Not for the first time in this campaign, the Sunday Herald's lead story yesterday was hugely controversial, with the claim that Nicola Sturgeon was setting her sights on a second referendum now that a "Holyrood win" was guaranteed. There was no direct reference to so-called "tactical voting on the list" on this occasion, but many assumed - probably correctly - that the story formed one of the subtler parts of the paper's ongoing propaganda campaign to convince pro-independence voters that the election is in the bag for the SNP, and that the list vote should therefore be treated as some kind of "bonus" or "luxury" vote that will not affect the meat of the result.
What's interesting, though, is the creative ambiguity in the phrase "Holyrood win". What does that actually mean? Does it mean an overall SNP majority is guaranteed? If so, that would be an extraordinary claim given the state of the polls. Or is it simply a statement of the bleedin' obvious that the SNP are certain to be the largest single party, and are also virtually certain to form a government?
We perhaps get a little clue to the answer in an editorial which gives a complicated endorsement/non-endorsement to the SNP. The paper has two basic wishes for the election result -
1) That the SNP are returned to government with a majority.
2) That other pro-independence parties are strengthened.
In view of which, voters are given just one specific piece of advice -
"We see no reason why progressive Scots voters should not consider using their second list vote to back a social democratic party like the Greens - who also support independence for Scotland."
Well, there is one extremely good reason, of course - namely that a vote against the SNP on the list is a vote against an SNP majority government. The advice might make perfect sense if the paper took the same view as some Green and RISE supporters who say that the SNP would govern better without a majority, and indeed that they did govern better without a majority prior to 2011. But if we take the very specific wish for an SNP majority at face value, what is being suggested is a complete nonsense - because nobody can seriously imagine that the way to go about getting an SNP majority is by voting against the SNP on either or both ballots. I suppose if we were being ultra-charitable, we might characterise the Sunday Herald's advice as being to vote both for and against an SNP majority, because there is a path - albeit a phenomenally tough one - to a majority based on constituency votes alone. But it is simply a statement of fact that switching to a different party on the list significantly reduces the chances of a majority, because it cuts away the safety net of SNP list seats.
It seems pretty likely that if the SNP poll in the mid-40s on the constituency ballot, they will fall well short of the 65 constituency seats that would give them a majority without needing any list seats. In 2011, their 45% of the vote netted them just 53 constituency seats. Now, it's true that the arithmetic is different this time, because Labour look certain to lose further ground. The SNP could probably gain a number of Labour seats just by standing still. But the flipside of the equation is that standing still might lose them seats to the Tories, and possibly even to the Lib Dems, whose vote proved amazingly resilient in a handful of key constituencies last year. To a large extent, that was presumably down to anti-SNP tactical voting, which thanks to the referendum will be a factor this year in a way that it wasn't five years ago. So the new advantages that the SNP have this time around are balanced out by new disadvantages, and it's murderously difficult to imagine them getting 65 constituency seats on 45% of the vote.
In this blog's latest Poll of Polls, the SNP have slipped to 51.3% of the constituency vote. So is it conceivable that polls could be overestimating a party's support by as much as 6% at such a late stage of the campaign? Answer : yes, of course it is. One week before polling day in 2007, a YouGov poll reported that the SNP were on 40% of the constituency vote - in fact, they got 32.9%. And on election night itself in 2011, a Progressive Scottish Opinion poll gave the SNP 51% of the constituency vote - 6% more than they actually got when the votes came in a few hours later.
The fact that something may happen doesn't mean that it necessarily will. But even if the SNP were currently being overestimated by only about half as much as that (putting them at roughly 48%), it would be touch and go as to whether they would win a majority on constituency seats alone.
I've no idea whether the Sunday Herald's claim to want an outright SNP majority is intellectually dishonest, or whether they've genuinely managed to convince themselves - in defiance of all logic - that an SNP majority is assured regardless of how people actually vote. Either way, the functional meaning of their advice is that voters should give a lower priority to an SNP majority than to success for the Greens and RISE, and at best should rely on blind faith to ensure that a vote against the SNP will somehow not harm the SNP.
My own view, for what it's worth, is that blind faith is never the most promising plan. Let's take control of our own destiny.