Friday, May 3, 2019

SNP gatecrash the English local elections by seizing control of Dundee City Council

So here's a paradox within a paradox within a paradox.  On Scottish local elections night two years ago, the SNP failed to win an overall majority in any council, and yet they've somehow pulled that feat off tonight on English local elections night.  Winning a single by-election was enough for them regain outright control of Dundee City Council after two years of running a minority administration.  The SNP gained the crucial seat from Labour, and yet it was a poor result for the SNP.  Confused?  Well, it's our old friend, the STV voting system, making everything a bit complicated again.  The vacancy was caused by the death of a Labour councillor, but the popular vote in the ward was dominated by the SNP last time around.  They haven't done as well tonight, and Labour have made a significant comeback.

Dundee North-East by-election result (2nd May 2019):

SNP 46.9% (-6.9)
Labour 38.1% (+11.1)
Conservatives 8.4% (-0.7)
Anti-Cuts 2.8% (+1.5)
Greens 2.4% (+0.8)
Citizens First 1.4% (n/a)

It's difficult to make much sense of the direction of travel there - it's completely out of line with other recent Scottish local by-elections, with recent Scottish opinion polls, and even with the English local elections, in which so far Labour seem to be taking a pounding. Probably those on the ground in Dundee would know the explanation - perhaps the Labour candidate is particularly well known, or perhaps there was some local factor that was suppressing the SNP vote.

*  *  *

It seems to me that the obvious point a lot of commentators are missing about the English results is that, at least to a large extent, the Brexit vote had nowhere to go.  Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party didn't stand, and UKIP only stood in a small minority of wards.  So if the Tories do end up with a surprise lead in the projected national vote, as now looks possible, there'll be no great mystery about the divergence from opinion polls showing a Labour lead - it'll have happened because some disgruntled pro-Brexit voters reluctantly stuck with the Tories yesterday in the absence of a clear alternative.  They won't have the same problem later this month in the Euro elections.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Setting an artificial threshold of 60% for a Yes victory isn't "bold" - it's ultra-conservative and anti-democratic

You've probably seen Neil Mackay's rather provocative list of "issues" that the Yes movement must supposedly address in order to win.  Unsurprisingly it has sharply divided opinion, with some of the criticism spilling into unpleasant personal comments.  But as was the case with Peter A Smith, the fact that the abuse must be deplored does not mean that parts of the criticism can't be justified.  Mr Mackay's advice is a very mixed bag - some of it is eminently sensible, such as the reminder that using insulting words like 'Yoon' does no-one any good.  (I would make exceptions for ironic or satirical use, but the basic point is sound.)  Some of it is misguided, such as the idea that we should all stop marching for independence, on the basis that shoving saltires in the faces of No voters does nothing to win them over.  This entirely misses the point of the marches, which is not to convert No voters directly, but rather to raise the morale of Yes supporters, to boost the visibility of the campaign, and to generate a sense of momentum.  And some of the advice is needlessly divisive, such as the suggestion that those in leadership positions should shun certain Yes supporters by unfollowing them on social media - which would simply alienate one part of the movement from another without actually winning a single extra vote.  Paul Hutcheon may have based his entire "investigative journalism" career on the shock value of who doesn't ignore who on Twitter, but real people don't give a monkey's.

Mr Mackay's most controversial point of all is smuggled in at the end.  He argues that the movement should decide that nothing less than 60% Yes support is required for change - he thinks this would be a "bold" and generous step that would impress the unpersuaded.  Now, I've read this part of the article multiple times, and I still can't quite work out what Mr Mackay is getting at - is he suggesting that we should not call a referendum until Yes is at 60% in the polls, or is he actually suggesting that the rules of the next referendum should be rigged in favour of the No side to ensure that they only need 40.01% of the vote to "win"?  I suspect the ambiguity may be intentional, because there is a near-consensus in the Yes movement that the 40% rule in 1979 was an outrage against democracy that must never be repeated in any form.  It's unlikely there would have been as many people recommending Mr Mackay's article as a "must-read" if they had realised he was channelling George Cunningham. 

