Saturday, September 14, 2013

Boost for pro-independence campaign as ICM show a No lead only half as big as suggested by YouGov

I was slightly worried earlier this evening when Blair McDougall and Euan McColm eagerly retweeted the news of an impending (and extremely rare) ICM poll on the independence referendum. ICM are of course one of the most credible and evergreen of pollsters, so if they had shown a whopping No lead in line with YouGov, it would have been a cause for concern. But thankfully that hasn't happened, and on balance I'd say that Yes should be the campaign to take most heart from this poll - the figures are roughly equidistant from Panelbase on the one extreme with its one-point Yes lead, and YouGov on the other extreme with its thirty-point No lead.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 32%
No 49%

The No lead is some five points lower than in the recent TNS-BMRB poll, and a full thirteen points lower than in the recent YouGov poll with its dodgy preamble. ICM also join a clear majority of pollsters in putting active support for Scotland remaining in the UK at less than 50%.

We now essentially have three camps of pollsters - Panelbase with an outright Yes lead, Angus Reid, ICM and TNS-BMRB with middling No leads, and Ipsos-Mori and YouGov with much larger No leads.

Panelbase - Yes lead of 1%
Angus Reid - No lead of 13%
ICM - No lead of 17%
TNS-BMRB - No lead of 22%
Ipsos-Mori - No lead of 28%
YouGov - No lead of 30%

That really ought to lay to rest the suggestions from commentators such as Alex Massie that it's "Panelbase against the field" - if Panelbase are outliers on one end of a very broad spectrum, then YouGov are plainly outliers at the other end.

So what can explain the fact that ICM's No lead is markedly lower than YouGov's? Well, basically, they've shown a degree of professionalism that puts YouGov to shame. They do use a preamble to the referendum question, but it's neutrally-worded, and doesn't cast independence in pejorative terms. They also ask how people think they will vote on the actual referendum date, rather than "tomorrow" (eliminating the risk that voters might assume that they should respond more cautiously to a hypothetical question about "tomorrow", because they don't yet have enough information to vote Yes with confidence). Perhaps most importantly, ICM weight by recalled Holyrood vote, not by recalled Westminster vote as YouGov do. The problem with the latter approach is that it's overwhelmingly likely that some people who voted for the SNP in the 2011 Holyrood landslide will falsely recall that they also voted for the SNP in 2010 - and those disproportionately pro-Yes voters will be wrongly scaled down in the weighted figures as a result.

In a nutshell, it's now very much game on.

* * *

UPDATE : There are also some whispers of another Panelbase poll tonight, although so far I can't find any details.

Tweet from official BBC Sport account claims that Andy Murray and Colin Fleming are playing for the "England" team

Let's just double-check the facts here. Andy Murray is from Dunblane, and played for Scotland against England in the Aberdeen Cup team event. Colin Fleming is from Linlithgow, and won a Commonwealth Games gold medal for Scotland in the mixed doubles with his partner Jocelyn Rae. Both men speak with strong Scottish accents. And yet when they lost the third set in their Davis Cup doubles match for Great Britain about an hour ago, this was the summary from BBC Sport's Twitter account -

"Croatia take third set tie-break 8-6, but England lead 2-1."

Wow. We kind of expect that sort of geographical and political illiteracy from American news outlets, and yet we still rightly get annoyed when it happens. Indeed, when the all-Scottish curling team won Olympic gold for Great Britain in 2002, it was the BBC's own Reporting Scotland that mocked an American newspaper for describing it as an "English" triumph. I'm not quite sure how we're supposed to react when our own national broadcaster makes such an unmitigated howler. It would have been indefensible even if they had referred to a GB team wholly composed of English players as "England", but to do it when only Scottish players are on the court for GB is just breathtaking.

The tweet was swiftly deleted, but as of yet there doesn't seem to have been any apology (which frankly should have been instant and automatic).

Ah well. Let's hear it for our Scodavisians. If Murray wins his singles rubber tomorrow, then GB will be returning to the World Group courtesy of three matches won exclusively by Scottish players. It's getting to be ever more like those "British" curling teams...

