Saturday, October 11, 2014

SNP soar to 41% in Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls

We'll soon see what the Sunday YouGov poll brings, but as of this moment, it remains the case that there has been just one Scottish subsample since the referendum that has not put the SNP in the lead.  The odd one out was a Populus poll, but the most recent subsample from that firm could hardly be more different - it puts the SNP at 44% and Labour at 26%.

The average below is drawn from five Scottish subsamples - four from YouGov and one from Populus.  That's the lowest number of polls that any Poll of Polls update has been based on so far, and therefore the standings should be treated with even more caution than usual.  The reason that the SNP lead has soared is that the full-scale Panelbase poll that gave them a mere 2% lead, and that previously made up more than half of the sample, has now dropped out due to being more than seven days old.

There is no percentage change listed for the Greens because they weren't included in the previous update.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 41.0% (+5.2)
Labour 27.4% (-4.0)
Conservatives 17.6% (-0.1)
Liberal Democrats 7.2% (+2.1)
UKIP 3.4% (-2.1)
Greens 2.8%

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

If you haven't made your submission to the Smith Commission yet, it might be an idea to avoid the small but intensely irritating error that I made, which was to offer immigration as an example of the very limited number of powers that are essential to maintaining the United Kingdom as a single state.  In fact, both the SNP and the Greens have used their submissions to identify the post-study work visa as one aspect of immigration policy that can and should be devolved (in the case of the Greens they argue for joint control between Edinburgh and London).  OK, it's only a technical distinction, because both parties implicitly acknowledge that the bulk of immigration policy will have to remain reserved to Westminster, so in that sense what I wrote is correct.  But I'm still annoyed with myself for not qualifying it (or for not using a more straightforward example).

It's interesting to compare the SNP and Green submissions, because the former is a model of detail and clarity, while the latter is radical in many respects but also strangely hesitant - it's full of language like "it may now be appropriate to devolve X" or "we see no reason in principle why Y should not be devolved".  I presume that's an attempt to sound open-minded and consensual, but I'd have thought it would be much better to be confident in your proposals and then flexible in the negotiations.  I'm guessing that's very much the SNP plan - they would never have nominated bridge-builders like John Swinney and Linda Fabiani unless they were serious about getting a deal if humanly possible.

The one part of the Green document that profoundly disappointed me in terms of the content rather than just the tone was the bit about broadcasting - they do propose a degree of devolution, but of a distinctly underwhelming variety.  That shouldn't be surprising, though, because they've often gone out of their way to defend the BBC when the SNP have been critical.  It's an oddly conservative strand of Green thinking, and it would be interesting to know where it originates from.

Friday, October 10, 2014

What does UKIP's breakthrough mean for Scotland?

Oddly enough, I didn't see Ruth Davidson tweeting the words "Well done, Clacks!" this time.  The Tories' crushing defeat in the Clacton by-election is a landmark moment in UK politics - it's easy to lose sight of that in the midst of post-referendum fever, but it's true.  It's on a par with Hamilton 1967 as marking the moment that a one-time fringe party entered parliament, never to leave (or never on any imaginable timescale).  Even if we assume the most pessimistic scenario for UKIP at next year's general election, they will at least retain the one seat that they now have.  Douglas Carswell clearly has an enormous personal vote, and to be fair it's not hard to understand why - leaving aside some of his political views, he seems like a decent enough bloke, and now that he's made his move there's suddenly such a thing as "the sane wing of UKIP".

The likelihood of the party system in the House of Commons fragmenting further has increased significantly with this result, and that will offer a huge opportunity for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the coming years to use the seemingly improbable Westminster route to bring about radical change.  We could well be heading for an Indian-style situation where we retain the God-awful first-past-the-post voting system, and yet still end up with the PR-type outcome of a hung parliament in every future general election, thus enabling small parties to squeeze substantial concessions out of the larger ones.  To understand how profoundly things have changed, you only need to look at the way that Labour people were jumping up and down with joy last night at the news that YouGov were putting them ahead of the Tories by 35% to 30%.  I mean, seriously?  35% is good news?  There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when there were thoughtful people in both of the two largest London parties who realised that, notwithstanding their own personal distaste for electoral reform, serious questions of moral legitimacy arose for any single-party government that had been elected on a relatively small minority vote.  That kind of decency in Westminster politics has long gone - now Labour are quite content to win an absolute majority by a freakish quirk of the electoral system, and to hell with moral legitimacy.  Unfortunately for them, it's open to severe doubt whether they're even going to do that.

As I see it, we're now looking at a slim one-off opportunity for Labour to get a majority, because we're currently in a transitional phase where the Liberal Democrats are going to take a big hit, and where UKIP haven't yet put down enough roots to win anything more than ten seats at the absolute most.  That means a hung parliament will only come about this time if the result happens to be close enough between the two main parties.  But by the election after next, UKIP will be in line to make a second-stage breakthrough, the Lib Dems' fortunes may at least have stabilised somewhat, and the Greens might even be looking to take a few more seats.  From that point on, it may well become next to impossible for the Tories or Labour to ever win an outright majority again.

