Saturday, May 7, 2016

A crucial point about the new parliamentary arithmetic : the SNP outnumber all of the unionist parties combined, even without Green help

Since it became clear yesterday morning that the pro-independence majority in the new Scottish Parliament would be dependent on two parties and not just the SNP alone, a debate has raged over whether this has significantly reduced the chances of a second referendum during the next five years if one of the fabled 'material changes in circumstances' occurs (the most likely of which is Brexit).  My own view is that it hasn't, for the reasons set out in my IBTimes piece.  However, I do accept that my assessment can only be a provisional one at this early stage, not least because I'm not an expert on the internal politics of the Green party, upon which so much now depends.  I certainly think that a little heat should be put on those Green members and sympathisers who effectively authored this suboptimal election result by duping people into thinking that SNP list votes would be "wasted", and definitely wouldn't be needed for an overall majority, etc, etc.  The least they should be doing now is setting some minds at rest about the Greens' stance on a second referendum.

However, there's one very simple way of looking at this problem that doesn't actually require a nuanced understanding of Green attitudes.  Let's take a close look at the composition of the new parliament...

SNP 63
Conservatives 31
Labour 24
Greens 6
Liberal Democrats 5

(As an aside, it really should be noted what a truly dreadful outcome that is for the Liberal Democrats, who suffered an exact repeat of their catastrophic result from 2011 in spite of having been relieved of their toxic ties to the Tories.  Why Tim Farron and Willie Rennie were hugging each other and cracking open the champagne is anyone's guess.)

Now, just for a moment, let's remove the Greens from the equation altogether, and see what's left...

SNP 63
Unionist Parties 60

As you can see, the SNP in their own right clearly outnumber all of the unionist MSPs.  But why does this matter, given that the Greens obviously do exist and do have six votes that could theoretically swing the balance in either direction?  Well, because in any parliamentary vote, there are three options open to any MSP - they can vote in favour, vote against, or abstain.  (The latter option is colloquially known as "doing a Labour".)  So if, for the sake of argument, the UK voted to leave the EU next month, and the SNP responded by tabling some sort of proposal for a second independence referendum, the only way it could be voted down would be if the Greens actively voted against it.  If they merely abstained, the referendum proposal would be passed by 63 votes to 60 (or in practice by either 62 to 60, or 63 to 59, depending on whether the new Presiding Officer is a government or opposition MSP).

Therefore, if you really think that the chances of a second indyref have been substantially diminished, it follows that you must also believe that Patrick Harvie and his troops would actively vote it down on the floor of the Scottish Parliament.  Is that a remotely credible belief?  Apart from anything else, it would be electoral suicide for them, as so much of their new support was directly won as a result of their pro-independence stance.  Even if they had severe misgivings about the specifics of what the SNP were doing, they would surely be more likely to abstain and allow the proposal to pass without taking direct responsibility for it.

Now, of course I can't be 100% sure of that.  I was astonished last summer when Caroline Lucas actively voted against Full Fiscal Autonomy in the Commons, and said afterwards that she only did so in deference to her Scottish colleagues' express wishes.  That incident didn't lead to any great internal dissent within the Scottish Greens, or not that I noticed anyway.  But I really think that actively voting down an independence referendum would be in a different category entirely - they would lose a huge chunk of their membership and support, and I simply don't believe they would do it.

So in my view, the parliamentary numbers are there for a second referendum if the SNP decide to pull the trigger.  That's only half the battle, of course.  If they were aiming to bypass the Westminster veto altogether by holding a consultative referendum, they would need the Presiding Officer to certify the legislation as being within the parliament's powers.  That gives the SNP a big dilemma right now over who to install as the new Presiding Officer.  For obvious reasons, they don't want it to be someone like Adam "IT'S THE LAW!!!!" Tomkins, but neither will they be very keen on giving up one of their own MSPs when the arithmetic is so tight.  Ideally, what they could do with would be the equivalent of a John Bercow, who was nominally a Tory but very friendly towards Labour.  I'm not really sure whether such a person exists, though, so they may have to decide upon the lesser of two evils.

