Saturday, June 10, 2017

It would be a historic error for the SNP to reverse policy on an independence referendum

I'm sure by now we're all aware of the mood music which appears (I only say appears) intended to prepare the ground for an announcement by Nicola Sturgeon over the coming days that might water down or reverse the commitment to an independence referendum at the end of the Brexit process. As that announcement has not yet been made, though, we appear to be in a period of "speak now or forever hold your peace", so that's what I'm going to do. Personally, I believe it would be a historic error for the SNP to turn its back on a referendum during the period of the current Holyrood parliament. Here are the reasons -

1) You can't march people to the top of the hill, march them straight back down again, and expect that not to have consequences. It's only three months since Nicola Sturgeon announced a firm plan for an independence referendum, and indeed launched a fundraising drive which if memory serves me right collected a six-figure sum. We were told that the mandate for a referendum had already been secured, and that winning a majority of Scottish seats at the general election (30 or more) would reinforce that mandate even further. That was duly achieved on Thursday. If the whole thing is now shelved for no easily defensible reason, many people who contributed (either financially, or by registering their support on the website, or even by voting SNP on Thursday) will feel betrayed. Not everyone, by any means - others will always trust the leadership to make decisions that eventually get Scotland to the intended destination. But a great many will turn their backs on the SNP, and either give up on the independence movement altogether, or seek an alternative party/organisation (however fringe) that retains the commitment to a referendum within the intended timescale. They'll think to themselves : "if we can't trust the SNP to stick to their principles when they win an election, how can we trust them to see it through when the going really gets tough?" It's all very well clinging to the dubious hope that ditching a referendum might stop scaring the horses in rural Aberdeenshire, but if you lose a fair bit of your most passionate support base in the process, it's doubtful whether that constitutes progress.

2) It would be democratically indefensible to capitulate to the argument that the Scottish Tories "won" this election on a pledge to stop a referendum, and that the SNP "lost" the election on the pledge to hold a referendum. I'm sure I don't need to reiterate the numbers, but the SNP won roughly 60% of the seats in Scotland, and the Tories took fewer than one-quarter. What I would have expected the leadership to say is something along the lines of : "We've suffered some very painful losses tonight and ended up with a mandate that is smaller than the huge one we secured in 2015, but nevertheless it is still a very, very clear mandate. In many ways it's a more valuable mandate than our previous one because it was hard-won in the full public knowledge that we were planning a referendum. It must now be fully respected." Instead, they gave a degree of comfort to the argument of the Tories and other unionist parties that Scotland was somehow voting against a referendum by not giving the SNP a big enough majority - effectively arguing that anti-referendum votes and seats carry far more weight than pro-independence votes and seats. That attitude voluntarily surrenders the victory won and converts it into a defeat. Again, I can't think of a quicker way of alienating your core support than to tell them that even if they vote for a manifesto in good faith and help deliver a thumping win, it still counts for absolutely nothing.

I'm also very troubled that Nicola Sturgeon reportedly agreed that there was some "force" to the argument that unionist parties had outpolled the SNP on the popular vote. It is completely unrealistic to expect a single party to routinely receive 50% of the vote - it very rarely happens in any established democracy (South Africa being an obvious exception). In Westminster elections, Scotland effectively reverts to being a four-party system in which three parties are anti-independence and only one is pro-independence. It's obvious that in most cases the most popular party will be outpolled by the combined votes for the other three - that's completely normal.

3) The problem in this election campaign has been wrongly diagnosed. What seems to be behind the talk of a change in policy is the discovery that some people on the doorstep were 'scunnered' by the plan for another referendum. But that's to fall into the Ed Miliband trap of thinking that just removing policies that annoy certain people will somehow help you win more votes. You actually have to give people something positive to vote for - or, if you're Ruth Davidson, give them a really scary bogey-man to vote against. After the disappointing result in the local elections, I suggested that the SNP needed to urgently fire up the pro-independence vote in the same way that the Tories (and to a lesser extent Labour and the Lib Dems) had already fired up the anti-independence vote. There was no point in playing it safe - the genie was out of the bottle, the election was going to be dominated by the constitution whether we liked it or not, so we might as well make a virtue out of necessity. Instead, the opposite was done, and we ended up with a campaign that struck me as being remarkably similar to the campaign in 2005 that won only six seats - lots of talk of "strong voices standing up for Scotland", but no convincing explanation of what that would actually achieve in concrete terms. One of the few times I found myself nodding along to a BBC attack line against the SNP was when Glenn Campbell asked Nicola Sturgeon what a large SNP contingent at Westminster could possibly achieve in a parliament with a large Tory majority, given their relative powerlessness in a parliament over the last couple of years that had a small Tory majority. Her response was to point to examples of the influence they've had - which almost seemed to be saying "vote SNP for more of the same at Westminster". That was scarcely likely to inspire anyone.

2015 was an unusual case because everyone thought they knew that the SNP were going to hold the balance of power, so it wasn't implausible to talk about making a real difference at Westminster. But this time, ironically, hardly anyone believed we were heading for a hung parliament, so the "strong voices" pitch was never likely to resonate.

4) Ditching the referendum will not actually make the "referendum problem" go away. If anyone thinks Ruth Davidson is ever going to stop running on the "stop a referendum" line, they are deluding themselves. You could see it as soon as Nicola Sturgeon said she would "reflect" on the election result - Davidson immediately said that wasn't enough, and that the referendum had to be taken off the table completely. If it actually is taken off the table completely, Davidson will then say that still isn't enough, because until the SNP drop their support for independence altogether, that means they are still secretly planning to hold a referendum, and people have to vote Tory to stop the secret plans for a referendum. This will literally never end. You can't beat Davidson by appeasing her. It just won't work.

