Friday, December 14, 2018

Chortle. John McDonnell wants us to believe that the SNP are only calling for a no confidence vote because they don't want a general election.

Two astonishingly silly statements were made the other day about the SNP's motivations in relation to a vote of no confidence in the Tory government.  Labour's Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed that the SNP were only pushing for such a vote to take place so that it would fail, thus ensuring there wouldn't be an early general election, in which Labour would supposedly be breathing down the SNP's necks and poised to make seat gains.  On the other extreme, our dear old friend Mike Smithson, known fondly to thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as an "impartial election expert", claimed that the SNP would not be planning to vote against the government unless they were very confident that they would hold all of their 35 seats and perhaps make gains.

Two completely contradictory claims, and ironically both wrong.  But which is the daftest of the two?  On this occasion I'd have to say McDonnell just about shades it.  There's something quite exquisitely risible about the claim that the SNP are demanding a vote of no confidence because they don't want a general election.  I know the notion that an election is less likely if you table the motion too soon might seem vaguely plausible to some (and Torcuil Crichton of the Record was predictably credulous about it), but the reality is that a) any no confidence vote is likely to fail regardless of timing, and b) no confidence motions are not a finite resource in any case.  If one fails, it doesn't stop you tabling another later on, and it doesn't prevent the result being different the second time around.  The famous no confidence vote of March 1979 was not the first one that the Callaghan government had faced.

Smithson, of course, is just making his customary mistake of assuming that the SNP have some sort of decision to make on how to vote on a no confidence motion, and that the way they jump will be cynically determined by their own immediate electoral prospects.  It's been pointed out to him umpteen times that it is utterly inconceivable for any left-of-centre party in Scotland to do anything other than vote to bring down a Tory government if the opportunity arises.  But that message just isn't getting through to him, and I suspect it never will.  Can you imagine what would actually happen if the SNP even abstained on a no confidence vote?  It wouldn't just be a problem at the next election, it would haunt the party for decades to come.  No, Mike, that was never an option, and it wouldn't have been an option even if the SNP were at 6% in the polls.

I'm fairly sure that Smithson and McDonnell are both equally wrong about the SNP's expectations for seat gains and losses in a snap election.  The polling average at the moment suggests that the SNP's lead over Labour has increased since June 2017, so it's obviously nonsensical for McDonnell to suggest that the SNP are resigned to losing seats.  But on the other hand, the increase in the lead is not so dramatic that it couldn't be reversed (and indeed more than reversed) if there were the kind of sudden shifts of public opinion during the course of an election campaign that we saw last year.  There are a large number of ultra-marginal seats, some held by Labour, some held by the SNP, meaning that relatively small swings could make the difference between landslide and disaster.  Nobody can possibly say which way it will go on the basis of current polls, or at least not with any confidence.  If the SNP are optimistic about their prospects, I would suggest it's more likely to be because they feel they've cracked the problem of finding a winning campaign strategy.  It may well be (and I'm just speculating) that the recent relentless focus on cancelling Brexit for the whole of the UK has been designed to make the SNP look like the only logical home for Remainers in a 2019 election - and Remainers, let's not forget, make up 62% of the Scottish electorate.  They're in the majority even in Moray (albeit only just).

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

May wins the vote, but loses the narrative

If I was a Brexiteer Tory MP, I think I'd be quietly fuming tonight about the conduct of Sir Graham Brady, who doesn't strike me as being anything like as neutral in his handling of leadership matters as his predecessors.  Every step of the way yesterday and today, he seemed to be acting in collusion with the incumbent leadership and against the rebels.  Downing Street effectively controlled the timing of the announcement that the 48 letter threshold had been met, the timing of the vote itself, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they also had something to do with the neat little stunt of the overall outcome of the vote being announced before the precise numbers.  That's a totally illogical way of presenting the result of any vote, and presumably was intended to provide the TV news with a self-contained clip depicting Theresa May as an unalloyed victor, with the inconvenient detail that 37% of her own MPs want her gone being hurriedly dispensed with later on as if it was of only academic interest.

It was an attempt to set the narrative, but it quite simply failed.  I was struck by the complete contrast between tonight's proceedings and the aftermath of another Tory leadership challenge many years ago.  In 1995, just like today, people were fairly sure that the incumbent leader would be officially re-elected, but the question was always the margin of victory.  In the end, rather more MPs voted against John Major than had been anticipated, but it didn't matter because the rebels grudgingly acknowledged his mandate after the result had been announced.  The complete opposite happened tonight - the ERG doubled down and demanded that May should resign.  Jacob Rees-Mogg may be a buffoon, but the way he laid down a marker within seconds of the result being revealed was an absolute masterclass.  "The vast majority of non-payroll MPs voted against her" was exactly the angle to take, and it's a point that's very difficult for May loyalists to shut down.  It's impossible for them to argue that May doesn't need the support of backbenchers.  If they try to claim she still has that support, by definition that would have to mean that a substantial number of government ministers secretly voted against her, which would be even worse.

