Saturday, April 16, 2011

Angus Reid : SNP on 36% for Westminster voting intention

We continue to await tonight's YouGov poll for Scotland on Sunday, which will be the first Holyrood poll in a couple of weeks - an almost obscene amount of time in the middle of a campaign. Kenny Farquharson, deputy editor of SoS and one of the paper's resident Nat-bashers, seems to be itching to gloat about the results, but the rest of us will just have to wait a few hours to see if the numbers justify that. In the meantime, I've finally managed to track down the Scottish subsample from last week's Angus Reid poll of GB-wide Westminster voting intentions (I was caught out because it was published on a different website this time), and the figures are actually extremely positive for the SNP...

Labour 40% (-3)
SNP 36% (-2)
Conservatives 14% (+4)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-)
Others 5% (+1)

As I always point out, Angus Reid subsamples are of more interest than those from other pollsters, because they tend to be more stable over time, suggesting they have been properly weighted. If the SNP are indeed only four points behind for Westminster, it seems reasonable to assume they'd be ahead in the Holyrood race, but are Angus Reid getting it right? You pays your money, and all that. Incidentally, this poll is a little out of date, but not much - the fieldwork dates were 8-11 April.

Meanwhile, if you want to have a go at reading the runes about the YouGov poll, here is a brief exchange I and a few others had with Kenny Farquharson on Twitter this afternoon -

Kenny Farquharson : My my, what a fascinating YouGov poll we have for you tomorrow.

Lydia Reid : Who will believe it if it is YouGov????

Kenny Farquharson : SNP had no problem believing the last one from a few weeks ago, Lydia, that had them ahead in the constituency vote.

Me : What a telling response, Kenny, taking it as read that Lydia knew what "fascinating" was code for. Well, didn't we all?

Kenny Farquharson : Meaning?

Me : Meaning, why assume that Lydia was rubbishing a bad poll for her party when she has no idea of the results yet?

Paul Togneri : I think the problems with YouGov had been to do with weighting. I believe they've been fixed but I'm no expert.

Roger Mullin : We shall see I know they got Party name wrong calling it Scottish Nationalist Party in this survey.

Kenny Farquharson : Bollocks, Roger, I have the exact wording in front of me.

So make of that what you will.

YouGov poll : All to play for in Wales

Still no sign of a new Holyrood poll, although for good or bad it sounds like we're twenty-four hours at most away from the next one. In the meantime, what we have instead is a YouGov poll for the Welsh Assembly election, which suggests that (contrary to what some would have you believe) Labour are by no means guaranteed an overall majority. Here are the full figures -

Constituency vote :

Labour 49% (+2)
Conservatives 20% (-1)
Plaid Cymru 17% (-)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-)

Regional list vote :

Labour 44% (-1)
Conservatives 20% (-)
Plaid Cymru 18% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-)

Although Wales uses the same Additional Member voting system as Scotland (or Mixed-Member Proportional as it's called in New Zealand), Labour rigged the ratio of constituency to list seats to give themselves a much better chance of winning an outright majority. Even so, on the numbers in this poll they'd only be past the post by one or two seats, so there must still be a fighting chance that Plaid Cymru will remain part of a coalition government after the election.

Since the assembly was founded in 1999, Labour have tried minority government, coalition with the Lib Dems and coalition with Plaid, so it would be interesting to know which will be their preferred option this time round if they don't creep past the winning line. By all accounts, the Labour/Plaid coalition has been surprisingly harmonious over the last four years, although that's probably partly because Welsh Labour is led by a small 'n' nationalist, and not a big 'G' Gray.

Friday, April 15, 2011

No polls is good news/bad news/indifferent news?

I'm glad someone at Newsnight Scotland has finally spotted the bleedin' obvious point that we've had no fresh Holyrood polls for ages, and all the supposed 'latest polls' and 'poll of polls' are just rehashed information from the end of March. What I found slightly troubling, though, is that John Curtice went on to say that he expected at least one poll at the weekend, and that would show 'whether the race is still neck-and-neck, or whether Labour has pulled away again and now looks like winning this election'. Why that binary choice in particular? Given the widespread acknowledgement that the SNP campaign has easily bettered Labour's to date, why not raise the other obvious possibility that the SNP now have a clear lead? The fact that he chose to phrase it in the way he did makes me wonder if he has some inside information about the weekend poll data. Hopefully just paranoia on my part, but if by any chance Labour's position has somehow improved on the back of the shockingly poor campaign they've been running so far...well, the mind boggles.

