Saturday, May 16, 2015

Murphy goes : good or bad news for the SNP?

If Jackanory Jim ever becomes a judge, I wouldn't want to be a defendant in the dock.  He'd start my sentencing by telling me to make constructive use of the freedom he was going to give me, and then fifteen minutes later I'd discover that freedom was only coming after twenty years in prison and thirty strokes of the rattan cane.

Anyway, after the most tortuous resignation choreography in history, he eventually used firm enough language to ensure there is no way back, and we can start to look ahead to what will presumably be the Kezia era.  I can't actually make up my mind whether this transition is going to be a net positive for the SNP - I think if Labour were in a position to be seriously aiming for power next year, it might have been better to stick with Murphy, because however much he irritates people, the number one rule is to present the electorate with a leader that they can just about imagine as First Minister.  Kezia may be more likeable, but at 33 years old (or 34 by next May) I think people may struggle to visualise her taking over from Nicola Sturgeon.

On the other hand, if the only hope is simply to minimise the scale of defeat and prevent the SNP winning a second overall majority, it's conceivable that Kezia will be a better bet.  At least she'll be leading a slightly more united party.  (Or perhaps I shouldn't speak too soon.)

*  *  *

Breaking news : Tomorrow's Scotland on Sunday front page reports "another boost for Murphy as masterful resignation speech is rapturously received".  #tomorrowspaperstoday

*  *  *

UPDATE : Does anyone think Kezia might do a Chuka Umunna, and refuse to accept the poisoned chalice?  She couldn't run away from the leadership fast enough six months ago, although I'm not sure whether that was simply because she knew Murphy would stand and didn't think she could beat him.

*  *  *

UPDATE II : We've finally established what went wrong with the polls last week - it turns out that George Foulkes was in charge.  The bombshell revelation comes from Mike Smithson (emphasis is mine)...

"Keiran spent the last week speaking to several leading experts in the polling industry including Professor John Curtice, Lord Foulkes, Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation, Anthony Wells of YouGov, Matt Singh and Rob Vance."

If Labour want to pick a Blairite leader AND form the next government, they will have to do a pre-election deal with the SNP

This is obviously a symptom of how detached the Scottish political scene has become from UK politics, but I realised something very odd today - that I had absolutely no idea what Liz Kendall's voice sounds like.  I must have heard her being interviewed at some point, or perhaps seen her on Question Time, but it was so long ago that I had no clear recollection of it.  So with a certain amount of trepidation (I was worried she might turn out to be a speaker of Messianic brilliance), I looked her up on YouTube, and then instantly relaxed.  She's almost a made-to-measure vote-loser in Scotland - she's not only a Blairite, she's a deeply uninspiring Blairite.

So we've got nothing to fear from Kendall, and it goes without saying that all our Christmases will have come at once if they go for Tristram Hunt instead.  If they're remotely interested in making up ground in Scotland, probably Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham would be their least worst options, but my guess is that there's nobody at all in the running who can truly connect with voters in these parts.

John Curtice has calculated that Labour will require an almost impossible 12-point lead over the Tories at the next election to win an overall majority, unless they can reverse their losses in Scotland.  But how do they simultaneously pitch for left-wing voters who have defected to the SNP, and for "aspirational" voters in the south who went with the Tories last week?  Answer : they can't.  They just can't.

Realistically, if Labour are going to govern after 2020, it will be without an overall majority.  They would be well-advised to resign themselves to that truth from the outset, rather than devising a fantasy strategy that attempts to fight against it.  If they pick a Blairite leader to chase votes in the south, the most sensible thing to do would be to enter into a continental-style pre-election negotiation with the SNP.  That wouldn't preclude them from putting up candidates against the SNP, although admittedly it would be a strong signal that they don't anticipate a huge amount of success.  This approach would have two significant advantages - a) it would solve the 'legitimacy' problem, because it would clearly establish that Labour have a mandate to govern even if they are in second place, and b) it would prevent the Tories from whipping up hysteria about SNP influence, by demonstrating that the limits on that influence had already been settled.

