Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lament for Lamont?

For weeks now, I've been meaning to write a post containing a Top of the Pops list (or Top of the Scot Goes Pops list) of the stupidest things that unionist commentators said in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.  Hopefully I'll still get around to doing it, because there's a hell of a selection, but in the meantime let's remember just one particular gem - I think it was possibly a Daily Mail editorial that said about Alex Salmond's resignation, "with one deft flick of the electorate's knife, the fish-faced king was no more".  I may not have remembered the last bit correctly, but it was some such gibberish.  The gist was that, far from the reality of Mr Salmond being this country's most popular and trusted political leader, we instead live in a parallel universe where the voters loathe him as much as the Daily Mail does, and where they "defeated" him in order to "expel" him from office.  (And of course he didn't resign of his own free will, or anything like that.)  So presumably on Planet Mail, whenever a party leader resigns immediately after a referendum, we can take it as read that the party in question suffered a humiliating defeat in that referendum.  Therefore, the fact that Johann Lamont has just resigned as Scottish Labour "leader" means that the No-supporting Labour party must have lost the independence referendum.  Hmmm.  It's confusing, isn't it?

I'll be honest - my first reaction upon hearing the news was one of bitter disappointment.  Ms Lamont has been an absolutely dreadful leader - it's a moot point whether she's been even worse than her predecessor Iain "the Snarl" Gray, but at the very least she's been just as bad.  If only she had stayed in harness for eighteen more months, it would have been a racing certainty that Labour would have suffered a third successive defeat in a Holyrood election.  Now of course, there are any number of dire Scottish Labour parliamentarians in both Edinburgh and London who might be fancying their chances tonight, and who would just as reliably assist the SNP in securing the hat-trick.  But it seems to me that Labour have nothing really to lose from a vacancy now - at worst, things will stay as they are, but there's just a chance they might find someone half-decent to take over, in which case Nicola Sturgeon might be given a run for her money in 2016.

So I was feeling pretty downhearted, until I realised that Lamont's departure was by no means an amicable parting of the ways, and that she had tossed a grenade into the constitutional debate with her stated reasons for resigning.  Hopefully that means there's at least a chance that something positive will come out of this.  Surely the new Labour for Scotland group will now have to rise to the challenge of putting up a candidate to argue the case for a much more radical devolution package, and also for their London colleagues to take a "hands off" approach on matters that are properly the province of the Scottish party.  Even if that candidate doesn't win, they might be able to set the tone of the leadership campaign, and secure concessions from the eventual winner.  If as a result Labour finally becomes the party of devolution that they've always claimed to be, they might be much more formidable opponents for the SNP, but that would be a price well worth paying for this country's sake.

If I could set aside all strategic considerations, I should probably take nothing but satisfaction from Lamont's demise, because she (or at least her public persona) is the absolute epitome of everything I loathe about the Labour party.  I'm not just saying that because she happens to be the outgoing leader - I remember thinking it when I first saw her on television way back in the 1990s.  It's like she sees Scotland as a dreamy, spoilt teenager, who needs to be given an endless series of bitter lectures about the stupidity of expecting too much from life.   The notorious "shut up and eat your cereal" ad from the No campaign could almost have been Lamont : The Movie.  If it's really true that she's been pushing the pro-devolution case behind the scenes, that does make me think better of her, but what I don't understand is why she had to wait until she resigned to speak out publicly.  Why not use her mandate to say "I'm the elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party, and it's time to stop encroaching on my territory"?  The whole point of having your own mandate is that you can't be sacked by Ed Miliband for talking out of turn.  Well, that's the theory - hopefully her successor might have the bravery to turn that theory into something more concrete.

Final thought - if Labour can't rediscover their roots, could they at least give us a three-cornered leadership contest between Terry Kelly, James Kelly (my esteemed MSP namesake) and Alex "Braveheart" Gallagher to cheer us all up?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Salmond's potential return to Westminster - the impact?

