Friday, November 1, 2019

ITV betrays its viewers AGAIN by doing deal with the Tories and Labour to stitch-up the election - and BBC clearly plans to follow suit

I predicted a few days ago that the broadcasters would be tempted, if they thought they could get away with it, to yet again drive a coach and horses through the democratic process by agreeing to Boris Johnson's demand for TV leaders' debates that exclude all of the major parties apart from his own and Labour.  In my naivety, though, I assumed that once they'd reflected on it, they'd reluctantly accept it would be a dreadful look for them to do that, given the Liberal Democrats have been so close to level-pegging with Labour in recent months.  (And if the Liberal Democrats were included, they wouldn't dare exclude the SNP, who have far more MPs.)  But it seems ITV actually have no shame - they've announced a debate that will exclude all but two parties, albeit with others charitably allowed to have their say as quasi-pundits commenting on the main event.  This sends an unmistakeable message to viewers that two arbitrarily chosen parties should be regarded as the only credible contenders and that all the others are also-rans.

There's clearly a degree of coordination with the BBC in attempting to 'normalise' this outrageous decision.  An article on the BBC website that reads like a free ITV advert announces the "first head-to-head debate" of the campaign - words that are cynically intended to condition readers into believing that two-way debates are somehow natural in a multi-party democracy, and that it's also natural to expect more than one during the campaign.  No prizes for guessing what the BBC will be doing themselves.  Criticism of ITV's decision is absent from the article - distinctly odd in what is supposedly a 'news' report.

No, guys, this ain't normal, and no amount of spin and deception is ever going to make it look normal.  It's particularly unacceptable in Scotland, one of the constituent nations of the democracy ITV and the BBC nominally serve, and in which neither the Tories nor Labour are the largest party.  Doubtless, though, both broadcasters will continue to innocently express bafflement at the ongoing loss of trust in them from Scottish viewers.

Election 2019: If Brexit Party supporters in Scotland can't vote for their first-choice party, who will they vote for instead?

Not for the first time in his career, Nigel Farage has rapidly gone from one extreme to another.  Until a day or two ago, it looked like he was hellbent on doing as much damage as possible to Boris Johnson's election chances by putting up candidates in all or most constituencies, whereas now the rumour is suddenly that he might try to protect the bigger prize of Brexit by only launching a challenge in a very small number of Labour-held seats.  It's only a rumour, but if by any chance it's true, it ought to be bad news for us because it presumably means Farage won't be helpfully splitting the Tory/pro-Brexit vote in any of the Tory-SNP battleground seats in Scotland.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Lord Hayward's counter-intuitive suggestion that the Tories could actually be harmed if the Brexit Party sit out almost all of the seats.  His theory is that Boris Johnson has already won back most of the ex-Tories who defected to the Brexit Party earlier this year, and that the bulk of the Brexit Party's remaining support is therefore made up of ex-Labour voters who would never consider voting Tory.  In other words, if there isn't a Brext Party candidate to vote for on 12th December, those voters will either abstain or revert to Labour - and if they do the latter, the Tories' lead over Labour is bound to decrease.

A quick look at recent polling datasets reveals that Hayward's theory is based on a false premise - the proportion of Brexit Party support that is ex-Labour may have risen since Johnson became Prime Minister, but it's still only a minority.  The Tories still stand to gain more than Labour from any absence of Brexit Party candidates.

But all of this made me think about the composition of Brexit Party support in Scotland.  Will those voters transfer more or less as a bloc to the Scottish Tories if Farage doesn't put up candidates?  There are two barriers to answering that question - a) there have only been two full-scale Scottish polls since Johnson entered Downing Street, and b) the sample of Brexit Party voters in each poll is far too small to give us reliable information.  But there is one very striking statistic from the most recent Panelbase poll - almost as many Brexit Party supporters voted SNP in the 2016 Holyrood election as voted Tory.  By the time of the 2017 Westminster general election, they were breaking much more for the Tories, probably because the EU referendum had happened in the interim and they didn't want to vote for a party committed to overturning the Leave vote.  Even in 2017, though, a significant minority of Brexit Party supporters (just under one-quarter, in fact) voted SNP.  And only a little over half of them voted Tory.

