Saturday, November 15, 2014

The balancing act

John Curtice, widely acknowledged to be Scotland's only living psephologist (if another one is ever discovered it'll be a bigger story than the comet landing), has made a superficially fair criticism of the SNP's strategy for a hung parliament at Westminster.  During the BBC coverage of the party's conference, he suggested that they were making a mistake by completely ruling out a deal with the Tories, because that will reduce their leverage over Labour in any post-election negotiations (for example, witness the way in which the Tories only upped their offer in 2010 after the Lib Dems entered into talks with Labour).

There's a big flaw in Curtice's line of thinking, though, which is that he's looking one tactical step too far ahead.  There's not much use in having the perfect strategy for what to do when you hold the balance of power if you never get to that point in the first place.  And even leaving open the slimmest of theoretical possibilities that the SNP might deal with the Tories would only hamper the chances of a significant breakthrough next year.  Voters need absolute clarity that putting their faith in the SNP will not let the Tories in by the back door - and Nicola Sturgeon has just given them that clarity.

In any case, the leverage a large SNP bloc could have over Labour in a hung parliament, even without the threat of putting the Tories in, should not be underestimated.  It's not true that Labour could say to Nicola Sturgeon "you have nowhere else to go", because she would always have the option of walking away and letting Labour try to govern through ad hoc deals with UKIP and the DUP.  A few months of that might just bring Miliband and Balls to their senses.

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A couple of hours ago, the Lib Dem blogger Caron Lindsay said on Twitter that a "one-party state" was unhealthy, and that greater plurality and diversity was needed.  She didn't elaborate on what she meant, but I can only assume that Scotland is supposed to be the "state" and the SNP is supposed to be the "one-party".  Well, that's curious, because of course Scotland is not a state (it's a distinct legal jurisdiction, but that's not the same thing).  The head of government in the state we inhabit is not Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon, but David Cameron - and it's scarcely people on our side of the argument who are responsible for putting him there and keeping him there.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A #SexySocialDemocracy Top List

I have a new article at the International Business Times, listing the top ten reasons why progressives throughout the UK should always be grateful to Alex Salmond.  You can read it HERE.

I hope you'll cut me some slack here, because I wrote it in an absolutely mad hurry - they wanted it by close of play today, but I didn't even notice the email until well into the afternoon, and I then got distracted by a lengthy Twitter exchange with a chap called Tom Lubbock (more of which later).  So basically what I want to say is - yes, yes, I know I meant 'insidious' rather than 'invidious'.  And ten bonus points if you spot the deliberate grammatical error.  (Fifteen points deducted if you spot more than one grammatical error.)

Where now for the Home Rule Alliance?

One of the biggest mysteries of the last few weeks has been whether the SNP leadership would say yes or no to a pro-Home Rule electoral pact that would encompass the broader independence movement, such as the Greens, the SSP, Business for Scotland, Women for Independence, and so on.  We now seem to have a definitive answer to that question, and while it's not a "no", it's probably closer to no than to yes on a continuum.  Non-SNP members will be able to stand with the party's backing in the general election next year, but they will have to be on the approved candidates list, and they will be standing under an overall SNP banner (albeit additional descriptions will also be allowed).

This isn't nothing - it means that people like Jeane Freeman will in principle be able to stand if they wish to do so (in fact Freeman will be a shoo-in to become a candidate if she's up for it).  But it does more or less rule out the possibility of a joint ticket between the pro-independence political parties.  It now looks almost inevitable that the SNP and Greens will be standing against each other in at least some constituencies.  As I've said before, that's not ideal for either party, and it almost certainly extinguishes any possibility of the first Scottish Green MP being elected in May.

So I'm disappointed, but on the other hand I wasn't blind to the dangers of a formal electoral pact, which we can now stop worrying about.  The biggest of those was that voters might have looked for the SNP on the ballot paper and then given up in frustration when all they saw was "Radical Alliance" or whatever.

