Friday, April 12, 2019

It's another bonzer by-election breakthrough: Sunshine on Leith Walk for surging SNP, but darkness falls on Labour and the Tories

It's happened again - the SNP have notched up an impressive local by-election win in a formerly Labour-dominated area of the central belt, which is exactly the sort of place where they were constantly losing by-elections to Labour on worryingly sizeable swings in the aftermath of the 2017 general election. It does feel like something fundamental has changed.

Leith Walk by-election result (11th April 2019):

SNP 35.7% (+1.4)
Greens 25.5% (+5.9)
Labour 15.5% (-7.0)
Conservatives 10.7% (-3.7)
Liberal Democrats 8.6% (+4.8)
Independent - Illingworth 1.5% (n/a)
UKIP 1.2% (n/a)
Socialist Labour 0.8% (-0.1)
Independent - Scott 0.2% (n/a)
For Britain Movement 0.2% (n/a)
Scottish Libertarians 0.2% (n/a)

Technically this was an SNP gain from Labour, as the vacancy was caused by a Labour councillor's resignation, but psephologically that's a meaningless point because the SNP comfortably topped the poll in the ward last time around. Nevertheless the swings speak for themselves - there was a swing of more than 4% from Labour to SNP, and of roughly 2.5% from Conservative to SNP.  The Tories must be particularly disappointed, because it's not all that common for them to go backwards in local by-elections - very often their vote share actually increases due to the greater motivation of their supporters to get out and vote.

To return to the subject of the previous post, I know some people will say that by-election results like this, along with the trend in recent opinion polls, suggests that the SNP's parking of the indyref issue over the last couple of years has paid dividends, and can continue to do so.  I'd just point out that a strategy that makes it more likely that the SNP will remain the dominant party is not necessarily the same thing as a strategy that brings us closer to independence.  Even if we have another twenty years of SNP rule at devolved level, we'd still look back and wonder what it was all about if we weren't an independent country at the end of it.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Now is the time to decisively move up a gear in preparations for an independence referendum

I was heartened to see Chris McEleny and Angus MacNeil pressing the case so forcefully today for an independence referendum this autumn.  In the wake of the six-month Brexit extension, we now stand at another crossroads for the independence movement, and as was the case in the early summer of 2017 it's very much time for all of us to "speak now or forever hold your peace".  Once Nicola Sturgeon makes her next statement on the way forward, the die will be cast once again.  The worst case scenario is that she'll say "the expected clarity on Brexit has not arrived, so we'll have to wait yet another six months for clarity".  That would surely be a dreadful error, because it would be doing exactly the same thing we correctly accuse Theresa May of - forever kicking the can down the road.

It's not hard to imagine the reasons Ms Sturgeon's most ultra-cautious advisers will be giving her for thinking that the idea of an indyref this year is a non-starter.  They'll be saying that the endgame of Brexit is the wrong time to get bogged down in potential legal challenges to a Referendum Bill passed without a Section 30, and that in any case the whole initiative might be overtaken by events if a People's Vote is somehow brought about or if (more likely) a snap general election is called.  But there's surely a middle path that can be followed that would leave us with a degree of flexibility while avoiding any deeply damaging sense of drift.

We now at least have partial clarity on Brexit - we have fairly strong indications that the extension to October is the last one of any substantial length that is likely to be granted.  Which leaves us with the binary possibilities of Brexit this year, or complete revocation.  And if Brexit does happen this year, it seems clear that it will be a relatively hard Brexit, because the Tory and Labour leaderships are united in their determination to leave the single market and end freedom of movement.  The sole point of compromise might be on the customs union.  The only way I could see a softer Brexit happening would be if Labour win a snap general election, and pro-EU backbenchers then use their leverage to pull Corbyn in a more moderate direction.  So it would be perfectly possible for Ms Sturgeon to tentatively name a date for an indyref, perhaps early 2020, and make clear that will remain pencilled in unless there is a general election before Halloween, or unless Article 50 is revoked.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The case for a consultative independence referendum

I've been having an exchange on Twitter with Iain Macwhirter over the last 24 hours about the possibility of holding a consultative referendum on independence in the absence of a Section 30 order.  I think it might be worth expanding on some of my points here, because 280 characters is a rather limiting format.

