Friday, March 29, 2019

The Clackmannanshire result demonstrates the limits of unionist tactical voting

Local by-elections in Scotland are conducted by Single Transferable Vote (which to all intents and purposes functions like the Alternative Vote if only one councillor is being elected), meaning that the SNP's huge 9% lead over Labour in the first count in Clackmannanshire Central did not guarantee them victory.  Labour and the Tories had almost 52% of the first preference vote between them, which means that Labour would have won with a bit to spare if every Tory voter had ranked Labour higher than the SNP in their lower preferences.  In practice, it would have been obvious as soon as the result of the first count was announced that the SNP were going to hold on for the win.  Really big first preference leads are rarely overturned, due to the fact that a lot of voters don't bother using their lower preferences.  Nevertheless, it's striking just how few Tory voters took the action necessary to prevent an SNP victory.

When the Tory candidate was excluded, he had 447 votes.  More than two-thirds of those votes (68%) were non-transferable, while 25% went to Labour and 7% to the SNP - which means that more than one-fifth of Tory voters who expressed a preference between the SNP and Labour plumped for the SNP.  Admittedly these numbers are slightly complicated by the fact that the Tory transfers will have included a small handful of voters who backed UKIP, the Greens or the Lib Dems with their first preferences and then transferred to the Tories.  But of the 419 people who gave their first preferences to the Tories, an absolute maximum of 112 ended up in the Labour column on the decisive count.  If it's so hard to get Tory voters to give a lower preference to another unionist party even when it causes no harm to their first choice, you have to wonder how many of them would be prepared to tactically switch their one and only vote from Tory to Labour in a first-past-the-post general election if they live in a battleground SNP-Labour marginal seat.

The substantial minority of Tory voters who prefer SNP to Labour shouldn't be such a surprise.  In the 70s, it was taken as read that most Tory supporters would prefer to have an SNP MP if the only other alternative was a Labour MP, and that any Tory tactical voting would favour the SNP.  Given the leftward drift of Scottish Labour since the 2017 general election, the same logic would apply now if it weren't for the constitutional issue.  OK, the constitutional issue isn't going away any time soon, so Labour will remain the net beneficiaries of Tory tactical voting - but the greater ideological gulf between the two main London parties may mean that the benefit to Labour will be smaller in scale in any election this year than it was in 2017.

By the way, it's just as well that David Coburn has left his old party, because he would have been appalled at what UKIP voters did with their lower preferences yesterday.  Of those that transferred, 41% went to the SNP (answers on a postcard, please?), 41% went to the Tories and 18% went to Labour.

*  *  *

So a couple of quick thoughts about the government's defeat on the third meaningful vote this afternoon.  There were 34 Tory rebels, but 6 of those were actually hardcore Remainers.  Even if every single Brexiteer Tory rebel had switched sides and backed the deal (in the realms of fantasy given that we're talking about the real die-hards), the government would still have been defeated by 2 votes.  So if Theresa May has any path at all to an improbable majority, it can only run through the Labour benches.  (Unless of course she considers a grand bargain with the SNP and offers Devo Max and/or a Section 30 order, but she's far too stubborn and unimaginative to contemplate that for even a micro-second.  All the same, though, today was the first time a meaningful vote could theoretically have gone the other way if the SNP had voted differently.)

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of contradictory rumours swirling around about what Theresa May's strategy is (the most plausible of which is that she doesn't actually know herself).  A few people have suggested that the government is plotting a run-off vote between the May deal and whatever emerges from the indicative votes process.  If anything does emerge from the indicative votes, it's likely to be a softer Brexit, which would force the Brexiteers to back the May deal in the run-off.  I don't see how that sort of jiggery-pokery would work, though, because it would just strengthen the Brexiteers' resolve to subsequently vote against the legislation required to implement the deal.  So unless Labour change their attitude to the deal, we'd just end up back where we started after a slight detour.

