Friday, October 9, 2015

SNP vote increases by 4.6% in Aird and Loch Ness by-election

Yesterday's by-election in Aird and Loch Ness saw the SNP and Lib Dems finish more or less level-pegging on first preferences (just 29 votes separated them).  But in contrast to the East Ayr by-election a few weeks ago where the SNP were fractionally behind on first preferences and were still able to win, it was inevitable that the Lib Dems were going to take this one on transfers, because there were a substantial number of unionist votes to be redistributed after the elimination of the third-placed Tory.

Aird and Loch Ness by-election result (first preferences) :

Liberal Democrats 33.5% (+21.2)
SNP 32.5% (+4.6)
Conservatives 15.2% (+8.3)
Independent - Fraser 9.5% (n/a)
Greens 9.3% (n/a)

The by-election was caused by the resignation of an SNP councillor (Drew Hendry), so the SNP were "defending the seat", but only in the most technical of senses - they finished in second place in the ward last time, with even the combined vote for their two candidates still placing them more than 9% behind the winning independent candidate.  So the headlines will scream "Shock Lib Dem Gain From SNP", but that's utterly meaningless - the SNP vote is up 4.6% and they remain in second place.  What appears to have happened is that the Liberal Democrats have claimed the lion's share of the independent vote from last time, allowing them to leapfrog into first place.  Without being aware of local factors, it's impossible to know how they pulled off that feat - it could be, for example, that their candidate is well-known and popular.

The other point that should be noted is that the increase in the SNP's vote is only slightly lower than the average increase they enjoyed in the seven by-elections last week (of which they won six).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Tantalising TNS poll suggests the SNP still enjoy enormous lead

The long wait for a full-scale poll of Scottish voting intentions conducted after the election of Jeremy Corbyn is now over, with the publication today of the monthly TNS poll...

Constituency ballot :

SNP 56% (-2)
Labour 21% (-2)
Conservatives 12% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 52% (+1)
Labour 23% (-1)
Conservatives 11% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
Greens 5% (-1)

The 2% drop in SNP support on the constituency ballot is not statistically significant in itself, but it must be remembered that the party's 58% showing in last's month poll was 2% lower than in any other TNS poll since the general election.  So it's beginning to look like the most extreme phase of the SNP's extraordinary post-May honeymoon is now over, and that we perhaps won't see the 60% barrier being broken again.  The good news, of course, is that we don't need that to happen - 56% is still an extraordinarily high figure that could conceivably lead to a clean sweep of Holyrood constituency seats if it is sustained over the next few months.

The other crucial point is that, on the face of it, the slight dip in the SNP's fortunes on the constituency ballot has nothing whatever to do with Jeremy Corbyn, because Labour are also down 2% - wiping out almost all of their supposed "recovery" from last month.  In theory, you could construct a case that Corbyn has won back a few traditional Labour voters from the SNP, and that those people have been more than offset by centrist unionist voters draining out at the other end to the Tories.  But if that's happened, why have the Tories not recovered even slightly from their unusually poor showing last month?  And why, indeed, has the SNP vote actually increased by 1% on the list?  It doesn't seem very plausible.  As ever, we'll need to see a couple more polls to be sure, but at the moment the evidence is strongly suggesting that Corbyn has failed to dent the SNP's strength.

The Corbyn factor was by far the biggest 'known unknown' as we pondered what might derail the SNP before May.  If we can begin to breathe a little easier on that front, what other possible obstacles still have to be faced?  The most obvious one is the Michelle Thomson affair.  The new poll is of no help in that regard, because as always with TNS, the fieldwork is a little out of date.  My guess is that the unionist media have significantly overplayed their hand with risible stories about SNP MPs owning homes (gasp!) and having stylish furniture.  But time will tell.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

ComRes telephone poll deepens the uncertainty on the EU referendum

Since the Electoral Commission intervened to make the EU referendum question wording more neutral, a string of polls conducted among volunteer online polling panels have shown the 'Leave' camp jumping by several points to effectively draw level.  However, telephone polls have typically shown much stronger support for 'Remain' than online polls, and until today we hadn't seen a telephone poll which asked the new question.  My firm expectation was that we would see the same boost in support for 'Leave', but that this would still leave 'Remain' with a significant lead.  In fact, the new ComRes poll shows the huge lead growing further, albeit only very slightly.

