Saturday, June 11, 2011

Step inside the online polling Tardis

Say what you like about the Scotsman, but it can't be denied they allow people a much more generous amount of time to vote in their online polls than any other news outlet I can think of. For instance, still running in the sidebar of some articles (and billed as "today's vote") is this one from 2008...

"Who would make the best Scottish Labour leader?

Iain Gray
Cathy Jamieson
Andy Kerr"

Vote Gray - you know it makes sense.

Friday, June 10, 2011

SNP win Bo'ness by-election

The SNP have secured a comfortable victory in yesterday's Bo'ness and Blackness council by-election. There was an eleven-point increase in the party's share of the vote from the 2007 figure, but the result was uncannily similar to the by-election that was held in the same ward in 2009. Here are the vote shares for all the parties -

SNP 58% (+11) (-)
Labour 32% (-) (+2)
Conservatives 8% (-5) (-2)
Independent 2%

The first percentage change figure for each party refers to the change since 2007, and the second to the change since 2009.

We're still awaiting the result of the Tain by-election, in which the SNP start from a very low base.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A cautionary tale : listen to Jeremy Paxman and you'll start to wonder if it's safe to breathe

I was beginning to wonder last night if Jeremy Paxman had made a bet with someone that he could break his own record from the infamous Michael Howard interview of how many times he could utter the same phrase in a single edition of Newsnight. This time, a woman called Jelena Lecic had been invited onto the programme to tell the story of how photos of her from Facebook had been used without her permission to conceal the true identity of the Syrian opposition activist Amina Arraf, aka 'A Gay Girl in Damascus' (who may or may not be a real person). But no matter what detail of the story Ms Lecic was talking about it seemed there was only ever one thing Paxo wanted to say in reply - "it's a cautionary tale, isn't it?", meaning she should have thought twice about posting personal photos on the internet. Even when she mentioned how upset she was that the Guardian hadn't responded to her complaints about using one of her photos in an article, he immediately shot her down by insisting they must have been acting in good faith, and that what she should really be taking away is that this is a "cautionary tale", young lady.

But what exactly is the 'lesson' here? The nicked photos weren't embarrassing or incriminating in any way, they weren't nude photos, they weren't photos of her with a secret lover, they were just...well, photos. And she made very clear that she had her Facebook privacy settings turned up to the max, but even that hadn't worked. So it appears Paxo's 'warning' is that you should never post any photos on any social networking site under any circumstances at all, unless you're prepared to have your identity stolen by an opposition blogger in an authoritarian state.

Sure, Jeremy. Whatever you say. Another life lesson learned.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Word-Search Wednesday : Denis MacShane's greatest hits

I'm still undecided about whether Word-Search Wednesday will be a regular feature, but after perusing Denis MacShane's Wikipedia biography it was extremely tough to resist this one...

(Click to enlarge)

One lesson I learned from the George Foulkes word-search is that these puzzles are much too difficult to solve unless the words to look for are provided, so I'm going to reveal them straight away this time -

Stalin : Denis once pointed out that left-wingers who campaigned against the Iraq War were just like the left-wing apologists for Stalin in the 1930s. Well, someone had to say what everyone else was thinking.

Nicolas Sarkozy : The candidate who Denis, as a well-known socialist, naturally wanted to win the French presidential election of 2007. Apparently Ségolène Royal was anti-Semitic, or something.

José María Aznar : The conservative Spanish Prime Minister who in 2004 appeared set to win the general election. Denis, as a well-known socialist, was naturally delighted, particularly because all those forlorn left-wing hopes that Aznar's support for the unpopular Iraq War might be his downfall were about to be dashed.

José Zapatero : The socialist who won the 2004 Spanish general election, partly because of Aznar's support for the unpopular Iraq War. Denis naturally professed himself delighted - it was what he'd wanted all along.

Khalid Mahmood : In the early days of the Afghanistan War, Denis penned an Observer article entitled 'The Five Myths Muslims Must Deny', but selflessly allowed Muslim MP Khalid Mahmood to take all the credit. It was just a favour for a pal, really - Denis had initially offered to do exactly the same favour for Lord Ahmed, who weirdly couldn't bring himself to accept such generosity.

"A giant red herring" : How Denis described Gordon Brown's famous "five economic tests".

"Jesus Christ, no" : How Denis responded when asked by the Scotsman if he had described Gordon Brown's famous five economic tests as a giant red herring.

Survive in government : What Denis told the Scotsman would be impossible for anyone to do if they had described Gordon Brown's famous five economic tests as a giant red herring.

It was on tape : The reason we know that Denis did, in fact, describe Gordon Brown's famous five economic tests as a giant red herring.