I must admit that until I caught up with last night's Question Time, I had given very little credence to the speculation that Alex Salmond might return to Westminster next year.  But now, I'm almost inclined to go to the other extreme and wonder if what we're seeing is the acting out of choreography that was devised weeks ago, meaning there is a careful plan in place for Salmond's post-resignation role, which may be bigger than we previously thought.  If he is indeed about to embark on a Commons comeback, I suppose the big question is whether it will be on the same basis as the last time, ie. as SNP group leader.  We should certainly hope so, because he is the greatest political talent of his generation (probably across the whole of these islands), and given that he's only 59 years old, it would be a terrible waste if the SNP couldn't continue to make use of his skills in some kind of formal leadership role.  It worked between 2001 and 2004 - Salmond's leadership in the Westminster group didn't prevent John Swinney establishing himself as the party leader (of course in some ways Swinney wasn't a very successful leader, but that can hardly be put down to his being overshadowed by his predecessor).

I know it might seem a bit harsh on Angus Robertson, but if the SNP do make big gains next year, being the deputy leader of a much-expanded group wouldn't be such a bad consolation prize!  I suppose it could be argued that it doesn't really matter whether Salmond is officially the group leader or not, because the London media will go to him anyway.  But in a sense that's a circular point - if you're going to be treated as the group leader, why not actually be the group leader?

Either way, presumably the thinking is that Salmond will be a powerful voice in London for maximum devolution, and will not be so easily ignored as others.  If we get lucky and the SNP hold the balance of power next May, he would undoubtedly be a key player in the negotiations.

Just as important is what this means for the election campaign next spring.  If Salmond is going to be a candidate, there is good reason to think that he will be much more prominent on our TV screens than previously seemed likely - and that can only be a good thing.  Theoretically, you could even make the case for him being the SNP's representative in whatever debates the party is graciously permitted to participate in, although I would guess they'd be more likely to want Sturgeon there to establish her as the new leader.

If nothing else, a Salmond candidacy will automatically increase the national vote for the SNP and/or Devo Max Alliance by 0.1% or so - because he'll take a hefty personal vote with him, regardless of which constituency he stands in.

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Thankfully, Labour overtaking the SNP in the Populus subsample a few days ago turned out to be a blip.  All of the subsamples since, including the latest one from Populus, have had the SNP well ahead.  The new update of the Poll of Polls is based on the Scottish subsamples from seven GB-wide polls - four from YouGov, two from Populus and one from Ashcroft.  Apart from seeing the SNP back above the psychological 40% threshold, it's also notable for being the first time that the Greens have overtaken UKIP in the Poll of Polls.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 42.0% (+3.2)
Labour 26.1% (+0.3)
Conservatives 16.0% (-3.4)
Liberal Democrats 6.0% (-1.8)
Greens 4.7% (+1.8)
UKIP 3.7% (-1.7)

(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.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The lady doth protest too much, methinks

Just after the Clacton by-election, I posed a very bland question in a tweet : "What does UKIP's breakthrough mean for Scotland?".  I was slightly surprised to receive a random response from Louise Mensch of all people, inviting me to rearrange the words "all" and "sod".  Given that Louise has 86,000 followers on Twitter to keep her occupied, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd hit a very raw nerve.

I have a new article at the International Business Times which explores further what effect the UKIP advance might have in this part of the world - you can read it HERE.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hosie Hosie Hoo Hah, I said Hoo Hah Hoo Hah Hosie

I've just voted for Stewart Hosie in the SNP deputy leader election. I know that won't come as any great surprise to regular readers, because I explained my thinking at the end of last month.  However, that was before Angela Constance's late entry into the race, which has given me severe pause for thought.  Her passionate pledge to ensure that the SNP never takes its eyes off the goal of an independent Scotland, and to put the party in a permanent state of readiness for the next opportunity whenever it comes, is I'm sure what all of us want to hear.  However, I think at moments like this we really have to put our faith in the basic nature of the SNP as a pro-independence party.  As Winnie Ewing memorably said : "We are all fundamentalists."  Each and every one of us is committed to full sovereign independence - the only disagreement is on the most effective tactics for getting us to the goal.  And no-one has a monopoly of wisdom on that score.  In many ways it comes down to gut instinct about what would be most likely to work.

