Saturday, May 7, 2011

John McTernan on one-man mission to thwart the democratic process?

It seems Scottish Labour's very own Prince of Darkness can't even let the dust settle on the election result before practicing the dark arts once again. Iain Macwhirter's jaw almost dropped to the floor last night when McTernan claimed that an independence referendum wouldn't happen on the grounds of illegality. McTernan loudly protested that this wasn't a political point, it was simply a matter of "fact". Which, however deluded, I was prepared to accept as an honest view until I spotted that he'd touched on the same issue from a slightly different angle in his latest Scotsman column -

"This leaves Labour with some stark choices. They need a candidate for presiding officer - a crucial position, given the SNP commitment to a referendum bill. The Scotland Act clearly states: "The following aspects of the constitution are reserved matters … 1 (b) the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England". The presiding officer has to assure themselves that any government bills are within vires before putting them before the chamber in Holyrood. Labour's Hugh Henry looks like the right man for this job."

Tell me, John, if an independence referendum's illegality is simply a matter of 'fact', why on earth would Labour need the 'right' Presiding Officer to interpret the matter in a favourable way?

I've no idea if Labour would be crazy enough to heed McTernan's advice - as Iain Macwhirter pointed out, it's these destructive neanderthal attitudes that helped to take the party into the wilderness in the first place. But I hope SNP members are at least alive to the danger, and bear it in mind as they vote in the secret ballot for the new Presiding Officer next week.


I've just caught up with the news that Tavish Scott has resigned as Liberal Democrat leader. In one sense I'm actually quite surprised, because a party that's been reduced to a rump doesn't have a lot of options. Well, to be precise, they now have four options, and by a process of elimination I presume it'll have to be either Liam McArthur or Willie Rennie.

Friday, May 6, 2011

SNP win overall majority of nine seats

Like a lot of people, I didn't get much sleep last night, so I'll write a more coherent post later (possibly!). In the meantime, I thought I'd just wallow in the sheer arithmetical poetry of the final result...

SNP 69 (+22)
Labour 37 (-9)
Conservatives 15 (-2)
Liberal Democrats 5 (-11)
Greens 2 (-)
Independent 1 (-)

Overall SNP majority of 9 seats (possibly 10 once a Presiding Officer has been chosen). Incredibly, that's slightly bigger than the one enjoyed by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in the 2003-2007 parliament.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Yet another 'final' - and very silly - poll of the campaign

The polls have already closed, but is there ever going to be an end to these "final opinion polls of the campaign"?! Here's one more from Progressive Scottish Opinion...

Constituency vote :

SNP 51% (+6)
Labour 26% (-9)
Conservatives 12% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)

Regional list vote :

SNP 53% (+12)
Labour 22% (-14)
Conservatives 12% (+4)
Greens 5% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 3% (-2)

In all honesty I think these are very silly figures that can be safely ignored. The fieldwork overlapped with the far, far narrower YouGov poll - and of course YouGov itself overstated the SNP by several points last time round.

How's everyone's nerves?

UPDATE (1.15am): OK, as I watch Linda Fabiani jumping up and down in East Kilbride, maybe it wasn't quite such a daft poll!

Colour coding genius, and a grand polling day for ducks

Well, what a wizard idea it was to make the referendum ballot paper grey. I almost put it in the wrong ballot box because it was barely distinguishable from the faded lilac paper in the gloom, but that's as nothing compared to what's happening in England - apparently the local election ballot papers are white. So no danger of confusion there! Reports are also surfacing of polling station staff not handing over referendum ballot papers unless specifically requested to do so - which if true ought to cause a monumental stooshie, but will probably be glossed over as per usual.

One thing that interested me was to see how well the 'Alex Salmond for First Minister' description stood out this time - after all, unlike 2007 it wasn't at the top of the ballot paper for alphabetical reasons, and wasn't the sole wording in the SNP box. But to my surprise I think it actually was quite eye-catching - probably because most other parties didn't bother with an additional description.