5) Abandoning the referendum would be a betrayal of EU citizens who have put their faith in the SNP and the wider Yes movement to preserve their current status in Scotland. Holding an indyref at the end of the Brexit process is first and foremost not a strategic call, it's a moral imperative. It's the only way to give the people of Scotland (whatever their country of origin) an opportunity to retain their right to free movement and remain within the single market. That basic principle has not changed in the slightest. For all the wild talk about how the loss of the Tory majority might lead to a watering down of the plans for Hard Brexit, the simple fact is that both the Conservatives and the Labour party are opposed to the continuation of free movement, so remaining within the single market as part of the UK still appears to be a complete non-starter.

6) If the SNP put independence on the backburner specifically to concentrate on the "day-job" (again, framing it in that way is a capitulation to the Tories' attack lines), they're putting all their eggs in the basket of being viewed as more competent than their opponents for an indefinite period. That would seem to be wildly optimistic given what we know about the inevitable changing of the seasons in politics. If by 2021 Scottish Labour get their act together and put forward a radical Corbynite manifesto for Holyrood, and if the Tories are still banging on about "stopping Nicola Sturgeon's secret plans for a referendum", and if the SNP have parked their USP and are instead pitching for votes as the most competent managers after fourteen years in office, that would strike me as an obvious recipe for a unionist majority to be elected. It wouldn't necessarily lead to Davidson or Dugdale as First Minister, but the Sturgeon government would be dramatically weakened. The SNP would then presumably go off and "reflect" on the setback - and perhaps reach precisely the wrong conclusions all over again.

The barking mad benchmark

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at The National, reflecting on the SNP's general election victory in Scotland.  It ponders how the exceptional triumph of 2015 may in retrospect have been a curse rather than a blessing, because other parties have been able to use it to set an absolutely absurd benchmark for SNP success and failure.  You can read the article HERE.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Putting the SNP's latest landslide victory into historical perspective

I don't know about anyone else, but I punched the air when Stephen Gethins won the final Scottish seat by just two votes.  In spite of the recounts and the relentless optimism of SNP supporters on social media, I had almost given up on that one, because the Liberal Democrats were reported to be anything between one and three votes ahead, and recounts so rarely reverse the original result even when it's that tight.  Psychologically it was an important win - it meant the SNP outperformed the original exit poll prediction (albeit only just), and probably outperformed Nicola Sturgeon's own expectations even at quite an advanced stage of the night, when she told David Dimbleby she expected to finish with "a little over 30" seats.

It also means the SNP have taken roughly 60% of the seats in Scotland.  For the avoidance of doubt, a result like that can quite properly be called a landslide victory.  Here's how it compares with various historical landslides at UK-wide level...

2017 (SNP landslide, Scotland only) :

SNP 59.3%
All other parties 40.7%

1945 (Attlee landslide) :

Labour 61.4%
All other parties 38.6%

1959 (Macmillan landslide) :

Conservatives 57.9%
All other parties 42.1%

1966 (Wilson landslide) :

Labour 57.8%
All other parties 42.2%

1983 (Thatcher landslide) :

Conservatives 61.1%
All other parties 38.9%

1987 (Thatcher landslide) :

Conservatives 57.8%
All other parties 42.2%

1997 (Blair landslide) :

Labour 63.4%
All other parties 36.6%

2001 (Blair landslide) :

Labour 62.5%
All other parties 37.5%

Even the SNP's popular vote share of 37% compares favourably with some previous UK majority governments - it's identical to the mandate received by the Tories in 2015, and on which they've been governing us over the last two years.  It's also better than the 35% mandate on which Labour governed for a full five-year term between 2005 and 2010.

*  *  *

I'm beginning to have my doubts about whether there's going to be another election any time soon.  The polling companies will doubtless hold yet another inquiry, and will presumably this time move methodology in a much more Labour-friendly direction, with less aggressive turnout weighting from the likes of ICM and ComRes.  That makes it significantly less likely that a Tory Prime Minister will be able to convince herself or himself that a snap election is winnable on the basis of the polling evidence.  We could be in for a John Major-style scenario where a weak Tory government holds on for grim death over a period of years, while being ground down by defeats in by-elections and being constantly held to ransom by extremist backbenchers and Northern Ireland unionists.  In fact, it'll be even worse this time, because at least John Major had a small majority to play with.

*  *  *

As some of you may have seen, I took part in Independence Live's election show last night.  The whole thing (six hours' worth!) is available to watch HERE - I'm on about 58 minutes in.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Exit Poll predicts SNP have 'triple lock' mandate for independence referendum, and perhaps the balance of power in a hung parliament

Well, didn't I say that exit polls tend to throw up major shocks?  As I feared, the SNP are predicted to be below 40 seats - the exact number is 34, which does mean they are just about predicted to have a majority of Scottish seats, but that could be at risk due to the margin of error.  But the massive news is that the exit poll incredibly predicts a HUNG PARLIAMENT - although again a small Conservative majority is within the margin of error.

Exit poll projection :

Conservatives 314
Labour 266
SNP 34
Liberal Democrats 14
Plaid Cymru 3
Greens 1
Northern Ireland Parties 18

Central forecast : Hung Parliament, Conservatives short by 12, Labour short by 60

The BBC have oddly claimed that the SNP prediction should be treated with more caution than the rest of the numbers for 'technical reasons' - this appears to mean there are a lot of very tight races that could all go in one direction or the other depending on small errors in the poll.  Obviously a lot hinges on whether 34 is at the optimistic or pessimistic end of the spectrum.

On the central forecast, the SNP and other progressive parties would not quite be in a position to help put Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10, but if the margin of error is slightly underestimating Labour (or indeed underestimating the SNP), that scenario would come into play.

It seems inevitable on these figures that the exit poll must be picking up a significant comeback by Labour in former heartland seats in Scotland - it's hard to see how the Tories and the Lib Dems could be doing this much damage to the SNP on their own.

As for the situation in England, if the exit poll is correct it seems the rumours on social media of a mass youth turnout were probably true.

