Friday, September 25, 2015

Press & Journal embarrass themselves again by commissioning yet ANOTHER independence "poll" from a firm that specialises in bridalwear events

Long-term readers of this blog may recall that during the referendum campaign, the Press & Journal published two "polls" with utterly fantastical results - the second had the No campaign ahead by 65% to 17%.  My initial reaction at the time was that these must be either outright voodoo polls (ie. self-selecting readers' polls) or 'half-breed' polls.  In fact, it turned out they had been conducted by telephone, but by an Aberdeen-based firm called 'Ideas In Partnership' which, among other things, specialises in bridalwear events.  To say that they are not a member of the British Polling Council does not even begin to do justice to how many light-years away they are from being a credible pollster.  Needless to say, there is no transparency over their methodology, which is highly unlikely to be scientifically rigorous.

Seemingly following the philosophy that a schoolboy howler will look less bad if you commit it as many times as humanly possible, the Press & Journal have today splashed with a new "poll" from the same firm claiming that voters in the North-East and the Highlands reject the idea of a second referendum by 69% to 31%.  Given how far removed from reality the results of the voting intention "polls" were, the mind boggles as to how big an adjustment we'd have to make to arrive at more realistic numbers - the true position could easily be more like 50/50.

The likelihood is that this is a firm that in its normal line of work is used to dealing with relatively affluent clients.  It's therefore attracting a disproportionately high response rate from anti-independence voters, and is then failing to weight the results appropriately.  Hilariously, the Press & Journal openly admit that only 44% of the sample was male.  I'm sure somebody could double-check the figures from the census, but does it seem remotely likely that 56% of the voting-age population of the North-East and the Highlands is female?  The age profile of the sample looks extremely suspect as well, with a whopping 32% aged 65 or over.

The question asked was also leading - it used the totally unnecessary introductory words "given the current political climate", which was presumably intended to steer anyone who likes the idea of a second referendum to think "oh, but surely I don't want one in the current political climate!"

Basically, ignore it.  The P&J might as well have saved themselves the cash and just invented the results - they probably would have been closer to the mark that way.  Incidentally, they also give the misleading impression that this "poll" is somehow in tune with national findings, by praying in aid a YouGov poll from a couple of weeks ago.  But that poll asked a very specific question about whether or not the SNP should promise to hold a referendum in their 2016 manifesto.  Polls that have asked broader questions about when and if a second referendum should be held have consistently found that there is majority support for it to happen within a decade or so.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Another straw in the wind suggests Corbyn hasn't changed the game in Scotland

Today brings word of a fourth Britain-wide voting intention poll to have been wholly conducted after Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, this time a telephone poll from Ipsos-Mori.  Once again, the Scottish subsample figures are entirely typical of what we've been used to over the last year or so : SNP 53%, Conservatives 22%, Labour 19%, Liberal Democrats 4%.  That's in spite of the fact that Labour support is holding up remarkably well south of the border - across Britain, they trail the Tories by just five points.

We'll have to wait for a full-scale Scottish poll to be sure, but the evidence seems to be gradually mounting that Corbyn hasn't been a game-changer in Scotland so far.  Clues to why that may be the case can be found in Ipsos-Mori's supplementary questions, where the Scottish subsample offer a verdict on Corbyn that doesn't differ a great deal from the English sample.  For example, 75% of respondents in England say that Labour is "divided", compared with 72% in Scotland.  And we know that parties perceived as being disunited rarely win elections.

Is there any glimmer of hope for Scottish Labour ahead of next May?  The position on Trident seems to have been thrown up in the air yet again, with the possibility of a conference vote next week, and Corbyn confirming that a vote to scrap Trident would be recognised as altering official party policy.  That might allow Kezia to backtrack on her self-harming "multilateralist" stance almost in spite of herself.  Scottish Labour really do need to slaughter some sort of sacred cow to get the idea across that they've changed, and in the absence of a Damascene conversion on independence or Devo Max, nuclear disarmament looks like the most promising possibility.

However, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman believes that both sides of the debate may shy away from a vote next week, because they are both unsure of winning.  The anti-Trident camp reckon they'll have a better chance next year when they can make sure they send the right sort of delegates to conference, and presumably the pro-Trident camp reckon Corbyn might be gone by next year and the issue won't arise.  Basically, it could seem to be in the best interests of almost everyone to have a year's delay - except Scottish Labour, who have an election to fight in just eight months' time.

