Saturday, April 6, 2019

Is there any more ridiculous sight than a Tory commentator using a dud poll to weave a world of illusion in which the "precious Union" is safe?

So just a quick postscript to the previous post about the ludicrous misreporting of the independence figures from the Progress Scotland poll.  I was taking a peek at Conservative Home yesterday, and I stumbled across an article from the chap who mans their Colonial Desk (ie. he writes an occasional round-up of what might loosely be described as "news" from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so that no-one else has to acknowledge the existence of a UK beyond England).  Towards the bottom of the piece was a mention of a mysterious poll that purportedly shows a "collapse" in support for Scottish independence - and yes, it turns out that I was far too generous to the Sun newspaper the other day, because at the time I was only aware of an article in which they had falsely claimed that the poll shows a "drop" in Yes support.  Thanks to ConHome, I now realise there was another one that really did claim the poll shows a "dramatic collapse" for Yes.

The reality, as you'll recall, is that the Progress Scotland poll asked about independence in a completely new way, meaning there are no baseline figures to measure trends from.  It's literally  impossible to tell from the poll whether support for independence has gone up, down, or stayed static.  Claiming a "dramatic collapse" on that basis is rather akin to saying that Neil Armstrong was much fatter than the previous man to have walked on the moon.  But our plucky ConHome correspondent wasn't about to let troublesome things like facts get in his way - oh no, he was perfectly content to accept the Sun's outlandish claims as genuine, and gleefully seized upon the poll as proof that the "fragile Union" narrative is actually a "myth".  You reach the stage where all you can do is point and laugh at these people.  If the only comfort blanket they've got is a tabloid newspaper telling porkies about an opinion poll, they're really not in a good place.  It's no more or less risible than Anas Sarwar brandishing his famous "top secret document" prop when all else failed.

Someone called "CMac11" left a comment on the previous blogpost and effortlessly solved the mystery of why the question format used by Progress Scotland appeared to produce lower support for independence than what we're used to from more conventional polling.  He/she pointed out that no fewer than 17% of Yes voters in the poll rated themselves as ten on a scale of zero to ten, which supposedly indicated that they "completely support Scotland staying part of the UK".  Self-evidently, that is an utterly implausible figure.  In the whole five years since the independence referendum, I've met literally one single person who has converted from being a Yes voter in 2014 to being a committed Brit Nat now, and he only made that journey because of an idiosyncratic obsession with the named person scheme.  Much more likely is that people who are no longer sure about indy would place themselves somewhere in the middle of the zero-to-ten scale.  We can see how improbable a swing from one extreme to the other is from the fact that just 3% of No voters placed themselves at zero on the scale, meaning that they "completely support Scotland becoming independent".

Normally we can only speculate about the causes of seemingly illogical poll results, but this is an exception. It's blindingly obvious what's happened here.  A significant minority of Yes voters clearly misread the question and thought they were indicating total support for independence (rather than total opposition) by rating themselves as ten on the scale.  Why did only Yes voters make that mistake?  Because it's natural to think that the higher end of the scale is intended to represent the maximum support for your own preferred position.  No voters who made that assumption were correct, while Yes voters who made the same assumption were wrong.  If the figures are adjusted on the reasonable assumption that approximately 14% of Yes voters mistakenly rated themselves as ten on the scale, that in itself would mean the poll underestimated support for independence by around 5% - enough to take us into roughly the same territory as the conventional polls.

So it's not just that it's impossible to compare this poll with previous independence polls and detect a trend.  The poll itself is also an outright dud - albeit only in respect of the key question on support for indy, where something appears to have gone very badly wrong by complete accident.  The next time you see a journalist or unionist politician point to this dud poll as proof that their "precious Union" is safe, do please try to keep a straight face.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Clueless Sun newspaper left red-faced after being caught wrongly telling readers that support for independence has "dropped"

A couple of nights ago, someone left a comment on this blog asking me to write about the numbers from the new Progress Scotland poll on support for independence.  I wasn't sure what he/she meant, because none of the reporting I'd seen on that poll mentioned any direct question about independence.  I checked the Progress Scotland website and there was no clue there (and frustratingly there was no link to any datasets).  The mystery deepened when The Sun started reporting that the poll supposedly showed Yes support had "dropped below 40%".  At that point my propaganda detector started buzzing very loudly and I was fairly convinced that things were not quite as they seemed, but obviously it was hard to comment until I actually saw the relevant part of the poll.  I was finally pointed in the right direction by Denise last night - the datasets had been on the Survation website all along.  (In fairness to myself I had already looked there, but the archive section is a bit confusing.)

