Saturday, August 24, 2019

SNP remain firmly in the driving seat in latest YouGov subsample

Strictly speaking we've had one full-scale Scottish poll since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister - the now-legendary Ashcroft poll that gave Yes a narrow lead on the independence question, and that also showed that Nicola Sturgeon was the most popular of the leading Scottish and UK politicians.  But oddly there were no Westminster or Holyrood voting intention numbers in the poll, and that's what we could really do with now.  We're in the highly unusual situation where it seems to me that some London commentators are possibly being a tad optimistic about the SNP's prospects in any autumn snap election - and that's specifically because they're assuming that nothing has changed since the pre-Boris polls that suggested the SNP were riding high and that the Scottish Tories were taking an absolute hammering.  Logically it seems possible that the Boris effect may have seen the Scottish Tories recover somewhat at the expense of the Brexit Party, which would mean that even if the SNP are still in a commanding position, they may find it harder to make heavy gains from the Tories.  Straws in the wind from Scottish subsamples of GB-wide polls have sent conflicting messages about the extent of any Tory recovery.  But, as it happens, the latest subsample from YouGov (which unlike subsamples from other firms is likely to be correctly structured and weighted) is very much on the troubling side for the Tories...

SNP 46%, Liberal Democrats 16%, Conservatives 15%, Labour 9%, Greens 6%, Brexit Party 4%, UKIP 1%

I don't think the SNP will be too concerned about the Lib Dems' recovery as long as it remains at that kind of level - all it means is that the Lib Dems will hold their four current seats and perhaps take North East Fife.  But the slight worry would be a Swinson bandwagon effect during the election campaign itself, similar to the Corbyn effect in 2017.  We should never underestimate the potential for Scottish voters to get swept along with Britain-wide trends during the heat of a Westminster campaign.  The SNP could counteract that problem by firing up their own potential support base with a strong campaign message on independence, but I have my doubts as to whether they'll be bold enough to do that.

*  *  *

It's disappointing but not surprising that the SNP leadership are not going to allow the McEleny/MacNeil "Plan B" amendment to be debated at the party conference.  As you know, I'm worried that the Wings party, if it goes ahead, could be damaging for the independence cause at the next Holyrood election - but the obvious way for the SNP leadership to ward off that threat is to make potential Wings party supporters feel that their voice is being heard inside the SNP.  I'm struggling to understand what the leadership are so scared of - the chances are that they would have won any vote with a "we've heard you, but please trust us" message.  The Blair-style control-freakery of trying to shut down all debate is wholly unnecessary and counterproductive, and will just further arouse suspicions (which may or may not be unfounded) that the leadership are not serious about ensuring that a vote on independence takes place in the relatively near future.

I'm also a tad concerned about possible fallout from the showdown on the gender self-ID issue that will take place at conference, with the elections of Women's Officer and possibly Equalities Officer functioning as proxy votes on the issue.  If there are clear losers, I hope they don't feel that they no longer have a home within the SNP.  The potential for a problem is probably much greater if the anti-self-ID side loses.  If it goes the other way, at least the trans lobby would still know that the leadership is highly sympathetic towards them.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Thoughts on the upcoming Shetland by-election

So I've been asked by a few people to write a post about next week's parliamentary by-election in Shetland - a contest which has rather comically led the unionist parties to start talking as if Shetland is a foreign country.  (Nicola Sturgeon went campaigning there, and Labour propagandist Aidan Kerr's response was basically "how dare she leave the country on the day the GERS report is published!")  I'm not sure there's a huge amount I can usefully say, because the only people who have much chance of knowing the state of play are those with access to canvass data - but even they might not have the true picture, because there have been any number of by-elections in the past where canvass returns have proved to be misleading.  There was a "poll" of sorts in the Shetland Times at the start of this month which showed the SNP with a shock lead over the Liberal Democrats, but it had a tiny sample size of just 114, which means that even if it was conducted scientifically (and it sounds like it probably wasn't), it would have a very large margin of error.

I'd just make a couple of observations, though -

1) Nobody has ever made any money betting against the Liberal Democrats in the Northern Isles.  Pembrokeshire is known as "Little England beyond Wales", and perhaps we should call Orkney and Shetland "Westmorland and Lonsdale beyond Scotland".  Danus Skene did of course come astonishingly close to winning the Westminster seat for the SNP in the 2015 general election, but perhaps more to the point is that it was one of only three constituencies in the whole of Scotland that the SNP didn't actually win in that election.

2) There's no particular reason to expect trends in Northern Isles elections to bear much resemblance to Scotland-wide or UK-wide trends.  Two recent examples spring to mind.  In 2016, the year after Danus Skene's near miss, it was reasonable to expect that the SNP would be highly competitive in the Orkney and Shetland constituency seats for Holyrood, because their national vote had not fallen back much at all.  But Liam McArthur and Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott surprised everyone by holding the seats for the Lib Dems by landslide margins.  It was as if 2015 had never happened.  But then in the European elections in May of this year, at a time when the Lib Dems were riding high across the UK and you'd have expected them to be out of sight in their traditional heartlands, the SNP amazingly came within just 250 votes of outpolling them in Shetland.  So there's no real rhyme or reason to it, and that might be a point of encouragement for the SNP.  The people of Shetland might not be all that bothered one way or another about the media's fawning over the Lib Dems' shiny new Scottish school prefect.