If, on the other hand, the SNP seek a repeat of the Edinburgh Agreement, they would need the Westminster government to respect the mandate for a second referendum.  Some would argue that the result on Thursday makes that less likely.  But here's the thing - a "mandate for a referendum" is not a concept with any legal or constitutional standing whatsoever.  The London establishment are literally making up the rules on this as they go on, and if they had been facing an SNP majority government, they would simply have reverted to the alternative excuse that the wording of the manifesto wasn't clear enough.  So yes, they might now say "you don't have a mandate for a referendum because the SNP didn't win an absolute majority", but that's nothing more than a debating point, and the SNP have the obvious replies of "the pro-independence parties do have an absolute majority" and "we won a vote to do this in the democratically-elected Scottish Parliament".  The outcome of any dispute along those lines would probably depend to a large extent on the public mood at the time.  If it was clear that Westminster resistance to a referendum was creating a backlash against London rule, Cameron or his successor might be forced to the negotiating table.

A new podcast, and a new article on why the list ballot narrowly deprived the SNP of an overall majority

A couple more 'quick notes' for you tonight.  I have a new article in The National about how the interplay between voting patterns and the voting system ended up leaving the SNP two seats short of an absolute majority.  You can read the article HERE.

And I also took part in Newsnet's post-election podcast spectacular today.  The other guests are Steven Purcell, Angela Haggerty and Christopher Silver, and the host as always is Derek Bateman.  You can listen to it HERE.

Friday, May 6, 2016

In one sense, a pretty good result - and in another sense, an absolutely ideal result

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the International Business Times, about how the SNP's narrow failure to secure an overall majority hasn't significantly diminished the chances of a second referendum, and how the Tories' success may make independence considerably more likely in the long run.  You can read the article HERE.

I hate to say I told you so, but...

It's going to be vice versa, Kevin.  I'm still extremely hopeful the SNP will win an overall majority, but it now looks likely they'll need list seats to do it.  It also looks likely that their constituency share of the vote will be very slightly down on what they achieved last year, and they're obviously going to win a slightly lower share of constituency seats.  But as long as the vast bulk of SNP supporters ignored the vote-splitting propaganda from the likes of Bella Caledonia, as I suspect (and hope) they did, we should still be OK when all the list results are in.

As a number of us have been saying all along -

* Opinion polls are snapshots, not predictions.
* Opinion polls are not necessarily even accurate snapshots.
* There's no way of knowing for sure how constituency votes will translate into constituency seats - it all depends on geographical distribution.
* The claims that "everyone knew" the results of 73 individual constituency elections in advance were utterly fatuous.

We took a lot of abuse and mockery for pointing out these simple truths, but I'm very glad we did.

In most parts of Scotland it's actually been just as good for the SNP as last year - it mostly seems to be in a small number of No-voting areas that the going is a little tougher.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Final YouGov poll confirms the SNP majority is under threat. If you want an SNP majority government, you need to vote SNP on both ballots.

The final YouGov poll of the campaign has been released tonight, and rather troublingly, it puts the SNP at their lowest share of the constituency vote since way back before last year's UK general election.  (And I mean the lowest with any polling firm, not just with YouGov.)  Over the last twelve months, there have been only four polls putting the SNP below 50% - and three of those have come in the last week.  There can be no credible room for doubt that the SNP have been slipping downwards over the course of the campaign - which is exactly what many of us warned would probably happen when they were getting wildly unrealistic 60%+ figures with TNS.  Luckily, they still have a decent chance of a majority on 48% of the constituency vote and 41% of the list vote - but it's getting far too close for comfort.  They're now polling just 3% better on the constituencies than in the final result five years ago - and they're polling 3% worse on the list.  Remember they failed to win twenty constituency seats last time, leaving them needing a minimum of twelve list seats for a majority.  Hopefully, this will shake some of the SNP supporters who have been treating the list vote as a "bonus" or "luxury" vote out of their complacency - and if so, it's not a moment too soon.

Constituency ballot : 

SNP 48% (-2)
Labour 22% (+1)
Conservatives 19% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+2)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 41% (-4)
Conservatives 20% (+2)
Labour 19% (n/c)
Greens 9% (+1)

Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
UKIP 4% (+1)

Pumping those numbers into the Scotland Votes calculator gives the SNP 69 seats - just four clear of the target for an overall majority, and crucially, four of the seats come from the list.  Any further slippage on the list due to so-called "tactical voting" or any other reason could prove extremely costly.

