Friday, April 22, 2016

Devastated Dugdale starts praying for a "Bobby Ewing in the shower" moment after savage Survation survey extinguishes all other hope for Scottish Labour

Constituency ballot :

SNP 53% (+1)
Lab 18% (-3)
Conservatives 17% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 43% (-1)
Conservatives 18% (+2)
Labour 17% (-2)
Greens 11% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (n/c)
UKIP 4% (n/c)

A Poll of Polls update can be found HERE.

Explanatory note : As a fond tribute to the mainstream media's restrained take on the GERS report, Scot Goes Pop headlines will contain 50% bonus hysteria for an indefinite period.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A different type of 'outer darkness'

Iain Macwhirter in the Herald -

"Though [John Curtice] has been cast into outer darkness along with the Sunday Herald for suggesting a vote for SNP on the list might be wasted in most regions..."

With all due respect to Iain, that is a load of utter tripe, and it's very difficult to believe he doesn't know that by now.  John Curtice is blameless in all of this, and if any supporter of the SNP did criticise him at the weekend, it was only because they were trusting enough to assume that the Sunday Herald must have reported his views accurately.

Facts are chiels that winna ding, an' a' that.  John Curtice wrote a very fair and balanced report in which he explained how 'tactical voting on the list' might be beneficial depending on how the election result turned out, but also how it could just as easily backfire.  In my view, that effectively made the case against tactical voting, because unless you know the election result in advance, the risks are always going to be there and must outweigh the relatively minor potential benefits.  But the best interpretation that the tactical voting lobby could reasonably have made of what Curtice said is that he sat firmly on the fence and gave equal weight to both sides of the argument.  Instead, and for reasons we can only guess at, the Sunday Herald piece told readers something that was flatly, verifiably untrue - that Curtice had advised independence supporters that they should not vote SNP on the list, and that they should instead vote Green or RISE.  (Ironically, if the newspaper had instead claimed that Curtice made the vastly downgraded assertion that Iain ascribes to him today - ie. that a list vote for the SNP merely "might" be wasted - there would never have been any problem.  That would have fallen on the 'spin' end of the spectrum, rather than the 'outright inaccuracy' end.)

Iain goes on to say this -

"I don't actually believe it is in the SNP's own best interest to continue to utterly dominate Holyrood. Those #bothvotesSNP enthusiasts who argue the SNP must pile up more and more votes and bigger and bigger landslides don't seem to know why they should want this."

Again, this is very odd.  It's not actually possible for the SNP to "continue to utterly dominate Holyrood", for the simple reason that they do not do so at the moment.  They have a tiny overall majority, and it was a near-miracle that they ever won it - the voting system was supposed to make any sort of majority almost impossible.  And that's precisely the motivation of the #bothvotesSNP "enthusiasts" - they realise, as John Curtice so wisely noted in his report, that if the polls are overstating the SNP's support, the party could need every last list vote simply to retain its slim majority.  It's not some sort of "luxury" or "indulgence" vote - it's a vote for an SNP majority government.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In the unlikely event that RISE win a seat, they'll be doing a John Swinburne, not a Colin Fox

You've probably already seen RevStu's "five cold, hard facts about the election".  You might think this is ironic coming from me, but the only one of the five I would very, very slightly take issue with is that RISE won't win a seat.  I think it's overwhelmingly unlikely that they will, but it can't be completely ruled out because we do have one past example of a fringe party taking a list seat in even less promising circumstances than RISE currently find themselves.  In 2003, the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party somehow won a seat on the Central Scotland list with an astonishing 6.5% of the vote, in spite of receiving only a fraction of the media attention lavished on RISE this year.

So how did they do it?  Partly it was down to a very clever (albeit charmingly amateurish) leaflet that played up the support and nominal candidacies of two "Old Firm legends".   The rest of it can be explained by the fact that the 2003 election wasn't competitive - the SNP didn't look even remotely like a government in waiting, and many people who would ordinarily have voted SNP (or indeed Labour) on the list decided they had nothing to lose by being a little more adventurous, or even frivolous.

