Saturday, March 18, 2017

How an early Scottish election can be triggered

Opinions differ on how possible/probable the options of a consultative referendum or early Holyrood election are in the event that Theresa May remains intransigent.  Brian Taylor of the BBC, for example, acknowledges that both options are on the table, but insists that both are "unlikely" because Nicola Sturgeon would regard them as "gestures".  Whether he's being led by his own assumptions and preconceptions, or whether he's been reliably briefed to that effect, is anyone's guess.

However, as there seems to be some confusion over exactly how an early Holyrood election can be brought about, it might be worth refreshing our memories by looking at the relevant part of the Scotland Act.

"The Presiding Officer shall propose a day for the holding of a poll if—

(a) the Parliament resolves that it should be dissolved and, if the resolution is passed on a division, the number of members voting in favour of it is not less than two-thirds of the total number of seats for members of the Parliament, or

(b) any period during which the Parliament is required under section 46 to nominate one of its members for appointment as First Minister ends without such a nomination being made."

The crucial word is "or". Options a) and b) are either/or - they don't both have to be met.  In other words, if the First Minister resigns and is not replaced within 28 days, an election is triggered without the need for a two-thirds majority, and the unionist parties would not have the opportunity to form a blocking minority.

There is, however, a small catch.  If there is an election for First Minister during the 28 days and only one unionist candidate is nominated, there will be an "affirmative vote" and that person will be rejected.  If, however, at least two candidates come forward (say, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale), it wouldn't be possible to stop one of them from being elected.  That's basically because the rules are a bit silly.  If Davidson received the votes of the 31 Tory MSPs, and Dugdale received the votes of the 24 Labour MSPs, the vote would be declared valid and Davidson would technically become First Minister.  That's not a problem in itself, because the "Davidson government" would, within a few short days, be ousted by a vote of no confidence.  However, that would simply start the 28-day process all over again, and in theory we could go round in circles into infinity.

In practice, that wouldn't happen, because the unionist parties would be worried about making themselves look ridiculous, and people would be chanting "politics is not a game" at them.  However, we should probably be prepared for them to attempt the stunt at least once.  Personally, I don't think that would be the end of the world.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Theresa is tanking : blow for autocrat PM as YouGov poll shows pro-independence parties have an absolute majority of the vote

I have to say I find it pretty incredible that a YouGov poll in which the headline Yes vote was unusually low has been so good for us in a variety of other ways. As I've already mentioned, it shows a 52% to 48% majority in favour of Westminster allowing an independence referendum to be held (a finding studiously ignored by a mainstream media hellbent on sticking with their beloved "the Jocks don't even want a referendum" narrative, in defiance of all evidence). A batch of newly-released figures from the poll show increasing support for the SNP, improved personal ratings for Nicola Sturgeon, a drop in popularity for both Theresa May and Ruth Davidson, and a giant raspberry for the notion that Scotland needs the UK more than it needs the EU.

Let's start with the Holyrood voting intention numbers, which shows a boost for the SNP vote on both ballots, an absolute majority of the vote for the SNP on the constituency ballot, and an absolute majority for the pro-independence parties on the list ballot.  It also suggests that the once-dominant Labour party is now in severe danger of slipping to fourth place on the list vote, behind even the Greens - although that hasn't happened quite yet.

Constituency ballot :

SNP 51% (+3)
Conservatives 24% (-1)
Labour 14% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
Greens 4% (+1)
UKIP 1% (n/c)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 40% (+1)
Conservatives 25% (+1)
Labour 14% (n/c)
Greens 12% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-1)
UKIP 2% (-2)
RISE 1% (n/c)

The absolute majority for pro-indy parties on both ballots may be of some interest as we ponder the possibility of an early Holyrood election functioning as a de facto independence referendum.  And once again, I don't think it's unreasonable to pose the question - given that the headline Yes vote in this poll looks implausibly low, and given that YouGov didn't even bother interviewing 16 and 17 year olds, is it just possible that the above figures may even underestimate the SNP?