If the SNP do lose their majority, it looks like it could well be The Greens Wot Done It (with a little help from the vote-splitting propaganda campaign run by the Sunday Herald and Bella Caledonia, it has to be said).  Although we know from past history there's a significant chance that the Greens are being overestimated by the polls, it's also the case that their 9% share in this poll is 3% higher than they managed in the equivalent YouGov poll exactly five years ago.  So they could well be on course to gain a few seats - but if they do so at the expense of an SNP majority, it could set back the cause of independence by years.  The unionist media aren't going to be remotely impressed by a nominal pro-indy majority consisting of the SNP and Greens - in fact, they probably won't even acknowledge it as an arithmetical fact.  All you'll hear about from now until Christmas is how Nicola Sturgeon and her separatist army were humbled, against all the odds.

Meanwhile, the Tories are crowing about their second place on the list in this poll, but actually I'm not sure that's going to be good enough for them.  It's true that second place will almost certainly be decided exclusively be the list result, but the problem is that polling on the list also tends to be less accurate than constituency polling.  Labour's 3% advantage on the constituency vote could be a better guide to what's about to happen, especially as YouGov have been the most Tory-friendly pollster throughout much of the last few months.

If UKIP really do get 4% of the list vote, they could easily nick a seat or two in their more favourable regions, leading to the ultimate calamity of David Coburn as a dual mandate MSP and MEP.  However, they haven't been doing as well as that in other recent polls, so let's not despair just yet.

*  *  *


Please bear in mind that the SNP only remain slightly above 50% in this update of the Poll of Polls due to the older polls in the sample - an average of the three most recent polls puts them at 48.7% of the constituency vote.

Constituency ballot :

SNP 50.3% (-0.4)
Labour 21.3% (+0.1)
Conservatives 17.7% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6.5% (+0.3)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 44.2% (-0.5)
Labour 19.8% (n/c)
Conservatives 18.7% (+0.4)
Greens 7.8% (+0.1)
Liberal Democrats 5.7% (+0.2)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the firms that have reported Scottish Parliament voting intention numbers over the previous three months, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are six - Panelbase, Survation, BMG, YouGov, TNS and Ipsos-Mori. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Burning questions for tomorrow - and a few tentative answers

Will the SNP remain the largest single party?


Will Nicola Sturgeon remain First Minister?


Will Labour suffer a net loss of seats?

Highly likely, barring very significant polling error or an implausible late swing.  But it should be remembered that they only took 26% of the all-important list vote in 2011, so their losses may not be all that dramatic if the more Labour-friendly polls are closest to the mark.  The most recent Panelbase poll has them on 22% of the list vote.

Who will finish second?

Probably Labour, but it's too close to call and the Tories are in with a shout.

Who will finish fourth?

Too close to call between the Greens and the Lib Dems.  The polling average favours the Greens, but not by much, and we know that polls have significantly overestimated the Greens in previous elections.  The fact that the Greens are virtually a list-only party may also prove a disadvantage - it's not inconceivable, for example, that the Lib Dems could get one more seat in the Highlands than the d'Hondt formula warrants if they hold onto both constituency seats in the Northern Isles.

Will RISE win a seat?

Highly unlikely.  No poll to date has shown the slightest scrap of evidence that they are in contention for seats.  However, there is one previous example of a fringe party winning a seat against all the odds (the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party in 2003), so it can't be ruled out entirely.

Will Solidarity win a seat?

Probably not, but they arguably have a better chance than RISE, simply because of Tommy Sheridan's personal popularity in Glasgow.  Their description on the ballot paper will apparently contain the words "Tommy Sheridan" and "Indyref2", and you can see how that might catch a few eyes.

Will the SNP win a second overall majority?

Probably, but the chances of them failing to do so are higher than is generally realised.  Some projections based on recent polls have had them below 70 seats, which doesn't leave much margin for error if there is a small late swing against the party, or if the polls aren't entirely accurate.  It's perfectly possible we could wake up on Friday morning with an almighty hangover, and be left wondering how exactly we let this one get away.

Will there be a pro-independence majority?

Very likely, but not certain.  The votes should be there for it even if the SNP themselves fall slightly short, but the biggest risk would be misguided "tactical" switching on the list to either RISE or Solidarity - because any such votes would in all probability be totally wasted.

