Thursday, July 23, 2015

Katastrophe for Kendall as Ipsos-Mori poll reveals that more people think Corbyn is cut out to be Prime Minister

We have that rarest of rare beasts today - a post-election voting intention poll.  I really had to study the datasets to work out which figures were the headline ones, because Ipsos-Mori have introduced quite an elaborate set of turnout filters as an interim measure while the inquiry into the polling disaster in May is ongoing.  But as far as I can see, the correct Scottish subsample figures are : SNP 43%, Conservatives 27%, Labour 13%, Liberal Democrats 10%, Greens 6%.  Not really a hell of a lot of use, because the Tory showing is totally implausible, but at least there's no hint of the SNP's mammoth lead over Labour being whittled away.  At GB level, there might possibly be a sign of a small Farron bounce for the Lib Dems, because this is the first time that any firm has had them in double figures since the general election.  However, they've only increased from 9% to 10% since the last Ipsos-Mori poll, so it's far from conclusive evidence.

What I find really amusing about this poll is the way it utterly pulverises the credibility of Liz Kendall, the woman who has been lecturing Labour on how she, and she alone, knows the secret of connecting with the public and winning a general election.  It turns out that, in fact, a bigger percentage of the public think Jeremy Corbyn would make a good Prime Minister than think the same about Kendall.

Percentage who agree that this person has what it takes to be Prime Minister :

Andy Burnham 27%
Yvette Cooper 22%
Jeremy Corbyn 17%
Liz Kendall 16%

It's true that that there are slightly more people who say that Corbyn isn't cut out to be Prime Minister than say the same about the other three candidates, but emphasis is very much on the word 'slightly'.

Percentage who do not agree that this person has what it takes to be Prime Minister :

Jeremy Corbyn 36%
Yvette Cooper 34%
Liz Kendall 30%
Andy Burnham 27%

When it's so much of a muchness, you can understand why Labour members are thinking to themselves "if it doesn't make much difference anyway, we might as well vote for what we really believe in".  I'm sure that supporters of the 'mainstream' candidates would argue that these figures are misleading, because the public will only get to know the new leader properly after the contest is over.  But past history tells a different story - both John Smith and Tony Blair had exceptionally good personal ratings before becoming leader.  Kendall supporters keep telling the party to "get real" - well, perhaps the best place to start in that endeavour is to recognise that none of the four candidates are likely to beat the Tories in 2020, and that the definition of insanity is choosing a leader who will embrace Tory policies in futile pursuit of a victory that is never going to come.  What can and should be achieved is effective opposition to Tory policies in the here and now.

*  *  *

Tony Blair, the flag-waving British Nationalist who attempted to bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age, has popped up again with some wonderfully self-aware comments about the SNP's "caveman" nationalism -

"When they talk about it being new politics, it is the oldest politics in the world. It’s the politics of the first caveman council, when the caveman came out from a council where there were difficult decisions and pointed with his club across the forest and said: ‘They’re the problem, over there, that’s the problem.’"

You know, it's just possible that the caveman was observing a New Labour strategy meeting on the other side of the forest, in which case he had an excellent point.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Labour Uncut keeps telling itself comforting stories

Labour Uncut's editor Atul Hatwal was a constant source of light relief for me in the days leading up to the general election.  He was absolutely convinced he could see signs of recovery for Scottish Labour, mainly because Murphy and co kept saying fatuous things like "nationalism never built a hospital", which we were invited to believe was really cutting through on the doorstep.  (Blairism has never built a hospital either, because ideologies don't construct buildings.  But nationalist and Blairite governments have both built hospitals, so quite what the soundbite was getting at is a bit of a mystery.)

Atul's latest understated claim is that he knows for a fact that the YouGov poll showing Jeremy Corbyn in the lead is embarrassingly wrong, and that Corbyn will in fact finish a poor fourth, as originally expected.  Apparently the Labour membership is just like everyone else, with a "silent majority" that worships quietly at Alan Milburn shrines but never speaks to pollsters.  Well, possibly, but I think what Atul has got to answer is this : if the loudmouth Labour members within the YouGov polling panel are so hopelessly skewed towards the traditional left, why didn't the YouGov polls in 2010 show Diane Abbott way in the lead?  It's true that those polls did overestimate Abbott, but only very, very slightly.  In fact, the second poll correctly showed her in overall fifth place in the electoral college.