As far as personal ratings of leading politicians are concerned, there are two ways of judging the pecking-order - one is based on the percentage of respondents who have a positive view of each politician, and the other is a net rating, calculated by subtracting the percentage of respondents who have a negative view from those who have a positive view.  Nicola Sturgeon has the lead on one measure, and is in a close second place on the other - but she has improved her standing in both.  Meanwhile, Ruth Davidson has gone backwards on both measures, and Theresa May's net rating has dropped significantly, entirely due to a sharp increase in the number of people who view her negatively.  There's still a tendency south of the border to talk about the "Theresa May honeymoon", but in Scotland that's something we refer to in the past tense - the more people see her, the less they like her.  My guess is that Hard Brexit and her antics in attempting to block an independence referendum will eventually see her hit Thatcher-style levels of unpopularity, although admittedly she still has a long way to go before that happens.

Positive ratings :

Nicola Sturgeon 53% (+3)
Ruth Davidson 47% (-2)
Theresa May 37% (+2)
Kezia Dugdale 26% (+3)
Jeremy Corbyn 13% (-7)

Net ratings :

Ruth Davidson +18 (-7)
Nicola Sturgeon +16 (+5)
Theresa May -10 (-5)
Kezia Dugdale -16 (+5)
Jeremy Corbyn -56 (-21)

It's been speculated in recent elections and referendums that supplementary questions may sometimes give a better indication of how a vote is likely to pan out than the headline voting intention question.  If there's some truth in that, the Tory government should be deeply concerned by the response to a question that asks whether the EU or the UK is the more important trade partner for Scotland - which in many ways goes to the heart of what the next independence referendum will be all about.  Respondents were split down the middle - with one-quarter of No voters from 2014 saying that the EU is more valuable.

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I was tickled by the Herald's write-up of the "everything but the kitchen sink" list of pre-conditions laid down by defeated opposition leader Ruth Davidson for the elected government being allowed to hold a referendum.  One is that there has to be agreement across the parties - which means that even if the Tories and Labour agreed, Willie Rennie would still have a veto.  (Thank heavens the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity party is no longer around, otherwise even their bloke would be able to single-handedly prevent his millions of fellow citizens from having a say.)

I'm still not convinced that Davidson has put quite enough roadblocks in the way, though.  Allow me to suggest a few more perfectly reasonable pre-conditions -

* There cannot be an independence referendum until Bashar al-Assad gives the nod.

* There cannot be an independence referendum until Nicola Sturgeon pays a £100 million deposit "in good faith".

* There cannot be an independence referendum until a psychic medium checks to make sure Princess Diana is OK with it.

* There cannot be an independence referendum until 200 billion signatures of Scottish residents have been collected and verified.

* There cannot be an independence referendum until NASA confirms there are no asteroid collisions due until at least 2150, because Theresa May mustn't be distracted in the face of impending global catastrophe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

What are Nicola Sturgeon's options for holding a vote on independence without Westminster's agreement?

Nicola Sturgeon said tonight she was determined to hold a vote on Scotland's future on the reasonable timescale she has already set out, and that she would "consider her options" if Theresa May tries to block it (which is clearly what will happen).  So what are the options for holding a vote without a Section 30 order, and which is Sturgeon most likely to plump for?

1) A consultative referendum without Westminster permission.  This would probably be the best option IF any legal obstacles can be overcome (opinions differ on how easy or difficult that would be).  It would essentially be lose/lose for Theresa May - if the Tories and other unionist parties actively campaign in the referendum, they will give it legitimacy and they may as well have just granted the Section 30 (and they will also look stupid and anti-democratic for having not done so).  But if they boycott the referendum, a Yes vote will be assured, quite possibly on a respectable turnout, and the moral authority of the 2014 result will be surrendered.

2) An early Holyrood election to obtain an outright mandate for independence, with the SNP and Greens placing an explicit commitment to independence (without any need for a further referendum) in their manifestos.  This option has the beauty of being legally watertight - there's nothing London can realistically do to stop it, short of dismantling devolution.  It would probably mean we'd be chasing 50%+ of the popular vote on both the constituency and list ballots, which is a very tough target - but remember the SNP and Greens took an outright majority of votes in Scotland at the UK general election in 2015.

3) SNP MPs or constituency MSPs (or both) resign en masse, and trigger by-elections across Scotland to obtain a mandate for independence.  This idea has been floated a few times, but is unlikely to happen because a Scotland-wide mandate would be required to bring about independence.  The SNP (and allied "independents") hold all but three Scottish seats at Westminster - but those three would be enough to ruin the legitimacy of any mandate, unless the vote obtained is implausibly decisive.  As the option of a Holyrood general election exists and is superior, there's simply no point in going down the by-election road.