Will the SNP win at least some list seats?

Highly likely.  I've yet to see a plausible scenario in which they take zero list seats - and of course they may take well over ten if they do just slightly less well in the constituency ballot than the polls currently suggest.

Will Kezia Dugdale have resigned as Labour leader by the weekend?

The odd thing is that if the answer to that question is "no", Kezia probably already knows it.  There isn't going to be the same pressure on her that Jim Murphy faced one year ago. because another crushing defeat won't cause quite such an emotional spasm within the party, and she isn't as hated as Murphy anyway.   If she goes, it'll probably be because she makes a personal decision that it's the decent thing to do, as Tavish Scott did five years ago at a time when nobody was really blaming him for the Lib Dems' losses.  The big question is what sort of scale of defeat might tip her over the edge.

Will the Conservatives have a successful election? 

YES.  The actual result doesn't matter - however well or badly they do, it'll be a continuation of the Scottish Tory renaissance, and will be a personal vindication for their tremendously popular young leader Ruth Davidson.  Read the forthcoming post-election columns from Fraser Nelson, Alex Massie, Alan Cochrane and Chris Deerin if you don't believe me.

*  *  *

As it's Election Eve, one last punt for the video I recorded for Phantom Power about how the voting system works, and why tactical voting on the list ballot is so risky.  Feel free to share it on social media if you know anyone who might find it helpful - the direct link on YouTube is HERE.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

It's a firm "No" from me to Jonathan Rimmer's demands, and to creeping fascism from the bottom up

You've probably seen that CommonSpace have today published an extraordinary opinion piece from RISE supporter Jonathan Rimmer (who I recently had a run-in with over the tactical voting issue, and it has to be said he was very quick to resort to a personal insult when his arguments didn't prove strong enough).  Basically he's calling on all independence supporters to completely disassociate themselves from Reverend Stuart Campbell because of his views on the Hillsborough disaster - we're being instructed not to speak to him, not to follow him on social media, not to even read him, until he retracts those views.  This, apparently, will somehow make the alternative pro-independence media more "respectable" and "sustainable".

Let me just make my own position clear.

I will continue to read Wings Over Scotland.

I will continue to follow RevStu on Twitter.

The link to Wings will remain on the sidebar of this blog.

None of these things should be taken in any way as an endorsement of RevStu's views on Hillsborough or any other topic.  When I disagree with him or anyone else, what I tend to do (and this may be a novel concept for certain people on the radical left) is simply explain my own opinion.  If you go way back into the archives of this blog, you'll find a long argument between myself and RevStu over the morality of the Hiroshima bombing - he thought it was justified as a way of shortening the war, I thought it was a genocidal war crime.  On the whole, it was probably better that both sides of that dispute had an equal and honest airing, rather than one of us going off and trying to get thousands of people to bully the other person into dishonestly retracting their view.  Creeping fascism from the bottom up is, in general, best avoided.

Grow up, Jonathan.  Grow up.

Proposal for a reformed voting system : the Single Proxy Vote

A guest post by John S Sharp

We get a lot of speculation (including much self-interested misinformation) on the effect of different voting strategies under AMS for the Scottish Parliament; and beyond that I've seen a few people suggesting reforms. We indulge in endless discussion of voting strategies and outcomes when I think that a simple form of proxy voting - as you might do as do to authorise a delegate to vote on your behalf at a congress or AGM - could entirely solve just about all the problems commonly discussed. This might be termed Single Proxy Vote (SPV) - although it has a somewhat different context from what is normally meant by proxy. None of this can be an original idea (it's all too obvious, I think) but I have not been able to find any documents describing anything similar for an elected chamber.

There is only really one big idea (which admittedly might be a cultural shock to traditionalists) and it is that after a voter has cast his or her single electoral vote within a constituency, then the MSP so elected, instead of casting one vote in the parliament, will cast the number of votes that (s)he gained in the election, along with a further adjusted share of the votes for their party. With electronic voting it should be easy enough to administer this at the time of votes within the partliament.