If so, the SNP will only need a little bit of luck for the cards to fall in their favour as they did in the late 1970s, when the party effectively held the balance of power with just 11 seats.  They skillfully used that arithmetical good fortune to steer the Labour government down a road that very nearly led to a devolved Scottish Assembly being established. ('Very nearly' doesn't sound terribly impressive, but it shouldn't be underestimated just how close devolution was to happening - it was probably only the unfortunate timing of the winter of discontent that thwarted it.)

And what about the other potential indirect route by which it's frequently speculated that the Scottish independence movement might reach its objective quite rapidly, namely a British exit from the EU?  It's actually hard to judge whether Clacton has brought that prospect closer or made it more distant.  Obviously the stronger and more credible that UKIP become, the more plausible it is that the "out" side could win an in/out referendum.  But a prerequisite for that referendum taking place is that there is a Tory-led government after the general election, and as tedious as the Tory warnings last night were that a UKIP surge might help Ed Miliband into Downing Street, there may be a grain of truth in that.  We generally assume that Labour can't win because the public don't take Miliband seriously as a potential PM, but if it's getting to the point where it's arithmetically possible to win a majority on 33% or 34% of the vote, just how seriously do they actually need to take him?

Suppose Labour fall short, though.  Suppose they fall so far short that their only hope of forming a government is to involve both the Lib Dems and the SNP.  That was exactly the position last time around, and it turned out that they found the idea so distasteful that they preferred to see the Tories take office.  But after five years frozen out of government, would they be hungry enough for power to deal with the SNP?  I suspect they might just be, but that poses an even bigger question : would they be prepared to make a generous enough offer, given that as things stand (incredibly) the Tories are more radical on devolution than they are?  It's an interesting one.

On the BBC results programme last night, Professor Curtice was once again expressing his scepticism about the theory that the referendum has permanently changed the game in Scotland, and said that he didn't expect the SNP to make more than a handful of gains from Labour in the Westminster election.  He may yet be proved right, because the apparent lead that the SNP hold at present will be very vulnerable to the media blackout they generally suffer in the run-up to any UK-wide contest.  But if so, Curtice is right for the wrong reasons, because he actually seems to doubt that the SNP's current position is favourable, which I struggle to tally up with the available evidence.  For starters, he's completely ignoring the almost uniform message from recent Scottish subsamples that the SNP have the lead.  Doubtless he'd justify that by pointing to the inherent unreliability of subsamples, but when they're showing such a consistent message I'm not sure that doctrine works so well.  He's also pointed a number of times to the fact that Survation's full-scale post-referendum poll showed a weakened SNP position in Westminster voting intentions, but has failed to qualify that by noting that it was a telephone poll, and therefore not directly comparable to the previous polls from the firm.  For some reason he has also failed to call out the obvious flaw in the only other full-scale Scottish poll that has been published since the referendum, namely that it used the discredited procedure of weighting by 2010 vote recall (although even then it still managed to produce a small SNP lead over Labour).

Whether Curtice is right or wrong, though, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the SNP still have a golden chance to make significant gains at the election even if Labour hold everything they have.  There really is very little doubt that there will be huge swings in Lib Dem-held seats, and it's just a question of whether the SNP will be the prime beneficiary of that.  Until recently it looked almost certain that they would, but there is now a school of thought that the referendum may have decoupled a section of rural No voters from the SNP, and that the Tories might prosper instead (or indeed Labour in East Dunbartonshire).  As things stand, that's completely unknowable - the SNP's strength in the opinion polls makes it seem unlikely, but we can't be sure that a decline in support in rural areas isn't being more than offset by what might be a short-lasting surge in traditional Labour areas.  Even if that's true, though, a post-Clacton UKIP bandwagon effect is the last thing the Tories need, because a split in the right-wing vote will make it harder for them to pip the SNP in Lib Dem-held seats (and indeed in the three most vulnerable SNP-held seats).

*  *  *

The SNP have published their submission to the Smith Commission - it can be read HERE.  It's really important that as many people as possible make their own personal submission, in order to improve the negotiating hand of the SNP and the Greens.  You can find out how to make a submission by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Now is the time to act (again) : make your own submission to the Smith Commission

Well, it's only a few weeks since we all took a few minutes out of our time to vote for the independence of our country, so surely we can all spare an hour or so to argue the case for the maximum amount of powers to be transferred to our national parliament? A few days ago, the Smith Commission started accepting submissions from the public - you can read the guidelines, and find the email address to send submissions to, by clicking HERE.

Here's the submission I've just sent in...

