Saturday, December 26, 2015

Seven things that will happen if Britain votes to leave the EU in 2016

1) The cause of a united Ireland will be back with a vengeance.  We've become used to polls showing that a large chunk of the nominally 'nationalist' community in Northern Ireland are content to remain in the UK for the time being.  That may change rapidly if the Irish border becomes the frontier of the EU.

2) The centre of gravity in what remains of the EU will shift a little to the left.  That's simply a question of basic arithmetic - the bulk of British members of the European Parliament are right-wing (more UKIP than Tory), and Britain casts a right-wing vote in the Council of Ministers, which is effectively the second chamber of the EU legislature.  (It used to be said that even New Labour was the most right-wing government in the EU, although admittedly that was before the admission of the former Eastern Bloc states.) Our representative on the European Commission is also a Tory.

3) Much of Labour will become totally disorientated, because a belief in Britain's European destiny is part of their DNA.  Their instincts will be screaming at them to campaign to get back into the EU as soon as possible, but they won't want to be seen to overturn the referendum result straight away.  They may settle on a compromise position of going all out to keep Britain in the European Economic Area, on the same basis as Norway and Iceland.  That would at least make it easier to return to the EU in future decades.

4) David Cameron will resign as Prime Minister.  I was never entirely convinced by the claim of John "the Gardener" McTernan that Cameron's position would have been untenable if there had been a Yes in the indyref - but this vote is one of his own choosing.

5) The Tory party will not split.  Ironically, there's much more likely to be a schism if Remain wins by a narrow margin.  Most Tories who vote to Remain will be easily reconciled to a Leave outcome, because they're mild Eurosceptics anyway.  The handful of genuine pro-Europeans in the party will probably feel that Cameron did his level best.

6) The powers of the Scottish Parliament will effectively increase.  There may be a Sewel Convention preventing Westminster legislating on devolved matters, but that doesn't apply to the EU - and indeed EU law always has primacy.  The Scottish Government's freedom to act on devolved matters will therefore be much less constrained if Britain is outside the EU.

7)  There will be a second independence referendum in Scotland.  I make no prediction about the outcome of that referendum, and clearly there are one or two people in the SNP (such as Kevin Pringle) who think it will be harder to make the case for independence if Britain has decided to withdraw from Europe.  But as long as Scotland votes to Remain and finds itself outside the EU against its will, the case for a referendum will be unanswerable, because we were endlessly told last year that a No vote was a vote to stay in the EU.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Should the SNP support Cameron's plans to weaken the powers of the Lords?

Here's an interesting discussion point, given that I know how most of you feel about the House of Lords.  At some point next year, the Commons will probably be invited to vote on whether to abolish the power of the Lords to block secondary legislation.  If so, we'll enter into Alice Through the Looking Glass territory, because we'll have the Tories posing as modern-day Asquiths and Lloyd-Georges and trying to transfer power from unelected peers to the elected chamber, while the constitutional 'reformers' in the Corbyn-led Labour party and the Liberal Democrats will be standing up for the ancient rights of the Barons and the Bishops.  To be fair, there's a pragmatic case to be made that almost any check on the power of a government "elected" on just 37% of the vote has to be better than nothing.

But for the SNP, there isn't such a straightforward conflict between principle and pragmatism.  Unlike Labour and the Liberal Democrats, they have no stake at all in the Lords (through their own choice), so it's arguably in their interests to see the Lords stripped of more powers, and for the focal point of opposition to the government to be in a chamber where the SNP are the third-largest party and hold almost a tenth of the seats.

The decision they make could be crucial, because there is a smattering of right-wing libertarians on the Tory backbenches who will be instinctively mistrustful of an executive that is trying to make itself too powerful.  If the SNP and the DUP join with Labour and the Lib Dems to vote the plans down, it would only take a handful of Tory rebels for the government to be defeated.  Even without the DUP, the Tory rebellion wouldn't have to be huge.