UPDATE : To answer a point that has been made in the comments section, the Scottish prediction is NOT a crude projection based on UK national vote shares - it's based firmly on Scotland-specific polling.

The case for pessimism...and the case for mild optimism

One of the great dramatic rituals of British democracy will play out tonight when, at the exact moment Big Ben strikes 10, the main broadcasters simultaneously reveal the results of their jointly-funded exit poll.  (In days gone by, the BBC and ITN each used to have their own exclusive exit poll, but now they put their combined eggs in one basket.)  If past form is anything to go by, the results of the poll will probably not be leaked in advance - although we can be sure that the Neil Lovatt brigade will be interpreting every little movement in the betting markets from the afternoon onwards as a sign that somebody has found out something.

There are two key points that need to be borne in mind about the exit poll -

1) There is a significant chance that it will throw up a major shock.  That's happened in all of the last three general elections.  The 2005 exit poll forecast Tony Blair's majority to be "only" 66 seats, which was significantly lower than most people expected.  In 2010, it was predicted that the Cleggasm had melted away and left the Liberal Democrats with fewer seats than they started with - something that hardly anyone had entertained as a serious possibility.  And in 2015, expectations were completely turned on their heads as the Conservatives were predicted to have achieved a net gain, Labour were predicted to have suffered a net loss, and the SNP were forecast to have taken all but one seat in Scotland.

2) If a shock is predicted, it's highly likely to be reflected in the actual result.  In 2005, Labour ended up with exactly the 66 majority that was suggested.  And I'm sure we all remember Paddy Ashdown simply refusing to accept the exit poll's pessimistic estimates for the Lib Dems in both 2010 and 2015, and how he was later forced to eat his words.

So this is my worry.  We're all a little bit too cosy in our assumptions about the minimum number of seats we think the SNP are practically guaranteed to win.  Based on previous shocks, we should really be braced for almost any number to flash up on the screen - it could be below 40, in theory it could even be below 30.  And if the prediction is much worse than expected, we'll almost immediately have to reconcile ourselves with the likelihood that we're not looking at a 1992-style dud poll, but rather at a reasonably accurate prediction.

It's not too hard to construct a case for why the SNP might underperform expectations.  The polls we saw last night basically put the SNP in the same position - or perhaps a marginally worse position - than they were in at the time of the local elections.  None of us need any reminders that the SNP's lead over the Tories in those elections was only 7%, rather than the 10-15% that the polls would have led us to anticipate.  If you factor in the impact of independent candidates standing in areas where the Tories are strong, it's arguable that the SNP's de facto lead on the day was even lower than 7%.  Now, we've tended to assume that the SNP only suffered in those elections because of particularly extreme differential turnout - Tory supporters were whipped up into a frenzy over the issue of an independence referendum, while the SNP fought a rather bland campaign that didn't motivate their own core support.  I still think that's an extremely plausible theory...but what if it's wrong?  What if, plain and simply, the polls have been systemically and significantly overstating the SNP's true lead over the Tories?  In that case, all bets would be off for tonight.

That's the pessimistic side of the coin, but here's the optimistic side.  A couple of threads ago, Calum identified some of the SNP-to-Labour switchers among his own peer group - young people who support independence, but who wrongly believe that a vote for Labour is the most effective way of getting the Tories out.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if those people lived in Moray or in Perth & North Perthshire, they would be well aware by now, either from leaflets or through word of mouth, of the folly of that way of thinking in the context of the local battle.  It's just possible that the polarisation of this campaign along Tory v anti-Tory lines is actually working in the SNP's favour in Tory-SNP battleground seats, with natural Corbyn supporters swinging heavily behind the SNP.  If that's happening, the swing to Labour must be disproportionately taking place in ex-Labour heartlands - but even if that's true, the numbers might still be insufficient for Labour to take back very many seats from the SNP.  They're starting from such a long way back almost everywhere.

So that's the scenario in which it's feasible that the SNP might just about get the strong mid-40s result that everyone seems to be expecting - but if it does happen, it looks like it could be a bit of a tightrope-walk.

*  *  *

As long-term readers know, I have a great regard for the predictive powers of Stephen Bush (in spite of the brief slanging-match I had with him after the Brexit referendum).  So I've been waiting with bated breath to hear his verdict on the suggestions that English Labour are doing much worse on the ground than the opinion polls suggest.  Intriguingly, he departs from the conventional wisdom in saying that the Labour surge is real, and that he's found evidence of it from speaking to local organisers.  However, he also thinks the extra votes are very inefficiently distributed and that Labour still face a net loss of seats even if their vote share increases markedly.

In a perverse way, I take some heart from that assessment.  If there's to be even the remotest chance of a hung parliament, the number one prerequisite is that the change in public opinion detected by the polls at least has to be real.

Devastation for Davidson as full-scale Scottish poll from Survation shows Tories slumping to third

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (Survation, telephone fieldwork) :

SNP 39% 
Labour 29% 
Conservatives 26% 
Liberal Democrats 6% 

The obvious health warning here is that Survation have established themselves as the most Labour-friendly pollster at GB-wide level, so if that (potential) skew has carried through to their Scottish polling, they may well be overstating Labour in this poll.  Which, ironically, would actually be good news for Labour, because the only party that is going to benefit from a Labour surge of this type in Scotland is the Conservative party.  If SNP voters are switching to Labour in SNP/Tory marginal seats because they think it's going to help get the Tories out...well, it's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

As you may have seen in the previous post, the average of tonight's six Scottish subsamples is more in line with the recent full-scale poll from YouGov.  It puts the SNP on 42%, the Tories on 27% and Labour on 24%.

*  *  *

UPDATE : A new full-scale poll from Panelbase shows a vaguely similar trend to Survation, but because of the different starting-point it still puts Labour in a distant third place.