How constituency and list voting could work

Starting with the votes cast at the polling booth, a voting form would show :

(a) a list of constituency candidates - one entry for each party / named person

(b) a list of parties that have put up some regional list candidate(s) - one entry for each party

Effectively this latter part (b) resembles the current regional list, but each entry, whether a constituency person/party, or a list party entry, has equal status - and the elector has only a single vote, to be placed against any entry.

A constituency MSP will be elected, taking into account only the votes cast for the constituency candidates. One may expect that most electors would cast their single vote directly for a constituency candidate, but the voter may alternatively choose to vote for a party with list candidate(s) only, if preferring this to any constituency candidate. Votes cast for losing constituency candidates, and for list-only parties, would be accumulated, according to party.

We might also start with the idea that the total number of list MSPs in the parliament will remain fixed at 73 constituency seats and 56 regional seats. We can assume that there will generally be more votes cast for losers than for winners (perhaps up to twice as many) and also note that there are fewer regional seats than constituency seats. Hence, if reallocated party votes were simply divided levelly to each of the regional MSPs (and this could be done either within each of the 8 regions, or nationally) then on average each one might end up with more votes than a constituency MSP - typically up to twice as many votes in parliament. We might want to stick to the principle that the constituency MSPs should have most of the voting power (73 / 129 = approx 57% as at present). It is not difficult to address this: once list MSPs have reached some threshold of votes, then the remainder would be spread back to constituency MSPs (still within party, of course - thus, the addition per MSP would vary between parties).

The Electoral Commision would have to set the broad principles of this in advance. For example, we might think that in principle, the average voting power of a Regional MSP should be the same as an average constituency MSP. In that case, only 56/(56 + 73) of the total votes cast should be allocated to the list MSPs, and the remainder then spread back to the constituency MSPs (all calculations being made within party). If we think that, in principle, constituency MSPs should typically have more voting power, the votes allocated to list MSPs can be proportioned down.

There would be some problems in trying to treat fairly parties with small shares of the vote. Firstly, a party polling a reasonably uniform, say, 2% across the country, would fail to get any constituency MSPs, and would also fall below the threshold needed to justify a "whole" list MSP in any of the Regions. However a party getting 2% ought to get some representation in a parliament of 129 MSPs. This could be addressed by having a "National List" to support the election of a list MSP from a party that has accumulated enough votes, in comparison to those counted on a genuine Regional basis. Secondly, a number of parties will not attract enough votes to justify any list MSP, even on a nationwide scale (in 2011 there were 16 parties which gained less than 1% of the total vote). It is perhaps an open question as to whether votes for these parties simply do not count; or whether they could be reallocated, either according to a binding declaration in advance of the election, or determined by the party post-election).

The Electoral Commission would have a job to do in setting actual thresholds after total votes were known; this should be uncontroversial, as the balance of voting power between the parties would not be affected by such decisions.

At this point, I'd say that the principles are well-defined and the rest is just a matter of detail. Before looking at this in some more detail (using example figures from the 2011 Scottish Parliament election) consider some of the advantages we might obtain from such a system.

Advantages and potential problems

Advantages :

1. Electors cast only one vote.

2. Every vote counts, and eventually has exactly the same weight in parliament, whether the constituency is large or small, and whether the candidates are running neck and neck or the result looks a foregone conclusion.

3. Each constituency is represented in proportion to its population (or rather its population x turnout rate) - which means that differences in size do not create a democratic imbalance.

4. If preferred, we could have single member, or multi-member constituencies, or a combination of types, even within one election.

5. There is little motivation for tactical voting - in the present sense of voting for a party candidate you don't really want in order to stop one you really hate succeeding in a FPTP election. Doing so will always damage your preferred party.

6. Devious gerrymandering of boundaries has little reward, and so we can be relaxed about setting of boundaries.

7. Each elector has a link to a constituency MSP (a point that many adduce in favour of maintaining FPTP).


Some might think the following could be described as problems. I think that they are really just differences.

1. Commentators might have a bit more of a problem in speculating on resuts of a vote in parliament, but if they can't fix that with a spreadsheet, then they are not up to much.

2. Some MSPs might be said to be more important than others, measured by voting entitlement; but why should they not be, if they have drawn the electors' votes.