* * *

There's an ICM poll on the independence referendum coming out tonight. No direct word on what it says yet, but the fact that Euan McColm and Blair McDougall went out of their way to retweet Kenny Farquharson's announcement probably isn't too promising. But let's wait and see. It's been so long since the last ICM poll on independence that it'll be difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the trend (and previous ICM polls have chopped and changed between different formats anyway).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Should the SNP endorse a Labour for Independence candidate in the Dunfermline by-election?

You might remember that back in March, when it briefly seemed possible that there might be a Falkirk by-election, TheUnionDivvie raised the idea that the SNP could stand aside in favour of Dennis Canavan running on a Labour for Independence ticket. Well, we now know for sure that a Dunfermline by-election is in the offing, and on the previous thread Tris mentioned that a commenter on his blog had once again suggested the idea of a Labour for Independence candidate. There are of course a couple of key differences this time round -

1) In Falkirk there would have been an overwhelming logic to a Canavan candidacy, given that he had represented the town as both an MP and MSP.

2) The SNP rather than Labour are the defending party in Dunfermline, and a failure to even put up an official SNP candidate might be interpreted as defeatism.

I don't think the latter point is a killer argument by any means. In the early-to-mid 80s, the Liberals repeatedly stood aside in favour of the SDP in by-elections they might otherwise have won, and yet that was a sign of strength rather than weakness. Ultimately, you're only seen as weak if the tactic doesn't work.

And that's where we come to the crunch. It would only be worth doing if the Labour for Independence candidate was a big-hitter, and realistically that means Dennis Canavan or nobody. He may not have previously represented the area, but he's a local man all the same (born in Cowdenbeath), and in any case he's a well-known and well-respected figure throughout Scotland. With the SNP's endorsement, he might well start as the favourite to win. But on the other hand, if he isn't prepared to stand, a Labour for Independence candidacy would probably be a waste of time, and might even be counter-productive.

My guess is that the SNP aren't even considering possibilities like this, because it isn't the done thing. But this is scarcely the moment for politics as usual - if you want to make things happen, you have to think outside the box now and again. There would be difficulties to be ironed out - current Labour members would risk expulsion if they campaigned against the official Labour candidate, so it might not be possible for Canavan to officially stand on the Labour for Independence platform. But even so, the symbolic power of a successful pro-independence Labour candidate would be beyond value.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The hard politics of Dunfermline

It goes without saying that it's a very good thing that a person convicted of repeated domestic violence (and without really the slightest shred of doubt over his guilt) has been effectively forced to resign his parliamentary seat. But from the point of view of hard political calculation, is this a setback for the SNP? After all, if Walker had pigheadedly soldiered on, the party could have avoided a very tricky by-election, while still distancing themselves from the "independent" MSP. For the avoidance of doubt, a contest in Dunfermline would have been murderously difficult regardless of how it had come about, because the typical (although thankfully not universal) pattern in by-elections is that the incumbent government lose at least some ground - and the SNP government will be defending an absolutely wafer-thin majority.

But the reality is that this was a situation where the SNP just couldn't win. If Walker had stayed in place, he would have remained an acute embarrassment to the party, because everyone knew full well that he had been originally elected as an SNP candidate. So we all just have to put this one down to experience, and hope that lessons are learned that will prevent this entirely avoidable mess from ever occurring again. At least now a line will be drawn - in an ideal world the SNP will retain (or technically gain) the seat with a candidate who bears as little resemblance to Walker as humanly possible, or less ideally they will finish second in a constituency that is in any case traditional Labour territory, and will be seen to have accepted a fair penalty for their mistake in selecting Walker in the first place.

I'm slightly troubled, though, by the efforts I've seen on Twitter to browbeat the main parties into making this by-election an all-woman contest. It would certainly be tactically savvy for the SNP to select a female candidate, and fortunately it just so happens that the best potential candidate I can think of is a woman (Shirley-Anne Somerville). But the message that will be sent out by a deliberately concocted all-woman contest is that men are the guilty parties, who are atoning for their sins by leaving the floor to women on this occasion. That would be entirely inappropriate. These were not crimes committed by "men" - they were committed by an individual called Bill Walker. By all means, let's ensure that the tackling of domestic violence is a key issue for debate in this contest, but that debate should not censor - as is sadly all too common - the voices of male victims of domestic violence, or indeed female victims where the perpetrator was another woman.

