Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Wings party, and the cautionary tale of Mr Archie Stirling

Remarkably, the debate over the wisdom of the proposed Wings party is still raging after the best part of a week, and it's started to take on a noticeably 'harder' tone.  Many of Wings' keenest supporters already seem to be identifying as partisans of an electoral force that doesn't, we should recall, actually exist yet.  That means they're instantly taking offence at any hint of scepticism towards the proposed party, and in some cases at anything that falls short of total enthusiasm.  Every time I log onto Twitter now, there are dozens of new notifications that tend to fall into three broad categories: people are either irate that I don't accept that a Wings party can successfully game the Holyrood electoral system, or they're professing incredulity that I could possibly think that way, or they're trolling me about it. 

This was one of the comments I found particularly exasperating -

"Why don’t you try & find a way that will work. That would be of help, rather than it will nae work"

To remove any doubt that she was trolling, she added a 'crying with laughter' emoticon to the end of her tweet.  But actually it's me who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at comments of that sort (and there have been a good few of them).  They imply that it's somehow imperative that the Wings proposal be made to work, because it's the solution to a problem that has to be addressed, and that it must be possible to make it work with sophisticated number-crunching and strategising.

Both of those assumptions are misplaced.  In fact, the Wings party is a solution in search of a problem that as of yet doesn't exist.  We have a pro-independence majority at the moment, we've had it for eight years, and current polling suggests that we're on course to hold onto it.  Of course the polling situation can change between now and May 2021 (and it can change for either the worse or the better), but the time for highly risky, panicky measures is when we actually have something to panic about.

And there's no Baldrick-style cunning plan that can be devised to make the plan work, because the problem I and others have identified is a very basic one - that the Wings party is unlikely to have enough popular support to win list seats in any region.  That being the case, any list votes it takes will simply make it harder for other pro-indy parties to win list seats (and by extension easier for unionist parties to win list seats).  There's nothing I can do about a basic shortfall in the required number of votes - other than winning the lottery and helping to pay for Wings billboard ads.  Remember that the broadcasters will feel able to largely ignore the Wings party because there's no evidence of significant support in previous elections.  There'll almost certainly be no invitation to leaders' debates.  The newspapers may give the party an occasional mention, but only in an attempt to whip up mischief.  Social media will therefore have to carry the weight of any campaigning, which is a tough ask when the party won't have an especially distinctive policy platform (except on gender self-ID).

Stuart Campbell has pointed out that we don't yet know exactly what the potential level of support for the party is, and that he'll be conducting more opinion polling before making a decision about whether to stand candidates on the list.  That's fair enough, but when this polling appears, I would urge people to look closely at the format of the question before getting carried away with the results.  Questions along the lines of "how likely would you be to vote for Party X?" are notorious for producing wildly misleading results. 

The classic example was in the run-up to the 2007 Holyrood election, when Archie Stirling used his wealth to set up a new centre-right party called Scottish Voice.  (I know very little about Archie Stirling other than that he's the father of actress Rachael Stirling, who dutifully came out in support of the doomed party.)  He commissioned a YouGov poll that supposedly showed that 21% of the electorate would consider voting for the party, and on that basis managed to convince the newspapers to breathlessly report that Scottish Voice was on course for 20+ list seats and maybe even the balance of power.  In the event, of course, Archie didn't even trouble the scorer - he took just 0.1% of the constituency vote and 0.3% of the list vote, and didn't come within light-years of taking any seats.

How could a poll be so misleading?  Basically if you ask about a party in isolation, people will think "well, I'm a reasonable person, this party sounds fine, of course I would consider voting for it".  But when they see the name of that party in a menu of options, it gets lost in the crowd and they instead focus on the party they prefer the most.  We saw the same problem earlier this year with polls offering wildly inflated suggestions about the electoral potential of Change UK.  Other polls that asked "if the Independent Group stood in the next election, who would you vote for?" produced somewhat more realistic results, but I think they were still problematical because they artificially drew people's attention to the new party in the question's preamble. 

For my money, to get a meaningful sense of how well a Wings party might do, a poll would need to ask...

If the following parties stood on the regional list ballot, who would you vote for?

Scottish National Party (SNP)
Liberal Democrats
Brexit Party
Wings Over Scotland
Change UK

If 5% or more of voters selected Wings unprompted on a robust question of that sort, then we might not necessarily be looking at a suicide mission.  And if 15% said they would vote Wings, then Stuart might be on to something.  I don't think that would be the result of such a poll, but realistically that's the test.