As Ruth Davidson would say, "Well done, Clacks!" - SNP storm past Labour to win bellwether by-election

In the aftermath of the 2017 general election, there was a string of local by-elections in former Labour heartland areas in which the SNP suffered swings to Labour that were significantly in excess of anything the national opinion polls would have led us to expect.  The obvious concern was that there were regional trends going on beneath the radar that could create a nasty shock at the next general election, especially given that there are so many ultra-marginal SNP-Labour marginal seats.  Yesterday's Clackmannanshire Central by-election was exactly the sort of contest where you might have expected to see that trend show up again, because it took place in a part of the central belt where Labour had once been completely dominant.  But this time the opposite happened - there was a hefty swing against Labour, and the SNP came from second place to win the seat.  (Technically it was an SNP hold, but that's just a quirk of the STV voting system - Labour won the popular vote in the ward in 2017.)

Clackmannanshire Central by-election result (28th March 2019):

SNP 40.9% (+2.6)
Labour 31.9% (-8.0)
Conservatives 19.8% (+3.2)
UKIP 3.3% (n/a)
Greens 2.5% (-2.6)
Liberal Democrats 1.7% (n/a)

That's a swing of 5.3% from Labour to SNP, which if extrapolated to the whole country for "just a bit of fun" would see Scottish Labour once again reduced to just one seat at Westminster (Ian Murray in Edinburgh South).  Which adds to the building impression that the storm clouds have now passed for the SNP in the former Labour heartlands - perhaps partly because of the impact of the Independent Group split, but mostly because of the sheer clarity of the SNP's message on Brexit, which a hopelessly divided Labour can't hope to compete with at the moment.

As ever, not too much should be read into the increase in the Tory vote, because the Tories are traditionally better than other parties at getting their supporters to the polls in local by-elections.

By the way, I hope you'll appreciate my restraint, because I very, very nearly titled this blogpost 'SNP crack it in Clacks as Leonard's lousy Labour languish limply'.

*  *  *

It's often said that a No Deal exit "can't happen" because the House of Commons wouldn't ever allow it to.  I don't agree with that - for as long as No Deal remains the default outcome in both domestic and EU law, it has to be taken seriously as a real possibility.  Nevertheless, the indicative votes on Wednesday night did once again prove that there is a massive natural majority in the Commons against No Deal, which was voted down by 400 votes to 160.  But probably equally important, and certainly far more astonishing, is the fact that Tory MPs voted in favour of the catastrophe of a No Deal exit in just two weeks from now by an overwhelming majority of 157 to 94.  That helpfully illustrates why no Tory government can deliver a soft Brexit regardless of parliament's wishes - it would split the party apart, probably quite literally.  Brexiteer ringleader Steve Baker has already been openly threatening to resign the Tory whip.  And maybe we're also seeing cause for scepticism that the Tories would do as well in a snap general election as the polls currently suggest - they've basically turned into UKIP, and there's a reason why UKIP have never won a general election.

In other circumstances we'd be shocked to learn that one Scottish Tory MP voted for No Deal, and that four others abstained on the subject.  But compared to their colleagues south of the border, that makes them look like a relatively Remainy bunch - perhaps because they simply have to be for reasons of self-preservation in a very Remain country.  And one of the four abstentions wasn't meaningful anyway, because as a Cabinet minister David Mundell was instructed to abstain on every vote.  (20 Cabinet abstentions also put the relative closeness of the vote on a second referendum into perspective.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Westminster rocked as the SNP at last exercise a decisive role in the hung parliament

When the SNP lost 19 of their 54 seats at the 2017 election, one of the saving graces was that it seemed logical they would exercise far more influence with 35 seats in a hung parliament than they had done with 54 seats in a parliament with a Tory majority.  They were still comfortably the third largest party, and we imagined Theresa May and the Tory media sweating over which way they would vote in each close division.  But it hasn't really worked out that way, partly because the Tory-DUP alliance has often shut them out, and partly because May is so intransigent on the subject of Scotland that there hasn't been any scope for bargaining - not even the whiff of an offer of a Section 30 order in return for SNP support on the meaningful votes, for instance.  So that's left the SNP taking an all-out opposition posture, which means they've been on the losing side most of the time - and even when they've been on the winning side nobody has credited them with swinging the balance, because their votes were just taken as read.