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (Panelbase) :

SNP 41% (-1)
Conservatives 30% (n/c)
Labour 22% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 5% (n/c)

Obviously it's a bit troubling to have two polls showing SNP leads of 10% and 11% on the eve of the election - but the odd thing is that, because there's a different party in second place in each one, averaging them produces a more favourable picture...

Average of Survation and Panelbase polls :

SNP 40.0% 
Conservatives 28.0% 
Labour 25.5% 
Liberal Democrats 5.5% 

*  *  *

UPDATE II : There's also been a full-scale Scottish poll from BMG published tonight, but as with the last one from the same firm, it's of limited use because the fieldwork is out of date.  It was conducted between the 27th and 31st of May, and as we know, there may have been further movement to Labour since then.

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (BMG) :

SNP 42% (-1)
Conservatives 27% (-3)
Labour 21% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+3)

One thing we can do with these numbers is make a comparison with the Survation and Panelbase polls that were conducted at roughly the same time.  A 15% SNP lead is higher than either of those two firms were showing (Panelbase had a 12% lead and Survation had a 13% lead), which at least raises the possibility that a more up-to-date BMG poll might have shown a slightly bigger SNP lead than we've seen from Panelbase and Survation tonight.  That's highly speculative, but it's perhaps a minor point of reassurance.  It certainly looks unlikely that a BMG poll conducted this week would have put Labour in second place.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Election Eve : Polling Roundup

We're midway through the barrel-load of GB-wide polls we're going to see tonight, so I'll use this post for rolling updates.  So far we've only seen three of the most Tory-friendly pollsters, and the picture they've been painting is one of stability -

* ICM have the Tory lead edging up 1% to 12%, but that could well just be margin of error noise.  It's also only 1% better than the lowest Tory lead ICM have reported at any point during the campaign.

ICM Scottish subsample : SNP 47%, Conservatives 30%, Labour 21%, Liberal Democrats 2%

* ComRes have the Tory lead falling from 12% to 10%, which could also be margin of error noise - but on the other hand it may be more significant than that, because 10% is the lowest lead ComRes have reported so far.

ComRes Scottish subsample : SNP 45%, Conservatives 27%, Labour 16%, Liberal Democrats 9%

* Panelbase show the gap steady at 8%, which means the Tories have failed to reverse the big drop in the last poll.  It's hard to make a meaningful comparison with the Panelbase polls in the early part of the campaign, because the firm's methodology was overhauled a couple of weeks ago to make it more similar to ComRes and ICM (which automatically made it more Tory-friendly).  However, it seems likely that if the new methodology had been used throughout, the Tory lead would never have been lower than it is now.

Panelbase Scottish subsample : SNP 40%, Conservatives 30%, Labour 24%, Liberal Democrats 4%

UPDATE : Here comes more...

* Kantar/TNS have a potentially significant poll showing the Tory lead cut in half from 10% to 5%.  That may exaggerate the trend because the previous poll from the firm showed a slight increase in the Tory lead, but nevertheless 5% is comfortably the lowest gap they've reported so far, and arguably moves the race into hung parliament territory.  Some of the fieldwork is a little out of date, though - although the poll concluded today, it's been running for a full week.

Kantar/TNS Scottish subsample : SNP 38%, Labour 31%, Conservatives 21%, Liberal Democrats 7%  (Note : This is a very rough estimate based on the raw numbers in the datasets, and doesn't take turnout weighting into account.)

* YouGov, which in recent weeks has become regarded as one of the most Labour-friendly pollsters, has unexpectedly shown the Tory lead jumping back up from 4% to 7%.  That's a bolt from the blue, because this afternoon's update of the YouGov projection model continued to show a 4% gap in the popular vote.  The fieldwork for the new poll is probably very up-to-date, so we may be looking at the first evidence of a late and decisive swing away from Labour...or it may be meaningless noise caused by random sampling variation. (Update : It turns out YouGov have made methodological changes for this poll, so that may be the real explanation.)

YouGov Scottish subsample : SNP 41%, Conservatives 28%, Labour 22%, Liberal Democrats 7%

* For what it's worth, some firm I've never heard of called Qriously is actually putting Labour ahead by around 3%.  The poll is being billed as "the first poll of the campaign to show a Labour lead", but as this firm are presumably very inexperienced in the field of political polling, a large helping of scepticism is warranted.  It's highly unlikely we'll get Scottish subsample figures, but the SNP are on 3.8% of the GB-wide vote, which perhaps puts them somewhere in the 40s in Scotland.

* Leaving aside unheard-of newcomers, Survation have firmly established themselves as the most Labour-friendly pollster in recent days.  They haven't followed YouGov back into the pack tonight - their final poll continues to show a miniscule Tory lead of only around 1%.  In the unlikely event that this is a fully accurate call, Jeremy Corbyn would probably become Prime Minister with the SNP's help.

Survation Scottish subsample : SNP 41%, Labour 29%, Conservatives 25%, Liberal Democrats 5%

* Oddly, The Herald (yes, our Herald) have commissioned a GB-wide poll from BMG and it shows a 13% Tory lead.  I don't think that really tells us anything other than that they must have used similar methodology to ICM and ComRes.

*  *  *

The average Tory lead in tonight's polls is 8% if you don't include Qriously, and around 6.6% if you do.  The latter figure is on the fringes of potential hung parliament territory, but would be more likely to produce a modest overall majority.  However, there's no particular reason to attach magical significance to the average lead - it may well be that the most accurate pollster will be the one on either the Labour-friendly or Tory-friendly extreme edge of the spectrum.  (And of course most pundits will tell you it's going to be the latter.)

The average of the six Scottish subsamples that have appeared tonight is...

SNP 42.0%
Conservatives 26.8%
Labour 23.8%
Liberal Democrats 5.7%

Those numbers are eerily close to the findings of recent full-scale Scottish polls.  Due to the even split in the unionist vote, they'd probably produce a pretty decent result for the SNP in terms of seat numbers.

