Saturday, July 22, 2017

Is saving the universe a girl job or a boy job?

As long-term readers may recall, I'm a lifelong Doctor Who fan.  I'm basically a fan of what has become known as the 'classic series' (ie. the period between 1963 and 1989), but I've watched and enjoyed the revived series since 2005, and I was particularly pleased when Steven Moffat used the 50th anniversary in 2013 to create a 'narrative bridge' between the classic series and the new, making the two seem more like an integrated whole (in spite of the very obvious differences of format and style).

What people may not be aware of is that talk of casting a woman as the Doctor goes all the way back to the days of the classic series, and in particular to a press conference in 1980 when Tom Baker announced his resignation and mischievously wished his successor well, "whoever he or she may be".   The tabloids initially took that seriously as a possible hint that radical change was on the way, and ever since then there has been fevered speculation about a female Doctor whenever a vacancy has occurred.  Somewhere I must still have a copy of Doctor Who Magazine from early 1987, just after the excellent Colin Baker was idiotically sacked from the role for no discernible reason, containing an impassioned plea from a young reader that the Doctor must remain male.  "I'm not a sexist," he wrote, "but a female Doctor is as ridiculous as a male Miss Marple".

That eerily echoes the much-mocked arguments of the sceptics three decades on.  But is it so obviously wrong?  If the well-remunerated Derek Thompson was ever to finally stop playing Charlie in Casualty (which, yes, is still running after thirty-one years!) and if the BBC were to recast the role, nobody would think it was remotely odd if only male actors were considered.  Doctor Who's status as a make-it-up-as-you-go-on sci-fi show means that the same rules need not apply, but nevertheless I think there's at least an arguable case that, until very recently, the 'fact' that Time Lords retain the same gender throughout their life-spans had been clearly woven into the programme's 'lore' over a very, very long period, creating certain fixed expectations among viewers.  The Doctor has had thirteen incarnations so far and they've all been male.  Borusa had four and they were all male.  Romana remained female when she regenerated (and she also 'tried on' several female appearances before settling on her second incarnation).  The Master was of course always male until she suddenly wasn't a couple of years ago...and it's arguably only the acceptance and success of that innovation that made Jodie Whittaker's casting possible.

I think she's a good choice, and a new departure like this could be a shot in the arm for a long-running series which is always battling against the danger of becoming stale.  It's liberating that Doctor Who has the opportunity to do this when, say, the James Bond franchise doesn't, but in a sense that's the nub of the matter.  The only reason why changing the lead character's gender isn't self-evidently a strange thing to do is that Doctor Who is such an unusual series.  And that's why I've been so troubled by the extreme and intolerant reaction to the minority (and it is only a minority) of long-term fans of the show who are struggling to accept a woman Doctor.  Although I don't personally agree with those fans, neither do I think it's inherently daft for them to choose, if they wish, to say "we think the Doctor is a male character, just like Ken Barlow is a male character".  Instead of it simply being accepted that this is based on nurtured ideas about who a specific much-loved character that they've grown up with should be, they're all simplistically dismissed as Neanderthal sexists who are resisting proper female representation on television.  Maybe a few of them do deserve that characterisation, but believe me, if someone with an American accent was ever cast as the Doctor, the controversy over female anatomy would pale into utter insignificance.  And would that mean Doctor Who fans are anti-American?  No, of course it wouldn't.

I've tried gently making the point to a few feminists on Twitter that much of the negative reaction is Doctor Who-specific and not a rejection of on-screen gender equality, but to very little avail.  A couple of hours ago, I got a highly abusive response ("f***ing clueless") when I pointed out that "the Doctor isn't an MP, she's a fictional character".  Extraordinarily, the same person then angrily declared that "I'm done justifying myself to men. Help the cause or get out of our f***ing way."  I just think all this dogmatic shoutiness is terribly, terribly sad, and it's little wonder a dialogue of the deaf has developed as a result of it.  You're not going to gain much sympathy for your cause by effectively telling someone that their favourite TV programme has become no more than a box to be ticked on an ideological checklist.  It would be far more constructive to say (as Jodie Whittaker has done herself) that "I know this is new, but don't be scared of something new, it'll be fun".  And if you took that less confrontational approach, you might also be pleasantly surprised to find that the person you're talking to isn't the monster you assumed they are, and is actually extremely positive about female lead characters in other series.