It's quite likely that today's poll will turn out to be somewhat wrong in one respect or another, and in any case it's only a snapshot, rather than a prediction.  But the degree of error that Atul is expecting is simply beyond the realms of all credibility.  I very rarely commit to firm predictions on this blog, but I'll make an exception tonight - based on the information we have, I will be absolutely astonished if Corbyn doesn't finish at least third.  Even with the possibility of severe polling errors, and even with the possibility that the Corbyn surge will fade as the election gets underway for real, the gap between him and Liz Kendall is just too enormous for there to be any real risk of him finishing fourth.

*  *  *

One of the defences of the UK's indefensible voting system is that we don't need coalition governments, because the two "main" parties are coalitions anyway.  As the current leadership contest is demonstrating, Labour is certainly a very broad church, but I'm not sure it can reasonably be called a functional coalition if one of the major factions is perpetually marginalised and treated with absolute contempt.  Coalition depends on "mutual respect", to use Luke Akehurst's phrase, but what the tactical nominations for Jeremy Corbyn have eventually demonstrated, ironically, is that the "mainstream" of the party has no respect for the left whatever.  Oh sure, it's advantageous to make a big show of having respect as long as the left does its duty by losing the argument and then doing the party's donkey-work for the next five years, but as soon as they show any sign that they might conceivably win or have influence, anyone whose fake respect helped give them a fair chance is suddenly a self-confessed "moron".  What sort of coalition is it where Liz Kendall is incredulous that someone might suggest, even as a "joke", that an MP from the left could be given a seat in the Shadow Cabinet?

When people can't trust each other with power (even when that power is demonstrably won fair and square by winning the argument in an open election), they shouldn't be in the same coalition, let alone the same party.  It's a tell-tale sign that the Big Tent has been stretched beyond its natural limit.  The rational course of action might be to stick together long enough to get into office and then immediately introduce PR, so that an amicable divorce wouldn't lead to perpetual Tory rule.  But the other thing about the current voting system is that it tends to discourage rationality.

The only thing the Labour leadership contest is now missing is "The Vow"

I've been having a look at the datasets for YouGov's Labour leadership poll showing Jeremy Corbyn in the lead, and the most interesting thing is that the results have been weighted by recalled vote from the 2010 leadership election.  That's important, because last time around YouGov conducted a poll that wrongly showed party members backing Ed Miliband - in the end, it was David Miliband who won comfortably in the members' section of the electoral college.  Sure enough, the raw unweighted sample of today's poll has Ed Miliband ahead in the recalled vote, so it's pretty clear that a significant adjustment was required.  What remains to be seen is whether the crude act of reweighting to the actual 2010 result is sufficient, because the two Milibands don't have direct counterparts in this year's election.  Could there be a particular 'type' of Ed Miliband supporter who is still over-represented?

One thing that does add to the credibility of the poll is the fact that the vast bulk of the weighted sample are actual Labour members, and even those people put Corbyn well ahead on first preferences - although they do produce a dead-heat between Corbyn and Burnham in the final run-off.

On the other hand, a possible flaw is that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women in the weighted sample, which may not reflect the real shape of Labour's internal electorate.  Corbyn is doing significantly better among women (he's 51-49 behind Burnham among men in the run-off), so if female members and registered supporters are over-represented in the sample, the result should be a little closer.

As I speculated last night, it's actually fairly close between Cooper and Burnham in the race to avoid elimination after Liz Kendall's votes are redistributed, with Burnham just surviving by a 29% to 26% margin - well within the poll's claimed margin of error.  As it turns out, though, Corbyn only does slightly better on lower preferences from Burnham supporters than he does from Cooper supporters, so the identity of his final opponent may not make much difference to his chances of winning, unless the race is ultra-tight.