YouGov's Election Eve projection suggests the SNP are on course to win three-quarters of Scottish seats

YouGov have just updated their projection model for what will presumably be the third-last time (I'm guessing there'll be the usual update tomorrow afternoon, and then a final one after the polls close).  Again, the news is mixed - the SNP are on 44 seats, which is two lower than yesterday, but two higher than the day before that.  And if you look a little closer, the picture seems to be considerably more reassuring than the update of two days ago, because the SNP's floor (the minimum number of seats they'd be expected to win within a 95% confidence interval) now stands at 30 rather than 17.  Their ceiling is now 53, which is only one down on yesterday.  The most logical conclusion is that there was a particularly good batch of interviews for Labour about three days ago which brought a large number of central belt seats closer to being competitive, but that the threat has receded somewhat since then.

At UK-wide level, the situation is utterly bizarre.  The consensus among pundits and "sources" that Labour are set for a pounding tomorrow is growing ever stronger, and you'd think eventually that would start to be reflected in what YouGov are hearing from their respondents.  Instead, today's update shows the Tories slipping to yet another new low - just 33 seats ahead of Labour in a hung parliament.

UK-wide seats projection (YouGov) :

Conservatives 302
Labour 269
SNP 44
Liberal Democrats 12
Plaid Cymru 2
Greens 1
"Others" 2
Northern Ireland Parties 18

HUNG PARLIAMENT : Conservatives short by 24, Labour short by 57

Even the Conservatives' ceiling would only put them on 334 seats, which would be an overall majority of just 18 seats (or perhaps 20 after John Bercow is taken into account) - barely any improvement at all on what David Cameron achieved two years ago.  I have to say these numbers aren't really passing the smell test, but we'll find out soon enough.

Will you be needing a new leader to INTERVIEW, Ruth? Staggering SurveyMonkey poll suggests Theresa May's majority could be EXTIRPATED

As I noted in my blogpost this morning, a consensus is emerging among the commentariat that the Tories are coasting to victory, and that some opinion polls bear little or no resemblance to what is really happening on the ground.  One popular theory is that polls are picking up too many Labour supporters because those people are more enthused, and thus keener to be interviewed.  I certainly don't dismiss that consensus out of hand - it may well be entirely right.  But when you see an enormous survey of 11,000 people, seemingly bang up-to-date, conducted by a firm that actually didn't perform at all badly in the 2015 election, and it points to the Tories losing their majority, you at least have to take a step back and consider the possibility that there may be two sides to this story.

GB-wide voting intentions (SurveyMonkey) :

Conservatives 42% (-2)
Labour 38% (n/c)

(Other parties' vote shares are not available yet.)

To put SurveyMonkey's limited track-record into perspective, in their final 2015 poll they put the Tories on 34% and Labour on 28%, which meant they slightly underestimated both parties but got the Tory lead almost exactly right.  It's possible they may have just got freakishly lucky in that individual poll due to sampling variation, but it has to be said there were hardly any other polls that were so close to being accurate (with the famous unpublished Survation poll being an obvious exception).

*   *   *

You might be interested in Alasdair Soussi's article on the Al Jazeera website about the battle for Scottish seats at the general election - it features quotes from myself, Simon Pia, Ian Duncan and Professor James Mitchell.  You can read it HERE.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Is the WRITING on the WALL for Retoxified Ruth? New SHOCK YouGov data suggests Scottish Tory DREAMS could be SHATTERED

You might remember that at the weekend, I mentioned that Scottish data from the YouGov projection model had been revealed on Twitter, and it showed voting intentions of : SNP 42%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 25%.  The reaction of our resident Tory troll Aldo was "Not a poll.  Nothing to see here."  Well, here's the bad news, Aldo - a full-scale Scottish poll was released by YouGov today, and it shows almost identical figures.

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (YouGov) :

SNP 41% (-1)
Conservatives 26% (-3)
Labour 25% (+6)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)
Greens 1% (-1)

Regardless of whether the projection model is technically "not a poll", the GB-wide voting intention numbers it's been producing are strikingly similar to YouGov's regular polling, so it's no great surprise to discover that the same is true in Scotland.  Nevertheless, it's still very reassuring to see more evidence that the Scottish Tories haven't been immune to the slump suffered by their colleagues in England and Wales.

On the face of it, this poll suggests that the SNP's support has been extraordinarily stable throughout the campaign.  The first YouGov poll after Theresa May called the election put the SNP on 41%, the second put them on 42%, and today's puts them back to 41%.  That looks very much like trivial fluctuation caused by margin of error noise.  However, we shouldn't forget that both Panelbase and Survation have reported a modest SNP dip as Labour have recovered, so it's possible that the margin of error is actually masking a similar SNP dip in the YouGov poll.  Labour have a slight lead among 18-24 year olds, and it's hard to believe a surge like that could happen without harming the SNP's overall vote at least a bit (unless it's been offset by the SNP regaining some votes direct from the Tories).  But you'd be a brave person to look at the evidence we have so far and conclude that Labour's recovery has harmed the SNP more than the Tories.  On balance, it looks like the opposite may be true - today's 15% gap between SNP and Tory is the joint-biggest that any of the familiar online pollsters have reported during the campaign in a conventional poll.

The first question that formed in my mind when I saw today's poll was "what were the fieldwork dates?"  Yesterday's update of the projection model gave the distinct impression that SNP support may have slipped very recently, which obviously meant that a poll with older fieldwork wouldn't offer much reassurance.  It turns out that it was conducted between Thursday and yesterday, so quite a bit of it was before the Corbyn v May Question Time special, and also before the tragedy in London.  However, the fears raised by the projection model have eased for the time being anyway, because the central figures in today's update show the SNP bouncing back from 42 to 46 seats.  Perhaps even more significantly, the SNP's floor (the minimum number of seats they'd be expected to win within a 95% confidence interval) has jumped back up from 17 to 32.  That implies the gap between SNP and Labour in the popular vote has widened - although whether that's because of strengthening SNP support or Labour slippage is hard to say (short of obsessively checking the projected percentages from all of the individual constituencies, which I haven't been doing).