It may seem inconceivable right at this moment that Labour would do any of that, but as their journey after 1983 demonstrates, parties eventually do whatever it takes to get back into power.  I'm struggling to see an alternative path for them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Guest posts are welcome

On the day after the election, I very, very nearly set up another fundraiser for Scot Goes Pop to take the blog through to next year's Holyrood election, but I got cold feet - I felt like I was about to enter into a big commitment that I wasn't ready for.  Fundraisers are a bit like a self-imposed prison sentence - you're effectively asking to be paid for an enormous amount of work you haven't yet done.  After the second fundraiser in the autumn, I seriously wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew - I had moments of despair over the referendum result, particularly during October, and wasn't sure if I could bear to carry on blogging about Scottish politics on an almost daily basis.  As it turned out, it wasn't so difficult, but that was mainly thanks to the SNP's amazing poll numbers!

I've been toying with various compromise possibilities - maybe a fundraiser with the disclaimer that I'll be taking my foot off the accelerator until the Holyrood campaign gets underway in earnest, or a fundraiser that has a smaller target figure to take into account that my posting rate is probably going to drop somewhat, or even an unobtrusive donate button.  None of them seem quite right for various reasons, although the dilemma is that if I hold off until the autumn, a fundraiser is less likely to be successful (because the number of readers will probably drop back significantly from the peak seen during the election period).

I'm going to keep an open mind and think about it some more, but in the meantime I'll repeat what I said a couple of years ago - if anyone would like to contribute posts to Scot Goes Pop, whether on a one-off or ongoing basis, you'd be very welcome.  As many of you will remember, we had some fantastic guest posts in the run-up to the referendum (including the one from Alasdair Stirling which coined the now-legendary term 'Kellner Correction'), but for some reason I don't think we've had any since the autumn.  I can't offer any payment, but on the plus side you'd be virtually guaranteed an audience of thousands.  If you're interested, my contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

This might be a particularly apt moment to make the offer, because just to give you all fair warning - the Eurovision Song Contest is not far away!

How Jim Murphy would explain to Jim Murphy that Jim Murphy's position as leader is untenable

"Look, the question of whether Jim Murphy should be Scottish Labour leader was last week's disagreement.  The people of Scotland decided that he shouldn't be leader, and that's settled now.  It's time to move on.  The choice that lies ahead next year is clear : it's whether Nicola Sturgeon or Kezia Dugdale should be First Minister."

*  *  *

It's just as well Murphy didn't "do a Farage" as the election results came in - ie. saying that he would resign as leader but would probably stand in the subsequent leadership election.  The problem is that Murphy, as a non-MP and non-MSP, is no longer eligible to be a candidate in a leadership election.

That's how absurd this situation has become. Surely the bare minimum requirement for any Labour leader is that he or she is the sort of person that the rules say is suitable to stand for election as Labour leader?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Has the time come for the SNP to hold their noses and take up seats in the Lords?

Now I know what the vociferous reaction of 95% of you will be to that question, but at least hear me out.  Here are a few points that may not have been given sufficient consideration yet...

1) Before the election, we assumed that any government that emerged would be vulnerable to ambush because of its arithmetical position in the Commons, where we knew the SNP would be strong.  But the outcome last Thursday has turned expectations on their heads.  While there will still be opportunities for the SNP to help put together an anti-government majority in the Commons on issues which provoke a Tory rebellion (possibly including repeal of the Human Rights Act), on other issues the heart of the action is more likely to be in the Lords, where the government has just lost its commanding position due to the Tories and Lib Dems parting ways.  If the SNP are not even represented in the Lords, they could find themselves sidelined as Labour and a born-again left-wing Lib Dem group under Tim Farron inflict repeated defeats on the Tories.  The Lib Dems in particular are now obscenely over-represented in the upper chamber.