* First of all, there seems to be a perception that those of us who advocate a consultative referendum are arguing that it would somehow be superior to a Westminster-approved process.  That's not the case at all.  Of course a Section 30 order would be preferable, because it would dispense with any uncertainties caused by the possibility of a legal challenge, and would give voters greater confidence (albeit not absolute certainty) that their decision would be enacted.  So by all means Nicola Sturgeon should renew her request for a Section 30 order and await Theresa May's answer.  But if May once again says "no", a consultative referendum is an answer to the question "what then?"  And there does actually have to be an answer to that question - it's not as if we're going to say "thank you so much for considering our request, Prime Minister, and we humbly accept your decision".  And nor is it credible for us to keep seeking mandates for referendums at successive Holyrood elections if we know that the answer is still going to be "no" and if we have no intention of taking any further action.

* There also seems to be a perception that proposing a consultative referendum is synonymous with preparing the ground for UDI.  That'll be news to Alex Salmond and John Swinney, because under their leadership the SNP went into no fewer than four Holyrood elections (1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011) committed to holding an independence referendum within the Scottish Parliament's existing powers, and without any requirement for a Section 30 order.  The purpose of such a vote would not have been to provide a justification for UDI, but rather to secure a mandate for the Scottish government to enter into negotiations with the UK government on an independence settlement, which would then have been legislated for by strictly constitutional means.  Of course in the event of a future Yes vote the ball would be in the UK government's court - no-one can force them to respect the Scottish people's decision or to negotiate.  But I think Iain and others seriously underestimate just how difficult it would be for Westminster to completely ignore such a vote, as long as the turnout was at least respectable.  Psychologically it would be a game-changing moment, and the eventual outcome (albeit perhaps with a good few twists and turns along the way) would most likely be that either the mandate would be respected, or a compromise would be reached involving a further referendum held on an agreed basis.

* When I mentioned the possibility of a consultative referendum functioning as a gateway to a later Westminster-approved referendum, Iain reacted incredulously and suggested this meant I was conceding that a Section 30 order would ultimately be "needed" anyway, and that my argument was therefore a circular one.  Not at all: it would be infinitely preferable for the UK government to simply respect the outcome of a democratic vote, and that would very much be Plan A.  But if they remain intransigent, we'd then have a political dispute that can only be resolved by negotiation and compromise.  In other words, the Yes vote would then become very useful leverage.

* No matter how many times the claim is erroneously made, it is simply untrue to suggest that a consultative referendum would be "illegal", "non-legal" or "extra-legal".  This is not Spain - holding a democratic vote is not a criminal act in the UK, as Brian Souter proved by holding a private referendum on Section 28 in the year 2000, and as Strathclyde Regional Council proved by holding a consultative referendum in 1994 on the UK government's proposals to remove control of water from local authorities.  In fairness to him, Iain conceded that nobody would end up in jail for organising a referendum without a Section 30 order, but he insisted that "extra-legal" was appropriate language because the vote would not be legally binding.  That's a peculiar argument, because of course the 2014 referendum was not legally binding either, even with a Section 30 order.  David Cameron's government made a political commitment to respect a Yes vote, but there would have been no way of holding them to that commitment through the courts.  And if you think the distinction between a political commitment and a binding decision is a meaningless one, just look at the Supreme Court's refusal to uphold the Sewel Convention only last year.  There was actually a lot of concern in 2014 that a Yes vote might not necessarily lead to independence - I didn't share that view at the time, but the current uncertainty over whether Brexit will ever happen does illustrate the point rather nicely.  So essentially the only difference between a consultative referendum and the 2014 vote is that this time we probably wouldn't have a political commitment in advance that the result would be respected, but we'd nevertheless still be looking for that commitment once the UK government are confronted with the reality of a Yes vote.