The Bell tolls for originality at the Guardian

I see that the Guardian's resident cartoonist Steve Bell (famed for sparkling, thought-provoking wit such as "Scotland should go f*** itself") has paid tribute to Nicola Sturgeon becoming this country's first female political leader by suggesting that her supposed belief in both nationalism and socialism makes her a Nazi.  Well, what a truly original "joke", Steve, and please rest assured that we haven't already heard it seventeen billion times before from the London commentariat.  Tell you what, if you want to continue with this groundbreaking humour, I've got a brand spanking new Knock-Knock joke that you could use in your next cartoon - it features the words "doctor" and "who", and the punchline is hilarious.

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I haven't been watching FMQs on a regular basis for quite a few years now, but for obvious reasons I was keen to see yesterday's edition.  I can honestly say that what took me by surprise about it was just how dreadful Jackie Baillie was.  She comes across as such a confident speaker, and yet the content of what she was saying was, at times, utter gibberish.  She started by asking Alex Salmond to describe himself in one word, and laughed along with his very witty reply ("No"), but it then became excruciatingly clear that she had scripted her rambling follow-up question on the basis of an incorrect assumption of what his answer would be, and had just ploughed ahead regardless -

"I asked for one word but actually I got a whole dictionary full."

Er, no, you didn't.  You anticipated that he would describe himself in more than one word - but he didn't.  He just said "No".

"But, you know, it's interesting that he didn't use the word 'proud'."

Well, that might have been interesting if he'd used any words at all to describe himself, but he didn't.

Now, there's nothing wrong with taking a punt on what the First Minister might say, and having a prepared question up your sleeve if you guess correctly, but surely you've got to have (to coin a phrase) a Plan B just in case the wheeze doesn't work out?  I can't help feeling that Baillie would have stuck to her script even if Salmond had indeed used the word "proud", leaving the Labour MSPs behind her with fixed grins and pretending not to cringe.

In one sense this doesn't matter, because she's only in the role on a caretaker basis.  But I just hope for Labour's sake that Kezia Dugdale or Neil Findlay (presumably it'll be one of them) is a bit more agile when facing Nicola Sturgeon over the next eighteen months.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Do you want to try that one again?

I've just been accosted by a probably-slightly-tipsy anti-independence troll on Twitter (one of those "risk assessor" groupies), who described me as a "chancer" for running a fundraiser without specifying exactly how many articles I planned to write between now and the general election, and exactly how much time I planned to spend writing them.  He seemed thoroughly unconvinced that I could possibly write enough before April - APRIL! - to justify the amount raised.

"top politicians get c. £150 per column. You ain't a name. Let's generously say £75 per article. 67 articles? By April?"

Hmmm.  I decided to do a quick check, and it turns out that I've already written 65 articles on this blog since the fundraiser started on September the 19th.  Do you know what?  I think I might just make it to 67 by April.  Or possibly even by teatime.

Ah well, maybe after he's sobered up he'll think of a more promising line of attack.

All the same, this is a good opportunity to once again thank the 188 people who have contributed to the fundraiser (one was a postal donation), which will draw to a close in a few days' time.  Without your enormously generous help, it simply wouldn't have been possible to continue with the blog, except as a skeleton service.

I'm sure you'll all vouch for me that, in line with every other blog fundraiser I've ever seen, I didn't make any specific commitment about an exact number of posts or hours of work.  Nevertheless, I've done my level best to keep things ticking over, and with the unwitting comedy of the trolls constantly ringing in my ears, I will continue to do so!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

SNP soar to a Britain-wide vote of 8% in astounding Ipsos-Mori poll

This afternoon has seen the publication of one of the most remarkable Britain-wide polls for many a year.  Ipsos-Mori are now showing the SNP on an 8% share of the vote - in spite of the fact that Scotland comprises just 9% of the population of Great Britain!  Strangely, the SNP are 'only' on 59% in the Scottish subsample - the apparent anomaly comes about because respondents in Scotland are more likely to say they are certain to vote.  And it's perfectly possible that phenomenon will carry through (at least to some extent) to the election itself, due to the surge in public engagement caused by the referendum.

