Thursday, November 22, 2018

Putting a second indyref on pause for the last eighteen months may yet prove to have been beneficial, but only if that pause ends soon

Robin McAlpine has another article over at CommonSpace in which he castigates the leadership of "the movement" (by which he presumably means Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues) for inaction on an independence referendum, and for potentially letting a historic opportunity slip by.  I'm trying to work out how much of it I agree with.  There's one small part that I definitely disagree with, because it's factually inaccurate - Robin claims that it's been almost two years since an opinion poll last pointed to a pro-independence majority at Holyrood, but that's categorically not true.  A Survation poll as recently as July suggested that the SNP and Greens between them would have a fairly comfortable majority.  Obviously there are a number of different projection models, but there was another poll as recently as last month that might just about have translated into a pro-indy majority.  It's true that most recent polls have suggested the SNP and Greens would fall short, but not all that far short, and there are still two and a half years to go until the next election anyway.

I'm also inclined to disagree with Robin's call for the development of a detailed prospectus for independence.  Clearly the public need to be inspired by the possibilities of independence, but what we shouldn't do is require "the movement" to monolithically support something that closely resembles a party political manifesto for a post-indy election.  There needs to be space for centrist or centre-right indy supporters to say that they hope to take Scotland in a very different direction from the one Robin McAlpine has in mind.  For similar reasons, I'm agnostic about Robin's calls for the SNP to abandon the Growth Commission report, which is very much a radical left preoccupation.

But on the main thrust of the article, I'm just not sure.  As the old joke about the French Revolution goes, it's probably too early to tell. 

In the immediate aftermath of last year's general election, I was extremely worried that the SNP leadership might have lost their heads (over what was, after all, a clear victory), and were about to make a terrible mistake by putting an independence referendum on the backburner as a sop to voters in the minority of seats that were now held by the Tories.  I wrote blogpost after blogpost urging that the triple-lock mandate for a pre-2021 referendum should be honoured, and at one point I was even quoted in the Financial Times with words to that effect.  That attracted the anger of a number of fellow SNP members who loudly told me, in defiance of quite a bit of publicly-available evidence, that the leadership's position was absolutely unchanged.  "Just trust Nicola" was a common refrain.  When the new policy was eventually revealed, it of course turned out that there had been a significant shift, but I nevertheless breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I didn't personally agree with an eighteen month pause in the plans for a referendum, but as long as we were still headed towards the same destination, that was all that mattered.  And I could see that there was a plausible argument that voters would in the long run be more accepting of a second indyref if the SNP had spent a decent period of time concentrating on securing the least worst Brexit for the whole UK, and had been seen to fail in spite of their very best endeavours.

But of course everything hinges on the assumption that the SNP leadership were being honest that this attempt to improve Brexit is strictly time-limited, will come to an end soon and will give way to a renewed all-out push for independence.  If that's what happens, the delay could well have been beneficial and Robin will be proved wrong.  But if the pause was instead a cover story for the beginning of an indefinite delay and for the SNP's gradual transformation into a primarily anti-Brexit party, then Robin is right and those who "trusted Nicola" made a mistake.  I genuinely don't know which way it's going to go, but I still very much live in hope.

One thing Robin is undoubtedly right about is that it's not good enough for the leadership to say to the rank-and-file: "stop thinking and talking about process, just leave all of that to us, we know what we're doing, and you don't need to know what we're planning".  I am inclined to trust Nicola Sturgeon, but at the end of the day those of us who are members of the SNP joined because we believe in Scottish independence, and not because of a quasi-religious belief in the infallibility of one person.

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Here's why the Scotland in Union propaganda poll should not be included in any list of independence polls

A few hours ago, I was bemused to be contacted on Twitter by graph-wielding unionist uber-troll Steve Sayers, who I'm quite sure I blocked a year or two back in a successful bid to free up an extra three hours of leisure time per day.  Presumably he must have cunningly set up a new account at some point, and we're all going to have to block him all over again.  Anyway, he presented me with a graph (gasp!) which purported to track a decline in support for independence over the last few years, and which needless to say depended for its impact on the inclusion of a poll which had absolutely no business being there - ie. Tuesday's propaganda poll from Scotland in Union, which was portrayed in some quarters as an independence poll but was no such thing.

After "discussing" this point with Steve for a little while, it suddenly occurred to me that I'd better check Wikipedia's list of independence polls, just to reassure myself that nobody had been mad enough to add the SiU poll.  I wish I hadn't bothered, because sure enough it was there.  (The words "non-standard question" had been added in the notes section, as if that made the whole thing OK.)  Let me try to explain why it shouldn't be there, and why it should undoubtedly be removed, if such a thing can be achieved without triggering a destructive edit war.