If you're aiming for greater diversity, I think it's generally best not to do it in an artificial way.  For example, when the BBC were belatedly trying to address the absence of major network dramas filmed in Scotland, they should have created a new series that organically belonged here, rather than awkwardly transplanting Waterloo Road to Inverclyde.  By the same token, if more female lead characters are required, they should in general be devised from scratch, rather than lazily saying "oh let's bring Arthur Daley back and make him a woman".  With Doctor Who it can work - but it wouldn't go amiss for us to acknowledge the obvious point that this is the exotic exception, not the rule.  And once you do acknowledge that, you can perhaps begin to empathise with the people who resent the fact that their own favourite series is the designated exception.  You don't have to agree with someone to empathise with them.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ipsos-Mori subsample adds to the weight of evidence suggesting the SNP are still ahead

Ipsos-Mori's subsamples (just like Survation's) tend to be very small and produce extremely volatile results.  However, for what it's worth, the subsample from the firm's first post-election poll is very positive for the SNP...

SNP 39%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 23%, Greens 7%, Liberal Democrats 6%

There have now been twelve subsamples from various firms since the election, of which seven have put the SNP in the lead, four have put Labour in the lead, and only one has put the Tories in front.  As Labour appear on balance (albeit not in today's numbers) to be the main challengers, it's particularly significant that the SNP have been ahead of Labour in eight of the twelve subsamples.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The crumbling of Colonel Calamity : evidence begins to mount that the Scottish Tories have slumped to third place

Just as a slight corrective to the recent string of good polling results for the SNP, there's a new ICM poll which has the SNP a little behind Labour in the Scottish subsample: Labour 35%, SNP 33%, Conservatives 25%, Liberal Democrats 4%, Greens 3%.  However, the potential error in an individual subsample is enormous, so those figures are very easily consistent with the SNP holding a small lead.  That still appears to be where the balance of probabilities lie - there have now been eleven subsamples from various firms since the general election, of which six have put the SNP in the lead.  Perhaps more to the point, the SNP have also been ahead of Labour in seven of the eleven subsamples.

That said, the battle between SNP and Labour seems to be close enough that it's not possible to say with absolute confidence which of the two parties is in front.  The Tories have slipped out of that conversation, and it now looks increasingly likely that they've dropped to third place.  If it gradually becomes an accepted fact that Scottish politics has reverted to a traditional SNP-Labour duel, what on earth will happen to the love affair between Colonel Ruth and the media, both north and south of the border?  I believe the line is "she was the future, once".

Monday, July 17, 2017

But we can still RISE now, and vote for a unionist party again...

So is there anything to be said for Cat Boyd of RISE "proudly" voting Labour at the general election?  Well, there's certainly something positive to be taken from the fact that she's admitted doing it.  There's been a tendency among the unionist commentariat to treat the 27% of people who voted Labour as if they were part of some pan-unionist bloc vote comprising more than 60% of the population.  The reality, as we already know from the opinion polls, is that Labour's support was a coalition incorporating people who voted Labour because of its stance on independence, and also people who voted Labour in spite of that stance.  It'll be very useful to have a high-profile example like Cat Boyd to illustrate that point.  This episode may also be helpful to the SNP on the list vote at the next Holyrood election, because RISE (or whatever succeeds RISE) will find it even harder to pitch for 'pro-independence tactical votes' now that their commitment to independence has been shown to be rather superficial.

However, there's an idea doing the rounds that we must show veneration and respect towards Ms Boyd for voting Labour as part of an alternative strategy for achieving independence.  That is, it has to be said, a bit silly.  Voting Labour in the hope of furthering the cause of independence is no more and no less irrational than voting UKIP in the hope of keeping Britain inside the European Union.  It's been suggested to me that I'm missing some incredibly sophisticated point here, ie. that pro-indy people voting Labour are starting a conversation with the party that will eventually lead to a change in its constitutional stance.  But voting is essentially a passive act - you're not entering into a dialogue with the party you vote for, you're simply endorsing them.  It doesn't matter if Labour are privately conscious of the fact that much of their support is pro-indy - the lesson they'll draw is that those people have already proved stupid enough to vote for them, and so they can just persevere with the same policy and expect the same results in future.  If you reward undesirable behaviour, don't complain if you get more of the same.  For the proof of that, simply consider the fact that a substantial minority of Labour's voters in the decades leading up to the 2014 referendum were solidly pro-indy.  That had no impact at all.

