Saturday, March 10, 2012

What does the latest YouGov poll mean for the local elections?

I'm a few days late in tracking down the full figures from this week's Scottish YouGov poll -

Holyrood constituency vote

SNP 40% (-4)
Labour 36% (+4)
Conservatives 12% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)
Others 4% (-)

Holyrood regional list vote

SNP 38% (-1)
Labour 32% (+1)
Conservatives 13% (-)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-)
Others 11% (-)

So there's no change of any significance on the regional list ballot, but a drop in the SNP constituency lead from twelve points to four is the sort of thing that would be making us have kittens if we were in the run-up to a Holyrood election. As ever, there are a couple of health warnings here. Firstly, these figures are pretty similar to YouGov's eve-of-poll results from last year that proved to be so misleading. Secondly, we always have to be cautious about headline changes from just one poll, as they could easily be (wholly or in part) an artifact of the margin of error.

But if by any chance the drop in support is real, what could be going on? My guess is that the relentless media focus on the independence referendum since the start of the year is prompting some people to make more of a direct link between their own stance on independence and their party preference, ie. a few people who previously backed the SNP in spite of being anti-independence no longer feel they can do so. If that phenomenon is happening, in one sense it doesn't matter as long as we now view the independence referendum as the only vote that matters. But there's a snag - the local elections are an important way station on the route to that referendum, and they are now just two months away. Scarcely the best time for the SNP to be losing support, and unfortunately the figures for Westminster are somewhat starker...

Westminster voting intention

Labour 42% (+7)
SNP 30% (-7)
Conservatives 17% (-)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-)
Others (-)

Again, it's worth pointing out that these figures are better for the SNP than the ones YouGov were showing on the eve of last year's election, and of course a 30% vote share matches the party's all-time high in a UK general election. Nevertheless, a 7% swing to Labour over the space of a few weeks is clearly disappointing. So the million dollar question - does Holyrood or Westminster voting intention offer the strongest clue to the likely outcome of the local elections? Given the results in recent years, it might seem obvious that the answer is Holyrood, but of course the last three sets of local elections have all taken place on the same day as Scottish Parliament elections. For the last time local elections took place on a stand-alone basis, we have to go all the way back to the mid-1990s. In the 1994 regional council elections, the SNP received 27% of the vote, and in the inaugural unitary council elections the following year, the party received 26%. That was pretty healthy by the standards of the time, and it was certainly better than the SNP's performance in the 1992 or 1997 general elections. But it was also a little way short of the support received in the 1999 Holyrood election, even after that most bruising of campaigns. So the lesson may be that stand-alone local elections tend to produce results somewhere in between Holyrood and Westminster voting intentions. In which case, the YouGov figures might call into question the SNP's ambitions of seizing Glasgow in May, unless there's a much higher localised swing in the city (which of course is perfectly possible).

YouGov also asked how people would vote in the referendum itself. Unfortunately, the results simply aren't comparable with their previous independence poll, for two slightly mystifying reasons - a) don't knows weren't excluded this time, and b) the two possible answers were changed from 'Yes' and 'No' to 'Yes I agree' and 'No I disagree'. However, for what it's worth, here are the raw figures -

The SNP wishes to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in due course. Voters would be asked “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

How would you vote if such a referendum were held tomorrow?

Yes I agree 32%
No I disagree 53%

Those results are very much in the 'normal range' for YouGov, which traditionally produces lower figures for the pro-independence side than other polling companies.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Men and women will be equal when...

I don't know the area around Edinburgh University particularly well (I'm a Glasgow graduate for starters), but I found myself pottering about there yesterday while I was waiting to meet someone. Along a fence, there was a series of posters to mark International Women's Day. Each one featured a different young woman holding up a card on which she had written her own completed version of the sentence "Men and women will be equal when..." The suggestions ranged from serious ones about closing the pay gap, to more light-hearted ones like "when men realise that women can be funny", and to completely frivolous ones like "when evolution has turned us all into hermaphrodites". But as I went further down the fence, there were also one or two token men featured on the posters with their own feminist slogans, which made me wince slightly. Of course it's possible they were being completely sincere - plenty of men do buy into the antiquated "one-way traffic" narrative of gender inequality. But on balance it seems more likely that they had been coaxed into it, or were synthetically trying to boost their politically correct credentials.