4) Play the long game, implicitly accept Theresa May's decision, and wait until 2021 to obtain a mandate with which to beg her (or her successor) for a referendum all over again, with no guarantee that she will prove to be any more reasonable.  This is exactly what May and Davidson want us to do - which might be a little clue as to why it's a very, very bad idea.

Verdict : Obviously it'll either have to be the consultative referendum or the snap Holyrood election.  The only other way forward I can see would be an early Holyrood election to obtain an even more emphatic mandate for a Section 30 order than the one we already have - but if Theresa May is just going to keep mindlessly saying no, what's the point?  We'll have to take the bull by the horns eventually, and dragging voters to the polls one more time than is strictly necessary might prove counter-productive.

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Random thought : Is Scotland the only "democratic" country in the world where the defeated opposition leader gets to announce what the elected government won't be allowed to do?

This is now a hostage situation - Theresa May attempts to abolish Scottish democracy...and the Scottish Government must take bold action to stop her

If the 'sources' chatter from journalists is correct, Theresa May will this afternoon reverse decades of British government policy and announce that Scotland does not have the right to democratic self-determination.  There is, she will apparently say, no longer any democratic path to independence - the UK government has unilaterally decided that Scotland is to remain in the UK, regardless of the views of the Scottish people.

Two obvious conclusions follow from this -

1) In any universe where the media do not pat her on the head for her constant contradictions and U-turns, Ruth Davidson's position as Scottish Tory leader would now be utterly untenable.  She has stated on numerous occasions that, while she is vigorously opposed to a second independence referendum, it would be wrong for London to block one if the Scottish Parliament voted in favour.

2) In my view, the Scottish Government must now start stating openly that they will ensure the Scottish people are allowed to make a decision on independence, even if a Section 30 order is not granted.  This could take the form of a consultative referendum, or of an early Holyrood election in which the SNP manifesto seeks an outright mandate for independence.  I'm reasonably sure contingency planning must have been done for one of those options, but it's still important to make a public announcement as soon as possible, to prevent the narrative being established that "the Jocks asked for a referendum, the headteacher said no, end of story".  There may be the temptation to go through the motions of formally requesting a Section 30 order, waiting for a formal rejection, and then formally requesting a rethink, etc, etc...and that would be a great mistake.  The Scottish Government must not allow themselves to look impotent by running around in circles to no great effect, especially when they have high-ranking cards they could be playing. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

YouGov poll : Hammerblow for Theresa May as Scottish public demand Westminster MUST allow an independence referendum

The datasets for last night's downright weird YouGov poll are now out, and there is actually some good news to be found in them.  (Most of this was probably already revealed in the Times report long before I went to bed, but I don't pay the Murdoch levy so I was none the wiser.)  Most importantly, respondents were asked whether the UK government should "agree" to an independence referendum if Nicola Sturgeon asks for one.  Inconveniently for Theresa May's "the Jocks don't even want a vote" narrative, the answer was a narrow "yes".

If Nicola Sturgeon calls for a second independence referendum, do you think the UK government should or should not agree to one taking place?

Should agree : 52%
Should not agree : 48%

That's the first time I can recall seeing the question posed in that way, and it probably produces more meaningful results than the misleading "Should there be a referendum before Brexit negotiations are concluded?" questions we've seen in a few other polls (misleading because Nicola Sturgeon is not actually proposing such an early referendum).  It's also worth bearing in mind that YouGov's sample is, for whatever reason, unusually "No-heavy" - so if it turns out they're understating the Yes vote, it's not unreasonable to suppose that the majority in favour of a referendum is also somewhat bigger than they're reporting.  However, most of the fieldwork for this poll was conducted before Nicola Sturgeon actually went ahead and called for a Section 30 order to be granted, so it remains to be seen what effect that development will have on public opinion.

The other piece of good news looks like bad news at first glance - by a 60-40 margin, respondents say the Scottish Government should not campaign for independence over the next two years.  That represents substantial progress since exactly the same question was asked a few months ago, when the margin was a much bigger 64-36.  I suspect Nicola Sturgeon's announcement may have a further impact on those numbers as Yes supporters rally behind her decision, but time will tell.

