Friday, March 27, 2015

SNP vote skyrockets in all four of yesterday's by-elections - and they win three outright

We now have the remaining three results in from yesterday.  First up is Buckie, a Moray council ward in which the SNP did pretty well in 2012.  However, this is nominally an SNP gain from an independent.

Buckie by-election result :

SNP 59.5% (+14.4)
Independent-Calder 27.9% (+27.9)
Conservatives 12.6% (+5.5)

Swing from Conservatives to SNP = 4.5%

The absence of a Labour candidate means that this tells us very little about the national SNP/Labour battle, and even the rise in both the SNP and Tory votes can perhaps be partly explained by the fact that the field was slightly more crowded last time around, with two independents standing rather than one.  However, the SNP vote has increased by almost three times as much as the Tory vote, which is what you would expect to happen in the light of the national SNP surge.

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The by-election in the Western Isles tells us even less about the national picture, because the SNP were the only one of the political parties to put up a candidate.  Labour's absence is particularly odd, given that it had previously been their seat.  Technically, then, this is an independent gain from Labour.  Even more peculiar is the fact that the winning independent candidate seems to have stood for the SNP in 2012 (unless it's an astonishing coincidence and it's two different people with the same name), so the SNP's percentage gain is actually measured from Mr Walker's own performance last time!

Beinn na Foghla agus Uibhist a Tuath by-election result :

Independent-Walker 59.1% (+59.1%)
SNP 40.9% (+24.5%)

Although the SNP hold a respectable number of seats on Western Isles Council, it's still heavily dominated by the independents.  So this result can be looked at in one of two ways - it's either an impressive SNP surge in a heartland of the independents, or it's a disappointing failure to gain a seat at a moment of maximum opportunity.  Either way, I don't think the SNP's Angus MacNeil need have any fears in the parliamentary constituency in May, especially given that the Yes vote in the Western Isles was higher than the national average.

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The most useful of the three results we've had today is in West Lothian, because both Labour and the SNP put up candidates.  Technically this is an SNP hold, although the popular vote in the ward was actually won by an independent last time around.

Armadale and Blackridge by-election result :

SNP 43.4% (+20.4)
Labour 27.0% (+9.4)
Independent-Mackay 20.3% (+20.3)
Conservatives 6.8% (+4.0)
Greens 2.4% (+2.4)

Swing from Labour to SNP = 5.5%

So a smaller underlying swing than in Glenrothes, but if you extrapolate to the national picture it would still be enough to put the SNP 12% ahead of Labour.  In truth, the 5.5% figure isn't particularly meaningful, because the 2012 result in Armadale was heavily dominated by the victorious independent candidate, and we don't know whether he was attracting his votes disproportionately from Labour or from SNP supporters.

However, what we can do is average out the swings from yesterday in the two wards in which the SNP and Labour were up against each other, and that produces a figure of 7.3%.  Nationally, that would put the SNP roughly 15% or 16% ahead of Labour, very much in line with the recent ICM poll.  In reality it's probably better than that, because the SNP's national vote in local elections tends to be a touch lower relative to Labour's due to the success of independents in rural areas.

Incidentally, the average increase in the SNP's own vote in all four by-elections is an astonishing 18% - and remember that's measured from the 2012 baseline, when they were on 32.3% nationwide.

The Glenrothes West and Kinglassie result, which was declared overnight, can be found HERE.

Rampant SNP storm to by-election victory in symbolic battleground of Glenrothes

Weirdly, there were five council by-elections in the UK on Thursday, and no fewer than four of them were in Scotland.  Of course, we often have a problem making sense of Scottish by-elections due to the quirks of the STV voting system - a party can be "defending" a seat even though they were outpolled there at the last election.  That was exactly the position for Labour in the Glenrothes West and Kinglassie contest, which was the first of the four to declare.  However, even though the SNP won the popular vote in the ward three years ago, they did so by an extremely narrow margin.  That result suddenly seems like a very distant memory...