As for myself, I've spent part of polling day being royally entertained by right-wing Tories (ie. the most natural of all Yes to AV voters) who assure me that my 'arrogance' in pointing out the lies of the No campaign has single-handedly persuaded them all to "switch from Yes to No" at the last minute. Now, obviously I'll be gutted to be solely responsible for any defeat, but I can't deny it's rather thrilling to discover that I unwittingly wield such enormous power. Even better, one of the "Yes voters" I alienated was none other than Martin Coxall, the former Tory council candidate who you may remember had his fifteen seconds of fame last year after donning a John Prescott mask, allegedly assualting two female Labour party workers, and being arrested for his troubles. Yup, these are quality votes I've been squandering.

Last but not least, I have a nagging worry there may be something symbolic about a campaign of glorious weather that concludes with a polling day of relentless drizzle. Let's hope it's not a grey day presaging a Gray outcome...

The wall-to-wall insult to our intelligence that has been the 'No to AV' campaign

As we move into polling day for only the second UK-wide referendum in history, I think this recent tweet sums up the position rather succinctly -

"Having spoken to a few & watching Facebook.. those voting YES tomorrow understand why. Those voting NO don't. Which is scary."

There's no great mystery as to why that's happening - the Yes campaign have actually been making the case for AV, while the No side have utterly failed to make a case for the current system. Their main strategy has been to sow confusion and doubt over what AV would mean, often contradicting themselves to the point of absurdity in the process. In fact, it's been such a cynical effort that many opponents of electoral reform haven't even bothered trying to defend the campaign - their holding line has been "but the Yes campaign has been just as bad". Well, it hasn't. It hasn't been perfect by any means, but the closing broadcast fronted by Dan Snow was 100% focussed on illuminating for voters how AV actually works (as opposed to the fantasy) and the strong case for concluding that it produces outcomes that reflect the will of the electorate much more accurately. The final No broadcast, by contrast, served up yet more drivel about how AV would mark the end of "one person, one vote", and the entirely invented "cost" of the system. (And that's leaving aside the appearance of a Rogue's Gallery of some of the most thuggish and illiberal politicians this country has produced in recent times, who have all - coincidentally - lined up on the No side.)

The magnus opus of the campaign of deception was of course the glossy leaflet the No side sent out to every household in the land a couple of weeks ago. I meant to dissect it at the time, but now is as good time as any. Let's take it in bite-sized chunks...

The Cost :

In spite of the fact that the figure has been long since discredited, the leaflet lies through its teeth with the headline "The Cost of AV is £250 Million". It then brazenly begins its breakdown of that number by revealing that £91 million of it is the cost of the referendum itself. In other words, money that will have been spent regardless of whether the result is Yes or No. By this logic, we'd be equally justified in calling the £91 million "the cost of retaining the current electoral system". Or perhaps their implicit pitch is "Vote No and this referendum will never have happened"?

The bulk of the remainder of the "£250 million" is the cost of counting machines - which it has been repeatedly pointed out won't be needed, since all the countries that use AV count votes by hand, just as we do at present. Of course counting machines can be used under AV - but equally they can be used under the current system, or under any other system. Perhaps the No campaigners would like to take up this issue if we ever have a referendum on whether to switch to using counting machines - but we're not having one of those at the moment. Indeed, the best reason of all for being reassured that we wouldn't use such machines if we move to AV is that the decision would be taken by the UK government - which is dominated by the very No to AV campaigners in the Tory party who have been prattling on about the subject for months. You can't get a much more effective 'double-lock' than that.

The last bit of the breakdown of the "cost" is £26 million for explaining the system to voters. Well, the Electoral Commission runs information campaigns before each and every significant election, so it seems reasonable to assume that explanations of the new system could be easily incorporated into those.

In a nutshell, switching to AV would cost virtually NOTHING.

What the "money saved" could be spent on :

(Note - to deal with the idiocy of this bit of the leaflet, we have to assume for the sake of argument that the £250 million figure has some validity, which of course it doesn't.) We're offered some startlingly specific examples of what we could have "instead of AV" - 2,504 doctors, perhaps, or if it's more to your taste, 35,885 hip replacements. The implicit argument here is that it's a moral outrage if good money is ever spent on absolutely anything other than these core priorities. Well, that's intriguing, because one thing that the sight of the aforementioned Rogue's Gallery of No supporters brought home the other night is that there's a considerable overlap between opponents of AV and those who are most keen on wasting billions of pounds on the utterly useless status symbol of Trident. Perhaps they'd like to talk to us some time about the 2,457,519,874 teachers they decided were far less important than the nominal capacity of David Cameron to annihilate the population of St Petersburg on a whim?

