Saturday, June 8, 2019

If you want a risk-free referendum, try living in a totalitarian state. This is Scotland, and we can't win independence without risking defeat.

I've been meaning for a few days to write a detailed response to Pete Wishart's new article, in which he claims that the experience of Quebec provides proof for his well-rehearsed belief that the maximum amount of independence referendums that Scotland can ever hold is two, and that we can't afford to lose the second indyref because we'd never get another one.  Here's the short version of the point I was going to make: the Quebec experience shows no such thing, because the Parti Québécois has in fact won two elections since the second referendum loss in 1995, and one of those victories was with an outright majority.  It therefore had the window of opportunity if it so wished to hold a third referendum, but it chose not to do so, and now the moment seems to have passed.  The PQ was recently replaced as the main Quebec nationalist force by a right-of-centre party which opposes independence but theoretically supports more powers for Quebec within the Canadian federation.  (The concept of an anti-independence nationalist party is an alien one in Scotland, but it has a long tradition in Quebec, and it arguably has some parallels in Wales - under Carwyn Jones, Welsh Labour was sometimes referred to as 'soft nationalist'.)

So this is an uncomfortable thought for Pete, who is previously on the record as wanting to delay an independence referendum until we "know" we will win it.  The real lesson of Quebec is that if you timidly hold off from calling a referendum until the moment seems perfect, you eventually find that you're no longer anywhere near government and can't hold a referendum whether you want to or not.  And if you can't call a referendum, you can't become an independent country.

As I've pointed out umpteen times before, the pre-knowledge of victory that Pete is seeking is unattainable anyway.  Public opinion in referendum campaigns is notoriously volatile, much more so that in regular elections.  Even if it was somehow realistic to think we'll get Yes support to 60% before the referendum campaign even begins (and I don't think it is), we'd feel a bit bloody silly for holding off until that point if there's a 20% drop in support within a week or two of the campaign starting.  You can find endless examples from referendums around the world of that sort of thing happening - and indeed the two Quebec referendum campaigns are themselves excellent examples of volatility.  In 1980, the Yes side were in a winning position but suffered a catastrophic loss of support as the campaign progressed, but in 1995 the swing was in the opposite direction, with Yes turning around a seemingly insurmountable deficit to draw more or less level by polling day.

Even if a 60% starting point wouldn't guarantee victory, surely it would give us a somewhat better chance than a 45% starting point?  Well, maybe, but the operative word is "somewhat".  I strongly suspect that the relative stability of independence polls in recent years is deceptive, and that once a campaign is underway we'd see a big swing in public opinion once again.  The real test always comes when the public actually focus on the choice in front of them.

Incidentally, volatility has been increasing even in regular elections.  There have been any number of occasions over recent years when we "knew" the result of an election in advance...until it turned out that we didn't.

2007 Holyrood election: SNP started the campaign with a solid lead, but ended up in a virtual dead heat with Labour.

2011 Holyrood election: Labour appeared to be coasting to an effortless victory, until the SNP completely turned it around in the closing weeks and won by a landslide.

2015 Westminster election: A hung parliament was supposedly guaranteed, and indeed masses of column inches were devoted to pondering whether majority government had become a thing of the past in Britain.  David Cameron ended up with an overall majority that virtually no-one saw coming.

2016 Holyrood election: An SNP majority government was supposedly so assured that SNP voters didn't even need to bother backing the party on the list vote.  In the end, the SNP fell two seats short of a majority.

2017 Westminster election: The reverse of 2015.  A landslide Conservative majority was a nailed-on certainty, but we ended up with a hung parliament instead.

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On the subject of learning the wrong lessons from Canada, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has offered the following reason for thinking that Dominic Raab wouldn't be able to follow Stephen Harper's notorious example by proroguing parliament for tactical reasons -

"One of several crucial differences between the Canadian example and the United Kingdom is that while Elizabeth II is the head of state in both, in Canada, her constitutional role is largely parcelled off to the governor-general, who is appointed by the prime minister. It’s one thing for the governor-general, who is usually a former political figure, to be drawn into politics, but quite another for the same to happen to the sovereign."

I'll freely hold my hands up and say that I don't know whether it would be legally possible for a British Prime Minister to achieve a No Deal Brexit by means of a tactical prorogation.  But I do know that Stephen's reading of the Canadian precedent is incorrect. The Governor-General at the time of the 2008 constitutional crisis was Michaëlle Jean, a Liberal appointee.  There was a great deal of speculation about whether she would allow herself to be dragged into political controversy by blocking the request of the Conservative Prime Minister for prorogation, in line with her presumed Liberal loyalties.  When she took the opposite course of action, it was firmly interpreted as her playing a straight bat by putting constitutional precedent before partisan politics, in much the same way that the Queen would be expected to in this country.  She had clearly received advice that it would be constitutionally inappropriate to decline a prorogation request from the Prime Minister.