As I pointed out in my original post about the poll, Survation online polling using the standard independence question typically produces a Yes vote in the mid-to-high 40s.  The last one was published less than a month ago and had Yes on 45%, which was actually a touch on the low side, probably due to random sampling variation.  It is phenomenally improbable that there has been a genuine 5-point slump since then, especially given that last week's Panelbase poll suggested that support for independence was holding up and perhaps even increasing.  The overwhelming likelihood is that the atypical result instead came about purely because of the usage of the ridiculous question, "Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?", which bears no resemblance to the question asked in normal independence polls.

There have been at least two suggestions made about why the remain / leave question would produce such a radically different result.  One is that some respondents may not actually know what "the United Kingdom" is and may wrongly assume that "leaving the United Kingdom" is tantamount to abandoning the monarchy.  The second suggestion is that the words "Remain and "Leave" are now so strongly associated with the EU debate that a minority of respondents may have not read the question correctly, and wrongly assumed that by selecting the "Remain" option they were indicating a desire for Britain to remain in the EU.  I gather there is anecdotal evidence that one respondent almost did exactly that.  Personally I think the monarchy is the more plausible explanation, because there have been similar findings in polls that predated the EU referendum.  But it may well be a bit of both.

Now, I know some people will raise the objection that the possibility that respondents may have misunderstood the question does not in itself invalidate a poll.  After all, there are a lot of very stupid people out there, and some of them are probably even capable of misunderstanding the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?"  But the problem with the Scotland in Union poll goes a lot further than that, because even on the literal meaning of the question it is quite simply not a poll about independence.  It's no exaggeration to say that respondents would have had to read something into the wording of the question that was not actually there if they were to understand that it was intended to be an independence poll.

To put it in a nutshell, "leaving the UK" is not synonymous with "becoming an independent country".  There are several possible outcomes if a territory leaves a sovereign state, of which independence is only one.  Others are that the territory can become an integral part of a different state, or can become a dependency of either the existing sovereign state or another state, or can become an associated state (see the relationship of the Cook Islands to New Zealand).  Now, it's arguably pretty likely that most respondents would correctly infer that "leaving" probably means "independence" in our own case, but I don't see how Scotland in Union can have their cake and eat it on this point.  If no allowance can be made for respondents incorrectly interpreting the question, the basic premise can only be that people were answering the question that was actually in front of them, without making any additional assumptions.  Polls can't depend on respondents being mind-readers - that would be ridiculous.

That being the case, this was not an independence poll.  It's not inconceivable that a poll containing the pejorative words "leave the UK" could be regarded as a genuine independence poll (albeit that would be highly unsatisfactory), but only if there were additional explanatory words, ie. "leave the UK to become an independent country".  There is no such clarification in the Scotland in Union poll, and it should therefore be removed from Wikipedia's list of independence polls.

My strong suspicion is that it only ever found its way onto the list because of the spurious credibility given to it by the Scotsman's front page story.  It's unlikely that a similar propaganda poll run by a pro-independence organisation would ever make the list.  This is the problem with the lack of plurality in our mainstream media - it distorts our sense of reality.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Will tactical voting in the next general election be anti-SNP, anti-Tory, or both?

As I mentioned in previous posts, last week's Panelbase voting intention poll (which was both a GB-wide poll and a full-scale Scottish poll) was funded by the Scottish Independence Foundation.  The results were revealed in a press release that was put out on Thursday, and which I contributed some analysis to.  What happened afterwards was a bit of an eye-opener for all concerned, because as far as I can see not a single media outlet reported the numbers.  Britain Elects belatedly mentioned them a few days after I published them here, but I strongly suspect they got them direct from Panelbase, rather than from the press release.  The Herald then finally reported the numbers and cited Britain Elects as the source!  I can't help feeling there's a touch of snobbery and Anglocentricity at play here - as far as the media is concerned, a poll is something that comes from "proper" sources, preferably ones that have a London office.  If it comes from an unconventional source, it might as well not exist, at least until it's been given a mark of approval from elsewhere.  A completely ludicrous attitude, because it was a properly-conducted poll from a BPC firm, and indeed it intentionally avoided the type of brazenly leading questions that marred the propaganda poll that The Scotsman cleared their front page for yesterday.