Let's turn now to the really burning question : is there any explanation in the datasets for the oddity of the Yes vote in this poll being lower than in any poll conducted by any firm since the autumn of 2014, in spite of the fact that a telephone poll only last week put Yes in the lead?  To a limited extent there is.  To my surprise, and utterly incomprehensibly, the datasets confirm that YouGov have stopped interviewing 16 and 17 year olds, even though they must know that the minimum voting age at the next referendum will almost certainly be 16, just as it was in the last one.  Now, it's true that 16 and 17 year olds make up only a relatively small percentage of the electorate, and that a poll of over-18s probably isn't going to produce radically different results from a poll of over-16s.  But it might well make a small difference.  If the correct electorate had been polled, it's quite possible that the Yes vote would have been 1% higher and the No vote would have been 1% lower.  So it's entirely wrong for YouGov, the Times and the wider mainstream media to present Yes 43%, No 57% as being reliable and relatively precise voting intention numbers.  Perhaps even more importantly, it's grossly misleading to suggest that the Yes vote has fallen slightly since the last YouGov poll, given that 16 and 17 year olds were interviewed last time around.  If the two polls had used the same minimum age, they might well have produced identical results.

As I've said before, I don't think this is a conspiracy from YouGov - I just think it's a mixture of Anglocentricity and institutional laziness.  Because they usually poll over-18s only, it seems they simply can't be bothered making special arrangements for Jock polls.  If the voting age for Westminster elections had been reduced to 16 in 2014, there's no way on Earth they'd still be polling the wrong electorate a whole three years later.

There are no other obvious smoking guns in the datasets - the question asked looks fine, and is exactly the same one YouGov have been using for years.  Very little weighting has had to be done by recalled 2014 referendum vote, although that in itself raises a few questions, because it must mean that YouGov are sending out invitations in a very careful and extraordinarily controlled way.  So if there is something fishy going on, perhaps it's at the invitation stage.  The notorious "Kellner Correction" made an artificial adjustment to the sample of SNP voters to make sure that they were the "right sort" of SNP voters - could something similar be happening now, but this time using the invitation stage as a filter?  It's possible, but it's also completely impossible to tell, because that sort of information isn't publicly available.

By far the most suspicious feature of the datasets (although not proof of dodgy methodology) is that the No vote is much stronger among the least affluent respondents.  That's entirely counterintuitive, and is the opposite of what we see in most polls.  OK, sometimes you just get weird subsamples which cancel each other out to some extent (for example too many female Yes voters in a sample might be partly offset by the presence of an excess number of male No voters), but the problem is that less affluent voters are generally less likely to take part in polls, and therefore their responses usually need to be weighted up, while the responses of affluent voters are weighted down.  That weighting usually works in favour of Yes, but in this particular case the opposite is true - the No-friendly raw sample of 397 less affluent respondents has been upweighted to count as 493 'virtual' respondents.  So if there is something wrong with the raw sample (and it's hard to escape the conclusion that there must be), that problem will have been sharply magnified by the weighting.

To give an example of what I'm talking about - in the most recent Panelbase poll, the Yes vote among the less affluent part of the sample was 11% higher than among the more affluent part.  A very similar pattern was seen in the Ipsos-Mori poll last week, and the BMG poll at the weekend.  And yet in the YouGov poll the Yes vote is 12% lower among the less affluent than it is among the more affluent.  It simply doesn't pass the 'smell test'.

Significant Survation survey puts Yes on a solid 47% - leaving YouGov totally isolated

For the love of God, will you give me a chance to draw breath, chaps?  This is the third poll in the space of an hour!  The Survation one is kind of middling news for the independence movement - it doesn't corroborate the suggestions from BMG and Ipsos-Mori that there has been a recent swing towards independence (possibly even one that nudges Yes into a slight lead).  But on the other hand it leaves tonight's YouGov poll looking even more like an extreme outlier - Survation's figures are pretty close to BMG's, and somewhat closer to Ipsos-Mori's than to YouGov's.  Survation's fieldwork is also more up-to-date than YouGov's, so there's no obvious reason to suppose that YouGov are just blazing a trail in picking up a trend that other firms haven't yet had a chance to detect.

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Survation)

Yes 47% (n/c)
No 53% (n/c)

This is the first poll from any firm to have been entirely conducted after Nicola Sturgeon pulled the trigger for Indyref 2.  Obviously it's important not to rely too much on any individual poll, but on the face of it the suggestions that Monday's announcement might backfire have proved wide of the mark.  And, in fairness, it also looks like the excitement of a second referendum has yet to produce any sort of bandwagon effect for Yes either.

