Saturday, March 9, 2019

The SNP may now be close to assured of winning the next Westminster general election in Scotland

I know it's almost a waste of breath to complain when newspapers run misleading headlines about opinion polls, but it has to be said that the Herald's choice of "Poll blow for Yes movement" (in relation to the new Panelbase poll) is particularly eccentric when self-evidently the big story is the slump in the Labour vote.  At worst, the poll can be described as a curate's egg for independence supporters, because the Holyrood numbers are so-so, and the Westminster numbers are highly encouraging.  Yes, the SNP remain stuck on the 37% of the Westminster vote they received in 2017, but in a first-past-the-post election all that matters is the gap between the leading party and its opponents, and the SNP's lead over both the Tories and Labour has increased over the last two years.  Seat projections based on polls need to be taken with a heavy dose of salt, but for what it's worth this is what would happen on a uniform swing...

Westminster seats projection from Panelbase poll:

SNP: 41 seats (+6)
Conservatives: 12 seats (-1)
Liberal Democrats: 5 seats (+1)
Labour: 1 seat (-6)

On what planet is that a blow for the Yes movement?  If the SNP winning more than two-thirds of Scottish seats in the House of Commons is bad news, I can't wait to see what a good poll would look like.  Indeed, this may confirm that Scottish politics has quietly crossed a Rubicon over recent weeks.  If you remember, in the aftermath of the general election there was considerable concern that the momentum behind Labour could result in the SNP being replaced as the leading party in Scotland - and we knew that only Labour could ever achieve that, because there is still a natural ceiling on Tory support.  It now looks like the fallout from the Independent Group breakaway may have finally killed any lingering chance of Labour overtaking the SNP in the foreseeable future, and that an SNP victory at the next Westminster election is close to being assured - with the only real question mark being over the scale of the triumph.  There's always an outside chance of another twist in the tale, but at the moment it looks like 'success' for Labour would just mean holding what they have.

As far as Holyrood is concerned, SNP support is holding steady at a creditable 41% of the constituency vote.  It's true that there's been a two point drop in the SNP's list vote, but given that there's no change in the party's popularity on other ballots, that could well be just a random polling fluctuation that doesn't really signify anything.  The seats projection puts the combined pro-independence forces four seats short of an overall majority, but that's been the story of the majority of recent polls and isn't especially newsworthy in itself.  In any case, the last three Holyrood elections have all produced results that bore little resemblance to pre-campaign polls.  In 2007, the SNP started with a substantial lead that was whittled away to almost even-stevens by polling day, probably due to cold feet over putting a pro-indy party into power for the first time ever.  In 2011, a huge Labour lead evaporated at astonishing speed and the SNP ended up with an overall majority - probably largely due to the fact that nobody could imagine Iain Gray as First Minister, while Alex Salmond seemed made for the role.  And in 2016, wildly implausible pre-campaign numbers for the SNP (which led to irresponsible claims from some quarters that SNP supporters didn't need to vote for their own party on the list ballot) came back down to earth with seeming inexorability.

For my money, it's the leadership factor that could once again be the game-changer in the next Holyrood campaign.  Richard Leonard may well look totally out of his depth against Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson in the TV leaders' debates, which could lead to a further substantial squeeze in Labour support.  And it could be that all we'd need to maintain the pro-indy majority in the Scottish Parliament is for a reasonable percentage of Yes-supporting Labour voters to migrate to the SNP.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Panelbase poll leaves Leonard looking like a lost cause

Apologies for not being all over the latest Wings Over Scotland / Panelbase poll - I'm a bit under the weather today.  But I'll post the numbers and hopefully do some analysis later.