And the verdict?  You probably won't faint with amazement upon learning that The Sun have been telling you porkies.  The lie is not the suggestion that the poll shows support for independence at below 40% - that can just about be justified at a stretch, albeit it's somewhat misleading.  No, the lie is the claim that Yes support has "dropped" in the poll, and that there are serious implications for Nicola Sturgeon, indyref2, etc, etc.  This implies that there are comparable polls from the recent past which showed much higher support for independence - in fact, there haven't been any such polls.  The Progress Scotland poll asked respondents about their views on independence in a novel way, and also asked them to give their answers in a novel way by rating their support or opposition to independence on a scale of 0 to 10.  There is nothing to compare the results to - which means that support for independence may have risen, or it may have fallen, or it may have stayed exactly the same.  The poll gives us absolutely no clues to trends whatsoever.  But what we do know is that a Survation poll a few weeks ago, which asked the independence question in the conventional Yes/No manner, showed Yes support holding steady in the mid-40s.  It's therefore not unreasonable to work from the assumption that nothing much has changed, at least until we see the slightest scrap of evidence to the contrary.  The likelihood is that a conventional independence poll conducted now would show a no change position, and that a poll with a 0-10 format conducted a few weeks or months ago would have produced much the same results as the Progress Scotland poll.

Now, let's be fair - it's theoretically possible that there has been a sudden and inexplicable drop in the Yes vote in the few weeks since the Survation poll.  But there are two possible explanations for the Progress Scotland numbers being so different from the norm - a) a real drop, and b) the use of a radically different question and answer format.  As b) is so obviously the simplest and most natural explanation, the onus must surely be on The Sun to substantiate their outlandish claims.  My own question would be whether they were deliberately pulling the wool over their readers' eyes, or whether they really were totally oblivious to the fact that they were comparing apples with oranges. I've learned from experience never to exclude the possibility of utter journalistic cluelessness.

So why might the different poll format have such a dramatic effect on people's answers?  It may be the reference to "staying part of the UK" - there are plenty of precedents for polls that use that sort of language producing much more No-friendly results.  Or it could be that soft voters in the middle, or undecided voters, react differently when they're not presented with a binary choice.  Either way, we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the poll is picking up underlying resistance to independence in a way that conventional polls have not.  If the Yes/No polls had been that far out in 2014, the eventual Yes vote would have been nowhere near as high as 45%.  It's true that the polls did overestimate Yes, but not by much, and it's possible that some or all of that discrepancy can be very simply explained by differential turnout.

Oh, and as for Pamela Nash and Scotland in Union taunting Progress Scotland for selectively withholding the least favourable results from the poll, the words pot, kettle and black spring to mind.

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I was contacted on Twitter last night for my views on whether SNP voters in the forthcoming Leith Walk by-election should use their lower preferences.  Answer: yes!  Your lower preferences will not be taken into account unless the SNP candidate is eliminated before the final two, but in the unlikely event that it pans out that way, I'm sure most of us would have a view on whether we'd rather have a Green councillor or a unionist councillor.  (The Greens are strong in the ward.)  The rule of thumb is always the same with the STV voting system - use as many preferences as you feel able to, because you'll never be doing any harm, and you'll sometimes be doing a lot of good.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The reason why nobody can agree on what Theresa May just said is that she said everything and nothing simultaneously

I now understand why Tory MPs come out of meetings with Theresa May and can't agree on what she said, because her statement tonight was full of ambiguities and half-contradictions, and everyone is remembering only the bits they want to remember.  For instance...

* She said that a further Article 50 extension would have to be very short, and any solution agreed would have to be legislated for by 22nd May to avoid holding European elections.  But she also said the extension should last until a deal has been passed.  So will the request be for an open-ended extension, or another very short cliff-edge extension?  If the EU rejects the 22nd May deadline, is she saying she would accept a longer extension?  And if the answer to the latter question is "no" or "don't know", how can anyone say that No Deal has been ruled out?

* She said that if she and Corbyn can't agree on a specific blueprint, they'll instead try to agree on a range of options to be put before parliament.  She also said that she would abide by any decision parliament makes.  But is she only committing to accepting parliament's wishes if they're expressed during the government's own proposed process, or does the promise also apply to go-it-alone initiatives by the Commons, such as Letwin's indicative votes?