And it has to be said that the No campaign have spent rather a lot of money themselves. Surely according to their own laudable strictures that money ought to have been donated to a medical charity instead, or some such other good cause?

The Map :

It's a tough call, but arguably the most ludicrous part of the leaflet is the map which splits the world into just two camps - those countries that use AV, and those that don't. So apparently all the many things that divide countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the UK (you know, whether they have Islamic theocracy, absolute monarchy, communist dictatorship, or "good old" first-past-the-post democracy) pale into insignificance compared to the one and only thing that unites them - that they don't use AV. This argument becomes even sillier when you bear in mind that many of the "non-AV countries" (France, for instance) use run-off systems that are actually much closer in principle to AV than to our current system.

Now, if I was going to split the democratic world into two camps (and it can really only be done for the democratic world - praying in aid the likes of Burma is daft and offensive beyond words), the division would be between those countries which have introduced some kind of electoral reform, and those that still use first-past-the-post - mainly because they inherited it from the British colonial era and haven't got round to changing it. The primary reason that only three countries specifically use AV is quite simply that most countries go the whole hog when they introduce electoral reform, and jump direct to full-blown proportional representation. Most Yes campaigners would like to do that here. Who stopped us from making that choice? Why, that would be the No campaigners in the Tory party, who brought forward a referendum on AV alone as "a final offer" to the Liberal Democrats, to "go the extra mile". It's a bit rich for them to now claim that the wrong sort of electoral reform is on the ballot paper, when they were the ones who put it there and denied us every other choice.

The Sporting Metaphor :

Ah, a No to AV leaflet simply wouldn't be complete without a picture of a sporting event, with an arrow pointing to a losing athlete, designating him as "the winner under AV". The problem here is that I can clearly detect a winning line in that picture, which makes it grossly unrealistic if it's supposed to be a depiction of the current voting system. AV has a clearly defined and logical winning post (50% of the vote) that everyone can understand - ironically, the so-called 'first-past-the-post' system has nothing of the kind. How many 100m races have you seen in which the contest was called off and a winner declared after 37 metres, because the judges felt it was "too complicated" to wait and see who would have been ahead after 100 metres? That's the present Westminster electoral system in a nutshell. The winning line might be 24% of the vote, it might be 48% - don't worry your pretty little heads about it, you'll find out after the race. See here for a jaw-dropping example of a candidate elected under first-past-the-post on the basis of just 7.7% of the vote. That happened in Papua New Guinea - which might just give you a small clue as to the rather good reason why that country switched to AV in the first place.

The Scottish Factor :

As far as I can see, the only nod to Scottish distinctiveness in the leaflet is some small print that indirectly acknowledges that we have already scrapped first-past-the-post for most elections, but asks us to consider this -

"There are already five different voting system in use in the UK - do we really need to complicate things with another?"

Just how slippery can they get - are they talking about "we in Scotland" (as Mrs Thatcher would say) or "we in the UK"? If the former, we in fact have four electoral systems at present - AMS for the Scottish Parliament, first-past-the-post for Westminster, a list system for the European Parliament, and STV for local elections. If we vote Yes to AV, we'll still have four - AMS, AV, list and STV. I don't know about you, but I make that exactly the same number.

* * *

I'm under no illusions here - if the polls are to be believed, the vested interests in the London establishment (not least in the odious right-wing press) are about to succeed in snuffing out hope for change. But this has been my potted guide to why they don't deserve to succeed - and I still hope that as many people as possible vote Yes, to keep the electoral reform torch burning, however dimly.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

YouGov poll : SNP lead steady on both ballots

No rest for the wicked - no sooner had I finished saying that I wasn't sure if YouGov voting intention figures were going to appear today, they appear!