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2019 Scot Goes Pop Fundraiser: This is Day 9 of the fundraiser, and so far £5722 has been raised. That's 67% of the way towards the target figure of £8500. A million thanks to everyone who has donated so far, and I'm also extremely grateful to all the people who have left a kind comment with their donation. You can visit the fundraising page HERE.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Labour's narrow win in Peterborough doesn't significantly reduce the chances of No Deal - the Tories know they lost the seat because of the Brexit Party

I'm very surprised by the outcome of the Peterborough by-election.  John Curtice suggested during the BBC coverage that it wasn't such a shock, because the difference between the result tonight and what happened in the constituency at the Euro election two weeks ago was bang in line with the differential in the polls between Brexit Party support for Euro elections and for Westminster.  But one of the fundamental truths about parliamentary by-elections is that voting patterns often bear little resemblance to how a general election would play out, because people know that they're not electing a government and have a free opportunity to indulge in a protest vote.  With the momentum the Brexit Party had built up, the timing of this election was tailor-made for them to break through, and I can only assume that the fact they've fallen short means that their local campaign was a bit shambolic.

Another of Curtice's claims that startled me is that Labour are just as keen as the Tories to avoid an early general election.  That seems unlikely to me - in spite of the sudden drift towards multi-party politics, it's still probably the case that in a first-past-the-post election, what is bad for the Tories must be good for Labour.  Jeremy Corbyn would much rather win an election this year with 30% of the vote than wait three years and lose an election with 40% of the vote.  So I presume Labour would still try to trigger a general election if the chance arose to do that - and of course this result makes the parliamentary arithmetic slightly more promising for them.  When it first became clear that this by-election was likely to take place, the Tories were ahead in the national polls, and it seemed obvious that they would gain a seat which they had only narrowly lost in 2017 to a Labour candidate who had since been forced out in disgrace.  That bonus seat would have slightly shored up the government's position, but as it is they remain highly vulnerable to defeat on a motion of no confidence if a small number of Remain-supporting Tory MPs make a last-ditch attempt to stop No Deal.

Tonight's result is slightly reminiscent of the landmark Darlington by-election in 1983, in the sense of the leading opposition party unexpectedly fighting a successful rearguard defence against an insurgent party.  The difference is that the upstart party that fell short in 1983 was a centre-left outfit that was a mortal threat to Labour at a general election, whereas this time the defeated party is more of a threat to the Tories.  There have been some suggestions that Farage's loss relieves the pressure on the Tories to push for No Deal, because they no longer have to be quite so concerned about the Brexit Party threat at the general election...but anything more than a cursory glance at the result tells the opposite tale.  The Tory narrative will now move on from "if we don't go for No Deal, we'll lose most of our seats to the Brexit Party" to "if we don't go for No Deal, we'll lose half of our votes to the Brexit Party, and Labour will win the election by default".  That said, Farage has missed a golden opportunity to build further momentum that could have pushed the Brexit Party into a clearer lead in national polls - and that would have made No Deal even more likely.

Jeremy Corbyn's critics obviously miscalculated yet again by talking up a leadership crisis in expectation that Labour would lose tonight. Instead, the chances that Corbyn will lead Labour into the general election (which were already very high) have strengthened further. Whether that's good news or bad news for the SNP and the Yes movement is almost impossible to tell - it just depends on which Jeremy Corbyn turns up at the election. The Corbyn factor undoubtedly worked in our favour at the Holyrood election in 2016, but against us at the Westminster election a year later.

Peterborough by-election result:

Labour 30.9% (-17.2)
Brexit Party 28.9% (n/a)
Conservatives 21.4% (-25.5)
Liberal Democrats 12.3% (+8.9)
Greens 3.1% (+1.3)
UKIP 1.2% (n/a)
Chirstian Peoples Alliance 0.5% (n/a)
English Democrats 0.5% (n/a)
SDP 0.4% (n/a)
Monster Raving Loony Party 0.3% (n/a)
Independent 0.3% (n/a)
Common Good 0.2% (n/a)
Renew 0.1% (n/a)
UK EU 0.1% (n/a)
Independent 0.0% (n/a)

Swing from Conservatives to Brexit Party: 27.2%
Swing from Labour to Brexit Party: 23.1%

For some reason the BBC reported the Labour-to-Brexit swing as being around 8%, but that figure was miles out.

