Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Unseasonal Elections And Their Effects

Someone suggested on the last thread that I should use the possibility of a December or January election as an excuse to write a blogpost about "Unseasonal Elections And Their Effects".  I think he was probably trolling me, but I'm going to do it anyway.  Never let it be said that I'm not accommodating.

Most general elections in recent decades have taken place in either May or June.  There were a couple of elections outside "peak months" in April 1992 and October 1974, but the last truly "unseasonal" election was in February 1974, and just like the one that's about to come, it took place in the midst of a national crisis.  Edward Heath's Tory government had a perfectly sustainable majority that could have seen him through all the way until mid-1975, but buoyed by favourable opinion polls, he instead took the fateful decision to seek a fresh mandate that would supposedly send a message that it was the elected government that governs, and not the unions.  Polling day was 28th February - officially the last day of winter, although as we all know, early March often feels like an extension of winter in much the same way that early September often feels like an extension of summer.  As polls closed the expectation was still that Heath's gamble would just about pay off, even though Labour had managed to stall his momentum somewhat during the campaign.  But early results showed a surprisingly decent swing to Labour, and although the Tories did narrowly win the popular vote, that translated into a very slight lead for Labour in terms of seats.  After a short delay of a few days, Labour leader Harold Wilson was invited by the Queen to form what was effectively a caretaker government until a new election could be held later in the year.  Crucial to the outcome was the fact that every Ulster Unionist that was elected was opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement, and therefore no longer took the Conservative whip.  If the UUP had still been inside the Tory fold, Heath would almost certainly have clung onto power, albeit at the head of a minority government.  It was also, of course, a big breakthrough election for the SNP - they jumped from two seats to a new all-time high of seven.  And there was a Liberal surge that didn't really produce any meaningful rewards as far as seats were concerned.

Does this tell us that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems can expect to do well in "unseasonal" elections?  Probably not.  I think the main thing it tells us is that winter elections are likely to only come about as the result of a major crisis, and that the outcome of the election will be determined largely by voters' reaction to that crisis, not by the temperature outside.  Although oddly enough, the only other post-war winter election wasn't (as far as I'm aware, anyway) triggered by an immediate crisis - Labour PM Clement Attlee went to the polls in February 1950, a few months earlier than he needed to, and paid the penalty.  His huge majority from 1945 was all but wiped out, and although he clung on to power for another year and a half, guerilla tactics in the Commons led his exhausted (literally physically exhausted) government to feel they had no choice but to call a snap election in late 1951, which they narrowly lost to Winston Churchill's resurgent Tories.

If you watch election results programmes from the distant past, you'll find the theory always used to be that a "high poll" (ie. a big turnout) favoured Labour, which might lead us to conclude that bad weather in winter that deters people from voting could be good news for the Tories.  But arguably the 1992 result gives the lie to that - there was a bumper turnout of 78% (which hasn't been repeated in any general election since), but Labour did much worse than anticipated.

For my money, the biggest issue with a winter election is the slight danger of freak weather conditions such as the Beast From The East that would make it impossible for many people to vote, and to the best of my knowledge there are no legal provisions to postpone a vote at the last minute because of the weather.  If, in a parallel universe, the Liberal Democrats had gone into coalition with the SNP in 2007 and had agreed to Alex Salmond's preferred date of St Andrew's Day 2010 for an independence referendum, there would have been major disruption because of heavy snow.  There probably would have been controversy for years afterwards about whether the outcome of the vote was really legitimate.

Final thought: if the EU extend Article 50 until 31st January and we need an election before that date to break the deadlock, surely it'll have to be just before Christmas?  I know it's getting very tight if that's going to happen, but the alternative would be either a mid-January election that would require campaigning to take place over the festive period, or a late January election that would be right up against the cliff-edge.

The Scotsman newspaper should be deeply ashamed of lying to its readers - yes, lying - in today's headline about an independence poll

So, right on cue, the Survation poll with the confusing question that I mentioned in my previous post has been trotted out by the Scotsman newspaper, and they've done exactly the same thing that the Sun newspaper did in its reporting of the previous poll in the series - they've told their readers a downright lie about the trend shown by the results.  The headline reads "Poll: Scottish independence supporters switching to back the Union".  In fact the poll shows the complete opposite of that - it shows that voters have swung towards independence since the previous poll.

The percentage of respondents who say that they "completely support Scotland becoming independent" has increased from 24% in the previous poll (conducted in March) to 26% now.  By contrast, the percentage of respondents who say that they "completely support Scotland staying part of the UK" has fallen in the same period from 40% to 37%.

If you also take into account respondents who are not on one of the two extremes, the pro-Yes trend is even stronger.  The percentage of respondents who are on the pro-independence side of the 0-10 scale has increased significantly from 35% in March to 40% now, while the percentage of respondents on the anti-independence side of the scale has declined sharply from 58% to 51%.

It's rare that we can simply say that a newspaper has lied, as opposed to just misleading its readers or telling half-truths, but this is one of those rare occasions.  The headline contains no quotation marks, and it doesn't say "according to Scotland in Union" or something like that (although I think we can make a fairly safe guess that's how this story came to appear).  It simply tells a direct lie.

As for the question of why this poll format produces such different numbers from standard Yes/No polls, there's something of a mystery.  We know from David Halliday's screenshot that at least some respondents were confusingly asked to regard the number zero as being the pro-independence end of the scale, and the number ten as being the anti-independence end of the scale - which may well explain why a wildly implausible 16% of Yes voters from 2014 are now supposedly expressing "complete support" for Scotland remaining in the UK.  (The equivalent figure from the March poll was almost identical.)  And yet the Survation datasets suggest that the opposite was done, and that the number ten was in fact the pro-independence end of the scale.  Are the datasets inaccurate?  Was there a dummy poll conducted in a different way for research purposes?  Either way, it does seem very surprising that Angus Robertson's Progress Scotland have persisted in commissioning polls using this format after the results produced in the spring proved to be so totally out of line with the results of conventional independence polling.

UPDATE: I see The Herald have done much the same thing as the Scotsman - their headline is "New poll suggests shift in support away from Scottish independence".  I don't think any of us are going to faint with amazement if it turns out that both papers have just lightly rewritten a Scotland in Union press release without bothering to check whether its factual claims are accurate.

Monday, October 21, 2019

"On a scale of confusion from 0 to 10..."

Regular readers might remember that back in the spring of this year, when Progress Scotland published its first poll, I pointed out that the Sun newspaper had misreported it (probably at the prompting of Scotland in Union) as showing that support for independence had "dropped below 40%".  It was perfectly true that support appeared to be lower than 40%, but the inaccurate word was "dropped".  In fact, the question format was completely different from standard independence polls, meaning it was impossible to make a comparison with those polls and conclude that the Yes vote had either risen or fallen.  There was no way of knowing whether earlier polls using the same format would have shown greater or lesser support for independence, although it did seem pretty likely that there was something about the question that was producing less favourable numbers than a Yes/No question would.

Basically respondents were asked to express their degree of support for independence on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 indicating total support and 10 indicating total opposition.  I speculated at the time as to why that might have produced an artificially low result for independence, but now we have a stronger clue.  The pro-independence Twitter legend David Halliday contacted me three weeks ago to say that he'd just taken part in a Survation poll using exactly that question format - and that he'd accidentally indicated total opposition to independence.

"Just had a really interesting - if embarrassing - experience taking a Survation poll. It started out about me - where I lived (which region in Scotland - clearly Scotland only), age, children, income - then on to how I voted in 2017, 2016 and 2014. Then - this is the interesting and embarrassing bit - it asked a question about independence on a scale of 0 or 1 to 10. I went straight to 10 ("Totally in favour of") and clicked next and only then realised that 10 was "Totally in favour of staying within the UK" (or similar) while 0 or 1 was "Totally in favour of independence". I tried to go back but couldn't so stopped the poll, in the hope my vote won't be counted. A real life example of how the wording of the question in a different way (and one that confusingly harked back to the 1 to 10 questions Yes canvassers asked in 2014 where the 10 was dead in favour of independence) can skew the result. I'm wondering if it was deliberate."

It's obviously unlikely that any poll commissioned by Angus Robertson would have tried to achieve that effect deliberately, but it does illustrate why any numbers produced by this question format should be taken with a pinch of salt.  If someone as intelligent and politically-engaged as David was capable of misreading the question and saying the opposite of what he intended to say, it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to suppose that plenty of other respondents may have done exactly the same thing.  Even if you hadn't encountered the 1 to 10 questions asked by Yes canvassers in 2014, it's entirely natural to assume that the highest number would indicate the maximum support for the proposition you are being asked about.

Here is a screenshot that David took of the question when he managed to revisit the poll later - would you have been confused?  Particularly if you weren't looking too carefully?

Based on other questions that were asked, David is very confident that the poll he was taking was the latest one for Progress Scotland, and yet oddly the datasets for that poll suggest that the question was asked the other way around, with 10 indicating total support for independence and 0 indicating total opposition.  So what's going on?  Are the datasets wrong?  Were two different halves of the sample asked the question in different ways?  No idea.  For what it's worth, though, this poll is slightly better for Yes than the one in the spring, with exactly 40% of respondents putting themselves on the independence-friendly end of the spectrum, and another 6% choosing the neutral option of 5.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

FACTCHECK: Have the SNP "gone into alliance with the DUP to kill independence"? (Spoiler: No, they haven't.)