When I was preparing the analysis for the press release, I did something which I don't normally do for poll analysis on this blog - I projected the vote shares into hypothetical seat numbers, because I knew that journalists tend to lap that sort of thing up.  And it brought home to me once again how silly that whole exercise is, because the chances of there being the type of uniform swing that would make seat projections meaningful are pretty slim.  For example, because both the SNP and Lib Dem vote shares were unchanged since the general election, all that could be said about the North-East Fife seat is that it would remain on a knife-edge, and it would be impossible to know whether the SNP or Lib Dems would win.  But in the real world, a no change election nationwide would almost certainly not translate into the status quo being maintained in North-East Fife, because the result last time would in itself affect the campaign next time.

North-East Fife result, June 2017:

SNP 32.9%
Liberal Democrats 32.9%
Conservatives 24.1%
Labour 9.6%
ISDB 0.5%

We know that the Lib Dems and the Tories are swimming in the same pond - they both attract centrist, centre-right and right-wing unionist voters who want to stop the SNP.  In most constituencies where the SNP looked vulnerable last year, there seemed to be an informal arrangement that one unionist party would be given a free run - it's hard to think of any other explanation for the Lib Dems' renaissance in seats like East Dunbartonshire, while they were completely collapsing in former strongholds such as Gordon.  But it looks like North-East Fife was one of the few target seats where such an understanding proved impossible, allowing the SNP to hold on due to a split unionist vote.  There will presumably be a lot of Lib Dem pressure on both the Tories and Tory voters to prevent a repeat of that outcome, with the Lib Dems' close second place being used to make the case that they've earned the right to a free run against the SNP.

That doesn't mean that the SNP have no chance of holding the seat, but I don't think they can do it by standing still.  They must assume that the Lib Dem vote will probably increase at Tory expense, and that extra votes will be needed from somewhere, maybe from people who stayed at home last time.  (It would also help if it occurs to the Tories that they may never get their hands back on the seat if a Lib Dem MP gets in and becomes too entrenched, as Menzies Campbell did after his win in 1987.)

In Tory/SNP battleground seats, though, it's possible that the opposite is true - that nationwide swings may understate the SNP's chances of regaining seats.  Both the Panelbase poll and yesterday's Survation poll suggested that the SNP would only regain one Tory seat on a uniform swing - Stirling.  But take a look at last year's result in Moray, for example...

Moray result, June 2017:

Conservatives 47.5%
SNP 38.8%
Labour 10.9%
Liberal Democrats 2.3%
Independent 0.4%

The question that forms in my mind is: who are those Labour voters?  In the central belt, die-hard unionists may well have voted Labour to stop the SNP, but they had no reason to do so in an SNP/Tory marginal seat like Moray, especially not when Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party.  So are they in fact genuinely left-wing voters who would quite like to get the Tory government out?  If so, there may be some potential for the SNP to squeeze the Labour vote by a few percentage points, thus making their path to victory that much easier than national uniform swings would suggest.  OK, the Tories might equally be looking to squeeze the Lib Dem vote, but there's much less of a Lib Dem vote to squeeze.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Scotland in Union's "yawns" turn into blind panic as its OWN POLL backfires spectacularly: half of Scots want to leave the UK if there's a no-deal Brexit, and a clear majority want a second indyref before 2026

As you'll doubtless be aware, there was a crisis a few days ago at Johnston Press, which appeared to place in some doubt the future of The Scotsman newspaper.  Many independence supporters responded jubilantly, saying the paper had got what it deserved after treating half of this country's population with utter contempt for years.  The notoriously thin-skinned journalistic contingent on Twitter were furious about any celebrations over the potential (albeit very unlikely) demise of a newspaper, building themselves up to a level of righteous hysteria that gave the impression they thought Yessers were guilty of something roughly equivalent to the incitement of genocide.  But incredibly, The Scotsman have today taken a step which they must know perfectly well goes a long way towards proving the Yessers' point.  They've given over their front page lock, stock and barrel to what amounts to a propaganda press release by the fundamentalist anti-independence outfit Scotland in Union.

Basically SiU commissioned an independence poll from Survation, but insisted that a non-standard question be used in the full knowledge that it was likely to give the misleading impression of a more favourable position for No than is usually the case.  We don't need to cast our minds back very far to recall just how susceptible poll respondents are to changes in question wording - there have been polls in the last few months that misleadingly showed a "Yes vote" in the low 50s, but that was only because respondents were invited to assume that Brexit would go ahead.  OK, it's highly likely that Brexit will indeed go ahead, but if respondents are asked to make any sort of assumption, it's likely that at least some of them will subconsciously believe that it is "supposed" to change their view.

If one sort of leading question can produce an illusory gain for Yes, it's not at all surprising that a different sort of leading question can produce the opposite, and that's exactly what has happened in the SiU poll.  We know that in standard Survation online polling, the Yes vote stands in the mid-to-high 40s, but by instead asking the non-standard question "Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?", SiU were able to produce the false impression that Yes support has slumped to 40%.  In a disgraceful betrayal of basic journalistic ethics, The Scotsman has played along with this propaganda stunt, and has cynically left its readers with the sense that the poll figures represent a real change in public opinion.