There's been speculation today that the impact of this poll may in itself change the final outcome, in the same way that the famous YouGov poll during the independence referendum completely changed the dynamics of the campaign, and in an unhelpful way for Yes.  We're already seeing the equivalent of the "shock and awe" campaign being directed at Corbyn over the last few hours, so that only leaves one question to be answered.  When can we expect "The Vow"?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Either YouGov is completely wrong (again), or Jeremy Corbyn has at least a 50/50 chance of becoming Labour leader

I was extremely sceptical about the reports a few days ago that "private polls" were supposedly showing Jeremy Corbyn in the lead, because it seemed to me that one or more of his opponents might have been leaking half-true information to suit their own agendas.  However, it's much harder to maintain that scepticism now that we have detailed numbers from a public poll telling much the same tale.  Bucket-loads of caution still need to be applied, because internal party elections are notoriously hard to poll accurately, and it could be that the greater enthusiasm of Corbyn's supporters is skewing the results.  But there's no getting away from it - unless YouGov are way out, Corbyn is clearly in with a genuine shout, and that's an extraordinary enough story to be getting on with.

YouGov poll of Labour members and supporters (17th-21st July)

First preferences :

Jeremy Corbyn 43%
Andy Burnham 26%
Yvette Cooper 20%
Liz Kendall 11%

Final run-off :

Jeremy Corbyn 53%
Andy Burnham 47%

I'm going to be very interested to learn more about the methodology used for this poll.  The most obvious question is whether YouGov have been able to interview people who definitely have a vote in the leadership election, or whether the sample is compromised by the inclusion of people who are Labour "supporters", but not registered supporters who have actually paid the token £3 fee.

I'll also be looking to see whether YouGov asked every respondent for an exhaustive list of preferences, or whether they just tested each hypothetical run-off result.  The latter approach would be much less robust than the former.  There was speculation on LabourList the other day that Liz Kendall's second preferences were breaking decisively for Yvette Cooper, and if there's any truth in that, you'd think it might be quite close between Cooper and Burnham for the second place in the run-off, in spite of Burnham's 6% advantage on first preferences.  LabourList also suggested that the second preferences of Burnham supporters seemed to be fairly evenly split between Cooper and Corbyn, whereas Cooper's supporters were breaking heavily for Burnham.  If that's right, Corbyn should be praying that his final opponent is Cooper, because otherwise he won't be getting any of the transfers from Burnham.

Long-term readers of this blog might recall that I was bemused by an article that billed the 2012 Greek general election as "the most important election ever".  I thought that was pushing it slightly, given that an election in Germany in the 1930s led directly to the most catastrophic conflict in human history, and to the extermination of six million Jews.  The Labour leadership election isn't the most important election in history either, but if the result is as finely-balanced as YouGov are suggesting, we're faced with the startling prospect of a relatively small number of voters holding the political destiny of the UK in their hands over the coming weeks.  There are no nuanced outcomes in a leadership race - it's winner-takes-all, and the difference between a Burnham win and a Corbyn win is unimaginably huge.

What we don't know, however, is in exactly what way Labour members and supporters may be shaping our destiny, because the consequences of Corbyn emerging as leader are so hard to predict.  Is there any chance at all that the various factions of the party could hold their noses and unite behind him, perhaps at the cost of a Frankenstein "Dream Team" Shadow Cabinet featuring Blairites in senior positions?  That seems unlikely to me, but if it did happen it could be the nightmare outcome for the SNP, because a viable Corbyn leadership might just get Labour back into the game in Scotland.  More plausibly, will Corbyn be deposed?  If so, will the leadership election be re-run with a broader range of candidates, perhaps including someone who - unlike Andy Burnham - actually looks like a potential alternative Prime Minister?  Or will Corbyn stay in harness, but suffer an SDP-style breakaway?  Would it be a big or a small breakaway?  Might the new party follow the precedent set by the SDP and go into alliance with the Lib Dems?  Would that be an unequal marriage?  Could Tim Farron find himself swallowed up before he even has a chance to get comfy in his chair?