With the benefit of hindsight, the very odd events of the weekend look like a carefully-planned "shock and awe" operation intended to recreate the special conditions of 2003, albeit in a slightly different form - ie. the hope was that voters would begin to see the SNP's position as so unassailable that they could afford to be as daring with their list vote as they were in 2003.  That line of argument had been hitting a brick wall in recent months, so it seems that somebody, somewhere made the calculation that a concerted (and totally bogus) appeal to the ultimate authority - John Curtice, naturally, not God - could turn things around for the tactical voting lobby at a crucial moment in the campaign.  I initially subscribed to the view that a single journalist had innocently (albeit catastrophically) misunderstood Curtice's words, and the whole thing had snowballed out of control as a result.  But in the light of what's happened since, it's hard to maintain such a charitable interpretation.

*  *  *

For anyone who thinks that the "tactical voting" scam is new, here's a little nostalgia - a blogpost I published exactly five years ago today, in the midst of the 2011 election campaign.  My belated commiserations to the three people who actually fell for the idea that a vote for the Scottish Christian Party would be less wasted than a vote for Labour!

Confirmed by the servants of the Lord : the regional list vote decides who forms the Scottish Government

I received an election leaflet today from the militantly anti-homosexual 'Scottish' Christian Party - led somewhat incongruously by the man who wrote (and still receives royalties from) the song So Macho. You might think it would have been mostly concerned with telling me about God and lesser-known details of the Old Testament, but not a bit of it. In fact the meat of the leaflet is about the minutiae of the party's split and subsequent glorious reconciliation with their 'brothers' in the Christian People's Alliance (no-one mention Life of Brian), followed by this rather convoluted explanation of how, for some unspecified reason, they're planning to help Iain Gray become First Minister -

"If you want Labour to form the next Scottish Government vote Christian Party - CPA on the Central Region List.

In 2007 Labour had to look on powerlessly as the SNP took five (5) of the list seats in the Central Region, including the very last seat. As a result, the SNP beat Labour by just one (1) seat in the Scottish Parliamentary Election. Had the Christian Party won that last Central Region seat, instead of the SNP, then Labour would have won the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary Election...


So there you have it on the Highest Authority - the list vote decides who becomes First Minister. In other words, the SNP's invitation for people to vote for Alex Salmond as First Minister on the list ballot is a helpful clarification of the vital importance and effect of that vote, while the Greens' '2nd Vote Green' slogan (implying that the list vote is - as many people mistakenly believe - some kind of second preference) is a misleading ruse. No-one is blaming the Greens for trying to maximise their vote by using any tactic within the rules - but what is slightly more galling is that they do this while at the same time brazenly condemning the SNP for 'confusing' the electorate with their 'sloganising'. It's the rough equivalent of hitting another child in the playground, then bursting into tears and saying "Miss, he hit me"...

A few nagging doubts do arise from the Christian Party's 'Trojan Horse for Iain Gray' pitch, though. For instance -

1) Perhaps they should have waited to see the opinion polls before concluding this was quite such a winner.

2) If they're really only interested in receiving votes from Labour sympathisers, does that mean us nationalists are all heathens?

3) They could have done with investing in a calculator. If the Christian Party had nicked a list seat from the SNP last time round, Labour would not have been the party with most seats, but instead would have been deadlocked 46-46 with the SNP. Even if the Christian MSP had voted for Jack McConnell as First Minister, Alex Salmond would still have won if the two Green MSPs had voted for him (as they did).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It doesn't matter whether you're an optimist or a pessimist about the SNP's chances : "tactical voting on the list" is a bad idea either way

As you probably saw on last night's post, John Curtice made clear that so-called "tactical voting on the list" becomes very risky as soon as you assume (as you really ought to assume if you haven't shut down your brain under instructions from a RISE press release) that there is a chance the election result may differ somewhat from current opinion polls.  Crucially, the direction in which the polls lead us astray doesn't really matter - if the SNP are being overestimated by the current polls, they'll need list votes and list seats simply to retain their majority, but if they're being underestimated on the list vote, they stand to win a decent number of list seats even if they take a clean sweep of constituency seats.  Both of those possibilities are very real, but if you were a gambling man/woman, you'd probably be betting more on the latter, simply on the basis of past history.  And if that's how it works out, SNP supporters switching "tactically" to a fringe party on the list could easily reduce the pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.