2) The only opportunities to get 'hostile amendments' to the Smith proposals passed will probably be in the Lords.  If the SNP aren't even in the chamber to table the amendments they want, a huge potential tactical advantage will be squandered.  It's true that we have hopes of the government accepting amendments in the Commons, but if that happens it'll probably be because Cameron does it voluntarily, and not because he's forced to.

3) The Lords will be the best chance of preventing EVEL from unfairly disadvantaging Scotland.  An SNP group would be able to make common cause with Labour, who still have a vested interest in stopping the Tories becoming stronger via England-only votes.

4) Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly stressed that we don't want Scotland to be part of the Westminster system, but that for as long as it is, it's vital that Scotland's voice is heard.  The Tory win last week takes Lords reform off the agenda, so as things stand, the voice of 50% of the Scottish population will go totally unheard in one of the two chambers of parliament.

5) This is no longer a debate about symbolism or tokenism.  If the SNP were willing to take up seats in the Lords, they wouldn't just be getting one or two - with 9% of the seats in the Commons, and 5% of the Britain-wide popular vote, it's hard to see how Cameron could deny them a decent number of peerages.  That might be enough to hold the balance in a lot of votes.

6) There is a semi-precedent - a few years ago, Plaid Cymru allowed their former leader Dafydd Elis-Thomas to take up a seat in the Lords.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

If Cameron isn't lying about "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world", Scotland will have to be given fiscal autonomy that at least matches the Basque Country and Navarre

Just a short post, because this is a very simple point.  In the immediate aftermath of the Smith blueprint being published, the UK government and the unionist parties said that the proposals would give Scotland "one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world", or more specifically "the third most powerful devolved parliament in the world".  There was a very good reason why the claim was not "the most powerful".  I draw your attention to this summary of the powers held by the devolved parliaments of the Basque Country and Navarre -

"The four Basque Provinces which are part of the Spanish State enjoy considerable fiscal autonomy, comparable to that of any EU Member State."

Self-evidently, the Smith package does not clear that bar.  So when David Cameron changed his language after the election, and explicitly started promising "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world", it was impossible not to reach the logical conclusion that he must have decided to go considerably further than Smith.  Curiously, though, David Mundell insisted yesterday that Smith was the right package for Scotland.

Something doesn't add up here.  Either we're going to have the most powerful devolved parliament in the world, or Smith is the right package for the Scotland.  There's no possible way in which both of those statements can be true.

Incidentally, the Spanish autonomous communities have powers over broadcasting as well.

Do former SDP members really not care about Tim Farron's attempts to rewrite history?

Twenty-seven years ago, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party merged in acrimonious circumstances.  It was a genuine merger, rather than a takeover of one party by the other, and for an interim period the former leaders of each predecessor party served as joint leaders of the new Social and Liberal Democrats.  Even that name had been carefully chosen to ensure there could be no appearance of a takeover - the thinking was that putting the word 'Liberal' in the middle ensured the name couldn't be lazily shortened in common usage.  To some extent that proved to be a spectacular  delusion, because within just eighteen months the name had been officially changed to 'Liberal Democrats'.  But at least the retention of the word 'Democrats' was a symbolic reminder of the merger, and of the party's SDP heritage.

But now, for some bizarre reason, the likely new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron seems to want to "change the name back" to the Liberal Party.  If I was a former SDP member (like Vince Cable, Shirley Williams or Charles Kennedy), I'd be thinking : "How can you change 'back' to a name that has never previously been used?  You're talking about an entirely different party.  If I'd wanted to join the Liberal Party, I would have done so, but that's not what the merger was about."

Perhaps after the best part of three decades, such people are used to having their social democratic roots trashed, and are unlikely to walk off in a huff now.  But at the very least, Farron seems to be gratuitously going out of his way to alienate a significant number of his own members at a time when you'd think he'd be desperate to maintain as broad a church as possible (if you can call a party with eight MPs a 'broad church').  The idea that he's going to gain anything by way of brand identity is risible - does anyone seriously believe that the word "Democrat" is deterring people who would otherwise be gagging to vote for "the party of Gladstone and Lloyd George"?