So many questions, and almost no answers at this stage - other than to say that if Corbyn wins, all bets are well and truly off.

Final thought : There are a number of right-wing journalists who seem to think that the Labour rank-and-file has taken leave of its senses, and that a Corbyn victory would be the most insane outcome to a leadership election in modern British history.  Can I just gently remind them that in 2001, Iain Duncan Smith defeated Ken Clarke for the leadership of the Conservative party.  I'll just say that again to let it sink in - IAIN DUNCAN SMITH defeated KEN CLARKE.  Until someone invents a time machine and erases that mind-boggling event from history, I think we can safely say that Jeremy Corbyn defeating the dismal Andy Burnham would not be the most irrational result in recent times.

Labour's dismissive message to their core vote : "Pair Off"

When it was pointed out earlier tonight that there would have been just about enough opposition MPs to defeat the government on the Welfare Bill if only Labour hadn't abstained, there was an instant excuse on offer from Labour apologists - namely, the pairing system.  That's the arrangement by which a Tory MP will agree to stay away from a parliamentary vote if a Labour MP can't make it, and vice versa.  (Although the definition of the word "can't" is often rather elastic.)  I must say that seems a bloody peculiar system to have in place for a vote in which only one side were whipped to turn up, and I've yet to hear from a reliable source (ie. not Iain Martin) that it actually happened.  But if by any chance it did, that would in some ways be an even more damning indictment of Labour, because it implies that they don't think welfare cuts are a particularly important issue.

Pairing isn't a universal system - it generally only applies to routine votes, where both sides are more or less going through the motions.  Think back to the late 1970s, when seriously ill Labour MPs were repeatedly taken in ambulances to vote late at night - there was certainly no cosy pairing arrangement in place on those occasions.  There's a good reason for that, because pairing always works in the government's favour - it effectively "locks in" their majority.  By contrast, suspending pairing for important votes helps the opposition, because it introduces an element of uncertainty - there's just a chance that the opposition whipping operation may be more disciplined than the government's, in which case a very small government majority (like the one we have now) might be overturned now and again.  And even if defeats don't happen, it's still an excellent tactic, because repeated "emergency" situations have a morale-sapping effect on the governing party.

Question : if Labour don't think savage welfare cuts are an important enough cause to suspend pairing for, what the hell is?

*  *  *

I didn't watch the Labour leadership debate on Sunday, but I've just caught up with the clip of Andy Burnham saying that he might consider having Jeremy Corbyn in his Shadow Cabinet, and it's quite clear to me that he wasn't "joking", as his campaign team later claimed.  He actually had a look of total seriousness on his face.  His people must have panicked afterwards and tried to repair the damage.

Burnham has form on this, because during the independence referendum he made a prize idiot of himself by saying he was frightened that he might be forced to drive on the right when coming to Scotland in future.  When Alex Salmond quoted him during the first leaders' debate, he took to Twitter to use the excuse of - yes, you've guessed it - "I was only joking".  STV's John MacKay even mentioned the tweet before the end of the debate, provoking much hilarity, although by that point it wasn't at all clear whether people were laughing at Salmond or Burnham.

The original comment was made in a newspaper interview, so there's no way of judging from tone of voice or facial expression whether it was intended to be taken seriously, but there was certainly no indication from the journalist that it had come across as a joke at the time.

If he's not careful, Burnham will soon become known as the Boy Who Cried Joke.

Monday, July 20, 2015

For the avoidance of doubt, Labour's failure to vote against the welfare cuts did matter

Just 308 MPs voted in favour of the Welfare Bill a few minutes ago.

Excluding the Deputy Speakers, Sinn Fein and the tellers, there are 311 opposition MPs.

The SNP, the DUP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the SDLP all voted against.

Labour (with the honourable exception of the rebel contingent) abstained, leading to the Bill being passed by 308 votes to 124.

And yet Scottish Labour's one-man online presence Duncan Hothersall tells us that it doesn't matter how Labour voted, because they would have lost anyway.

Hmmm.  Something isn't adding up here.