As I understand it, the commission is particularly keen to hear about the principles or 'unifying themes' that underpin any proposal for a package of powers that should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. In my view there are two principles which must apply, and they are both simple and largely self-evident. Firstly, there is the logic upon which the current devolution settlement is founded, namely that any powers which are not specifically reserved are deemed to be automatically devolved. This means that the burden of proof does not properly lie with the proponents of devolution when they explain why any given power should be devolved, but rather with the devo-sceptics when they explain why it should remain reserved. Looking at the extraordinary "everything but the kitchen sink" list of powers that are currently reserved, it's hard to imagine that a large portion of it would survive such a test.

The second principle is that the new settlement must reflect the democratic will of voters as expressed in the independence referendum on 18th September. The insistence of the UK government that Devo Max (universally defined as the transfer of all powers to Scotland other than the small number absolutely essential to the functioning of a unified state) should not be included as an additional option on the ballot paper was presumably motivated by a desire to thwart the likelihood of the referendum resulting in a mandate for that option. However, there is overwhelming evidence that the two parties represented in the UK government, plus the Labour party and the official No campaign as a whole, abandoned that desire in the latter stages of the campaign and instead invited the electorate to vote No on the specific basis that it would be interpreted as providing a mandate for Devo Max, as opposed to a mandate for no change. This was most explicitly stated by Mr George Galloway, who was nominated by the official Better Together campaign to speak on their behalf in a major televised BBC debate in the Hydro in Glasgow one week before polling day. He pledged that a No vote would automatically result in "not just Devo Max, but Devo SUPER Max". Many viewers were startled by the apparent implication that more powers will somehow be devolved over and above the maximum amount that is actually possible, but nevertheless they were left in no doubt that a No vote was a vote for Devo Max at the absolute minimum. Mr Galloway's fellow representative from Better Together in that debate was Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party, who made no attempt to correct or even to qualify the Devo Max pledge. Nor did the Better Together campaign issue a retraction or clarification after the debate. So the pledge made by their official representative must be regarded as a solemn and binding contract with the electorate, which the commission should assist in delivering now that the mandate that was sought for Devo Max has been secured in the form of a No majority. Statements from other Better Together representatives backed up Mr Galloway's pledge - Gordon Brown, for example, promised that a No vote would lead automatically to a "modern form of Scottish Home Rule" and something close to "federalism".

There is also ample opinion poll evidence that the referendum vote in favour of the option tied to Devo Max (or "Devo SUPER Max") accurately reflects the popular will. A Panelbase poll conducted between 29th September and 1st October found that voters support the transfer of all powers other than foreign affairs and defence to the Scottish Parliament by an emphatic margin of 66% to 19%. The exit poll conducted by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft on referendum day itself found that no fewer than 25% of people who voted No did so primarily and specifically on the basis of the promises of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. When combined with the 45% of the electorate who voted Yes, this means that a grand total of 59% of people were consciously voting in favour of either full sovereign independence or Devo Max (or indeed "Devo SUPER Max").

In a nutshell, then, the principles that I have outlined demand the transfer of absolutely all powers to the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of foreign affairs and defence, and a very small number of other powers that can realistically be regarded as essential to maintaining the United Kingdom as a single state, such as currency and immigration.  [UPDATE : The Scottish Government's submission calls for some immigration powers, and specifically the power to reintroduce the post-study work visa, to be devolved.]

It's therefore largely self-explanatory which powers should be devolved - there are a vast number of them, and I won't go through them all individually. I will, however, highlight just a few, because it is particularly important that these are not permitted to slip through the cracks -

1) The Scottish Parliament must be constitutionally entrenched, and Westminster must permanently relinquish its right to legislate on devolved powers except when granted specific permission to do so by the Scottish Parliament via the Sewel Motion process, which should be given a statutory basis. There can really be no dispute about this - the most unambiguous part of the No campaign's "vow" to the Scottish people was that "the Scottish Parliament is permanent". It would be a clear breach of faith if legislation was not passed to that effect, because there is literally no other way in which it is possible for the three political leaders who put their name to the vow to bind their successors in perpetuity. 'Permanent' is a slightly misleading word, however - the important principle is that Westminster must relinquish its right to take powers back, but it would still be open to the Scottish Parliament to voluntarily return powers. It's highly unlikely that it would ever choose to do so, but it's nevertheless important that enthusiasts for Westminster rule retain a clear democratic route by which to achieve their goal, just as supporters of full independence will have a clear democratic route by which to achieve theirs as soon as a majority of the electorate have been persuaded of the case.

2) The power to hold referenda on Scotland's constitutional future must be unambiguously transferred to the Scottish Parliament. The route by which the Scottish people can most appropriately exercise their inalienable right to national self-determination has now been established by precedent - namely the election of a majority government at Holyrood that has a commitment to a constitutional referendum in its manifesto(s), followed by the holding of that referendum. It's clearly an unsatisfactory and unsustainable situation that there is any legal ambiguity over the ability of the people to replicate that process, if they so choose, after 31st December of this year. It also runs counter to the logic of existing legislation that establishes the means by which the people of Northern Ireland can exercise their right to self-determination at any time, not just in the year 2014.