One thing that has always irritated me about both Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond (and even Nicola Sturgeon) is their habit of referring to the Liberal Democrats as "the Liberals". It's like a calculated act of disrespect : "You're so insignificant that I can't be bothered remembering what you're calling yourselves this week."  But I may have to withdraw that complaint now, because if even the party's own leader has no respect for the official name and what it symbolises, why should anyone else?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

I was playing with numbers, and I didn't know what it meant

Now I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking : "That James Kelly, he just hasn't been on enough podcasts over the last month.  When oh when is someone going to invite him to do another podcast?"

Well, your prayers have been answered.  I'm the guest on episode 5 of Apolitical Podcast, which you can listen to HERE.  I get to talk about my favourite subject again (although I'll leave you to judge whether my favourite subject is opinion polling or the Eurovision Song Contest).

When I was at the recording last night, I was given a sneak preview of Apolitical's future guest list, and it sounds fantastic.  I also made a few suggestions of potential Liberal Democrat or right-of-centre guests, so it's not impossible that one or two future podcasts will be my "fault"!

Incidentally, if Justin Kenrick is around, I talked a little bit on the podcast about the subject you wanted me to address the other day - it's around 16 minutes in.  Other topics covered are the accuracy of Ashcroft constituency polling, whether betting markets are more predictive than opinion polls, how polling for the EU referendum might unfold, the prospects for future polling on independence, how I became drawn to the SNP and independence, how this blog started, and a few other things as well.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Could the Guardian please stop their hysterical reinterpretations of statements made in plain English by the SNP?

Severin Carrell of the Guardian is at it again.  He's based an entire article on routine comments made by Angus Robertson in a radio interview, in which the SNP group leader at Westminster basically reiterated that the party will be demanding the fast-tracking of welfare, job-creating and tax powers for the Scottish Parliament.  Not very interesting you might think - but of course what Severin does is shamelessly pretend that Robertson somehow said the exact opposite, and has abandoned the SNP's demands for the fast-tracking of these powers.  We're breathlessly told that Robertson's new "doubly significant", "gradualist approach" somehow contradicts absolutely everything said by the SNP during the election campaign, and even by Alex Salmond two days after the election.

What makes this particularly bizarre is that Severin supplies lengthy quotes from Robertson which helpfully demonstrate that what was said in the interview is utterly identical to all previous statements on the subject from the SNP -

"I want to see maximum decision-making in Scotland as soon we possibly can"

This reiterates the well-rehearsed message that there should be a phased transition to full fiscal autonomy, but that this will take several years.

"Unfortunately, the most important thing to be aware of and to recognise and respect is that Scotland voted no in the referendum last year, which means we can’t realistically have all the powers we want to have as quickly as possible."

This reiterates the bleedin' obvious that full independence will not follow on from a No vote to independence, and again underlines the SNP's view that full fiscal autonomy will take several years to implement.

"Firstly, it’s delivery of the Smith Commission proposals, secondly it’s following the discussion of further powers beyond that, which will emerge from discussions between the first minister and the prime minister"

This reiterates what Nicola Sturgeon has said before and after the election, namely that the Smith Commission proposals should be implemented as soon as possible, but that they should be significantly beefed up to include the fast-tracking of welfare, tax and job-creating powers.

"And then there will be vigorous debate in the House of Commons during this parliamentary term and about the additional powers that we can hope realistically to have further devolved."

This reiterates that the SNP will be pushing for movement closer to full fiscal autonomy after achieving the Smith powers and the additional fast-tracked powers.

The game that Severin is rather tediously playing here is to reinterpret Robertson's timetable for full fiscal autonomy as if it is some sort of revised, slower timetable for the fast-tracked powers that the SNP want over and above Smith. To misunderstand plain English to that extent requires either stupidity or a deliberate intent to mislead - and in this instance it's hard not to suspect the latter.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

YouGov poll finds big increase in English support for Scottish independence

YouGov have released a post-election poll covering a variety of topics (albeit not, interestingly enough, voting intentions for the next election), and you won't be surprised to hear that Scottish independence is one of them.  Among the Scottish subsample, there is majority support -

Respondents in Scotland only :

Support independence: 52%
Oppose independence: 43%

That's similar to the result of the Scottish subsample in the post-election Survation poll.  Of course the sample sizes are so small that these numbers aren't reliable, but they can probably be taken as an early indication that, at the very least, the election result hasn't caused support for independence to immediately drop back.