The beautiful city of Bath in south-west England has been the source of a surprising number of furious anti-SNP rants over recent weeks, but today has seen perhaps the most unhinged of the lot.  Apparently (and brace yourself for this) the SNP are about to enter into "an alliance with the DUP...to kill independence".  Which would be absolutely shocking if it were true.  To quote the immortal line of 1980s Doctor Who assistant Tegan Jovanka, "if" is truly the most powerful word in the English language.

The basis for this latest ludicrous Wings claim is a tweet from James Melville claiming that the DUP are "on board" for a second EU referendum and that it's likely that the votes are now there to make that referendum happen.  Now, first things first: we do actually have to test the accuracy of Mr Melville's claim.  I'm sure he's a great bloke, but he's also well known on Twitter as a bit of a Remain/People's Vote propagandist, so naturally he's going to sometimes say things that turn out to be a tad over-optimistic from his own point of view.  I can't see any evidence at all that the DUP have come out for a second referendum - there's speculation that they might do, but to the extent that they've commented on the record, they've given the firm impression that they won't.  And even if they do, I'm doubtful that would be enough to swing the balance in itself.

If the SNP and the DUP do end up walking through the same lobby in favour of a People's Vote, does that mean they're "in alliance" with each other?  No, it does not.  That's one of the silliest and laziest allegations in politics.  In a binary vote, all you can control is which way you vote and your reasons for doing it.  You have no control whatsoever over how other parties vote, and in many cases you may not even know what they're planning to do until the vote is actually underway.  Parties can sometimes end up voting in the same lobby for polar opposite reasons - indeed, that happened only yesterday.  The SNP voted for the Letwin amendment because (among other things) they think the new deal gives Northern Ireland an unfair advantage over Scotland, and the DUP voted for the Letwin amendment because they think the deal is bad for Northern Ireland.

And in the unlikely event that a People's Vote is actually held, would that have the automatic effect of "killing independence"?  No, of course it wouldn't, for the obvious reason that we don't know what the result of the People's Vote would be yet.  If, for a second time in four years, the people of Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the European Union but were outvoted by people in another country, that would strengthen rather than weaken the case for independence.  And it's perfectly conceivable that could happen.  Although most recent polls show a Remain lead, it's usually not an enormous one, and in any case the referendum choice would be framed as "Deal v Remain" rather than "Leave v Remain".  The Brexiteers will have something positive to sell, and that could make all the difference as the campaign unfolds - especially with the financial muscle of the Tory party firmly behind them.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the dread words "best of both worlds" might be given another outing.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm on the record as being sceptical about the SNP's strategy of backing a People's Vote, and I do still worry about the danger of throwing away the casus belli for an early indyref.  But I also think it would be a rather good idea to avoid hyperbole and hysteria about the effect of the decision that the SNP have made.  It's far from clear that it's going to be the unmitigated catastrophe that Wings is so vividly painting in his readers' minds.

And why in the name of all that is holy is an alleged independence supporter trying to push the self-destructive narrative that the SNP need 50%+ of the vote (as opposed to the SNP and Greens winning a majority of Holyrood seats between them) to claim a renewed mandate for an independence referendum in 2021, if required?  And why does he chuck in gratuitous attacks on other miscellaneous SNP policies such as the fictional "car park tax" and tail-docking of working dogs?  Is he trying to do the unionists' work for them?

Oh no, I was forgetting, he wants to be Deputy First Minister.  Silly me.  (Although that probably amounts to the same thing.)

Are we finally moving towards clarity on the general election date?

The successful Letwin amendment "rules out No Deal", or so we're told.  Doesn't that sound strangely familiar?  How many times has such-and-such a vote or such-and-such an action supposedly ruled out No Deal? Presumably if No Deal had actually been already ruled out, it wouldn't be necessary to keep doing it again and again and again.  I don't think the Letwin amendment will be any more effective at taking No Deal off the table than the previous attempts - although admittedly it does significantly reduce the risk of a No Deal exit on Halloween.  Without Letwin, the government might have been able to hold a gun to the head of MPs and say that they had a straight choice between approving the legislation implementing the deal in unamended form, or an immediate No Deal crash-out in the absence of the Benn Act safety-net (although presumably they could still have got around that by seizing control of the timetable again and passing Benn Act II).

If there's any light at all at the end of the tunnel, it's the approaching clarity on the date of a general election.  In principle, Johnson appears to have the numbers to pass his deal - but the devil is in the detail, and all it would take to kill the deal (at least this side of an election) is a successful amendment that makes the legislation depart significantly from what was agreed with the EU.  If the DUP seek to amend the arrangements for Northern Ireland, for example, it's not impossible to imagine some Tory Brexiteers abstaining rather than voting with the government.  Either way, though, we'll know very soon.  If the legislation is passed to the EU's satisfaction, Britain will officially leave the EU in less than two weeks' time and it would make obvious sense to then move on to an election to ensure a proper mandate for whichever government enters into the next round of negotiations with Brussels during the transition period.  If, on the other hand, the legislation hits the rocks, it's likely that the EU will reluctantly agree to parliament's request for a three month extension, which on the face of it would satisfy Jeremy Corbyn's stated condition for agreeing to an election.

Would Labour still look for an excuse for further delay, given their unpromising showing in most current opinion polls?  Maybe, although it's no longer clear that playing it long will actually improve their position.  They had previously thought that if they just held on for a bit, Boris Johnson would be boxed into campaigning for No Deal at the election, which would have allowed Labour to portray themselves as the only viable alternative to an extremist government.  But whenever the election is held now, Johnson will be able to sell his deal as a grand compromise, and so arguably Labour might as well just get on and face the music.

If they do seek an excuse for a delay, it'll probably be the old favourite of "we can't annoy the voters at Christmas".  But pretty much any party would be quite happy to interrupt people's Christmas preparations if they thought there was the remotest tactical advantage.  Back in the day on Stormfront Lite, Tory posters used to complain that polls conducted over Christmas underestimated their party due to voters being away on holiday and whatnot, so who knows?  Maybe Labour will calculate that they're better off going to the country while Tory voters are disproportionately likely to be away skiing in Saalbach-Hinterglemm.

If the election is held before Brexit, each party is going to have a very obvious pitch -

Conservatives: Get Brexit done with our compromise deal and bring the country back together

Labour: Only we will let the people decide on Brexit

Liberal Democrats: Stop Brexit

SNP: Stop Brexit and reinforce our mandate for an independence referendum next year

All of those sound like potential winners, but self-evidently they can't all be.

*  *  *

Regular readers might remember that a few months ago I wrote about the absence of a Scottish Gaelic course on Duolingo, and urged people to add their name to the campaign for that to be rectified.  After that post, I spoke to a couple of people who had been seeking to engage with Duolingo on the subject for many years, and they were extremely pessimistic that progress would be made any time soon.  But just for once, there's an unalloyed good news outcome to report: Gaelic will shortly be added to the site!  You can sign up in advance HERE.  It'll still be a few months before the course is fully up and running by the looks of things.  In the meantime, I can recommend the free Gaelic course on Glossika that someone directed me to.  (Glossika is mainly a pay-site, but Gaelic is one of a small number of languages that are currently offered for free, presumably due to being endangered.)

Friday, October 18, 2019

When history beckoned, Jo Swinson was caught napping (or posturing)

A couple of things occurred to me yesterday about the implications of Boris Johnson concluding a deal against all the odds, and the fact that it doesn't (as of yet, anyway) look totally impossible that his new Hard Brexit package might just about scrape through the Commons tomorrow.  If it does, it's going to make a complete nonsense of the Liberal Democrats' contribution to the debate in recent weeks on whether or how to bring the government down.  They seemed to think it was a choice between an election or a last-gasp extension after no deal was found.  Instead the real question was whether a Tory government with no parliamentary majority whatsoever (indeed one that has never received any democratic consent to govern) should be left in office during the crucial month of October to negotiate a deal that suited it, as opposed to an alternative interim government putting in place arrangements that were actually in the interests of the people.

When history beckoned, Jo Swinson was caught napping.  Or more accurately, she was caught posturing about things that didn't really matter.  (Such as the identity of an interim PM who would have been in power for an extremely short period of time.)

Secondly, the outcome of the forthcoming election may be affected by the Brexit Party's decision to view the deal as a betrayal.  If the deal is rejected tomorrow, and an extension is requested and granted in line with the Benn Act, and then Johnson seeks to win the election on the promise to get the deal through, it seems likely that the Brexit Party would put up a full slate of candidates against the Tories - which paradoxically could mean that Johnson's negotiating triumph will make it harder for him to be re-elected.  The same would apply if the deal is ratified before the election.  The only way Farage will back off now is if the deal is rejected, the EU refuse a further extension, and a No Deal exit actually occurs before the election.  But I think that's pretty unlikely.  The EU may try to force MPs' hands by making noises in advance of tomorrow about refusing an extension, but will change their tune if the deal is voted down.