Don't get me wrong - men should certainly be concerned about gender inequality, as should women. There's a lot of it about. But that concern should reflect the complexity of the world as it actually is, not one-dimensional articles of faith from decades ago. If I'd been asked to fill in my own card, and had been given a free hand (unlikely), it would have gone something like this : Men and women will be closer to equality when we finally realise that a day celebrating and promoting the interests of just one gender is absolutely the worst occasion to dedicate to the cause of tackling gender inequality. What we really need is an 'International Gender Equality Day', which is marked not only by men dutifully holding up cards with worthy messages such as "when she can be the man of the house", but also by men and women holding up cards saying -

"when men live as long as women"

"when the male suicide rate is no longer more than twice as high as the female suicide rate"

"when male victims of domestic violence are seen as victims, not as irritants whose voices must be suppressed in the interests of ideological purity"

"when the governments of Sweden, Norway and Iceland recognise that the buying and selling of sex is a 'crime' committed by two consenting adults, not one"

"when as many men as women are admitted to university"

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The latest confected Joan McAlpine 'controversy'

As a result of my slight mishap the other night, I'm a bit late on catching up with the latest confected 'controversy' about a Joan McAlpine utterance. As we all know, her views were cynically misrepresented last time to fit the outrage certain people were determined to feel. For instance, here's our old chum "Braveheart" -

"MSPs who think that their opponents are "anti-Scottish" because they want to have a say in the referendum"

Which, of course, bears absolutely no resemblance to what Joan said. Without wanting to put words in her mouth myself, I think I'm on in reasonably safe ground in suggesting that she would have no problem whatever with opposition parties having their say on the referendum in the appropriate democratic forum - the Scottish Parliament. What she was characterising as "anti-Scottish" was their attempt to circumvent the democratic process by bypassing the inconvenient reality of an SNP majority in Holyrood, and instead interfering with the referendum via the quasi-colonial route of Westminster. Not quite the same thing, is it?

However, it's true she did use the words "anti-Scottish", which arguably left her open to such misrepresentation. This time, however, her detractors haven't got a leg to stand on. Ian Smart has written an utterly hysterical piece excoriating her for comparing Scotland's relationship with the UK to "domestic violence". There is no direct quote from Joan in the article, which is hardly surprising, given that she said no such thing. What she did say was this -

"Eventually she recognises the relationship for what it is - an abuse of power."

And of course the abuse of power Joan is referring to is financial, not physical. The comparison is with a relationship in which a man will not "trust" a woman with her own money, because she will "squander" it, and in any case "it belongs to them both" anyway. I can hardly think of a more apt analogy, given that Scotland's natural resources and tax take go direct to London, and in return we are generously "given" a very limited "allowance" to do very limited things with. It's also an analogy that some of the more thoughtful unionists (such as my fellow subway passenger Wendy Alexander) ought to appreciate, because it highlights the very deficiency with the current constitutional settlement that the Calman process was intended (but failed) to address.

If Ian Smart is offended that anyone could dream up a comparison between Scotland and a woman beaten by her husband, he ought to be looking in the mirror, because he's the one that thought of it, not Joan McAlpine.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Thrills and spills on the Glasgow subway

It may be Super Tuesday over in my 'other' country, but I haven't got the energy for anything other than a very short post tonight. A few hours ago I took one step onto the moving walkway at Buchanan Street subway station, went flying and fell flat on my back. I then got up, took one more step, went flying and fell flat on my back. I think the girl behind me thought I was drunk, but in fact it was my hopeless trainers that were to blame. Not exactly being an avid rugby player or boxer, I'm not used to those kind of tumbles, and hitting a hard metallic surface twice in the space of twenty seconds was a bit much.

Bizarrely, two minutes later I found myself sitting directly opposite Wendy Alexander on the train. I'd never want to offend anyone, so if by any chance she heard me groaning, I do hope she realised it was because I was in excruciating physical pain, and not because I'd just remembered the Hungry Caterpillar speech.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What would an authentically 'non-unionist' Liberal Democrat party look like?

The Liberal Democrat blogger Caron Lindsay left a comment on the previous thread, and I thought I'd respond properly in a fresh post -

"Well, of course, if Alex Salmond chose to have the referendum earlier, then there would be more time to work with the SNP.