So it could be a mistake to assume that Brexit Party voters in Scotland are monolithically pro-Tory, or anti-SNP, or even anti-independence.  Many of them could be genuinely up for grabs if their first choice party isn't available. Although a Farage-free election certainly wouldn't be good news for us, it might not be unalloyed bad news either.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Three opponents for the SNP, three different outcomes?

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at The National about the SNP's prospects in the forthcoming general election, and how I think they might fare against Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories respectively.  The answer is a bit different in each case.  You can read the article HERE.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Election 2019: the danger points

At last we know how and when the story of this parliament ends, and it's interesting to cast our minds back a hundred plot twists and recall what the conventional wisdom was immediately after the 2017 general election.  We were told that this parliament would never allow a Hard Brexit on its watch, that it wouldn't run to its full term, and that Theresa May wouldn't still be Conservative party leader at the end of it.  All of those things proved to be true, but there were plenty of times when it looked like they might not.  And the assumption of many people that "not allowing a Hard Brexit" would amount to the same thing as ensuring a soft Brexit proved to be wide of the mark.  If the coming election turns out in the way opinion polls currently suggest, a number of Remainer MPs in the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Change UK may bitterly regret spurning the chance to work with Labour and defeat the Hard Brexiteers when the parliamentary arithmetic was still in their favour.

That said, I don't think we can say that we're doomed to a Tory overall majority just yet.  I'm not in any way predicting that it won't happen, but we won't really know until the progress of the official campaign starts to concentrate minds among pro-EU voters.  In theory the votes are there to defeat Johnson, but at the moment they're just not coalescing in the most effective way.  Actually that's an understatement - they're coalescing in just about the least effective way imaginable.  Normally I would scoff at the grandiose claims made by tactical voting websites, but given how passionate some voters are about stopping Brexit, it could be a very different story this time.  Remember also that there looks likely to be a limited electoral pact between Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, which in itself should be enough to limit the number of seats that Johnson wins.  (And isn't it intriguing that Adam Price's enthusiastic embrace of the word "independence" hasn't deterred the Lib Dems from working with Plaid?  The pact won't be replicated in Scotland, but the double standard of treating the SNP like the devil incarnate may undermine the Lib Dems' message somewhat.)

One thing we have learned today, if there was ever any real doubt, is that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act isn't worth the paper it's written on.  If any future majority government wants to hold an early snap election, all it'll have to do is pass a one-page Bill setting a date, and the two-thirds majority supposedly required by the FTPA simply won't apply.  Theoretically a minority government might have greater difficulties, but it's hard to imagine too many circumstances in which the opposition would keep such a government in office in the way that Labour MPs have attempted in recent weeks.  Spare a thought tonight for the editor of Stormfront Lite, who has staked his reputation over the last nine years on endlessly repeating that the FTPA makes early elections nigh-on impossible.  Even after he was proved wrong about that in 2017, he just carried on saying it as if nothing had changed.  He was jubilant last month when an early election was blocked, and insisted that this proved his theory was correct, but that turned out to be merely a temporary reprieve.  Now all we need is for one of the "oldies" to prove him wrong by winning the Democratic presidential nomination next year, and the people of East Dunbartonshire may completely lose faith in his credentials as an impartial Liberal Democrat election expert.

Spare a thought also for Change UK and the likes of John Woodcock, for whom today's events were a nightmare come true.  At the start of this year the theory was that the Change UK breakaway would tip the balance against an early election, because there was such an incentive for those MPs not to face the verdict of the electorate any time soon, but in the end they proved to be nothing more than a noisy irrelevance when the decision was made.  Chris Leslie, who probably once fancied himself as a future Prime Minister or Chancellor, may have thrown his career away.

We're entitled to feel optimistic about the SNP's prospects for the coming contest, but that should be tempered with caution, especially after the bruising experience of 2017.  Nicola Sturgeon has clearly learned from her mistake of downplaying independence in that campaign, but even if the SNP get their pitch just right, there are any number of things that can go wrong due to factors outwith their control.  Westminster elections will always be an "away fixture" for them.  Labour might get back in the game in Scotland simply by being mentioned far more often than the SNP.  Jo Swinson will be the darling of the liberal media, and any Lib Dem bandwagon effect could damage the SNP, just as the Cleggasm did in 2010.  And look out for potential stitch-ups in the TV leaders' debates - we know that Johnson desperately wants them to be head-to-heads with Corbyn, and the broadcasters will be all too happy to oblige if they think they can get away with it.  The good news is that it'll be hard to justify excluding Ms Swinson given the Lib Dems' position in the polls, and if she's included it'll be very hard to exclude Ms Sturgeon.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The pros and cons of backing a December election