It should be noted that Survation were the firm that conducted the Sunday Post's recent pensioners-only poll, so tonight's figures should assuage any concerns that the swing to No in the Post poll might have been symptomatic of a similar swing across the wider population.  But we'll have to wait for the datasets from the new poll to discover whether there is an unusually high No vote among the oldest age group (if there is, it obviously must have been offset by Yes doing better among younger people).

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Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 46.8% (-1.2)
No 53.2% (+1.2)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each firm that has reported at least once within the last three months. The firms included in the current sample are Panelbase, BMG, Ipsos-Mori, YouGov and Survation.)

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UPDATE : The Survation datasets have now been released, and it looks like the information we were given about the fieldwork dates was false - the poll was actually conducted at around the same time as the YouGov poll.  So we're still awaiting the first poll to have been wholly conducted after Nicola Sturgeon's announcement - which will obviously be a key moment when it arrives.

Independence support hits all-time high in your super soaraway Social Attitudes Survey

For almost twenty years, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has been asking an annual question on constitutional preferences for Scotland - a question that would, if asked by a regular pollster, be rightly blasted as being absurdly leading, and pejorative about independence.  However, the advantage of rigidly sticking with such an ill-judged question is that we can be sure than any long-term change in public opinion is genuine, rather than an illusion caused by a tweaking of the words.  The change we've seen in recent times is therefore not only quite staggering, it's also meaningful.

For the second year in a row, the new survey has produced a record high figure of support for independence.  On both occasions, the previous record has not just been broken - it's been completely obliterated.  The latest figure of 46% is an incredible 11% higher than any survey up to and including 2015 had recorded.

Independence 46% (+7)
Devolution 42% (-7)
Direct rule from London 8% (+2)

One of the great mysteries of the 2014 referendum campaign was the cause of the Great Polling Convergence right at the end.  Were online firms like Panelbase correct that there had been only fairly modest movement towards Yes over the course of the long campaign?  Or were the face-to-face polling firms like Ipsos-Mori and TNS (plus YouGov, the odd one out of the online world) correct in reporting that there had been a massive swing?  Or was the truth somewhere in between the two extremes?

The Social Attitudes Survey is conducted in a different way from regular polls, and the pejorative language used in the question about independence also makes it very hard for respondents to express support unless they are truly committed.  The results tonight therefore lend some credence to the notion that the mind-boggling and lasting swing towards Yes we've seen in face-to-face polls over the last three years (and confirmed again by last week's Ipsos-Mori poll) has been caused by genuine movement in public opinion on the ground, and that online polls may not have fully picked up on the sea-change that has occurred.

Elsewhere in the survey, there's evidence of surprising levels of Euroscepticism among Remain voters from last year, which leads Professor Curtice to conclude that pro-EU sentiment may be too weak to make No voters from 2014 switch to Yes.  However, it should be noted that one-third of respondents who are currently both pro-EU and anti-independence did not say that they feel the EU should have fewer powers.  If the Yes campaign can make serious inroads among those people, it may be enough to build up a decisive lead.

More realistically, Yes are probably going to need the support of a significant minority of Leave voters, which will cause some strategic difficulties in terms of messaging.  But I struggle with Professor Curtice's argument that this means the SNP have misjudged the timing of a second referendum and should instead have waited for demographic shifts to work in their favour.  Curtice of all people should know that Yes cannot just 'bank' the support it already has, and complacently wait for older No voters to die.  The bullish fifty-something Yes voter of today may be a No-voting sixty-something of tomorrow, newly fearful about his or her pension.  Current Yes supporters of all ages may think twice about embracing another major constitutional upheaval after several years of turmoil caused by a Hard Brexit.  And in any case, the "right time" to hold a referendum can only ever fall during a period when there is a pro-referendum majority at Holyrood.  We're living through one of those periods at the moment, but there's far from being any guarantee that we will be a decade from now.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

YouGov produce bizarre outlier poll putting the Yes vote at implausibly low 43%

After a sequence of polls from other firms strongly suggesting that support for independence has increased over the last few weeks, YouGov have finally broken their months-long drought with a poll that bizarrely marches off in completely the opposite direction.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 43% (-1)
No 57% (+1)