I can't even resort to April's Angus Reid subsample for clues, because as far as I can see they still haven't published it, even though the main GB figures were released several days ago - they seem to be getting later and later each time.

The numerical proof that this election is a real choice

One of the memes of this Holyrood campaign so far is the observation that, constitutional quibbles aside, the SNP and Labour programmes for government are near-enough identical, leaving the contest entirely about personalities and competence. In the circumstances that would be extremely handy, right enough, but I've never believed for one moment it was true. If you have any doubt on that point yourself, you might want to try out the Scottish Vote Compass quiz devised by Professor James Mitchell. My own political views turned out to be a +57 match for the SNP, and a -5 match (or non-match) for Labour. I'm not quite sure how a 62-point gap would be possible for two parties supposedly parked on precisely the same turf! And in case you think I was consciously giving 'SNP answers' to every question, I actually came out as a slightly stronger match (+60) for another party - not the Tories, I hasten to add...

Of course it's true there has been some policy convergence between the main parties, almost entirely due to Labour standing on their heads and accepting wholesale a series of SNP policies they have opposed for years. But there is still a very significant gap between the two sides - indeed, probably a widening one - on the libertarian/authoritarian axis. Labour also abandoned its idealistic opposition to nuclear weapons in the late 1980s, whereas the SNP stood absolutely firm and continue to do so. There's an equivalent difference of view on nuclear power, and of course the SNP can be trusted to adhere to international law in a way that recent history demonstrates Labour can't. But above all else there's a profound cultural difference between the two parties. In a nutshell, it's that Scottish Labour have a deeply unappealing born-to-rule arrogance, which the SNP for obvious reasons do not share. Indeed, many Labour figures seem to regard the SNP's very existence as an offence against nature. A certain Labour blogger recently recounted the discussion he once had with an SNP activist outside a polling station, in which he discovered they were on the same page on many policy areas. Why, then, aren't we in the same party, he asked her, working together to deliver the things we both believe in?

Now, call me cynical, but I somehow suspect that he wasn't talking about a merged centre-left party with a rational compromise position on Scotland's constitutional future that shows due respect for both sides of the argument (ie. simply letting the people decide in a referendum). Knowing what we know about this blogger, I also think it's highly unlikely he was suggesting that he might consider joining the SNP. What he actually meant, of course, was that the SNP activist should be a sensible wee girl, forget all about this national self-determination malarkey and join Labour. But why does it have to be that way round? Because Labour were here first, presumably.

Forgive me if I say I need a slightly more persuasive reason than that for thinking I support the wrong party. And the old faithful "but yer faether was a Labour man" has never really cut it with me either. Call me radical, but I'm quite attached to this new-fangled idea of making up my own mind...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blaming the interviewer for Tavish Scott's Newsnight meltdown won't wash

I've just caught up with Caron Lindsay's defence of Tavish Scott's now-infamous performance on Newsnight Scotland earlier in the week. She broadly blames the meltdown on Gordon Brewer's impertinent questions (© Peter Cook). But, to put it mildly, a few points simply aren't stacking up -

"We can't pretend that the UK coalition doesn't exist - and nor do we want to, to be honest. It ain't perfect, but at least we're delivering Lib Dem policies..."

Which is fine, but if you want to credibly share the credit for the supposedly good things the coalition have done, you have to do one of two things in relation to the somewhat less good things they've also done - either a) back them up and take the flak for them, or b) condemn your southern colleagues for the mistakes they've made. What you can't reasonably do is say "if you like things the London Lib Dems have done, ask me and I'll tell you all about it, but if you don't like things they've done, for heaven's sake go and ask them - nothing to do with me, guv".

Caron goes on -

"Nor is he a member of the UK Parliament and as such is not responsible for the actions of our Scottish MPs and how they might have voted on tuition fees."