Scottish voting intentions for Westminster:

SNP 37% (n/c)
Conservatives 27% (+1)
Labour 22% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Independent Group 2% (n/a)
Greens 2% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (constituency ballot):

SNP 41% (n/c)
Conservatives 27% (+2)
Labour 19% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+2)
Greens 3% (n/c)
UKIP 2% (+1)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (regional list ballot):

SNP 36% (-2)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 19% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 9% (+2)
Greens 6% (n/c)
UKIP 3% (+2)

I don't think we should be too concerned that the SNP appear to still be stuck on the 37% they achieved at the 2017 Westminster general election, because that's looking increasingly like a 'house effect' of Panelbase's methodology.  They've consistently shown the SNP at around 36-38%, while other firms have often put the number a bit higher.  Even on 37%, the SNP would be gaining seats, because there has been a 1% overall swing from Tory to SNP since the election, and a 2.5% swing from Labour to SNP.  22% is Labour's lowest Westminster share in any Panelbase poll since June 2017, and indeed in all but one poll from any firm.  The slump is likely to be largely caused by the fallout from the Independent Group breakaway, and of course has been mirrored in GB-wide polls.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Abandoning the SNP for a new pro-indy party would be a terrible idea - and here's why

Jason McCann ran a Twitter poll yesterday, asking whether a new pro-independence party should be set up if the SNP fail to use their mandate to hold an independence referendum.  Now, it's no secret that I think it would be a historic error to let the mandate expire in 2021, and that I'm deeply troubled that there seem to be a few senior people in the SNP who don't take their manifesto commitment to voters seriously.  But nevertheless, and regardless of what happens, setting up a rival party to the SNP would be a terrible idea.

First of all you'd have to be clear on what your objective is - are you trying to replace the SNP as the largest pro-independence party, or are you trying to pressure them from the outside into changing course?  If the former, it's a pipe-dream, and if the latter, it's a very, very dangerous game, because to have any chance of applying that external pressure you'd have to take significant numbers of votes away from the SNP, which could cost us the pro-independence majorities both at Holyrood and among the Scottish contingent at Westminster.

Take the example of Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party, which by historic standards actually achieved relative success for a new party by securing 2.6% of the Britain-wide popular vote in its first (and only) general election in 1997.  But its aim was to either replace the Tories as the government for long enough to hold a referendum on the future terms of EU membership, or more realistically to pull the Tory government in a more Eurosceptic direction.  All it actually succeeded in doing was increasing the huge parliamentary majority of the newly-elected pro-European Labour government (indeed, if Tony Blair had got his way, that was a government that would eventually have taken the UK into the euro).

Imagine if a new pro-independence party succeeded in taking 2.6% of the vote away from the SNP at the next Westminster general election.  If everything else stayed the same from last time, the SNP would lose no fewer than TEN of their 35 seats.  That's the immense damage relatively small changes can do under the first-past-the-post system.  The SNP would win just 25 seats, the Tories would go up to 16, Labour would go up to 13, and the Liberal Democrats would go up to 5.  There would be a clear unionist majority among Scottish MPs, purely because a small number of voters had moved from one pro-independence party to another.  Similar damage would be done in the constituency section of the next Scottish Parliament election.

One or two people suggested last night that the new party could avoid this problem by sitting out Westminster elections and Scottish Parliament constituency votes altogether, and only standing on the Holyrood list.  I'm not sure it's realistic to think it would do that - more likely is that it would feel obliged to build its profile by standing in at least a few constituencies, as the Greens have done over the years.  That would mean less damage to the pro-independence cause, but still some damage.  (For example, it seems highly unlikely that Ruth Davidson would have won Edinburgh Central in 2016 if the Greens hadn't put up a candidate.)  But even in the unlikely event that the new party only stood on the list, nobody should be under any illusions that it wouldn't probably still be doing harm.  On 2.6% of the vote or lower, it wouldn't be coming close to winning any list seats, and those are wasted votes that would otherwise presumably be mostly going to pro-indy parties that do actually have a chance of winning list seats (ie. the SNP and the Greens).