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2019 Scot Goes Pop Fundraiser: This is Day 8 of the fundraiser, and so far £5488 has been raised. That's 65% of the way towards the target figure of £8500. A million thanks to everyone who has donated so far, and I'm also extremely grateful to all the people who have left a kind comment with their donation. You can visit the fundraising page HERE.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Scot Goes Pop Fundraiser 2019

Click here to go straight to the fundraiser page.

It's that time of the year again when I ask for your help as I continue to write about Scottish politics. If the fundraiser succeeds, the likelihood is that I'll continue to write on this blog, although I always try to keep open a bit of flexibility just in case I end up writing on another website, or perhaps even following the lead of other bloggers by self-publishing a book. (But if my circumstances change completely and I'm unable to continue writing about politics at all, at that stage I would pass the remaining funds on to other pro-indy causes.)

So what is Scot Goes Pop? It's one of the most-read and also one of the oldest pro-independence websites in Scotland. It began way back in 2008, but gained in popularity in 2013 when I launched the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls for voting intentions in the independence referendum. I had become quite cynical about the way anti-independence newspapers repeatedly seized on individual No-friendly polls as 'proof' that the campaign was supposedly over before it had even started. The intention was clearly to sap the morale of Yes campaigners. The Poll of Polls was a useful corrective, helping to put unfavourable polls in their proper context by comparing them to the average numbers across all polling firms, and emphasising the high degree of uncertainty about the true state of public opinion.

In the run-up to the 2015 general election, Scot Goes Pop picked up on the extraordinary SNP surge several weeks earlier than the mainstream media, mostly because I wasn't dogmatic enough to ignore the consistent and unambiguous message being sent by the Scottish subsamples of Britain-wide polls. And then as the 2016 Holyrood election approached, I warned that the SNP were in danger of losing their overall majority at a time when other voices were insisting that a majority was a foregone conclusion, and that the SNP didn't need any list votes at all.

With yet another Westminster general election potentially in the offing now, and as preparations continue for a possible second independence referendum, I hope to continue with the blog's unique coverage of the polling situation from a pro-indy perspective. To get a better idea of what Scot Goes Pop is all about, please watch this short promo film that I made with Phantom Power last year.

The latest figures from the Traffic Estimate site suggest that Scot Goes Pop has received 62,200 unique visitors over the last 30 days (as of 31st May 2019), making it the fourth most popular alternative media site in Scotland. Not bad for a one-person operation!

There's often a misconception that the purpose of a fundraiser such as this is to cover "running costs". In fact, there are no running costs for Scot Goes Pop, because it uses a free blogging platform. There are, however, a few miscellaneous (and usually small) expenses that crop up as an indirect result of the blog. To give a couple of examples: last year I was asked to speak at the Hands Off Our Parliament rally at Holyrood, which obviously meant paying a train fare to Edinburgh, and in 2016 I was asked to invest in a decent microphone to improve the sound quality of an Independence Live debate I participated in with Tommy Sheridan. The fundraiser can help cover expenses of that type, but the main purpose is simply to help me keep body and soul together while I'm writing.

I should stress for the benefit of any passing trolls that the fundraisers are not my sole source of income, and I'm relieved to say that I even do some work that has nothing to do with either politics or writing. But long-term readers will know that I post frequently and at length during particularly busy periods, such as general election and referendum campaigns. During those brief spells, the level of commitment required almost approaches that of a full-time job. At other times it can be like a very time-consuming part-time job. I'm also sometimes asked to write articles for other publications - for example, until a year or two back I was a pro-independence columnist for both the International Business Times and the Talk Radio website. Those articles were often requested at extremely short notice and I ended up writing them in a variety of weird and wonderful settings and circumstances. It simply wouldn't be possible to do that if I was also trying to hold down a 9-5 job. The fundraisers give me the flexibility to drop everything and write as and when required (most obviously when an opinion poll is published).

As you may know, there have been other spin-offs from the blog's success. I currently have a monthly column in iScot magazine, and I've also written for publications such as The National, the Sunday National, Fair Observer, National Collective, and even the Eurovision Times! Many of the IBTimes articles were syndicated on Yahoo, sometimes reaching huge audiences. I've been interviewed on BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 5 Live, CTV News (Canada), the Bauer radio network, Radio Sputnik, and numerous alternative media podcasts, films and live-streams.

As always, please don't feel under any pressure to make a donation. Scot Goes Pop isn't a newspaper or a magazine - it's a blog, and there's absolutely no charge for reading it. The option to donate is there if you want to, but it's only an option. And, of course, if you have a spare minute or two you can always pass on the word to others - every tweet or Facebook share helps enormously!

Click here if you'd like to donate.

Would it be better for the SNP if a general election takes place before Brexit Day?