Why independence requires the SNP to retain their majority

A few days late, I've been catching up with James Mackenzie's blogpost entitled 'Why independence requires the SNP to lose their majority'. In spite of the provocative title and the even more provocative track record of the author, I didn't find it anything like as objectionable as I thought I might - indeed, it would be quite strange if Green bloggers weren't making the odd mischievous pitch for votes from the SNP. In a way, it's actually quite refreshing to see Mackenzie openly admit that the objective is to deprive the SNP of their majority. That moves us on from the gibberish of recent months about how it's supposedly possible to vote "tactically" for both an SNP majority government and a Green opposition.

That said, you won't be surprised to hear that his argument doesn't stack up. He claims, for example, that majority government led to Yes Scotland being conflated with the SNP. No, it was the massive difference in size between the SNP and the other Yes parties that led to that problem. Whether the SNP had 69 or 64 seats was neither here nor there in that regard. Even if the Greens, with a small number of seats, had been part of a lopsided coalition (and past history suggests they themselves might have refused a coalition in favour of confidence-and-supply), the media would still have looked at the SNP as the dominant partner and referred to the administration as an SNP government, and to Yes Scotland as an SNP front.

I'm slightly unclear whether Mackenzie thinks the benefit of the SNP losing their majority is that any future prospectus for independence would be a compromise featuring a blend of SNP and Green ideas, or that there wouldn't be a single prospectus at all, leaving voters with a better understanding that the new Scotland would be a blank slate to be filled in by future election results. Either way, it's not hard to see huge downsides. The Yes campaign took enough of a pounding for alleged lack of clarity as it was - how much worse would that have been if the retort was always "but that's intentional!" And the Greens may think that their currency policy was more electorally robust than the SNP's, but presumably any compromise prospectus would also have required the SNP to give ground on both the monarchy and NATO, which would have been bound to repel voters (and I say that as a republican who wants to get out of NATO).

Going forward, there are two obvious reasons why the SNP losing their majority would be a significant setback for the independence movement, irrespective of whether the total number of pro-independence MSPs remains stable. Firstly, there's the question of mandate. It seems likely that both the SNP and Greens will have quite complicated, conditional commitments in their manifestos on the subject of a possible second referendum, and if the two wordings aren't fully reconcilable, it will become easier for the Westminster government to play semantic games and claim that a joint SNP-Green majority doesn't constitute a clear mandate for a referendum in Circumstance A or Circumstance B. It would be far preferable if the triggers listed in the SNP manifesto receive an unambiguous mandate in their own right.

Secondly, the issue that Rolfe has raised a number of times - the media narrative. If the SNP lose a significant number of seats next May, it won't matter whether the main beneficiary is a pro-independence or anti-independence party. The headlines will be the same - "Hammerblow for Sturgeon and her dreams of separation". Do we really want to make it easy for the media to do that to us?

* * *

Part of the London establishment can't seem to tell the difference between "liberalism" and British nationalism, and another part can't seem to tell the difference between "nice things" and British nationalism. Tim Farron said the following in his leader's speech at the Lib Dem conference -

"If you reject the politics of blame and separation. If you say Britain is best when Britain is together...Then guess what. You’re a liberal. Embrace that diagnosis. It is an utterly decent and British condition."

Afterwards, Isabel Hardman of the Spectator quite reasonably pointed out that, whatever else this might be, it's not a description of what it means to "be a liberal". But she then spoiled things by suggesting that it's actually a description of what it means to be a "nice person who likes nice things to happen". Er, sorry? Why, pray, is an attachment to British nationalism a prerequisite for being a nice person?

* * *

Meanwhile, "Jackanory Jim" Murphy has penned an article about the EU referendum for the New Statesman which contains a line that will reverberate down the ages for its unwitting comic genius -

"We may not be able to count on Nigel Farage being an Alex Salmond – a useful, vote-losing villain..."

Hmmm. Somebody's been shopping at Self-Awareness 'R' Us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The increasingly daft arguments for closing off the possibility of an early second referendum

As those of you brave/foolhardy enough to read the comments section of this blog will be aware, I'm becoming ever-more exasperated with the cheap debating tricks being used against those of us who are open - merely open - to the idea of an early second independence referendum. Let's just run through a few of them...