Glenrothes West and Kinglassie by-election result : 

SNP 55.3% (+12.8)
Labour 35.8% (-5.4)
Conservatives 4.4% (+1.4)
UKIP 3.2% (+3.2)
Liberal Democrats 1.3% (-0.3)

Swing from Labour to SNP = 9.1%

It's important to stress that all the percentage changes listed above, and the swing, are measured from the 2012 local elections, when the SNP were already slightly ahead of Labour nationally.  If we "just for a bit of fun" extrapolate this result, it would give the SNP a national lead over Labour of roughly 20% - very much in line with recent opinion polls.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

First leaders' "debate" demonstrates why SNP inclusion was so vital

You might remember that after the first Salmond v Darling debate in advance of the referendum, there was just one instant reaction poll with a very small sample size, which showed by a relatively narrow margin that the viewers thought Darling had been the better performer.  The entire narrative of a Darling victory was founded solely on that one poll, in spite of its limitations.  I wondered at the time what would have happened if the journalists' desired narrative had been frustrated by the poll indicating a narrow Salmond win - which could easily have been the case, given that only a small number of respondents were required to swing the balance in either direction.

We're seeing a scenario of that sort play out tonight, because the media would probably quite like to award a victory to Ed Miliband, not because they support Labour, but because the underdog coming out on top is the better story.  However, the ICM instant reaction poll (which admittedly has a bigger sample this time) is stubbornly refusing to give them permission to do so, with Cameron being declared the winner by 54% to 46%.  It'll be interesting to see what angle is taken tomorrow - I suppose there's still scope to spin it as the hopeless Miliband exceeding expectations, and almost nicking a plucky draw.

For what it's worth, I do actually think that Miliband came out on top, and that reaffirms the overwhelming importance of us having fought so hard for SNP inclusion in the real leaders' debate next week.  There's always a chance that your main opponent might do better than expected, and if you're not even in the room to counteract that, you've got a major problem.


David Cameron 98
Ed Miliband 77

(The Scot Goes Pop Brick Index indicates how much out of a score of 100 I wanted to throw a brick at the TV while the leader in question was speaking.  Lower scores are better, therefore Miliband was the "winner".)

Three post-election permutations that might work in the SNP's favour

There's been a unnecessary degree of confusion in recent months over the differences between coalition, confidence-and-supply, and a vote-by-vote arrangement.  Much of the problem is caused by "creative fuzziness" in the language used by the political parties - for example, it helps the Tories in their aim of whipping up haggis-phobia if they pretend that there is no real distinction between a full Labour/SNP coalition and a looser deal.  But I get the impression that a fair chunk of the media has been genuinely lost at sea on this topic all along.

One crucial point that needs to be borne in mind is that it's not necessarily an either/or choice - it's perfectly possible that this election could eventually result in spells of both confidence-and-supply and vote-by-vote.  There's a relatively recent precedent for that.  The parliament that was dissolved in the spring of 1979 after Callaghan lost a confidence vote had been elected way back in October 1974, but that election ultimately produced no fewer than four distinct types of government - firstly a Labour government with a tiny majority, then a relatively secure Labour minority government that was able to operate on a vote-by-vote basis without its existence being seriously threatened, then a formal confidence-and-supply deal with the Liberals, and finally a return to vote-by-vote, but by now with the administration under constant threat of being brought down.  (It's too often forgotten that the Liberals eventually joined the Conservatives, the SNP and the Ulster Unionists in defeating Callaghan by a single vote - which according to Murphy-logic presumably means that Willie Rennie must be held personally responsible for Thatcherism.)

