Friday, October 18, 2019

When history beckoned, Jo Swinson was caught napping (or posturing)

A couple of things occurred to me yesterday about the implications of Boris Johnson concluding a deal against all the odds, and the fact that it doesn't (as of yet, anyway) look totally impossible that his new Hard Brexit package might just about scrape through the Commons tomorrow.  If it does, it's going to make a complete nonsense of the Liberal Democrats' contribution to the debate in recent weeks on whether or how to bring the government down.  They seemed to think it was a choice between an election or a last-gasp extension after no deal was found.  Instead the real question was whether a Tory government with no parliamentary majority whatsoever (indeed one that has never received any democratic consent to govern) should be left in office during the crucial month of October to negotiate a deal that suited it, as opposed to an alternative interim government putting in place arrangements that were actually in the interests of the people.

When history beckoned, Jo Swinson was caught napping.  Or more accurately, she was caught posturing about things that didn't really matter.  (Such as the identity of an interim PM who would have been in power for an extremely short period of time.)

Secondly, the outcome of the forthcoming election may be affected by the Brexit Party's decision to view the deal as a betrayal.  If the deal is rejected tomorrow, and an extension is requested and granted in line with the Benn Act, and then Johnson seeks to win the election on the promise to get the deal through, it seems likely that the Brexit Party would put up a full slate of candidates against the Tories - which paradoxically could mean that Johnson's negotiating triumph will make it harder for him to be re-elected.  The same would apply if the deal is ratified before the election.  The only way Farage will back off now is if the deal is rejected, the EU refuse a further extension, and a No Deal exit actually occurs before the election.  But I think that's pretty unlikely.  The EU may try to force MPs' hands by making noises in advance of tomorrow about refusing an extension, but will change their tune if the deal is voted down.

Mind you, it may not matter to the Brexit Party's electoral strategy whether this deal is passed before the election, but it certainly matters to the Liberal Democrats.  If Britain has already left the European Union by polling day, the clarity of their "stop Brexit" message will be spoiled.  They'll probably come up with an alternative message of negotiating as close a relationship with Europe as possible, but that may not capture people's imaginations in quite the same way.  The SNP will have no such problem: they'll still be able to inspire Remain voters with a crystal-clear pitch of swiftly rejoining the EU as an independent country.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

No, of course the SNP wouldn't get a Section 30 order by offering to back Johnson's Hard Brexit deal

So this is all coming to a head at breakneck speed: a Hard Brexit deal has been done between Boris Johnson and the EU, it needs to be ratified by parliament, and we should find out whether the numbers are there within 48 hours.  James Forsyth of the Spectator thinks that they will be if the EU accedes to Johnson's request to essentially blackmail MPs by saying it's this deal or an immediate No Deal exit.  I'm not sure whether that's wishful thinking or not, because there's a possible third option of a referendum with a straight choice between this deal and Remain, and that's such an obviously attractive outcome for the EU that I find it hard to believe they would thwart it.  Could Johnson really remain as PM while a second referendum took place on his watch?

On the questionable assumption that Johnson's deal is heading for defeat by a relatively narrow margin, a certain Somerset-based scribe of our mutual acquaintance has suggested again that the SNP should swing the balance and allow the deal to pass in return for Boris Johnson granting a Section 30 order and allowing an independence referendum to take place next year.  This is a bogus narrative designed to make it look like the SNP are selling out on independence.  As I've pointed out before, the SNP's supposed leverage simply isn't there - if they made Johnson such an offer, he would say "no".  He would have no other choice, because his own MPs would desert him otherwise.  An arrangement with Nicola Sturgeon wouldn't actually help him to get Brexit through, because he would lose more votes on his own side than he would gain from the SNP.  And he knows all of that.

Even in a hypothetical world where Johnson did agree, the SNP would pay a terrible price in the general election that everyone knows is coming and that cannot be delayed for longer than a few months.  Remain voters would desert them in droves for facilitating Brexit, and there would be a betrayal myth that might linger for decades.  Would that be a price worth paying to actually get Indyref2 on the statute book?  There's a debate to be had on that, but one thing's for sure - it would not enhance the chances of a Yes vote when the referendum takes place.