And it would actually make a complete nonsense of all of the high-minded suggestions for building Yes support, because what happens if those ideas work?  Suppose the banning of marches, the sending of people to Coventry on Twitter, and the introduction of a 60% rule somehow win over No voters by the bucket-load, and we score a highly impressive 59% of the vote in the next referendum?  The returning officer will just turn around and say: "Sorry, under the Vote Adjustment Rules, 41 is a bigger number than 59, and you've actually lost.  Try again in a generation."  Supermajority requirements aren't "bold", they aren't daring, they aren't radical - they're ultra-conservative, anti-democratic, and make the status quo insanely difficult to reform.

Even if we're generous to Mr Mackay and assume he wasn't proposing a supermajority, but merely that we shouldn't hold a referendum until 60% has been reached in the polls, that would still to all intents and purposes be an argument against a referendum and against independence, because in the real world 60% is utterly unachievable before the referendum campaign actually starts.  If even the initial shock of the Leave vote in June 2016 was only enough to get Yes into the low 50s, I'm struggling to see how we'd get much higher than that without calling a referendum and inviting people to focus on the choice.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Tories are overplaying their hand by moving from "now is not the time" to "Scotland will never be allowed to choose"

In the spring of 2017, when Theresa May first trotted out her notorious line of "now is not the time", we were reliably informed by journalists who had spoken to government sources that the choice of words had been extensively road-tested.  The Tories wanted to refuse a Section 30 order, but they were anxious to do it in a way that wouldn't inflame Scottish public opinion and end up increasing support for independence.  They apparently found in focus groups that "now is not the time" hit a sweet spot that got middle-of-the-road voters nodding along.  It wasn't a flat no, it wasn't forever, but there was just too much going on with Brexit, it was too soon after the first indyref, so you know, not just now, Nicola.

Why do the Tories appear to be abandoning that circumspection?  Why does "now is not the time" appear to be giving way to words that effectively mean "Scotland is a prisoner in the United Kingdom and is no longer allowed to leave"?  If you were being generous, you would think that maybe there have been yet more focus groups, and more private polls, revealing a sea-change in Scottish public opinion which has left the Tories free to say any outrageous thing they want without have to worry about boosting support for independence or for an independence referendum.  But that seems unlikely.  I think they just got carried away with their (qualified) success in the 2017 general election and now believe that negativity about an independence referendum is an inexhaustible goldmine that will continue to generate votes for the Scottish Tories.  It'll never win them a majority, or anything close, but they no longer care what the majority think, because they've found in our Alice Through the Looking Glass politics that they can "win" elections and reap the full rewards of that by coming a distant second and getting little more than one-quarter of the vote.  They may still care to some extent about saving their "precious, precious union", but they've come to believe that will take care of itself while they get on with pursuing the narrow electoral interests of the Tory party.

The thing is, though, the union may not take care of itself.  It's easy to dismissively say no to a referendum, and to give the impression of doing that with some sort of moral authority, when the most recent election produced substantial SNP losses (albeit from an exceptionally high base, which of course no-one ever bothers to mention).  It'll be a rather different story after the European elections if opinion polls are correct in pointing to SNP gains.  And it'll be a completely different story after any snap general election if opinion polls are right in suggesting the SNP could once again take more than 50 of the 59 Scottish seats.  By that point, any further obstructionism from Westminster on a Section 30 order could start to look like what Tony Blair used to call "an unreasonable veto".  There might then be considerable public sympathy for Nicola Sturgeon as she looks at ways forward in the absence of a Section 30 - assuming she can be persuaded to overcome her reluctance to act without London's 'permission'.

The other problem is that, paradoxically, the Tories' campaign against a referendum two years ago may only have been successful in producing seat gains because Theresa May had not actually said no to a referendum.  If you want people to be motivated to go to the polls to stop Indyref 2, they have to believe the 'threat' is real.  By moving from "now is not the time" to a flat no, the Scottish Tories may have destroyed their own electoral USP.  We'll soon find out.

*  *  *

Last night's blogpost was about the ITV reporter Peter A Smith, who in his interview with the First Minister wasn't remotely interested in the case for or against a referendum, but merely wanted to taunt her about the supposed fact that the all-powerful British state wasn't going to let her have one.  "Yeah, and which Tory is going to agree to a referendum?  Michael Gove?  Boris Johnson?  Who?"  It strikes me that Iain Macwhirter has been arguing in much the same spirit recently - instead of being outraged at the thwarting of democratic Scottish mandates, his anger and scorn is directed at those who aren't 'realistic' enough to accept that Theresa May's veto is the end of the story.  "And you think Jeremy Corbyn is going to give you your Section 30, do you?  Get real."  (I'm paraphrasing, by the way, before anyone jumps down my throat.)