Why would respondents react so differently to a "remaining in/leaving the UK" question?  We don't know for sure, but what we do know is that this is nothing new - there were polls in the run up to the first indyref that showed exactly the same effect.  One possibility is that a minority of respondents may be unsure of what "the United Kingdom" actually is, and may wrongly assume that they are being asked about their views on Scotland retaining the monarchy.

Amusingly, though, the poll has backfired on SiU in a couple of ways.  Firstly, it shows that, if Don't Knows are removed, a clear majority of respondents want there to be a second independence referendum before May 2026, ie. within the next seven-and-a-half years.  It's hard to overstate just what a staggering finding that is for a poll commissioned by Scotland in Union - it essentially proves that one of their central claims about public opinion is the polar opposite of the truth.  Here are the figures with Don't Knows removed -

When should another referendum on Scotland leaving the UK be held if at all?

Total for before May 2026: 54.0%
Total for after May 2026 or never: 46.0%

Incidentally, even with the leading wording about "leaving the UK", a very substantial minority of 46.7% want a second referendum before May 2021, ie. within just two-and-a-half years.

The other amusing detail is that there is a statistical tie on the question of whether Scotland should "leave" the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit, ie. the result is within the standard margin of error of the poll, meaning that it's impossible to know which side is really in the lead.

If the UK leaves the EU WITHOUT a deal in place, and there is a subsequent referendum on Scotland leaving the UK, how would you vote?

For Scotland to remain as part of the UK: 52.3%
For Scotland to leave the UK: 47.7%

There are also Westminster voting intention figures, which continue to show a handsome double-digit lead for the SNP over both the Tories and Labour.

Scottish voting intentions for next UK general election:

SNP 39% (-1)
Conservatives 26% (-1)
Labour 24% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)

The percentage changes listed above are measured from the Scottish portion of the recent GB-wide Survation mega-poll for Channel 4.  If the last full-scale Scottish poll from Survation for the Record is used as the baseline instead, the SNP are actually up 3 points.  Either way, though, these new figures put the SNP on course for substantial seat gains -  mainly from Labour, who would be almost wiped out once again.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Any indyref strategy that could leave us powerless to act until 2026 is a strategy that should be rejected

You may have seen a YouTube video doing the rounds of Nicola Sturgeon being unusually candid on Saturday about her strategy for seeking a mandate for independence if the UK government refuses a Section 30 order.  Here's a transcript...

"And the same would be true if we ended up trying to have a referendum that the other side would say was illegal.  The beauty of 2014 was that it was an agreed process.  So all this is taking me to the point of: I don't have an easy answer to this, because we may get into a situation where the UK government says 'No, we're not going to agree to a Section 30 order' and you know, I think if that happens we need to look above that, we need to make a case of how unreasonable that is, and ultimately if the only way through that is to take that to an election, and ask the people of Scotland to use an election to say no, we will absolutely have the right to do this, maybe that's what that would take."

Let's start with the good news.  Although some people are interpreting this as the first concrete evidence that Ms Sturgeon might be minded to adopt the Pete Wishart "Hold! Hold! Hold! Hold! Hold! Hoooold!  Hoooooooold! HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD!" strategy and let the current mandate for a pre-2021 independence referendum expire, on my reading that very clearly isn't what she is saying at all.  It sounds much more like she is at least planning to attempt to use the mandate, and will at some point over the coming weeks or months renew her demand for a Section 30 order.  If so, fantastic, that's just what most of us are crying out for.

The bad news is that her thinking on a consultative referendum doesn't appear to have moved on since early 2017 (a time when everyone still naively thought London would accept Scotland's right to democratic self-determination).  In other words, Ms Sturgeon still doesn't believe a referendum is worth holding unless it has London's consent, and therefore if a Section 30 order isn't granted, we won't go ahead in the immediate future.  That needlessly gives London a veto of sorts, at least in the short term, and that doesn't seem satisfactory at all.  I'm particularly puzzled by her use of the word "illegal", because any consultative referendum held without a Section 30 would almost certainly only go ahead if the Supreme Court upheld the legislation, which would remove any doubt about the legality of the process.  The Tories and Labour would just look silly if they tried to claim something the Supreme Court had endorsed was "illegal".