I gather that concerns have been expressed about the possibility of a so-called "neverendum", but there will be a clear safeguard against that eventuality after powers over constitutional referenda have been permanently transferred to Holyrood. That safeguard is called 'democracy'. If the electorate agree with the Prime Minister's view that there should not be a second independence referendum for "a generation, perhaps a lifetime", then all they need to do to maintain that principle is to vote against any party that proposes a referendum. If, on the other hand, what the politicians who oppose a future referendum really mean is that it should not take place even if the electorate wishes it to, then that is plainly an anti-democratic view, and one that the commission has no business entertaining even for a microsecond.

3) Control over oil revenues should be transferred to Holyrood. I understand from listening to the official No campaign, and also to an impressive number of informed commentators in London, that oil is a dwindling resource and is really more of a burden than a blessing. So this should be a relatively uncontroversial reform in the corridors of power in Whitehall, and I imagine it will trigger little more than a disinterested shrug of the shoulders.

4) Broadcasting should be devolved. The referendum campaign perfectly illustrated how inadequately Scotland is currently served by news and current affairs programmes in particular, and it's likely that only devolution can ever hope to address that. There need be no fears about this reform leading to Scotland decoupling from UK broadcast networks more generally - that would only occur if there was a clear democratic will for it to occur. It's also worth noting that the recent Panelbase poll asked a specific question about this topic, and found that the devolution of broadcasting is supported by an overwhelming 54% to 30% margin.

5) Abortion law should be devolved. There is no rational basis for the current position of abortion law being reserved to Westminster, because the two policy areas that touch upon it (health and criminal law) are both generally devolved. The anomaly seemed to come about because of a view in the late 1990s that abortion was a grown-up subject that mustn't be entrusted to a 'junior' legislature - such patronising views are clearly now long outdated. The oft-cited concern about 'abortion tourism' occurring if Scotland adopts a different law is something that the Scottish Parliament is perfectly capable of taking account of in its deliberations, and it's conceivable that MSPs will opt to keep the law closely aligned with England and Wales for that very reason. But the decision should be properly made in Edinburgh, not in London.

6) Appeals in criminal cases over alleged breaches of the ECHR should in future be made to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, not to the UK Supreme Court. The current position is eroding the integrity of Scots Law, and the argument that removing the Supreme Court's jurisdiction would lead to Scots becoming second-class citizens in respect of human rights protection is an obvious red herring. A Scottish court is perfectly capable of processing ECHR cases with the same speed as the Supreme Court.

The almost (but not quite) total devolution of powers to Scotland outlined above would have numerous advantages. It would trigger a democratic revolution, repatriating the levers of power necessary to revitalise our economy, create jobs, protect the environment, and reinvent public service broadcasting as something that actually serves the public. But most importantly of all, it would represent the honouring of a solemn vow. At a time when public trust in politics is understandably at an all-time low, a keeping of faith now would light a beacon of hope that will radiate warmth to the entire democratic world.

Once again, if you'd like to make your own submission to the Smith Commission, here is the link.  (Submissions don't necessarily have to be very long - even just a few bullet-points would be fine.)

Is it just me, or do you get the impression Neil Lovatt didn't like the last post very much?

This little spectacle has been going on for the best part of 24 hours now...

"Ahhh nothing like a sore loser, and they don't come any sorer than James! Not easy watching him have a breakdown."


"Do love his "self style...risk assessor" Only person who describes me as such is @jameskelly and the alligators in his head."


"Astonishing how little he knows about betting exchanges as opposed to bookies. Falls into every simplistic cliche."


"Naw he would just delete it before reading it, he's not open to challenge or debate as we've seen." (What have I ever deleted?)


"I think he'd struggle because he doesn't understand market pricing and still thinks there are bookies." (Yes, I plead guilty, I still think there are bookies. Probably because there are.)


"and denying the relevance of the odds market. Something he's doubled down on after he's already folded!!!!"


"First time I've ever heard of headlines written as "ironic tributes", but always fun to rewrite your own past."


"I don't see any of us asking for money, you asking for money to continue a blog that was plainly wrong is rich"


"Yes please find (sic) my lifestyle so I can continue to delude people with my incorrect blog and theories."


"Not bitter at all James, nothing to be bitter about. You on the other hand clearly have a lot of issues."


"I think you keep forgetting James, you lost and you were wrong."


"Want me to quote your odds tweet again James. I could just point you to your own blog now as well."


"Of course I have quoted your odds tweet several times. That's what's got you so wound up...again."


"Love the way you pretend you've never had evidence, Last time you got it you just went quiet. Wonder why?" (Probably because I had to mute you on Twitter before the referendum because you were wasting too much of my time with exactly this sort of repetitive content-free drivel.)