"I have no idea why I was removed as a a minister" : Denis later candidly confessed that he was clueless as to why he didn't survive in government after describing Gordon Brown's famous five economic tests as a giant red herring.

His garage : The place Denis claimed £125,000 worth of parliamentary expenses for.

Suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party : What Denis now is as a result of claiming £125,000 worth of parliamentary expenses for his garage.

Asperger's : Gary McKinnon, the man faced with the terrifying prospect of being caged as a "terrorist" in the US for the unspeakable crime of seeking information about UFOs, has this syndrome. Or, at least, that's the official story, but Denis reckons it's all a crafty ruse. What's that? You want evidence that the doctors got it all wrong? I'm appalled. Look no further than Denis' intellect.

Twenty-five thousand : The number of "sex slaves" (trafficked women) Denis claimed the Home Office had estimated were "working in the massage parlours and brothels" of the UK. No such estimate ever existed, and the true figure is likely to be a small fraction of the number Denis quoted.

A different journalism : What Denis suggested should report on prostitution in future, after struggling to answer the impertinent questions asked by journalism in its current form about where the twenty-five thousand figure had come from.

Apologise : What Denis once suggested Ossama el Batran should do for every killing of a Jew by Hamas. El Batran was not a member or supporter of Hamas, but rather an Egyptian postgraduate student at Cambridge University. However, he'd asked Denis a probing question, so deserved nothing less.

Mussolini : The democratically-elected President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was temporarily deposed by a military coup during Denis' fondly-remembered stint as Minister for Europe. Denis shrewdly realised that the best way of helping the situation was to call Chavez a "ranting populist demagogue" and to compare him to Mussolini, along with a strategic pretence that the military men were acting on behalf of "the people". This daring gambit paid off - democracy was restored within days, as Denis later jubilantly confirmed had been his objective all along. A grateful nation subsequently funded a statue of Denis in Caracas by popular subscription.

Indelible pink paint : What Denis was once undeservedly sprayed with after being undeservedly driven to a remote village and undeservedly stripped naked.

And that's the lot. I'll try to post the solution to the puzzle over the weekend.

Serious parralels

As a small appetiser for a post that will be along later today, I spotted this tweet from Rotherham's finest -

"In serious HoC exchanges on arab crisis SNPer seeks parallels between Sudan referendum and Scotland. Trivial, cheap, unworthy"

Note how it's taken as read that, while exchanges about Arab affairs are by definition "serious", Scotland can only ever be "trivial" in comparison. If the more thoughtful members of Labour are ever looking for subtle clues as to why they may have lost in May...

Incidentally, although I didn't hear the debate in question, it's worth noting that southern Sudan is an integral part of a sovereign state, but will become independent on July 9th after a single referendum was held on the matter. I really can't begin to imagine what relevant parralels the SNPer thought there were to draw.

For "eminently sensible" read "weird"

Willie Rennie had a Red Riding Hood moment on Newsnight Scotland tonight as he embarked on the impossible task of defending Michael Moore's plan for a constitutional "neverendum". Sporting the most innocent, wide-eyed facial expression he could muster, he informed us that Moore's wheeze was "eminently sensible" and that quite frankly he couldn't "understand what the fuss is about". Willie, mate, if you seriously can't see what the fuss is about, I can introduce you to approximately five million people who can. Let me put it this way - if an opinion pollster asked the public whether the issue of independence should be decided by one referendum or two, what do you think the answer would be? I think I'm on reasonably safe ground when I suggest that most people would regard the idea of having two referendums not so much as "eminently sensible" as...well, bizarre. And peculiar. And weird. And if it was pointed out to them that there would only be a second referendum if the unionist side lost the first one, the word would then be "anti-democratic".

But if Rennie is still confused about what the problem is, a couple of examples may be of some assistance...

Exhibit A : In the mid-1990s, the Labour party performed an astonishing u-turn by declaring that devolution could only happen if approved by a referendum. Menzies Campbell later spoke publicly about Labour's "betrayal" of his party - so not only did the Lib Dems categorically reject the notion that two referendums were necessary for that major constitutional upheaval, they didn't even think it was appropriate to hold one. But it gets better. One of the major complaints about Labour's referendum plan was that it separated out the taxation powers of the parliament in an additional question - there was a feeling in some quarters that this was a Blairite plot to sabotage the tax powers and thus neuter the parliament. But George Robertson had a cunning plan (billed, hilariously, as a "compromise") to reassure those who made this complaint. He proposed that even if Scots voted Yes to a parliament and Yes to tax powers, there would have to be yet another referendum before the tax powers could actually be used - the theory being that this would make a Yes-Yes vote much more likely first time round. This crackpot idea went down, unsurprisingly, like a lead balloon, and I'll give you three guesses as to which party was at the forefront of those ridiculing it. I vividly recall being in stitches as Andy Myles (then chief executive of the Scottish Lib Dems) turned to the TV cameras to "plead" directly with George Robertson to return to the path of sanity : "Think again, George. Drop this strange plan to hold a referendum with two questions - and then another referendum."

