Friday, February 22, 2019

If the 35-strong SNP group don't appear on network TV significantly more often than the Independent Group over the next few months, serious questions will be asked of the broadcasters

Most political parties would be doing well to have a panellist on Question Time within three days of coming into existence.  The Independent Group aren't even a party, but they managed it courtesy of Chris Leslie's appearance on the show last night.  That prompted Ian Gibson to make a prediction on Twitter -

"And off we go. Watch as these 11 MPs rapidly rack up more appearances than the 35 SNP MPs."

Now, in fairness, Question Time often tries to be topical with its choice of guests, so perhaps it would have been odd if the Independent Group hadn't been represented this particular week.  But it's certainly a point worth keeping a close eye on for the future.  When it's observed that political coverage from the BBC and other broadcasters doesn't seem to reflect the fact that the SNP are by some distance the third-biggest party in the UK Parliament, we're often directed to the popular vote as a handy excuse - ie. across the UK, the SNP were outpolled by the Liberal Democrats in the 2017 election.  That shouldn't cut any ice with anyone, because if the insanity of first-past-the-post is sometimes good enough to give us a government that 65% of people voted against, it ought to be more than good enough to decide who gets third-party status as far as the broadcasters are concerned (unless of course the establishment are trying to have their cake and eat it).

But if the Independent Group end up receiving more network TV coverage than the SNP, the broadcasters won't even have an excuse.  The Liberal Democrats may have received almost 2.4 million votes at the 2017 election, but as things stand the Independent Group have received zero votes in any election that has ever been held.  Constitutionally it's quite correct to say that, as individuals, the defecting MPs still technically represent the voters of their constituencies.  But collectively, the Independent Group represent literally no-one, because no-one has ever voted for them or even had the chance to vote for them.  Unlike the Lib Dems, the one and only basis on which the new group can possibly be receiving invitations onto programmes like Question Time is the number of seats they hold in the House of Commons - and the SNP hold more than three times as many seats.  So if, over an extended period of weeks or months, the SNP appear on network TV less often than the Independent Group, something will have gone very seriously wrong.  It'll be an open and shut case, and the broadcasters will have no conceivable defence.  And yet I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's exactly what happens.  We'll see.

*  *  *

Ex-Labour MP Gavin Shuker (nope, me neither), now of the Independent Group, was interviewed yesterday about the possibility of propping up the Tory government, and said this -

"We need a general election like a hole in the head right now"

You're quite right, Gavin, you're in no fit state to fight an election just yet, and the chances are that all eleven of you would lose your seats.  It would be utter carnage.  What's that?  Oh, when you said "we", you were referring to the British people and not your own self-interest?  Ah yeah right, I'm with you now.  Totally.  I should have realised.  Silly old me.  *Winks*

Just a friendly piece of advice for the Independent Group - if you're seeking to enter into negotiations with Theresa May to win a People's Vote and other concessions in return for a confidence-and-supply deal, it's probably best not to publicly advertise on a daily basis just how petrified you are of facing a general election in the near future.  Because if you do, the Prime Minister will know the "confidence" part of the equation is already sewn up without her having to concede a single thing.  She'll realise that if a no confidence motion is tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, the Independent Group will abstain even without a deal, and that will leave the government with a DUP-proof majority (albeit a slender one).

*  *  *

Jackson Carlaw treated us to a thrilling display of Tory logical gymnastics yesterday, when a reporter pointed out to him that what he calls "the SNP car park tax" is in fact a discretionary power for elected councils that they are free to use or not use.  Carlaw retorted that this is a special case, because many people who pay the "tax" will be travelling for work into local authorities where they do not live, and where they therefore did not have any say in electing the council imposing the charge.

Hmmm.  Actually, I think most people readily understand the principle that if you travel into a different jurisdiction for a day or a week or a month, you're subject to the laws and regulations of that jurisdiction even though you don't have a vote there.  That includes being subject to the car parking charges that Tory councils have been imposing since time immemorial.  (And if the Tories object to that principle for whatever reason, they had a great many decades in charge of the Scottish Office during which they could have stripped local authorities of the power to charge anyone for parking their car.)