But the indicative votes tonight were a very different story.  The SNP had a genuine dilemma over how to vote on some of the motions (the ones that proposed different types of soft Brexit), and the decision they reached actually did determine the final outcome.  If they had voted for Kenneth Clarke's proposal for a customs union, that would have been the only option that secured a majority.  As it was they abstained, and the customs union idea was defeated along with the other seven motions.  So at last, after two years, here it is: the SNP taking advantage of a hung parliament to influence the destiny of the United Kingdom.

Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson is spitting synthetic fury about the way they jumped, but it makes perfect logical sense - if your objective is to remain in the EU, you have to try to prevent any proposition that falls well short of that from emerging as the most likely consensus.  (And as it happens, the Independent Group seem to have reached exactly the same conclusion - they actively voted against the Clarke motion.)  Even if the SNP now downgrade their objective to their previous preferred compromise of single market and customs union membership, it would still be logical not to vote for any option mentioning a customs union only, because doing so would increase the chances of parliament coalescing around a compromise that does not involve single market membership, and that would therefore be wholly inadequate.  And in respect of the ultimate goal of independence, it would from a tactical point of view be nonsensical to champion a compromise that you don't think is remotely good enough, if the first thing that will be said to you after it's delivered is:  "What are you complaining about?  We've given you exactly what you asked for.  You don't need an independence referendum now."

So a job well done - the SNP have demonstrated to the Westminster village that their voting power does pack a punch after all, and they've done so in a way that is consistent with their strategic aims.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Not in this day and age, unless someone drags us back

I've belatedly caught up with the blogpost Jason McCann wrote a couple of days ago in response to the eye-opening exchange I had with him and a couple of his friends from Ireland, which revealed the path of 'revolution' that they would like the Scottish pro-independence movement to go down.  Having had a quick skim through Jason's post, I wasn't going to bother responding, because it mostly covers ground that I've already dealt with in my own blogpost about the exchange.  However, I should have realised that Jason wouldn't have been able to resist saying something outrageous and deeply offensive about me personally, and sure enough, on closer inspection there it was.

"One pro-independence blogger even went as far as saying that the suggestion that this might actually happen was 'incitement' on the part of those suggesting it. Entrenching himself in this assertion, he went on to imply that the Irish background and the religious beliefs of those suggesting it need further interrogation – because, you know, Irish Catholics are inherently violent."

That's only a very marginally more polite version of the allegation he repeatedly made on Saturday morning that I am an "anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigot".  I may as well just call a spade a spade here: of all the wild attacks that have been made on me over the years that I've been blogging, this is without doubt the most mind-bogglingly stupid one of all, because you only need to look at my name to guess with confidence that I am, just like Jason, a Roman Catholic of Irish decent.  If you go back far enough, I don't have any Scottish ancestry at all as far as I'm aware - it seems to be three-quarters Irish and one-quarter French-Canadian, and even the French-Canadian bit is firmly Catholic.  I still have relatives in Donegal, right on the edge of the Gaeltacht, that my family are vaguely in contact with - I visited them when I was nineteen, and they told me to my surprise that my dad used to spend his summers there.

Essentially Jason is accusing me of an extreme form of self-loathing.  If he wants to make such an improbable charge stick, he'll have to flesh out what he thinks my motivations could possibly be.