The counter-framing from the May camp was much less convincing than Rees-Mogg's effort.  The pre-prepared line that had obviously been given to everyone was that May's percentage of the vote was higher than when she was elected leader in 2016.  That's a complete nonsense, because she wasn't actually "elected leader" at all.  The members' ballot was called off when Andrea Leadsom withdrew, and May became leader by default.  The contest didn't progress beyond a three-way preliminary ballot of MPs, and nobody would really expect any candidate to get 63% of the vote when they have two opponents.  (Although as it happened she got close.)

The other thing that struck me tonight is that anyone who's been thinking there's a non-trivial chance that a "People's Vote" might somehow take place under Theresa May's watch should just forget that idea.  She has a weak renewed mandate, and it was won largely on the promise that she will "deliver the Brexit people voted for".  She is even more boxed in than she was before, and for however long she remains Prime Minister, a referendum with a "Remain" option is inconceivable.  If the assumption is that she will still be around on March 29th, Remainers should probably switch their focus to securing an extension of Article 50 - because if that doesn't happen, Britain will undoubtedly be leaving the European Union.

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Now is the time - but has anyone told Tory MPs?

If nothing else, what today has revealed is just how blatantly the rules for Tory leadership challenges are slanted to help an incumbent leader survive.  We maybe lost sight of that because the same rules were successfully used to topple Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, but he was of course the most hapless Tory leader in post-war history.  Think of how differently things would be playing out under the rules that applied thirty years ago - ie. an automatic annual leadership election in which any MP could stand if they had a proposer and seconder.  We'd be straight into a battle between Boris Johnson and Theresa May (and possibly others) in which the candidates would have parity of esteem, and May's deficiencies would be cruelly exposed.  She'd probably lose.

As it is, she isn't standing against anyone, so the vote today has become a simple matter of loyalty or disloyalty in the leader.  No wonder so few MPs have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet and say publicly that they are voting to remove her.  That has sucked some of the momentum out of the anti-May drive, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the leadership were in effective control of the timetable of the vote, and chose the ultra-quick option so that wavering MPs have no time to think.  The leadership also effectively controlled the timing of the announcement of the vote, allowing for a choreographed 'shock and awe' campaign of endorsements for the PM early this morning.  The TV news dutifully reported all of that, as if Cabinet ministers supporting their own leader was somehow surprising or significant.

On the other hand, we won't know for sure until the result is announced, and secret ballots of Tory MPs do sometimes throw up wild surprises.  Most famous is the 1975 example, in which large numbers of MPs who had publicly endorsed Edward Heath must have quietly voted for Mrs Thatcher.  And in 1997, the scale of William Hague's victory over Kenneth Clarke took everyone by surprise.  We'll see.  Given what happened on the evening of the EU referendum, I would certainly caution everyone not to read too much into the calmness of the financial and betting markets.

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Yes, Virginia, a two-year polling high for Yes was worth reporting

Every few weeks, I can't resist logging out of Twitter and doing a search for my name, just to see if the small army of people who I've had to block or have blocked me (mostly RISE types, Brit Nat trolls and a handful of militant anti-indy journalists) are saying anything I should know about.  And I'm so very rarely disappointed.  Last night I found a short exchange between David "IT'S THE RUSSIANS!!!" Leask and the SSP's "online coordinator" Scott Macdonald, during which Scott commented on the recent Panelbase poll putting the Yes vote at 47%...

"I know. And like many of the other respectable polls, within the margin of error of 18th September 2014. That's not news, unless you're Scot Goes Pop."

I presume that can be reasonably interpreted as criticism and/or mockery of my blogpost about the Panelbase poll.  If so, I think it's worth taking a moment just to defend that post, because quite honestly, the idea that this particular poll was not worthy of note is a bit batty.

Let's start with the obvious: Scot Goes Pop is a polling blog.  (Not exclusively, but to a large extent.)  Pretty much any full-scale Scottish poll is worth reporting here, even if it shows no change at all.  Scottish polls aren't exactly ten-a-penny outside election periods, so they always tell us something interesting.

Secondly, Scott is quite wrong to imply that I thought the significance of the poll was a 2% increase in the Yes vote since the 2014 referendum.  In reality, I was much more interested in the fact that 47% is a two-year high for Yes in Panelbase polls, and is significantly better than the recent 'normal range' for Yes reported by Panelbase, which has been around 43-45%.  Here is the sequence of Yes votes in the last ten Panelbase polls -

44 - 45 - 45 - 44 - 43 - 44 - 44 - 44 - 45 - 47

If you don't think the 47 at the end sticks out like a sore thumb, you must be pretty determined not to see it.  Now, of course, it's perfectly possible that support for independence has remained steady at around 44%, in which case the standard margin of error could just about produce a freakish 47% result now and again.  That's one possible explanation, and if it's the correct one it'll become obvious soon enough because the next couple of Panelbase polls would in all likelihood show a reversion to the 43-45% norm.  But there is another very obvious possible explanation - that the jump in support for Yes is either real or partly real.  If an unexpected poll result comes along and raises the possibility that Yes has significantly narrowed the gap, are we really supposed to look away in a state of total disinterest?  Come now.