The Liberal Democrats are just 1% ahead of the SNP across Britain - and that's in spite of the fact that their 9% share is a touch higher than their recent average.

Britain-wide voting intentions (Ipsos-Mori) :

Conservatives 32%
Labour 29%
UKIP 14%
Liberal Democrats 9%
SNP 8%
Greens 7%
Plaid Cymru 1%

The combined share of 61% for the two 'major' parties is desperately low by historical standards, and with the Conservatives now holding a slight lead (which neutralises Labour's in-built advantage from the constituency boundaries), this could be another welcome sign that the UK political system is becoming more like India's - ie. hung parliaments and coalitions being the norm without proportional representation even having been introduced.

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This will be the last update of the Poll of Polls before the Panelbase poll drops out of the sample, so unless a new full-scale Scottish poll comes along soon we'll revert to being reliant on subsamples from GB-wide polls only.  The Panelbase numbers make up exactly half the sample, with the other half drawn from ten subsamples - four from YouGov, two from Populus, one from Ipsos-Mori, one from Ashcroft, one from ICM and one from Survation.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 43.6% (-1.6)
Labour 26.1% (-0.9)
Conservatives 15.9% (+0.3)
UKIP 6.3% (+0.4)
Liberal Democrats 4.7% (+0.4)
Greens 2.4% (+0.4)

(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.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Another opportunity to do something constructive - demand the SNP's inclusion in the main TV leaders' debates by responding to the BBC Trust consultation

As I mentioned last week, the BBC Trust are running a consultation on the draft guidelines for coverage of the general election campaign next spring.  In spite of the misleading impression that was originally given, the consultation is not specifically about the proposed leaders' debates.  However, it's still a golden opportunity for us to raise that issue in huge numbers.  Below you can read the submission I'm about to send in.  If you'd like to make your own submission, please click HERE.

Question 2. Are there any omissions from the proposed Guidelines and appendices?

By far the most important omission from the guidelines is their failure to specifically ensure fairness in any TV leaders' debate organised by the BBC, and indeed fairness across all leaders' debates that are agreed as a "package" by the BBC and other broadcasters.  Regrettably, no-one can have any confidence that the general guidelines will deliver fair debates, for the simple reason that they comprehensively failed to meet that task in the last general election.  Perhaps with an eye on ratings, the BBC and other broadcasters departed from decades of good practice in 2010 by completely excluding two parties that have major party status in constituent nations of the UK, and that have enjoyed unbroken representation in the House of Commons since the 1960s and 1970s respectively.  That this decision altered the result of the election is beyond reasonable dispute.  The SNP, for example, were immediately overtaken by the Liberal Democrats in Scottish opinion polls after the broadcast of the first debate, which was entirely unsurprising given that the leader of the Liberal Democrats had just had the unbroken attention of the Scottish electorate for one-third of a ninety-minute debate, from which the SNP leader was totally absent.  

The BBC's function in an election campaign is to facilitate debate, not to set arbitrary boundaries on debate or to "steer" voters towards a desired conclusion.  The guidelines must therefore ensure that there is no repeat of the 2010 debacle.  In doing so, the BBC will be returning to the good practice that existed in general elections prior to 2010.  In the 2001 campaign, for example, the nearest equivalent to leaders' debates was the appearance of each individual party leader in a series of Question Time specials.  The three programmes featuring the leaders of major parties that were standing throughout Scotland, England and Wales were broadcast on a UK-wide basis, while the two programmes featuring the leaders of major parties that were standing only in Scotland or Wales were broadcast only in the relevant nation.  In this way, fairness was achieved in the coverage of the four-party contests in Scotland and Wales, and also the three-party contest in England.  The 2005 campaign was slightly different, because all three leaders of the major London-based parties took part in a single Question Time edition, albeit they appeared in separate segments and did not debate with each other.  As before, balance was achieved in Scotland and Wales by broadcasting a Question Time special in each country featuring the SNP or Plaid Cymru leader, which ensured that those parties received exactly the same amount of airtime as their three opponents.