I know some people have truly boundless optimism and will argue that a new party can defy historical precedent by winning a lot more than 2.6% of the vote, and will therefore be in contention for list seats.  But I would suggest that to have any chance of doing that, it will need to recruit some very well-known people from the Yes movement.  And if it succeeds in rivalling the SNP to that extent, it's very hard to imagine it being content to be a second-string party and to sit out the majority of electoral contests, which takes us back to the original problem of splitting the vote under first-past-the-post.

It's noted in some quarters that UKIP succeeded in doing what this new party would be trying to do - ie. by changing another party's stance on holding a referendum.  I'm not sure that's quite right - although in the long-run it turned out that UKIP was indeed a genuine threat to Conservative chances at the 2015 general election, it was far from clear that would be the case at the moment David Cameron actually embraced an in/out referendum on EU membership.  But even to the limited extent that UKIP did play a part, it shouldn't be forgotten just how perilously close they eventually came to defeating their own objective.  They won 12.6% of the national vote in 2015 - if they hadn't been around, and if the bulk of their votes had instead gone to the Tories, David Cameron would have won an overwhelming majority and a referendum wouldn't have been in any doubt.  As it was, he won a wafer-thin overall majority of just 12 seats.  If UKIP had deprived him of just a few more seats, a referendum would never have taken place, and Britain would not be currently leaving the European Union.  All because too many people voted for a hardline anti-European party.  Bonkers, but true.

It's also worth considering the varying fortunes of those who abandoned a major party when they were unhappy with the direction it was taking, and those who stayed put and fought their corner.  The MPs who broke away from Labour in 1981 to form the SDP had given up hope of pulling Labour back to the centre, and intended to replace the two traditional parties with a new centre-left party of government.  Instead they delivered an extra decade-and-a-half of hard-right rule from the Tories, and by the time that was over, Labour had grotesquely somehow ended up as a right-of-centre party as well.  Contrast that with the fate of the Corbynites, who appeared to be in a 'nuclear winter' situation during the Blair/Brown years (Tony Blair even openly joked about the idea of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader as if that was the most improbable thing he could think of).  And yet they didn't break away.  They stayed, argued for what they believed in, and eventually the pendulum swung back in their direction and they took control of the Labour party.  Corbyn even came pretty close to the keys of 10 Downing Street in 2017.

I know that some of you are not just unhappy with the SNP for its excessive caution on a second independence referendum, but also for its recent full-on embrace of identity politics - for example, the role that Fiona Robertson played in Grouse Beater's expulsion from the party after a highly dubious allegation of anti-Semitism.  Mhairi Hunter quite accurately pointed out to someone at the time that Ms Robertson had only just been elected "by your fellow SNP members" as Equalities Convener.  But the correct response to that fact is not to give up in despair and think that you have to make a straight choice between a) agreeing with everything Ms Robertson says, and b) leaving the SNP.  The best course of action is to stay in the party, fight your corner and seek a better result in future internal elections.  One thing is for sure - those internal elections will not go your way if you and enough of the people who agree with you walk away from the SNP.

*  *  *

Here's the latest in Phantom Power's acclaimed Journey to Yes series of films - this time featuring Jenny Constable, who supported the Better Together campaign in 2014 but now wants to see an independent Scotland.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Could Scottish Labour be heading towards a total wipeout at Westminster?

This has only just occurred to me, but it should have occurred to me a couple of weeks ago.  What do we know, or think we know, about the seven Scottish Labour seats at Westminster?  That six of them would be under severe threat if there is a swing to the SNP at the next general election, but that the seventh (Ian Murray's constituency of Edinburgh South) is absolutely rock-solid in almost all circumstances.  But, as it happens, Ian Murray is also the only one of the seven MPs to have been dropping hints about the possibility of defecting to the Independent Group.  And it's not even irrational for him to have done so.  For almost any other Labour elected representative in Scotland, it would be electoral suicide to join TIG, because the traditional Labour vote would not follow them across.  But Murray doesn't primarily owe his position to the traditional Labour vote, but rather to industrial-scale anti-SNP tactical voting, and those voters would in all likelihood see Murray under any party label as the best prospect for keeping the SNP out.  At the very least the odds would be against Labour holding Edinburgh South if Murray is standing against them - if we're being super-optimistic, there's a chance that he might split the unionist vote and let the SNP in through the middle, but more likely is that he'd retain the seat himself.