Mind you, it may not matter to the Brexit Party's electoral strategy whether this deal is passed before the election, but it certainly matters to the Liberal Democrats.  If Britain has already left the European Union by polling day, the clarity of their "stop Brexit" message will be spoiled.  They'll probably come up with an alternative message of negotiating as close a relationship with Europe as possible, but that may not capture people's imaginations in quite the same way.  The SNP will have no such problem: they'll still be able to inspire Remain voters with a crystal-clear pitch of swiftly rejoining the EU as an independent country.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

No, of course the SNP wouldn't get a Section 30 order by offering to back Johnson's Hard Brexit deal

So this is all coming to a head at breakneck speed: a Hard Brexit deal has been done between Boris Johnson and the EU, it needs to be ratified by parliament, and we should find out whether the numbers are there within 48 hours.  James Forsyth of the Spectator thinks that they will be if the EU accedes to Johnson's request to essentially blackmail MPs by saying it's this deal or an immediate No Deal exit.  I'm not sure whether that's wishful thinking or not, because there's a possible third option of a referendum with a straight choice between this deal and Remain, and that's such an obviously attractive outcome for the EU that I find it hard to believe they would thwart it.  Could Johnson really remain as PM while a second referendum took place on his watch?

On the questionable assumption that Johnson's deal is heading for defeat by a relatively narrow margin, a certain Somerset-based scribe of our mutual acquaintance has suggested again that the SNP should swing the balance and allow the deal to pass in return for Boris Johnson granting a Section 30 order and allowing an independence referendum to take place next year.  This is a bogus narrative designed to make it look like the SNP are selling out on independence.  As I've pointed out before, the SNP's supposed leverage simply isn't there - if they made Johnson such an offer, he would say "no".  He would have no other choice, because his own MPs would desert him otherwise.  An arrangement with Nicola Sturgeon wouldn't actually help him to get Brexit through, because he would lose more votes on his own side than he would gain from the SNP.  And he knows all of that.

Even in a hypothetical world where Johnson did agree, the SNP would pay a terrible price in the general election that everyone knows is coming and that cannot be delayed for longer than a few months.  Remain voters would desert them in droves for facilitating Brexit, and there would be a betrayal myth that might linger for decades.  Would that be a price worth paying to actually get Indyref2 on the statute book?  There's a debate to be had on that, but one thing's for sure - it would not enhance the chances of a Yes vote when the referendum takes place.

So, no.  Whatever doubts I might have about the SNP leadership's current strategy (I think they should be open to a Plan B, for example), one thing we should all be able to agree on is that they are not making any sort of tactical blunder by declining to make a naive offer to Johnson that would undoubtedly be rejected and that would backfire on them anyway.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Yesterday's Women's Convenor result was a moral victory, not a defeat - but only if people hold their nerve and don't walk away from the SNP

Here's what was slightly odd about the big showdown in the SNP's internal elections yesterday: it was the behaviour of Fiona Robertson on social media that convinced many people that there needed to be some kind of reckoning, and yet the most serious challenge was to Rhiannon Spear in the Women's Convenor election, rather than to Ms Robertson herself in the Equalities Convenor election.  That made it very likely that, whatever else happened, Ms Robertson would gain a renewed mandate and would be able to carry on as if nothing had changed.  I understand the argument that the most important thing was to ensure that the Women's position was held by someone committed to upholding women's rights, but nevertheless the fact that Ms Robertson chose to run for the Equalities brief suggests that she thought that was the one that would give her the platform she needed.

Nevertheless, I'm sure nobody would have been too worried about Ms Robertson's victory if a symbolic result had been achieved in the Women's vote - but instead Rhiannon Spear won by a narrow margin.  This double victory by supporters of self-ID, and the gloating that has followed it, has led a few people to conclude that the SNP is now completely and hopelessly in the grip of entryists and that there is no longer any place in the party for gender-critical feminists or for people who are opposed to self-ID for any other reason.  And that is a fundamental misreading of the situation.  I thought our old friend James Mackenzie unwittingly put his finger on something in his comment on the vote -

"Pleased to see the pro-equality slates won the SNP's internal elections.  The experience within the Greens is you need to win a couple of times in order to settle this issue - some bigots will leave the first time, but others will try to dig in.  Eventually they leave, though."

Obviously this is a repugnant comment, because it seems phenomenally unlikely that there were ever any "bigots" in the Green party in the first place, but it's clear that there was certainly a chilling intolerance towards those who dissented from the doctrine of the majority (a doctrine that is not central to the Greens' reasons for existence, any more than it is to the SNP's).

But think about what he's actually saying.  He's implying that the pro-self-ID lobby haven't really won, and won't do until and unless the other side actually walk away from the SNP.  And he's right, because even with their new mandate Fiona Robertson and Rhiannon Spear aren't going to decide the SNP's priorities.  The leadership will do that, and the main relevance of yesterday's vote was in guiding the leadership on whether the members will be solidly behind them if they push ahead with full-fat self-ID.  And the answer is clearly "no".  It would suit the pro-self-ID lobby down to the ground if their opponents left the stage, but it would not suit Nicola Sturgeon if a substantial minority of SNP members leave the party.  That would not be any kind of victory for her, and she's unlikely to take action that would drive members to that point.  But once those people leave, Ms Sturgeon would have nothing left to lose.  So if they just hold their nerve for now, they can avoid turning what was actually a moral victory yesterday into a defeat later on.

And needless to say that siren voices outside the party offering a counsel of despair should be treated with enormous scepticism, because they have their own agenda.

The other obvious point is that a 32 vote defeat is close enough to suggest that it could be fully reversed in future years if people just bide their time and remain within the party.  Jeremy Corbyn would not be leader of the Labour party now if he had given up the ghost when it was 'nuclear winter' for the Labour left under previous leaders.  In democratic parties, there's always another chance somewhere around the corner.

*  *  *

Some good news for the SNP from YouGov's latest Scottish subsample -

SNP 42%, Conservatives 23%, Labour 13%, Liberal Democrats 10%, Brexit Party 9%, Greens 2%

These figures are very much 'normal' by recent standards, and bolster the impression that the little run of bad results that the SNP had in YouGov subsamples a couple of weeks ago was probably caused by random sampling variation, rather than by real changes on the ground.  It's particularly encouraging to see another underwhelming result for the Lib Dems.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

False alarm: Panelbase haven't stopped using the 2014 referendum question

So just to briefly tie up a loose end from the blogpost on Sunday, it turns out that Britain Elects were wrong (gasp!) and in fact Panelbase did not alter the wording of the question they asked about independence for the Sunday Times poll - it was the usual question, with the 2014 referendum wording.  So that's good news - it means that a BBC journalist's criticism of the SNP for "promoting" a poll with a non-Yes/No question was based on a false premise, and it also means that the pro-Yes trend in the poll hasn't been called into question by methodological changes.

In a nutshell: false alarm.

*  *  *

I've just caught up with yet another polling post on Wings Over Scotland, and I really do have to reiterate that it's deeply reprehensible for him to be seeking to pass the blame onto Panelbase for his own biased and leading questions about the trans issue (and indeed about other issues).  Here's what he said this time -

"Some of those polls have been conducted by this site, and are invariably leapt on by trans activists as having featured supposedly “leading” or “unfair” questions, even though we check all our questions with Panelbase first and the results have without exception been identical, often to within a single percentage point, to those revealed in polls featuring differently-worded questions commissioned by extremely trans-friendly organisations like Pink News."

If I thought for one moment that he'd asked Panelbase "are these questions leading?" and that they had said "no", then I would be criticising Panelbase and saying they had to accept a share of the blame.  But I just don't believe that's what's happened here.  This is the question he published a few days ago -

"The SNP has announced its intention to implement 'self-ID' legislation, whereby physically-male people will have unrestricted access to all female-only spaces and services (eg. toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, sporting competitions and women's refuges) if they declare themselves to be women, whether or not they've had any medical treatment or surgery to change their sex.

On a scale of 0 to 10, how do you feel about this proposal?"

It's absolutely fatuous to suggest that any polling company would have said the above question is even-handed or neutral, and yet Mr Campbell is trying to give us the impression that Panelbase did exactly that.  In the comments section of this blog, he even provided a direct quote from an email sent to him by his Panelbase contact to try to bolster that impression.  Given how emotive this subject is, I would imagine that Panelbase are not exactly over the moon that one of their clients is effectively telling people that they've picked a side in the trans debate.  That's the inescapable implication of what Mr Campbell is saying, because anyone suggesting that his question is neutral would undoubtedly be picking a side.

My very strong suspicion is that Panelbase were answering a completely different query - I suspect they were asked if Mr Campbell's question was acceptable, and they said it was.  Acceptability and even-handedness are two entirely different things. Every day of the week, polling companies ask questions on behalf of paying clients that are calibrated to produce the best possible results for that client from a presentational point of view.  The threshold for saying "no" to a paying client is extremely high - but one reason for doing so might be that there are factual inaccuracies in the way that the question is worded.  Panelbase would certainly have been able to confirm to Mr Campbell that there were no inaccuracies in his question, and that it was therefore within the bounds of acceptability.  For Mr Campbell to portray that reply as some sort of official seal of approval, and as proof that his question is non-leading and even-handed, is deeply disingenuous and downright cynical.

He goes on to make the point that the results of his poll are similar to others with different wordings.  That's something I've noticed myself, but it doesn't give him a free pass.  Not all polls with leading questions produce misleading results, but that doesn't magically mean that the questions are all fine.