Although the SNP's strength on the list vote was very severely underestimated in 2011, that doesn't always happen - in fact, their list support was overestimated a tad in 2007.  But there is one very clear pattern that was seen in both elections, namely that the difference between the SNP's constituency and list vote was overestimated.  If you look at Wikipedia's list of 2011 polls (which may not be completely exhaustive, but it's the best one I can find), an average of the final eight polls suggests that the SNP should have done about 4.1% worse on the list ballot than on the constituency ballot.  The actual gap on election day was just 1.4%.  The story in 2007 was very similar - the last eight polls listed by Wikipedia suggest that the SNP should have done 3.5% worse on the list than in the constituencies, but in fact the real gap was 1.9%.

Yet again, the polls this year are "predicting" (to misuse the Sunday Herald's favourite word) an implausibly wide gap between the SNP's support on each of the ballots.  Every piece of logic would suggest that they're probably wrong about that, if nothing else.  So in trying to interpret what the polls are really telling us about the current state of play on the list, there are two basic options - either we can assume that the polls are broadly right about the constituency vote but are underestimating the SNP on the list, or that the polls may be somewhat wrong about both ballots.  (Unless it's by complete chance, they're unlikely to be right about the list and wrong about the constituencies, simply because the constituency question is asked first,)  No matter which of those options you favour, the tactical voting lobby are left with a big problem.  If we can't entirely trust what the polls are saying on either ballot, then all of the incredibly precise "predictions" (ie. projections) of seat numbers that are being used to make the case for tactical voting are completely meaningless.  But if the SNP are being underestimated on the list, and can actually expect to take around 50% or more of the list vote, the projected number of list seats for the party needs to be adjusted upwards.

Take the new Panelbase poll, for example.  If you pump the headline figures into the Scotland Votes calculator, the Greens take nine list seats, the SNP take five list seats, RISE take zero and Solidarity take zero.  But if you make a very modest adjustment to take account of the polling error that was seen in both 2007 and 2011 (ie. if you increase the SNP list vote by 2% and decrease the Green list vote by 2%), all of a sudden the SNP are left with more list seats than the Greens - in spite of sweeping to victory in 66 of the 73 constituency seats.  In that scenario, Green list votes would be "wasted" in slightly more regions than SNP list votes (and of course RISE and Solidarity list votes would be wasted everywhere).  And that's before you even take into account the fact that SNP list votes will be an absolutely vital safety net in the event that they do just slightly worse in the constituencies than this projection supposes - if they take two fewer constituency seats, they would need at least one list seat to retain their overall majority.

So it's categorically not the case (as Tommy Sheridan said to me in our debate a few weeks ago) that only "pessimism" about the SNP's prospects could possibly lead us to think that SNP list votes will not be "wasted".  In fact, even the most conservative optimism about the SNP's prospects on the list vote would mean that we might expect the party to win more list seats than all of the smaller pro-independence parties combined, regardless of the results in the constituencies.

Monday, April 18, 2016

In quotes : what John Curtice ACTUALLY said about "tactical voting", and how it differs from what the Sunday Herald claims he said

To my genuine astonishment, the editor of the Sunday Herald has spent much of the last 24 hours sticking doggedly to the hopeless fiction that John Curtice's views were summarised 100% accurately in the article which wrongly claimed that the psephologist had "advised" pro-independence voters to switch to the Greens or RISE on the regional list ballot in May.  Neil Mackay seems to have adopted a holding strategy which mainly involves repeatedly pretending to misunderstand the criticisms that are being made - he responds as if people accept that Curtice was paraphrased accurately, and as if they're simply annoyed that a platform has been given to views that they happen to personally "disagree" with.  Cue the familiar lectures about how the Yes movement needs to learn to accept questioning and dissent, etc, etc.  It really is SO disappointing to see an editor who we know is a decent bloke resort to this sort of distraction technique, especially given that the criticisms that have been made of the Sunday Herald are perfectly legitimate - overwhelmingly legitimate, in fact, given that no less an authority than Curtice himself has confirmed that he didn't say people "should" switch to the Greens or RISE on the list.  As a general rule, if the person whose views you're summarising says there was an inaccuracy in the way he was summarised, your claims of 100% accuracy probably aren't looking too promising.