Constituency vote :

SNP 42% (-)
Labour 35% (+1)
Conservatives 11% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)

Regional list vote :

SNP 35% (-)
Labour 32% (-1)
Conservatives 13% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Greens 6% (-1)

This is basically a steady-as-she-goes poll - the SNP lead has crept up a bit on the regional list ballot, but has slipped very slightly in the constituencies. Of course it's the regional list vote that essentially determines the outcome, so it's slightly concerning that the lead there remains within the standard margin of error (a 'statistical tie', as the Americans would put it). But the good news is that it really does now look like the Royal Wedding has had no impact at all.

As a reference-point, the YouGov poll at the equivalent stage four years ago showed SNP leads of 6% and 5% respectively - so if today's leads are being overstated by the same amounts, this could yet be very close. However, a significant difference this time is that we won't have the Sun attempting a hatchet job on the SNP tomorrow morning (quite the reverse, in fact).

UPDATE : One point of concern from the YouGov polling that I hadn't previously spotted is that the SNP lead is largely founded on support from younger age groups - an exact reversal of the pattern in 2007. The problem is that the younger you are, the less likely you are to turn out to vote. Of course reported likelihood to vote is already factored into the headline YouGov figures - but unfortunately an unrealistic 70% of respondents claimed they were 'absolutely certain to vote', leaving an important question mark hanging in the air.

YouGov : 56% of public want SNP to either have more seats, or same number won in 2007

I now know the answer to my own question from the previous post - the rumoured final YouGov poll of the campaign appears to have been privately commissioned by the Green party. They haven't released the voting intention figures (or at least not yet), but have instead published the results of a supplementary question, which reminded respondents of the seat totals in 2007, and asked them if they'd like each party to win more seats, the same, or fewer this time round. The press release does its level best to convince us that the Greens come out on top on that measure, but looking at the detailed figures that's in fact highly debatable - 40% of respondents want the SNP to win more than their previous tally of forty-seven seats, compared to just 34% who want the Greens to win more than their current two seats.

The good news is that all the other parties come out worse - only 31% want Labour to win more than the forty-six seats they held at dissolution, while as many as 41% want them to win fewer seats. So the message is clear - the public want the SNP to win this election. But do they realise that the way to get that desired outcome is to vote SNP on the regional list ballot? Unless the Greens release the voting intention figures, we'll have to wait until Friday to find out.

The last lap - but still one more poll to come?

If Hamish Macdonnell was right in the Spectator Coffee House a couple of days ago, the SNP may actually be dismayed by their huge lead in the latest TNS-BMRB poll - he claimed that the party's ideal was for a narrower lead, so that supporters would know they really had to turn out to vote (and presumably not to stray on the all-important list vote). However, certainly much better to have a huge lead than no lead at all, which is what I feared when John MacKay started hinting about a "dramatic shift" at 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon! Here are the figures...

Constituency vote :

SNP 45% (+8)
Labour 27% (-11)
Conservatives 15% (-)
Liberal Democrats 10% (+3)

Regional list vote :

SNP 38% (+3)
Labour 25% (-10)
Conservatives 16% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 9% (+1)
Greens 8% (+3)

Although STV were keen to bill this as the last poll of the campaign, I've seen one or two people report that they've replied to voting intention questions for YouGov over the last couple of days, so unless that's a private poll for a political party it seems likely there's one more to come. I can't say I particularly welcome that prospect, given the mental torture in the run-up to the publication of these polls as those in the know drop hints, but it looks like we're all going to be put through that wringer one more time...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Are the Greens determined to be so difficult to love?

What is it with the Scottish Greens of late? Like many nationalists, I feel they reflect my views more closely than any party other than the SNP itself. But they're becoming very, very hard to love. You might recall that a few weeks ago I took issue with James Mackenzie on Twitter after he said this -

"Shame on the @thesnp for putting Salmond on ballots he's not contesting."

That was, to put it mildly, a touch sanctimonious - he was criticising the SNP for 'misleading' the electorate, even though they were acting entirely within the rules to amplify the vital importance of the list vote, and even though the Greens themselves were about to embark once again on a grossly misleading '2nd Vote Green' campaign, designed (albeit deniably) to give the false impression that the all-important regional list ballot is some kind of second preference vote. When I tackled him on the latter issue, James fell back on a series of obviously well-rehearsed technical arguments, ie. it can be called the second vote because others have called it that, it must be the second vote because by the nature of the AMS system it has to be counted second, etc, etc.