The third and more general point is that Scott is making a schoolboy error (albeit a very common one) by assuming that because a large number of polls are putting the Yes vote within the margin of error of the 45% vote in 2014, no conclusions at all can possibly be reached about changes in public opinion since the indyref.  This is exactly the same mistake people made when they said that it didn't actually matter that Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump in the vast majority of polls, because in a lot of those polls her lead was within the margin of error.  (As you'll recall, Clinton went on to win the popular vote by some three million votes.)

Take a glance at the recent run of Yes results in polls from Survation, which unlike Panelbase is not one of the more No-friendly firms...

46 - 47 - 46 - 46 - 47 - 47 - 46 - 45

If looked at individually, then yes, all of those polls are within the margin of error of the 45% vote in 2014.  None of those polls on their own would constitute proof of an increase in the Yes vote since the indyref.  And yet if you look at them collectively, it's entirely right and proper to draw the opposite conclusion.  Seven out of eight of the polls have Yes above 45%, and not a single one has Yes below 45%.  That's an extremely improbable pattern if Yes is supposed to have been flatlining at exactly 45%.  If that had been the case, and if the margin of error was the explanation for Yes sometimes getting as high as 47%, it would be more likely that we'd have seen a rather more even spread of results above and below 45%.  So, if by any chance Survation have their methodology exactly right (and admittedly that's a big if), it can be said with a bit of confidence that the Yes vote has generally been a little higher over the last year or so than it was on referendum day in 2014.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Crisis deepens for Tyrannical Theresa as bombshell Panelbase poll shows support for independence at a two-year high

OK, I admit it, I've obviously been living down a hole today, because I've only just noticed this rather significant new poll, which apparently was published early this morning.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 47% (+2)
No 53% (-2)

So you might remember the SIF-funded Panelbase poll from a few weeks ago, which I was first to publish (a bit of a contrast from today) and which I mentioned was an eighteen-month high for Yes?  Not anymore, it's not.  A further two-point boost has taken Yes well above its recent normal range in Panelbase polls.  47% would not be unusually high if this was a Survation or Ipsos-Mori poll, but Panelbase have over the last couple of years become noted for being firmly on the No-friendly end of the spectrum.  The last time there was a result as good as this in a Panelbase poll was way back in the autumn of 2016.

Of course it's possible that the high Yes vote may just be an illusion caused by sampling variation, although if that was the correct explanation you might expect the poll's sample to be unusually favourable towards the SNP as well, and that isn't really the case.  There's no improvement at all for the SNP on Westminster voting intentions (which will be a disappointment to those who hoped recent YouGov subsamples were the first sign of a breakthrough), and although there's a 2% boost on the Holyrood constituency vote, that simply takes the party back to where they were in the Panelbase poll before last.  It's only on the Holyrood regional list vote that the SNP are clearly doing better than the recent Panelbase norm.

Scottish voting intentions for the next Westminster general election:

SNP 37% (n/c)
Labour 26% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 41% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-2)
Labour 23%  (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 38% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 22% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Greens 6% (n/c)

Although seats projections from polls need to be taken with a heavy dose of salt, on a uniform swing these figures would give the SNP and Greens 62 Holyrood seats in combination - just 3 short of a majority.  So even if the next Scottish Parliament election was a lot less than two and a half years away, there would still be a fighting chance of retaining the pro-independence majority.

It's not the headline voting intention figures from the Panelbase poll that are making the headlines, though - it's the results of supplementary questions that ask respondents to make a straight choice between independence and two different Brexit scenarios.  Independence is slightly preferred to remaining in Brexit Britain even if there is a negotiated deal (and the wording doesn't specify that the deal has to be Theresa May's deal - it could just as easily mean a better Norway-type deal).  But there is an overwhelming majority in favour of independence if the alternative is a no deal Brexit.  Although we've seen majorities for independence on this type of hypothetical question before, a majority on the scale of 59-41 is unusual.

Do you believe Scottish independence or a no deal Brexit would be better for Scotland?

Scottish independence: 59%
No deal Brexit: 41%

Do you believe Scottish independence or remaining in the UK but outside the EU under a negotiated Brexit deal would be better for Scotland?

Scottish independence: 53%
Remaining in the UK but outside the EU under a negotiated Brexit deal: 47%

The snag, of course, is that the results of hypothetical polling questions can't be regarded as being quite as credible as the results on the standard independence question.  People can very easily overestimate how big an impact a hypothetical event will have on their own voting intention.  We might find that, if and when no deal Brexit becomes the status quo, people's instinctive passivity and small 'c' conservatism will kick in and there won't be much of a boost for Yes at all.  However, it's interesting that people clearly feel that Brexit ought to increase their support for independence, and that might be a point of some significance in the heat of an indyref campaign.

Last but not least, there is a sizeable majority in favour of a snap general election if Theresa May's deal is voted down by the Commons - something that should happen this Tuesday (yikes!), unless the vote is cancelled.

If the Prime Minister fails to secure a majority in a vote in the House of Commons for the Brexit deal, would you favour another general election being held?

Yes: 61%
No: 39%

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