So, no.  Whatever doubts I might have about the SNP leadership's current strategy (I think they should be open to a Plan B, for example), one thing we should all be able to agree on is that they are not making any sort of tactical blunder by declining to make a naive offer to Johnson that would undoubtedly be rejected and that would backfire on them anyway.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Yesterday's Women's Convenor result was a moral victory, not a defeat - but only if people hold their nerve and don't walk away from the SNP

Here's what was slightly odd about the big showdown in the SNP's internal elections yesterday: it was the behaviour of Fiona Robertson on social media that convinced many people that there needed to be some kind of reckoning, and yet the most serious challenge was to Rhiannon Spear in the Women's Convenor election, rather than to Ms Robertson herself in the Equalities Convenor election.  That made it very likely that, whatever else happened, Ms Robertson would gain a renewed mandate and would be able to carry on as if nothing had changed.  I understand the argument that the most important thing was to ensure that the Women's position was held by someone committed to upholding women's rights, but nevertheless the fact that Ms Robertson chose to run for the Equalities brief suggests that she thought that was the one that would give her the platform she needed.

Nevertheless, I'm sure nobody would have been too worried about Ms Robertson's victory if a symbolic result had been achieved in the Women's vote - but instead Rhiannon Spear won by a narrow margin.  This double victory by supporters of self-ID, and the gloating that has followed it, has led a few people to conclude that the SNP is now completely and hopelessly in the grip of entryists and that there is no longer any place in the party for gender-critical feminists or for people who are opposed to self-ID for any other reason.  And that is a fundamental misreading of the situation.  I thought our old friend James Mackenzie unwittingly put his finger on something in his comment on the vote -

"Pleased to see the pro-equality slates won the SNP's internal elections.  The experience within the Greens is you need to win a couple of times in order to settle this issue - some bigots will leave the first time, but others will try to dig in.  Eventually they leave, though."

Obviously this is a repugnant comment, because it seems phenomenally unlikely that there were ever any "bigots" in the Green party in the first place, but it's clear that there was certainly a chilling intolerance towards those who dissented from the doctrine of the majority (a doctrine that is not central to the Greens' reasons for existence, any more than it is to the SNP's).

But think about what he's actually saying.  He's implying that the pro-self-ID lobby haven't really won, and won't do until and unless the other side actually walk away from the SNP.  And he's right, because even with their new mandate Fiona Robertson and Rhiannon Spear aren't going to decide the SNP's priorities.  The leadership will do that, and the main relevance of yesterday's vote was in guiding the leadership on whether the members will be solidly behind them if they push ahead with full-fat self-ID.  And the answer is clearly "no".  It would suit the pro-self-ID lobby down to the ground if their opponents left the stage, but it would not suit Nicola Sturgeon if a substantial minority of SNP members leave the party.  That would not be any kind of victory for her, and she's unlikely to take action that would drive members to that point.  But once those people leave, Ms Sturgeon would have nothing left to lose.  So if they just hold their nerve for now, they can avoid turning what was actually a moral victory yesterday into a defeat later on.

And needless to say that siren voices outside the party offering a counsel of despair should be treated with enormous scepticism, because they have their own agenda.

The other obvious point is that a 32 vote defeat is close enough to suggest that it could be fully reversed in future years if people just bide their time and remain within the party.  Jeremy Corbyn would not be leader of the Labour party now if he had given up the ghost when it was 'nuclear winter' for the Labour left under previous leaders.  In democratic parties, there's always another chance somewhere around the corner.

