Saturday, June 13, 2015

Will the 'Out' campaign have the intelligence not to run on a British nationalist platform in Scotland?

Scotland may have less than a tenth of the UK's population, but we still pose a huge problem to the 'Out' campaign in the EU referendum.  The most recent YouGov poll suggested that the 'In' camp have a whopping 36% lead north of the border.  If Scottish voters were breaking in the same way as everyone else, the overall UK-wide lead for 'In' would be 2-3% smaller.  That could make all the difference in a tight contest.

So where are 'Out' going wrong in these parts?  Frankly, the archetypal Westminster Eurosceptic you see on the TV is utterly tone-deaf in his approach to Scotland.  He (and it usually is a he) sniggers at the desire of so many of us for independence from London, and asks "how can it be 'independence' when you'll still be ruled by Brussels?".  To which the obvious response is : "OK, so you support 'real' independence, then?  You think we should be independent from both London and Brussels?"  And the answer, of course, is no he doesn't.  He wants us to be ruled from London, not Brussels.  He possibly doesn't think the Scottish Parliament should even exist.  At that point we just stop listening.

If that guy is the face of the 'Out' campaign in Scotland, it's hard to see them making much headway.  A minority of independence supporters (and Devo Max enthusiasts) will still vote to leave the EU, but they'll do it largely in spite of the official campaign, not because of it.  But supposing a radically different approach is taken.  Supposing the 'Out' campaign in Scotland is mostly separate from the English campaign, and distances itself completely from the British nationalist pitch being made down south.  Supposing the head of that campaign is someone who is known to be sympathetic to independence, and who is able to sound completely authentic when he says something like this -

"Our campaign team contains people with a range of different views on independence, and that issue is for another day.  What unites us, however, is that we all want to see the Scottish Parliament become much more powerful, regardless of whether it is an independent or devolved parliament.  And it is simply a fact that an 'Out' vote will, at a stroke, make the Scottish Parliament far more powerful than it has ever been before.  Westminster is prevented from interfering on devolved matters by the Sewel convention, but there is no such constraint on Brussels.  Every single day, the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are prevented from acting on devolved issues such as health and fisheries because of suffocating EU law and regulation.  An 'Out' vote will at last give Holyrood control over these issues in practice and not just in theory."

I doubt if that will happen, but it could be a game-changer if it does.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Rant from a non-dog-owner

I was just minding my own business, enjoying the sunshine without anyone else around for hundreds of metres.  Out of nowhere, four or five dogs are suddenly galloping at me at a million miles an hour.  One of them helps himself to my bag, opens up the tinfoil inside with his teeth, and within thirty seconds has devoured my entire packed lunch.  The owner saunters up, says "Sorry, mate, sorry about that", and then wanders off as if it's no big deal.  I know there's not much more he could have done, but it doesn't seem good enough when you've just found out you're going to go hungry for the next four hours.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Questions I'd like to see asked in a Scottish opinion poll some time soon...

1) Should the UK government be banned by law from holding a Britain-wide referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament election?

*  *  *

2) What do you think the Scottish Labour party's future stance on the issue of independence should be?

Should continue being anti-independence

Should become pro-independence

Should take a neutral stance, and allow all members, MPs and MSPs to hold their own views

*  *  *

3) What do you think the Scottish Liberal Democrats' future stance on the issue of independence should be?

Should continue being anti-independence

Should become pro-independence

Should take a neutral stance, and allow all members, MPs and MSPs to hold their own views

*  *  *

4) If Labour adopted a neutral stance on the issue of independence, would you be -

More likely to vote Labour

Less likely to vote Labour

No difference - I wouldn't vote Labour anyway

No difference - I would vote Labour anyway

*  *  *

5) If the Liberal Democrats adopted a neutral stance on the issue of independence, would you be -

More likely to vote Liberal Democrat

Less likely to vote Liberal Democrat

No difference - I wouldn't vote Liberal Democrat anyway

No difference - I would vote Liberal Democrat anyway

*  *  *

6) The SNP are attempting to amend the Scotland Bill to introduce Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland after a transitional period.  Labour oppose the amendment.  If Labour changed its mind and backed Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland, would you be -