*  *  *

Stuart has been protesting over the last couple of days that he isn't trying to "game" the Holyrood voting system, and that standing candidates in a democratic election isn't "gaming" the system.  The latter point is strictly speaking true - standing candidates on the list isn't in itself an act of trying to game the system, but it becomes one if 90% of your pitch to the voters is about gaming the system!  I defy anyone to read Stuart's posts on the subject and conclude that isn't what he's trying to do.  For the most part he hasn't been talking about policy but about tactical voting - about how the number of pro-indy MSPs can supposedly be increased by voting SNP on the constituency ballot but switching to Wings on the list. 

To me, this is an academic point, because I would have no moral objection to gaming the system if I thought for one moment it was actually going to work.  But words do have meanings, and yes, the Wings party would be a clear attempt to game the system and win a bigger number of pro-indy seats than the size of the pro-indy vote would normally warrant.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

No, Jeremy Corbyn didn't make a strategic mistake with his offer to stop No Deal

I was surprised to see an article on Stormfront Lite by Alastair Meeks today suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn has made a strategic mistake by offering to head a caretaker government to stop No Deal.  To me, it seems pretty obvious that an alternative government of any complexion isn't viable this side of an election - because the likes of Change UK won't back one led by Corbyn, and the vast bulk of Labour MPs will not feel able to back one led by anybody else.  That's exactly why Corbyn's move makes strategic sense.  He has the SNP and Caroline Lucas on side to demonstrate that if anyone is best-placed to form a government, he is, and that the only roadblock to a solution is a small number of dogmatic holdouts like Jo Swinson and Anna Soubry who themselves can't offer a remotely credible alternative.  The fourteen Lib Dem MPs plus Change UK plus Ken Clarke plus Harriet Harman does not exactly equal a majority.

It may be that Corbyn made very sure he had the SNP on side with carefully-choreographed comments from himself and John McDonnell about not blocking a second indyref.  We might have to wait for the memoirs to discover whether there was some sort of informal understanding between the Labour leadership and the SNP that brought us to this point.

So if a pre-election change of government isn't a runner, how can No Deal on 31st October be averted?  If MPs can't seize control of the process directly, I think what we might end up with is a successful vote of no confidence, followed up immediately by legislation to amend the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and prevent Boris Johnson delaying the general election until November.  It would be an awful lot easier for a majority of MPs to reach an agreement on that sort of legislation than on the identity of an alternative Prime Minister.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why a Wings party is probably a bad idea: Part Two

A kind of fever has swept through parts of the Yes movement over the last 48 hours.  A number of people who were clear-sighted about the risks of "tactical voting on the list" (sic) in 2011 and 2016 have been enthusiastically embracing the proposal for a Wings party, which looks set to make exactly the same "tactical voting" pitch that RISE did last time around.  I've even had one or two people huffily announce that they are unfollowing me on Twitter for simply pointing out that "tactical voting on the list" doesn't magically become any more viable just because we're talking about a blog-based party rather than a radical left party.

Stuart Campbell himself, of course, warned of the dangers of misguided "tactical voting" in the run-up to the 2016 election.  As I understand it, his explanation for changing his view comes in two parts.  Firstly, he thinks that the result of the 2016 election changes the equation, because it demonstrates more clearly than before that list votes for the SNP are largely "wasted".  And secondly, he believes the Wings party would be more mainstream and have much wider popular appeal than RISE or the Greens, and therefore sheer weight of numbers would ensure that vote-splitting isn't a problem, because the party would easily clear the de facto threshold of 5% or 6% for representation in each of the electoral regions it stands in.

The first point makes no sense at all, and the second point probably doesn't make much sense either.  I say "probably", because I do have a couple of caveats to place on my doubts.  There's a story in The National today based on a claim from an SNP "insider" that Alex Salmond is behind the plans for a Wings party.  (The fact that something as paranoid-sounding as that is being said in private raises troubling questions about the extent to which the current SNP leadership have cast their popular former leader - who remains entirely innocent in the eyes of the law - out into the cold.)  Stuart Campbell has strenuously denied the claim.  However, it wouldn't be the first time in history that a denied story has turned out to have a grain of truth in it, so let's suppose for the sake of argument that Alex Salmond either led the Wings party or was one of its leading candidates.  Would that make a difference?  Of course it would.  Alex Salmond is a hero for a huge number of independence supporters (myself included) and it's not at all difficult to imagine a new party in which he takes an active role securing a very healthy haul of list seats.  But my question is this: in the unlikely event that Alex Salmond was looking outside the SNP for a route back into politics, does it seem plausible that he would choose the Wings party as his vehicle?  I think he'd be more likely (and it would make more electoral sense) to build a new party around his own personal 'brand'.  Theoretically, it's possible that he might be allowing someone else to make the running until legal proceedings against him are resolved one way or another.  But my guess is that the SNP "insider" is probably just letting their imagination run away with them.