That's hardly likely before the referendum, when the two parties are on different sides, is it?"

That evades the central issue straight away, because it leaves us no clearer as to why the two parties are on different sides prior to the referendum. I'm not talking about the fact that one is supporting a 'Yes' to independence, and the other is supporting a 'No'. I'm talking about the Liberal Democrats setting their face against the possibility of a second referendum question on their own (supposedly) preferred constitutional model, which is clearly the best tactical hope of achieving the objective of 'Home Rule'. If there was a second question, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP would be on the same side on one question, but opposite sides on the other question. Precisely the middle 'non-unionist' way you might expect Caron to favour.

"And what do you think the Ming Campbell Commission is all about if it's not developing a strategy for home rule - and devolving power from Holyrood to councils and communities? We're not hanging about developing our strategy on home rule."

Frankly I think the purpose is to give the appearance of activity, and to provide some kind of cover for the otherwise inexplicable spectacle of a 'Home Rule party' undermining the cause of Home Rule at every turn. As others have pointed out, a sincere Home Rule party would have had their blueprint worked out long before now.

"I want to see more actual detail on how we get to more powers after a no vote in the referendum, but I'm sure it'll come. I don't want the reactionary forces in Tory and Labour to think this is a good excuse for no further change, so we need to get signed up to something ahead of time."

It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at this point. Could I gently suggest that the best way to prevent the reactionary forces having such an excuse is not to sign up lock, stock and barrel to the worldview and strategy of those forces, which goes like this : "first the Scottish people must be forced to make a binary Yes/No choice on independence, then they must be coaxed into voting No by any means necessary, then that vote will be used to legitimise the idea that remaining within the UK means that Scotland's future constitutional arrangements are no longer a matter for the Scottish people, but are instead entirely at the discretion of the UK government". Where precisely do the Lib Dems depart from that worldview? If they do think that Scotland's constitutional future within the UK is a matter for the Scottish people as well as for the UK government, why are they moving heaven and earth to ensure that the people will never have any say on enhanced devolution? What more excuse do you think the reactionary forces need to do nothing after a No vote?

"The mistake the SNP makes is to define us as a unionist party when we aren't and never have been. We are a federalist party, a party that believes in decentralising power, having decisions made at the lowest practical level."

As I've pointed out a number of times, federalists are unionists. It's simply a fact - a federation is a political union. However, let's be generous for a moment and accept that there can be a middle way between unionism and nationalism. The more radical Liberal Democrats have articulated it down the years, by suggesting we should free ourselves from the absolutism of the nation state, and instead look at the level of government where each individual lever of power is most appropriately exercised. Therefore, some powers would be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood, some from Westminster to Brussels, some from both Westminster and Holyrood to local government. Crucially, the new dispensation would be constitutionally entrenched. Westminster rule wouldn't exactly wither away, but it would be no more or less important than any other tier of government, meaning that the one-dimensional notion of "London sovereignty over Scotland" would certainly be at an end.

That's what an authentic 'non-unionist', 'non-nationalist' Home Rule party would look like. But does that bear any actual resemblance to the modern-day Liberal Democrats? Er, no. Their pro-Europeanism lies in tatters as they prop up the most isolationist British Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. The Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland makes a mockery of the commitment to a stronger Scottish Parliament by using the stock excuse of "we need more evidence" to justify powers that his own party supposedly want transferred to Holyrood remaining exactly where they are. A 'non-unionist' would not take the default view that "Westminster knows best, unless overwhelmingly proved otherwise". And above all else, they legitimise the one-dimensional notion of the sovereignty of the British state by supporting the view that any changes to Scotland's constitutional position short of independence are none of the Scottish people's business. In a nutshell, the Lib Dems look suspiciously like bog-standard British nationalists at the moment.

How might we expect a 'non-unionist', 'non-nationalist' Home Rule party to act in the run-up to the referendum? Broadly, by saying "a plague on both your houses" to unionism and nationalism, and using this unique opportunity to fight for their own preferred constitutional model. What we would not expect them to do is declare their absolute loyalty to the forces of unionism in a 'winner-takes-all' fight to the death with the forces of nationalism. But that's exactly what the Liberal Democrats have chosen to do.