If I was going to give you my gut sense of what to expect, it would be that the Lib Dems will hold the seat on a substantially reduced majority - it has that sort of feel about it.  But we won't really have a clue until the votes are counted.  If by any chance the Shetland Times poll is correct and the SNP gain the seat, it would be one of the most sensational by-election results in Scottish history, it would further boost the mandate for a pre-2021 indyref by increasing the pro-indy majority from 69-60 to 70-59, and it would reduce the Lib Dems to a humiliating all-time low of just four Holyrood seats at a time when they're supposed to be sweeping all before them.

Is the Holyrood voting system a unionist conspiracy?

One thing that has become clear in the discussions/arguments of recent days is that there is a real degree of paranoia among some independence supporters about how we ended up with the voting system for the Scottish Parliament, ie. "it was designed to shaft us, so we should use it to shaft them".  This is quite odd on the face of it, because by any objective measure the Additional Member System has so far worked out beautifully for both the SNP and the combined pro-indy forces.  There have been five elections since devolution in 1999, and three of them have produced SNP governments.  Two of them produced outright pro-indy majorities.  And in the two elections in which the SNP didn't come out on top, the list element of the system gave us far more pro-indy MSPs than we would have had under first-past-the-post.  For example, either 27.9% or 28.7% of the MSPs elected in 1999 were in favour of independence (depending on how you classify Robin Harper), but it would have been just 9.6% without list MSPs.

As far as I can see, a lot of the paranoia seems to derive from a single-word answer that a young Jack McConnell once gave at a press conference when a journalist asked him whether proportional representation was introduced specifically to stop the SNP ever getting a majority.  He said "correct".  But we wouldn't regard Jack McConnell as a reliable witness about anything else, so why we treat that particular answer as gospel is rather unclear.  What we do know for sure is that at the outset of discussions in the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, the Liberal Democrats (then known as "the Democrats") were insisting upon some form of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament, and in complete contrast to their attitude in coalition negotiations with the Tories twenty-one years later, they were actually treating electoral reform as a genuine deal-breaker.  The chances of a cross-party agreement appeared remote, because it was so obviously in the narrow interests of the Labour party to hold the line on first-past-the-post - if they did, they looked set for indefinite majority rule in Edinburgh.

But, of course, Labour eventually made the seemingly irrational decision to give way.  Why?  I can think of three plausible explanations, and it may well have been a combination of all three.  Firstly, Labour did have some enthusiasts for electoral reform in their own ranks, so those people may have made their presence felt.  Secondly, given that the Thatcher/Major government seemed firmly entrenched in power at Westminster, Labour may have felt that a common front with the Lib Dems was essential to build the moral pressure for devolution.  And thirdly, it may have occurred to the likes of Donald Dewar that however dominant Labour appeared to be in Scotland, the SNP would only need a relatively short burst of popularity at some point in the future to win an outright majority under first-past-the-post - and just one SNP majority might be enough to make Scotland an independent country.  So proportional representation may have been partly an insurance policy against that distant eventuality.

But even if that was the reasoning, we have to bear in mind that once Labour had conceded the principle of proportional representation, they then hedged their bets by trying to limit how proportional the system would be in practice.  They brought in a regional list system rather than a national list, which effectively gives a dominant party a "winner's bonus" in its strongest regions.  They refused the possibility of German-style levelling seats which could have more or less guaranteed full proportionality.  And they insisted on there being fewer list seats than constituency seats, which makes proportionality even less likely to be properly achieved.  In fact, at one stage Labour were openly pushing for a ratio of just 40 list seats to the 73 constituency seats, which would have made single-party majority government very easily attainable, as has proved to be the case under a similar ratio in Wales.

All of these things were done to put Labour in command of the Scottish Parliament, but Dewar and co must have known that a somewhat less proportional system was bound to start working in favour of independence if the SNP ever became the most popular party.  And so it has proved.  Labour's greed for short-term power led them to effectively downgrade their own insurance policy, and in the long run they paid the price for it.

It's also worth making the point that the insurance policy was proportional representation as a general concept - the selection of an exact type of proportional representation wasn't so important.  There's nothing about a mixed system of constituency and list MSPs that in itself constitutes a conspiracy against independence.  In 1999, exactly half of the list seats were won by the SNP, and those SNP list members then proceeded to set up "shadow constituency surgeries" in Labour-held constituency seats across the central belt.  Unsurprisingly, that infuriated Labour activists, who demanded that the 'unelected' list MSPs should know their place.  SNP supporters were entirely guilt-free about the whole thing: the list seats had merely given their party something closer to its fair share of representation, and it was about time that Labour got used to not having a completely free run on a minority vote.

The only thing that's changed since then is that the boot is on the other foot because the SNP have replaced Labour as the dominant party in the constituencies.  There's nothing unfair or crooked about the fact that the list seats are now mostly held by unionists - that's the case simply because the list seats are there to make the overall composition of parliament roughly proportional to how people cast their votes.  If one side of the constitutional debate is under-represented in the constituencies, they'll be automatically compensated for that on the list.  The pro-independence side has benefited from that process in the past, and may well benefit from it again in future.

We would be foolish to casually throw away a system that is infinitely fairer to all sides than first-past-the-post.  However, it could certainly be improved - scrapping the regional lists in favour of a national list would increase proportionality at a stroke, and having a single vote to elect both constituency and list members would put an end to all the interminable nonsense about "tactical voting on the list", which - for the reasons that have been rehearsed on this blog a million times - is practically a contradiction in terms.