1) "We only get one more shot at independence." This is utter rubbish, and nobody that I have challenged to justify it has been able to. In fact, so far nobody has even bothered attempting to justify it (other than falling back on a couple of logical fallacies that I'll come to later), which is a sure sign of how weak the case is. But it's nevertheless a clever line, because it plays on a primal fear that many SNP supporters (and people in the wider independence movement) have about throwing away the chance of independence forever. It 'feels' all too plausible to someone with that fear, and therefore critical analysis isn't applied to the claim.

So what would actually happen if there was a second referendum defeat? It would undoubtedly be a severe setback, but one thing we can be sure of is that the SNP would not shut up shop, or reinvent themselves as a pro-union party. Independence would remain the ultimate goal, and the only question mark would be over the timescale for pursuing that goal. The likelihood is that two defeats (especially if they came within a few years of each other) would make it extremely difficult to justify a third attempt within the fabled "generation" unless there had been a material change of Brexit-type proportions. In a nutshell, a relatively early repeat referendum would remain a possibility, but the threshold for it would become significantly higher.

After fifteen or twenty years have passed, though, the fact that the previous referendum was the second and not the first becomes much, much less significant. A more powerful argument by that point is that it's been a very long time since the public were consulted, that the world has moved on beyond all recognition since then, and that nobody under the age of 31 or 36 has ever been asked the question. The claim that "sorry, you've already had two goes, and that's all you get" won't cut a lot of ice.

Much would also depend on whether the Yes vote went up or down in the second referendum. Quebec voted No for a second time in 1995, and what happened afterwards is rather problematical for the "two is the limit" brigade. The widespread initial reaction was not "it's over forever", bur rather "the next referendum is only a matter of time, and a Yes vote is likely". That was because the Yes vote had increased nine points since the 1980 referendum to stand at just fractionally below 50%, and the momentum looked unstoppable. It hasn't proved to be anything like as simple as that, of course, because every time the Parti Québécois have tried to move towards a third referendum, they've failed to win a parliamentary majority. But they remain one of the two leading parties, with a leader who is more committed to early independence than any of his recent predecessors, and for as long as that remains the case a third referendum is more likely than not.

The lesson of Quebec 1995 is that if you lose a second referendum, it's extremely tough to get a third crack - but no more than "extremely tough". So rather than being paralysed into inaction by irrational fear, we'd be much better off calmly weighing up the timing that would maximise the chances of a Yes vote. If the optimal timing is early rather than late, it's perfectly possible that it will be over-caution that kills off the chances of independence for a prolonged spell, not rashness. With the benefit of hindsight, the best moment for the Parti Québécois to push for a third vote would actually have been as early as 1998, when they still had a popular leader and won their most recent overall majority. Instead, they passed up that chance because it was "too soon". Five years later the political seasons had changed, as they will for even the most popular party. As a result, the sovereignty issue has been on the backburner for two long decades.

2) "It doesn't matter that I can't explain why there is some supernatural limit of two referendums, because I once overheard a senior SNP person (who I won't name) make the same claim, so it must be true. Stop thinking for yourself, James, and bow to the superior knowledge of those with expertise!" Yes, I tried very, very hard not to giggle at this one. Substituting reasoned argument with an appeal to authority is of course one of the classic logical fallacies, so it falls at that hurdle. (Which is probably just as well if the supposed views of this nameless person are merely hearsay.) In any case, if anyone is really gagging to just submit to authority on this subject, they'll be spoilt for choice, because there is a whole range of diverging views on the timing of a second referendum within the SNP leadership. I'm also not entirely convinced there's any such thing as an "expert" on the chances of a third referendum taking place, because it's largely uncharted territory.

3) "If you deny the obvious truth that there can never be more than two referendums, you must be saying we can have as many as six, seventeen or fifty-seven referendums if needs be. There won't be fifty-seven referendums, James. Trust me on this. It's true." Well, yes, if the appeal to authority doesn't work, you can always try knocking down your own risible straw man. Back in the real world, any individual referendum will be hard-won. There was never any guarantee that even one independence referendum would take place. There is no guarantee now that a second will occur (and arguably those trying to close off the possibility of an early timing are making it less likely that it will ever take place, because the current momentum won't be sustained indefinitely). That's the reason why fifty-seven referendums will not happen. It doesn't even come close to explaining the curious belief that a second referendum is likely, but that a third referendum (even decades down the road) is literally impossible.