Entryism can sometimes be a viable tactic for changing a party's stance, but that involves actually becoming members and activists (and then trying very hard not to get expelled).  Merely voting for a party you disagree with and have no influence within is entirely counter-productive - and that really ought to be a statement of the bleedin' obvious.

Are there any circumstances at all in which voting for an anti-independence party can help independence?  I can perhaps think of just one.  In the closely-fought 1992 general election, Labour were firmly committed to the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament.  It was not unreasonable to take the view that devolution was a necessary first step if independence was ever going to happen (as Margaret Ewing put it, there was never going to be a "Big Bang"), so the priority had to be to ensure that devolution happened.  There were a very small number of Labour-Tory marginal seats in Scotland, such as Stirling, that were going to help decide whether there would be a pro-devolution Labour government or an anti-devolution Tory government.  There was therefore a case to be made that tactically voting Labour in a seat like Stirling was a constructive act for a pro-independence voter.

Nothing that happened in this year's election was remotely analogous to that.  Labour were not making any sort of constitutional offer at all, and there were no Labour-Tory marginals in any case.  If Cat Boyd voted Labour in an SNP-Labour battleground seat, she was helping an anti-independence party against a pro-independence party.  If she voted Labour in an SNP-Tory battleground seat, it was even worse than that, because she was harming both independence and Corbyn's chances of becoming PM.  It was, in short, a very foolish thing to do, no matter which way you look at it.

More good polling news for the SNP - this time from YouGov

YouGov are the only firm I'm aware of that claim to weight the Scottish subsamples of their GB-wide polls separately.  Given the small size of those subsamples, a huge margin of error still applies (something in the region of 8%) but nevertheless it was a cause for some concern when the first YouGov subsample since the election gave Labour a modest lead.  I'm relieved to say that has been reversed in the second post-election poll, which was released today: SNP 36%, Labour 31%, Conservatives 25%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 1%, BNP 1%.

Those figures are very much in line with the subsamples from the Opinium and Survation polls released on Saturday.  The situation now is that there have been ten Scottish subsamples from various firms since the election, with six putting the SNP ahead, three putting Labour ahead, and one putting the Tories in front.  The information we're going on is admittedly very limited, but it does look as if perhaps Labour have leapfrogged the Tories into second place, but haven't quite managed to overtake the SNP.

Elsewhere in the YouGov poll, there is plenty of other evidence of how Scottish public opinion continues to be radically different from opinion south of the border.  Across Britain, Theresa May has moved back into a small lead over Jeremy Corbyn on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister, but respondents in Scotland prefer Corbyn by a near 2-1 margin.  Across Britain, a narrow plurality feels that the UK is right to leave the European Union, but respondents in Scotland take the opposite view by a whopping margin of 56% to 33%.

SNP buoyed by two new polls

I'm not sure if it was Wimbledon or the Doctor Who announcement that distracted me, but I completely forgot to check on Saturday night whether there were any new opinion polls.  As it turns out there were two Britain-wide polls - one from Opinium and one from Survation.  Both had the SNP slightly ahead on the Scottish subsample...

Survation: SNP 33%, Labour 25%, Conservatives 24%, Liberal Democrats 14%, UKIP 4%

Opinium: SNP 35%, Conservatives 31%, Labour 29%, UKIP 1%, Liberal Democrats 1%

Survation's subsamples are always particularly small and not correctly weighted, but as it happens the recalled vote of the sample on this occasion is reasonably close to the actual result in June, so there's one less reason to be sceptical than usual.

In conjunction with the SNP's creditable near miss in the Elgin by-election, where the swing against them since May was negligible, I'd say these new figures move the balance of probability back towards the SNP having some sort of continuing lead in Westminster voting intentions.  There have now been nine Scottish subsamples from various firms since the general election, with five putting the SNP ahead, three putting Labour ahead, and one putting the Tories in front.  The SNP have never been lower than second place, whereas both Labour and the Tories have been third some of the time.

My best guess is that if a full-scale Scottish poll of Westminster voting intentions was conducted now, it would probably show the SNP with a narrow lead over Labour, with the Tories in third place.  I certainly wouldn't exclude the possibility that Labour have a small lead, but I don't think there's any real danger that the Tories are ahead.