*  *  *

Some good news for the SNP from YouGov's latest Scottish subsample -

SNP 42%, Conservatives 23%, Labour 13%, Liberal Democrats 10%, Brexit Party 9%, Greens 2%

These figures are very much 'normal' by recent standards, and bolster the impression that the little run of bad results that the SNP had in YouGov subsamples a couple of weeks ago was probably caused by random sampling variation, rather than by real changes on the ground.  It's particularly encouraging to see another underwhelming result for the Lib Dems.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

False alarm: Panelbase haven't stopped using the 2014 referendum question

So just to briefly tie up a loose end from the blogpost on Sunday, it turns out that Britain Elects were wrong (gasp!) and in fact Panelbase did not alter the wording of the question they asked about independence for the Sunday Times poll - it was the usual question, with the 2014 referendum wording.  So that's good news - it means that a BBC journalist's criticism of the SNP for "promoting" a poll with a non-Yes/No question was based on a false premise, and it also means that the pro-Yes trend in the poll hasn't been called into question by methodological changes.

In a nutshell: false alarm.

*  *  *

I've just caught up with yet another polling post on Wings Over Scotland, and I really do have to reiterate that it's deeply reprehensible for him to be seeking to pass the blame onto Panelbase for his own biased and leading questions about the trans issue (and indeed about other issues).  Here's what he said this time -

"Some of those polls have been conducted by this site, and are invariably leapt on by trans activists as having featured supposedly “leading” or “unfair” questions, even though we check all our questions with Panelbase first and the results have without exception been identical, often to within a single percentage point, to those revealed in polls featuring differently-worded questions commissioned by extremely trans-friendly organisations like Pink News."

If I thought for one moment that he'd asked Panelbase "are these questions leading?" and that they had said "no", then I would be criticising Panelbase and saying they had to accept a share of the blame.  But I just don't believe that's what's happened here.  This is the question he published a few days ago -

"The SNP has announced its intention to implement 'self-ID' legislation, whereby physically-male people will have unrestricted access to all female-only spaces and services (eg. toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, sporting competitions and women's refuges) if they declare themselves to be women, whether or not they've had any medical treatment or surgery to change their sex.

On a scale of 0 to 10, how do you feel about this proposal?"

It's absolutely fatuous to suggest that any polling company would have said the above question is even-handed or neutral, and yet Mr Campbell is trying to give us the impression that Panelbase did exactly that.  In the comments section of this blog, he even provided a direct quote from an email sent to him by his Panelbase contact to try to bolster that impression.  Given how emotive this subject is, I would imagine that Panelbase are not exactly over the moon that one of their clients is effectively telling people that they've picked a side in the trans debate.  That's the inescapable implication of what Mr Campbell is saying, because anyone suggesting that his question is neutral would undoubtedly be picking a side.

My very strong suspicion is that Panelbase were answering a completely different query - I suspect they were asked if Mr Campbell's question was acceptable, and they said it was.  Acceptability and even-handedness are two entirely different things. Every day of the week, polling companies ask questions on behalf of paying clients that are calibrated to produce the best possible results for that client from a presentational point of view.  The threshold for saying "no" to a paying client is extremely high - but one reason for doing so might be that there are factual inaccuracies in the way that the question is worded.  Panelbase would certainly have been able to confirm to Mr Campbell that there were no inaccuracies in his question, and that it was therefore within the bounds of acceptability.  For Mr Campbell to portray that reply as some sort of official seal of approval, and as proof that his question is non-leading and even-handed, is deeply disingenuous and downright cynical.

He goes on to make the point that the results of his poll are similar to others with different wordings.  That's something I've noticed myself, but it doesn't give him a free pass.  Not all polls with leading questions produce misleading results, but that doesn't magically mean that the questions are all fine.