Well, that would be fine - these are handy excuses for sacrificing clarity for voters in favour of a perfectly legitimate vote-maximising strategy. (Rod Crosby of Political Betting recently directly me to a piece of academic research that showed many people wrongly believed the 'second vote' label was indicative of a second preference vote, so there can be no real doubt that the Greens' sloganising fuels that confusion.) But the double-standard in doing that and at the same time going into apoplexy over the SNP using a legitimate description on the ballot paper designed to maximise their own vote is plain for all to see. Basically, James was on very, very weak ground, and that became increasingly obvious towards the end of the exchange as he tried to deflect attention from the central issue by asking why I was being so "confrontational" (opening by saying "shame on the SNP" isn't confrontational, James?) and then haughtily announcing that he was far too busy running an election campaign to worry himself with all this nonsense.

Anyway, a near carbon copy of that exchange occurred again today - the only difference this time being that James initiated it, before hurriedly realising yet again that a discussion in which he is unable to come up with credible answers to awkward questions is way beneath his dignity...

Me (speaking to one-man Scottish Labour Twitter presence Duncan Hothersall) : No, I'm asking you why Labour didn't legislate to stop it happening if they felt it was so 'wrong'?

James Mackenzie : Gould said names of candidates not standing in that region were misleading.

Me : You're on thin ground here, James, when your party has been peddling this misleading '2nd Vote Green' wheeze for weeks.

James Mackenzie : You do understand that's what your own Scottish Government calls it?

Me : Actually, I've heard the SNP refer to it as the first vote a few times. Which is handed over first?

James Mackenzie : Logically, you have to count constituencies first. That's AMS. So that's why SG, EC, UK Govt. etc all use that description.

Me : Is that an indication that the list vote is handed over first? I'm just wondering because you didn't answer the question.

James Mackenzie : There isn't an agreed order for polling place staff to hand over ballot papers as far as I know. Is that what you're asking?

Me : Yes it is.

James Mackenzie : I think they get handed all together. But it would indeed make sense to put the first vote first.

Me : By 'first' you mean constituency, ie. the less important one?

Me : So why call it '2nd vote' if there isn't an agreed order? Bit misleading, no?

James Mackenzie : We just covered that. The Scottish Government call it that because you logically count it second.

Me : I've already pointed out that the SNP have referred to it as a first vote. Logical, because it's the more important one.

James Mackenzie : I'm honestly not going to waste time debating this today. I'd take it up with the next Scottish Govt, whoever that may be.

Me : Shame on the Greens for running away from answering for their own misleading tactics...

Note - that parting shot was intended as a 'tribute tweet' in the style of James, before anyone accuses me of being "confrontational" again...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Taggart actors are so easily distracted

What a peculiar hotch-potch of a Party Election Broadcast from Labour. It's as if they can't quite bring themselves to let go of their old (ie. pre-Easter Monday) campaign message of "now the Tories are back", but at the same time also want to cram in the 'new' message of "oooh, isn't independence scary?". What they ended up with was effectively "now the Tories are back at Westminster, isn't independence from Westminster scary?", which I'm not sure is going to entirely resonate.

Incidentally, I gather that the husky voice warning us that the SNP were being "distracted" by their "crazy obsession with independence" may well have belonged to none other than Taggart actor John Michie. Which is a tad ironic, given that the same Mr Michie found himself so distracted by his own crazy obsession, Scottish independence, that he went on This Week just days before the 2007 Scottish Parliament election to tell Andrew Neil all about it. If memory serves me right, he felt that independence would unleash a "new entrepreneurial spirit" in Scotland.

Labour certainly know how to pick 'em.

Which brings me to Richard Wilson's monologue at the end. I trust this means we'll hear no more complaints from Labour about celebrity endorsements for the SNP from non-Scottish residents such as Sean Connery and Alan Cumming. After all, if we heed Wilson's advice and elect Iain "the Snarl" Gray as our national leader on Thursday, I somehow don't think the One Foot in the Grave star will be here to enjoy the 'benefits' personally. And if he says otherwise, I don't be-lieeeeeeve it.