Today he's published new polling that finds only 25% of respondents think people should be able to change the sex on their birth certificate.  He insists that the wording of this latest question wasn't remotely leading.  That's fine - I actually accept that.  But I would just make the point that "Do you think that people should be able to legally change gender?" is a somewhat different question from the one he asked, and that people who answer "yes" on that point may also take a different view on whether an individual who has gone through the necessary legal process should then be able to seek an amendment to their birth certificate.  Mr Campbell's question is more legitimate than his previous ones and it does tell us something interesting, but it doesn't tell us everything.  Some of the people answering his question may not even have been taking the existence of trans people into account, and may have just answered on the basis that an individual "shouldn't be able to falsify details on their birth certificate" without realising how their responses would be interpreted.  I rather suspect that was Mr Campbell's intention, given that he was also asking people at the same time whether individuals should be able to change their date and place of birth to something false.  (Indeed the specific question asked was "which of these facts do you think people should be able to change on their birth certificate if they want to?", with the word "facts" implying that any change would be a departure from accuracy.)  So not a leading question as such, but a potentially deceptive question in a slightly different way.

And remember I say all of this as someone who is broadly opposed to the proposal on self-ID.  Propaganda polls just make me bristle, even when they're commissioned by people on my own side.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Panelbase poll is the latest to suggest we're on course to RETAIN the pro-independence majority in 2021

Many thanks to a fellow James for alerting me to the Holyrood voting intention numbers from the new Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times, which he found deep in the polls section of What Scotland Thinks - I'm not sure if they've been published elsewhere yet, or if they've merely been under-reported.

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 42% (n/c)
Conservatives 21% (+1)
Labour 19% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-1)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 38% (-1)
Conservatives 21% (+1)
Labour 18% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 11% (+1)
Greens 6% (-1)

That's a similar-ish pattern to the Westminster numbers, although the mystery is that Labour seem to be the party that have recovered most.  The two big things that have changed about the political weather since the last Panelbase poll in June is the tide going out somewhat on the Brexit Party, which ought to benefit the Tories more than anyone else, and the ascent of a Scottish MP to the leadership of one of the London parties, which ought to benefit the Liberal Democrats.  And yet the Lib Dems are essentially flatlining, there's only the faintest of signs of Tory recovery, and it's Labour that have put on three points on the constituency ballot.  I suppose I'm a tad sceptical, and I'm wondering if the Labour boost is an illusion caused by a sampling quirk.

This is yet another poll suggesting that we're on course to retain the pro-independence majority at Holyrood in 2021, although it would perhaps be a slightly smaller majority than at present.  The Scotland Votes model suggests the SNP would retain the 63 seats they won in 2016, but the Greens would slip back from 6 to 3.  So there would be 66 pro-indy seats altogether, slightly outnumbering the 63 unionist seats.  It's important to stress that Panelbase have in recent times reported less favourable numbers for the SNP than other firms have (on the constituency ballot at any rate), so it's conceivable that the true situation is somewhat better than this.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

What's in a question?

So just a little postscript to the earlier piece about today's extraordinary Panelbase poll showing 50% support for independence.  The Britain Elects account on Twitter tossed a small grenade into the discussion about the poll by stating that the standard indyref Yes/No question hadn't been asked.  My initial gut reaction to that was it must be an innocent misunderstanding - the Sunday Times had put out a graphic summarising the results in terms of "Support" and "Oppose" and I thought perhaps Britain Elects had seen that and taken it too literally.  However, as a service with a huge following, Britain Elects are presumably very much "in the loop" with the leading polling firms and with the embargoed results that are sent out in advance to journalists and other interested parties, so we shouldn't discount the possibility that their claim is accurate.  (It's also possible that this information is publicly available in the Sunday Times article and that I haven't seen it yet because I don't pay the Murdoch Levy, so if you know the answer please let me know.)

If the question has genuinely been changed, it's an inexplicable decision.  We all know that unionist politicians have been trying it on recently and attempting to gain some traction with the idea that the question will need to be revised for the next referendum.  But with absolutely no reason to assume they'll get anywhere with that, and with no idea what the new question would be even if they did succeed, it's surely a no-brainer for pollsters to continue with the question that was actually asked in the 2014 vote and that almost all polls have used in the five years since.  Remember also that this is just the latest in a long series of independence polls conducted by Panelbase on behalf of the Sunday Times, and it would be normal practice to maintain consistency by sticking with the same question wording, unless there's a very good reason not to.  If you don't do that, the results cease to be directly comparable and the trends that are picked up may be less meaningful.

The BBC's Philip Sim reacted to the Britain Elects claim by indulging in what I can only describe as some light trolling...

"On top of the usual caveats about individual polls etc - was this not a Yes/No poll? Interesting SNP are promoting it when they've been arguing that Electoral Commission don't need to test the indyref2 question because Yes/No is in "current use" and is always used in polls..."

Well, that's one way of looking at it, but there is another way.  Most polls are commissioned by a mainstream media that we know is overwhelmingly hostile to independence.  Have unionist newspapers decided that they are now in a position to undermine the SNP's case simply by playing silly buggers with the question they ask in their own polls?  And if so, have the polling companies begun to play along with that little game?

As it happens, something along the lines of "Do you support or oppose Scottish independence?" is not an inherently unfair question, and if that's what was asked, I'm not surprised that the results were very much in line with recent Yes/No polling.  It's certainly a lot clearer than Scotland in Union's notoriously dodgy "Do you want to remain part of the United Kingdom?" question, which confuses the hell out of people by making them think they're being asked about the monarchy.

But as a matter of principle, polling companies should be sticking with the tried and tested question until and unless a new question emerges from an official process.  If each firm dreams up its own question to ask, we're going to end up with five or six competing "referendum questions", each producing different results, and we won't have a clue what the true state of play is.

*  *  *

What is surely destined to be remembered as "The Poll With No End" finally came to an end today, as Wings published the last results from his own Panelbase poll of SNP voters.  You might be surprised to hear that I actually think his final question was a reasonably fair one, although there was still a faint tone of incredulity in one of the three possible options that respondents could choose from, and that may have had a slightly leading effect.  However, the results are overwhelming enough that I don't think there's much doubt about the balance of SNP voters' views - they want some sort of Plan B if a Section 30 order is rejected.  42% would want a consultative referendum to be held without Westminster's consent, 35% would want to use a scheduled election to double as a referendum, and only 7% think that the Scottish Government should just keep asking for permission and hoping that Westminster agrees.  (That was the touch of incredulity I was talking about.)

So, yes, it appears that the vast majority of SNP voters are directly at odds with the party leadership on this crucially important matter.  But what's the rational response to that?  The SNP leadership will be less likely, not more likely, to change course if the people who disagree with them leave the party and join a fringe party instead.  That would be a recipe for careerist, devolutionist SNP rule for the next twenty years.

For my part, I've just renewed my SNP membership for another year.  I didn't do that because I agree with the leadership on everything.  I disagree with them on Plan B.  I disagree with them on self-ID.  I disagree with them on one or two other miscellaneous things as well.  But the only way to bring change about is to fight for it on the inside. 

We're at a crossroads in our nation's history, and there can be no better time to make your voice heard inside the party that remains the only credible vehicle for delivering independence.  If you're not currently a member of the SNP and fancy joining for just a few pounds, you can do so HERE.

Historic breakthrough as Panelbase poll shows 50% support for independence

So my sincere apologies to a certain gentleman as this polling blog continues its "demented obsession" with covering opinion poll results as and when they are published, but I do think this is one you should probably know about...

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Panelbase)

Yes 50% (+1)
No 50% (-1)

This is highly significant, in spite of what on the face of it are minor changes that are well within the margin of error.  In recent times, Panelbase (along with YouGov) have been very much on the No-friendly end of the polling spectrum.  For an eighteen month period between the spring of 2017 and the autumn of 2018, every Panelbase poll that was published put Yes somewhere between 43% and 45%, with 44% being the most common figure - in other words Panelbase were suggesting that independence support had gone backwards (albeit only slightly) since the 2014 referendum.  But from the end of last year onwards, the Yes figure has almost imperceptibly crept up and up and up, from 45% to 47%, then to 48%, then to 49%, and now to 50%.  There has been no single poll in which we could say with confidence that the increase from the previous poll was genuine - but over a period of time the swing to Yes has self-evidently been real and statistically significant.

This is the first Panelbase poll since June 2016 not to show a No lead.  Indeed it's only the second poll from any firm since 2017 not to show a No lead, with the other one being the famous Lord Ashcroft poll during the summer that had Yes slightly ahead - and it was hard to know what to make of that one, because Ashcroft is not a regular independence pollster, and there were no baseline figures to measure from.  We've arguably been a bit unlucky that No-friendly pollsters have dominated the field of late - apart from that one Ashcroft poll, every independence poll that has been published this year has been conducted by either YouGov or Panelbase.  (Unless of course you count the Survation poll commissioned by Scotland in Union that purported to be about independence but in fact asked a completely different question.)  It's entirely possible that if the likes of Survation and Ipsos-Mori had been polling regularly, we'd have seen a fair few Yes leads recently.