What we might see this time is Labour refusing to do a formal deal to begin with, but then quickly finding themselves worn down by the guerilla tactics that Alex Salmond and others have been hinting at.  You could imagine that such a weak government might end up trailing badly in the opinion polls, so a snap election wouldn't be a realistic escape strategy, even if the problem of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act could be circumvented.  A confidence-and-supply deal with the SNP might start to look like Miliband's least worst option, because at least it would guarantee him the passage of certain key parts of his programme, and give him some kind of track record to take to the electorate in 2020.  In my view it would also suit the SNP, because a comprehensive deal on Home Rule is surely easier to attain via confidence-and-supply than vote-by-vote.  I must admit I've been slightly puzzled by the apparent preference of both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon for vote-by-vote, although it may be significant that they've always stressed that confidence-and-supply is nevertheless very much "possible".

But what if the arithmetic doesn't fall in the SNP's favour, and the Tories are close enough to a majority that it's the Lib Dems, UKIP and the DUP that effectively hold the balance?  I think there's still a big opportunity there, which doesn't rely on the SNP directly pulling the strings.  If the Lib Dems refuse to do a formal deal this time around, a minority Tory government could end up losing an uncomfortable number of votes.  Cameron might find himself becoming tempted by the idea of instantly transforming his administration into a majority government on English domestic matters, by putting forward a plan for genuine Scottish Home Rule tied to English Votes for English Laws.  It's inconceivable that legislation to that effect wouldn't pass if both the Tories and the SNP voted for it.  And there would be absolutely no bar to the SNP voting for it, because it wouldn't be an issue of confidence in the Tory government.

Another possibility is the one we were constantly talking about a few months ago - the "sweet spot for UKIP" scenario, whereby the arithmetic works out perfectly for Nigel Farage, and even with a relatively small number of seats he has enough leverage to force an EU referendum this year, without any prior renegotiation of Britain's terms of membership.  If the UK voted to leave the EU, a quick independence referendum would be back on the agenda with a bang.  However, that scenario is looking increasingly improbable - partly because UKIP's hopes of even a modest electoral breakthrough are gradually receding, and partly because opposition to EU membership seems to be dropping.  But you just never know what twists and turns are around the corner.

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I had a Labour canvasser at the door on Tuesday for the first time ever in a Westminster campaign - which tells you something important in itself.  I must admit I failed to practice what I preach by posing as an undecided voter and engaging him in a pointless ten minute conversation, but in my defence I did manage to hold his stare enigmatically for at least three seconds before telling him I was planning to vote SNP.  He made no effort at all to dissuade me, and he didn't even bother asking for my reasons - presumably every last drop of nervous energy must be kept in reserve for the people who might still be won back.

He was a nice enough guy, although the all-red outfit seemed a bit "angry" to me, somehow.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Aye, aye, ICM : Holyrood poll sees SNP extend lead to 20%

The datasets from Monday's ICM poll have finally been released, and along with confirming that the "spiral of silence" adjustment did indeed reduce the SNP's lead slightly, they also provide voting intention numbers for next year's Scottish Parliament election, and for a hypothetical second independence referendum.

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot :

SNP 46% (+2)
Labour 26% (n/c)
Conservatives 13% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
UKIP 5% (-1)
Greens 4% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot : 

SNP 42% (n/c)
Labour 26% (+1)
Conservatives 14% (+2)
UKIP 6% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Greens 5% (-3)

What's fascinating here is that, although we see the familiar pattern of the SNP lead being somewhat lower on the list, that isn't tied to a big list vote for the Greens.  The small number of SNP constituency voters who opt for a different party on the list are breaking for a variety of parties, with as many going to Labour as to the Greens.  That doesn't help Labour, though, because they lose almost as many votes on the list as they gain.

If there were a fresh referendum on Scottish independence tomorrow, then how would you vote?

Yes 46%
No 54%

It's difficult to make much sense of these figures, because we have no baseline to work from - this is the first time ICM have asked the independence question since referendum day.  We can't even make a direct comparison with their pre-referendum polls (which on the face of it often produced very similar numbers to these) because the methodology has changed - in line with other firms, ICM have now introduced weighting by recalled referendum vote.  This has led to people who recall voting Yes being significantly weighted down in this poll, from 469 to 423.  No voters have been upweighted, albeit by a more modest amount.  So, as we've seen from all the firms, it looks like Yes have made substantial progress from ICM's pre-referendum polls (with the exception of the rogue 54% Yes poll on the final weekend) once you take account of the new methodology.