Carlaw's belief that people cannot possibly be subject to rules they haven't had a vote on does of course have wider implications.  The Tories must obviously now abandon any suggestion that another independence referendum cannot be held for "a generation", because over that period hundreds of thousands of young people will reach voting age and will have been given no say on whether they want to remain trapped in the United Kingdom.  And naturally the EU referendum will have to be re-run, this time giving a vote to the millions of EU citizens who are having their status changed in spite of being given no say on the matter in 2016.  (Let's not forget that if non-British-born EU citizens had been given a vote in the EU referendum in exactly the same way that non-Scottish-born UK and EU citizens were given a vote in the independence referendum, Remain would have won with a bit to spare.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Prepare to be STAGGERED: new YouGov poll shows the Independent Group have less support in Scotland than anywhere else

The new YouGov poll testing potential support for the Independent Group was mentioned on the previous thread, because unlike the recent Survation poll it shows Labour taking a substantial hit, with the Tory lead increasing from 8% on the standard question to 12% when the new group is offered as an option.  The Independents themselves are hypothetically on 14% of the vote.  However I don't think those are meaningful results for all sorts of reasons.  Fieldwork preceded the three Tory defections, so it would seem logical that the hit Labour were taking before today might be more evenly split between Labour and Tory from now on.  And the question in the poll that included the Independent Group made a song and dance about drawing special attention to the splitters, so that might have led more respondents to indicate support for them than would have been the case on a more neutral question.  We won't really know the true level of support for the group until they become a fully-fledged party and can be included in polls on a normal basis.

Where the YouGov poll is perhaps more useful is in showing differences in the support for the Independent Group across different regions of the UK, and I don't think any of us are going to faint with amazement at the discovery that they're significantly less popular in Scotland than anywhere else.

Independent Group support by region:

London: 16%
South of England: 17%
Midlands/Wales: 11%
North of England: 15%
Scotland: 8%

I suppose theoretically that picture might change if one or two Scottish MPs like Ian Murray were to defect, but I have my doubts.

The results of the Scottish subsample where the Independent Group is given as an option appear to be roughly: SNP 39%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 13%, Independent Group 8%, Liberal Democrats 5%.

On the standard question without the Independent Group, the figures are: SNP 41%, Conservatives 29%, Labour 14%, Liberal Democrats 6%.

So certainly no sign there that the breakaway will give the SNP any greater headache in a first-past-the-post election for Westminster than they currently face.  In a Holyrood election under proportional representation it might be a slightly different story, but will there be any space at all for this new group in the 2021 Holyrood election?  Perhaps only, paradoxically, if they have established themselves as major players at Westminster by then.

Is a general election getting closer or further away?

One thing that baffles me about this wave of Labour and Tory defections to the new Independent Group is that we're in a hung parliament situation, and yet journalists seem largely incurious about the elephant in the room - the potential implications for the date of the next general election.  I gather that the three Tory defectors were asked today how they would vote on a no confidence motion, but getting a clear answer out of them doesn't seem to have been anyone's priority.  Anna Soubry apparently said "the last thing people want is a general election", which echoes something that Chris Leslie said the other day almost as a casual aside.  That leads me to suspect the Independent Group is going to act as a "crossbench" rather than an "opposition" group, and abstain on no confidence votes.  And because there are still significantly more Labour defectors than Tory, that would push a general election further away, because it would give Theresa May a DUP-proof majority that she didn't have before.

That said, there are plenty of important votes other than no confidence motions, and if a shrunken Tory parliamentary party makes it increasingly difficult for Theresa May to get her routine business through the House, an early general election might become likely anyway.  There's also the possibility that the Independent Group are just looking for some time to get organised as an election-fighting machine, and at that point will magically become bullish about bringing the government down.

There's a paradox here for the Labour defectors: obviously they'll be pleased the group has grown today, but as a vehicle for destroying Corbynism, the group suddenly looks somewhat less effective than it did yesterday.  It can no longer be said that the split is caused by the uniquely awful problem of having Jeremy Corbyn as leader of a major party, and the sharing around of political pain between Labour and Tory will give Corbyn much-needed cover he didn't have before.  Now that the new group is no longer a "Labour moderates' retreat" but a mixed-DNA proto-party incorporating clear centre-right elements and apparently happy to prop up a Tory government for now, mainstream Labour MPs are going to find it harder to resist pressure from activists to attack their former colleagues and treat them as turncoats and ultimately as political opponents.

*  *  *

For anyone worried about the outside chance of the SNP being overtaken as the third-largest group in the Commons, bear in mind that they have a close relationship with the four Plaid Cymru MPs, and it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that an agreement could be reached to form a joint group of 39 (probably in return for allowing Liz Saville Roberts to lead at PMQs every few weeks).  In fact I believe I'm right in saying that the SNP and Plaid used to form a joint group in the Commons, but that seems to have quietly fallen by the wayside at some point.