There doesn't appear to have been Labour slippage south of the border, though.  The updated projection shows the lowest number of Tory seats to date, and suggests for the first time that the SNP and Labour in combination would outnumber the Tories in a hung parliament.

UK-wide seats projection (YouGov) :

Conservatives 304
Labour 266
SNP 46
Liberal Democrats 12
Plaid Cymru 2
Greens 1
"Others" 2
Northern Ireland Parties 18

HUNG PARLIAMENT : Conservatives short by 22, Labour short by 60

On those figures (which may well be in the realms of fantasy, but who can say for sure?) it's unlikely that either a Tory or Labour government would be viable in the long-term - instead there would effectively be a caretaker government until a new election could be called, probably in the autumn.  But it's interesting to speculate who would lead that caretaker government.  Strictly speaking, it really ought to be Jeremy Corbyn - by constitutional convention, the Queen is supposed to appoint a Prime Minister who can command a majority in the House, and if the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and SDLP all clearly signalled that they preferred Corbyn to May, it would leave Corbyn with the stronger case.  But you could be sure that the Tories would be claiming that the largest single party should automatically get the nod if an opposition alliance can't muster an absolute majority, and you might well see right-wing Labour MPs sabotaging Corbyn by publicly agreeing with that line of argument (echoing the extraordinary behaviour of Tom Harris immediately after the 2010 election).

Surviving "Nuclear Winter"

This may seem an odd thing to say just hours after a telephone poll showed Thursday's election to be seemingly heading towards a virtual dead heat, but people who move in certain circles seem to have suddenly reached a turning-point where they feel able to start congratulating themselves on an impending landslide Tory triumph.  As far as I can see, there are three main reasons for this bizarre phenomenon -

1) A new article has appeared on the Labour Uncut website claiming that Labour's canvass returns are wildly out of line with the opinion polls, and that the true state of affairs is that the party is facing a "nuclear winter" outside of London.

2) Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are both making campaign appearances in what ought to be safe Labour seats, rather than in what would be battleground seats if there was the remotest chance of a hung parliament.

3) There is no sign of "panic" in the Tory high command.

The last of those three reasons is by the far the silliest, because I'm not sure any of us can even say for sure what Tory panic would look like if it was happening - there are a number of different ways in which it might manifest itself.  For example, Scottish Labour reacted to their 2015 crisis mainly by going into a state of deep denial and just doing the same things over and over again in the hope they might suddenly start working.  That wasn't a sign of inner peace.  Proper insights into the current thinking of the campaigns will probably not be on offer until after the election is over.

The list of campaign stops for the leaders may tell us something important, but the electoral realignment caused by Brexit makes that sort of thing harder to read - it's possible that Labour's woes in Leave-voting heartland seats may be at least partly offset elsewhere.  In any case, what should we have taken from the fact that Hillary Clinton didn't pay much attention to the Rust Belt states that cost her the US presidential election?  Ultimately, all it proved is that her campaign was totally clueless about what was actually happening on the ground.

The only truly compelling reason for Tory supporters' cockiness is the information about Labour canvass returns, although some caution is warranted even on that front - Labour Uncut is a rabidly anti-Corbyn website which undoubtedly would like to see Labour lose this election badly so the 'rebuilding' process can start under a Blairite leader.  The new article was written by Atul Hatwal, who notoriously predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would finish a distant fourth in the 2015 leadership contest at a time when it was already blindingly obvious to almost everyone else that Corbyn had a very good chance of winning outright.  However, that dud prediction was of the "it's true because I say it has to be" variety, whereas Hatwal's claims about canvass returns seem much more credibly supported.  The extreme negativity in the article about Labour's prospects is probably exaggerated, but nevertheless there does seem to be more than a grain of truth in the contention that the party's candidates and foot-soldiers at least believe they are heading for a worse drubbing than the current polling average would suggest.

That belief doesn't in itself prove anything.  In 2015, the Liberal Democrats firmly believed they were on course to hold dozens of seats, and they were wrong.  In 2010 the Tories expected to secure a majority and in 2015 they expected to fall short - weirdly they were wrong on both occasions.  Canvass data and internal polling does seem to have its limitations.

However, let's say for the sake of argument that the theory is correct and Labour is about to significantly underperform its polling yet again.  What would that mean from a pro-independence perspective?  Basically it would ensure that we're going to get a handsome Tory victory at UK-wide level coupled with seat losses in Scotland (we don't know exactly how many) for the SNP - not an especially appetising combination.  But the silver lining is that Labour's recent recovery in Scotland is directly linked to the party's surge throughout Britain, and if that surge proves to be a mirage on one side of the border, it's reasonable to suspect it may prove to be a mirage on the other side as well.

Why is that important?  Mainly because it would remove the risk, however small, that the SNP might not come out of this election with a majority of Scottish seats.  Yes, it would still be possible that if the polls are overestimating the SNP there could be some shock Tory gains in long-shot seats that will leave us traumatised for months.  But no matter how long you spend totting up the constituencies that are theoretically just about within range for the Tories and Lib Dems, you simply won't find a scenario in which the SNP can be reduced below thirty seats without a major contribution from Labour.

The saving grace of Labour's "nuclear winter" from our point of view would thus be the guarantee of a further five years of SNP majority representation at Westminster (barring more snap elections), and the completion of the 'triple-lock' mandate for an independence referendum.