This is really odd, because Iain spoke for all of us in 2011 by reacting incredulously to exactly the sort of views he is now espousing.  He sat in a TV studio as John "The Gardener" McTernan informed the nation that the election of a majority SNP government was neither here nor there, and that there wasn't going to be an independence referendum because under our constitutional arrangements that was entirely Westminster's call to make.  Iain told him in no uncertain terms that it was exactly that sort of arrogance that had just cost Labour power at Holyrood.

Iain has clearly been on something of a journey over the last eight years, because he is now the John McTernan in this debate.  How he ended up there, and why he's quite so passionate in his embrace of the Westminster veto, is something of a mystery.  He's been telling us for months that Nicola Sturgeon understands perfectly well that a pre-2021 referendum is impossible, and yet in his column on Sunday he expressed bafflement that she was now raising expectations for a vote she supposedly couldn't deliver. "The First Minister used to be an honest speaker who said what she meant, scorned waffle and spin, and wasn't afraid to face harsh realities. To see her resort to weasel words and obfuscation is saddening."  Hmmm.  Isn't it just possible that she is being honest, and she just happens to honestly disagree with Iain's assessment of whether an early referendum is achievable?  Couldn't her announcement be reasonably interpreted as a sign that Iain has for some time been wide of the mark in his reading of her intentions?  I make no pretence at being able to see inside her mind, but surely that's at least one logical possibility?

*  *  *

In his comprehensive response to Iain Macwhirter's article, Wee Ginger Dug once again expressed his view that if a Section 30 order is not forthcoming, the best way forward would be to use the next Holyrood election to seek an outright mandate for independence.  He believes that a consultative referendum held without a Section 30 wouldn't work out, because the broadcast media would ignore it and the unionist parties would boycott it.  I agree that using the Holyrood election is a perfectly good plan, but I do think Paul is underestimating the potential of a consultative referendum.  If the Supreme Court upheld a Referendum Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament, it would become the law of the land, and it would then be tricky for unionists to boycott it, and it would certainly be very hard for broadcasters to ignore it.

And remember Strathclyde Regional Council's consultative postal referendum on water services in 1994?  That didn't receive a huge amount of pre-publicity and was boycotted by the Tories, and yet it somehow produced a turnout of over 70% - more than you'd get in a general election these days.  If anyone has a recording of STV's live coverage of the result, it would be a good one to upload to YouTube.  The reporter at the count (I think it might have been a youthful Bernard Ponsonby) told viewers that the organisers of the vote would be very happy if 40% of ballots had been returned.  When the actual figure was announced, he started shouting: "That's an astonishing turnout!  That's an astonishing turnout!"

Monday, April 29, 2019

ITV speaking power to truth

Peter A Smith, the Scotland correspondent for ITV News (which these days is a depressingly pale imitation of the past glories of ITN), conducted an interview with Nicola Sturgeon the other day.  It went on for several minutes, but somehow never moved beyond the one and only question that Smith seemed interested in hearing an answer to: what was Ms Sturgeon's "strategy" for getting round the Tories' obstructionism on a Section 30 order?  Now, in one sense that's not an unreasonable question, because as a number of us on the Yes side have pointed out, there are a couple of obvious ways forward that wouldn't require a Section 30, and in an ideal world we'd like to hear Ms Sturgeon commit to one or other of them as a Plan B just in case "now is not the time" turns into "never is the time".  But Smith didn't come across as a man who was pursuing an exercise in intellectual curiosity about why the Scottish Government are so needlessly reluctant to act without Westminster's permission.  Instead, as he shouted in ill-mannered fashion over the First Minister's answers, his subtext appeared to be: "Give up, know your place, and accept there is no strategy that can get you a second referendum. Stop giving your supporters false hope."  And that really wasn't a great look when the argument he was shouting down was that the UK government should and will simply accept the democratic choice the Scottish people have already made to hold a referendum in the lifetime of this parliament.