3. You might not like the idea of seeing votes in parliament recorded as numbers such as 12,306 (Sturgeon), 4,462 (Scott) etc. (using examples from the 2011 election as described below). We could make the numbers smaller by some formula such as 1 parliamentary vote for each 100 electors' votes (so 123 for Sturgeon, 44 for Scott). Or the MSP with the highest total of electors' votes would get 100 parliamentary votes, and all others indexed to that scale. I think that any of these "simplifying" schemes just make things more complicated and it's best just to stick to the original figures.

4. There could be slightly different incentives to commit electoral fraud. At present there is a significant gain from fraud only if it affects the FPTP result in that constituency. In many, probably most, constituencies the result is not close enough to be affected unless fraud is carried out on a large scale, and in any case there would be focus on any suspicious activity around a close result. Under SPV proxy voting, there would be some gain from any undetected fraudulent voting, or corrupt loss of valid voting, wherever it might occur. A few hundred votes added to a fourth place gives as much fraudulent gain in the parliament as would adding it to the winner, or adding it to a near second place to swing it it to a win. Overall, however, SPV should make it more difficult to achieve any significant scale of influence through fraud.

5. It becomes more difficult for any single party to get an absolute majority of votes in the partliament. You can firmly and exactly say that a party must exceed 50% to do it. However, I'd suggest that this voting system might have some direct effect on fragmentation of parties, as in next point.

6. This voting system might encourage parties to fragment, on the grounds that this could be done with no or minimal impact on the total strength of the party in parliament. For example, if some SLab members wanted to stand on Labour / Independence platform and drew some votes away from mainstream SLab (and SNP) they could argue that this would not reduce the total Labour-aligned vote in the parliament (I recognise however that there would be a lot more to be said about party whip). Similarly, any major policy splits within SNP, could lead to group(s) prepared to compete separately within the banner of independence.

7. All the calculation part sounds horribly complicated, and therefore would put people off.  However, once you convince yourself that it is all fair, I'd suggest that the only point at which this matters is in the few hours between the close of polls and the announcement of the new crop of MSPs, each with their numbered voting entitlements.

How might things have worked in 2011

To illustrate with results from constituencies in the 2011 election

- in Glasgow Southside, Nicola Sturgeon would have been elected for the Scottish National Party, with a basic entitlement to cast 12,306 votes in the parliament, plus some "spread back" top-up to be calculated as above. Unsuccessful candidates' votes would be reallocated as follows: Labour 7957, Liberal Democrats 612, Conservative 1733.

- In Shetland Islands, Tavish Scott would have been elected for Scottish Liberal Democrats, with a basic entitlement to cast 4,462 votes (plus spread back top-up) in the parliament. Unsuccessful candidates' votes would be reallocated as follows: Conservative 330, Scottish Labour 620, SNP 1,134, and Independent* 2,845. Obviously, the redirection of votes for an Independent is problematical in comparison with that for party allegiance, but I see no reason why an Independent could not be required to state in advance of election how (or if) reallocation would be applied to his/her votes in the event of an unsuccessful candidacy.

The overall result, based on constituency vote only, would have given SNP 902,915 votes available for their MSPs to cast in the chamber (45.39%); Labour would have had 630,461 (31.69%) etc.. For smaller parties such as Scottish Greens, we'd have to guess that their region vote (4.37%) is more representative of the votes that they might have aggregated under what I am describing as STV. Thus, in 2011, pro-independence parties would have fallen short of being able to assemble a pro-independence majority in the parliament.

But if we wanted a guide to how things might turn out in a future election, such as May 2016, then instead of looking back at 2011 votes, we'd be better just to look at current polling and guess that parties would poll somewhere between constituency intention and list intention figures returned by the pollsters.

Could this actually happen?

I'd assert that this style of SPV would provide excellent democratic accountability, and if by some chance we were already using it, very few would want to change it for FPTP or multiple-vote AMS. However, starting from where we are, is there any chance that we could move to SPV? I would think not. It's just too big a change in one step from what we do now. If we had a need to elect another assembly on a party political basis - i.e. not our main parliamentary chamber - then perhaps there might be more readiness to trial a break from our tradition of one vote per member in the chamber.