In case you're wondering, the new figures are not part of the ongoing results from the Panelbase poll commissioned by Wings (which was confined to SNP voters only) - the Sunday Times were the client for this one, and they go out of their way to make the point that 50% is an all-time high for Yes in Panelbase polls for the Sunday Times.  Which is absolutely lovely, but bear in mind that the client doesn't usually make any difference to how Panelbase conduct their independence polling, and the all-time high for Yes with Panelbase is the 52% recorded in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016.  So we're almost back up to that kind of level of support but not quite.

(Since writing the above paragraph, I've doublechecked and it turns out that the June 2016 poll was actually commissioned by the Sunday Times anyway!  They've obviously forgotten about that one.)

I don't pay the Murdoch Levy and can therefore only see the first few paragraphs of the Sunday Times piece, but it appears there was also a supplementary question that invited respondents to make a straight choice between Scotland staying as part of the UK after Brexit, and independence within the EU.  I haven't found the exact figures yet, but on that question there is majority support for independence within the EU.  That'll be food for thought for the minority within the SNP who believe that the road to a Yes win involves watering down the party's outright Remain stance and embracing the EFTA option.

UPDATE: It looks like the forced choice question asked whether independence-in-Europe or precious-union-in-Brexit would be better for Scotland economically, which perhaps puts a slightly different complexion on it.  But 45% of respondents chose independence-in-Europe and only 35% chose precious-union-in-Brexit, which with Don't Knows excluded must be roughly a 56% to 44% split.  That's very much "decisive" in BBC terms.

Here are the Westminster voting intention numbers from the poll:

SNP 39% (+1)
Conservatives 21% (+3)
Labour 20% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 13% (n/c)
Brexit Party 5% (-4)
Greens 2% (n/c)

Seats projection: SNP 48, Conservatives 5, Liberal Democrats 5, Labour 1

Do those seat numbers look oddly familiar? That'll be because they're identical to the projection from the average of YouGov subsamples that I published the other day - which is really odd given that those subsamples are "piddly" and "meaningless" (ahem). But is this surprising? Not at all. As I've patiently pointed out about 7548 times over the last few years (and I can't force Somerset-based scribes to take this on board, but it is actually true), YouGov subsamples are different from those of other firms, because they're correctly structured and weighted.  When there's a long gap between full-scale Scottish polls, as we've just had, the next-best way to get a sense of the state of play is to average several recent YouGov subsamples, which ought to produce a level of accuracy that isn't a million miles away from that of a full-scale YouGov poll.

That said, there is one significant difference between the YouGov subsample average and these Panelbase numbers, which is that Labour's vote is considerably higher with Panelbase.  It's not doing them much good in terms of seats, though, because six of the seven seats they're defending are highly vulnerable to a relatively modest swing to the SNP.

I'm not particularly concerned that the SNP are 'only' in the high 30s, because Panelbase have in recent years tended to report lower SNP figures than other firms.  This is actually the SNP's best showing in any Panelbase poll since 2017.

The Liberal Democrats will be (or certainly ought to be) mildly disappointed with these numbers, because their vote has remained static since the last comparable poll in June - suggesting there has been no Swinson Bounce at all as of yet.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Disappointing but not remotely surprising: Stuart Campbell uses ludicrously vague "Archie Stirling"-type polling question to create the false impression of potential support for a Wings party

So Stuart Campbell's interminable drip-drip reveal of the details of his propaganda poll has finally reached the culmination that we all knew was coming.  There are no surprises here - a commenter on this blog had warned us several days ago that Mr Campbell had asked a dodgy "Archie Stirling"-type question in the poll in order to generate the false impression that there was significant potential support for the new political party that he hopes to set up in direct competition with the SNP.

What is an Archie Stirling-type question?  Just weeks before the 2007 Holyrood election, the wealthy businessman Archie Stirling (ex-husband of Diana Rigg and father of Rachael Stirling) commissioned a YouGov poll which asked respondents whether they would consider voting for his new centre-right political party, Scottish Voice, on the regional list ballot.  21% said they would.  Mr Stirling sent the results to the newspapers, which breathlessly reported that Scottish Voice could be on course to win dozens of list seats and to hold the balance of power.  But a few weeks later when the actual results came in, the party received only 0.3% of the list vote and didn't come remotely close to winning a single seat.  It had won just one-seventieth (!) of the number of votes that the YouGov poll had implied was possible.

History repeated itself earlier this year when Change UK was set up.  A number of polls asked whether voters would consider voting for the new kid on the block, and the results suggested astronomical levels of support.  But when the European elections came around, Change UK took 3.3% of the vote and no seats.  (At least that was a more respectable result than Archie managed.)

Why does the "would you consider voting for...?" question produce such wildly misleading results?  It's just basic human psychology.  If you ask me whether I'll consider eating a banana, I'll say "yes, of course I'd consider it, I have nothing against bananas".  But if you then tell me I have to choose just one piece of food for my next snack and ask me whether it'll be a banana, or crisps, or pizza, or yoghurt, or spaghetti, or a toastie...well, it's considerably less likely that the banana will get the nod.  In a similar way, voters will have just one vote in the regional list ballot in 2021, and to get a meaningful sense of how well Wings might fare you'd have to present the party as merely one of a menu of options.  The question that would have cleared the mists is as follows...

If the following parties stand on the Scottish regional list ballot in 2021, which one would you vote for?

Scottish National Party (SNP)
Liberal Democrats
Brexit Party
Wings Over Scotland
Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)

Mr Campbell has no excuses for not knowing that was the type of question that needed to be asked.  It's not just me that's been saying this for weeks - others have made the exactly the same point in comments on his own site, and we know he saw those comments because he directly responded to some of them.  The fact that he's gone right ahead and asked the Archie Stirling-type question anyway means we're entitled to conclude that those who trusted him to use his polling as a genuine attempt to accurately measure support were wrong.  This is instead a propaganda exercise to justify a decision that has to all intents and purposes already been taken.

Why does this matter?  Because if, as seems overwhelmingly likely, the Wings party fails to take at least 5% of the vote in at least one electoral region, it will not win any seats at all, and any votes it does take will make it harder for larger pro-indy parties (ie. the SNP and the Greens) to win list seats.  If a credible poll had been conducted showing that Wings was on 1% or 2% or 3% or even 4% of the list vote, the pressure on him to do the sensible thing and drop the whole idea would have been overwhelming, even from some of his own supporters.  And he couldn't risk that, could he?  So instead he's asked a dodgy question that he knew would produce meaningless results that he could spin any way he likes.  And by God is he spinning - he's even making the barking mad implication that the poll shows that six out of seven SNP voters might make the jump to his party.

Incredibly, the question he asked is actually a hundred times worse than Archie Stirling's question was.  At least Mr Stirling had the basic decency to actually mention the name of the party he was polling about.  Mr Campbell's question doesn't even do that.

While still voting SNP with your constituency vote, would you be prepared to consider voting for a new pro-independence party with your list vote, with the intent of increasing the number of pro-independence MSPs in Parliament?

Where do you even begin with the nonsense of that question?  Given Mr Campbell's supposed pride in the brand recognition of Wings, why would he be so shy about actually identifying this "new pro-independence party" as the Wings party?  It can only be because he thought he'd get a more favourable result by being as vague as possible and making it sound as if he might be talking about an entirely different sort of pro-independence party.  It's the ultimate 'catch-all' polling question.  And why on earth didn't he end the question with the words "with your list vote?", rather than adding the unnecessary leading wording about "increasing the number of pro-independence MSPs", which was bound to make it harder for respondents to give a negative reply?  Well, quite, I've answered my own question there.  The results would probably have been very different without those words, which are a) downright misleading, and b) superfluous to the issue of whether voters are actually looking for an alternative to the SNP, let alone an alternative called Wings.  If I asked you "Would you be prepared to consider changing jobs with the intent of getting more money?", it would be hard to say "no", but what would I actually be proving?  I wouldn't be surprised if some respondents gained the false impression that they were being asked what they would "consider" doing if a new pro-indy party stood on the list ballot with the SNP's blessing.  The question does read as if it's implying some sort of masterplan on behalf of the wider Yes movement.

I would go so far as to say the results of such a ridiculous question should be regarded as completely worthless, but for the sheer hell of it I'll try to make some sense of them.  19% of respondents say they would "definitely consider" (whatever that means) voting for this unspecific new party.  Remember that we're only talking about SNP constituency voters here, so that's probably only around 8% or so of the total electorate.  If I was cheeky enough to suggest that history will repeat itself from 2007 and that only one-seventieth of those people will actually end up voting for Wings, that means Mr Campbell is on course for a humiliating 0.1% of the list vote.  Oh, but then of course there's the additional 56% who say they would "perhaps" consider voting for the party "depending on its policies".  Well, no shit, Sherlock.  Voters who will decide whether or not to "consider" voting for a party when they actually find out what it is and what its policies are?  HOLD THE FRONT PAGE.

This is an insult to the intelligence of people who have been giving Mr Campbell the benefit of the doubt over recent weeks, and they have every right to be angry with him.  Doubtless there will still be many Wings readers who are wide-eyed enough to take the preposterous "six out of seven" claim at face value, and they're going to be in for a nasty shock one of these days - because sooner or later a media organisation will run a credible poll about the Wings party along the lines that I suggested above.  Then we'll see the true picture, and there'll be no hiding place left. (Although probably a few people will be so deep into the trance by that point that they'll accuse whoever ran the poll of "rigging" it.)