OK, it's quite likely that most of the missing Tory MPs would have turned up if they had known the vote was going to be close, but wouldn't it have been an idea to put that to the test?  Isn't harrying a government with a tiny majority the tried and tested tactic of all serious opposition parties down the ages?

And, you know, don't Labour kind of owe it to the poor and vulnerable people who will see their lives wrecked by this Welfare Bill? 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Akehurst's "mutual respect" plan for Labour falls apart

The Labour blogger and activist Luke Akehurst has gone on an interesting 'journey' during his party's leadership election.  While nominations were underway, he openly called on Labour MPs to tactically nominate Jeremy Corbyn, so that members were not denied a chance to vote for or against the important current of opinion that Corbyn represents.  He said that this was a matter of "mutual respect", because left-wing members worked just as hard for Labour as anyone else during the general election.  He wanted to avoid resentment caused by the belief that Corbyn would have won if only it hadn't been for a stitch-up from the nefarious parliamentary party.  And lastly, he claimed he had sufficient confidence in the superiority of his ideas to know he and those of like mind would defeat Corbyn in a fair and open contest.

But since succeeding in getting Corbyn onto the ballot, Akehurst has gone on TV to issue a desperate plea to supporters of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall to use their lower preference votes in a tactical way to prevent Corbyn from winning.  Now, to be fair, there is no direct contradiction here, because preferential voting is part of the process, and is a perfectly legitimate way of defeating Corbyn "fair and square".  But many of Akehurst's colleagues are going much further, by either demanding that the contest be called off (on the spurious grounds that the Daily Telegraph are trying to rig it in Corbyn's favour), or by plotting Corbyn's quick downfall if he emerges as leader.

The irony is that if these people had only been able to contain their panic, Akehurst's original plan would probably have worked beautifully.  Corbyn's presence is energising the campaign, making the left feel less marginalised (at least for the time being), and yet he probably isn't going to win - the likelihood is that he will finish either second or third.  The right-wing zealots are tossing all these gains away, because regardless of whether Corbyn wins or loses, his supporters will now know that there were many MPs who were quite prepared to subvert the rules to prevent him becoming leader.  That's a million times worse than simply using the existing rules to keep him off the ballot paper in the first place.

Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if the left had threatened an internal party coup in the event of Denis Healey being elected leader in 1980, or Roy Hattersley in 1983?  The press would have been screaming about a sinister threat to British democracy, and I'm struggling to see what the difference is here.  The cornerstone of democratic values is an acceptance that if the other guy gets more votes than you, he wins - even if you think he is wrong about absolutely everything.  Even if you think he's "dangerous" or whatever, he still wins.  It's high time that Burnham, Cooper and Kendall made a binding commitment that they and their supporters will accept the outcome of the election, regardless of what it is.  If they fail to do so, Labour may never recover from the fallout.

Incidentally, all this stuff about the Daily Telegraph trying to fix the contest would have a lot more credibility if they weren't sabotaging their own efforts with characteristic stupidity.  They're suggesting that people who register as Labour supporters to vote for Corbyn should tell the party they're doing so to "consign Labour to electoral oblivion".  Don't you think it's just possible that those people will be weeded out rather easily?

Peachy Panelbase poll puts the SNP on 53%

As far as I can see, this is the first Panelbase poll to measure Holyrood voting intentions since the one commissioned by the SNP themselves in late September/early October - less than two weeks after the referendum.  (That was the weird poll that used a completely different weighting scheme for the Holyrood and Westminster questions, thus leading us to severely underestimate the extent of the SNP surge.)

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot :

SNP 53% (+11)
Labour 22% (-5)
Conservatives 15% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 5% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (-3)
Greens 2% (n/a)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot :

SNP 48% (+11)
Labour 21% (-6)
Conservatives 15% (-1)
Greens 6% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 5% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (-2)

By any standards, a stunning advance for the SNP over the course of the last nine months, but at least some of this is the story we already know - most polling firms agreed there was a secondary surge for Nicola Sturgeon's party a few weeks before the general election, over and above the post-referendum gains.  So what isn't clear is how much of the 11% increase in this poll only occurred after the general election.  We won't get a definitive answer to that question from Panelbase, but if Survation and TNS are correct, it may have been quite a bit.