Should the UK remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union? (ComRes, telephone fieldwork, 26th-28th September) :

Remain 55% (+4)
Leave 36% (+3)

On the face of it, then, the impact of the new question has been to widen the gulf between online and telephone results even more.  However, I think the most likely explanation for the relatively static lead suggested by ComRes is that their previous wording was actually pretty similar to the new question.  You never know, though - it could be that online respondents who see the question written down are more influenced by the nuances of language.

Either way, it's quite clear that the disparity between the two types of poll isn't going away any time soon.  Of course, we've seen something very similar with recent results on Scottish independence, with telephone and face-to-face polls finding a lead for Yes, and volunteer online panel polls tending to show a slender lead for No.  My inclination is always to assume that 'real world' polls are closest to the mark, but the reality is that we have no way of knowing who is getting it right.  Britain could be poised to leave the European Union, or the 'Leave' campaign could have an enormous mountain to climb.  Take your pick.

One thing that we have to guard against is the possibility of getting a misleading sense that there is less uncertainty than there actually is, due to online polls appearing more frequently (because they are cheaper to conduct). You might recall that one or two of the usual suspects in the comments section of this blog attempted to dismiss the Yes leads in the Ipsos-Mori and TNS independence polls as "outliers", but in truth the No leads in online polls might well look like the outliers if telephone polling was much more common.

Incidentally, if we could only solve the mystery of how Conservative voters feel about the EU, we'd be a lot closer to knowing the likely outcome of the referendum.  The ComRes telephone poll suggests that Tory voters break almost exactly in line with the general population - 56% want to stay in the EU, 35% want to withdraw.  But the YouGov online poll conducted earlier in September showed that Tory voters were significantly more anti-EU than the electorate at large, and that a clear majority of them wanted to leave (51% for 'Leave', 33% for 'Remain').

Annoyingly, YouGov didn't provide any geographical breakdown of their figures (I'm tempted to call them "obsessively secretive" again, just for the pleasure of watching Laurence Janta-Lipinski explode).  But ComRes have published Scottish subsample numbers - as you'd expect, the lead for 'Remain' is bigger than across Britain, at 61% to 29%.  But the unweighted Scottish sample size is a paltry 90, so treat with extreme caution.

Kezia Dugdale : An Explanation

A guest post by Mike McCreadie

You probably don't know this, but Kezia Dugdale and that Ian fella are actually SNP secret agents. Hear me out for a minute...I dislike conspiracy theories as much as the next person, but I've gone over it many times in my head while sitting in my front room and also on the toilet, often for hours on end, and I've come to the conclusion that it's true - they've been planted there to keep the Labour threat at bay from within - I swear by The Largest Party Winning the Election. They were conditioned from an early age in the ways of the SNP, and now they live out their lives as secret agents, subtly screwing any chance the Labour party has of ever getting back into power in Scotland, and possibly the UK. Fact.

And if that sounds far-fetched then you won't believe the next bit - they're "enhanced" to give them abilities beyond those of normal politicians. No, don't laugh. The enhancement thing was always part of the SNP plan, it's just that they had to do it all with the technology available at the time - a ZX Spectrum 48K that Alex said mangled the tapes, so he donated it for the parts. They cannibalised it and came up with what is known by the SNP Tech Domination Department as "the contradiction buffer". The contradiction buffer allows an agent to say one thing while thinking another while knowing it's all total mince, without melting, then they just purge the buffer later on in the toilets and start afresh. I know, I know - it's obvious now it's been pointed out.

Interesting factoid: Both agents have an "autonomous" setting that lets them operate completely independently (I know! The irony!). In fact the SNP have done such a thorough job on them that neither the Kezia Dugdale agent nor the Ian fella even know that they're a plant. They think they're genuine Labour politicians!

In the beginning they could be activated remotely by some kind of codeword or gesture, but the Kezia Dugdale agent got so into it that she's "always on" now and can't be turned off. Trying to do so could send her into an irreversible schism, the consequences of which are too horrific to contemplate, even for SNP supporters, so they just let her run and work around it.