More likely to vote Labour

Less likely to vote Labour

No difference - I wouldn't vote Labour anyway

No difference - I would vote Labour anyway

*  *  *

7) The SNP are attempting to amend the Scotland Bill to introduce Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland after a transitional period.  The Liberal Democrats oppose the amendment.  If the Liberal Democrats changed their minds and backed Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland, would you be -

More likely to vote Liberal Democrat

Less likely to vote Liberal Democrat

No difference - I wouldn't vote Liberal Democrat anyway

No difference - I would vote Liberal Democrat anyway

*  *  *

8) The so-called "Vow" published on the front page of the Daily Record a few days before the independence referendum promised that the Scottish Parliament would be "permanent" in the event of a No vote.  Do you think this promise will have been broken unless the UK Parliament passes a law to fully relinquish its own power to abolish the Scottish Parliament?

*  *  *

9) Do you think the Scottish people should decide when and if a second independence referendum takes place, or would you prefer the UK government to have a veto?

*  *  *

10) The SNP won 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats at last month's general election, and pro-independence parties won 51.3% of the popular vote.  Do you think that the UK government should respond to that result by -

Transferring more powers to the Scottish Parliament than they previously planned to

Transferring fewer powers to the Scottish Parliament than they previously planned to

Transferring exactly the same number of powers to the Scottish Parliament that they previously planned to

*  *  *

Feel free to pitch in with your own suggestions!

The gulf widens between Scotland and the rest of the UK on the EU referendum

You'd scarcely have thought it was possible, but the new YouGov poll on the EU referendum shows that the yawning chasm between Scotland and the rest of the UK has grown even wider recently...

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? 

Britain-wide result :

Yes 42% (-2)
No 35% (-1)

Scottish subsample only :

Yes 60% (+1)
No 24% (-4)

Bear in mind that the question wording was a little different in the last poll, so the results are technically not directly comparable.

As you can see, the Britain-wide figures have tightened still further, albeit only very slightly.  With Don't Knows excluded, the pro-EU camp now leads by just 54.7% to 45.3% - much closer than the type of results YouGov were producing in the independence referendum (until the Yes surge in the last few weeks of the campaign).

YouGov aren't applying any sort of meaningful turnout filter to their headline results, which may be hugely significant.  78% of No voters say they are absolutely certain to turn out to vote, compared to just 68% of Yes voters.  That perhaps shouldn't be surprising, because older people are always the most likely to turn out, and they are also the most likely to want out of Europe.  Admittedly, that's partly offset by the fact that less affluent voters (who are less likely to turn out) also tend to be anti-EU.  But at this stage it certainly looks as if No voters are going to be somewhat more motivated, which in itself is more or less enough to wipe out the Yes lead.  If only definite voters are taken into account, the gap is just 51.3% to 48.7% - firmly within what the Americans would call "statistical tie" territory.

And once you start considering the possibility of 'Shy No Syndrome', all bets are well and truly off.  The scenario in which Britain votes No, and Scotland votes Yes - thus triggering an early second independence referendum - is nowhere near as fanciful as some would have you believe.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tectonic TNS poll puts SNP on historic high of 60% in the Holyrood constituency vote

Today brings word of our first full-scale Scottish poll since the UK general election last month.  It's from TNS, with their unique face-to-face data collection method, and it understandably shifts attention wholesale to next year's Scottish Parliament election...

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot :

SNP 60% (+13)
Labour 19% (-11)
Conservatives 15% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 3% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot :

SNP 50% (+6)
Labour 19% (-7)
Conservatives 14% (+1)
Greens 10% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 5% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (n/a)

(Percentage chances are from the last Holyrood poll from TNS, at the start of the year.)