"Lol yes that's right James you had it in a discussion last time then went very quiet. As I say wonder why?" (Did someone say something about "repetitive"?)


"Oh dear you are yet again pretending that you haven't seen it. Very sad James."


"Yes I've got the tweet right here, I keep it in evernote for special occasions"


"Gone quiet again after getting the quote again. I rest my case m'lud." (Or possibly I was having my tea.)


"Today's blog being good evidence of that (you know how James likes his evidence)"


"I know, you looked and fool then and you look it today as well. Well done *standingovation"


"James as I said when you told us about your bet, a fool and his money are easily separated."


"Yes I know we established you were a fool several months ago. Still pedalling the risk assessor line eh?"


"I thought it best to shred the blog. So there you go."


"I decided to shred @JamesKelly blog."


"Well @JamesKelly took £5K from his supporters then tried to have a go at me on his blog. So I shredded it. Enjoy."


"@Jameskelly decided to have a go at me and the odds market so I decided to defend it in a shed piece."


"you’ll like this Lisa after @JamesKelly thought you apologised"


"*james tried to eek out some credibility using playground tactics ….. And fails."


"“@drgmlennox: @neiledwardlovat I did indeed enjoy Neil! Completely shredded!!” @JamesKelly trying to defend with playground tactics"


"the boy sure is obsessed with me apparently it’s not the first time he’s mentioned me I hear!"


"I heard in your case James it’s a very very small thing. #explainsalot"


"blogs on polls with a heavy Yes slant. Was proved very wrong by odds and results."


"careful Heather not even I think I’m always right. I just know BS when I hear it. Ive been wrong and apologised many a time"


"odds were the crowd sourced interpretation of how #indyref was going. @JamesKelly write whatever he could to please Yessers."


"well that’s not difficult they were delusional and still haven’t come back down to earth."


"they tend to be quiet. But lovely James justs repeated all their nonsense so I got a chance to shred it in one go."


"I think they are just coming to terms with it, people like James and their enthusiasm made them think they were going to win."


"Ah I'm sorry James, i'm taken. You just don't have enough hair for me. Perhaps if you wore a wig."


"Yes thats right James I'm bitter, Oh wait thats you. you lost the referendum & have been shredded tonight."


"Strange he doesn't put the financial structure in place for the donation? How is it taxed for example?"


"Given you have a £5000 donation it's a legitimate question to ask about your tax position."


"Haven't published it on your fund-raising page."


"OK so they have no right to know unless they ask. Hope you are not avoiding tax that's all. That wouldn't do at all."


"I'm asking a question of a public figure who is raising his money from the public. Perfect legit question."


"Didn't sting me James just allowed you to overreach in one blog post. Was a pleasure to shred it"


"Oh and James don't write a blog attacking me, making yourself look a fool, and not expect me to metaphorically stomp over you."


"Stomping is perfectly called for metaphorically if you launch a personal attack on me and don't even tag me in."

* * *

I'm terribly sorry, Neil, but I don't respond to intimidation. Not now, not ever. If you really find it so unspeakably beastly to have your views subject to scrutiny, dissection and criticism in a public space, all I can suggest is that you refrain from participating in discussions on public forums in future. Indeed, that might be a good idea for more reasons than one.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Poll of Polls update, and a response to "Alligator Man"

Since the last Poll of Polls update, there have been four new Scottish subsamples published, all of which have shown the SNP in the lead by varying degrees.  However, that's had a negligible effect on the rolling average, other than the fact that UKIP have overtaken the Liberal Democrats.  The latest update is based on eight polls - one full-scale Scottish poll from Panelbase, four YouGov subsamples, two Populus subsamples and one Ashcroft subsample.  I still can't provide a figure for the Greens, because it was absent from the Panelbase datasets.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 35.8% (+0.2)
Labour 31.4% (+0.1)
Conservatives 17.7% (+0.5)
UKIP 5.5% (+0.1)
Liberal Democrats 5.1% (-0.7)

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

I've been struck over the last couple of weeks by the number of people who have said some kind of variation on the following : "The referendum taught me that opinion polls are generally pretty accurate."  Which always leaves a part of me thinking - did you really need the referendum to tell you that?  As I discussed in a lengthy post back in April, polls in the western world have a long track record of being reasonably accurate, usually at least to within a few percentage points.  That doesn't mean we should treat them as a God, or not watch like a hawk for any flaws in their methodologies that might lead them to be less accurate than usual, but the huge number of people who prior to the referendum were chanting the mantras "I never look at the polls, they're all rubbish" and "the only poll that matters is on September the 18th" could have saved themselves a big shock if they'd just taken a sober look at the reasonably healthy success rate of polling firms in the past.  There was a kind of mythology doing the rounds that the 2011 election somehow proved that polls were completely useless, but in fact (with the important exception of YouGov) most firms were fairly close to the mark with their final call in 2011, albeit only on the constituency vote.