*  *  *

Another classic Mike Smithson comedy moment today: he said that "four times as many" Tory MPs have now defected to the new group than defected to the SDP.  Which means he's claiming that 0.75 Tory MPs joined the SDP.  (In case you're wondering, there was one Tory MP defector to the SDP - Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, who long after losing his seat in 1983 ended up joining Labour under Tony Blair.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The "longrun implications" of the Independent Group

No disrespect to Stephen Bush, but something he said in all apparent seriousness in the New Statesman today made me laugh out loud.  He suggested that the big target for the breakaway Independent Group is to reach 36 recruits, because that would mean overtaking the SNP as the third largest group in the Commons, giving them speaking rights at PMQs and "longrun implications for the amount of attention they receive from broadcasters".  Gosh yes.  If the precedent of the SNP is anything to go by, third-party status for the Independent Group would win them two invitations to appear on Question Time per year, plus their own stalker in an orange jacket.  These are prizes worth fighting for.

Even at the upper end of the rumoured number of defections, it's hard to see the new group quite reaching 36, so there's no reason for the SNP to panic just yet.  I suppose if they reached 25, they could theoretically form a marriage of convenience with the 11 Liberal Democrats to become the third-biggest group, but I suspect the Lib Dems would prefer to retain their independence for the time being.  In the early 1980s, the attraction for the Liberals of going into an alliance with the Labour defectors to the SDP was summed up by a succinct exchange between Liberal leader David Steel and one of his colleagues -

"David, the SDP know nothing about doorstep campaigning."

"But they know about government."

That logic doesn't hold in the current situation, because thanks to the disastrous coalition of 2010-15 there is actually more ministerial experience among the Lib Dem parliamentary party than there is among the Gang of Seven.  Vince Cable as a former Business Secretary easily outranks the insufferable Chris Leslie, who appears to have been the only one of the Independent Group to have reached full ministerial rank during the Blair/Brown years, and who never got anywhere near to Cabinet level.  (As an amusing aside, Leslie claimed in his statement yesterday to have been a Labour member of parliament for "more than three decades".  He was actually 16 years old three decades ago.  No wonder he only lasted a few months as Shadow Chancellor, a position in which good mental arithmetic is presumably at something of a premium.  The truth is that he became an MP for the first time 22 years ago, ousting the equally insufferable Sir Marcus Fox, and subsequently lost his seat in 2005, ironically due to the fading popularity of the Blairite centrism that he reckons people are crying out for.  He then went on a chicken run and got back into parliament with a safe seat in 2010, but that means he's actually been an MP for a combined total of less than 17 years.  Novice...)

We can also safely dismiss keen letter-writer Mike Smithson's characteristically eccentric notion that Caroline Lucas of the Greens will be throwing in her lot with the Independent Group.  She agrees with them on Brexit, but on very little else.

Mehdi Hasan said on Twitter that the only question the Independent Group should be asked by the media is whether they will support a May-led Tory government or a Corbyn-led Labour government.  That's not entirely fair, because the precedent of the SDP shows that it is possible for a breakway party of sufficient size to take the lead in national opinion polls.  It happened for a sustained period in 1981-2, and if it hadn't been for the Falklands War, it's conceivable that the SDP would have succeeded in their aim of breaking the two-party system.  But it looks like the Independent Group will need to build up a lot more critical mass if they are to have any chance of emulating their predecessor.  A new Survation poll reveals that, in spite of voters having more sympathy for the splitters than for the Labour leadership, they generally stick with the established parties when offered a "new centrist party" as an option.  Just 8% say they would vote for the new party, and it is the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour who suffer the most. 

The poll brings home how difficult it's going to be for pollsters to work out how to deal with the new group.  I would guess if there's a general election within the next few weeks, the Independent Group would only defend the seats they already hold, and perhaps put up candidates in a small number of other carefully targeted constituencies.  Whereas if the election is more than a year away, they might by then have become a fully-fledged party with a full slate of candidates.  So at what point will pollsters be justified in routinely offering them as an option in national polls?  I'm not quite sure.