However, the headline numbers as reported are obviously less good for Yes than we've seen in any other poll since September.  That difference may be caused by ICM's methodology, or by random sampling variation, or simply by the political composition of ICM's panel being slightly different.  To put it in perspective, there have been nine independence polls since the referendum - four have shown a Yes lead, four have shown a No lead, and there has been one tie.  It simply isn't possible to know whether Yes or No are in the lead, although we do know that it's a very tight race.

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I think I may have to scream - Alex Massie has tried it on with his barmy "jury trial" wheeze yet again.

"As it happens, I think the BBC did scrutinise the Yes campaign’s claims with greater vigour than it did those made by the No campaign. I’m neither sure that could have been avoided, nor that it was necessarily the wrong instinct. It was the Yes campaign – and the Scottish government – that were proposing a significant change to our way of life, after all...the burden of proof was on the Yes campaign and the jury – press and voters alike – were entitled to ask that the case for independence be made beyond a reasonable doubt. That, in other words, it be subject to a criminal, not civil, standard of proof."

Memo to Mr Massie - if you want to spout this kind of nonsense, please at least attempt to back it up by identifying the portion of electoral law which states that fair and balanced TV coverage is not required or even desirable in a referendum campaign "because it's kind of like a jury trial". You may be searching for some time. As for the remark about bias being "unavoidable", that reads a bit like someone saying : Yeah, OK, your pet poodle was shot. It wasn't a pleasant thing to watch, but hey, what could the gunman do? He just felt his finger squeezing the trigger, it must have been gravity or something. Bummer.

Massie also claims that Salmond implied in his new book that Henry McLeish had betrayed his country, which - not to put too fine a point on it - is a pretty bloody outrageous distortion. Because Salmond said that McLeish had been torn between loyalty to party and country, we're invited to believe that McLeish's eventual decision to side with his party must automatically mean that he's being branded a traitor to Scotland. I suspect Massie would struggle to make that tenuous logic stand up in a court of law (how ironic).

"Scottish politics is a faith-based business these days...How else to explain the fact that, according to a recent YouGov poll, 56 percent of SNP supporters think plummeting oil prices are neither good nor bad for Scotland?"

There's a pretty straightforward answer to that question if you're remotely interested in listening, Alex - some Yes voters simply aren't as obsessed with oil as the average right-wing unionist commentator, and won't have been interested in the question. Others will have spotted a mile off that they were being fed a leading question, and weren't prepared to play along with that little game.

"Of course Salmond was so convinced Yes were going to win that it comes as some surprise to discover that Scotland actually voted No. It certainly seems to shock him."

Perhaps it did, but that pales into insignificance when compared to the shock of the discovery that "undecided voter Alex Massie" - who took part in a high-profile BBC referendum debate on that specific basis - had in fact been a dyed-in-the-wool unionist all along. You could have knocked me down with a feather.

See Ya Later, Alligator

One of the great mysteries of modern life is how the self-styled hot-shot "risk assessor" Neil Edward Lovatt ever gets any actual work done for his employer Scottish Friendly, given that he seems to spend his entire waking existence on Twitter making the same five or six tedious points over and over and over again.  Yesterday afternoon, he was banging the rest of humanity over the head with the following claims -

1) The SNP will be powerless after the general election no matter how many seats they win, because they will have nowhere else to go but to vote for a Queen's Speech put forward by Miliband, even in the absence of concessions.  If they did anything else, they would be crucified in the subsequent general election.

2) Every vote for the SNP makes a Cameron government more likely.

Those two claims are, of course, utterly irreconcilable.  If we already know for a fact that the SNP will back a Queen's Speech put forward by Labour, there is no way that replacing any Scottish Labour MP with an SNP MP can possibly make a Tory government more likely, because either way you would still have an MP who will vote in favour of Miliband becoming PM.  Unless of course...