Self-evidently, those figures are not easily reconcilable with last week's Ipsos-Mori poll giving Yes a very slight lead.  The fieldwork is more recent, but it looks like only a minority of interviews took place after Nicola Sturgeon's announcement of a second independence referendum.  It'll be tempting for some people to suggest that the reality of a second vote has caused a sudden backlash, but I'd suggest it's much more likely there's a YouGov-specific methodological issue at play here.  Is it really just coincidence that YouGov's last two polls, conducted several months apart, have been the only two polls from any firm to put support for independence lower than the 45% achieved in September 2014?  It seems improbable.
The datasets aren't out yet, so I can only speculate as to what might be going on.  Long-term readers will recall that YouGov made a controversial and extremely convoluted adjustment to their results during Indyref 1, dubbed the "Kellner Correction", and were also frustratingly secretive about the exact impact that it was having.  There's bound to be suspicions that they've quietly started doing something similar once again, but let's not jump to conclusions.  It may just be that YouGov's volunteer polling panel has spontaneously become a little more No-friendly than others.

A graph released on Twitter suggests that only over-18s were interviewed for the new poll.  That would seem odd, given that YouGov finally got their act together in the autumn and started polling 16 and 17 year olds.  My guess is that it's unlikely they've taken a step backwards.  If by any chance they have, though, it's obviously possible that the failure to interview the correct electorate may in itself have led to a slight underestimate of the Yes vote.

UPDATE : Remarkably, it turns out that YouGov did NOT interview 16 and 17 year olds - you can read more HERE.

The Tories simply cannot win on the "mandate" point

It's been obvious for some time that the Tories' number one objective is to push back the timetable for the independence referendum, but it's now becoming clear that at least one of the notorious Tory "sources" has also been floating the idea that they might demand there needs to be a fresh mandate at the 2021 Holyrood election before a long-delayed referendum can finally take place.  This story has appeared in two slightly different forms - the Spectator claim that the pro-independence parties between them would have to win an overall majority (ie. a repeat of exactly the same mandate they've already got), while the Times claim that the SNP alone would have to win an overall majority in their own right (a plainly indefensible idea if several parties are all standing on a pro-referendum platform).  Either way, if this is to be based on hair-splitting objections to the mandate for a referendum that currently exists, it's hard to see how the line can hold, because the facts are stacked against the Tories -

* The SNP manifesto last year contained a specific pledge that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to call a referendum in the event of Brexit.

* That manifesto was backed by the biggest percentage vote that any party has received in the history of devolution.

* The SNP's share of the vote was roughly 10% higher than the Conservatives achieved at the UK general election in 2015.  If the SNP do not have a mandate to implement their own manifesto, then by definition neither do the UK Tories.  (That would mean there was no mandate to hold the EU referendum, for example.)

* 69 pro-independence MSPs were elected, and only 60 anti-independence MSPs were elected.

* That majority will be formally confirmed next week when the Scottish Parliament votes in favour of holding an independence referendum.

* The Scottish Parliament elected Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister by an overwhelming margin of 63 votes to 5, on the specific basis that she would be forming a single-party SNP government.

It doesn't even end there, though.  Regardless of any implausible objection raised by the Tories to that impeccable mandate, the SNP would always have the option of calling their bluff by bringing about an early Holyrood election to satisfy any arbitrary conditions that are set for the 2021 vote.  If that is successfully done, the excuses for thwarting a referendum on a reasonable timescale will run out.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Final set. It's Nicola to throw first. The very best of aw-daah. Game on.

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the International Business Times, about the rather amusing irony of the day : that everyone in Westminster had assumed Nicola Sturgeon was bluffing, and yet in the end it was Theresa May's bluff that was called.  You can read the article HERE.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dramatic BMG poll suggests Yes surge is real : pro-independence vote at 48%, retaining most of last month's big gains

After last week's dead-heat Ipsos-Mori poll (actually a narrow Yes lead on one measure), I suggested that if the next poll reported a Yes vote of 49% or higher, that would make it very likely that the apparent recent boost in support for independence has been real and not an illusion caused by random sampling variation.  Tonight's BMG poll falls just short of that target figure, putting Yes on 48%, but the conclusion to draw may not be radically different.  Yes have retained most of the 3.5% jump in support from the BMG poll last month, with the sharp 'reversion to the mean' that many people expected failing to occur.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 48% (-1)
No 52% (+1)