My second caveat is that there is at least one well-known international precedent for what Wings may be attempting to do.  The Five Star Movement, which is currently the senior partner in the Italian coalition government, essentially started life as a blog.  But there are a couple of key differences between Wings Over Scotland and the Beppe Grillo blog.  The latter is written by a hugely familiar TV celebrity, and put forward a policy prospectus that was radically different from anything the existing parties had to offer.  What is the gap in the market that a Wings party would be filling?  As far as I can see it would basically be the SNP without gender self-ID and with more urgency on the independence issue.  I'm not convinced those points of distinctiveness are sufficient to capture the public's imagination and to sweep the board on the list vote - or at least not without the backing of a public figure of Alex Salmond's stature (and to be honest that means Alex Salmond himself, because off the top of my head I can't think of any other public figure who would have the same effect).

Which takes me back to where I came in - the likelihood is that a Wings party would secure less than 5% of the vote in each electoral region, which means that any votes it does manage to take away from the SNP and the Greens would simply reduce the overall number of pro-indy seats in the Scottish Parliament.  People struggle with this idea, but it's entirely conceivable that moderate success for the Wings party (by which I mean something like 3% of the list vote) could reduce the chances of retaining the pro-independence majority in Holyrood that we've had since 2011.

When I put that point to Stuart Campbell directly, he said that the SNP couldn't be harmed because they hardly had any list seats to lose (they have four at the moment).  That's a sort of "truthy" observation that is going to sound like a killer point to people who don't really understand the voting system - and it therefore worries me greatly.  I've been trying to think of a helpful analogy, and the best one I can come up with is this: saying that the SNP only have four list seats to lose is a bit like saying that Bill Gates only has $4.50 to lose because that's what he currently has in his pocket.  List seats are distributed in a compensatory way to bring a party's overall representation in parliament up to roughly the level of its regional list vote.  If the SNP had won fewer constituency seats in 2016, they would have won more list seats to compensate for that.  So in fact the SNP could potentially lose up to dozens of their current seats on the list ballot next time around, because if the first-past-the-post element doesn't go their way to the same extent as in 2016, they would be relying on list votes to hold on to a healthy level of representation in parliament.

To see the truth of what I'm saying, you only need to look at the result of the 2011 election - which was, after all, the only occasion to date that the SNP have won an overall majority, and one of only two occasions to date that a pro-independence majority has been secured.  How many list seats did the SNP win?  Sixteen.  I'll say that again: sixteen.  If they hadn't won at least twelve of those, there wouldn't have been an SNP majority.  And if the SNP, Greens and Margo MacDonald between them hadn't won at least eleven list seats, there wouldn't have been a pro-independence majority at all.  Remember that, and in particular remember it the next time someone tells you the SNP don't need any list votes.

It's perfectly possible that 2021 could produce another 2011-style result, with the SNP taking fewer constituencies than in 2016 despite its popular vote holding up, which would make the result on the list absolutely critical.  Some of the seats that the Tories took at Westminster in 2017 are still held by the SNP in Holyrood, so it's not hard to see where the constituency losses might occur if the Tories are riding high in eighteen months' time - and it's anyone's guess whether they will be, because much depends on whether Boris Johnson delivers Brexit on time and thus wins back the Tory votes lost to the Brexit Party in May's Euro election.

And it's also important not to lose sight of the worst-case scenario.  What if the wheels come off and there is no chance at all of a pro-indy majority?  What if there's a 2007-style result with a clear unionist majority in parliament, but there's still a chance of maintaining a minority SNP government?  Would we really want to play silly buggers on the list, and make it easier for some sort of unionist coalition government to be cobbled together?  Stuart's response to that scenario is "if that happens we're all screwed anyway", but I just don't take that 'win or bust' approach to life or to politics.  A setback is a point on a spectrum, and it's important to keep the indy flame burning as brightly as possible.

Some have suggested that the threat of a Wings party might be a good thing if it helps the SNP leadership find a greater sense of urgency on independence, and actually I entirely accept that.  But if the threat is actually carried through, then I fear that for some of the reasons George Kerevan outlined yesterday, it's bound to be a lose/lose for all concerned.