I've also noticed a few people in the comments section of this blog saying that they don't want to listen to any suggestions that support for the SNP might be slightly understated in the current polls, because similar suggestions about the Yes vote prior to the referendum proved to be wrong.  To a limited extent that chimes with the remarks of a certain Mr Neil Edward Lovatt, a self-styled hot-shot "risk assessor" who famously couldn't even assess the risk of someone being attacked by alligators in Ireland.  I had to mute him on Twitter a few weeks before the referendum because his personalised trolling campaign was wasting far too much of my time, so I haven't been following what he's said about me recently, but from replies that I've seen other people send to him, it's pretty obvious that he's developed a weird obsession with trying to trash my reputation as a "pundit" - on the basis that my "predictions" were supposedly proved wrong.  Rather pathetically, I saw a Yes supporter gushing about Lovatt's genius on the day after polling : "Oh, I should have listened to you all along, it wasn't what I wanted to hear, but your analysis was always bang on the money!"

You see, unlike me, Lovatt did actually make predictions about the referendum - and he did it based not on polls, but on the "odds market", ie. by looking at movements on the betting exchanges.  When challenged about the shortcomings of this rather dubious approach, he repeatedly asserted that the odds market is an infallible predictor (it seems that, unlike the polls, the markets really are a God).  He failed to provide any evidence for this extraordinary claim, and instead rubbished anyone questioning the truth of what he was saying as an idiot who self-evidently didn't know the first thing about the subject.

Unfortunately for Lovatt, although I'm not really a gambling man, I was a regular for several years on Political Betting, so I do actually have a reasonably good grounding in the betting markets and what can shift them.  The one narrow sense in which he's right is that the odds market can sometimes offer the earliest indication of the results of an embargoed poll, because those who have been given sight of it in advance might use their knowledge to make a profit.  (A similar example is that everyone knew that Matt Smith had been cast as Doctor Who several hours before the announcement, because he came out of absolutely nowhere to become the bookies' favourite.)  But the operative word is 'can'.  Political betting is particularly prone to snowball effects - punters are on the constant lookout (just like Lovatt) for movements in the markets that might be caused by bets from people with inside information, and if they think they spot a clue, they're likely to pile in very quickly, thus moving the markets even further in the same direction.  So you can end up with dramatic and seemingly significant shifts based on nothing more than guesswork and a herd-like instinct.

This is an even greater problem when you're trying to use the odds market to predict the result of an actual referendum, rather than merely a poll.  Even if you spot something that you think might be an indication of inside information, just how much use is that inside information anyway?  Nobody literally knew the referendum result in advance - at best they would have had knowledge of private polling, canvass returns and postal vote sampling.  Given that the public polls were tightly bunched together in the lead-up to polling day, it's highly unlikely that the private polls were showing anything different.  Canvass returns carry a huge health warning, because people often tell canvassers what they want to hear, so anyone reading too much into Better Together's collated figures would have been very foolish.  And postal vote sampling would have been of limited use, because it was always speculated that postal voters were disproportionately likely to be in the No column for demographic reasons.  So if there were any 'clues' to be found in the betting markets in the days leading up to polling, they were coming from people who were getting carried away with themselves, and who thought they knew far more than they actually did.

And then, most importantly of all, there's the Scottish factor.  For obvious reasons, UK betting markets are more likely to be accurate when 'on the ground' information is equally available to punters throughout the UK.  That simply isn't the case in a Scottish-only vote, because Scotland has less than 9% of the UK population.  We saw a huge split in where the bets were going in this referendum, with Scottish punters overwhelmingly backing Yes, and punters in the rest of the UK backing No.  Because of the disparity in population, that led to the odds reflecting what the less-well-informed non-Scottish punters were doing.  Just to be clear, people in Scotland weren't backing Yes because they necessarily thought Yes would win - instead they were concluding that it was the value bet because the probability of Yes winning was significantly higher than the odds suggested.

The most extreme example of the Scottish factor in action came in 2007 - and I know that Lovatt is completely unaware of this, because he didn't have a clue what I was talking about when I raised it with him.  As you'll recall, the final results from that year's Holyrood election didn't emerge until 6pm on the day after polling, due to catastrophic technical problems with the counting machines.  Throughout most of the intervening period, the betting markets remained open.  They showed Labour with a greater than 90% chance of winning, and continued to do so several hours after BBC Scotland's Brian Taylor had publicly announced that the running tallies suggested the SNP were going to sneak it.  Punters with London-centric assumptions about where to look for clues were missing what was right under their noses.  It was an absolutely bizarre spectacle, and one that should completely destroy any notion that the odds market can be used as a reliable predictor of Scottish elections.

Yes, on this particular occasion, the odds market successfully 'predicted' the result of a two-horse race.  But then it would have had a 50% chance of successfully 'predicting' the result of a coin toss.