That's right.  Unless of course we never get to the point of having a vote on a Labour Queen's Speech, because Labour are so terrified of being seen to "work with the SNP" that they would abstain on a Tory Queen's Speech, and allow Cameron to remain in power.

Alex Salmond moved things on yesterday by making explicit what was already implicit - namely that the SNP would vote against a Tory Queen's Speech, regardless of whether the Tories are the largest or second largest party in the Commons.  Labour have signally failed to give the same commitment, and indeed the inescapable logic of their constant claims that "the largest party gets to form a government" is that they would let Cameron stay in power if the Tories were the largest single party.  Anything else just wouldn't be cricket, what?

Until Labour make an unequivocal pledge to vote down a Tory Queen's Speech regardless of circumstances, the conclusion is obvious - a vote for the SNP is definitely a vote against Tory rule, but a vote for Labour might not be.  Is it worth the risk?  Perhaps a "risk assessor" could tell us...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A little bit more about the ICM poll

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a short article at The National about yesterday's ICM poll, which put the SNP 16% ahead.   You can read it HERE.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ice-cool ICM poll indicates impressive 16% lead for SNP

This morning has seen the publication of only the second full-scale Scottish poll since the referendum from ICM - regarded by some as the UK's "gold standard" polling organisation.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election (ICM, 13th -19th March) :

SNP 43% (n/c)
Labour 27% (+1)
Conservatives 14% (+1)
UKIP 7% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
Greens 3% (-1)

The percentage changes are from the previous ICM poll, which was (weirdly) published on Boxing Day.  So ICM are showing exactly the same pattern as YouGov, Ipsos-Mori and Survation - ie. no long-term change at all beyond random margin of error fluctuations, which reinforces the very strong impression that the SNP's enormous lead has remained absolutely stable since roughly mid-October. 
Where the firms do disagree is on the exact extent of that lead, and oddly enough ICM - who were one of the more Yes-friendly firms during the referendum - seem to have emerged as one of the less favourable firms for the SNP in the general election campaign.  The 16% gap they are suggesting is only just over half as big as reported by the last Ipsos-Mori poll in January.  It's also 3% and 5% smaller than reported by the most recent YouGov and Survation polls respectively.  (As is noted in the comments section below, some of this difference can probably be explained by ICM's highly questionable "spiral of silence" adjustment, which artificially allocates some undecided respondents to the party they voted for in 2010, thus boosting the reported vote for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.  It may not be immediately obvious that the Lib Dems have benefited, but in fact 6% is better for them than other firms have suggested.)

However, as with the December poll from ICM, the Guardian have pointed out that, beneath the surface, the results are every bit as unforgiving for Labour as anything we have seen from any other firm.  The SNP surge appears to be much more dramatic in Labour heartland seats, and less so in seats where a smaller swing is required due to a split unionist vote.  On the face of it, this would translate to exactly the same type of apocalyptic wipeout for Labour as suggested by Ipsos-Mori, or by the Ashcroft constituency polling.  However, the breakdown by 'type of seat' is based on small sample sizes, and is therefore not hugely reliable.

As an aside, I must point out how intensely irritating it is that the Guardian's report on the poll has done what so many other media reports have been doing for weeks, and distorted the SNP's latest comment on the potential for a deal with Labour in order to paint it as something dramatic and new.  The claim is that Alex Salmond ruled out anything beyond an informal vote-by-vote arrangement at the weekend, whereas in fact he did the complete opposite - he explicitly told the Andrew Marr show that a formal confidence-and-supply deal was "possible".  He added that vote-by-vote was "probable", but that's exactly the same formulation we've been hearing for weeks.

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UPDATE : Today's Britain-wide Ashcroft poll has the SNP on an exceptionally high 6% of the vote - ahead of the Greens, and just 2% behind the Liberal Democrats.  The Scottish subsample figures are : SNP 56%, Labour 20%, Conservatives 17%, Liberal Democrats 4%, Greens 1%, UKIP 1%.