I know that some people will innocently protest that Mr Campbell says in his write-up that he plans to ask more "specific" polling questions on the subject himself in future, but come on.  Let's get real.  If he was remotely serious about doing that in timely fashion, he would have done it in this poll.  I defy anyone to come up with a plausible explanation for why he hasn't.

Incidentally, any time Mr Campbell has been challenged on the series of absurdly leading questions he's asked in this poll, he's come up with the rather weak stock reply of: "Take it up with Panelbase, they okayed it, and here's an email they sent me as proof."  See for example this exchange of last night and today.  To avoid having to repeat the same thing another 57 times, here's what I've been saying in reply:

"No, I won't do that. What polling companies do to make money is ask questions that clients want asked in return for thousands of pounds. They tend to be pleasant and accommodating to those clients for entirely understandable reasons, regardless of the agenda that the client is pushing. That can be seen, for example, in Survation's willingness to ask a certain 'voting intention' question on behalf of Scotland in Union that I doubt if any of us - including you - consider to be a genuine attempt to measure public opinion on independence.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. I'm far more interested in holding the person who calls the tune accountable, rather than some unnamed person from Panelbase who may have fallen into your little trap of saying something unwise when they were trying to please a paying client and when they presumably thought they were speaking in confidence.

Basically your complaint here is that your polling is being regularly analysed in a polling blog. With all due respect, it's hard to think of a more fatuous and futile complaint than that. If being mentioned in a polling blog really bothers you so much, all I can suggest is that you stop publishing polling results on an almost daily basis. Alternatively you could just chill out and accept that when you step into the political arena in a free society, people have the right to comment on your decisions and actions."

YouGov average suggests SNP remain on course for sweeping gains from both the Tories and Labour

Regular readers will recall that I became more than a little concerned last week after a third YouGov subsample in a row put the SNP's support at an unusually low level.  The results of YouGov's Scottish subsamples tend to be much more stable than those from other firms, because YouGov appear to structure and weight their subsample figures correctly.  Three low results in a row could still have happened by random chance, but the worry was that if a fourth and fifth in a row showed the same thing, it would start to look very much like something had genuinely changed.

I'm pleased to be able to report that normal service has been resumed in the newest YouGov subsample out today.

SNP 43%, Conservatives 20%, Brexit Party 10%, Labour 10%, Liberal Democrats 8%, Greens 6%

In conjunction with the results from other pollsters that don't show any obvious recent dip in support for the SNP, I'm inclined to think this probably means that the run of bad results was just caused by freakish sampling variation and that SNP support has actually been holding reasonably steady.  But obviously we'll keep an eye on it.

What's particularly encouraging is the poor showing for the Liberal Democrats in the latest subsample - in the earlier results it had looked like it was the Lib Dems that were doing some of the apparent damage to the SNP.

Given the small number of respondents interviewed for each subsample, the best way of getting a meaningful sense of the state of play is to average several subsamples over time.  Here is the average of the last five from YouGov -

SNP 39.2%
Conservatives 21.0%
Liberal Democrats 14.0%
Labour 12.2%
Brexit Party 6.6%
Greens 5.6%

For what it's worth, the Electoral Calculus model suggests that would give the SNP a net gain of 13 seats and leave them with 48.  The Tories would lose 8 seats, although annoyingly that would still leave them with 5, and the rump group would include the likes of David Mundell and Ross Thomson.  (Perhaps we should be a tad sceptical about the latter given that his nickname at Westminster has long been "SNP gain".)  Inevitably it's Labour that would take the absolute hammering, with Ian Murray the last man standing once again.  The only SNP loss would be to the Liberal Democrats in the ultra-marginal seat of North-East Fife.

Of course what we could really do with now is a full-scale Scottish poll just to confirm that the above numbers are in the right ball-park.  Given that a general election is probably only a few weeks away (a few months at the absolute most) and that we're in the midst of the biggest national crisis since the Second World War, it's extraordinary that we haven't had a full-scale poll for over a month.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Guinness Book of Records on standby as latest Wings poll question is even more loaded than the previous ones

There were many silly moments in the immediate aftermath of Mr Campbell throwing his toys out of the pram in early September because I refused to pipe down about the inherent problems with the idea of setting up his own political party, but the silliest one of all came when one of his supporters donned a deerstalker and unearthed a tweet in which I'd suggested that a Wings poll had once asked an absurdly leading question about the trans self-ID issue.  "I think there may be more to Mr Kelly's opposition than meets the eye" said the Wings supporter (or words to that effect) to which Mr Campbell replied "Aha!" as if he'd just found incontrovertible proof that I only opposed the Wings party because I was a secret supporter of self-ID.

The reason this was monumentally silly is, of course, that I'm not a secret supporter of self-ID.  Quite the reverse.  I've been on the record for months in saying that I broadly agree with Mr Campbell on the trans issue.  It certainly doesn't rank as highly on my list of priorities as it does for him, and I think it always rings a bit phoney when he couches his views on the subject in the language of radical feminism, but nevertheless I do wish the SNP would take their foot off the accelerator on self-ID and at the very least seek a meaningful compromise.  I don't think this is the ditch they should be dying in.

At the end of the day, though, a leading polling question is a leading polling question, and Mr Campbell has just repeated the exercise in his latest poll (conducted among SNP voters only).  I defy anyone to say with a straight face that the following wording can be regarded as neutral.

"The SNP has announced its intention to implement 'self-ID' legislation, whereby physically-male people will have unrestricted access to all female-only spaces and services (eg. toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, sporting competitions and women's refuges) if they declare themselves to be women, whether or not they've had any medical treatment or surgery to change their sex.

On a scale of 0 to 10, how do you feel about this proposal?"

When I pointed out the leading nature of the previous similar question, it was suggested to me that the lack of public knowledge about the issue means that you'd only get meaningful results if you explain the implications of the policy when asking the question.  That's fine, but if you're going to explain the issue you actually have to do it in an even-handed way (unless of course the purpose of the poll is propaganda rather than the accurate measurement of public opinion).  If it's not possible to find genuinely neutral language on such an emotive topic, one option would be to explain how proponents see the proposal and then counterbalance that with how opponents see it.  Essentially Mr Campbell's question gives respondents the case for the prosecution but not for the defence.  All of the main concerns of the anti-self-ID lobby are carefully itemised (including the mention of women's refuges, which is calculated to produce a certain reaction), but that process is not repeated for the concerns of the pro-self-ID lobby.  There's also a tone of incredulity throughout - trans women are not trans women but "physically-male people" and they will not merely have access to female-only spaces, but "unrestricted" access, and they'll have it "whether or not" they've "change[d] their sex".  No-one can accuse Mr Campbell of sparing the kitchen sink in this question.

My own guess is that the results of the poll might not have been all that radically different if a fairer question had been asked, and if I'm right, Mr Campbell has undermined the credibility of the numbers for no good reason.  It's all a bit pointless.

Still no sign of the dodgy question we all know he asked about the Wings party idea.  Maybe I should open a book on when (if ever) he'll get round to publishing those results.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

It's actually pretty remarkable that two-thirds of SNP voters expect a pre-2021 indyref

The drip-feed of results from the new Wings poll continues, but there's still no sign of the question that everyone thinks is coming.  (Maybe even before Christmas.)  In the meantime, Mr Campbell is taunting his critics with a result that he claims they won't like, ie. that 'only' two-thirds of SNP voters expect there to be an independence referendum before May 2021.  Frankly, that's a remarkably upbeat finding and all I can say is that I hope these people know something I don't.  I certainly haven't given up hope on a pre-2021 referendum, but given Nicola Sturgeon's apparent determination that the Section 30 process should be repeated, it's going to be like threading a needle.  The forthcoming election would probably need to produce a minority Labour government with the SNP holding the balance of power, and that's not an outcome that the SNP can contrive - it'll either happen by chance or it won't.

Incidentally, Mr Campbell uses an age-old trick to misrepresent the result of the poll - he combines the 21% of respondents who don't expect a pre-2021 referendum with those who said "Don't Know", in order to claim that "a third of SNP voters" are "unconvinced" by the First Minister's assurances that an early referendum is coming.  It would be just as easy to use the Don't Knows in the opposite way and claim that "79% of SNP voters don't share Mr Campbell's scepticism".  But a much fairer and more meaningful thing to do is simply to strip out the Don't Knows altogether, which would leave us with approximately 76% who anticipate a pre-2021 vote.

The second finding that Mr Campbell has announced with misplaced triumphalism is that 57% of respondents agree in principle with his cunning plan that the SNP should facilitate Brexit in return for the permanent transfer to the Scottish Parliament of the power to call independence referendums.  I'd have agreed to that proposition myself if I'd been answering the poll, but Mr Campbell is making the same fundamental mistake that the UK government has been making in the Brexit negotiations for the last three years - he thinks that a deal is something that you make with yourself.  Here's the snag: it wouldn't matter if the SNP were willing to cut a deal, because the Tory government are not (and never have been) remotely interested in agreeing to the required terms.  And in a way there's a degree of logic to that, because diehard unionists in the Tories and the DUP would probably walk away in disgust from any pro-Brexit coalition that included the SNP, on the grounds that it would "weaken the union".  It may well be that SNP votes wouldn't actually be able to deliver Brexit.