My own gut instinct is that Stewart Hosie and Angela Constance are absolutely right to back the idea of a "Yes Alliance" at next year's general election (Keith Brown seems much less keen).  However, I'm more impressed by the clarity of Hosie's vision for that alliance, which is to push relentlessly for the devolution of all powers other than foreign affairs and defence.  If that's the path we follow, it will put the SNP in the unique position of being the only major party that has made its peace with the referendum result, and has declared itself as being on the side of the popular will as expressed on September 18th.  Because that popular will was for Devo Max.  Not for full independence (yet), but most certainly not for Labour's Devo Nano either, or for the Tories' Devo Bit More, or even for the Lib Dems' Federalism Lite.  Imagine the moral authority of a nationalist party that is the only authentic voice for a large chunk of No voters who want a devolution settlement that goes way beyond what the anti-independence parties are prepared to offer.  I gather J K Rowling said that she would vote No and then back any party that offered Devo Max - well, if the Hosie vision carries the day, we'll all be holding our breath for the inevitable £1 million donation winging its way to the SNP from Hogwarts.  (Apologies if that joke doesn't entirely make sense - as you've probably gathered, I'm not a Harry Potter fan.)

None of this means that we lose sight of the goal of independence - far from it.  Making a success of the current weak devolution model paved the way for a 45% Yes vote.  Achieving Devo Max and then making a success of it (thus comprehensively destroying almost all of the scare stories about independence) could pave the way for a comfortable victory in a second referendum.  Alternatively, if the mandate for Devo Max becomes stronger and stronger with every passing election but without any sign of Westminster acting upon it, that in itself will bring independence closer, because it will demonstrate to the electorate that the United Kingdom is utterly incapable of accommodating our legitimate aspirations for domestic self-rule.

There are two other advantages to Hosie being the deputy leader.  The first is that he is, in my view, the most charismatic of the three candidates, and also the most effective debater.  Above all else, the deputy leader is one of the party's key spokespeople - we've become used to the position being held by the most charismatic person in the party other than the leader, and I think we should probably aim to continue in that vein.  In the literal sense that means Alex Salmond should be the deputy leader, but obviously he's excluded from the equation because he'll now be the SNP's equivalent of George Foulkes as a "senior" all-purpose media go-to man.  (I know in one sense that does the First Minister the biggest disservice in history, but I'm also sure you know what I mean!)

The second advantage is that Hosie is a Westminster MP.  The dream scenario next May is that the SNP will hold the balance of power with 15, 20 or even 30 seats, and will be able to negotiate a deal with Labour that would simultaneously get the Tories out and deliver Devo Max (or at the very least something much closer to Devo Max than is currently being contemplated in London).  We would need a lot of luck for the cards to fall in exactly the right way, but it's not inconceivable.  If it did happen, it would be ideal to have Hosie in Westminster speaking with the full authority of the deputy leadership position.  And don't completely rule out the possibility of Angus Robertson as Deputy Prime Minister of the UK in a Labour/SNP coalition with Stewart Hosie as Scottish Secretary (or vice versa).  I know most people in the SNP would at the moment dismiss that idea as utterly fanciful, but if it came to the crunch and there was an opportunity to deliver Devo Max, who would you trust to deliver it more than an SNP government minister?

To return to the proposal for a Yes Alliance, you might be wondering if there are any risks attached to it.  There are indeed, and probably the best recent example of how an electoral pact (albeit an extremely informal one) can spectacularly backfire came in 2003.  The SSP, back in the pre-split days when it was still led by Tommy Sheridan, decided not to stand candidates against Labour incumbents who were viewed as genuine socialists.  But it had the opposite effect to the one intended, because the swing from Labour to SNP was actually bigger where the SSP didn't stand.  It turned out that natural SSP voters were people who would otherwise gravitate towards the SNP, and not towards Labour.  Most notably, this led to John McAllion losing his Dundee East seat to Shona Robison.