So if Murray defects, it could be a double-whammy - it would generate anti-Labour momentum that might make it even more likely that the other six seats will fall, while also depriving Labour of the one seat they thought they could bank on.  But even if they were completely wiped out in Westminster, would it actually matter in the long-run?  After all, the Scottish Tories were wiped out in 1997, but regained a toe-hold in 2001 and then eventually came back with a vengeance in 2017.  Perhaps the difference is that the Tory core vote had nowhere else to go (or nowhere credible) even when the game seemed to be up, whereas there are a great many alternative homes for hitherto committed Labour supporters - if they're pro-indy, there's the SNP, if they're socially liberal, there's the Lib Dems, if they're dogmatic unionists, there's the Tories, and if all else fails there's the Independent Group itself.  Voters might just take a signal from a wipeout in the Commons that would lead to a total and irreversible collapse of the Scottish Labour vote.  I'm not making a prediction, but it's a plausible possibility.

Having said all that, Murray might be given pause for thought by the latest Opinium poll including the Independent Group as an option on a standard voting intention question.  Opinium are the only polling firm to be taking that approach, and it's unsurprising that they're producing much lower numbers for the Independent Group than firms who ask hypothetical questions that make a song and dance of reminding respondents about the group's existence.

Britain-wide voting intentions including the Independent Group (Opinium):

Conservatives 37% (-3)
Labour 33% (+1)
UKIP 7% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+2)
Independent Group 5% (-1)
SNP 4% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)
Plaid Cymru 1% (n/c)

Scottish subsample: SNP 44%, Labour 25%, Conservatives 23%, UKIP 3%, Greens 1%, Independent Group 1%, Liberal Democrats 1%

That's probably the most reliable guide we have to the Independent Group's true popularity at present, and it's not hard to see how it could deter further defections.  And yet, ironically, the only way the group are likely to improve their standing is by attracting a lot more defectors.

There's a famous quote attributed to Peter Hitchens that always does the rounds when an opinion poll that people don't like the results of is published: "Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it.  Crack that, and it all makes sense."  Of course that's not true, or at least it's not the whole truth - opinion polling is a spectrum, with cynical American-style push-polling at one extreme, polls produced with the honest intention of discovering the current state of play at the other extreme, and all sorts of shades of grey in between.  But what we're living through at the moment is a clear-cut example of a scenario in which decisions made by pollsters and those who commission polls are likely to shape the outcome of future elections.  There's a clear incentive for those sympathetic to the Independent Group to downplay the credible Opinium results and instead commission (or talk up) more of the fantasy polls that purport to put their heroes in the teens or even higher.  As misleading as those polls are, they could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if they hoodwink potential defectors into thinking they would be joining a party that is already a going concern.

There's a sub-plot here, though, because Heidi Allen has told ITV in a new interview that the Independent Group are actually trying to discourage any more than two or three Tory MPs from defecting for the time being, because that would "destabilise the government".  As bonkers as that may sound, you can kind of see her point - even if a much-expanded Independent Group abstain on confidence motions, the likelihood is that a Conservative-DUP alliance without a working majority would not be able to plough on, and a snap election would see the Independent Group project snuffed out before it really got started.  And yet if the Independent Group limit their own critical mass in the Commons, they'll make a breakthrough less likely anyway.  It's a real Catch 22 for them - it's certainly hard to see how they'll overtake the SNP as the third largest group in the Commons without a decent number of Tory defectors.