*  *  *

Both the Tories and the Lib Dems ought to be careful what they wish for.  If the Tories get their hearts' desire and dislodge Angus Robertson in Moray, it's just conceivable that Theresa May could find herself facing Alex Salmond at Prime Minister's Questions.  It's perhaps not likely that Salmond would want to resume a leadership role at this stage in his career, but it wouldn't be the first time he's made an unexpected comeback.  And if the Lib Dems do as well in Scotland as they hope, the predicted losses in England could see them being led by Alistair Carmichael or Christine Jardine before the summer is out.  The mind boggles.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Electrifying Survation telephone poll shows Tory lead plummetting to just 1%

It turns out that the result of the Survation online poll the other day was not a fluke, because a new telephone poll from the same firm tonight shows exactly the same thing - that the Tory lead has been virtually wiped out.

GB-wide voting intentions (Survation, telephone fieldwork) :

Conservatives 41.5% (-1.6)
Labour 40.4% (+3.1)

(Other parties' vote shares not available yet.)

It's important to stress that these figures do not in any way represent the start of a new polling consensus - they're instead the extreme Labour-friendly end of a spectrum that stretches all the way to a 12-point Tory lead with ComRes, which if correct would translate into a three-figure landslide majority for Theresa May.  There is no sign at all that the more Tory-friendly pollsters are about to converge with the others - the most recent ICM and ComRes polls both showed a very stable picture.  So unless there is a decisive swing back to the Tories over the coming days, it looks very possible that we will go into polling day with some firms pointing to a hung parliament, others pointing to a Tory landslide, and perhaps a third group suggesting a middling Tory majority.  If so, we literally won't have a clue what is going to happen until Big Ben strikes 10 and the exit poll is revealed - although admittedly we're not exactly short of establishment commentators who claim to already know for sure that ICM and ComRes are right, and that "it's over".

Could this be CURTAINS for Ruth? New blow for the Scottish Tories as Kantar/TNS poll puts SNP 15% ahead

They say that looking into the night sky is a glimpse into the distant past - some of the stars you see no longer even exist, because the light takes so long to reach us.  Looking at full-scale Scottish polls from Kantar/TNS in the latter stages of a general election campaign is a very similar experience.  This one was conducted between the 10th and 29th of May, so a large chunk of the fieldwork predated the Labour recovery.

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (Kantar/TNS) :

SNP 43%
Conservatives 28%
Labour 21%
Liberal Democrats 5%

Mixed news from YouGov

There's good news and bad news from the latest update of YouGov's projection model.  At UK-wide level the model continues to defy the expectations of most commentators by pointing to a hung parliament, and indeed the Tories have edged down to their lowest number of projected seats so far (just 305, more than 20 seats short of a majority).  However, there's troubling information from Scotland - it appears that the most recent batch of interviews must have been less favourable for the SNP, because their projected seat total has dropped from 47 to 42, which is their lowest so far.  Even more worryingly, the SNP's floor (the minimum number of seats they'd be expected to win within a 95% confidence interval) has dropped sharply from 26 to just 17, which indicates that the Labour surge has reached the point where a large batch of central belt seats would be on the fringes of becoming competitive if YouGov are overestimating the SNP a little and underestimating Labour a little.  On a more positive note, the SNP's ceiling is a much healthier 52 seats.

If there has been a recent dip in the SNP's support, I suspect their exclusion from Friday's Question Time special will have had a lot to do with it.  Yes, that will be theoretically balanced out with a separate programme tonight featuring Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron, but that won't receive anything like the same publicity as Friday's show, which framed the election choice as being traditional and binary.

YouGov seats projection :

Conservatives 305
Labour 268
SNP 42
Liberal Democrats 13
Plaid Cymru 2
Greens 1
"Others" 1
Northern Ireland Parties 18

Lib Dem blogger Mike Smithson hits new low as he poses in letter as 'impartial expert' to interfere in the East Dunbartonshire election

As long-term readers of this blog know, nothing ever surprises me about the antics of the Bedfordshire-based Liberal Democrat blogger Mike Smithson, but this latest incident takes the biscuit.  Clearly with his full blessing, the Lib Dems have sent out a letter from Smithson, featuring his signature and photo, to voters in the East Dunbartonshire constituency.  The letter is presented as if it's just a piece of helpful information from an impartial expert, rather than the party political propaganda that it actually is.  (Indeed, recipients of the letter would be forgiven for genuinely believing that it comes from Smithson's Political Betting blog, aka Stormfront Lite, rather than from the Lib Dems.)

(Click image to enlarge.)

Voters are informed that, for Smithson, politics is a "serious business", and that making the right calls based on hard data is how he makes his living. They are then told that his "work" on the East Dunbartonshire data leads him to conclude that the constituency is going to be a straight fight between the SNP and the Lib Dems, that the Conservatives will be far behind, and that if Tory and Labour voters want to stop the SNP they should vote Lib Dem.  He's not in any way trying to actually influence people's votes (perish the thought!) but he just thinks the "information" will be useful to them as they make their own choices.

All of this raises a number of important questions -

1) Wouldn't a voter receiving this letter be interested to know that Smithson, whatever his claimed expertise, is not in any sense impartial but rather a long-standing member of the Liberal Democrat party, a former Liberal Democrat county councillor, and a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate?

2) Why has a self-styled expert in electoral data chosen to discount the results of the local elections only a few weeks ago, when the Conservatives outpolled the Liberal Democrats in East Dunbartonshire to finish second in the popular vote behind the SNP?  How can any serious analyst look at that result and claim virtual certainty that the Conservatives are out of the running in the constituency?

3) Would potential Scottish Liberal Democrat voters not be interested to know that this man, who is using deceptive means to influence their voting choice, loathed Charles Kennedy and made several cruel and highly personal comments about one of Scotland's most liked and respected political leaders?