My speculation last night about a general election on 23rd May didn't survive long, because there won't be enough time for that after May has tried this latest approach.  But one thing that was clear from her statement is that any agreement with Corbyn would have to be a bolt-on to the existing withdrawal agreement. And the DUP have already stated that if the withdrawal agreement is passed with the backstop intact, they will withdraw support for the government.  So whichever way Brexit is heading, it's hard to see how an election can be long delayed.

Tonight's votes reveal that the SNP are not uncompromising Remain ultras - they just have red lines, which they've rightly stuck to

So a few quick thoughts on tonight's parliamentary votes.  I was surprised that all four motions were voted down, because with Labour whipping in favour of three of them it seemed likely that at least one would scrape through, or possibly two, or possibly even three.  But those three were all pretty close.

The customs union only proposal was defeated by three votes, with TIG and the DUP voting against, the SNP abstaining, and the Lib Dems splitting three ways.  Given the SNP's red lines, I wouldn't have thought there's any prospect of them switching to outright support for this motion if it comes back (and rightly so), although it could pass if either TIG or the DUP switch to abstaining.  It was so close to being a dead heat tonight that in theory it wouldn't actually need an entire party to switch - even just a couple of individual MPs changing their minds could swing the balance.  On the other hand, there would be nothing to stop the SNP voting against next time to make sure it doesn't pass.

The referendum proposal failed by just 12 votes, with the SNP, TIG and the Lib Dems all voting in favour, as you'd expect, and the DUP voting against.  It's much harder to see where the extra votes are going to come from to get this one over the line, because there is no party that is realistically going to reverse its position.  The closeness of tonight's vote seems a bit artificial in any case, because the Cabinet were instructed to abstain, and presumably they would break (either wholly or mostly) against a referendum if it ever came to a binding vote.

The Common Market 2.0 proposal, which is better described as the softest Brexit on offer tonight, was defeated by 21 votes, and strangely enough the SNP and TIG voted in opposite ways on this one - the SNP actively voted in favour and TIG actively voted against.  So Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson will be disappointed at this vivid demonstration that TIG, and not the SNP, are the real Remain ultras.  The SNP are perfectly prepared to compromise on a soft Brexit that is actually consistent with their red lines, which the customs union-only proposal is not.  Theoretically if TIG change sides on Common Market 2.0 it would pass by 1 vote, although a) it's hard to imagine that they will back off from their distinctively hardline stance, and b) there's no guarantee that everyone else will vote in exactly the same way if the motion does come back.  Once again, the Lib Dems were split three ways on this vote, which is a peculiar division on strategy and principle for a traditionally pro-European party.

The requirement-to-revoke proposal was doomed to defeat as soon as Labour declined to whip in favour of it, and sure enough it failed by 101 votes.  Keir Starmer will have lost a lot of friends tonight with his condescending (and frankly baffling) reply to Joanna Cherry when she challenged him on Labour's stance.

Having an interest in political history, I quite enjoyed watching Nick Boles theatrically announce his departure from the Conservative party and then physically walk away from the Tory benches.  I believe he's the first MP to cross the floor in that very literal sense since Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler defected from the Tories to the SDP in 1981.  (I said on Twitter that it was in 1982, but according to Wikipedia it happened a year earlier.)  There may have been a more recent example than that, but I can't think of one off the top of my head.  Although according to Boles' tweet, he's going to continue calling himself an "Independent Progressive Conservative" rather than joining a different party or group, so it remains to be seen whether he'll return to the Tory benches out of habit or sit with the opposition.

Either way, the Commons arithmetic has just got even tighter...

Conservatives 314
Labour 245
SNP 35
Independent Group 11
Liberal Democrats 11
DUP 10
Sinn Féin 7
Plaid Cymru 4
Greens 1
Independents 11

Excluding the abstentionist Sinn Féin, that works out as...

Conservatives + DUP: 324
Combined Opposition: 318

Even on the confidence and supply arrangement which the DUP happily ignore when it suits them, that's an effective government majority of just six.  A Labour win in the Newport West by-election is likely to reduce it to five.  In days of old, anything below ten wasn't really considered a "working majority" at all.  Whatever happens from here, a general election before this calendar year is out is surely going to be extremely hard to avoid.  This parliament is simply not viable.

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UPDATE: Just a passing thought - if Theresa May feels she has no option left but to seek a further Article 50 extension for the specific purpose of calling a general election, I wonder if we might end up going to the polls on 23rd May, ie. the same day on which the European elections would take place if they're held.  Probably the most effective way of minimising the embarrassment of having to hold European elections is to drown out coverage of them with a general election campaign. 