However, a needless aversion to a consultative vote isn't the end of the world as long as there is a credible alternative plan, and that's what makes the ambiguity in Ms Sturgeon's closing words so tantalising.  Most people are interpreting it as meaning she would use the 2021 election to seek yet another mandate for a referendum, even though we already have a perfectly good one.  (As our dear old American gun nut friend Kevin Baker used to say: "Do it again, only HARDER!!!!")  I agree that's probably what she meant, but it's not at all clear.  I would suggest that it's entirely possible to interpret "use an election to say no, we will absolutely have the right to do this" as meaning that the election will be used to seek an outright mandate for independence itself if a Section 30 order is denied.  That would be a strategy most of us could happily unite behind.

But if the 'seek yet another mandate for a referendum' interpretation is the correct one, I think we're going to have to speak out against it, because the problems with that strategy are pretty obvious.  If we win a pro-independence majority at the 2021 election (not a given, of course), and Westminster still says "no" to a referendum, what do we do then?  We already know that Ms Sturgeon is unlikely to go ahead with a consultative referendum, so even if she belatedly accepts at that point that an election must then be used to seek an outright mandate for independence, there would be the rather enormous problem that another Holyrood election wouldn't be due until 2026.  Any strategy that could leave us powerless for another eight years does not strike me as being a promising one.

Of course snap Westminster elections can sometimes appear out of the blue, and might offer an opportunity to seek a mandate (of whatever sort) more speedily than would otherwise be the case.  But relying on blind chance doesn't seem like a great idea either.

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Daily Mail should be careful what it wishes for

One of the amusing subplots of the recent Brexit chaos has been the way the Daily Mail, which previously regarded any form of compromise with the EU as treason, had an overnight change of heart a few weeks ago and suddenly started portraying Theresa May as a latter-day Joan of Arc.  There's no mystery about why it happened.  The paper's new editor is a Remainer and presumably regards May's deal as the nearest thing to Remain that he has a cat in hell's chance of actually selling to his readers.  He hasn't exactly been subtle about it, though: quite apart from the suddenness of the U-turn, which must have left regular readers bewildered, he's started running excruciating front page features about how Philip May has done his bit to face down the beastly Brexiteer rebels by making his wife morale-boosting beans on toast for afternoon tea.

Presumably the intention is to appeal over the heads of parliamentarians by presenting May to the public as a plucky John Major-style underdog, building on the apparently spontaneous comments that have been made in surprising quarters along the lines of "you know what, whatever you may think of her politics, you have to admire her stoicism".  Hmmm.  Quite honestly, this is a Prime Minister who has sought to deny our country its democratic rights, and for my money there are no personal qualities that can really mitigate that.  I struggle to see much appeal in her personality anyway.  But it doesn't matter what I think.  The question is whether the public will be impressed by the propaganda effort, and they just might.  If so, it's possible that the Mail could, by helping to prolong May's tenure, be unwittingly putting the SNP into a position of greater influence.

It was suggested the other day that "senior DUP sources" were saying that the confidence-and-supply deal was effectively dead until and unless Theresa May is removed as Tory leader.  If that's true (and admittedly it's an "if"), the government no longer has a majority and Britain reverts to having a hung parliament in every sense of the term.  The SNP thus become by far the largest of several parties that hold the balance of power between them.  That doesn't make them as powerful as they would be if there was a centre-left majority available, but nevertheless their 35 votes do suddenly matter - as we saw from Kenny Farquharson's hapless attempts to 'shame' Nicola Sturgeon into propping up May's government.

She won't do that, of course.  It would be political insanity to bail out a Tory Prime Minister in return for absolutely nothing.  But here's the thing: Theresa May has made the choice to offer nothing.  Few mainstream media commentators seem to have considered this point, but May could solve her seemingly impossible problem at a stroke by simply offering the SNP a generous enough trade.  It wouldn't even necessarily have to be a Section 30 order if that's so politically unthinkable - alternatives would be to reverse the power-grab and devolve substantial new powers, or to extend the Northern Ireland arrangement to Scotland.  The SNP are rational actors - they'd probably let the May blueprint pass for England (which voted for Brexit, after all) as long as Scotland is properly protected.

It probably won't happen, if only because May is the most pig-headed PM in post-war history.  But make no mistake, if she gets to the point where there is no other way to save her own skin, the arithmetic makes it a theoretical possibility.  And that's a mark of the SNP's increased power now that the DUP have seemingly abandoned May.

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It's clear that the political crisis is shifting public opinion - Labour have surged into a GB-wide lead in new polls from Opinium and ComRes.  It remains to be seen what is happening in Scotland, but it's at least mildly encouraging that the SNP's share of the GB vote has increased in the Opinium poll from 4% to 5%.  By contrast, the ComRes subsample for Scotland has the SNP in a very typical 36% to 26% lead over the Tories.

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