These precedents point to elementary ways in which fairness can be achieved in any leaders' debates.  One option is that the so-called "UK debates" from last time could form the template for debates to be broadcast only in England during the forthcoming campaign.  (They did, after all, reflect the party system of England only, and not the rest of the UK.)  Those debates could be fully replaced in Scotland and Wales with four-way or five-way debates that give equal airtime to the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively.  The obvious alternative option would be UK-wide debates in which the SNP and Plaid Cymru are fully represented.   The guidelines should therefore make clear that the BBC must choose between these two equally-valid options, and that there will be no third option of excluding the SNP and Plaid from the main debates that are broadcast in Scotland and Wales, as happened in 2010.

The guidelines should also make abundantly clear that any second-string debates broadcast in Scotland and Wales in addition to UK-wide debates cannot in any way correct the imbalance that would be created by excluding the SNP and Plaid from the UK-wide debates.  This is for two reasons - firstly, there is ample evidence from 2010 that the public quite rightly saw the extra debates as of much lesser importance and largely ignored them, and secondly, the extra debates would almost certainly include the three largest London-based parties, thus giving those parties even more airtime over and above the disproportionate amount they receive in the UK-wide debates.  There would be absolutely no 'corrective' effect of the sort achieved by the extra programmes in 2005, which by featuring the SNP and Plaid Cymru leaders only successfully redressed the imbalance that would otherwise have existed.

The guidelines should also emphasise that no tolerance will be given to attempts to use sophistry to justify the broadcast in Scotland and Wales of unfair debates that exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru.  In 2010, it appears that the BBC knew perfectly well that they were departing from good practice in respect of parliamentary elections, and attempted to excuse their actions by redefining the leaders' debates as "Prime Ministerial Debates", ie. debates that were only for Prime Ministerial "candidates".  The guidelines should restate the obvious - the UK does not have elections for the post of Prime Minister, and there is consequently no such thing as a "Prime Ministerial candidate".  In the context of a parliamentary election, leaders' debates can only be justified if they are debates between the leaders of parties that have representation in parliament.  By definition, this includes the SNP (who have had unbroken representation in the Commons since 1967) and Plaid Cymru (who have had unbroken representation in the Commons since 1974).

It should also be pointed out that the excuse offered in 2010 didn't make sense anyway - in a parliamentary system, it is perfectly possible for a party to supply the Prime Minister on the basis of a small minority of seats.  There are countless examples from around the world of this happening.  The best-known example from UK history is Ramsay MacDonald continuing as Prime Minister after his party (National Labour) won just 13 out of 625 seats in the 1931 general election.

The need for the guidelines to explicitly set out a requirement for fair debates has become even more apparent in recent weeks, with the revelation that the BBC have learned no lessons at all from the 2010 debacle, and are once again proposing to totally exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the main debates to be broadcast in Scotland and Wales.  Curiously, though, they are proposing to include UKIP this time, which weakens the 'logic' for the exclusion of the SNP and Plaid still further.  The Chief Political Adviser to the BBC, Ric Bailey, recently claimed on a radio programme that the line-up for the debates was being determined on "very objective criteria", based on the result of the last general election (which of course was in any case tainted by the broadcast of unfair debates) and also opinion poll evidence since that election.  And yet at the last election, the SNP won six seats, Plaid Cymru won three, and UKIP won zero.  At present, opinion polls are suggesting that the SNP will be the third largest party in the next House of Commons, ahead of the Liberal Democrats and also well ahead of UKIP.  There has never been a time since the last general election when the opinion poll average has suggested that UKIP will win more seats than the SNP - the reverse has always been predicted.  The guidelines should therefore make clear that there is no objective criteria that could possibly justify the exclusion of the SNP from the main debates while UKIP are included.