When will Gray be forced to simply admit : "I disagree with Wendy"?

I don't have a huge amount to say about tonight's BBC leaders' debate, which unfolded pretty much as anticipated. Gray didn't quite live down to his snarling, finger-jabbing worst, but if anything Salmond was also better than before, so the gap between the two remained intact. I can give Tavish Scott some credit this time for finally dispensing with his 'have his cake and eat it' approach to whether or not he wants to be associated with Clegg and the London government, although I have a feeling he might still have lapsed back into it if he'd been pressed. There was, however, an unfortunate repeat of his indignant "this is so unfair" moment from a previous debate when Salmond suggested that the unionist parties talk Scotland down. I'd have thought that charge was fairly unanswerable - after all, we've heard within the last week from Ed Balls that an independent Scotland is a "crackers" idea that would lead to "catastrophe". No-one can pretend that's an insult to the SNP as a party - it's a straightforward denial of this country's capacity to govern itself competently under any leadership.

Although I was glad that Glenn Campbell prodded Gray on Labour's recent inconsistency on an independence referendum, I still long for the day that an interviewer properly nails the Labour leader on his absurd insistence that his current stance on the issue is in some way perfectly reconcilable with Wendy Alexander's. Yes, Wendy said she wasn't signing a blank cheque on the wording of the question, and yes, she said she preferred an early referendum to a later one - but the bottom line is that she clearly indicated that a referendum wouldn't be blocked, even if it occurred as late as 2010. Gray straightforwardly, unambiguously reversed that policy upon becoming leader, and it's staggering that he's repeatedly been allowed to get away with the fiction that he didn't.

Here's how I rated the performances this evening -

Alex Salmond 9/10
Annabel Goldie 7/10
Iain Gray 6/10
Tavish Scott 6/10

Sunday, May 1, 2011

YouGov poll : SNP retain clear lead - but a timely reminder for party supporters not to muck about on the list vote

The last of the weekly campaign polls for Scotland on Sunday continues to show a very healthy lead for the SNP on the constituency ballot, but the race appears to have significantly tightened on the all-important list ballot.  Here are the full figures -

Constituency vote : 

SNP 42% (-3)
Labour 34% (+2)
Conservatives 12% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-1) 

Regional list vote : 

SNP 35% (-4)
Labour 33% (+4)
Conservatives 12% (-)
Greens 7% (-)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)

If I was going to put a maximally pessimistic spin on these figures I would say two things.  Firstly, the bulk of the fieldwork for the poll will have been carried out before the Royal Wedding ceremony - which may have had no effect on voting intention whatsoever, but if by any chance there was one, it's unlikely to be favourable for the SNP.  Secondly, YouGov's eve-of-election poll in 2007 overstated the SNP's lead by five points on the constituency vote, and by two points on the list.  The latter point in particular is an important reminder of just how close this election might yet prove to be - and in similar circumstances last time round the SNP were reliant on votes on the regional list in all eight regions to secure a one-seat victory.  I hope that will give any party supporters pondering the dangerous game of 'tactical voting' on the list ballot serious pause for thought.

There is also a positive spin available, of course - compared to where we were just a few short weeks ago, this is an impossibly wonderful poll for the SNP!

UPDATE : I've finally tracked down the full figures from last night's other poll by Progressive Scottish Opinion, which unlike YouGov shows a positive direction of travel for the SNP on the list vote...

Constituency vote :

SNP 45% (-1)
Labour 35% (-1)
Conservatives 10% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-)

Regional list vote :

SNP 41% (+3)
Labour 36% (-1)
Conservatives 8% (-2)
Greens 6% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-4)

The same two snags that I mentioned last week apply again, though - a) PSO don't have that great a track record, and b) the fieldwork is unlikely to have been as recent as the YouGov poll.  I don't have the dates, although a regular poster on Political Betting suggested it finished on the 27th, which if true would at least make it a bit more up-to-date than last week's.