So there are things that can go wrong, but in my view it's definitely worth the risk.  It's misguided to look at the SNP's current strength in the opinion polls and think that all we need to do is more of the same.  If the rigged TV leaders' debates are allowed to go ahead as currently proposed, the lead could disappear in a puff of smoke overnight.  We really need to think out of the box if we're going to do what we've never done before (with one partial exception in 1974) - make a telling breakthrough on "away soil".

For all those reasons, it's Stewart Hosie for me.  But I was sufficiently impressed by Angela Constance's pitch to give her my second preference vote.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Just when you thought Clegg couldn't blunder any further, he starts channelling Ian Davidson

I see that Nick Clegg has had a little moan about Alex Salmond wanting to "have another crack" at the independence referendum (even though, to the best of my knowledge, no-one in the SNP leadership has proposed an early second referendum unless circumstances change), and in a disturbing echo of Ian Davidson's notorious "bayoneting the wounded" comment, has compared the outgoing First Minister to a Japanese soldier who doesn't know the war is over.

Let me put a thought to you, Mr Clegg.  You are Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, with special responsibility for constitutional reform.  I'm not entirely clear what you've been doing in that role for the last four-and-a-half years, given that I can't actually think of a meaningful constitutional reform that has occurred over that period.  But you nevertheless have an opportunity to redeem yourself now by implementing the solemn promises that secured a narrow (rather than a "pretty emphatic") win for the No side.  Once you've done that, you're then perfectly entitled to enter into a discussion with the people of Scotland about whether or not a second referendum would be appropriate.

Just to remind you, the promises you need to deliver are -

"Devo SUPER Max."  (Devo Max is the devolution of virtually all powers other than foreign affairs and defence.  It's unclear what the 'SUPER' refers to, but presumably it must somehow be even more impressive than Devo Max.)

"A modern form of Scottish Home Rule."  (See above.)

"Near federalism."  (See above.)

The guarantee of Scotland remaining within the European Union.  (This is not consistent with briefing journalists that your party will concede an in/out referendum on the EU in order to stay in coalition with the Tories after the next election.)

"The Scottish Parliament is permanent."  (This means abandoning the doctrine of absolute Westminster sovereignty, and irrevocably surrendering London's right to legislate on devolved matters unless given permission to do so by Edinburgh.)

So you get on with that little lot, Nick, and once it's all signed, sealed and delivered, you'll be in a splendid position to make the case that a repeat referendum would be totally inappropriate for the foreseeable future.  But if you fail to deliver, then quite simply you have no mandate, because the mandate received by the No campaign on September 18th was firmly tied to a "vow".  In those circumstances, I'm afraid that whether we should at some point "have another crack" will quite rightly remain an open question.

Oh, and given that the Lib Dems are on 5% in YouGov's latest Scottish subsample, and the SNP are on 49%, it's just possible that opinions may vary about which political leader most closely resembles a deluded Japanese soldier who has failed to recognise that the game is up.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The politics of language

My jaw just dropped to the floor watching the BBC News channel - there was a headline along the lines of "Cameron is defiant amid warnings that his plan to curb EU immigration could be illegal."

"Warnings"?  "Could be illegal"?  There's not the slightest bloody doubt that it's illegal!  This is fact, not speculation.  Freedom for EU citizens to live and work in any other member state is one of the most fundamental principles of EU law - which, for the avoidance of doubt, has supremacy over UK law, and that's a principle that has been accepted and enforced by the UK courts for decades.

It's highly instructive to see the way in which the broadcasters feel they have to pussy-foot around with their use of language in respect of the UK government's antics, even when it's a matter of plain, irrefutable fact that Cameron is proposing something he has no legal power to do.  Compare and contrast with the rather 'firmer' language they felt free to use only a few weeks ago in relation to scare stories about Scottish independence, no matter how fanciful those were.

Explain yourself, Professor Curtice, for I fear there is a rather massive contradiction here

I don't pay the Murdoch levy, so I was interested to see an extract from a Sunday Times article on Wings yesterday, in which Professor John Curtice argues for a referendum on more powers for the Scottish Parliament.  He offers the following very curious reason -

"It seems to me that unless we go through a process whereby we get public buy-in to what is being proposed and which in five years' time the politicians can say 'This is what the people voted for and this is what Scotland wants', the SNP will be able to continue to say 'This is not enough' and selectively use polling evidence to show that is what people think."