The Ian fella still seems to be functional but they're not sure if he's within acceptable parameters any more. He kinda switches between normal and saywhatnow a bit too spontaneously. They're worried he might be about to go all "Kezoidal", as they call it in the inner circle (it's an accepted technical term now because it's happened so often). But they're hinting at an eventual meltdown, maybe as early as Christmas.

I know what you're thinking as you read this: The SNP have been jolly clever. But you'd be wrong. What they've done is putting us all in danger. The whole project clearly wasn't thought through properly, which is typical of the SNP. In the event of a catastrophic failure there is no "fail-safe". Eventually the Kezia Dugdale agent will start to fizzle, and then pop her buffer. I don't know how much warning there'll be before she goes off, but I wouldn't want to be standing anywhere nearby when it happens - she could take an eye out or anything. If you have time then turn to the side and cover your face and plums, is my advice. And as for the environmental impact of all this, well, basically the environment can go @$%^ itself, as far as the SNP is concerned, up a windmill.

If anyone needs further proof of this heinous conspiracy then pay attention the next time Nicola's in the same room as the Kezia Dugdale agent. The news commentators like to make out that Kezia has her on the ropes whenever she goes off on one, but that's not the case. In fact, the panicked look on the First Minister's face is because she's frantically looking about for the exits or a human shield, which ever one is closest.

I don't know about the Davidson lass or the Fluffy bloke. I think they might have been left "as is" because they're not a serious threat, but you never know. I do know that the Rennie man is nothing to do with the SNP though. I think he just got lost and wandered in and now no one likes to say anything.

And if you don't believe me then let me put it to you in the way IDS would - prove me wrong. Have Kezia and Ian probed, live on television, so everyone sees the truth, not just what the SNP want you to see. Probe the £$%^ outta them, in 1080p hi-def, with extra angles available on the red button. And then have them irradiated. If they survive then they are clearly enhanced (or it might be the other way round, I'm not sure how it works now that I think about it). Hey, whatever, if I'm wrong then I'll hold my hands up. But, ya know, I might be right. Jeopardy. Ooooh.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A surfeit of surprises

Those of you who are a bit older than me will probably recall the very likeable David Butler, who was the BBC's resident psephologist on every general election results programme between 1950 and 1979.  (The rest of us can catch up via the wonders of YouTube, although unfortunately no recording exists of 1950 or 1951.)  He invented the whole concept of 'swing', and in the days before exit polls was famous for extrapolating the swing from the early declarations to give viewers the first indication of which party was likely to take power.

I was intrigued to spot a lengthy quote from Butler in Antifrank's new article at Stormfront Lite, in which he argues that this year's polling disaster was not some kind of weird exception, and that the polls in fact get it wrong at general elections more often than not.  I think his broad point is absolutely right, but he seems to be over-egging the pudding with some of his specific examples...

"In three elections (’45, ’66 and ’97) there was a Labour victory of totally unexpected proportions."

In 1997, the polls actually overestimated Labour's lead, rather than underestimated it.  If the scale of Blair's majority took most people by surprise, that was because 1992 was fresh in their minds, and they simply refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes.

In 1945, polling was in its infancy, and the expectations that Churchill would be rewarded for leading Britain through the war had nothing whatever to do with polls.  (There was some polling evidence of a handsome Labour lead, but it was largely ignored.)

"In three others (’50, ’64 and October ’74) an expected Labour victory was achieved by only a single-figure margin."

Again, it's doubtful that the expectations of a solid Labour majority in 1950 had much to do with opinion polls.

"And in two elections (February ’74 and 2010) there was a hung parliament that few anticipated."

Few anticipated a hung parliament in February 1974, but in 2010 the polls pointed overwhelmingly to that outcome.  It's true that the betting odds favoured a Conservative overall majority (and apparently Conservative Central Office shared that view), but that was because Tory-leaning punters thought they knew better than the polls.  Ironically, they were expecting a 2015-style outcome five years too early.