Needless to say, Jason's claim that I "implied" that Irish people from my own religious denomination are "inherently violent" is a downright and intentional lie.  All I did was state that Ireland has a recent history of political and communal violence and Scotland does not.  That was simply a statement of plain, irrefutable truth, and it was not said to make anyone feel uncomfortable - although the fact that it seems to have had that effect on Jason may well be because of the sensitivities he feels over his current membership of a political party that supported violence during the Troubles.  I don't criticise him for his affiliation - indeed, if I lived in Northern Ireland, it's not impossible that I'd vote for Sinn Féin myself (it would be a difficult choice between them and the SDLP).  But if I did so, it would be in spite of their pre-1994 history, not because of it.  I wonder if Jason can say the same?  That's merely a question, but it's not an unreasonable one given the stridency of his views about Irish history and the cue that he believes Scotland should take from it.

The other obvious point here is that my reference to the fact of communal violence in recent Irish history cannot possibly be taken to imply a specific criticism of Catholics, because that violence was - as everyone knows - committed by both Catholics and Protestants.

The rest of Jason's post is basically a warning to us all not to be naive about the possibility of British state violence, and a reminder of the occasions when people in various countries have incorrectly thought "it couldn't happen again, it can't happen here".  All I would say is that history is littered with people learning the wrong lessons from history.  If you take Jason's strictures to their logical conclusion, you'd think that Germany is likely in the near future to elect a fascist government and invade Poland, just because it's happened once before.

Contrary to what Jason believes, I didn't actually 100% discount the possibility of future political violence in Scotland, but he might not like my verdict on how it would be most likely to happen.  I think we'd only get into dangerous territory if we listen to the siren voices of those on the fringes who whip up paranoid hysteria about the supposedly murderous intentions of the British state, and who try to get us to respond to that "threat" by developing a "revolutionary consciousness".

There is a conventional political path available to us that can take us to our desired destination.  Let's do ourselves a big favour by sticking to it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The SNP will be eyeing up Stirling to ensure a net gain from the Tories at the next election

Media coverage of support for independence in opinion polls often seems to be a case of 'heads I win, tails you lose', and you'd have to say that Jeremy Corbyn suffers the same problem at the hands of a hostile press at UK-wide level.  When the Tories have a big lead it's portrayed as a catastrophe for Corbyn, but when the race is closer to being even-stevens he doesn't get any credit for it - the story swiftly changes to "the opposition party should have a big lead at a time when the Tories are in such disarray".  Well, for what's it's worth, we're hearing the latter narrative at the moment, because after the Tories opened up what looked like a potentially decisive lead in the aftermath of the Independence Group breakaway, they've now been pegged back.  Take, for example, the latest Opinium poll...

Britain-wide voting intentions (Opinium):

Conservatives 36% (-2)
Labour 35% (+1)
UKIP 9% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-1)
SNP 5% (n/c)
Greens 4% (+1)
Plaid Cymru 1% (n/c)

Scottish subsample: SNP 46%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 17%, UKIP 6%, Liberal Democrats 4%, Greens 1%

It's not that Labour have really recovered from their post-breakaway slump, it's more that disgusted Brexiteer voters have turned away from the Tories (at least for the time being) and towards UKIP.  I suppose some would argue that once an election campaign is underway, the Tories would be able to squeeze the UKIP vote, but that's not necessarily a silver bullet, because there's a significant Green vote there for Labour to squeeze as well.

I said recently that the fallout from the Independent Group breakaway had left the SNP almost assured of victory in Scotland at the next Westminster election.  That's probably still correct, because Scottish Labour have too much of a deficit to realistically make up.  Nevertheless, if Labour start the election campaign within striking distance of the Tories at UK level, there would be more cause for concern for the SNP, because any momentum for Corbyn in England could bring Labour back into the game in Scotland.  We all remember what happened in 2017 - the swing from SNP to Tory was not a massive surprise and was factored into our expectations, but the real problem was the late swing from SNP to Labour, which nobody had really seen coming and was purely caused by momentum generated south of the border.