As is always the case with TNS polls, the fieldwork is already somewhat out-of-date by the time of publication - it was conducted between the 13th and 31st of May.  That means it wholly predates the despicable attempts by Alex Massie, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and even a few Liberal Democrats to exploit the tragic death of Charles Kennedy in an attempt to damage Alex Salmond and the SNP more generally.  I'm not saying those attempts will necessarily have had any impact on the numbers, but the possibility can't be entirely ruled out.  And at least part of the fieldwork was conducted during the initial glow of the SNP landslide, so we'd certainly expect some kind of honeymoon bonus.  To get a rough idea of just how strong the honeymoon effect can be in the first few weeks after a general election triumph, have a look at the scale of the Tories' victory in the 1979 European Parliament election, or in the 1992 English local elections - both held roughly one month after a general election.

So I don't think there's much to be read into the SNP's 60% share on the constituency vote - that figure is almost bound to fall back, unless something very weird happens.  What's troubling about this poll is the 10% gap between the SNP's showing on the constituency vote and the all-important list vote - there's no reason to automatically suppose that gap will narrow even if the SNP's vote drops, and that's the factor that most puts at risk the chances of the SNP winning a second overall majority.  Needless to say, there would be a clear majority if today's figures turned out to be the final result - the Scotland Votes calculator projects seats totals of SNP 73, Labour 25, Conservatives 17, Greens 10, Liberal Democrats 4.  A few regular commenters might want to note that, even on a thoroughly improbable 60% of the constituency vote, the SNP are still projected to take three seats on the list - thus spectacularly undermining the idea that we could ever reach the point of certainty that SNP votes on the list will be "wasted".

There's another way of looking at the problem, though.  Polling for the regional list has tended to be less accurate than polling for the constituency vote, perhaps because of the difficulty of replicating the experience of actually casting two distinct votes in a polling station.  In both 2007 and 2011, the Greens were predicted to do much better than they did, and we were also expecting that there would be a significant gap between the SNP's performance on the constituency and list ballots, which didn't materialise.  So it could be that a really determined effort by the SNP to stress the importance of the list ballot will once again resolve the problem, even if the polls aren't showing any evidence of that at quite a late stage.

A very peculiar shortcoming of this poll is that only the SNP, Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats were given as options for the constituency vote.  There wasn't even a two-stage process which allowed people to express a more specific preference after saying they would vote for "other party or candidate".  That perhaps wouldn't make a huge amount of difference, but it's certainly not ideal.

If TNS were following Ipsos-Mori's practice of headlining the results among respondents who say they are certain to vote, the SNP's lead would be even bigger.  Nicola Sturgeon's party would have an advantage of 61% to 18% over Labour on the constituency vote, and 51% to 17% on the list.

Today in history : Never say never again

Neil Kinnock :

Remember how you felt on that dreadful morning of June the 10th.  Just remember how you felt then, and think to yourselves : June the 9th, 1983.  Never, ever again will we experience that.

To all intents and purposes, they have just experienced "that" all over again, and why?  Because they thought that the "realism" and "maturity" of staying in touch with what the electorate actually wants is only required when the electorate in question is centre-right and located in the southern third of Britain. 

In contrast to 1983, there is very little sign that the shock of a crushing defeat has taught Labour any kind of lesson.  Quite the reverse - the prescription for recovery in Scotland seems to be to "do what we just did all over again, and expect a different result next time".  Apparently it's the Scottish electorate that got it wrong, not Labour.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The SNP should be taking an "everything including the kitchen sink" approach on maximising devolution

I've just been reading through the Daily Record's latest periodical outbreak of "I Can't Believe It's Not The Vow" coverage, and there was one bit that made me laugh out loud -

"In some areas Labour are going further than the SNP by including demands to devolve welfare from Holyrood to councils, starting with the Work Programme."

So Labour are going further than the SNP on taking powers away from the Scottish Parliament. Be sure to let us know if they ever propose taking more powers away from Westminster, won't you?!

Staying on that theme, I followed a link on the Record's website to a story I missed a few days ago, about the SNP supposedly "backing down" on the call for abortion law to be devolved. Of course it's dangerous to take any story in the Record at face value, but a quick search failed to find anything that contradicted it. If there's any truth in that, I must say I find it incomprehensible - the only road-block in the Smith Commission on this topic was Labour, and Labour's influence is now at its lowest ebb. There should be no remaining obstacle to an agreement with the Tories (and Lib Dems) on the swift devolution of abortion law, and the SNP should seize that opportunity with both hands.