Well, I think he kind of is responsible for it when one of those Scottish MPs (Jo Swinson) is his own deputy as party leader, and when every single one of them was elected on the "Scottish Liberal Democrat" ticket last year. If Caron doesn't want the Scottish Lib Dem chief to be held to account for these people's actions, perhaps instead of moaning about an interviewer asking perfectly logical questions she should press for future Lib Dem candidates in Scottish Westminster contests to stand on a "British Liberal Democrat" label instead? Indeed, in relation to the Higher Education issue it would be more logical for them to go the whole hog and stand on an "English Liberal Democrat" label, given that Swinson, Bruce, Alexander and Moore voted through higher tuition fees for English students alone.

"One other low point was Brewer's line of questioning on a press release our George Lyon had put out attacking Labour for shifting position on closure of Accident and Emergency Units at Monklands and Ayr. What George was doing was rightly to point out the opportunism of the Labour party bending over backwards to be on the same page as the SNP in this election. Yes, Liberal Democrats were in the Government which attempted to close those units, but doing so was a Labour initiative, when Andy Kerr, Labour's current finance spokesman, was health minister."

Brewer was in fact making a very straightforward point - that Lyon was being hypocritical in criticising Labour for making a U-turn and supporting an SNP policy when the U-turn the Lib Dems have made on the same topic is identical. Literally identical. They supported the A&E closures in government (it doesn't matter if it wasn't their original idea because it couldn't have gone through without their backing) and now they support the SNP's popular decision to keep those departments open. That fact is absolutely irrefutable, which is why Tavish looked so foolish in trying to deny it, and indeed initially pretending that he didn't understand the question. He'd have been far better off simply distancing himself from Lyon's view.

Yet another sign that Scottish Labour have adopted the "Big Lie" model of political propaganda

OK, so let me get this straight. The formal campaign for the Holyrood election runs for more than a month. During that period, there has been/will be four editions of the BBC's Question Time broadcast across Scotland in a prime slot. All four of them will feature a Labour representative. In all likelihood, just one - tonight's - will feature an SNP representative. According to an official complaint submitted by Labour (!), this means that the SNP are being given -

"unfair airtime during an election campaign"

Righty-ho, guys. Whatever you say.

After Labour's wholesale stealing of a number of flagship SNP policies (council tax freeze, no tuition fees, retention of A&E services, free prescriptions, etc, etc) followed by the brazen claim that "the SNP are puffing and panting to catch up" with Labour's agenda, it's becoming ever more clear that Iain Gray's mob have consciously embraced the "Big Lie" model of political propaganda, as defined by George Orwell in the following terms -

"The key-word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts."

Labour MP helpfully lives up to caricature

Tuesday evening's very funny broadcast by the Yes to AV campaign featured a self-satisfied MP being confronted by voters while he is busy enjoying the finer things in life. They suggest to him that AV will make him work harder for them by forcing him to seek 50% of the vote at general elections. "Work...harder?" he mouths disdainfully, with the emphasis on the word that seems to cause him almost physical pain. "Can we rely on you to vote Yes on May 5th?" the voters press him. "Certainly not!" is the emphatic reply.

Yesterday, in a stunning exemplar of the famed self-awareness of certain Labour MPs, Ian Murray announced that he was so miffed at the suggestion in the broadcast that he and his colleagues could possibly "work harder" that he has now decided to vote No, having previously been undecided. In other words, he's quite brazenly admitting that he's made this important decision entirely on the basis of his wounded pride as an MP, rather than on the merits of the two voting systems we're choosing between. Yep, Ian, that's a grand way of demonstrating to us all that the Yes campaign's depiction of MPs as being totally self-absorbed and self-interested is well wide of the mark.

It's also worth pointing out that if the message of the broadcast hit such a nerve with MPs, it's also likely to have hit a nerve with voters - but probably in a slightly different way.


Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie came up with a devilishly original ploy on Newsnight Scotland last night, dodging an awkward question by flatly denying that she is the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Now, if she tries that defence in one of the leaders' debates, we really will be entering Alice in Wonderland territory...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Such indulgence...