Unsurprisingly, Panelbase have produced the lowest SNP lead of the three firms that have been active in Scotland since the general election.  (It feels very odd to call a 31% lead "the lowest", but it is!)  This continues the pattern we've seen in recent months, with the most Yes-friendly pollster from the referendum proving paradoxically to be one of the most conservative on the subject of the SNP's own fortunes.  This may be partly explained by Panelbase's use of online fieldwork - in the run-up to May 7th, it was TNS (face-to-face fieldwork) and Ipsos-Mori (telephone fieldwork) that gave the SNP their biggest leads.  Alternatively, it may be partly to do with political weighting - TNS haven't been weighting by recalled referendum vote, and Ipsos-Mori don't weight by recalled vote at all.  That sets both firms apart from online pollsters like Panelbase.

At this very early stage of the Holyrood contest, it also looks as if Panelbase are slotting in as a less SNP-friendly firm than their online counterparts Survation, but the difference isn't huge - just 3% on both ballots, which could even be explained by the margin of error.

The Greens will once again be disappointed with their showing, although their 3% drop on the list should be treated with a slight touch of caution, because this poll is not directly comparable with the last one, in which the Greens weren't offered as an option on the constituency ballot.  There's a case to be made that the Greens do a bit better on the list when people aren't given the option of splitting their two votes "in reverse".

There are also numbers on the EU referendum, from both sides of the border -

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

Respondents in England :

Yes 49%
No 51%

Respondents in Scotland :

Yes 66%
No 34%

I find that quite an odd result, because as you may remember a Panelbase poll commissioned by Wings a few months ago showed only a very narrow Yes lead in Scotland.  The disparity between the two countries is no great surprise, but you'd still expect the trend to be broadly the same - ie. if it's the Greek situation that has helped No in England, there's no reason why it wouldn't also have helped No in Scotland as well.  I'll be interested to see if the fieldwork dates for the two sets of respondents are the same, or more or less the same.

Whenever a telephone poll comes out suggesting an "unassailable" lead for Yes across the UK, I always caution that you can't just look at the most recent poll and assume that it trumps everything that's gone before from other firms using different data collection methods.  The same principle applies now that we're seeing a No lead in England for the first time in a while - it's likely to have come about partly because of Panelbase's online method, and it doesn't negate the telephone polls that have shown such a radically different picture.  We still have no real idea what the true state of play is.

UPDATE : Although the datasets for the poll aren't out yet, a little more information has emerged.  It turns out it's not actually a new poll, but instead further questions from the Sunday Times Panelbase poll that was initially published last weekend.  That means the fieldwork for the two samples was indeed conducted simultaneously, but quite a while ago - well before Greece's humiliation, so that can't be the explanation for the strong showing for No south of the border.  And the "English" sample was in fact an England and Wales sample (not "rUK", because Northern Ireland wasn't polled).

*  *  *

I was quite disturbed to see BBC Scotland's Douglas Fraser make this explicitly devo-sceptic comment on Twitter a few hours ago, albeit in a personal capacity -

"I see @theSNP is back to the campaign for Holyrood control of BBC Scotland. To do what with it? Anyone?"

That appears to be a continuation of the attitude problem we saw from the mainstream media during the referendum, with entirely different standards being applied to the two sides of the debate.  London control of broadcasting is seen as neutral, normal and benign, whereas Scottish control is abnormal, and can be assumed to be hostile and harmful until we hear a damn fine explanation.

Why doesn't Douglas ask why London Tories want to KEEP control?  What do THEY want to do to BBC Scotland, and why should they be allowed to do it?

The reality, of course, is that devolution of broadcasting is not really about direct Holyrood control over the BBC, but about BBC Scotland securing meaningful autonomy from its London masters.  That will never happen for as long as broadcasting remains a reserved matter.  And yes, there would be a degree of democratic oversight at a Scottish level of the new arrangements - why the hell shouldn't there be?