* I'm puzzled by the automatic assumption that a consultative referendum would be boycotted by unionists.  The most likely way for a vote to come about would be for the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a Referendum Bill, which would then be probably be challenged in the Supreme Court, where it would either be upheld or struck down.  Would unionist parties really boycott a referendum that had been upheld as the law of the land by the United Kingdom's highest court?

* The main thrust of Iain's argument is that, as a result of the Edinburgh Agreement, it is now the established "constitutional position" that a referendum can only happen as the result of a Section 30 order.  That's self-evidently untrue, because the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement didn't in itself alter the British constitution one jot.  It's fair to say it did create a political precedent, but the British constitution is comprised of constitutional law and not of political precedents.  In any case, Theresa May has already binned the precedent of the Edinburgh Agreement by refusing to even enter into discussions on a Section 30 order when the elected Scottish Parliament voted to request one.  Clearly if one precedent no longer applies, something else has to take its place.

When I challenged Iain on his claim that a Section 30-approved referendum is required by "the constitution", he prayed in aid the fact that the current policy of the SNP leadership is that a Section 30 order must be sought.  I must say I'm bemused by the notion that SNP policy carries some kind of weight in British constitutional theory!

* Iain talked in reverential terms about "applying for a Section 30 order" as if that is a recognised constitutional procedure.  As far as I can see, what happened in 2017 is that Nicola Sturgeon sent a letter and it was completely ignored, which tells a rather different story.  There is pretty obviously no formal "application" process recognised by the UK government.

* As I understand it, Iain's alternative to a consultative referendum is to wait until 2021 and then seek yet another mandate for a referendum at the scheduled Scottish Parliament election.  That implicitly suggests he expects the UK government to cave in to democratic pressure - and yet he ridiculed the idea that the democratic pressure of a Yes vote in a consultative referendum could possibly yield any results.  That seems somewhat contradictory.  Essentially, any non-UDI route to independence depends on the belief that London will not behave like Madrid, and will ultimately respond to the verdict of the voters.  So the only question is which "democratic event" would be the most appropriate and effective way of securing the necessary leverage.  The case for a consultative referendum is that it avoids a needlessly long delay that clearly would suit the UK government down to the ground, and it also avoids creating a precedent that London can simply say "no" to a mandate for a referendum at its own whim.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Is Theresa May unwittingly making independence even more likely by implicating Labour in a hard Brexit?

Brexit seems to be taking us into a game of three-dimensional chess.  We have Jacob Rees-Mogg talking about how the UK could take advantage of a long Brexit delay by vetoing the EU budget or deeper integration, but that probably isn't what's in his mind at all - he's more likely hoping that decision-makers on the continent will hear his words and be spooked into thinking that British membership of the EU is more trouble than it's worth, and that they should just veto the extension.  It's a long shot, but the ERG have got nothing to lose by trying.  Meanwhile, Theresa May has turned her back on No Deal, not because she actually cares about the economic well-being of the country she leads, but apparently because of her obsession with "the precious union" and her belief that No Deal might lead to Scottish independence and/or a united Ireland.

Superficially, you can kind of see her point.  I certainly believe that it's naive of some Yes supporters to think that the SNP's two key objectives of revoking Article 50 and securing independence somehow complement each other.  In reality, revocation would probably lead to independence going on the backburner for a good few years.  Indy is only an immediate issue because of Brexit - so take Brexit away and we'd almost inevitably be looking at a longer timescale.  Intuitively you'd think that must also mean a hard Brexit makes independence more likely than a soft Brexit would, with No Deal offering the biggest opportunity of a breakthrough.  But I'm not sure that's true anymore.  It could be that the one thing worse for the precious union than No Deal is a compromise Brexit jointly authored and jointly delivered by Labour and Tory.  It remains to be seen whether Corbyn and May can reach an agreement, and the odds are probably still against it, but if by any chance that happens it could be the death-knell for the union.  By that stage, the entire London political establishment (with the unimportant exceptions of the Lib Dems and Change UK) would be equally implicated in a relatively hard Brexit that takes us out of the single market and ends freedom of movement.  The SNP and independence would be the only game left in town for passionate Remainers.