As a clownish postscript to the interview, Smith triumphantly announced on Twitter that the UK government had since "reiterated" that it would not allow an independence referendum to take place, and then added "back to you, First Minister".  Which was as much as to say: "No, no, you weren't listening the first time, it really is hopeless.  Ready to give up now?"

Given that he was essentially trolling the SNP leadership, it perhaps wasn't surprising that Smith attracted a fair bit of ire from SNP and Yes supporters, and unfortunately some of it took the form of personal abuse.  He was perfectly within his rights to complain about that, but the manner in which he did so simply cast further doubt over whether he is living up to his duty of impartiality as a broadcast journalist...

"A selection of the joy sent my way since interviewing Nicola Sturgeon.
These so-called ‘cybernats’ (a useless, reductive term I don’t like) are no worse than other fragile individuals. The problem of people not liking their views being reasonably challenged is just endemic now."

That's about as cynical a dog-whistle as you'll ever see.  He might as well have put on a Francis Urquhart voice, and said: "You may think that there's such a thing as a 'Cybernat' problem, and you may feel that these screenshots bear that out, but I'm afraid that I could not possibly agree with you".  It was astonishing to see that one or two people were naive enough to take his protestations that he "doesn't like" the word Cybernat at face value.  Can any of us imagine him reacting to unionist abuse with the words "these so-called CyberBrits" or "these so-called Yoons"?  Nope, thought not.

Basically he's inviting us to make a straight choice between taking the side of abusive people on the internet, or accepting that his interview style was an example of fearless journalism that was legitimately challenging the views of a political leader.  Well, in much the same way that I reacted to George W Bush telling us that we were either with him or we were with the terrorists, I'm going to opt out of that moronic false choice.  I have no truck with personal abuse of journalists and politicians, and I wish people on all sides would stop doing it. But that doesn't mean I'm daft enough to believe that Smith was nobly speaking truth to power.  He was actually doing the polar opposite of that, and attempting to shut down Nicola Sturgeon's views by telling her that "power says no".

Speaking power to truth has long been the preference of the UK broadcast media.  Can you recall a single interviewer in the run-up to the indyref shouting over the answers of David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, and demanding to know "but does 'permanent' mean that the Scottish Parliament's existing powers can never be removed?" or "how can the Scottish people be expected to vote for a plan that you won't actually devise until the referendum is over?" or "what recourse will the Scottish people have if this turns out to be the baloney it appears?" or "on what date will you resign if none of this ever sees the light of day?"

Of course you can't.  It was all "oooh, how interesting, do tell us more, and why not call it Devo Max?"

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Drama as new Panelbase poll continues to show support for independence at unusually high levels

Like the proverbial London buses, you wait ages for a full-scale Scottish poll, and then three come along all at once.  Hot off the press is Panelbase's latest polling on independence...

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 47% (n/c)
No 53% (n/c)

Now this is a really interesting one, because I know some people will take a casual look at the numbers and argue that the no change position means Panelbase have failed to detect the same surge that YouGov found.  But what we have to remember is that this is no change from an unusually good Panelbase poll for Yes last December.  Panelbase have recently (along with YouGov) been one of the more No-friendly pollsters, and the 47% in December was the highest share they had reported for Yes in more than two years.  In fact, between the spring of 2017 and the autumn of 2018, they had never reported a Yes vote higher than 45%, and the more typical figure was 44%.  

So that would tend to leave the impression that there has indeed been a significant rise in Yes support, although it muddies the waters as to when exactly that increase took place.

There's some confusion on social media about the Westminster numbers in the poll, but they appear to be as follows (I'll correct them if they prove to be inaccurate)...

Scottish voting intentions for Westminster (Panelbase):

SNP 38% (+1)
Conservatives 22% (-5)
Labour 21% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)
Brexit Party 5% (n/a)
Change UK 3% (+1)
Greens 2% (n/c)

It's no great surprise that the SNP's share of the vote is lower than in the Survation and YouGov polls, because Panelbase have consistently painted a less rosy picture for the SNP than other pollsters.  In this case it barely seems to matter, though, because thanks to the two main unionist parties struggling so much, and in particular thanks to the combined Labour/Tory vote being split down the middle, the SNP are on course for massive seat gains even if Panelbase prove to be closest to the truth.  The seats projection based on a uniform swing is: SNP 46 (+11), Conservatives 8 (-5), Liberal Democrats 4 (n/c), Labour 1 (-6).