The SNP group in the Commons simply doesn't have the potential leverage with the Tories that Mr Campbell believes.  So what's Plan B, wise guy?

Wings poll: Disagreement is not the same thing as "not having a clue"

As a number of people feared, the latest Panelbase poll commissioned by Wings Over Scotland appears to be largely a propaganda exercise to further that site's recent anti-SNP agenda, and in particular Mr Campbell's tentative plans to set up a new political party in direct competition with the SNP.  Only people planning to vote SNP on the Holyrood constituency ballot were interviewed.  The idea seems to have been to identify a series of ways in which the SNP are regarded as deficient by their own voters, and then to present a magical 'solution' to these supposed 'problems'.

The results from the poll are being drip-fed to us, and the latest batch purport to show that SNP voters are confused by the party's strategy and aims in regards to Brexit.  Actually the poll shows no such thing.  It shows that SNP voters disagree with each other in their interpretations of what the strategy and aims are, but there's no evidence at all that individuals are unsure in their own minds.  (To get that sort of evidence, there would have had to be a question along the lines of "On a scale of 0 to 10, how confident are you that you understand the SNP's goal in relation to Brexit?")  Even the supposed division of opinion among SNP voters is somewhat artificial, because a clear majority of respondents (56%) said that they thought the aim was either to stop Brexit altogether for the whole UK, or to stop a No Deal Brexit for the whole UK.  The difference between those two options is one of emphasis, because stopping No Deal probably requires stopping Brexit altogether, at least for the time being.

It's true that another 26% of the sample do hold an interpretation that contradicts the view of the majority, ie. they think the SNP want a Scotland-specific Brexit deal within the UK.  But that's a product of the evolution of the SNP's own position - at one point Nicola Sturgeon was pressing for exactly such a deal, but having failed to get blood out of a stone she started taking the view that the only way (short of independence) to keep Scotland in the single market and/or the EU itself was to keep the whole of the UK in.

What I find really encouraging from the results is that only a very small 8% of the sample take the cynical view that the SNP are just "pretending" to try to stop Brexit as a way to win voters over to the independence cause.  That's been one of the Scottish Tories' favourite smears ("the SNP are desperate for No Deal"), and it appears from the poll that it simply hasn't resonated with SNP voters.  But what would be more helpful to know is whether it's resonated with the wider electorate.

Several Wings supporters have indignantly protested to me in recent weeks that Mr Campbell is extremely hard-headed, and would use his forthcoming polling as a genuine attempt to measure the likely support for a Wings party.  If that support wasn't there, he would drop the whole idea to avoid splitting the list vote and possibly reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.  But what would a genuine attempt to measure support for a Wings party look like?  It would have to be a question that presented Wings as one of a menu of options.  Something along the lines of...

If the following parties stood on the Scottish Parliament regional list ballot, which one would you vote for?

Scottish National Party (SNP)
Liberal Democrats
Brexit Party
Wings Over Scotland
Change UK
Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)

If the Wings party scored significant support on a question of that sort (assuming, of course, that it wasn't at the end of a leading 'question ladder'), Mr Campbell would be entitled to say that he's onto something.

What a legitimate question wouldn't do is ask about a Wings party in isolation, ie. "Would you consider giving your regional list vote to a Wings Over Scotland party?", because history shows that a question of that sort will give a wildly distorted impression of how well a party might do.  The classic example was the YouGov poll that Archie Stirling commissioned when he set up his Scottish Voice party in 2007 - he managed to breathlessly persuade newspapers to report that polling showed his party was on course to take 20% of the vote and dozens of list seats.  Just weeks later, Scottish Voice took a mere 0.3% of the list vote and naturally didn't come within light-years of winning any seats at all.

Similar dodgy polling questions earlier this year gave the bogus impression that the Independent Group/Change UK was on course for a massive breakthrough at Westminster.

So if Mr Campbell asks a credible polling question that presents Wings as one of a menu of options, it can reasonably be inferred that he is serious about accurately measuring support, and if he asks a vaguer question about the Wings party in isolation, it can reasonably be inferred that his motivation is somewhat different.  And guess what?  It looks like he's done the latter.  An anonymous commenter on this blog was interviewed for the poll, and recalled that the question asked was along the lines of -

"Would you consider voting for a new alternative pro-independence party on the list ballot?"

Mr Campbell responded to the comment in his trademark derisive and foul-mouthed manner, but what he very noticeably didn't do was deny that he'd asked that sort of question.  He isn't a fool - he knows exactly what he's doing.  Even if at one point he was naive enough to believe that such a vague question would produce meaningful results, it's been pointed out to him for weeks why that isn't the case.  I wrote a blogpost in mid-August setting out the problem with Archie Stirling-type questions, and Alex Birnie has repeated the point several times in comments on Wings itself.  We know that Mr Campbell saw at least some of those comments, because he directly responded to them.

If, as it appears, he's gone ahead and asked that question anyway, it's safe to conclude that this is not an attempt to accurately measure potential Wings support on the list ballot.  It's most likely an attempt to generate the impression of significant support, to whip his most devoted fans up into an even greater frenzy, and to make the momentum towards setting up the party unstoppable, regardless of the damage it might do to pro-independence representation in the Scottish Parliament.  Remember that a small party that takes less than 5% of the list vote in any region will almost certainly not take a seat in that region, and can only do damage by taking votes away from larger pro-indy parties that do have a chance of winning list seats.

My advice to Wings readers, regardless of whether you're sympathetic to the idea of a new party or not, is this: demand better polling.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Better news for the SNP with Opinium

As a counterbalance to my post about the run of relatively unimpressive YouGov subsamples for the SNP, here's some better news from Opinium (well, "better" if you leave aside the enormous Tory lead at GB level).

Britain-wide voting intentions (Opinium):

Conservatives 38% (+2)
Labour 23% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 15% (-5)
Brexit Party 12% (+1)
SNP 5% (n/c)
Greens 4% (+2)
UKIP 1% (+1)

Scottish subsample: SNP 48%, Conservatives 25%, Labour 11%, Brexit Party 9%, Liberal Democrats 7%

The subsample figures shouldn't be taken as seriously as YouGov's, because Opinium don't properly structure/weight their Scottish subsamples.  Nevertheless, we can certainly draw some reassurance from the fact that this is the second Opinium poll in the space of a week to put the SNP on a hefty 5% of the Britain-wide vote, and with a bit of luck that might mean that the SNP's recent dip in YouGov polling has been caused by random sampling variation rather than by real changes on the ground.  Time will tell.

No other pollster has yet picked up the slump in Lib Dem support across Britain that Opinium are reporting, so we should take that finding with a pinch of salt until it's corroborated.  But at the very least, it looks unlikely that the Lib Dems have been making any more progress over the last week.

There's also no cause for panic about the 15-point Tory lead across Britain, because Opinium have recently emerged as the most Tory-friendly pollster, producing figures for the Conservatives that are several points higher than other firms.  That doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong, of course, but there's a degree of uncertainty about whether the Tories are really that far ahead.  In any case, we know that the electorate is extremely volatile at the moment, and that the situation can change very quickly.  In particular, I'd have thought that Remain voters in England may well coalesce mainly around one party as the official campaign progresses - that party might be Labour or it might be the Lib Dems, but at some point people are going to stop looking for perfection, and start looking for the best option to stop Boris Johnson.

Friday, October 4, 2019

How would voters react to the Lib Dems in a post-Brexit election?

So there were a few interesting points made in response to the previous post.  Scottish Skier pointed out that the three YouGov subsamples putting the SNP in the 30s had followed on from others that put the SNP at an unusually high level of support, so this could all be normal sampling variation signifying nothing other than that the SNP vote has held steady in the low 40s.  That's possible, although obviously the more consecutive subsamples that put the SNP in the 30s, the more likely it is that something has genuinely changed.  It's also true that the most recent Opinium subsample had the SNP at a very healthy 50%, although unlike YouGov subsamples, that one won't have been correctly structured or weighted.

Someone else suggested the reason for any Lib Dem surge could be their outright "Revoke" stance, which means that if the election doesn't happen until after a No Deal Brexit, support for the Lib Dems could evaporate.  I think that's putting it a bit strongly, although it's true that the Lib Dem offer to the voters would have to be very different in a post-Brexit election, and it remains to be seen how voters would respond to that.  Would they be convinced by a promise to take the UK back into the EU, which might mean years or decades of further turmoil?  Or would they be satisfied by a promise to soften Brexit but not to rejoin the EU?  It's impossible to know at this stage, so yes, the jury is out on how the Lib Dems would fare if the election is delayed beyond Brexit.

*  *  *

Stuart Campbell has commissioned a poll of 1000 people who plan to vote SNP on the Holyrood constituency ballot.  The early results he's published are of no great interest or significance, but I can't see any reason why he'd have commissioned such a poll unless he's finally decided to test the potential support for a "Wings party" on the regional list ballot.  So I would guess that moment is about to arrive.  Remember to beware of dodgy Archie Stirling/Change UK-type questions that give a wildly distorted impression of how well the party might do.  But with a bit of luck Mr Campbell might have asked a credible question and we'll at last reach the moment of truth.