4) "We haven't even begun to understand why we lost last year. We need time to learn the lessons." Yes, of course we need time, but that's a point of very limited relevance, because nobody is actually proposing an immediate referendum. What the people pushing this argument are really saying is that there shouldn't be a referendum in the next parliamentary term - which means that it shouldn't happen by 2021, seven years after the first referendum. If they're genuinely saying that enough time won't have elapsed by then, they must believe that it will take longer for us to learn the lessons of our defeat than it did to complete the Manhattan Project. Is that really a credible position?

5) "We need people of quality as SNP candidates, not people proposing an early referendum." To which the obvious retort is that we just need people of quality, which is not necessarily synonymous with people who want to rule out an early referendum. This argument started yesterday because I mentioned I had voted to give a high ranking to an SNP list candidate in Central Scotland (James McGuigan) whose personal statement made clear that electoral success for the party next year should constitute an unambiguous mandate for a second referendum. I went on to say that this goes beyond my own position, but that I felt it was important to have balance within the parliamentary party, because there will be plenty enough MSPs (including others I gave a high ranking to) urging caution.

Apparently, though, it's mature for me to vote for quality candidates who diverge from my own position in one direction, but not in the other. Does that make sense? In a word, no.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How I voted to rank the SNP list candidates for Central Scotland next year

As some of you know, although I've consistently voted SNP since I turned eighteen, I didn't actually become a party member until last autumn. So I've just had my very first chance to vote for the rankings of the SNP Central Scotland list candidates in a Scottish Parliament election. I must say I found it a much more stressful process that voting in the deputy leadership contest, because I know little or nothing about many of the candidates, and getting it right is quite a responsibility - in many ways these internal party votes have a bigger influence on the parliament's composition than the election proper (which is why we should switch to an open list system and hand the power back to the electorate at large). And we should never forget the long-term repercussions of Margo MacDonald's lowly ranking in 2003.

I erred on the side of placing sitting MSPs towards the top of the list, because at least those people are known quantities. I was haunted by the thought that Bill Walker might have had a fabulous personal statement five years ago, and people like me might have voted for him in good faith on the basis of that alone. Having said that, there were four people I ranked higher than at least one sitting MSP -

James McGuigan : I liked the clarity of the call in his personal statement for an SNP win next year to be regarded as a straightforward mandate for a second referendum. That goes beyond even my own position, but I think it'll be useful to have people in the parliamentary party pushing that view and providing balance - there certainly won't be any shortage of caution from others.

Julie Hepburn : I've never met Julie, but living in Cumbernauld, I've heard quite a bit about her over the last decade, and it's all been good.

Sophia Coyle : A reasonably well-known name in North Lanarkshire, and I liked her personal statement.

Anum Qaisar : A fast-rising star who was very unlucky to miss out on constituency selection in Edinburgh Eastern.

I ranked Alex Neil highest of the sitting MSPs, partly because of his commitment to independence, but mainly because I think it's important to give a vote of confidence to a Cabinet minister who is doing an excellent job.

I won't give you an exhaustive list of my rankings, because some of the lower preferences and my reasons for them might be a tad controversial, and I don't want to start an argument!

The most useless YouGov poll ever?

There are some polls that are guaranteed to produce inaccurate results no matter how well-conducted they are.  For example, there's an established phenomenon whereby if you ask respondents how many sexual partners they've had, men will on average overstate the true number, and women will understate it.  People will also claim to have given far more money to charity in the last month or year than they actually have.

There's a similar problem with today's YouGov poll that seeks to test public attitudes to David Cameron's alleged debauchery during his highly privileged university education.  62% of respondents agreed with the proposition that the incident was "years ago" and thus "couldn't matter less".  I guarantee you there are people among that 62% who think less of Cameron as a result of the pig story, but who nevertheless gave the answer they felt reflected best on themselves.

You may have seen the famous Yes Minister scene that demonstrates how it's possible for pollsters to get almost any answer they want.  The question sequence that would have produced damning results for Cameron goes something like this...