*  *  *

Just a reminder, because people often seem to forget what's written at the top of the post by the time they get to the bottom : this has been a guest post by John S Sharp, and the proposal outlined in it is his own.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Merciless electorate metes out more misery to Kalamity Kez as bombshell Survation telephone poll puts Labour third

What I presume will be the last pre-election edition of Survation's regular series of polls for Cleggy and the Vow-Meisters has been released tonight.  As they've done before, the Record have chosen to splash out on a much more expensive telephone poll just before election day.  That's a very useful exercise, because it means we no longer have all our eggs in one basket as far as phone polling is concerned (the basket being Ipsos-Mori).  But it also means that the percentage changes listed by David Clegg on his Twitter feed, showing among other things a seemingly dramatic drop in the Green list vote, are completely meaningless.  Even if other aspects of the methodology have remained the same, you just can't make any sort of direct comparison between the last Survation online poll and tonight's phone poll.

Constituency ballot :

SNP 49%
Labour 21%
Conservatives 19%
Liberal Democrats 7%

Regional list ballot :

SNP 43%
Conservatives 20%
Labour 19%
Greens 7%
Liberal Democrats 6%

As far as the battle between Labour and the Tories is concerned, the new figures are uncannily similar to the recent Ipsos-Mori telephone poll, which also had Labour just ahead on the constituency ballot, but trailing on the list.  This underlines the foolishness of journalists who seized upon a single Panelbase poll at the weekend as proof that Labour had more or less won the fight for second place.  However, it remains the case that there is a bigger question mark over list polling than constituency polling, and that there tends to be a strong correlation between a party's fortunes on the constituency ballot and the list ballot - meaning, in my opinion, that this poll still points to a Labour advantage, but only just.  If it really is as close as it appears, differential turnout could decide it - and although that's factored into the headline numbers of the polls, there's no way of knowing for sure that it's being factored in accurately (as the events of last year demonstrated).  Tory supporters are generally more motivated to vote, but Scottish Parliament elections also tend to be 'away fixtures' for the Conservatives.

My own feeling remains that Labour will hold on to second place, probably with a bit to spare, but it's getting harder and harder to claim that's an assessment supported by compelling evidence from the polls.

Since I wrote the opening paragraph of this post, I've had a chance to look at the Survation datasets, and it turns out that data collection method isn't the only methodological factor that differentiates this poll from the last online Survation poll - the firm have finally addressed the long-running concerns over the way they pose the regional list question, which until now has seemed to directly lead a minority of respondents to wrongly think they're being asked for a second preference, thus artificially boosting the reported vote shares for the Greens and UKIP.  The change that's been made is subtle, but it could well be enough to explain the fact that the Greens are 4% lower than in the last Survation poll.  That said, arguably the real benchmark for the Greens should be the impressive 10% they received in the Ipsos-Mori phone poll, so from that point of view tonight's findings are still disappointing for them.  OK, if they actually get 7% of the vote on Thursday, they stand to gain several seats - but we know from past elections that late polls have a habit of overstating the Greens' support.  As things stand, I wouldn't be surprised if the Greens win only two or three seats, but neither would I be surprised if they win seven or eight.

This poll is also another massive warning shot for any SNP supporter who is tempted by the idea of "tactical voting on the list", because it's only the third poll in the last twelve months to put the SNP below 50% on the constituency ballot - and two of those three polls have come in the space of the last 48 hours.  Two of the five regular pollsters are now saying the SNP constituency vote is just 4% higher than it was in 2011, when the party required a minimum of twelve list seats for an overall majority.  We're now well into territory where only a relatively small polling error, or a relatively small late swing (or a bit of both) could cost the SNP their overall majority if their own supporters abandon them in sufficient numbers on the list ballot.  I've said it before and I'll say it again for the benefit of the likes of Kevin Williamson, who was mocking my stance before this poll was released - the idea that "everyone knows" the SNP will win a majority on constituency seats alone, and that there is polling evidence that can convincingly support that contention, is fatuous.  It may happen, but it's very much in the balance.

It'll be interesting to see (and we may have to wait 24 hours to find out) whether an independence question was asked in this poll.  If by any chance it was, it would - incredibly - be only the third independence poll conducted by telephone since the referendum in September 2014.  The previous two were both carried out by Ipsos-Mori, and both showed a Yes lead - so we really need to find out whether that's a phone effect or an Ipsos-Mori effect.  (There are undoubtedly people who already know the answer to that question, because it's an open secret that Survation have been commissioned on multiple occasions to conduct private telephone polls on independence and other subjects - although we don't know who the client was.)