So what do you think the SNP should do?  Should the priority be to chip away at the powers of the Lords, even if in the short term that further empowers the Tory government?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

YouGov poll suggests SNP voters oppose the bombing of Syria by an overwhelming margin

Thanks to my namesake James on the previous thread for drawing my attention to the fact that a full-scale Scottish YouGov poll seems to be on its way.  It was conducted between Thursday and yesterday, and Joe Twyman has already revealed the results of a supplementary question in order to make a rather dubious point.  He notes that 97% of Scottish MPs voted against the bombing of Syria, but that Scottish voters are "much more divided" on the issue, including "even SNP voters".  In reality, the poll shows that SNP voters oppose the bombing by an overwhelming margin of 56% to 31%.  If the London establishment can call a 55% to 45% margin "decisive" when it suits them, I'm not sure they're going to get away with implying that 56% to 31% is a relatively even split.

Overall, 44% of Scottish voters support the bombing, and 41% are opposed.  That's a statistical tie, meaning that the standard 3% margin of error makes it impossible to know for sure whether most people are in favour or not.  It does, however, suggest that we probably weren't being led astray by the two YouGov subsamples at the time of the Commons vote, both of which reported that public opinion in Scotland was finely balanced.

Incidentally, there's clear opposition to putting British and American ground forces into Syria or Iraq - and that opposition is strongest in respect of Iraq, even though the conflict in Syria is more complex.  It's probably safe to say that there's now something of a stigma attached to any form of military action in Iraq.

We'll have to wait and see whether Scottish Parliament voting intention numbers from YouGov appear overnight.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Despair for Dugdale as SNP soar to 34% lead on the Holyrood list in tumultuous TNS poll

It's been a long time since we've had a full-scale Scottish Parliament poll.  The most recent one was the Ipsos-Mori phone poll which completed its fieldwork in mid-November, and showed a slight drop in the SNP lead.  Since then, one or two of our unionist friends (naming no names, but Aldo) have got carried away with the odd glimmer of hope in subsamples and a local council by-election in Blantyre (I know, I know), and convinced themselves that there are finally signs that Labour are closing the gap.  I fear that today's new TNS poll is going to be something of a hammerblow for them. 

Constituency ballot :

SNP 58% (n/c)
Labour 21% (-3)
Conservatives 12% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 4% (n/c)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 54% (+2)
Labour 20% (-5)
Conservatives 12% (+1)
Greens 9% (+4)
Liberal Democrats 4% (-1)
UKIP 1% (-1)

A poll from TNS isn't the ideal way of breaking a long drought, because the firm's face-to-face fieldwork takes place over a period of weeks, and is always somewhat out-of-date by the time we see the numbers.  So there's still a theoretical possibility that there's been a very recent change in fortunes that this poll was unable to detect.  However, many of the interviews took place after the closure of the Forth Road Bridge (the latest in a long line of supposed turning-points for the unionist parties), and there's no sign of that having had any negative effect on the SNP's standing.  The Natalie McGarry controversy is also partly factored in.

As you may recall, the SNP scored 60% or higher on the constituency ballot in the first three monthly TNS polls after the general election.  They've been consistently below 60% since the late summer, so it looks like there was some genuine slippage after the post-May hoo-ha died down a little.  But it seems that the position has stabilised in recent months - the further drop to 56% in September now looks very much like a blip caused by normal sampling variation.  Weirdly, the SNP's 54% on the list ballot is a joint post-election high - it equals what they had when they were on 62% in the constituencies, and betters what they had when they were on 60% in the constituencies.  I can't think of any obvious explanation for that, unless SNP supporters are simply coming to the view that they don't want to split their two votes.  But, even now, almost half of the Greens' 9% support on the list is coming from people who plan to vote SNP on the constituency ballot.

There's no doubt that this poll will give the Greens a lot of heart after a string of disappointing findings for them (only Survation have offered them any comfort in recent months).  However, until their apparent bounce-back is confirmed by other polls, there remains the possibility that it's just an extreme example of margin-of-error noise.  And I'd certainly advise people to pay only limited heed to the excitement on Twitter about the Greens' 24% share of the list vote in Lothian, which is based on a regional subsample of just 85 people.