I fear we must draw the obvious conclusion.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Willie Rennie and the art of timing

Let's see if I can get this straight -

1) Willie Rennie reminds us that the Liberal Democrats have been passionate Home Rulers for 100 years.

2) The Liberal Democrats are now in power at Westminster for the first time in 65 years, and in all probability for the last time for another few decades, given that electoral reform was defeated last year. Presumably, therefore, this is the golden moment for a passionate Home Rule party to actually do something about their passion.

3) It is universally accepted that an independence referendum is on the way, giving a passionate Home Rule party a unique opportunity to use the London establishment's fear of a Yes vote to secure some long-dreamt-of concessions.

4) Willie Rennie tells us that the Liberal Democrats will in fact wait until the bargaining chip of the referendum is gone, and until they no longer have any influence at Westminster, and only then "work with the SNP" to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Great plan, guys. Someone who wasn't in the know would almost be forgiven for thinking that this whole "passionate Home Ruler" business was a bit of an affectation.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The worst type of parochial, faux 'internationalism'

It would be overly-generous to talk about the "meat" of Ed Miliband's speech to the Scottish Labour conference the other day, but if such a thing existed it was probably this -

"I believe, and I believe that people across the United Kingdom believe,

That we owe obligations to each other.

That the successful Scottish entrepreneur owes obligations to the child born into poverty in London, and the pensioner in Wales."

Which begs the obvious question - does a successful Scottish or English entrepreneur also owe an equal obligation to a child born into poverty in Lisbon, and to a pensioner in Wallonia? And if not, why not? If Miliband's belief in solidarity is real and not as synthetic as most of us suspect, why isn't he arguing for a single European or world state within which to redistribute wealth to the maximum extent possible?

I've tried asking Labour supporters these questions recently, and the only answers that have been forthcoming have been along the lines of "we are where we are" and "the UK exists", and frankly if that's the best they can come up with, this argument is going absolutely nowhere. The rhetoric of Miliband and Alexander can only really make sense when viewed through a British Nationalist prism. Just like the SNP, they draw a line around a group of people and say that the social democratic contract should apply only between those people - and yet because that line is a different line to the SNP's and is drawn around a different group of people, they somehow expect us to believe that their kind of nationalism is more morally virtuous. Douglas Alexander evidently feels some kind of saintly glow when he addresses an audience in Cardiff and tells them that he doesn't see "foreigners" staring back at him. But why on earth would "Johnny Foreigner" be the first thing that pops into his head when he meets someone from Paris or Dublin? Why wouldn't he just see a fellow citizen of the EU, or even more fundamentally another human being?

I'm sure the likes of Duncan Hothersall and any others who are still wedded to the quaint idea that Labour is an "international movement" must be thrilled by all the recent talk of solidarity, but Alexander gives the game away. A belief in solidarity that is strictly limited to 'Fortress Britain' is the worst type of parochial, faux 'internationalism', reminiscent of those who used to fondly imagine that the Home Nations football competition was the real world championship. And, even more to the point, it's a type of solidarity that doesn't actually work. So when Miliband asks -

"And if we believe in the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon, why would we turn our back on the redistributive union - the United Kingdom?"

- the obvious reponse is to inquire where the redistribution actually is within that union. We've now had thirty-three years of right-wing and centre-right Westminster governments opposed to the redistribution of wealth. The Labour administration that Miliband was part of had a leader who cheerfully boasted that he didn't give a damn that the gap between rich and poor was continuing to widen. And Miliband's own recent pandering to right-wing opinion in the south of England by accepting the Tory cuts (a stance which renders his bizarre claim that the SNP are "doubling the cuts" pathetic as well as nonsensical) is further proof that the cause of progressivism requires that this union should end as soon as possible, not be defended to the death. By opposing independence, Miliband is not merely legitimising ongoing Tory rule in Scotland, he is legitimising a political culture that holds that a successful Scottish entrepreneur has no real obligations to the poor and vulnerable at all. Not in Livingston, not in London, not in Lisbon, not anywhere.

Independence would in fact lead to a net increase in progressivism in these islands. The rest of the UK would unfortunately still be governed by the Tories or by Tory-Lites in other parties, but we know that's going to be the case anyway. Why should vulnerable Scottish pensioners have to suffer for Miliband's narrow British nationalism?