Given the utterly bizarre circumstances we find ourselves in (I think I'm finally beginning to understand what "post-truth environment" means), it's probably worth actually going through the specific claims made in the Sunday Herald article, and then directly comparing them to John Curtice's own words in the report that is supposedly being paraphrased.  This is one "spot the difference" game that I don't think you'll find too difficult. (I've added the italics for emphasis.)

SUNDAY HERALD'S CLAIM : "Supporters of independence should not give their second vote to the SNP at the Holyrood elections, according to a new report by one of the country's top political scientists. Professor John Curtice says Yes voters should instead give their backing to another pro-independence party - such as the Greens or the leftwing party Rise - in case unionist MSPs are let in by the back door."

WHAT CURTICE ACTUALLY SAID : "But, of course, [tactical voting on the list] is not a strategy without risks."

*  *  *

SUNDAY HERALD'S CLAIM : "Curtice collated and analysed recent opinion polls and found that the SNP will win all but three constituencies and be returned firmly as the majority party of government on that vote alone."

WHAT CURTICE ACTUALLY SAID : "Perhaps, in the event, the SNP will not do so well as the polls are currently suggesting, thereby ensuring that every last list seat won or lost matters."

*  *  *

SUNDAY HERALD'S CLAIM : "Due to the rules of Scotland's complicated electoral system that would mean the SNP would then see only two MSPs returned on the regional lists – most likely in the Highlands and Islands because they will win fewer constituencies in that region."

WHAT CURTICE ACTUALLY SAID : "Conversely, if the polls are indeed underestimating SNP support on the list vote (and overestimating that of the Greens) then the party may well be strong enough in at least some regions to pick up a list seat even if it has won all of the constituency seats in that region (while perhaps the Greens are too far away from the 5-6% needed to win a list seat for any likely level of SNP tactical support to make a difference)."

*  *  *

SUNDAY HERALD'S CLAIM : "Pro-independence voters in other parts of Scotland who cast both votes for the SNP could therefore be “wasting” their regional list vote, according to Curtice."

WHAT CURTICE ACTUALLY SAID : "In any [event] one can see why [the SNP] is using the social media hashtag #bothvotessnp in the election campaign — it does not wish to take the risk that it loses out because voters decide to try and help another party on the list vote."

*  *  *

SUNDAY HERALD'S CLAIM : "Curtice underlines the fact that any party which hopes to win a regional seat must secure around 6% of the vote, suggesting that voting SNP in the regional ballot instead of smaller pro-independence parties could benefit unionist parties with a bigger share of the vote and no constituency MSPs."

WHAT CURTICE ACTUALLY SAID (ENCORE) : "Conversely, if the polls are indeed underestimating SNP support on the list vote (and overestimating that of the Greens) then the party may well be strong enough in at least some regions to pick up a list seat even if it has won all of the constituency seats in that region (while perhaps the Greens are too far away from the 5-6% needed to win a list seat for any likely level of SNP tactical support to make a difference)."

*  *  *

I rest my case, m'lud.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Winning here!" : Why Political Betting ramped up the tension over Clegg's prospects

A guest post by an anonymous contributor

News has reached Scot Goes Pop that raises troubling new questions over what has been going on behind the scenes at the Political Betting website. Allegations have been made that the editorial team led by Mike Smithson have steered their readers towards bad value bets with bookmakers - and it now appears that one of those betting firms has handsomely compensated Mr Smithson for his "advice".

On January 26th 2015, deputy editor "The Screaming Eagles" posted "Interesting market, my money is on Clegg and Salmond" in regard to this betting heat -

Which of Cameron/Miliband/Clegg/Farage/Salmond will achieve the lowest percentage vote share in their seats in the general election?

Nick Clegg 4/6
Nigel Farage 11/10
Ed Miliband 25/1
David Cameron 40/1
Alex Salmond 50/1

The idiocy of this "tip" was apparent to any half-clued-up gambler, as several immediately pointed out; Farage was a much bigger price to win, and was doing worse in opinion polls in Thanet South than was Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, and so the then Lib Dem leader was obviously a "false favourite" in the market. Farage was the shrewd bet at 11/10 (and as it turned out was the only leader to fail to win his seat, as well as recording the lowest share of the vote, therefore "winning" this bet). 