The most intriguing finding is that English respondents are now much more supportive of independence than they were prior to the referendum.  Across Britain, support has increased from 19% in mid-September to 30% now, and opposition has slumped from 65% to 51%.  The most likely explanation for some people changing their minds is that they've realised since the referendum that it's not impossible in certain circumstances for left-wing Scottish votes to have some mild influence over how England is governed.  There has been a complete transformation on the question of whether England would be better or worse off after independence - in September, a significant plurality said 'worse off', and now a significant plurality say 'better off'.

The SNP are also winning the battle of expectations - 54% of respondents across Britain, and 64% of respondents in Scotland, think that independence will happen within the next fifteen years.

I don't want to sound too paranoid about this, but YouGov have already started weighting by recalled vote from the 2015 election, and yet only 48% of the weighted Scottish subsample recall voting SNP, which is slightly too low.  I hope the now-defunct (and little mourned) Kellner Correction that was used in YouGov's full-scale Scottish polls isn't going to be replaced by yet another dubious weighting scheme.  The 74 SNP/Plaid voters in the raw sample of today's poll have been downweighted to count as just 47.

We also have the first post-election figures from YouGov on the EU referendum that we now know is definitely going to happen, and which could conceivably lead to a second independence referendum.

If there was a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, how would you vote? (Respondents across Britain) :

Stay in the EU: 45% (n/c)
Leave the EU: 36% (+3)

The Survation poll showed broadly similar figures.  The argument that a vote to remain in the EU is now inevitable goes like this - there is already a modest majority, and that can only increase as business and the political establishment start campaigning for continued membership.  But that was also the theory that held sway prior to the independence referendum, and it didn't quite work out like that.  I have a suspicion that the anti-EU movement has suffered in recent months from becoming too closely associated with the lunatic fringe of UKIP.  That will change as the vote approaches - a large number of Tory MPs, and a smattering of Labour MPs, will nail their colours to the mast for withdrawal, and the atmosphere will start to change.  It also doesn't take a genius to work out what line the right-wing tabloid press will be pushing.

Will the Tories repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, while they have the numbers to do it?

After almost 48 hours of scratching my head, I've finally managed to convince myself that the BBC are indeed counting John Bercow as a Tory in their summary of the election results.  What confused me is that there's one unspecified 'other' MP listed, which I thought might be the Speaker, but of course I should have realised it's the independent Sylvia Hermon.  So that's good news - it means the de facto government majority (excluding Sinn Féin) is 16 rather than 18.

Government 331
Opposition 315

We've been adjusting to the idea of the SNP having a huge moral mandate but without holding the balance of power, but in fact the arithmetic is tight enough that there must be at least a 50/50 chance that the Tory majority will be wiped out well before the next election.  As even the SNP have discovered at Holyrood, government majorities invariably tend to go down rather than up.  Every by-election defeat, defection or expulsion reduces the majority by 2, so it would take only 8 such events to return us to a hung parliament.  Even after about 6 or so, the arithmetic moves so close to a tie that the concept of majority government ceases to be particularly meaningful - in days gone by, a tiny majority of 5 or less wasn't even considered to be a "working majority".

Historically, what governments without a comfortable majority generally do is look for a favourable moment to call a snap election, after two, three or four years.  Until Thursday, we assumed that option was no longer on the table because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.  Although the legislation could be repealed by simple majority vote, the theory was that the opposition parties would prevent that happening, because it would never be in their interests to allow the Prime Minister to choose the date of the next election.  But due to the unexpected Tory majority, the opposition parties currently don't have a veto.  Will Cameron take the opportunity while it's there?