when Iain Gray was leader, every single person in Scotland was entitled to vote, and the SNP won.

Councillor McCulloch sighed. "Well, of course I'd dispute that."

Dispute what, I asked? That the SNP won, or that the election took place when Iain Gray was leader?

"One or the other, Stevie," he replied with a laugh. "As I said, I’m not steeped in these international elections."

In that case, I went on, how could he possibly be sure that the Chronicle had its facts wrong?

"Because Labour are three-nil ahead in national elections, that's something we all know. I'm more interested in making sure we update that figure to take into account how local people up and down Scotland have been saying Yes to Iain and No, No, No, No to that snake-oil salesman Salmond."

But, I countered, people only 'know' that the three-nil figure is correct because Labour keeps repeating it. The Chronicle's dossier has just shown that it isn't true.

"Scottish Labour don't make mistakes, Stevie."

I could see we had arrived at something of a stalemate, so I decided to change tack and ask about the councillor's own claim in relation to local by-elections. I put it to him that, while it was quite true Labour had won a number of contests since Gray became leader, so had other parties, including the SNP. Again, it was hard to see on that basis how Labour could seriously claim to have won eight elections in a row, or that the SNP’s score was 'nil'.

Councillor McCulloch seemed incredulous. "I’d be interested to know which by-elections you think Labour haven't been winning!"

With as much nonchalance as I could muster, I flicked through the pages of the Chronicle’s dossier to find a couple of choice examples for the councillor’s perusal. One was Maryfield, gained by the SNP from Labour six months after Gray became leader, and the other was Kilbirnie and Beith, also an SNP gain from Labour on a huge swing. The latter contest took place just weeks after the very different result in Glenrothes.

Councillor McCulloch tutted. "I've never even heard of Kilbirnie and Beith!"

It's in North Ayrshire, I replied.

"Well, there you go."

It was my turn to be slightly dumbfounded. Was the councillor seriously suggesting that results in North Ayrshire don’t count?

"No," he sighed. "Look, Stevie, what I'm saying to you is that you've come up with a local election result in North Ayrshire. No disrespect to the people there, but it's a bit of a stretch to put that on a par with Labour’s sensational win in Glasgow North-east."

I was confused. Wasn’t the councillor's whole point that local by-elections should count for just as much? And if that wasn’t the case, surely all of Labour’s local by-election wins had to be discounted as well?

A flash of anger crossed Councillor McCulloch’s eyes. "Frankly, I find that suggestion insulting. And, no, It’s not an insult to me, but to the thousands of decent, hard-working people across Scotland who have turned out in local by-elections to show their support and love for Iain, and to send Salmond homewards tae think again."

Except for the 'hard-working' people who had voted for the SNP in Maryfield, Kilbirnie and Beith, and other wards?

"Kilbirnie and Beith is in Ayrshire."

Was the councillor really sure that made such a difference?

"Scottish Labour don’t make mistakes, Stevie."

A strange realisation began to dawn on me. Although the councillor's claims simply didn't tally with the facts, his conviction that what he was saying made sense seemed absolutely sincere. And perhaps that's ultimately what really counts?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the editorial staff of the Record, the Herald and the Scotsman all agree with that closing sentiment. They do seem to regard Labour’s 'conviction' as far more important than the actual facts. The difference is that at a national level it seems somewhat less likely that the conviction is in any way 'sincere'.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Herald error, and Record inventions

I have huge respect for Iain Macwhirter, and there's no doubt this will simply have been an honest error on his part, but how on earth did this sentence in his column make it through the Herald editorial process?

"The paradox is that in the STV/TNS poll Labour are comfortably ahead of the SNP in voting intentions."

Labour were in fact just one point ahead of the SNP in the constituency section of that poll, and the two parties were level on the list. It's debatable whether that should even be described as a lead at all, let alone a 'comfortable' one.

Still, such a factual mistake pales into insignificance when compared to the Record's masterpiece of Pravda-style propaganda that transformed what everyone else and their auntie thought was an underwhelming performance by Iain Gray in the first leaders' debate into glorious Churchillian victory. Now, of course, assessing performance is a very subjective thing, and indeed in other quarters there has been dispute over whether Salmond or Goldie came out on top, so I suppose it's possible that Record journalists could have somehow - just about - come to the honest conclusion that Gray was the winner. But it's hard to maintain an assumption of good faith when you consider just how many factual distortions and improbable interpretations they had to rely on to make the account of the 'Gray triumph' sound even vaguely plausible. For instance -

"SCOTS Labour leader Iain Gray won loud applause during last night's live TV election debate when he tore into the SNP goverment's fateful decision to free the Lockerbie bomber."