So much for Lovatt's claim to have uncannily predicted the result with his seer-like talents.  But what about me, and other regulars on this blog?  Well, as already noted, I was very circumspect, and never made any sort of prediction at all.  (Yes, my headlines were often apocalyptic in tone, but as most of you noticed they were intended as ironic tributes to the mainstream media's poll-related headlines.)  What I and others did was point out that this referendum posed unusual challenges, which made it particularly difficult for pollsters to 'work backwards' to ensure their methodology was right.  We raised legitimate questions about the accuracy of the three No-friendly pollsters, namely YouGov, TNS and Ipsos-Mori.  We speculated about the reasons why they were showing a significantly lower Yes vote than the other three firms - a highly unusual disparity which meant by definition that at least one group of firms was getting it completely wrong.  With YouGov, we attacked the logical basis for the so-called "Kellner Correction", and with Ipsos-Mori we were concerned about the reliability of landline-only polling.

After the polls dramatically converged a couple of weeks before polling, there was no longer any rational reason to suppose that some of the polls might be understating the Yes vote by an extreme amount, because all methodologies were leading to roughly the same conclusion.  However, it was still possible that a systemic across-the-board problem was leading to the polls being slightly off-mark in either direction.  There was just as much of a chance that they were overestimating Yes as that they were overestimating No, but nevertheless with the average Yes vote standing on 48% or 49% in the run-up to polling day, that was the basis on which I said that Yes had a real chance of winning - and, oddly enough, in saying that I found myself in complete agreement with both Peter Kellner and Anthony Wells.  As it turned out, it looks like there was indeed a small systemic problem with the polls, and that they were overestimating the Yes vote by a smidgeon (even the YouGov exit poll had Yes on 46%).

But what we still don't know is whether the No-friendly or the Yes-friendly pollsters were closer to the truth prior to the Great Convergence.  It would help enormously if YouGov retrospectively published their secret Kellner Correction figures, because then we would see whether the apparent late surge for Yes was heavily concentrated among the small group of respondents who were always drastically upweighted by the correction.  In the meantime, I would suggest that it's extremely difficult to sustain the argument that those of us who cast doubt on the accuracy of the No-friendly firms have been proved wrong.  Just a few weeks before polling, YouGov were showing Yes on 39-40%, and had never shown a higher figure than 42%.  Peter Kellner was busily telling us that it was even worse than that, because Don't Knows could always be expected to break for No - and yet Yes ended up with 45%.  Very similar patterns were seen with Ipsos-Mori and TNS.

And what does this tell us about the potential accuracy of Scottish voting intention polling for the general election?  Not a lot, because at the moment there's no obvious divergence between firms.  But as I observed the other day, the point I raised about the full-scale Panelbase poll potentially underestimating the SNP vote for Westminster is a completely new issue, because the firm are using a weighting procedure that they didn't employ for any of their referendum polls, and one that is pretty much discredited throughout the whole industry.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Scot Goes Pop fundraiser breaks through £5000 barrier

A million, billion, zillion thanks to the 171 people who have donated so far to the second Scot Goes Pop fundraiser, which today passed its target figure of £5000.  That means Indiegogo will deduct a much smaller administration fee (I believe it will now be 4% of the total rather than 9%).  I never know what to say at moments like this, other than that I'm completely overwhelmed, and that I'll do my very best not to let you down.  Barring unexpected calamities, I'll stick to the plan of keeping the blog going until the UK general election next spring.  I'll probably continue to focus mostly on opinion polls, because I suspect Scottish voting intentions for the general election will be a neglected subject elsewhere.

The fundraiser will continue as planned until November the 18th - in any case the closing date is decided in advance and can't be changed.  I'll make sure any further money raised is put to good use.  There are three basic options...

1) I could use the extra money to keep the blog going beyond the general election (ie. without having to attempt a third fundraiser at that point, which I suspect would be much less likely to succeed),

2) I could do what I did the last time and set aside some of the funds for online advertising.  That would have two aims - a) to draw new readers to the blog, and b) to generally spread a pro-independence/pro-Devo Max/pro-SNP message.

3) I could commission an exclusive opinion poll.  I think it's pretty unlikely that we'll get to the point where that would be feasible, though, and even if we do, I'm not sure it would be the wisest use of the funds - it might make a big splash if we play our cards right, but it would be very much a one-off event that would be over very quickly.

I'll keep an open mind, but I have a feeling option 2 will probably be the best one.

Lastly, commiserations to our friendly neighbourhood trolls who tried and failed to sabotage the fundraiser from the outset by posing unconvincingly as 'concerned Yes supporters'.  Please don't take this outcome as being any kind of reflection on your characteristically stirring efforts!