This is the fourth poll in the regular(ish) BMG/Herald series, and the sequence of results for Yes so far has been 45%, 45.5%, 49%, 48%.  Those numbers are not inconsistent with a static position - ie. if the true figure has remained constant at around 47%, it may just be pure chance that the first two polls produced an understatement and the next two produced an overstatement.  It would all be comfortably within the margin of error.  However, the telling boost for Yes in the Ipsos-Mori poll, coupled with the fact that three of the last four polls from all firms have put the Yes vote above the 45-47% range we've become accustomed to, probably tips the balance in favour of there having been a genuine recent swing to Yes.  As ever, we need more information, and the next poll may cause a hurried reassessment, but that's how it looks just at the moment.

Make no mistake, though - regardless of whether there has been a recent swing, the last few polls have constituted a significant setback for the anti-independence forces.  They'll put a brave face on tonight's result, emphasising the continuing No lead...but it was only a few months ago that they were crowing about a YouGov poll that suggested Yes support may for the first time have fallen below the 45% achieved in the 2014 referendum.  At that point, it genuinely seemed possible that Brexit was perversely putting support for independence into a tailspin, and that the threat to unionism had almost passed.  Instead, the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now having to readjust to a reality in which Yes support is almost certainly higher than the 2014 result, and in which it's far from guaranteed that there is currently even a No lead.  Tonight's poll is technically a statistical tie, meaning that the standard margin of error leaves a degree of doubt over which side is actually in front.

The report in the Herald claims that respondents in the poll were opposed to a second indyref taking place "before Brexit" by a relatively narrow margin of 49% to 39%.  However, that's likely to be a misrepresentation of the question that was actually asked, which last month was about whether there should be another referendum before Brexit negotiations are concluded - not the same thing as "before Brexit".  It would be perfectly possible to hold a referendum after the completion of negotiations but before the actual date of Brexit, which means that this poll leaves open the possibility that there is majority support for an indyref before Brexit.

Incidentally, the result on that question is essentially identical to last month's, making a complete nonsense of the claims in the Express a week ago that there has been a sharp decline in support for a referendum.  That silly fiction was based on a BMG poll commissioned by an anti-independence and pro-Brexit campaigner, which used a radically different and highly leading question.

One small but important point that needs emphasising - as of last month, BMG were still not weighting their results by country of birth, which is standard practice for most of their competitors.  We'll see when the datasets emerge whether they've put their house in order for this poll, but if not, it's possible that the Yes vote is being slightly underestimated.  For some reason, there generally seems to be a disproportionately high number of English-born people in volunteer polling panels, meaning there is often a small inbuilt skew towards No unless the imbalance is corrected for.

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Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 48.0% (-0.3)
No 52.0% (+0.3)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each firm that has reported at least once within the last three months. The firms included in the current sample are Panelbase, BMG and Ipsos-Mori. The aggregate YouGov figures for August to December are excluded, because they don't really constitute a standalone poll. The most recent proper YouGov poll was completed just over three months ago.)

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To return briefly to the subject of a few days ago, I've been taking a look at Jim Sillars' "open letter to the Yes movement", which strikes me as being distinctly odd in a number of ways.  Firstly, he blasts the SNP for dictating the pace of a second independence referendum, and demands that other voices within the Yes movement be heard, such as himself.  Now I realise that we have to be careful about being too exclusive in any definition of what constitutes part of the Yes movement, but I don't think it's unreasonable to say that a basic minimum requirement is that the people involved should actually be planning to vote Yes.  As I understand it, that is not Jim Sillars' current position - he might vote Yes in certain circumstances, and he might abstain in other circumstances.  That makes him not so much a Yes supporter as a floating voter.

Secondly, he complains about the characterisation of Scotland's enforced departure from the EU as being a project driven by right-wing Tories -

"I am not a right-wing Tory. I voted leave in a referendum that, according to the ballot paper, was about the UK and the EU (not about Scotland and the EU), as did many SNP members and voters. I expect the UK Government to give effect to the result of my majority vote, which is not dragging us out, but negotiating a deal if common sense will apply in Brussels."