*  *  *


Constituency ballot :

SNP 50.7% (-0.6)
Labour 21.2% (+0.5)
Conservatives 17.7% (+0.4)
Liberal Democrats 6.2% (n/c)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 44.7% (n/c)
Labour 19.8% (+0.3)
Conservatives 18.3% (+0.3)
Greens 7.7% (-0.6)
Liberal Democrats 5.5% (-0.2)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the firms that have reported Scottish Parliament voting intention numbers over the previous three months, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are six - Panelbase, Survation, BMG, YouGov, TNS and Ipsos-Mori. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample.)

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

The Sunday Herald's advice to voters is, quite simply, contradictory

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.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mayday! Mayday! She cannae take anymore, cap'n! Pitiless Panelbase poll puts Dugdale on course for crushing defeat on Thursday

May Day is of course International Workers' Day, and it shows you just how catastrophically Scotland's very own "workers' party" (ahem) has fallen that a new poll putting Labour TWENTY-SIX points behind the SNP with just four days to go until the election is being painted in some quarters as "good news for Kezia Dugdale".

Constituency ballot :

SNP 49% (-2)
Labour 23% (+4)
Conservatives 17% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 44% (-3)
Labour 22% (+4)
Conservatives 19% (n/c)
Greens 6% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 4% (n/c)
UKIP 3% (n/c)

As you know, I've felt all along that the likelihood is that Labour will cling on to second place - that's mostly because I think there's a pretty firm ceiling on potential Tory support in Scotland, meaning that Labour would have to lose a hell of a lot of core voters to parties of the left before it can be overtaken.  But I also think that certain parts of the mainstream media are monumentally jumping the gun in heralding this single poll as proof that the danger to Dugdale has passed.  When we have a very recent telephone poll showing a swing in the opposite direction, and reporting essentially a tied race for second place, we need to consider the very real possibility that the apparent boost for Labour in the Panelbase poll is just a mirage caused by sampling variation.

The other slightly odd thing about this poll is the apparent drop in support for the Greens, which flatly contradicts Ipsos-Mori's suggestion that they've surged to a heady (if not quite record-breaking) 10%.  Even TNS had them steady at 8%, which is towards the upper end of their normal range with that firm.  If by any chance Panelbase are right and the others are wrong, the predicted Green breakthrough may simply fail to materialise.  6% is actually a little lower than the average support the Greens were enjoying in the late polls in 2011 - when of course they won just two list seats across the whole country, and failed to trouble the scorer in six out of eight regions.

Indeed, the Panelbase numbers pose a huge problem for the whole "tactical voting" lobby, because not only is there now a chance that the Greens will struggle, but we also have evidence that the SNP are at risk of failing to reach the magic number of 65 out of 73 constituency seats that they'll need for an overall majority if voters abandon them on the list ballot.  49% support in the constituencies is only 4% better than the SNP achieved in 2011, when of course they won just 53 constituency seats - a whopping TWELVE short of the target.  It wasn't a problem back then, but only because the vast majority of SNP constituency voters stuck with the party on the list.  It's really not hard at all to think of countless examples from Scotland, the UK and around the world of parties being overestimated by a few percentage points in the late polls, so the claims (which some people are still valiantly trotting out) that the SNP are guaranteed to win a majority on constituency seats alone now look utterly fatuous.  They may well manage it, but we won't know that until several hours AFTER we cast our votes, which will be a bit too late in the day to make "tactical voting" remotely feasible.

*  *  *


The latest update of the Poll of Polls takes account of three new polls - Panelbase, Ipsos-Mori and TNS.

Constituency ballot :

SNP 51.3% (-1.4)
Labour 20.7% (+1.0)
Conservatives 17.3% (+0.5)
Liberal Democrats 6.2% (+0.4)

Regional list ballot : 

SNP 44.7% (-1.5)
Labour 19.5% (+0.5)
Conservatives 18.0% (+1.2)
Greens 8.3% (+0.3)
Liberal Democrats 5.7% (-0.3)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the firms that have reported Scottish Parliament voting intention numbers over the previous three months, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are six - Panelbase, Survation, BMG, YouGov, TNS and Ipsos-Mori. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample.)

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