The biggest story of this poll is that Labour's mini-recovery since the spring seems to have been completely wiped out.  They were consistently on 23-25% of the list vote in the last three TNS polls, which was a few points higher than their showing in the early post-election polls.  But all of a sudden, they seem to be practically back to square one -  20% is just 1% higher than what they had in the May TNS poll.  Again, though, that may be a sampling blip - we'll just have to wait and see.

No such comfort for the Tories, who find themselves languishing on a dismal 12% of the constituency vote for a fifth consecutive month - that's 2-3% lower than they managed in the first two post-election TNS polls.  The pollsters are divided on whether or not the Tories are in a competitive race for second place, but if TNS are even vaguely close to being right, a few right-wing commentators are going to have egg on their faces after their recent musings about how their favourite party must be in line for a long-overdue breakthrough because Ruth Davidson is just so funny, so ballsy, and...ooooh, so smashing!

Irritatingly, TNS are still offering their respondents the SSP as an option, rather than RISE.  However, given that the SSP have once again scored a big fat zero on the list (or strictly speaking 0.2%), and given that RISE enjoy weaker brand awareness than the SSP, there is no particular reason to suspect that RISE would have registered any support in this poll.

There's more grim news for those who adhere to the Kenny Farquharson/Fraser Nelson worldview that Scottish public opinion is near-enough identical to English public opinion (once you strip away the inconvenient fact that the two countries keep voting for different parties).  One of the supplementary questions in the poll is about Britain's nuclear weapons, and the percentage of respondents who say that Trident should not be renewed significantly exceeds the percentage who say it should be.  (29% support renewal, 38% don't).  That's the opposite of what we know to be true about English public opinion on Trident, and it's a finding that should be taken very seriously, because this is not an online poll with a sample that is potentially skewed by having too many politically aware people - it's a 'real world' poll with a sample found by knocking on people's doors.

We can, citizens

If the Portuguese election result a couple of months ago was a touch complicated, tonight's Spanish election result is truly epic.  Once again, we have the conservatives emerging as the largest single party, but without any real prospect of forming a stable government in the absence of a deal with the socialists.  Unlike Portugal, however, this state of affairs has come about in spite of the combined centre-right forces having the slight upper hand in the parliamentary arithmetic.  If the preliminary results are correct, this is how it works out...

Right and centre-right : 178 seats
Left and centre-left : 172 seats

The reason why the centre-right majority is meaningless is that eight of those 178 seats will be held by a "separatist" Catalan party, which for obvious reasons is not about to reach an accommodation with the incumbent Madrid government.  So a more realistic way of looking at the result is this -

Right and centre-right : 163 seats
Left and centre-left : 172 seats
Catalan centre-right nationalists : 8 seats
Basque and Canarian centre-right nationalists/regionalists : 7 seats

I've no idea what attitude the Basque and Canarian centre-right take towards Mariano Rajoy, but even if you hypothetically assign those seven seats to the combined centre-right forces, the left still can't (quite) be outvoted.  So, on the face of it, it seems almost inevitable that the socialists will be involved in the next government - either as the junior partner in a grand coalition, or as the senior partner in a left-wing coalition involving Podemos and others.  The only possible alternative is that the current government might limp on for a few months on a caretaker basis until a new election can be held, but that would probably only happen if there is genuine deadlock in the negotiations.  Unfortunately, deadlock isn't inconceivable, because the socialists will need to cobble together an absolute majority (ie. 176 seats) to override any vetoes from the Senate, which remains firmly in the hands of the conservatives. 

Whatever arrangement is reached, it's already clear that this election won't in itself resolve the Catalan dispute, because the anti-"separatist" centre-right have the blocking minority they need to prevent any constitutional changes.  (The current constitution outrageously precludes even the theoretical possibility of Basque or Catalan independence.)

All the same, those of us with radical left sympathies should certainly keep our fingers crossed for a socialist-led coalition, because if that happens, there'll never have been a time when the radical left have held such influence within the European Union.  We'd have Podemos as junior coalition partners in Spain, Syriza as senior coalition partners in Greece, and a  Portuguese government that owes its position to a formal deal with the communists and the Left Bloc.