That is nothing short of extraordinary.  The "majority vote" he is talking about is a British one, which is in direct conflict with the Scottish majority vote.  As a British elector, he demands that his British vote must take precedence over Scottish self-determination, and that Scotland cannot and must not act until the British will is imposed upon it.  That is the quintessential unionist (or British nationalist) worldview.  How anyone can write those words while posing as a stalwart of the Yes movement is beyond me.

Thirdly, he feigns confusion over the question that would be put in a second indyref -

"What is the proposed referendum question to be? Membership application to the EU if they will let us in? Or seeking membership of the EEA via EFTA? Or plain independence from the UK with no guidance to where and how we shall trade?"

I suspect he was paying as close attention as the rest of us when the Scottish Government made perfectly clear that their preferred question will once again be "Should Scotland be an independent country?".  The EU will not feature as part of a referendum question on independence, and it would be downright bizarre if it did.  That does not mean guidance will be absent, however - it looks as if the view will be (not unreasonably) that Scotland has already decisively opted to remain within the EU.  None of this will preclude opponents of EU membership from pursuing their legitimate objective in future - all they need to do is secure a mandate in a democratic election.  There will, I expect, be regular democratic elections in an independent Scotland.

Perhaps the referendum question Sillars is really hankering after is this one -

"Do you think devolution was a bad idea in 1970, a good idea in 1979, and a unionist trap in 1997?  Do you think independence was a bad idea in 1976, an absolute imperative in 2014, and kinda 'meh' in 2017?  And do you think 'independence in Europe' was a great slogan in 1992, but an abomination in 2017?"

To which there are, naturally, only two possible answers - either "No", or "I'm Jim Sillars".

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Braveheart pensioners sound death-knell for the Union, as bombshell poll reveals almost one-third of over-60s will vote YES to independence

The Sunday Post have an odd habit of commissioning Scottish polls among over-60s only.  Admittedly, that carries the advantage for them of generating artificially good numbers for both the Tories and the anti-independence camp, but there comes a point where they should really take a step back and remind themselves that the minimum voting age in this country is 16 and not 60.  Nevertheless, they're beside themselves with excitement today at the news that their latest over-60s poll conducted by Survation has apparently produced figures of Yes 30%, No 70%.

Because their website is still stuck in the stone age, all I've got to go on at the moment is a screenshot of the front page of their print edition, which seems to imply that these numbers represent some kind of swing to No since a previous comparable poll.  The last pensioners' poll I can recall was last Easter, but I'm not sure whether it asked a question about independence, and unfortunately the datasets are missing from the Survation website (or the link isn't where it should be, at the very least).  There was also a pensioners' poll about a month prior to the first indyref which put Yes on 37% and No on 63%, so perhaps that's the swing being referred to.  But these are online polls we're talking about, which are conducted among volunteer panels.  Over-60s resident in Scotland must make up a very small percentage of Survation's volunteer panel, so it's at least open to question whether a sample of 1000 people is going to be properly representative of the target population.  As with all of Survation's polls, it also has to be borne in mind that post-indyref polling is not directly comparable with pre-indyref polling, because weighting by recalled referendum vote has been introduced to tackle a previous inbuilt skew towards Yes.  It's conceivable that may have had a particularly exaggerated effect upon this particular segment of the Survation panel (if so, we should see signs of extreme weighting when the datasets appear).

Certainly if there had been a genuine swing to No among pensioners, you'd expect to see some evidence of it in the age-based subsamples of other independence polls.  And yet the Ipsos-Mori poll a couple of days ago put support for Yes among over-55s at 40% - that's 7% higher than in the same firm's final poll of the 2014 campaign, suggesting if anything that the pro-Yes swing may be strongest among older people.  Survation's own final telephone poll of the 2014 campaign reported a Yes vote of 29% among over-65s.  Even allowing for the somewhat more pro-Yes tendencies among the 60-64 age group, that implies the Yes vote among over-60s in general was no higher than the low 30s - ie. the difference from today's poll is not significant.  And the final Panelbase poll of the 2014 campaign put Yes support among over-55s at 38% - not meaningfully higher than the 35% recorded in the most recent Panelbase poll for Wings.

To be fair, it's perfectly true that any swing to No among pensioners would be a cause for some concern, even if it has been offset (or more than offset) by movement to Yes among younger people.  The reason is that pensioners are more likely to physically turn out to vote.  But I'm struggling to see any compelling evidence that such a swing has actually occurred.

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