The proper capital city of a proper country

Back in June, I went to Cramond Island for the first time since I was a very young child.  While I was there, the idea popped into my head of filling a blogpost with a selection of photos I'd taken in some of Edinburgh's most startling nooks and crannies (how many cities can boast a medieval town, a Georgian town, a beach, a loch, an island, an enormous castle, a network of underground passages AND an extinct volcano?!), and then posing the question : "who in their right mind wouldn't want this unique city to reclaim its rightful place as one of Europe's capitals?" Well, Rory 'the Tory' Stewart wouldn't, apparently - he concluded his ode to Edinburgh's beautiful architecture by noting that none of what he had just said should detract from his absolute requirement that all of us see London as "the greater city and our capital".  But then Rory spends most of his time in an imaginary kingdom called Narnia...sorry, "the Middleland", so we should probably be patient with the poor chap.

In August, I briefly found myself in Bratislava, which of course is the capital city of an independent country that has almost exactly the same population as Scotland.  Although it's a decent-sized city, the historic old town has a village-like feel to it, more so even than the old town of Edinburgh.  The town square is particularly intimate, and yet dotted around it are classic trappings of a capital - specifically the embassies of France and various other countries.  I suddenly had an image of Edinburgh looking like that in the not-too-distant future.

All of this seems quite poignant in retrospect, albeit not half as poignant as it would have been if the No win had not been a narrow one that was tied to a grandiose "vow" (which, regardless of whether it is kept or broken, has the potential to maintain the momentum towards independence in the medium-term).  But I've now been to Edinburgh three times since referendum day, and as I wandered around I found myself pondering what it is that makes a "proper capital of a proper country".  It seems to me these are the main things...

1) Embassies.  Well, we can forget about that one for the time being - Edinburgh may have a decent smattering of consulates (as I know from a couple of treks to the American consulate way back in the mists of time), but those aren't in any sense a recognition of Scotland's status as a country.  They can be found in many provincial cities within larger countries, such as Birmingham.

2) The seat of parliament and government.  Edinburgh does have this, but it only partially counts, because it's a sub-national parliament and a sub-national government with limited powers.  At best, it puts Edinburgh on a par with the fifty state capitals of the US or the six state capitals of Australia.  At worst, Edinburgh is inferior to those capitals, because states within federal systems enjoy a degree of sovereignty, and are constitutionally entrenched in exactly the same way as the federal tier of government.  As things stand, the Scottish Parliament can be abolished at a whim by Westminster - although that must soon change if "the vow" is to have any meaning.  Front and central on that infamous Daily Record cover was the pledge that "the Scottish Parliament is permanent", and because no promise from Cameron, Clegg and Miliband can bind their successors, they must know perfectly well that the only way to honour their word is to pass a law stating that Westminster has permanently relinquished its right to legislate for Scotland on all policy areas that have been transferred to Holyrood.

Just over a year ago, I was on the For A' That podcast with Andrew Tickell (aka Lallands Peat Worrier), who corrected me when I cited the process leading to Australian independence as an example of how a devolved Scottish Parliament could be constitutionally entrenched.  He pointed out that, although a law has been passed stating that Westminster can no longer legislate for Australia, it's perfectly possible for Westminster to simply repeal that law.  However, I still think that's an interesting example, because of course if anyone in London did try to abolish Australian independence, the only practical effect would be to make a lot of people chortle.  That shows there's a level of constitutional entrenchment beyond which there may be a way back in theory, but not in practice.  That's what the forthcoming process must achieve for Scotland.

3) A central bank.  Edinburgh doesn't have this, but it wouldn't have done even under independence, and in any case it's becoming less obviously a trapping of statehood as time goes on.  Indeed, not even a single capital of a Eurozone country is the host of a central bank - because the European Central Bank is located in Frankfurt, not Berlin.  [UPDATE : Holebender has corrected me in the comments section below - Eurozone countries have in fact retained their individual central banks alongside the ECB.)

4) A supreme court.  This is where the current position gets more interesting.  The Court of Session in Edinburgh is the highest Scottish court in relation to civil law, and it isn't a supreme court, because its decisions can be appealed to the UK Supreme Court in London.  But the UK Supreme Court has no jurisdiction at all over criminal law in Scotland.  When the High Court of Justiciary sits as a court of appeal in Edinburgh, it is quite literally the supreme court of a country in respect of criminal law, and that country is Scotland.  I don't know enough about the legal systems of other countries to be sure whether this is a unique state of affairs for a non-independent nation or territory, but at the very least it must be extremely unusual.  It even makes Edinburgh (in a specific and limited sense) a 'superior' capital to some capitals of independent states which do not have their own supreme criminal courts - a good few Caribbean countries use either the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, or the new multi-state Caribbean Court of Justice.

So the next time you saunter past St Giles' Cathedral and Parliament Square, remember you're in the one place that genuinely makes Edinburgh the proper capital city of a proper country.  That's something that can give us heart as we work over the coming years to put the rest of it straight.