So, of the general elections that have occurred since opinion polls started to be taken seriously, which ones can be classed as genuine "shocks"?  I'd say there are five -

1970 : This is perhaps the all-time classic, because the polls pointed to a comfortable Labour overall majority, but the outcome was a comfortable Conservative overall majority.  There was a much bigger risk of that sort of thing happening back in those days - Britain was almost a pure two-party system (the Ulster Unionists still took the Tory whip, and Liberals and nationalists were very few in numbers).  So if the polls were wrong about one party securing a majority, it was fairly likely that the other party would do so.

February 1974 : The polls pointed to a Conservative majority, but Labour emerged by a whisker as the largest single party in a hung parliament, and were able to form a minority government.

October 1974 : The polls pointed to a handsome Labour majority (possibly even a landslide), but in the end Harold Wilson was lucky to barely scrape the tiniest of tiny majorities, which was soon wiped out by defections and by-election defeats.

1992 : The polls pointed to a hung parliament.  It wasn't at all clear whether Labour or the Tories would be the largest single party, but the assumption was that a Labour-led government of some description was likely to emerge, because a Tory-Lib Dem deal seemed highly improbable.  But the actual outcome was a modest Conservative overall majority.

2015 : Almost an exact repeat performance of 1992, other than the fact that the permutations for the expected hung parliament were much more numerous and complicated.  They all proved to be academic as the Tories emerged with a slim outright majority of 12.

So five major shocks in the last twelve elections, which is still a pretty significant proportion.  That, of course, is a big part of the reason why "tactical voting on the list" in next year's Holyrood election is such a mug's game.  The idea that it's even feasible depends on wildly unrealistic assumptions of extreme polling accuracy.  You'd think that people would know better after what happened only five months ago, but apparently not.

*  *  *

After quoting Butler, Antifrank goes on to make a series of observations about how opinion polls should be sensibly interpreted.  You won't be surprised to hear that I disagree with this one -

"Ignore subsamples. They aren’t weighted and the numbers are so small as to be meaningless (often they are actively misleading). Don’t waste your time on them."

If we had ignored the Scottish subsamples from GB-wide polls at this time last year (as, it has to be said, John Curtice studiously did), we'd have been completely unaware that the SNP surge was taking place.  They were showing a very clear trend, and we had no other information to go on - apart from a single Panelbase poll that turned out to be slightly dodgy.

Yes, subsamples have to be treated with extreme caution, and individual subsamples can sometimes be worse than useless.  But if there is literally no other data out there, aggregates of subsamples are better than nothing, and can at least give you some kind of vague sense of what's going on.  We're in a situation like that right now - we've had no full-scale Scottish polls since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, but the subsamples suggest he hasn't made much of an impact north of the border.  We'll discover soon enough whether that's misleading.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Let's hope Corbyn fails (and not just in the way you might think)

It seems that Richard Heller, the man who infamously wrote part of Jeremy Corbyn's conference speech five years in advance, wasn't quite so keen on other words that the new Labour leader uttered in Brighton -

"Then came his ridiculous remark at conference last week that he would never hit the nuclear button. No leader ever has to answer hypothetical questions about nuclear war: by so doing, he failed to acknowledge that Trident has no point unless it creates uncertainty about the risks of threatening us."

Do these people seriously not get it, or are they just playing dumb?  Undermining Britain's so-called nuclear "deterrent" is exactly what Corbyn is trying to do.  Moreover, it's exactly what he was elected to do.  He wasn't elected in spite of his opposition to nuclear weapons, he was elected - at least in part - because of it.  Rendering Trident pointless would not be some kind of naive blunder, it would be a mark of astonishing success.

Unfortunately, as I've already pointed out, it's impossible for an individual leader to turn Britain into a de facto non-nuclear state simply by declaring that he personally would not use Trident.  Only actual disarmament can do the trick, because for as long as the weapons are kicking around, there's always the chance that a new leader with a different stance will come along and use them.

All the same, though, it really is extraordinary how some commentators are utterly incapable of seeing this issue through anything other than a conservative, militaristic prism.  Unilateralism is "old-fashioned" and "unrealistic".  (Try telling that to the 95% of countries that don't have nuclear weapons, and view Britain as a relic.)  A unilateralist who sticks to his principles once elected is "showing signs of inexperience".  And a unilateralist who comes even vaguely close to doing what he was elected to do is a "bad leader".

If that's the definition of failure, let's hope Corbyn fails miserably.