4) Wouldn't voters be interested to know about the track record of this 'expert' and his previous predictions in individual constituencies?  Wouldn't they be somewhat bemused if, for example, they were to learn that Smithson branded Alex Salmond as yesterday's man in the run-up to the 2015 general election, and claimed the former First Minister didn't have a hope in hell of defeating the mighty Lib Dems in the Gordon constituency?  (Salmond actually defeated the Lib Dems by a whopping margin of 8687 votes.)

5) Why is Smithson interfering in a Scottish election, and specifically offering 'advice' with the purported aim of preventing a pro-independence candidate from being elected, when he has publicly claimed in the past to be a supporter of Scottish independence?

6) Doesn't the deliberate deception that this letter represents constitute a breach of electoral regulations?

7) If Smithson takes politics so "seriously", why has he for the last few years employed a Deputy Editor on his blog who is a known fantasist (he invented two dreadful family tragedies to avoid settling a bet for several months), and who routinely uses deeply embarrassing and puerile language in his articles for the site?  Witness this effort on Saturday : "Winning general elections, it is said, are a lot like orgies, you’re never quite sure who to thank afterwards."

8) What hope has Smithson got of passing off the analysis on his own site as non-partisan and trustworthy in future, now that he's used that site's name and reputation (such as it is) to lend credibility to a deliberate deception on behalf of his own political party? 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

YouGov contradicts Survation by suggesting the SNP lead has increased

The YouGov projection model isn't being updated today because of the tragedy in London, but our regular commenter 'Unknown' pointed out that partial figures for Scotland from yesterday's update were unexpectedly revealed on Twitter a few hours ago.  With changes from the last full-scale YouGov Scottish poll, they are -

SNP 42% (n/c)
Conservatives 26% (-3)
Labour 25% (+6)

That's much more encouraging than the Panelbase or Survation polls, because it basically suggests that the SNP haven't taken a hit from the Labour surge, and that the Tories have, thus leaving the SNP with a bigger lead over the Tories by default.  A 16% lead is the largest than any of the familiar online firms (YouGov, Panelbase, Survation) have produced during this campaign.

As I understand it, the YouGov model is based on seven days of interviews, so the update these figures are taken from will cover the period between last Saturday and Friday.  That means some of the fieldwork is older than Survation's, but some of it took place at the same time.  The biggest drawback is that probably none of it (or hardly any of it) took place after Friday's Question Time special, which if we believe the GB-wide Survation poll may have generated an additional surge for Labour.  It's certainly hard to see how that programme will have done the SNP any good, given that they weren't involved at all.

SNP lead by 12% in latest Panelbase poll

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (Panelbase) : 

SNP 42% (-2)
Conservatives 30% (-3)
Labour 20% (+7)
Liberal Democrats 5% (n/c)
Greens 2% (n/c)
UKIP 1% (-1)

This is now the most up-to-date Scottish poll we have - the fieldwork overlapped with the Ipsos-Mori poll. but it both started and finished several days later.  The results differ significantly from Ipsos-Mori in showing a more modest SNP lead, and in still showing the Tories comfortably in second place despite the Labour recovery.  Because there's no particular reason to suppose that Labour have slipped back since the Ipsos-Mori poll was conducted, it's likely that the differences between the two polls can be largely explained by methodology rather than by real changes in public opinion.  We may therefore face a degree of uncertainty going into polling day over the extent of the threat faced by the SNP from the Tories.  Constituencies like Moray and Perth & North Perthshire would certainly look somewhat less vulnerable if Ipsos-Mori are correct.

Whichever firm is closer to the truth, though, there doesn't appear to be much risk of substantial seat losses to Labour - unless of course the new GB-wide Survation poll is right in suggesting that the Corbyn v May Question Time special produced an additional Labour surge.  The big question for the last few days has been whether the Labour mini-recovery in Scotland was happening at the expense of the SNP or the Tories, and Panelbase seem to be indicating that it's a bit of both - although there's always a chance that the true picture is being masked by margin-of-error effects.

There's another possibility as well.  Panelbase recently changed their methodology for GB-wide polls in a more Tory-friendly direction, and I don't yet know whether they've done the same thing for their Scottish polls.  If by any chance they have, it would probably be good news, because it might indicate that there's been more Tory slippage than appears to be the case at face value.  We'll find out eventually.

Obviously opinion polling is the last thing on people's minds at the moment, but I just thought I'd give you the information briefly for the sake of completeness.  Based on the Manchester precedent, it seems almost inevitable that campaigning will now be suspended again, and that the Question Time edition featuring Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron will be postponed.  If the suspension goes on for a few days, there may even be a slight question mark over whether the election will take place as planned on Thursday (although given the immense legal and practical difficulties associated with a postponement, I would imagine it probably will go ahead).

UPDATE : The full-scale Scottish poll from Survation we were expecting to see last night has belatedly appeared...

Scottish voting intentions for the UK general election (Survation) :

SNP 40% (-3)
Conservatives 27% (-1)
Labour 25% (+8)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-3)

That's sufficiently similar to the trends seen in the Panelbase poll to reduce the chances that Panelbase were flattering the Tories due to methodological changes.  All the same, we have one poll showing the SNP suffering a little more than the Tories from the Labour surge, and another poll showing the opposite, so there's no clear evidence that the SNP's lead over the Tories is going to be lower than it would have been without the Corbyn bandwagon.  Indeed, Survation report a slightly bigger lead than Panelbase do - although the flip side of the coin is that they also give the SNP a significantly smaller advantage over Labour, so there may now be a danger of losing a few seats in that direction.

What we're seeing yet again is the inbuilt disadvantage that the SNP face in a Westminster election - this Labour surge simply wouldn't have been feasible in any other context.  People are getting excited about Corbyn because they're visualising him (implausibly) forming a government, which is an allure that the SNP can't directly compete with.  The huge saving grace is that it's the party in third place that is surging, rather than the party in second place - and in a first-past-the-post election, that should save our bacon unless things get dramatically worse.