He won applause, certainly. "Loud", I'm struggling with, and in any case it was plain for all to see there were Labour activists in the audience (as, admittedly, there were of all parties). But the claim goes further still -

"But Gray instantly hit back - winning the biggest round of applause of the night."

It wasn't the biggest round of applause of the night. I've only watched the programme once, but from memory Alex Salmond's spirited defence of the principle of free education received the most widespread clapping. At an absolute minimum it matched the applause Gray received for his downright dishonest claim that he would have broken the habit of a lifetime and ignored the clear wishes of his London Labour overlords by keeping Megrahi in prison.

"Gray reminded the audience he had beaten Salmond three-nil in by-elections since taking over the Labour helm two years ago."

First of all, and again I've only seen the show once so I stand to be corrected, but he didn't actually say that, did he? He made some reference to good election results, but I don't recall him actually trotting out John Park's nonsensical 'three-nil' claim. He may well have planned to, though, in which case a cynic might suspect the Record had seen an advance copy of Gray's 'script'. That would explain a lot, right enough - perhaps the script also included other little details that didn't make the final show such as "(receives thunderous applause)".

Oh, and the 'three-nil' now refers to by-elections, does it? Funny that there's only actually been two Scottish by-elections since Gray became leader. Perhaps they've taken a relaxed, George Bush-style approach to geography and decided that Barnsley is more or less in Scotland?

Now, compare and contrast these two claims -

"Gray - who put in a calm and confident performance..."

"Jabbing his finger, Gray said..."

So which was it - a 'calm' performance or a 'finger-jabbing' performance? Anyone who watched the UK leaders' debates last year will know there wasn't any finger-jabbing in sight during those, and there wasn't much of it in evidence from the other three leaders on Tuesday night. Hardly an obvious marker of 'calmness'.

Last but not least, we have this intriguing summary of Alex Salmond's confidence levels -

"High, as usual. Grinned even when teenager dismissed time in power as "not fantastic"."

Now, you see, that'll be because the teenager in question was not "dismissing" the SNP's tenure, but praising the party as having done a "pretty good job". The journalist who wrote that sentence knows that, and so will the countless Record readers who actually saw the debate. The lie was, of course, for the benefit of readers who hadn't tuned in.

Shameless. Utterly shameless.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Salmond eases to debate win - as expected

First things first - if we're only having three leaders' debates, what on earth was the point of staging the opener five-and-a-half weeks out from polling day? The cynic in me wonders if the ITV network schedule might have been a factor in that decision, and even as it is the Border TV area seems to have been deemed as having only 'associate membership' of the Scottish nation for the evening.

I also intensely dislike STV's habit of starting debates with opinion poll findings. They've done it for years, but it really isn't good practice. Debates are supposed to provide a level playing field for the parties to reach out to the electorate on the basis of the quality of their arguments, and presenting Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott with a poll showing that only (concidentally) Two Per Cent of the public think he would make the best premier left the tallest of the party leaders looking about Two Feet Tall. It was rather funny, admittedly, but still wrong as a matter of principle.

Bernard Ponsonby generally did a good job of persistently homing in on the leaders' most vulnerable points, and seeing if they could wriggle free. There was one glaring exception, though - perhaps because of time constraints, Iain Gray's utterly fantastical assertion that Megrahi wouldn't have been freed if he had been First Minister went completely unchallenged. The Labour leader claimed there were three tests for whether compassionate release should have been granted - well, in fact in his case there would have been a fourth and absolutely decisive one, namely what his overlord Gordon Brown privately wanted him to do. A Labour government in Holyrood would indeed have made a fundamental difference to the outcome of the process - Megrahi would have been released for the wrong reasons, not for the right ones.