If he has not been misquoted on the word 'selectively', there's a huge problem with Curtice's argument.  Just two weeks ago he wrote a post on his own blog criticising the SNP for using leading wording in the questions for a Panelbase poll that showed overwhelming public support for full Devo Max (ie. devolution of everything other than foreign affairs and defence), and pointed out they didn't need to do that, because neutrally-worded polls can be relied upon to produce the same result anyway -

"And given that many another survey that has used a more neutral wording has uncovered majority support for devolution of the nation’s domestic affairs, it might be felt that there is no need for the SNP to have adopted such an approach in order to generate findings that were supportive of its view."

In other words, if what emerges from the unsatisfactory post-referendum process falls significantly short of Devo Max, the SNP will always be able to quote polling evidence showing that the popular will has not been respected, and they will always be right. There's no question of that evidence being in any way "selective" - the people demonstrably and authentically want Devo Max, and we have Curtice's own word for that.

He must know that a fair referendum offering a menu of options for further devolution (Labour's Devo Nano, the Tories' Devo Bit More, the Lib Dems' Federalism Lite, Reform Scotland's Devo Plus and the SNP's Devo Max) would have a very predictable outcome.  So I can only assume that he's not talking about the sort of referendum that actually seeks to ascertain the popular will, but instead the sort that is used to establish a bogus mandate.  The AV referendum of three years ago is a classic example - voters were presented with a choice of two very similar options, and the vast swathe of voters who wanted a more radical option (ie. proportional representation) had no choice but to "endorse" something that they didn't actually support.  The No campaign openly pitched for PR supporters to vote against AV, and then shamelessly claimed the outcome as a ringing endorsement of first-past-the-post.

Roy Hattersley (remember him?) tried a similar trick after the 1997 devolution referendum, arguing that it was "unanswerable" that Labour should run the parliament rather than the SNP, because the Scottish people had just voted for devolution rather than independence.  The trouble is that it was a bit difficult for them to do anything else given that they were faced with a binary choice between devolution and direct rule from London.  And yet a high-profile Westminster politician was perfectly prepared to make that risible, offensive, and downright undemocratic argument with a straight face.  Professor Curtice seems to be suggesting something equally cynical with his comment about "public buy-in" - that voters would be faced with a binary choice between the status quo and the Smith Commission proposals, and if they voted for the latter, politicians could then brazenly claim the outcome as a rejection of Devo Max, even though that hadn't been on the ballot paper.

Of course, nobody actually paid a blind of bit of notice to Hattersley's witterings, because everyone knew perfectly well that the SNP had been an active part of the Yes campaign in 1997, and that victory in the referendum was jointly "owned" by supporters of independence and supporters of devolution.  Exactly the same thing would happen this time in the unlikely event of Curtice's suggestion being acted upon, because I struggle to conceive of any circumstances in which the SNP would not campaign in favour of seizing more powers for the Scottish Parliament, whatever reservations they might have about the exact proposals.

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Today has seen the publication of only the second Scottish subsample since the referendum not to put the SNP in the lead.  Like the first one, it's from Populus.  It's an ambiguous finding, though, because the SNP are actually fractionally ahead on the raw figures, and only slip behind Labour after turnout weighting.  With such small sample sizes, you'd expect huge fluctuations from day to day, so it's far too early to conclude that the SNP's surge is starting to tail off.  They remain well ahead in the latest Poll of Polls, which is based on eight subsamples from GB-wide polls - four from YouGov, two from Populus and two from ComRes.  (An Ashcroft poll will be published later this afternoon, but I can't be bothered waiting for it!)

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 38.8% (-3.3)
Labour 25.8% (+0.9)
Conservatives 19.4% (+1.2)
Liberal Democrats 7.8% (+1.4)
UKIP 5.4% (+0.3)
Greens 2.9% (+0.3)

(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.)