A couple of people offered The Screaming Eagles much bigger odds than 4/6 on Clegg as a private bet, but despite claiming it was "a good bet" and that he had backed it at 4/6, he declined to follow up at EVEN money.

Why was the deputy editor of a betting site giving such obviously poor advice? Why was he claiming to have had such a bet but refusing bigger odds? Only a blind man could fail to see that something was up...

...because something WAS up.

By chance, a PB poster's flatmate was a trader at the betting company concerned, and so, over a pint, he casually enquired into how the Politics markets were going, and specifically, how much money they had seen for Clegg at 4/6?

"Not a penny" was the response.

Strange, the PB deputy editor had claimed his money was on at this price. Anyway, more to the point, surely Farage was the value. Which joker at his company put Clegg in at 4/6?

"Oh the bloke who is advising us on the markets for the GE is a bit of a political shrewdie apparently, we are paying him a fortune. A fellow called Mike Smithson."

Mike Smithson of Political Betting? Surely not???

Surely "OGH" wouldn't be making markets for a huge sportsbook, and getting his deputy to advise backing the "false favourite" on his site? Wouldn't that rip the integrity of any betting advice on "PB" to shreds? How would it be, for example, if a suspicion lingered in the air that Scot Goes Pop's positive views on the likelihood of Scottish independence were not actually the true opinion of the author, but a ruse to attract business for his paymasters?

When called out on his claim to have taken the 4/6 on Clegg, The Screaming Eagles panicked, threatened to report the trader (whose name he didn't know) to the betting authorities (even though he had done nothing wrong), frantically deleted posts and finally banned those who queried the matter from the site, with full backing from Smithson to the amazement of other regular thread writers and site staff who were puzzled by the Stasi-like moderation.

How can a website that employs these tactics be trusted to give impartial advice? Is Political Betting nothing more than a front for Mike Smithson's more lucrative activities? There are shrewd betting contributions from a couple of leader writers but, in light of these revelations, how can anyone know for sure how to distinguish the signals from the noise?

Have the Sunday Herald just totally misrepresented John Curtice's stance on so-called "tactical voting"?

And the nonsense about "tactical voting on the list" just goes on and on and on.  The SNP have got every right to be extremely annoyed about a piece in today's Sunday Herald, which makes the wildly implausible claim that Professor John Curtice has told independence supporters that they shouldn't vote for the SNP on the list, because that would "let unionist MSPs in by the back door".  I can't actually locate the Electoral Reform Society report in which he's meant to have said this, but I'm going to very confidently predict that when it does turn up, we'll find that the actual text is markedly different to the spin the Sunday Herald have put on it.  We know that Curtice's supposed "advice" simply doesn't tally up with observations he's made extremely recently, and indeed with basic indisputable facts that any psephologist will confirm.

What seems to have happened is that Curtice has averaged recent opinion polls, and found that if those figures were reproduced in the election in May, the SNP would win all but three of the constituency seats, and only two of the list seats.  But here are the rather enormous "buts" that the Sunday Herald aren't bothering to tell you about -

1) An average of opinion polls conducted weeks or months before polling day is categorically NOT a prediction of the election result (the Sunday Herald piece specifically uses the inaccurate word "predicts"), but simply a snapshot of public opinion which is subject to change as the campaign progresses.  Curtice made that very point himself when he was asked by The National to give his verdict on the "tactical voting" issue a few weeks ago.

2) Opinion polls are not necessarily even 100% accurate as snapshots, and averaging them cannot be assumed to eliminate any error.  Curtice has confessed a number of times that he's learned to go into the BBC studio on general election night with no preconceptions, because the picture that unfolds is so often radically different from the pre-election polls.  Last year, the polls suggested a dead heat between Labour and Tory, but we ended up with a clear Tory victory.  In 2010, the polls suggested a Liberal Democrat breakthrough, but Nick Clegg actually suffered net losses.  In 2005, the polls suggested that Labour would have a majority of 100 or so, but the eventual number was 66.  You'd actually have to go back a full 15 years to get to a UK general election that didn't spring some kind of major surprise on the night.  The idea that opinion polls offer us precise foreknowledge of the exact number of constituency and list seats that the SNP will win next month is in the realms of fantasy.  At the absolute most, they can provide a vague ball-park figure with considerable scope for error.