UPDATE: Unfortunately it looks like Mr Campbell hasn't asked a credible question in his poll - see the comment from Anon at 4:06pm below.  If anything it looks slightly worse than the Archie Stirling and Change UK questions that produced such misleading results.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

YouGov subsample update

Well, I'm not going to beat about the bush here: there are some worrying straws in the wind to be found in recent Scottish subsamples from YouGov.  The last three have had the SNP down in the 30s, which is unusual in recent times, and two of the three have put the SNP below the 37% recorded at the last general election, which is highly unusual.  This looks like the manifestation of what I've been worried about since it became obvious that Jo Swinson would become Liberal Democrat leader.  A Britain-wide party led by a Scot has an inbuilt advantage north of the border, because that person is all over the UK news in a way that the SNP leader is not - a problem that will only get worse during the official campaign.

This is the newest subsample...

SNP 35%, Conservatives 21%, Liberal Democrats 20%, Labour 11%, Greens 6%, Brexit Party 5%

It's quite hard to judge what a result like that would translate into in terms of seats.  The SNP would be making heavy gains from Labour, and at least modest gains from the Tories, but it's very unlikely that the Lib Dems would only be winning four or five seats on 20% of the vote.  They'd probably recover a lot of the former heartland seats that they lost in 2015.

Of course the Greens won't stand in every seat, so some (but not all) of that Green vote can be regarded as the SNP's for the taking...but then again the same may be true in respect of the Brexit Party's vote and the Tories.

I suppose the bigger picture is that this still looks like it could be the election in which Scottish Labour cease to be a major player - and that could mean sustained SNP hegemony under first-past-the-post.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Will Jo Swinson's stubbornness on a Corbyn-led government make her the midwife of independence?

What effect would a No Deal Brexit at the end of this month have on the case for independence?  There are two main schools of thought: 1) that people will accept the new status quo as 'the devil they know' and will shy away from any further constitutional upheaval, and 2) that many people who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016 will start to look upon independence as a safe harbour in the Brexit storm.  We can only speculate at this stage as to which of those is right, but if by any chance it's the latter, we may end up having Jo Swinson to thank for Scotland becoming an independent country.  Her stubbornness in refusing to compromise on the leadership of a potential interim government doesn't make No Deal a certainty, but it's hard to dispute that it makes No Deal considerably more likely.  As Paul Mason has pointed out, the Lib Dems have perversely become the party of choice for those who think a No Deal Brexit would be preferable to a Corbyn premiership.

Incidentally, Matthew d'Ancona was barking up the wrong tree with his claim the other day that a vote of no confidence would be a trap allowing Boris Johnson to remain in office until a general election that takes place after the date of Brexit.  We've already seen the speed with which emergency legislation can be passed, so if Johnson tried to squat in Downing Street after losing a vote of no confidence, and if the Queen declined to remove him from office, it would be open to parliament to quickly legislate to change the procedure for appointing the Prime Minister - it could become a position elected by the Commons. 

But all of this is academic for as long as the Lib Dems are determined to remain Boris Johnson's Little Helpers.

Friday, September 27, 2019

An alternative government without Corbyn is a non-starter

So Nicola Sturgeon today repeated her hint of a few weeks ago that the SNP would be prepared to install Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister on a temporary basis to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  Of course SNP, Plaid and Green support wouldn't be quite enough to give Corbyn a majority - he would also need the Lib Dems and at least some of the ex-Labour or ex-Tory independents.  But the intriguing thing from a constitutional point of view is that he wouldn't actually need to win a majority in a parliamentary vote before becoming Prime Minister - the Queen could appoint him and see if it works out, which is essentially what she did with Boris Johnson.  What circumstances she would do that in are unclear, but if Johnson was to lose a vote of no confidence, SNP support could leave Corbyn as the only game in town.

On the other hand, if Jo Swinson does prove able to block a Corbyn premiership, history may not be kind to her, especially if a No Deal Brexit is the outcome.  What I truly don't understand is why her focus is on keeping Corbyn out rather than getting herself back into government in a senior position.  If the SNP decide to support a Corbyn-led government from the outside, Swinson would even have a claim to be Deputy Prime Minister, as long as she could accept Corbyn as PM.  That's how governments of national unity work - not by exclusion, but by inclusion.  Intra-party "dream tickets" work on a similar basis - for example, Kinnock/Hattersley or Blair/Prescott.

Another possibility would be the model briefly tried (not terribly successfully) in Germany in the late 1990s, whereby Corbyn would remain Labour leader and would hold a very senior position in government (such as Chancellor), while someone else becomes figurehead Prime Minister with his blessing.  But really, any temporary government in which Corbyn is not the dominant player is a non-starter, and if the Lib Dems are remotely serious about stopping Brexit, it's about time they woke up to that.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Christ on a bicycle: how to avoid newbie mistakes on the Holyrood voting system

Believe it or not, I'm still receiving a steady stream of messages and comments from people who are convinced they are world-leading experts on the Holyrood voting system, and who want to "explain" to me some mistakes I've supposedly made in my recent posts.  The super-confident cluelessness of some of these people is quite entertaining in a way, but I'm becoming concerned that casual readers of the comments section may be misled by that confidence, so I'm going to set a few of the dafter misconceptions straight.

"Christ on a bicycle, what are you saying here?  How can you dispute that a party with 3% of the list vote would take 4 seats?  AMS is a proportional voting system and 4 seats is 3% of 129.  Stop being an idiot, James."

I can dispute it very easily, because under the Holyrood system seats are not distributed proportionally on a national basis.  Scotland is split into eight regions, each with between fifteen and seventeen seats.  That means, unless something weird happens, that it's very unlikely a party would take a seat in any region with less than 5% of the list vote.  Conceivably a party with 3% of the national vote might nick a seat or two if they do better in certain regions than in others - but the most likely outcome is that they would take zero seats.

"Christ on a bicycle, what are you saying here?  How can you produce a hypothetical example of a Holyrood result where the list vote of the parties only adds up to 96%?  All list votes count under AMS.  Stop being an idiot, James."

I can do that because I'm taking into account the obvious fact that there will be a number of minor parties and independents on the list ballot, which in combination will take a non-trivial share of the vote.  Indeed, any hypothetical example that doesn't take account of that point is flawed, although exactly what share of the vote minor parties will take can only be speculative.  Incidentally, it's doubtful whether it can truly be said that "all list votes count under AMS" - to all intents and purposes votes for very small parties don't really count towards the seat allocation, and that means larger parties can sometimes win slightly more seats than they otherwise would on any given share of the vote.

"Christ on a bicycle, what are you saying here?  How can you claim that the SNP can win significantly more seats than their share of the list ballot?  AMS is a proportional system.  Stop being an idiot, James."

I can say that because of a little something called constituency seats.  If the largest party takes all or nearly all of the constituency seats in a region, there won't be enough list seats to fully compensate the other parties and make the overall result proportional.  There are multiple examples of that scenario occurring in past Holyrood elections.

"Christ on a bicycle, what are you saying here?  How can you produce a hypothetical example where the SNP take an average of 6.5 seats per region on 29% of the list vote?  That list vote only entitles the SNP to two seats per region, which requires there to be 4.5 SNP constituency seats per region, and if they win that many they'd be over their 'quota' and wouldn't take any list seats anyway.  Stop being an idiot, James."

A lot of that one is utter gibberish, but instead of trying to disentangle it, I'll just make this really simple.  There is no 'cap' of 4.5 constituency seats per region - that would be an arithmetically impossible cap to enforce anyway.  A party can win as many as 73 constituency seats nationwide, regardless of how high or low their share of the list vote is - and that's an average of 9.1 seats per region, not 6.5.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Who needs a criminal underworld when we have Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Privy Council?

So just a few quick thoughts on today's extraordinary events.  I said after the initial Court of Session verdict that in the event that it was upheld by the Supreme Court, we didn't need to worry about Scotland suddenly being seen as an "influential partner in the United Kingdom", and so it has proved.  This is being reported as a Supreme Court decision and not a Court of Session decision, which in one sense is fair enough because the same effect could have been achieved even without the Scottish case - the Supreme Court could simply have upheld Gina Miller's appeal from the English court ruling.  It may be that the Scottish ruling emboldened the Supreme Court justices, but that can only be speculation.  I also said that if prorogation was lifted, it wouldn't remove the casus belli for an indyref by making Brexit, or a No Deal Brexit, any less likely, and that also seems to be correct.  For all the talk this afternoon of a vote of no confidence, few seem to expect it to go anywhere just yet.  An election is undoubtedly coming, but not until after the Halloween deadline.  Parliament played its strongest card in preventing a No Deal exit before prorogation even occurred, so it could be that the extra Commons sittings will be a lot of talk and no further action.  Perhaps the biggest significance of the ruling is that it will prevent a further suspension in the crucial closing weeks of October.

All the same, though, these judges are so irresponsible - how oh how are the government supposed to set out their much-needed domestic agenda without shutting down parliament for five weeks?  It's simply impossible.

And have the police sealed off the crime scene in Balmoral library yet?  We hardly need a criminal underworld when we have Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Privy Council.