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UPDATE : The Ashcroft poll is now out, and its Scottish subsample is much more 'normal' than the Populus one - it shows the SNP ahead of Labour by 49% to 27%.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Are we even closer to the UKIP nightmare scenario than we realise?

If you thought that the days were over when the chances of predicting our political future hinged on judging the merits of different polling methodologies, think again.  Just look at the huge difference between the results of two simultaneous Britain-wide ComRes polls which have just been released - the first of which "prompts" for UKIP (ie. it reminds respondents of the party's existence in exactly the same way that it reminds them of the existence of the other 'main' parties), and the second of which does not.

Britain-wide voting intentions for the May 2015 general election (UKIP prompted for) :

Labour 31%
Conservatives 29%
UKIP 24%
Liberal Democrats 7%
Greens 5%
SNP 4%
Others 1%

Britain-wide voting intentions for the May 2015 general election (UKIP not prompted for) :

Labour 34%
Conservatives 31%
UKIP 19%
Liberal Democrats 7%
SNP 4%
Greens 4%
Others 1%

Incredibly, the bizarre methodology used for the second poll is the "norm" for ComRes, as indeed it is for many other pollsters, and this calls into question whether even the unprecedented numbers UKIP have been enjoying recently may be a significant underestimate of their true support.  If they really are in the mid-20s and just seven points behind the first-placed party as the "fairer" poll above suggests, then we are well and truly into an "all bets are off" scenario, because there are still plenty of opportunities for Farage to build further momentum before the general election - most obviously there's the Rochester and Strood by-election next month, but there's also the lingering possibility of further defections from both the Tories and Labour.

Earlier this evening, I had a brief Twitter exchange on the "prompting" issue with Keiran Pedley of NOP, which used to be a big name in UK voting intention polling, although they haven't been active in recent times.

Keiran Pedley : @Nigel_Farage thinks UKIP should be prompted but where is the evidence that prompting UKIP gives a more accurate poll rating?

Me : To be fair, there seems very little chance that it would give a less accurate rating.

Keiran Pedley : we don't know yet - thats the reality

Me : Is there any reason why it wouldn't be a sensible precaution to prompt for UKIP?

Keiran Pedley : historically only prompt on 'main' parties, thing to remember is pollsters job not to be 'fair' but to be 'right'

Keiran Pedley : but given uniqueness of situation - v difficult to judge whats right approach re UKIP. Big challenge for pollsters

Me : But if you prompt for the fourth most popular party but not the third...surely that's bonkers?

Keiran Pedley : probably - get where you are coming from but then what if pollsters overstate UKIP as did LDs in 2010...its tricky

Keiran Pedley : thing about polling is it is literally both art and science

The comment about the "uniqueness of the situation" will perhaps remind you of the problem we faced before the independence referendum - in spite of the complacent boasts that certain pollsters (naming no names, but Peter Kellner) were making about the accuracy of their results, we knew that they were all fumbling around in the dark to some extent because they didn't have any previous independence referendum to "work backwards from" to ensure that their methodology worked in practice as well as in theory, ie. the "art not science" part of the process. Hence the gulf between the Yes-friendly and the No-friendly pollsters, and we're now seeing a similar gulf between polls that prompt for UKIP and polls that don't.

On reflection, I would concede the point that it is theoretically perfectly possible that the surveys which do not prompt for UKIP will turn out to be the most accurate, but if polling firms are depending for their accuracy on seemingly random decisions about which parties they remind respondents about the existence of, then I'm not sure that merits the billing of either "art" or "science". It's more like the method by which a broken clock occasionally manages to be more accurate than a clock that is consistently two minutes slow.

The reality is that when voters are faced with a ballot paper next May, they will be "prompted" for all parties, so pollsters should surely be doing their level best to replicate the voting experience as closely as possible. Perhaps the objection would be that voters are "frivolously" telling pollsters that they will vote UKIP, even though they will not actually do so when the government is being chosen. But there is simply no realistic way of controlling for that possibility, and pollsters shouldn't even try. Discouraging people from remembering that UKIP even exists seems like a particularly insane way of trying to control for it.