Today he's published new polling that finds only 25% of respondents think people should be able to change the sex on their birth certificate.  He insists that the wording of this latest question wasn't remotely leading.  That's fine - I actually accept that.  But I would just make the point that "Do you think that people should be able to legally change gender?" is a somewhat different question from the one he asked, and that people who answer "yes" on that point may also take a different view on whether an individual who has gone through the necessary legal process should then be able to seek an amendment to their birth certificate.  Mr Campbell's question is more legitimate than his previous ones and it does tell us something interesting, but it doesn't tell us everything.  Some of the people answering his question may not even have been taking the existence of trans people into account, and may have just answered on the basis that an individual "shouldn't be able to falsify details on their birth certificate" without realising how their responses would be interpreted.  I rather suspect that was Mr Campbell's intention, given that he was also asking people at the same time whether individuals should be able to change their date and place of birth to something false.  (Indeed the specific question asked was "which of these facts do you think people should be able to change on their birth certificate if they want to?", with the word "facts" implying that any change would be a departure from accuracy.)  So not a leading question as such, but a potentially deceptive question in a slightly different way.

And remember I say all of this as someone who is broadly opposed to the proposal on self-ID.  Propaganda polls just make me bristle, even when they're commissioned by people on my own side.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Panelbase poll is the latest to suggest we're on course to RETAIN the pro-independence majority in 2021

Many thanks to a fellow James for alerting me to the Holyrood voting intention numbers from the new Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times, which he found deep in the polls section of What Scotland Thinks - I'm not sure if they've been published elsewhere yet, or if they've merely been under-reported.

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 42% (n/c)
Conservatives 21% (+1)
Labour 19% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-1)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 38% (-1)
Conservatives 21% (+1)
Labour 18% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 11% (+1)
Greens 6% (-1)

That's a similar-ish pattern to the Westminster numbers, although the mystery is that Labour seem to be the party that have recovered most.  The two big things that have changed about the political weather since the last Panelbase poll in June is the tide going out somewhat on the Brexit Party, which ought to benefit the Tories more than anyone else, and the ascent of a Scottish MP to the leadership of one of the London parties, which ought to benefit the Liberal Democrats.  And yet the Lib Dems are essentially flatlining, there's only the faintest of signs of Tory recovery, and it's Labour that have put on three points on the constituency ballot.  I suppose I'm a tad sceptical, and I'm wondering if the Labour boost is an illusion caused by a sampling quirk.

This is yet another poll suggesting that we're on course to retain the pro-independence majority at Holyrood in 2021, although it would perhaps be a slightly smaller majority than at present.  The Scotland Votes model suggests the SNP would retain the 63 seats they won in 2016, but the Greens would slip back from 6 to 3.  So there would be 66 pro-indy seats altogether, slightly outnumbering the 63 unionist seats.  It's important to stress that Panelbase have in recent times reported less favourable numbers for the SNP than other firms have (on the constituency ballot at any rate), so it's conceivable that the true situation is somewhat better than this.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

What's in a question?

So just a little postscript to the earlier piece about today's extraordinary Panelbase poll showing 50% support for independence.  The Britain Elects account on Twitter tossed a small grenade into the discussion about the poll by stating that the standard indyref Yes/No question hadn't been asked.  My initial gut reaction to that was it must be an innocent misunderstanding - the Sunday Times had put out a graphic summarising the results in terms of "Support" and "Oppose" and I thought perhaps Britain Elects had seen that and taken it too literally.  However, as a service with a huge following, Britain Elects are presumably very much "in the loop" with the leading polling firms and with the embargoed results that are sent out in advance to journalists and other interested parties, so we shouldn't discount the possibility that their claim is accurate.  (It's also possible that this information is publicly available in the Sunday Times article and that I haven't seen it yet because I don't pay the Murdoch Levy, so if you know the answer please let me know.)

If the question has genuinely been changed, it's an inexplicable decision.  We all know that unionist politicians have been trying it on recently and attempting to gain some traction with the idea that the question will need to be revised for the next referendum.  But with absolutely no reason to assume they'll get anywhere with that, and with no idea what the new question would be even if they did succeed, it's surely a no-brainer for pollsters to continue with the question that was actually asked in the 2014 vote and that almost all polls have used in the five years since.  Remember also that this is just the latest in a long series of independence polls conducted by Panelbase on behalf of the Sunday Times, and it would be normal practice to maintain consistency by sticking with the same question wording, unless there's a very good reason not to.  If you don't do that, the results cease to be directly comparable and the trends that are picked up may be less meaningful.