Scotland isn't the only country in the middle of the election campaign at the moment - Finland goes to the polls in a few days' time, and then it's Canada's turn on May 2nd.  The first of two Canadian leaders' debates has just taken place, and as is traditional, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois took part on an absolutely equal basis, in recognition of his party's status as a major player in one province of the country.

Crikey. Are the Canadian broadcasters nuts?  Don't they realise that a ten-second reminder midway through the debate that a funny little local party is also available would fulfil the requirements for balanced coverage within Quebec more than adequately?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If English Higher Education policy has 'nothing to do' with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, why have they helped to vote through higher fees for English students?

Lib Dem blogger Caron Lindsay left a couple of comments on my post about Tavish Scott's double-standard of 'basking in the reflected glory' of Westminster coalition policies he agrees with, while refusing to explictly distance himself from coalition policies such as tuition fees that he must by definition disagree with (because the Scottish party has followed a completely different path).  Here is what Caron had to say -

"Policy on Scottish Higher Education is none of Nick Clegg's business. It's all down to the Scottish Party. Similarly, the Scottish Party has no control over what the party in England decides to do on tuition fees down there. That's what devolution is all about."

Which begs the obvious question - what on earth was "Deputy Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats" and East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson doing voting through higher university tuition fees for English students?  The same question of course also applies to a number of other Scottish Lib Dem MPs, such as Danny Alexander and Malcolm Bruce.

Not so much a case of the Lib Dems having their cake and eating it, but of having their cake, eating it, and then consuming it.

The first principle of 'first past the post' is that no-one has a clue where the 'post' actually is

I've just caught up with the No to AV television ad.  Based on the delights of the poster campaign to date, I was naturally expecting the following tearful dialogue at a hospital bedside -

"But what happened, doctor?  He seemed to be getting better..."

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Peters.  It was the alternative voting system."

But, no, it seems they've now moved on from tragedy to 'comedy'.  We were treated to three basic messages - AV makes coalitions likely (it doesn't), AV means losers win and winners lose (they're thinking of the current system), and AV is really, really complicated (it's actually simpler than the voting system on the X Factor).  To drive the latter point home, a 'teacher' was depicted trying to explain this fantastically straightforward system to her 'students' in the most garbled way imaginable.  Having evidently concluded that her charges were nowhere near befuddled enough, she then resorted to a piece of outright invention from her trusty 'AV manual' -

"No, you can only use the third preferences for those people who have already been eliminated twice."

Now, of course what she's describing here bears absolutely no resemblance to AV, but all the same, a voting system under which a candidate can be eliminated, reinstated and eliminated again (at which point the returning officer rings round the voters and informs them that they can now use their third preferences if they'd like) certainly sounds like cracking good fun.  Can we have a referendum on that one as well, please?

Meanwhile, the 'losers win' point was illustrated by means of the ubiquitous horse-race visual metaphor, with the 'winning jockey' moaning that he'd passed the finishing line first, but AV had handed victory to the horse that came in third.  Now, this bugs me, because as I've pointed out before, if there's one system that can most accurately be described as 'first past the post', it's actually AV - for the very simple reason that it provides a fixed 'winning post', namely 50% of the vote.  By contrast, under our supposedly 'simple' current system, no-one has the faintest idea what will constitute the winning post - it might be as little as 15% of the vote, or as much as 45%.  Where it finally falls is determined by a complex mixture of how many candidates there are, and how evenly the vote is spread between them.  So to return to the horse-racing metaphor, Jason Maguire may have thought he won the Grand National on Saturday, but if the race had been conducted according to the principles of our current voting system he might well have had this to say afterwards -

"I thought I'd won, because I was ahead after all nineteen fences, and I was still ahead where the finishing line normally is, but now they're saying they've moved the winning post back to fence 11 because there were so many horses in the race, and that means someone else has won instead.  I asked them why they couldn't just tell us in advance that the winning line would be there, because after all they knew how many horses were in the race before we started, but they said it wasn't as simple as that.  Apparently they had to wait and see how big the gap was between all the horses midway through the race before they could work out which fence would be the last one.  It's a bit confusing, really.  I'm gutted.  Totally gutted."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Official : Tavish only 'agrees with Nick' because to do otherwise would 'look like panic'

Yesterday's Politics Show leaders' debate shed considerably more heat than light, but all the same there were a few extremely telling moments, none more so than when Isabel Fraser asked Tavish Scott why he hadn't distanced himself from Nick Clegg by conceding that his UK party leader had made a massive mistake and let people down.  This was the rather extraordinary reply - 

"Because I think it would have looked like panic..."