Monday, September 9, 2013

'Besides, as one of my aunties put it, that Ruth Davidson has been a bit of a disappointment, hasn't she?'

One observation I made in Michael Greenwell's podcast the other day was that there is, in fact, something positive that campaigners can do about polls, in the sense that (if you have the money) you can simply commission one that pushes your own priorities, and in which the dice are loaded in your favour in terms of getting a favourable result. The findings can then be used to shape the media narrative. Lord Ashcroft has just proved that point by effortlessly getting his latest 'research' featured as the lead story in the Scotsman, although I'm sure it's just pure coincidence that a billionaire No-supporting Tory peer of the realm was able to pull off that trick where crowd-funding Yes supporters failed just a few weeks ago.

So how do we know that this poll was tactical, rather than a dispassionate attempt to uncover the views of the electorate? Well, apart from the obvious point that Lord Ashcroft is Lord Ashcroft, we need look no further than this part of his commentary on the results -

"I also found many voters deeply sceptical about the idea of giving the Scottish Parliament more powers"

Er, no. If you want to know whether voters are deeply sceptical about giving the Scottish Parliament more powers, what you do is ask voters whether they think the Scottish Parliament should be given more powers or not. Lord Ashcroft mysteriously (well, let's face it, not very mysteriously) failed to ask that question, and instead chose to grill his respondents about a string of Tory hobby-horses such as the likelihood of fiscal discipline under devo max. Those results may well be of great interest to him, but shouldn't be of much interest to the rest of us - unless of course we've been hoodwinked by his spin into thinking they mean something that they don't.

But if that part of his commentary is a touch cynical, Ashcroft's closing line is just plain risible -

"Besides, as one of our participants put it, Alex Salmond has quite enough power as it is."

Which is about as meaningful as me saying that I met a guy called Barry down the pub who made some cutting comments about Jackson Carlaw. Seriously, your lordship, a general rule of thumb in polling is that one person's opinion is not statistically significant, no matter how pleasing that opinion may be to your own ears.

Unsurprisingly, the Scotsman has also misrepresented the poll to some extent -

"Researchers also found voters believe the Scottish Government cares more about independence than issues such as jobs, the economy and the NHS, and say this priority is wrong."

Not true on the latter point. We know that 61% of respondents said that the Scottish government should have a different priority from the one it currently has, but since less than half of respondents actually thought that the Scottish government's priority is independence, that isn't sufficient to substantiate the Scotsman's claim.

The referendum voting intention figures from this poll can also be safely filed away as little more than a historical curiosity, as the fieldwork is between four and seven months out of date. (The main referendum question was also asked FIFTH, which ought to instantly destroy the poll's credibility in the eyes of certain unionist commentators if they are interested in maintaining at least a semblance of logical consistency.) The Scotsman valiantly attempt to breathe some relevance into it by pointing to the unusually high sample size, but the reality is that a normal-sized sample of 1000 only carries a very slightly greater margin of error. Meanwhile, the Holyrood voting intention figures (showing SNP leads of five points on the constituency ballot and twelve points on the regional list ballot) are "only" three months out of date.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

He's terrific, he's magnific, he's the greatest secret agent in the world

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm one of the participants in this week's For A' That podcast, alongside Michael Greenwell, Andrew Tickell and Pat Kane. Topics discussed include Anas Sarwar's extraordinary performance on Thursday's Scotland Tonight debate (from which the only stunt that was missing was the donning of a full Danger Mouse costume), the huge divergence between the most recent opinion polls, and the cultural value of Twitter-based indyref poetry.

When Michael warned me that the recording of the podcast had been brought forward 24 hours, I didn't think I'd be able to take part because I had already arranged to spend Friday afternoon in Edinburgh. But many thanks to my friend Eman for letting me take the long Skype call in her living-room, and equal thanks to her flatmates for letting me use their computer!

You can listen to the podcast HERE.