Barely a blink of an eye has passed since we were quietly rejoicing at the creation of the Independent Group (now Change UK) because we thought it would split the unionist vote and make it easier for the SNP to win a first-past-the-post election.  As absurd as that seems in retrospect, there were actually sound reasons for believing that was true at the time.  Although Change UK's potential electoral appeal was wildly overstated in the media, opinion polls were nevertheless showing that they were attracting a non-trivial share of the vote, and in Scotland it appeared to be coming more from the unionist parties than from the SNP.  Initially Labour took the biggest hit - remember how the Tories burst into a significant lead across the UK, and it briefly appeared that Change UK were about to follow in the SDP's footsteps by indirectly delivering a Tory landslide?  Yes, that does seem a very long time ago now, which just goes to show that we've lived through several years' worth of twists and turns over the last few weeks.  Brexit is severely compressing the political cycle.

The voters that transiently flirted with Change UK seem to be mostly coalescing behind the Liberal Democrats now.  That's less optimal for the SNP, because the Lib Dems are much more of a seat-winning threat at a general election than Change UK would have been.  But everything is relative - better to see the Lib Dems prosper at a modest level than to have Labour emerge as the Britain-wide party of Remain and enjoy a bandwagon effect that could sweep away the SNP's seats in the central belt.  And in any case, there's not much point mourning one missed opportunity to split the unionist vote when another has come along right on cue.  As long as the general election takes place before Britain leaves the EU, Nigel Farage's new party looks set to deal a killer blow to Scottish Tory hopes.

It's less clear whether the Brexit Party threat to the Tories would fade away if the election takes place after Brexit, but that's certainly a possibility.  Paradoxically, though, any Lib Dem threat to the SNP might also be neutralised by Brexit being delivered, because it's very hard to see how the Lib Dems would adapt to the new environment.  Vince Cable has already said that it wouldn't be credible for Britain to apply to rejoin the EU in the foreseeable future, which would effectively leave the party fighting for a softer Brexit - an objective unlikely to capture the public imagination in quite the same way as "B******* to Brexit".  The SNP, by contrast, would still be able to speak to the Remain true believers by promising that an independent Scotland will be a full member of the EU.

At the moment, it looks like the Brexit Party pose a much bigger danger to the Scottish Tories than the Lib Dems do to the SNP, so on balance it would probably be better for the SNP if an election takes place before Halloween.

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The break-up of Change UK yesterday was eerily reminiscent of the last days of the SDP in 1987-88.  From my vague recollection of something I once read in a book, the fracturing of the SDP was completely unnecessary, because although there was a clear majority in favour of a merger with the Liberals, there was also a clause in the party constitution that would have allowed David Owen to prevent the merger taking place by means of a blocking minority.  But he waived his right to do that, because he actually wanted a split.  He wanted to be free of the pro-Liberal faction that he was sick to death of dealing with, even though following that course clearly posed an existential threat to his political cause.  Change UK seem to have reached the same point - they just couldn't be bothered thrashing out a compromise that nobody would have been happy with but ultimately would have been in the best interests of all concerned.

It seems to be the case that some of the Change UK MPs wanted to throw in their lot with the Lib Dems, some wanted to carry on with their own party, and some wanted to leave behind party politics altogether.  The obvious compromise between those three positions would have been to persevere with Change UK as an independent force, but negotiate an electoral pact with the Lib Dems.  And I'm not sure it's true that the Lib Dems would no longer have been interested after the European election result, because Change UK would still have brought eleven MPs to the table, including some bigger personalities than the Lib Dems have in their own ranks.

One thing we know for sure now is that Nigel Farage would beat Chuka Umunna in a game of chess.  Farage thought several moves ahead and timed the Brexit Party's entry onto the electoral stage to perfection.  Change UK's timing couldn't have been worse.  They'd probably point out that they didn't see the European elections coming - well, OK, but Farage did, and in any case it was the local elections a few weeks earlier that generated the Lib Dem momentum and snuffed out Change UK's chances of a breakthrough.  The split from Labour should either have taken place early enough to allow for participation in the local elections, or it should have been delayed for several months until the elections were safely out of the way.  By that point, they could have used their own novelty value to combat the Lib Dem surge.

I of course derive no satisfaction whatever from the fact that the loathsome Chris Leslie and Mike Gapes don't seem to realise that the decision they've just made to soldier on in a rump fringe party means that their parliamentary careers are drawing inexorably to a close.

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2019 Scot Goes Pop Fundraiser: This is Day 6 of the fundraiser, and so far £3575 has been raised. That's 42% of the way towards the target figure of £8500. A million thanks to everyone who has donated so far, and I'm also extremely grateful to all the people who have left a kind comment with their donation. You can visit the fundraising page HERE.