The fact that the SNP are currently projected to become the UK's third biggest party in parliamentary terms (they're already the third biggest in terms of membership) ought to give the BBC pause for thought that extends beyond even the fundamental issue of fairness.  If the SNP win 20, 30 or 40 seats in May and become the "kingmakers" in a hung parliament, viewers throughout the UK will be utterly bewildered that this development seemingly came out of the blue, due to the BBC and other broadcasters deliberately "hiding" a key part of the election story from them during the debates.

It's also worth noting that under the current proposals, the BBC will include all major parties that have a male leader, and will arbitrarily exclude all three major parties that have a female leader.  It's obviously impossible to know whether this is merely an unfortunate coincidence, but at the very least it's not going to look good.

Lastly, the guidelines must address the dreadful error that was made in putting together the live audiences for the 2010 leaders' debates.  Not only were the SNP and Plaid excluded from the debates themselves, but their voters were literally banned from being part of the audiences, due to the insistence that all audience members must come from the immediate vicinity of the debate's location in England.  The guidelines should make clear that all debate audiences must be drawn from throughout the United Kingdom, thus enabling people who vote for all major parties to be fairly represented.

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Once again, if you'd like to make your own submission to the BBC Trust consultation, the link is HERE.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Extraordinary : Channel 4 openly oppose Scottish self-government

Just out of curiosity, I started browsing through some of the published submissions to the Smith Commission, and my eye was immediately drawn to the one from Channel 4.  It turns out they went to all the trouble of making a submission for just one sole reason - to oppose Scotland governing itself in respect of broadcasting regulation.

Now, it's not remotely hard to understand why a London-centric organisation whose Scottish content and coverage has always been woefully inadequate would be uncomfortable about the prospect of being called to account by a Scottish regulatory regime.  But it's nevertheless surprising that a public service broadcaster that is obliged to provide unbiased political coverage would feel able to take sides so openly, particularly as it calls into question the underlying stance that informed their approach to the independence referendum - a contest in which Scottish control over broadcasting regulation was most certainly on the ballot paper.

Perhaps I should really have said "it ought to be surprising", because this is just the latest in a string of examples of London broadcasters seemingly believing they can have their cake and eat it - ie. that they can take sides in the constitutional debate, and yet still claim to be a trusted, impartial news source.  You might remember the BBC's Ric Bailey being asked a few weeks ago about the prospect of broadcasting being devolved to Scotland, and dismissively replying that "we're a long way from that sort of discussion".  Er, really?  When 45% of the population have just voted for full sovereign independence, and the remaining 55% have voted for an option that was explicitly tied to "extensive new powers" being granted to the Scottish Parliament, with "all the options for devolution" being on the table?  If the London broadcasters are still trying to decree that "we're a long way from even having a discussion" about broadcasting being devolved in these circumstances, something is going very seriously wrong somewhere.

By the way, one of Channel 4's excuses for why Scotland shouldn't be allowed to govern itself in respect of broadcasting regulation is that they're committed as a channel to spending 9% of their budget outside England by the year 2020.  Hmmm.  Given that a full 16% of the population of the UK live outside England, I'm not really sure how grateful we're supposed to be about that pledge.  Indeed, in this "near-federal" UK we were promised by the No campaign, you'd think Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would, if anything, be entitled to slightly more than their crude population share of spending, rather than substantially less.

STV have also made a submission to Smith in which they indirectly state their opposition to Scottish self-government in respect of broadcasting regulation, but I can almost bring myself to be slightly more forgiving of them, because it's practically apologetic in tone, and more or less admits that they're selfishly motivated by worries over losing their licence if the regulatory regime changes!  Still, it does make you wonder if that consideration influenced all of those "warning about independence" stories they used to run on their news bulletins...