Setting a measured timetable for full fiscal autonomy is one thing, but on all other matters we should be taking an "everything including the kitchen sink" approach to maximising devolution. A party that believes in Scottish self-government should not be deprioritising anything at all - the presumption should always be that any given power should be held at Holyrood, unless there is a very good reason for that not to be the case. I hope there's no underlying squeamishness about abortion being a "grown-up" issue. If we don't believe that Holyrood is a grown-up parliament capable of taking these decisions, what are we actually fighting for?

Labour's argument last autumn was that they would never allow women's rights to be inferior on one side of the border, which is a complete nonsense. When Rhoda Grant attempted to criminalise the clients of sex workers in Scotland, she claimed (wrongly) that it was about "equality" and "ending violence against women" - so wouldn't that law have meant, according to Labour doctrine, that women would have had their rights protected better on one side of the border than on the other? Labour didn't seem to have any problem with that notion, so how exactly is abortion different? The reality is that any responsible parliament would always take into account the danger of "abortion tourism" before making any changes - a new law wouldn't be introduced frivolously.

As some people have called me an "SNP tribalist" for simply pointing out that tactical voting on the regional list can't work, let me just acknowledge that on this specific issue, if the reports are to be believed, the Greens are pushing harder for self-government than the SNP are. That's not a position the SNP should ever be allowing themselves to get into.

The new orthodoxy : "Forget about Scotland"

It's fascinating to see STV's Stephen Daisley echo Rob Vance (of the Polling Matters podcast) almost word for word in advising Labour to "forget about Scotland...every hour spent in Scotland is an hour wasted".  To be fair, his reasoning is different from - and considerably better than - Vance's, because he isn't trying to kid himself that it's possible for Labour to neglect Scotland and simultaneously recover here.  On this occasion, we're not being invited to accept the Vance fantasy that Scotland is a weird exception to the general rule that you actually have to take into account what the electorate wants if you have any interest in getting elected.

I do, however, think that Stephen is going astray on two key points.  He says it's "long overdue" that English voters don't have to hear about the Barnett Formula, the Smith Commission and all the rest of it.  But that isn't a respite Labour is actually in a position to offer anyone - because, as John Curtice has been pointing out since polling day, they can't win without Scotland.  If they accept that most of their Scottish seats are gone for good, then it makes perfect rational sense to turn Blairite to chase votes in Middle England instead - but they'll still eventually have to make an offer to Scotland, because they won't get the keys to Number 10 without the SNP's help.  The only alternative would be to rack up an almost impossible 12% lead over the Tories at the next election - that's what would be required for an overall majority if the Scottish seats don't come back.

If it's uncomfortable for them to be banging on about Scotland, the best solution would be to invent a time machine and reverse the "blood out of a stone" approach to greater devolution they've been taking over recent years. They wouldn't have to talk about self-government that has already been delivered.

Stephen's other error comes when he returns to a familiar theme -

"Scottish Labour offered voters a robust social democratic manifesto in May, the most left-of-centre prospectus Labour has run on since the days of Neil Kinnock's leadership. It made not a jot of difference..."

It's utterly wrong to suggest that people weren't interested in seeing a left-wing prospectus from Labour, or were immune to persuasion by it. The problem was that everyone knew it was phoney. It was put forward by an ultra-Blairite leader who clearly didn't believe in the ideology behind it, and it was in any case trumped by a pro-austerity Labour manifesto at UK-wide level.