The BBC's Philip Sim reacted to the Britain Elects claim by indulging in what I can only describe as some light trolling...

"On top of the usual caveats about individual polls etc - was this not a Yes/No poll? Interesting SNP are promoting it when they've been arguing that Electoral Commission don't need to test the indyref2 question because Yes/No is in "current use" and is always used in polls..."

Well, that's one way of looking at it, but there is another way.  Most polls are commissioned by a mainstream media that we know is overwhelmingly hostile to independence.  Have unionist newspapers decided that they are now in a position to undermine the SNP's case simply by playing silly buggers with the question they ask in their own polls?  And if so, have the polling companies begun to play along with that little game?

As it happens, something along the lines of "Do you support or oppose Scottish independence?" is not an inherently unfair question, and if that's what was asked, I'm not surprised that the results were very much in line with recent Yes/No polling.  It's certainly a lot clearer than Scotland in Union's notoriously dodgy "Do you want to remain part of the United Kingdom?" question, which confuses the hell out of people by making them think they're being asked about the monarchy.

But as a matter of principle, polling companies should be sticking with the tried and tested question until and unless a new question emerges from an official process.  If each firm dreams up its own question to ask, we're going to end up with five or six competing "referendum questions", each producing different results, and we won't have a clue what the true state of play is.

*  *  *

What is surely destined to be remembered as "The Poll With No End" finally came to an end today, as Wings published the last results from his own Panelbase poll of SNP voters.  You might be surprised to hear that I actually think his final question was a reasonably fair one, although there was still a faint tone of incredulity in one of the three possible options that respondents could choose from, and that may have had a slightly leading effect.  However, the results are overwhelming enough that I don't think there's much doubt about the balance of SNP voters' views - they want some sort of Plan B if a Section 30 order is rejected.  42% would want a consultative referendum to be held without Westminster's consent, 35% would want to use a scheduled election to double as a referendum, and only 7% think that the Scottish Government should just keep asking for permission and hoping that Westminster agrees.  (That was the touch of incredulity I was talking about.)

So, yes, it appears that the vast majority of SNP voters are directly at odds with the party leadership on this crucially important matter.  But what's the rational response to that?  The SNP leadership will be less likely, not more likely, to change course if the people who disagree with them leave the party and join a fringe party instead.  That would be a recipe for careerist, devolutionist SNP rule for the next twenty years.

For my part, I've just renewed my SNP membership for another year.  I didn't do that because I agree with the leadership on everything.  I disagree with them on Plan B.  I disagree with them on self-ID.  I disagree with them on one or two other miscellaneous things as well.  But the only way to bring change about is to fight for it on the inside. 

We're at a crossroads in our nation's history, and there can be no better time to make your voice heard inside the party that remains the only credible vehicle for delivering independence.  If you're not currently a member of the SNP and fancy joining for just a few pounds, you can do so HERE.

Historic breakthrough as Panelbase poll shows 50% support for independence

So my sincere apologies to a certain gentleman as this polling blog continues its "demented obsession" with covering opinion poll results as and when they are published, but I do think this is one you should probably know about...

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Panelbase)

Yes 50% (+1)
No 50% (-1)

This is highly significant, in spite of what on the face of it are minor changes that are well within the margin of error.  In recent times, Panelbase (along with YouGov) have been very much on the No-friendly end of the polling spectrum.  For an eighteen month period between the spring of 2017 and the autumn of 2018, every Panelbase poll that was published put Yes somewhere between 43% and 45%, with 44% being the most common figure - in other words Panelbase were suggesting that independence support had gone backwards (albeit only slightly) since the 2014 referendum.  But from the end of last year onwards, the Yes figure has almost imperceptibly crept up and up and up, from 45% to 47%, then to 48%, then to 49%, and now to 50%.  There has been no single poll in which we could say with confidence that the increase from the previous poll was genuine - but over a period of time the swing to Yes has self-evidently been real and statistically significant.