One thing that became clear in 2017 is that the post-election media narrative is driven mainly by the expectations game and by direction of travel.  You had otherwise sensible commentators portraying a landslide SNP victory as a "disaster for Sturgeon" simply because the SNP had lost seats and underperformed expectations.  That provides an opportunity this time around, though, because 39 or 40 seats would have to be reported as a good result, even though exactly the same outcome would have been considered a setback two years ago.  I think it's particularly important that the direction of travel is not just seen to be towards the SNP but also against the Scottish Tories, ie. the SNP need at least a small net gain of seats from the Tories and not just from Labour.  At a minimum that would mean regaining Stirling and holding onto Perth & North Perthshire.

I don't think these are questions for the distant future either - I'm coming round to the idea that there is a greater than even chance of an election this year.  Stephen Bush said yesterday that the Prime Minister's implied threat of an election to avoid a soft Brexit doesn't make sense because there isn't enough time to hold an election before the 12th April cliff-edge.  But what we know about Theresa May is that she wants her legacy to be the delivery of Brexit, and she won't regard continued customs union and/or single market membership as being a 'real' Brexit.  If an impractical option like an immediate general election is the only way of salvaging that legacy, I could imagine her doing it.  Another possibility is that the deal will pass, and that whoever is Prime Minister for the next phase of negotiations will feel that an election is unavoidable if we don't want deadlock further down the road.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Chuka Umunna's group face wipeout in any snap general election

I know it's a bit cheeky of me to say this, given that it's only a week since I wrote an entire blogpost about a subsample, but don't pay too much attention to the excitement over the Ipsos-Mori subsample putting the SNP on 55%, Labour on 15% and the Tories on 12%.  Once undecideds and unlikely-to-votes were removed, the sample size was a tiny 60, and the results won't have been properly weighted anyway.  Of course if there had been a sustained pattern of subsamples putting the SNP well over 50%, then it might be significant, but that simply isn't the case.  High 30s and low 40s has been much more common.

What is more meaningful and interesting about the poll is the Britain-wide result, and in particular Ipsos-Mori's decision to follow the practice of Opinium and ComRes by including the Independent Group as an option on a standard voting intention question.  As has been the case in the Opinium and ComRes polls, the Independent Group performed significantly worse than in polls from other firms asking hypothetical questions that make a song and dance of reminding respondents that there is a new kid on the block.  But at least Opinium and ComRes have put the Independent Group somewhere between 4% and 8%.  Ipsos-Mori, by contrast, have them barely troubling the scorer.

Britain-wide voting intentions (Ipsos-Mori):

Conservatives 38%
Labour 34%
Liberal Democrats 8%
SNP 5%
Greens 4%
Independent Group 2%
Plaid Cymru 1%
Brexit Party 1%

We don't have to look far for an explanation for the divergence - Ipsos-Mori polled by telephone, whereas Opinium and ComRes used an online panel.  It's an open question as to whether telephone or online data collection produces more accurate results at present (online polls surprised everyone during the EU referendum by being closer to the final result), but it seems intuitively likely that telephone would at least be superior when it comes to testing support for the Independent Group.  Online panels are likely to have a disproportionate number of politically-engaged respondents who are more aware of the new proto-party's existence than the average person on the street.

So if the Independent Group really are on 2%, it's not hard to see how a snap general election would pose an existential threat for them - and that could be exactly where we're headed.  The theory seems to be that if parliament coalesces around a softer Brexit as a solution to the current crisis, the anti-Europeans on the Tory benches will sabotage it by bringing about an election - either by the direct means of voting against the government on a no confidence motion, or more likely by a show of strength that demonstrates the government will no longer be able to govern without their help.  Which could leave Chuka and co making panic-stricken do-or-die overtures to potential defectors - but how many Labour or Tory MPs are really going to throw their careers away a few weeks before an election that could secure their positions for another five years if they just sit tight?

This may prove to have been one of the most ill-timed breakaways in political history.