Tom Watson's public display of disloyalty is one of the most extraordinary spectacles in recent political history

It's one thing for the likes of Blair McDougall to believe that the Corbynite left are to blame for increasing the chances of continued Tory rule by "forcing out" Luciana Berger and others.  But whoever is ultimately at fault, there is no question about what the strategy should be for those who remain inside the party after a breakaway, assuming the priority really is to get the Tories out of office.  To minimise electoral damage, you have to ruthlessly attempt to stamp out the new group, detract from the credibility of those who have joined it by accusing them of cowardice for not resigning their seats and fighting by-elections, attack them for betraying activists and breaching the trust of voters who elected them, etc, etc.  We've heard that script time and again over the years whenever there have been splits of any size, or indeed even when there have been isolated defections.  It works.

Bizarrely, though, the Deputy Leader of the Labour party is doing the complete opposite.  Tom Watson's reaction video posted on Facebook after the breakaway must be one of the most extraordinary spectacles in the recent history of British politics.  He barely even made a token effort to suggest that the splitters had done anything wrong (the best he could muster was that they had acted "prematurely").  He left viewers in no doubt that the splitters had the right prescription for the future, and that the current Labour leadership have the wrong prescription.  As there is no prospect whatever of Jeremy Corbyn resigning as Labour leader any time soon or substantially changing course, the calculated effect of Watson's intervention is to aggravate the electoral damage of the split, rather than to mitigate it.  With Labour having used the 2017 election to almost miraculously reverse the disunity and self-harm it had been indulging in for a year or longer, Watson has weirdly seized an opportunity to intentionally drag Labour back to its pre-election state.  He's cheering on the splitters in the hope they will do roughly what the SDP did - ie. fail as a party, but remake Labour in its own image with the help of the fellow travellers who stayed behind.  And as we all know, the SDP only 'succeeded' at the cost of an extra decade and a half of Tory rule.

Watson and others are self-evidently not prioritising the removal of the Tories from power, but instead are solely concerned with winning a Labour civil war, even at the expense of many more years of Tory government.  The "moderates" will squeal with indignation at any accusation of "betrayal" from the left, but if your loyalty as Deputy Leader is to a faction rather than to the party you were elected to serve, you don't really have much defence against the charge.

The conclusion of the video saw Watson call for a more broadly-based Labour front bench - a not-terribly-subtle way of saying that Jeremy Corbyn has appointed the wrong people.  In truth, there is nothing unprecedented about the lack of balance on the front bench - Tony Blair came from one extreme of the party just as Corbyn did, and he had only a sprinkling of token left-wingers in his team, all in junior positions (Chris Mullin, for example).  But somehow the sidelining of people on ideological grounds is beyond criticism when it's the right that does it.  Can you imagine what would have happened if John Prescott had posted a video in his time as Deputy Leader saying that Blair had appointed the wrong ministers?  His position would have been instantly untenable.  And in any normal party functioning normally, Tom Watson would just have made his own position untenable.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Labour split: is today the day that assures the SNP of continued hegemony in Scotland?

I literally slept through the Labour breakaway this morning, so the first question I wanted answered when I woke up was whether this would be a formal new political party with a name, logo, colours, whip, paid membership and so on, or whether it would be just a ragtag of independents for the time being.  I was dismayed to discover it's the latter, because I do wonder if this could make the fall of the Tory government less likely in the short-term.  Having skimmed through a fair bit of the reporting on the breakaway, I haven't yet found any sign of the MPs being asked whether they would vote with the opposition parties in any no confidence vote.  You can imagine they won't be overly-keen on a general election until they have a formal organisation behind them. (Presumably the 'Independent Group' is a proto-party in the same way that the Council for Social Democracy preceded the formal launch of the SDP in 1981 - nothing else would make any sense, because the rule of thumb with independent MPs is that they lose their seats at general elections, and a general election can't be avoided forever.)  If by any chance the MPs start acting like "crossbenchers", and abstain on no confidence votes "to prevent Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister", as the odious John Woodcock has done, the government would be safe even if it lost the support of the DUP.  But with a bit of luck, Umunna, Berger and co will see the political risk attached to looking like Tory enablers, and will reluctantly carry on voting to bring the government down.

I would guess that, other than not being quite ready, there are a couple of reasons why they've held off from launching a formal party just yet: a) to leave the door just about ajar to reverse their defections if there is an unexpected change of direction within Labour, and b) to make it easier for their former "Labour moderate" colleagues to avoid attacking them in the way that would be inevitable if they had officially made themselves electoral opponents.  Right on cue, the likes of Kezia Dugdale and Blair McDougall seized the opportunity to attack their own party leadership rather than the splitters, which is nevertheless an extraordinary thing for them to do, because it makes clear that their instinctive first loyalty is to people who are trying to destroy their own party from the outside.  And although I suspect both Dugdale and McDougall know full well that a Labour split in Scotland would be electoral suicide for both the new party and whatever is left behind, their statements today will make it very difficult for them not to make the jump if they see the bulk of their fellow travellers in England defect in the long run.