The general impression I got from watching Iain Gray was that his advisers must have urged him in advance to be consensual wherever possible and at all costs to resist the overwhelming temptation to snarl - but he just kept forgetting, especially when he had to depart from his prepared lines and think on his feet. The 'Snarl' effect is multi-faceted - it's not just the facial contortions, it's also the jabbing finger and the vengeful 'neutered Dalek' voice. He might just about be able to get away with such pointless belligerence in the bearpit of First Minister's Questions, but in the context of a more conversational TV debate it looks utterly ghastly.

Alex Salmond was in such fine form that he didn't need a lot of external assistance, but even so the opening question about whether Scotland had become a fairer place over the last four years worked in the SNP's favour in an unexpected way. Both Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott were keen to highlight their own achievements in the Scottish Parliament, but that necessitated a concession that, yes, indeed, Scotland had become fairer, which left Gray entirely on his own as he surveyed a landscape of SNP pestilence and devastation. An audience member - who didn't seem to be a Nationalist plant - delivered the coup de grâce by noting that after all the predictions of disaster of what would happen if the SNP came to office in 2007, they'd actually done pretty well. Nothing fantastic, but pretty well. For an incumbent government at the end of a four-year term, that's high praise indeed.

Gray's convoluted answer on the potential for a post-election coalition was telling - it seemed consistent with the conventional thinking that he is still personally hellbent on a toxic pact with the Lib Dems, but is keeping the option of minority government open to mollify colleagues who have thought the matter through rather more carefully. If the direction of travel for both Labour and the Lib Dems in recent polls continues, that may of course prove to be a somewhat academic dilemma.

Anyway, here is how I scored the leaders on their performances tonight -

Alex Salmond 9/10
Annabel Goldie 7/10
Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott 5/10
Iain "the Snarl" Gray 4/10

SNP storm into constituency vote lead with YouGov

Hot on the heels of Alex Salmond's clear win in the first TV debate comes a significant piece of corroboration of the good news for the SNP in yesterday's TNS-BMRB poll. YouGov actually has them one point ahead on the constituency vote, although they still trail Labour on the regional list. Here are the (almost) full figures -

Constituency vote :

SNP 40% (+2)
Labour 39% (-2)
Conservatives 11% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-1)

Regional list vote :

Labour 39% (-)
SNP 32% (-)
Conservatives ?
Greens 6% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-1)

This is the fifth Holyrood poll in a row to show the SNP up on their winning 2007 share - by a full seven points on the constituency vote, and one point on the list. The difference between the two ballots is slightly puzzling, given that in all three previous Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP's vote has held up somewhat better on the list than Labour's. There's no immediately obvious reason why that would change so dramatically now, and it has to be said in the last election some pollsters had the differential between the two ballots 'the wrong way round', so to speak.

Concluding grumble : I must say it really is intensely irritating that the Scotsman report manages to mention every single figure other than the Tories' regional list vote. Would it really kill them to find a spot to present the raw numbers in a straightforward fashion?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Green masterclass in evasion and double-standards

The SNP today confirmed that it would again be using the 'Alex Salmond for First Minister' description on the regional list ballot paper, although in accordance with the changed rules it will follow the words 'Scottish National Party'. This is an eminently sensible step given that the SNP are much more reliant than Labour on list seats, and in 1999 and 2003 lost many of their natural voters following widespread confusion over the function of the list vote - due in no small part to grossly misleading campaigns on behalf of smaller parties such as '2nd Vote Green', which deliberately gave the impression that the list vote was some kind of second preference. 'AS 4 FM' neatly emphasises the fact - and it is a fact - that it's the list vote that essentially determines who forms the government.

Naturally, the Greens in particular aren't best pleased about this development, as it makes it somewhat tougher for them to enjoy a repeat of 2003, when they won seven list seats partly on the back of the confusion their slogan had helped to sow. Given this track record, though, you'd think they wouldn't be foolish enough to brazenly criticise the SNP for using a 'slogan' that 'misleads voters'. You'd be wrong. See this tweet from James Mackenzie of Better Nation fame (that's "Mackenzie without a capitalised 'K'" - why does that chide remind me so much of Big Brother's Chantelle Houghton?) -

Shame on the @thesnp for putting Salmond on ballots he's not contesting. Gould report associated that with 75% of spoilt 2007 ballots.

