I'm sure we're all agreed that it's been far too long since I offended the sensibilities of Commentor/NaebD with an "internet drama post", so here's one to make up for lost time. I was unexpectedly assailed by Kevin Williamson on Twitter yesterday about a blogpost I wrote almost three months ago
, on the hoary old topic of "tactical voting on the list" (sic)
Kevin Williamson : ScotGoesPop all over place here. SNP at 62% now in Constit vote! 2nd Vote SNP will bolster Lab MSPs #ListVoteGreen
Me : "All over the place"? Do you mean I've contradicted myself? In what sense?
Kevin Williamson : You've consistently refused to acknowledge SNP are on course to win 65+ Constituency seats - enough to form Govt
Me : Exactly, I've consistently argued against that notion. How is that "all over the place"?
Kevin Williamson : because to argue against it is to deny the reality of consistently good opinion polls for SNP now at 62%
Me : Ah, now we're getting somewhere. The opinion polls are NOT showing the SNP consistently on 62%. Panelbase say 53%.
Kevin Williamson : almost every non partisan pundit forecasting SNP winning almost all of the Holyrood Constituency seats in 2016. Why not you?
Me : Not good enough, Kevin, justify that. Who are these pundits and when did they say it?
Kevin Williamson : I'm beginning to think you're either not paying attention to Scottish politics or in denial to make a party political point
Me : For clarity, have you ignored my question because you're unable to answer it, or for another reason?
Kevin Williamson : okay lets clarify things. How many Constituency seats do you think SNP are on course to win? Give us a ballpark figure?
Me : They are not "on course" for any particular figure. There is a 9% divergence between the pollsters, with NINE MONTHS to go!
Me : By the way, I'm still waiting to hear who these "non-partisan pundits" are.
Kevin Williamson : come on James! Is that the best analysis we're going to get from you on Scot Goes Pop? "Mibbes aye mibbes naw"
Me : This is pathetic, Kevin. Give me the names of the pundits you've cited, and direct me to what they've said.
Kevin Williamson : google the articles in wake of last couple of polls James. There are NONE suggesting SNP arent on course to sweep Constit seats.
Me : If it's that easy, you should be able to give me a couple of names so I know who you mean?
Kevin Williamson : An opinion poll analyst who refuses to project no. seats from opinion polls? Heard it all now. What you afraid off?
Me : Woah, woah, woah. What does "project" mean? You do know that opinion polls are snapshots not predictions? Perhaps you don't.
Kevin Williamson : You're just being pedantic. Every month Scot Goes Pop refuses to project no. of SNP seats its credibility will sink.
Me : If helping people understand the limitations of opinion polls will somehow harm my credibility, I'll have to live with that.
Kevin Williamson : Lets leave it for now. I'll try again after summer when next set of OPs come out.
Me : OK, but if at any point BEFORE THE END OF SUMMER you can remember the names of these mysterious pundits, do let me know.
Kevin Williamson : will do. This not personal as sure ye ken. This is about best way of keeping SLab seats to a min & maximising Indy/progressives.
Me : The electoral system does not lend itself to that kind of strategising, unfortunately.
* * *
Answers on a postcard if anyone can help Kevin out here with the name of a pundit or two. Needless to say, his suggestion of a Google search proved entirely fruitless - there were plenty of examples of journalists and analysts pointing out the bleedin' obvious that if such and such a poll were replicated in the actual election result, the SNP would win X number of seats. But I couldn't find any "non-partisan pundit" saying what Kevin claimed - ie. that it's possible to "forecast" on the basis of what the opinion polls are showing now that the SNP will definitely win a minimum of 65 out of 73 constituency seats in nine months' time. Hardly surprising, because there are several reasons why that isn't possible -
1) Polling inaccuracy.
You'd think in this year of all years, the flaw in a strategy which totally depends on the accuracy of opinion polls wouldn't need to be pointed out, but apparently it does. This isn't even a matter for speculation - we already know for a fact there is a degree of inaccuracy in the Holyrood polls, because the lowest post-May TNS figure for the SNP is not reconcilable with the Panelbase figure, even when the standard 3% margin of error is taken into account. At the very least, either Panelbase or TNS must be getting it wrong (unless the Panelbase poll was an outright rogue - ie. one of the 5% of polls you'd expect to fall outside the margin of error).
2) Polls are snapshots of public opinion at a particular moment in time, not predictions of future election results.
Even if you take a leap of faith and assume that any given poll is providing an accurate snapshot, basing a tactical decision about the May 2016 election on the result of a poll conducted in August 2015 is a bit like turning up at Dunblane Cathedral tomorrow and expecting to see Andy Murray get married. Kevin's got his dates mixed up.
3) The honeymoon effect.
As I alluded to in my short piece in The National
the other day, it's pretty routine to temporarily see extreme poll results in the immediate aftermath of a landmark election. Six months after their 1997 landslide, Labour reached a ludicrous 63% share in an ICM poll. One month after winning a relatively modest majority in the 1979 general election, the Tories utterly annihilated Labour in the European elections. Something very similar happened in the local elections a few weeks after the surprise Tory victory in 1992. All of those examples have got something in common - the trend didn't last long. The absolute most that can be said about the SNP's current 60%+ showing in TNS polls is that the longer it goes on, the less impossible it looks that it might prove to be something more significant than a normal honeymoon effect. But anyone who thinks that it is more likely than not that the current state of play is going to persist until next May is, to be blunt, deluding themselves. Anyone who tells you that it is certain
to persist that long is just plain daft, or a chancer.
And of course apart from all that, even if you did know for sure that the SNP were going to secure an overall majority without requiring a single list seat, 'tactical voting' still isn't viable, because the SNP would always be in contention for at least one list seat in any given region, and smaller pro-independence parties would always be in danger of missing out on a list seat in any given region. There is simply no way of knowing for sure which choice of party on the list is more likely to maximise the number of pro-independence MSPs (barring the invention of that elusive mind-control ray that will somehow persuade hundreds of thousands of non-Greens to vote Green upon demand).
I don't want to be unkind to Kevin, but I think I'm right in saying that he also had a degree of involvement the last time there was one of these wildly over-optimistic "let's hack an election with an internet campaign" wheezes. Back in the autumn of 2010, I received an email out of the blue from Bella Caledonia
, "announcing an independence referendum". It wasn't, of course, a real independence referendum, but a plea for people to abstain in the AV referendum
by the bizarre method of scrawling the word "INDEPENDENCE" on the ballot paper. As someone who has been committed to electoral reform for even longer than I've been committed to independence, I wasn't even remotely tempted to go down that road, so I just forgot about it until I saw a sarcastic comment from Bella
castigating pro-independence bloggers who were supposedly sitting on the fence on the subject of the spoilt ballot masterplan. (Jeff Breslin and James Mackenzie were probably the main targets of that complaint, because Better Nation
was the most popular blog back in those days.)
A heated debate ensued, and those of us opposed to the idea were subjected to many of the same taunts that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the recent "tactical voting" exchanges - ie. we weren't really serious about independence, we were grossly underestimating the potential of a word-of-mouth campaign, we were failing to think outside the box, etc, etc. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, those of us thinking inside the box were proved totally right, because anyone who did actually write 'INDEPENDENCE' on the ballot paper was wasting their time - their numbers were far, far, far too tiny to achieve the desired impact (as was always entirely predictable), and they might as well have just expressed a view on AV. Now, to be fair, probably anyone in that position doesn't really have any regrets, because they're unlikely to give a monkey's about AV one way or the other. But people who throw away their vote next year after being seduced by another of these harebrained schemes may end up feeling rather differently, especially if the price they pay is an anti-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.