In particular, some of McDougall's tweets today have been mind-bogglingly disloyal to "his party".  Here are a couple -

"Well done. You’ve spent two years desperately trying to make Labour smaller. You’ve succeeded. Now you can spend two years moaning that the MPs and voters you’ve driven away mean Labour can’t get elected. As if you care about getting into government. A terrible day for my party."

"I’m in a party that Luciana Berger can’t stay in and that Jim Sheridan can’t get thrown out of. What a s*** show."

The Scottish media are going to look pretty silly if they continue trying to push their "SNP civil war" narrative with all this going on.  The face of Mr Blair McDougall is what a real civil war looks like.

What is the biggest threat to SNP hegemony in Scotland?  It sure as hell isn't the Tories, in spite of the most cherished dreams of the commentariat.  There still appears to be a natural ceiling of around 30% on Scottish Tory support, and they'll struggle to even reach that at the next election.  No, the real threat is the enduring cultural and tribal affinity to the Labour brand among working-class and "working-class-minded" voters in the central belt.  We thought briefly that we'd slayed that beast in 2015, but both the local elections and the general election two years ago showed yet again just how unthinkingly some voters, including many pro-independence voters, default back to Labour, even when it appears to most people that the game is up. 

But Labour is about providing an alternative to Tory rule at Westminster, or it is nothing.  Dugdale and McDougall could be killing their own party, while failing to replace it with an alternative force that is remotely viable in Scotland.  If this breakaway eventually swells to the point where Labour no longer looks like a credible opposition, the SNP may start to feel like the only game in town for the traditional Labour vote, and at last we'll have a reliable, united, stable, pro-indy, centre-left vote at both Westminster and Holyrood elections, with a huge in-built lead over the Tories, which can only make independence a somewhat more probable outcome.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

This is what happens when you mess with people's heads about how the Holyrood voting system works

I know the interminable argument about the Holyrood voting system is not exactly the most pressing subject at the moment, but I would just like to congratulate the "tactical voting on the list" brigade for managing to convince people that they'd somehow be helping the cause of independence by abstaining on the list ballot.  This was a genuine tweet yesterday -

"We get two votes in the Scottish elections.  One for constituency & one for the list.  Can anyone tell me what would happen if some of us used our first vote for the SNP and didn't cast a second vote?  Cos I know that SNP x 2 works against us."

You can kind of see the "logic" here - because the Greens, RISE and others are so adamant that giving both votes to the SNP is a bad thing, people take that literally and assume that voting SNP on the list is actually harmful and decreases the number of pro-independence MSPs, and therefore conclude that not voting on the list at all must by definition be better than voting SNP.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that conclusion is completely nuts, and it should give the tactical voting lobby pause for thought about the grave dangers of the confusion they are sowing. 

In one sense, voting on the list is no different from voting in constituencies - ie. there's a chance your vote might help to elect someone, and there's also a chance that it won't.  It just depends on whether enough people vote in the same way that you do.  But if you don't vote at all, all you're doing is letting other people make the decision entirely for themselves.  If you take it to an extreme and no pro-independence voters at all take part in the list ballot, all that will happen is that every single MSP elected on the list will be a unionist.  It really is that simple.

List seats are distributed on a compensatory basis to make the overall composition of parliament roughly proportional to how people voted on the list ballot.  That is why, in principle, the list ballot is the most important of the two ballots, and also why people should vote for their first choice party on the list, regardless of what that first choice is. 

Nevertheless, it's possible that a vote for a large party like the SNP on the list might not help to elect anyone if that party has already won a large number of constituency seats in your region, and if its list vote is not overwhelming enough.  It's also possible that a vote for a small party like the Greens on the list might not help to elect anyone if that party falls below the de facto threshold for representation in the region, which is perhaps around 5% or 6% of the vote.  The position of the tactical voting lobby is effectively that the former is guaranteed to happen, and that the latter is guaranteed not to happen.  Both of those claims are self-evidently bogus and are disproved by the results of previous elections.  But even if they were true, there is still no planet on which abstaining would do any good, or indeed do anything but harm.