Well said that man. Think again, Michael.

Exhibit B : On Newsnight Scotland tonight, Gordon Brewer helpfully paraphrased the Lib Dems' position in a question to Stewart Maxwell. The SNP should be really happy about this proposal, he said, because after all they wanted a proper mandate for independence, and therefore the more votes that were held on the subject the better. Maxwell struggled to maintain a straight face. Oh absolutely, Gordon, the more the merrier. Perhaps seventeen referendums producing a Yes vote to independence won't quite settle the matter - how about holding another twenty-three? That sounds "eminently sensible" to me.


In their posts yesterday on the unionist "neverendum" plan, both Gerry Hassan and Lallands Peat Worrier made unflattering reference to Vernon Bogdanor, who in spite of being openly hostile to Scottish independence would have us believe that his personal view that two referendums are required (for which there is no international precedent whatsoever) is somehow an objective, indisputable fact drawn solely from his constitutional "expertise" (or perhaps from a tablet of stone passed down to him from the Almighty). What I find most curious about this is that you'd have thought the very first thing someone like Bogdanor would be pointing out is that referendums themselves are totally alien to the British constitutional tradition - there were none at all until the 1970s. There certainly wasn't one when Ireland was granted its de facto independence in 1922, for instance - the principle that applied there was that the sovereign parliament made the decision, and any suggestion that parliament had no business acting without a particular kind of 'permission' ought to leave a Westminster constitutional traditionalist like Bogdanor feeling distinctly nauseous. So this whole idea that a legally-binding, Westminster-conducted referendum is a "requirement" can be safely dismissed as the obstructionist red herring that it is. In the British system, a referendum is only ever held if parliament decides that it should be, and a referendum outcome is only binding if parliament passes a law specifically saying it will be - in other words, every referendum is an optional extra, regardless of whether it is "consultative" or "binding". By definition, therefore, if a second vote is held in this case it will be for nakedly political - rather than constitutional - reasons.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unveiling the UK government's 'neverendum' on maintaining the union

One of the constant refrains of unionist politicians is that SNP rule will lead to a 'neverendum' - a carbon-copy of the Quebec experience whereby the 'separatists' (cue demonic music) keep losing independence referendums, but then keep calling a new one until they get the result they want. In truth, the jibe is well wide of the mark even in relation to Quebec, where so far there have only been two independence referendums, fifteen years apart, with the most recent one a full sixteen years ago. Indeed, the second one only came round so 'quickly' because of the total collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords on constitutional reform (which, incidentally, ought to be a warning from history to unionists who think the way to see off independence is by being as intransigent as humanly possible). Even now, the Parti Québécois seem to have no plans for a third referendum if they win the next election. So the Quebec experience actually lends considerable weight to Alex Salmond's reassurance that a No vote in a Scottish independence referendum would resolve the issue for "a generation" - and at the very least that any attempt to call another referendum sooner than that would require a clear, fresh mandate at a Holyrood election.

But can unionists - and more specifically the UK government - say the same about a Yes vote? If we are to take Michael Moore's latest pronouncement seriously, it appears not. They seem to think that a No vote should kill the matter for all-time, but if there's a Yes vote, not to worry - we'll just hold a second referendum with a much more complicated question a couple of years later to see if we can get a result that is more to our taste.

I'd suggest they're playing a very dangerous game here. The whole reason that unionists have invoked the spectre of the 'neverendum' over the years is that they know full well that the public think there is no case for a quick second referendum on the same subject - that No should mean No, but by the same token Yes should mean Yes. And since the public are sensibly inclined to think that one side of the argument should not be given a second bite of the cherry if they lose the vote, the following question may well start to be posed of the UK government - if you really think that a consultative referendum wouldn't provide a sufficient mandate for independence and that there needs to be a referendum on the details of an independence settlement, shouldn't the latter vote be the sole referendum? In other words, isn't the logic of your own position that you should enter into full independence negotiations now with the Scottish government, and that there should only be a referendum once the settlement has been thrashed out?

The other danger of the game Moore is playing is that, if he gets his way, it may well make a defeat for the unionist side in the "first" referendum much more likely. After all, we know that many people not yet convinced by the case for independence were quite happy to back the SNP on May 5th, because the double-lock of the referendum pledge meant that it was safe to do so. Bizarrely, Moore seems to be hellbent on also making it 'safe' for these people to vote Yes to opening negotiations on independence - because the message will be going out loud and clear that such a vote won't finally settle matters. They can suck it and see, which may not be such an unattractive proposition after a few more years of Tory rule.