That's a strikingly honest answer, but I'm not sure it's one that's going to be terribly attractive to voters.  He's essentially openly admitting that what he says about the actions of the Westminster coalition will not be based on principle or even on loyalty, but simply on a crude calculation of 'what would look bad'.  Well, if that's the sole test, perhaps he'd like to know for future reference that his indignant cries of "this is so unfair!" when he was put on the spot for politicking over alcohol pricing didn't come across at all well.

Alex Salmond had a brilliant and unanswerable reply when Fraser raised his supposed 'problem with women', namely that if he has such a problem then all the other leaders must have as well, because he actually has the highest personal ratings with both genders.  Nevertheless (and at the risk of sounding like a broken record here), I look forward to the day when an interviewer gets round to asking a leader about his or her 'problem with men'.  For as long as there are gender gaps in polling data the issue will always cut both ways, but the media don't seem to have spotted that rather obvious point yet.

As ever, the debate's much-needed comedy moments were unwittingly supplied by Iain "the Snarl" Gray.  When asked if anyone who carried a knife would be automatically sent to prison, he replied "no" emphatically.  Only those who were convicted of carrying a knife would be subject to mandatory jail terms.  OK, so we've now established that Labour don't want to introduce internment without trial.  Given the recent direction of travel, I suppose that's a relief of sorts.

But it got better.  Fraser challenged him on the cost and practicalities of sending far more people to jail, and added with a touch of irony "presumably you've done the figures".  A look of sheer panic appeared on Gray's face, and as he tried desperately hard to think of something to say he very sloooowly intoned the words "yes-I-have-done-the-figures", as if it honestly hadn't occurred to him that he was being asked what the figures actually were.  There's really got to be a better way of flannelling than that - it was right up there with his all-time classic "well, yes I can speak Portuguese actually".

Having said all that, Gray successfully managed to avoid his finger-jabbing excesses of the STV debate, and with Scott looking so uncomfortable on a number of occasions it's a bit harder to say who was the outright loser this time.  Here is how I would rate it -

Alex Salmond 8/10
Annabel Goldie 6/10
Iain Gray 5/10
Tavish Scott 5/10

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Scotland through to world curling final

I was hoping/dreading (delete as appropriate) that we might have another Holyrood opinion poll overnight, but as that doesn't seem to be the case I'll instead say a quick congratulations to Tom Brewster and his Scotland team for reaching the final of the world curling championships in Canada - they defeated Thomas Ulsrud's formidable Norwegian rink in an extra end within the last hour.  We can take particular satisfaction from this result given that the Swedish skip, watching from the sidelines, was undiplomatically keen to write Scotland off...

"Edin’s troops will now prepare for Sunday’s bronze-medal game at 12 noon against the semi-final loser.

“I think Norway will win for sure so we are expecting to play Scotland,” said Edin. “Norway has really stepped up its game by 10 per cent over the Scottish team.""

It's hard to be hugely optimistic about tomorrow's final against the host nation given that Canada have already beaten Scotland twice this week, and with a bit to spare on both occasions.  However, Brewster and his inexperienced team have already handsomely exceeded expectations.  And if by any chance Scotland do win, there's one obvious question - will the Canadians play God Save the Queen in our 'honour' once again?! 

UPDATE : Alex Massie, who celebrated the Scottish women's team's semi-final triumph over Canada last year in admirably restrained fashion with the words "take that moose-munchers, now for the Krauts", is rather more bullish about our chances in the final...

"OK, Great Satan you have beaten Truth, Honesty, Goodness & Virtue twice this tournament but the Final must be ours, OK?"