3) Curtice has repeatedly pointed out that polling on the list has proved significantly less accurate in past Holyrood elections than constituency polling, and that we generally find that the SNP's list vote turns out to be much closer to their constituency vote than the pre-election polls have led us to expect.  Conversely, the Green list vote tends to be overstated by polls.  That puts a particularly big question mark over the credibility of any extrapolation of list seats based on current polls, and I'm quite sure Curtice will have gone out of his way to explain that in his report.  It's suspicious, for example, that the SNP apparently aren't pencilled in for a list seat in the North-east, because they currently hold a list seat there in spite of having won every single constituency seat in the region in 2011.  It'll be especially interesting to see how Curtice has dealt with the problem of Survation polls, because he's stated that Survation's results for the list ballot lack credibility due to the way the question is posed.

4) Extrapolations of constituency seats are also problematical, not least because we don't know in advance the extent of anti-SNP tactical voting in a handful of potentially close contests.

5) The phrase about "letting unionist MSPs in by the back door" (which unsurprisingly does not appear to be a direct quote from Curtice) makes very little sense, because it implies that a list vote for the SNP could somehow lead to more unionist MSPs being elected than the unionist vote would justify.  The complete opposite is the case - the tactic of switching to a smaller pro-independence party on the list is supposed to prevent the unionist parties from winning their proper entitlement of list seats.  If "letting unionists in by the back door" simply means "failing to cheat unionists out of winning their fair share", that's a very, very odd use of language at the very least.

6) To support the claim that SNP list votes might be "wasted", the Sunday Herald piece risibly prays in aid the fact that smaller parties need 5-6% of the vote in a region to win one seat.  How that's supposed to assist the argument for tactical voting is a complete mystery.  I have no doubt that Curtice himself will have made the more realistic point that the 5-6% de facto threshold means there is every danger that some "tactical" list votes for smaller parties will be completely wasted.  It's certainly going to be very difficult, bordering on impossible, for RISE to hit that target figure in even one region, let alone in eight.

I suspect that the report will turn out to be quite nuanced, with Curtice simply saying "if the election result reflects the average of recent opinion polls, SNP voters may wish they had switched to another party on some regional lists", but then going on explain that there are very good reasons for supposing that the figures he's referring to may not be the eventual result, and that it's therefore impossible to be sure in advance of the election that the proposed "tactical" voting strategies will not backfire.  That was essentially the balanced message he supplied to The National a few weeks ago, and as the basic facts haven't changed, I'm quite sure his verdict won't have changed either.  If he's been misrepresented as badly as I suspect he has, it'll be interesting to see his own reaction to the article - he's usually very mild-mannered, but he's surely not going to be best pleased about it.

UPDATE : In the comments section below, Topher has provided a link to Curtice's actual report.  You can read it HERE.  If anything, the Sunday Herald's misrepresentation is even worse than I suspected.  Their claim that Curtice advises independence supporters to vote RISE or Green on the list is not merely a distortion - it's flatly untrue.  He specifically states that voters face a "dilemma" because there are "risks" attached to tactical voting, and that it's understandable that the SNP are trying to avert those risks by sending out a "both votes SNP" message.

UPDATE II : I've got to be honest - I am absolutely dumbfounded to learn that the editor of the Sunday Herald seems to have spent most of the day insisting on Twitter that the article is 100% accurate, even though anyone can simply read the Curtice report online, and see for themselves that it differs radically from the way it was summarised in the article.  Even Curtice himself has indicated (with his characteristic understatement and diplomacy) that the wording of the article was a bit "strong" - and if he's not in a position to make that call, I don't know who is.  This is an open and shut case.

I don't think there's any conspiracy here - it was just a sloppy article written by someone who in all probability had genuinely misunderstood what Curtice had written (possibly with the help of a little misdirection from the Electoral Reform Society, who do have a pretty obvious agenda on this subject).  But if you've made an honest mistake, and it's blindingly obvious to everyone that you've made it, why would you dig your heels in and defend the indefensible for hours on end?  I really, really don't understand what's going on.