I then entered into a brief exchange with him on the subject. As ever, it confirmed my belief that it's utterly impossible to make serious points within 140 characters, but neverthless the obfuscation and evasion from James is clear enough. Spot just how many times he tries to change the subject from the issue of the Greens' double-standard. (My favourite bit is when he falls back on the distraction technique of demanding to know why I'm being so "confrontational" - somewhat ironic for a man who opened with the words "Shame on the SNP"!) Generally speaking, people who have a convincing answer to a straight question will simply give it...

Me : Oh, come off it, James. Are you worried people will be reminded their list vote isn't some kind of second preference?

James Mackenzie : Have you read the Gould report? 75% of the problems were associated with sloganisation, and Salmond promised no repeats.

Me : Yes, I have read the Gould Report, and the 'sloganisation' bit was utter garbage.

Me : You need have no worry of Salmond causing a repeat, because 'AS 4 FM' was never a factor - it was the single ballot paper.

James Mackenzie : US election observers agreed. Misleading, meant people elected who shouldn't have been and vice versa.

Me : And the '2nd Vote Green' campaign in 1999 and 2003 wasn't misleading? Didn't lead to people being elected on false assumption?

Me : That was the misunderstanding that 'AS 4 FM' sought to correct, and it did so very successfully.

James Mackenzie : I'm afraid I'm with Gould on this.

Me : Now, why doesn't that surprise me? No comment on the question I asked about the grossly misleading 2nd Vote Green wheeze?

Me : Without such jiggery-pokery there wouldn't have been the need to clear up the confusion about importance of list vote.

James Mackenzie : You have to count the first vote first, to elect constituencies before you go AMS. It wasn't us who dubbed it the second vote.

Me : James, simple question - were Greens elected in 03 who wouldn't have been had 2nd vote not been misinterpreted as 2nd pref?

James Mackenzie : We said second vote. Your premise is flawed. Why so confrontational?

Me : James, why so evasive?

Me : And 'confrontational'? This is just a tad rich from the man who went into apoplexy over the tax powers non-issue!

James Mackenzie : That's a policy concern. We were the only party talking about using it. Still no idea why SNP let powers lapse.

Me : James, this is a total double-standard. Your party had no responsibility for the confusion it caused in 03?

Me : In fact, I suspect you know it's a double-standard, otherwise you wouldn't be evading the question like crazy.

James Mackenzie : We described the 2nd vote the same way the media did, as the 2nd vote.

Me : So you play a straight bat. It was OK because it was in the rules, even though it caused confusion.

Me : That's fine, but it does mean you're on incredibly weak ground attacking the SNP on 'AS 4 FM'.

James Mackenzie : Thanks for your views, but that's enough back-and-forth for now. I've got an election campaign to get on with.

Me : I would say thankyou for your answers, but...well, thanks for the virtuoso display of spin anyway!

So, to the very limited extent that James was interested in providing an answer, it seems his defence is that it wasn't the Greens' responsibility if their sloganising was misleading, because they were using terminology that others were using. In other words, they acted within the rules to frame a slogan that would maximise their vote and garner seats that would otherwise have been beyond their reach, putting party interest ahead of clarity for voters. And it worked - brilliantly. I have no complaint about that, but it's going to be a tad difficult for the Greens to now sanctimoniously talk about the "shameful irresponsibility" of another party's perfectly legitimate "sloganising", when their own adherence to the bottom line of self-interest in previous elections has been plain for all to see.

Dramatic TNS-BMRB poll turnaround sees SNP draw level

Remember that TNS-BMRB poll at the start of the year that showed Labour on 49%, sixteen points ahead of the SNP? Well, I'm not quite sure whether this proves that the SNP are on for the comeback of the century or merely that TNS-BMRB are rubbish, but things are looking slightly different now...

Constituency vote :

Labour 38% (-6)
SNP 37% (+8)
Conservatives 15% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-4)
Others 3% (-1)

Regional list vote :

SNP 35% (+6)
Labour 35% (-4)
Conservatives 14% (+4)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-2)
Greens 5% (-1)
Others 3% (-2)

This is now the fourth Holyrood poll in a row that shows the SNP up on their winning share from 2007. It was conducted for Scottish Television, whose Political Editor Bernard Ponsonby notes in true 'all must have prizes' fashion -

"Labour will be pleased that their vote appears to be holding up well. The SNP will be even more pleased because they are continuing to close the gap."