If both elections are on the same day, it would also hugely boost turnout for the Euro-election, which might prevent UKIP and Farage's new Brexit Party from reaping the benefits of a differential turnout.

Monday, April 1, 2019

In a post-ideological world, what brings politicians together in a common endeavour? Apparently, it's the name "Alexander".

You might remember that after the launch of the Independent Group a few weeks ago, Chris "in the works" Deerin penned a notorious article that revealed the breakaway Labour MPs understood full well that they would need a "different strategy in Scotland" and that they had even invited Ruth Davidson to be their leader.  Obviously they had made the schoolboy error of believing the journalistic propaganda that Davidson is some kind of "centrist" bridge-builder, rather than the tribalistic zealot we all know and love.  Having got nowhere with an obviously doomed Plan A, we now know what the wacky Plan B for a "different strategy in Scotland" is - and it looks suspiciously like putting four political has-beens in a room together and calling them a political party.

Today's Scotsman reveals that Labour siblings Douglas Alexander and Wendy Alexander (former Shadow Foreign Secretary and Scottish Labour leader respectively), their Lib Dem namesake Danny Alexander (former Chief Secretary to the Treasury), and the former Tory MEP Struan Stevenson, have all left their parties to form a loose new grouping known temporarily as "the Scottish Independents", which will now seek formal registration with the Electoral Commission as a fully-fledged party, with a permanent name to be determined.  The Scotsman piece is predictably breathless in portraying the new outfit as more "heavyweight" than the Independent Group, boasting as it does two former UK Cabinet ministers and a former party leader.  Well...up to a point, Lord Copper.  What matters far more is that none of them are current elected representatives, which makes the whole "breakaway" concept a bit phony and very easy for the general public to ignore.

Douglas Alexander, who appears to be the group's unofficial spokesman/leader, has innocently dismissed any suggestion that they are a Scottish front organisation for the Independent Group, but admits that they were "inspired" by the actions of Chuka and co, and that it would be "prudent" for the Independent Group and the Scottish Independents to avoid standing candidates against each other, and that "it may be appropriate to consider" a CDU-CSU type relationship.  Decoded, that appears to mean that in the unlikely event that the Scottish Independents get candidates elected as MPs, they would sit as part of the Independent Group in parliament, but would be free to pose as a nominally separate party in their occasional forays home and in election campaigns.

As you'd expect, Alexander has also provided some vacuous, waffly quotes about people from different political "traditions" coming together to break free from the shackles of "increasingly outdated ideologies", although it appears the one dated ideology that hasn't yet outlived its usefulness for him is rabid British nationalism.  You do have to wonder: if these self-styled centrists truly believe we're living in a post-ideological world, what is the common denominator that will in future bring politicians together under the same umbrella?  In this case 'having the same surname' seems to be the only obvious commonality - which must leave poor Struan Stevenson feeling like a second class citizen.

My ears pricked up when Alexander mentioned a specially commissioned YouGov poll that supposedly shows considerable public appetite for a new centrist, anti-independence party in Scotland.  I've managed to track the poll down in an obscure corner of the YouGov website, and you won't be surprised to hear that the results are not quite as Alexander portrays them - just 18% of respondents say they would "consider" voting for the Scottish Independents, while 52% would not.  That's strikingly close to the percentage of people who said in a similar poll back in 2007 that they would "consider" voting for Archie Stirling's Scottish Voice party.  If you've never heard of Scottish Voice, there's a good reason for that.

I was particularly tickled by this supplementary question...

There is currently a fashion for the names of new political parties to echo the names of their founders.  For instance, the French governing party En Marche has the same initials as Emmanuel Macron, and the new British party Change UK has the same initials as Chuka Umunna.  Which of the following names for Scotland's new party do you prefer?

DA Party: 4%
Alexandria: 7%
Alexanders the Great: 2%

I do not believe that the name should be a nod to the fact that two of the party's founders have the initials DA, or that three of them share the surname Alexander: 61%

I have to say the Alexanders would be well advised to listen to the public on this one.  If they're crazy enough to call themselves "DA Party", they'll be inevitably dubbed "yer da".  And as for "Alexanders the Great"...well, where do you even start?

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Just a quick note to let you know that you can see a sneak preview of my column for the latest issue of iScot, along with information on how to purchase a digital or print copy, by clicking HERE.