1) Do you agree that sexual acts involving animals should be regarded as criminal offences?

2) At present, sexual acts involving live animals are criminalised, but those involving dead animals are not.  Do you believe this is a loophole that should be closed?

3) Do you believe that people should be held responsible for their actions as adults, even if they took place twenty or thirty years ago?

4) If it is true that the current Prime Minister performed a sexual act on a dead pig as a student, do you believe this is a matter of legitimate public interest?

Kezia's incomprehensible refusal to drop her support for Trident shows where her true loyalties lie

In the space of ten days, Jeremy Corbyn has already proved to be a bigger disappointment on Trident than I thought was possible, apparently indicating to right-wing members of his front bench that he will not seek to change the party's official stance, although he will reserve the right to expound his own view.  The most hopeful interpretation I can put on this is that he knows he can't fight too many battles at once, and is saving the showdown over nuclear weapons for later in the parliament when he thinks his position might be more secure.  In the meantime, we're left with the chaotic free-for-all of a Labour leader who openly disagrees with his own party's policy, and a Shadow Cabinet who have licence to 'slap down' their own leader without fear of consequences.

As a result, the stars have never been better aligned (not even close) for Scottish Labour to finally take a distinctive line on Trident, in tune with the party's natural supporters.  How hard can it be, even for a branch office, to say "we agree on this with the party leader and the Shadow Chancellor"?  And yet, incomprehensibly, Kezia Dugdale is spurning that chance, and if anything is differentiating the Scottish party from London in a pro-nuclear direction.

She can't possibly think this is a vote-winner.  And it can't possibly be a principled attachment to multilateralism, because she made no sense at all when she tried to defend that principle a few weeks ago.  The only reasonable conclusion is that Kezia is still London's poodle, but London is no longer code for "the leader".  So who or what does she take her orders from now?  It can only be some kind of project to keep the Blairite/Brownite/non-left flame burning, masterminded by people who see a 'moderate' Scottish party as a useful pawn in their game.

Heaven help Labour MSPs next May if this is the course they're set on.  They're going to get all of the downsides of Corbyn as leader, and none of the potential benefits.

The Spectator's take on Cameron and the pig

12.15 : It's a non-story.  Just tittle-tattle.

12.20 : Is this really the best Ashcroft could do?

12.54 : Actually, we hope it IS true.  It would be GOOD for the Tories.

22.27 : God, this is so dull.

Doth the right-wing rag protest too much?

Meanwhile, Dan Hodges has spent much of the day sanctimoniously pointing out that Corbyn fans are laughing at press coverage they would regard as "outrageous intrusion" if it had been directed at their own man.  The trouble is that no-one would believe the story for a moment if Corbyn was alleged to have done the deed, but as it's Cameron, the instant reaction of almost everyone that doesn't work for the Spectator has been "yes, that sounds entirely plausible".

And if by any chance it is true, I'd say it was the pig that suffered the outrageous intrusion, wouldn't you Dan?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Nicola 1, Dave 0

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the International Business Times, about the battle to define the meaning of the referendum result, and how Nicola Sturgeon has already won it.  You can read the article HERE.

Comforting ComRes poll fails to detect any Corbyn effect in Scotland

We finally have three Britain-wide voting intention polls this weekend that were wholly conducted after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.  I can't find any Scottish information from the Opinium poll yet (thus robbing me of my "auspicious Opinium offering" headline), but the news from ComRes is extremely reassuring - the SNP are unchanged on 5% of the vote.  The Scottish subsample has figures of SNP 49%, Conservatives 23%, Labour 17%, UKIP 5%, Liberal Democrats 4%, Greens 2%.  YouGov have the combined SNP/Plaid vote at 5% across Britain, and the Scottish sample shows SNP 44%, Labour 28%, Conservatives 21%, Liberal Democrats 3%, UKIP 2%, Greens 2%.  An ICM poll from a few days ago that was partly conducted post-Corbyn showed much the same thing.

OK, the Scottish sample sizes are extremely small, but so far the limited evidence is suggesting Labour's change of leader has made little or no immediate difference.  And I must say I take voting intention numbers more seriously than these endless "does Corbyn make you more or less likely to vote Labour?" polls.  Even people who answer "more likely" to that question may simply mean that the chances of them voting Labour has increased from 0% to 5%.