Yes, Bernard, with a 7.5% swing from Labour to SNP in the space of a mere two months, I think we can safely say the SNP will be "even more pleased" than Labour. How Labour's vote can be said to be "holding up well" when they have dropped eleven points since January is rather more of a mystery.

For what it's worth, my own view is that TNS-BMRB are not the most reliable of pollsters, and therefore all three of their polls this year should be treated with a certain degree of caution. I wonder if Labour's star blogger, Councillor Alex Ga...sorry, "Braveheart", will have any thoughts on the matter?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Could the party that 'wins' the Holyrood election be frozen out of office?

I have a new article up at Socyberty analysing recent Holyrood opinion poll trends, and speculating on the possibility that the party that wins most seats may not necessarily claim the keys to Bute House. As you'll probably deduce from the references to 'betting markets', this was the potential guest post for Political Betting that I mentioned earlier this morning. I later received an email from Mike Smithson which, although a bit ambiguous, seemed to indicate that he'd changed his mind about using it because so much is happening both domestically and abroad at the moment.

Here are the first couple of paragraphs -

"Recent polls in Scotland showing the SNP narrowing the gap have reignited interest in the betting markets for the forthcoming Holyrood election. Labour are still clear favourites, but it’s worth remembering – and too easily overlooked as a result of our relative unfamiliarity with proportional representation – that Alex Salmond’s party does not necessarily need to entirely overhaul Labour in the popular vote to remain in office. In countries across Europe that use PR, it’s quite routine for parties that finish in second place to form coalitions or looser arrangements that freeze out the largest party. In Ireland, for instance, Fine Gael have just ‘won’ an election for the very first time – and yet they’ve led governments on several previous occasions.

This does of course cut both ways – the SNP could finish first in terms of seats, but still see a Labour-led coalition take office. Indeed, the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell continued to harbour hopes of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats for several days after being pipped by the SNP in the 2007 election. So is there any particular reason to suppose that the SNP are the party with the best chance of forming a government from second place this time round?"

Continue reading the article here. Note that it's spread over two pages (in case it appears to come to an abrupt halt).

Events, dear boy, events - but which ones really count?

When I was posting on Political Betting about ten days ago, I noticed something peculiar. A couple of people went out of their way to ask me what effect I thought the crisis in Libya would have on the Scottish election, but it never seemed to occur to anyone that the concurrent nuclear crisis in Japan had a much more obvious read-through, given the SNP's long-standing anti-nuclear stance. I can't help feeling that's rather symptomatic of the right-of-centre unionist mindset - constantly scouring the international terrain for random events that will 'turn the tide against Scottish nationalism' and convincing themselves they've found some (eg. the banking crisis), while overlooking the fact that random events can just as easily move in the opposite direction and that there are one or two of those staring them in the face. It's probably also symptomatic of the state of denial so many find themselves in at the moment about just how fundamentally the nuclear lobby's credibility has been tarnished.

Curiously, Scottish Labour seem to be caught in that trance as well. On recent form, I naturally expected them to react to the changed situation by declaring, 1984-style, that "they are at war with nuclear power, they have always been at war with nuclear power, and frankly they demand to know when the Johnny-come-latelys in the SNP are going to join Labour's glorious crusade". But not a bit of it - it seems from the Herald that Labour's nuclear stance hasn't budged one inch...

"A spokesman for Labour said: “We will remove the presumption against new nuclear for the future.""

Well, one thing can be said for them - that is, in the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, a thoroughly "courageous" stance.


The leading Lib Dem candidate on the Central Scotland regional list (Hugh O'Donnell MSP, as was) has abruptly departed the party but "will not be missed", according to an unnamed source. Which begs the obvious question - if he was widely recognised as such a liability, what was he doing at the top of the list in the first place? The Lib Dems will be "more united without him", the source goes on. Hmmm. More narrowly-based, some might suspect.


Returning to the subject of Political Betting, on Monday I decided to try my luck and submitted a second potential guest post to the site, this time about recent Holyrood poll trends and the possible implications for post-election negotiations. Mike Smithson initially seemed to like it and said he'd probably use it the following day. When it hadn't appeared by Friday, I sent an email to see if it was still in the pipeline, but I haven't received a reply. So I'm now in limbo - if he's not going to use it, I'd quite like to post it here or somewhere else before it gets completely out of date, but I've no idea how long I should wait! Maybe one or two days more.