This is the first Panelbase poll since June 2016 not to show a No lead.  Indeed it's only the second poll from any firm since 2017 not to show a No lead, with the other one being the famous Lord Ashcroft poll during the summer that had Yes slightly ahead - and it was hard to know what to make of that one, because Ashcroft is not a regular independence pollster, and there were no baseline figures to measure from.  We've arguably been a bit unlucky that No-friendly pollsters have dominated the field of late - apart from that one Ashcroft poll, every independence poll that has been published this year has been conducted by either YouGov or Panelbase.  (Unless of course you count the Survation poll commissioned by Scotland in Union that purported to be about independence but in fact asked a completely different question.)  It's entirely possible that if the likes of Survation and Ipsos-Mori had been polling regularly, we'd have seen a fair few Yes leads recently.

In case you're wondering, the new figures are not part of the ongoing results from the Panelbase poll commissioned by Wings (which was confined to SNP voters only) - the Sunday Times were the client for this one, and they go out of their way to make the point that 50% is an all-time high for Yes in Panelbase polls for the Sunday Times.  Which is absolutely lovely, but bear in mind that the client doesn't usually make any difference to how Panelbase conduct their independence polling, and the all-time high for Yes with Panelbase is the 52% recorded in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016.  So we're almost back up to that kind of level of support but not quite.

(Since writing the above paragraph, I've doublechecked and it turns out that the June 2016 poll was actually commissioned by the Sunday Times anyway!  They've obviously forgotten about that one.)

I don't pay the Murdoch Levy and can therefore only see the first few paragraphs of the Sunday Times piece, but it appears there was also a supplementary question that invited respondents to make a straight choice between Scotland staying as part of the UK after Brexit, and independence within the EU.  I haven't found the exact figures yet, but on that question there is majority support for independence within the EU.  That'll be food for thought for the minority within the SNP who believe that the road to a Yes win involves watering down the party's outright Remain stance and embracing the EFTA option.

UPDATE: It looks like the forced choice question asked whether independence-in-Europe or precious-union-in-Brexit would be better for Scotland economically, which perhaps puts a slightly different complexion on it.  But 45% of respondents chose independence-in-Europe and only 35% chose precious-union-in-Brexit, which with Don't Knows excluded must be roughly a 56% to 44% split.  That's very much "decisive" in BBC terms.

Here are the Westminster voting intention numbers from the poll:

SNP 39% (+1)
Conservatives 21% (+3)
Labour 20% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 13% (n/c)
Brexit Party 5% (-4)
Greens 2% (n/c)

Seats projection: SNP 48, Conservatives 5, Liberal Democrats 5, Labour 1

Do those seat numbers look oddly familiar? That'll be because they're identical to the projection from the average of YouGov subsamples that I published the other day - which is really odd given that those subsamples are "piddly" and "meaningless" (ahem). But is this surprising? Not at all. As I've patiently pointed out about 7548 times over the last few years (and I can't force Somerset-based scribes to take this on board, but it is actually true), YouGov subsamples are different from those of other firms, because they're correctly structured and weighted.  When there's a long gap between full-scale Scottish polls, as we've just had, the next-best way to get a sense of the state of play is to average several recent YouGov subsamples, which ought to produce a level of accuracy that isn't a million miles away from that of a full-scale YouGov poll.

That said, there is one significant difference between the YouGov subsample average and these Panelbase numbers, which is that Labour's vote is considerably higher with Panelbase.  It's not doing them much good in terms of seats, though, because six of the seven seats they're defending are highly vulnerable to a relatively modest swing to the SNP.

I'm not particularly concerned that the SNP are 'only' in the high 30s, because Panelbase have in recent years tended to report lower SNP figures than other firms.  This is actually the SNP's best showing in any Panelbase poll since 2017.

The Liberal Democrats will be (or certainly ought to be) mildly disappointed with these numbers, because their vote has remained static since the last comparable poll in June - suggesting there has been no Swinson Bounce at all as of yet.