If Labour want people to give a fair hearing to a Scottish manifesto that diverges radically from the UK party's plans, they're going to have to make the Scottish party fully and truly independent. Simple as that.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The latest from the Cult of "Tactical Voting on the List"

You might remember that Hamish Allan was one of two Facebook users who successfully demanded that a post be edited to remove commentary which dared to dissent from the gospel of "tactical voting on the list". He actually turned up here eventually, and I had a long exchange with him, but it's probably gone largely unnoticed because it was on an old thread (in fact two old threads). Given that this is a person who presented himself as an authority on why the views I have been putting forward on the subject are not merely open to question, but are actually provably, factually wrong, I was absolutely flabbergasted to discover just how weak his own counter-arguments were. By the end, I realised that he didn't even seem to understand how basic arithmetic works. It's pretty frightening that such a person successfully managed to shout down dissenters on the Facebook thread, and seemingly convinced a decent number of people that his "tactical voting" theory was perfectly sound.

1) First of all he argued that it was unreasonable for me to make the point that achieving a sufficiently large tactical switch to the Greens was unrealistic, given that one of my own assumptions was also "completely unrealistic" - namely that it was possible that six constituency seats predicted to be won by the SNP could instead flip to Labour, thereby meaning that the SNP would suddenly desperately need votes on the list that had "tactically" switched to the Greens. But anyone who thinks that's unrealistic simply doesn't understand the nature of winner-takes-all constituency elections. The scenario I painted was very specific - in all six seats, the SNP were predicted to lead Labour by 4% or less. That means all of those seats were on a knife-edge, and could easily be won by either party. There is absolutely no inhibiting factor that would prevent all six being won by Labour - it would simply require the prediction to be slightly out (due to polling inaccuracy of the sort we saw last month), or for there to be a small late swing.

2) He then argued that there is no constituency seat at all in Scotland that is too close to call - ie. his tactical voting strategy rests on the expectation of the SNP capturing every single Labour constituency seat. In a spectacularly ill-judged attempt to prove he was serious about this, he offered me an even money bet that Labour would win any constituency of my choice. Those of you who understand betting odds will already be rolling about on the floor laughing at this point - because what he was effectively saying is that he thinks there's at least a 50/50 chance that Labour will lose any seat I care to mention. Wow. That's his notion of "certainty", and that's the basis on which we are being invited to gamble on his "strategy".

3) When I pointed out to him that "too close to call" has a rather broader meaning than "a 50/50 chance", and that American TV networks would never "call" an election until they had more than 99% certainty of the outcome, he reacted with utter incredulity. Was I really saying that if one presidential candidate had an 89% probability of winning, the networks would still describe that as too close to call? Yes, of course that's what I was saying. An 11% chance that the other guy will win is extremely significant. Put it this way - if I could demonstrate to you that there is an 11% chance that your house will be flattened tomorrow by a hurricane, would you be concerned or unconcerned? Yeah, exactly.

This is where the tactical voting theory falls apart. It rests to a very large extent on an assumption of the SNP winning every single constituency seat in an electoral region, which means - just for starters - that you need to have advance knowledge of the result in eight, nine or ten completely separate elections. It really isn't good enough for someone like Hamish Allan to casually tell you that there is only an 11% risk of the SNP failing to take this seat or that seat - because if that's the average risk in each of nine seats, the cumulative risk that the SNP will fail to take at least one is much higher.

4) Here we come to the bit where I realised that Hamish doesn't understand basic arithmetic. Because I'd pointed out that he couldn't demonstrate 99% certainty that Labour would fail to win each individual seat, he apparently thought that was tantamount to me saying that I was 99% certain that Labour would take at least one seat, and challenged me to give him odds of 99-1 against that failing to happen. He would put down a £10 stake, and I would give him £1000 if he won. That's the rough equivalent of telling me that because I think there's at least a 1% chance of the Greens winning Glasgow Kelvin, I must be saying there's a 99% chance of the Greens winning at least one constituency seat in Scotland.

I actually asked him whether he was on drugs at that point. I really don't want to spend the next eleven months having a never-ending, soul-destroying argument with this sort of innumerate idiocy, but it's difficult to move on for as long as people like Hamish are still peddling it, and are attempting to shout down anyone who dissents. I couldn't help but be amused by the glorious irony of the most recent public post on Hamish's Facebook page -

"I do not wish to live in a world in which people have a right not to have their ideas challenged."

Quite so.