It was suggested on Newsnight Scotland that Moore's intervention may be just one part of a new strategy of 'muscular unionism', which also involves ripping up the 'respect agenda' (will this be the sixth time?) by refusing point blank to budge an inch on extra powers for the Scottish Parliament. Since Moore's party are supposed to favour many of the powers that are being requested, it seems this 'muscularity' is largely being used to punch the lights out of the Liberal Democrats' own beliefs.

I heard it said forcefully at the Political Innovation conference in November that it was quite wrong to call the Lib Dems a 'unionist' party - they are, in fact, 'federalist'. Did Muscle Man Moore get that memo? As a Lib Dem contributor to a later package on Newsnight hinted, perhaps the party's Scottish prospects would be a little brighter if they remembered that they are actually a Home Rule party by tradition. That means breaking out of the self-destructive, almost unthinking impulse to forever lump themselves in with the Tories and Labour as just one more part of the unionist mush, in opposition to the nationalist 'other'. Here's my advice to Michael - take a step back, stop talking to Tories for a little while and start talking to your own grass roots, and then consider whether the time isn't in fact ripe for some Muscular Federalism.

Monday, June 6, 2011

In your eyes, I see the light, leading me hame again...

The new Labour Hame site (which I assumed was a spoof when I first heard about it) shows encouraging signs of filling the massive void in my life left by the demise of And Another Thing and Scottish Unionist. A couple of choice examples to kick off with -

After Jeff Breslin's thoughtful article in which he lists about two dozen specific and varied reasons why he can't imagine himself voting Labour at present, the commenters home in on just two of them (opposition to nuclear power and GM crops) and announce "we don't want the likes of you, Breslin, stick with the Greens!". Now, that's what I call a core vote strategy...

After Kezia Dugdale test-drives her latest contrived wheeze about a "Citizens' Convention" deciding on the referendum question in place of the citizen-elected Scottish Parliament, a commenter (presumably sympathetic to the SNP) points out that any such convention would logically have to reflect the composition of the parliament anyway. But the second commenter ("Dave") suggests that the convention should reflect each party's share of the popular vote, not seats in parliament, thus cunningly stripping the SNP of their majority. Just one problem there - if we have the same system of proportional representation for the convention that Labour carefully selected for the Scottish Parliament, presumably the composition of the two bodies will be...well, identical. Oh, and a second problem - even if we had an Israeli-style system of pure PR, there would still be a pro-independence majority courtesy of the regional list vote.

But other than that, what a truly fabulous point, Dave.

The boundary between appointment and election

It's refreshing to finally find something to agree with Daniel Hannan about, namely that our esteemed former Presiding Officer David Steel has lost the plot (and his radicalism) by supporting a fully appointed House of Lords. Just a pity that Hannan ruins his whole argument by framing it in the following terms :

"Why remove the only elected element from the House of Lords?"

Now, you may well be baffled by the suggestion that there is an elected element at present, but believe it or not he's talking (sigh) about the 90 remaining hereditary peers. Ah, the Tories - bless them. Only they could seriously believe that the grotesque process by which a few dozen highly-privileged individuals select another highly-privileged individual in some way confers upon the latter person the status of an "elected politician". If we were to follow that logic to its natural conclusion, Steel and Hannan wouldn't have a cigarette-paper between them, because a House of Lords appointed by committee would indeed be entirely "elected" - albeit by an electorate consisting of approximately fifteen people. Come to think of it, aren't life peers currently "elected" by David Cameron? An electorate of one is enough, surely, Daniel?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Worried about elective dictatorship at Holyrood? Just think of it as a system "that works".

It's a bit rich to hear the opposition parties grumbling about the dangers of Scotland becoming an 'elective dictatorship' under majority SNP rule.  Perhaps the Liberal Democrats might have some credibility making that claim, but certainly not Labour or the Tories - any party that believes in royal prerogative powers and a majoritarian voting system for Westminster by definition believes in elective dictatorship.  That's what the Westminster system is all about, and it successfully delivers it 95% of the time.

One specific concern that is being raised relates to unicameralism - the committees are supposed to do all the work a revising chamber would do in a bicameral system, and it was never anticipated that a single-party government would have a majority in all the committees.  But the reality is that in bicameral systems it's scarcely unusual for governments to have majorities in both chambers.  Most obviously, every Tory government at Westminster until 1997 had the House of Lords in its back pocket thanks to the hundreds of hereditary peers.  No wonder it was only ever Tories who described the previous composition of the upper chamber as an "anachronism that works".