In any case, I'm puzzled as to why Labour seem so tempted to close a deal, because it's surely obvious that there will be an incentive for budding Tory leadership contenders to pledge that they will rat on anything that is agreed with Corbyn.  Labour support for the Withdrawal Agreement could end up being banked in return for absolutely nothing.

*  *  *

I'm glad to see the Greens keeping the SNP leadership honest on independence by insisting on a pre-2021 referendum in line with the current mandate.  And it actually doesn't matter to me whether or not Iain Macwhirter is right that they're only doing so as a clever way of wooing SNP voters, because the fact that it makes such clear tactical sense for them is in itself a triumph for the Yes movement.  It wasn't all that long ago that the Greens had an anti-independence co-leader in the shape of Robin Harper, and I used to genuinely worry (I recall writing about it on this blog) that they might abandon their support for independence after a No vote in the indyref.  It's even more recently that the Greens were carefully positioning themselves as more moderate than the SNP on the Section 30 issue by stating that it would be irresponsible and unthinkable to hold a referendum without Westminster's agreement.  The fact that they've swung the other way now is testament to the power of the "Yes constituency".  Left-leaning politicians can no longer afford to ignore us and our aspirations if they want to be electorally successful.  (Labour have been ignoring us for years, and look what's happened to them.)

"Boost for May" as Tory vote drops like a stone

Mike Smithson, known and loved by thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as a keen letter-writing impartial Liberal Democrat election expert, surpassed himself the other day.  After a parliamentary by-election in Newport West which saw the Tory vote plummet by 8%, Smithson's verdict in a Stormfront Lite headline was "Boost for May".  What he meant was that there had been a technical swing from Labour to Tory because the Labour vote had fallen slightly further, but it seems rather heroic to claim a "boost" just because someone else is doing even worse than you are.  Andrew Neil tried exactly the same game during the BBC's coverage of the vote, but for my money Labour's showing wasn't actually as bad as all that, or at least not in any way that could be considered unexpected.  It's pretty common for the Labour vote to slump in low turnout by-elections when everyone knows (or think they know) the result in advance.  OK, if this had been Tony Blair sweeping all before him in 1995 or 1996, there would have been a big swing to Labour, but we didn't need a by-election to tell us that Corbyn isn't in that sort of position.  If there's a general election this year Labour will start with a credible chance, but they're certainly not the pre-anointed winners.

In any case, if it's supposed to be good for the Tories that their vote collapsed in Newport West but not by quite as much as Labour's, it's only reasonable to point out that the Britain-wide opinion polls tell the opposite story - both of the two main London parties are sharply down on where they were at the start of the year, but the Tories have been slipping much faster of late which by default has brought Labour back to more or less level-pegging.  The latest YouGov poll is a prime example...

Conservatives 32% (-4)
Labour 31% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 12% (+1)
UKIP 7% (+3)
SNP / Plaid Cymru 6% (+1)
Brexit Party 5% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)

Scottish subsample: SNP 48%, Conservatives 20%, Labour 18%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 3%, Brexit Party 3%, Greens 1%

The basement battle between the rump UKIP and Farage's new Brexit Party is genuinely fascinating.  My guess is that if it was widely known that Farage and his closest colleagues have decamped to a new party, the vast bulk of the UKIP vote would follow them across, but instead we have a situation where a small group of obscure far-right politicians have quietly inherited a well-known political brand and are reaping the benefits of it.  If the European elections go ahead (and it's overwhelmingly likely they will), the Brexit vote could well be split right down the middle.  I know some people will say that doesn't really matter in a proportional representation election, but it absolutely does.  In some electoral regions (including Scotland), it's likely that a split vote will leave both parties below the de facto threshold for representation.  Hopefully by now David Coburn will have some alternative employment sorted out.

The usual health warning: no individual Scottish subsample should be taken too seriously.  All the same, Scottish Labour must be a touch alarmed by just how frequently they've gone sub-20 recently.