It's sometimes a struggle to keep up with Somerset's leading political blogger - a day or two ago he was bitterly suggesting that the SNP were about to "vote with the Tories" for the wrong reason, ie. that they were passing up the chance to cut a deal with Boris Johnson that could bring about a second indyref, but were instead following a path that "cleverly" wouldn't have that effect.  But he seems to have brightened up a bit today and has concluded that the SNP voting for a December election might trigger an indyref - but only by 'complete accident', naturally.  The image we're expected to have is of a Mr Bean-type political party, bumbling its way through life.

What I find curious, though, it that one of the conditions for this 'completely accidental' scenario falling into place is that the "Tories have to win" any election in December.  And yet that of course means the SNP would lose the leverage Mr Campbell wants us to believe they have in the current hung parliament and that could supposedly secure a Section 30 order immediately if only they would listen to him.  So is having leverage in a hung parliament suddenly now a bad thing?  I'm confused.

The reality is that anyone paying attention over the last couple of weeks will have been thoroughly disabused of the notion that Boris Johnson is a man open to cutting painful deals with the SNP.  As Ken Clarke has pointed out multiple times, the arithmetic is probably there to pass the withdrawal agreement right now without the SNP, and it probably would even have been there to pass the agreement in time for 31st October.  But Johnson didn't actually want that - he pulled the bill rather than submitting a more realistic programme motion.  OK, there was a danger the withdrawal agreement might have suffered 'death by amendment', but he didn't even give himself the chance to find out.  He's not remotely interested in compromising with opponents to deliver Brexit - he wants to do it breaking them.  If the SNP had turned up at his door offering to back the withdrawal agreement in return for a Section 30, he'd have burst out laughing, and then shut the door - firmly.

So this current parliament is not one in which the SNP have the leverage to get a Westminster-approved indyref.  To have any chance of gaining that leverage, there will have to be a new parliament, and that means an election at some point.  To that extent what the SNP are doing today makes perfect sense.  The objection people are raising is that opinion polls currently point to a majority Tory government, meaning that the SNP still wouldn't have leverage in the new parliament.  In fact the situation would have worsened, because there wouldn't need to be another election for another five years, during which time a Section 30 would be essentially impossible.  Shouldn't the SNP hold off, therefore, until the polling situtaion deteriorates for the Tories?

The snag is that the SNP don't just need the Tories to be defeated - they specifically need a hung parliament in which Labour are the largest single party.  A Labour or even Liberal Democrat majority government wouldn't be much more likely to grant a Section 30 than a Tory majority government.  The range of election results that would do the trick is incredibly narrow, and the SNP would look a bit daft if they held off, waiting for the pendulum to swing, and it ended up swinging too far in the opposite direction.  There's a long history in the UK of political leaders getting cold feet about holding an election, and then finding that the polling position actually deteriorates afterwards rather than improves - James Callaghan in 1978 and Gordon Brown in 2007 spring to mind.

Waiting certainly wouldn't be a risk-free endeavour for the SNP.  Opinion polls have suggested for some time that they're on course to essentially take Scottish Labour out of the game completely.  If an election is delayed long enough for Labour to recover (which ironically would be the whole point of the delay!), the chance of a strategic breakthrough for the independence movement might have been squandered.  The SNP also appear to be on course for gains from the Tories, even if we're less clear about the scale of those gains - so why would we want to give the Scottish Tories a few more months in which they could potentially bounce back?

I know there are some people who will worry about the effect of being seen to "vote with the Tories" to engineer an election.  There was a chap in the comments section of this blog the other day who even threatened to throw away his SNP membership card if the party ever walked through the lobbies with the Tories.  When I pointed out that they had already done so several times this year (as had Labour and the Lib Dems) he hurriedly shifted the goalposts and said it would only count if the SNP and Tories went into one lobby and Labour went into the other.  Which is nuts, if you think about it - that would be a 'reverse Bain' principle that would give Labour a de facto veto on any step the SNP take.

In spite of Andrew Adonis' optimistic trial run yesterday, I can't see any cry of betrayal sticking.  This isn't 1979 - a Tory government is in office at present and a general election is an opportunity to remove it.  It'll hardly be the SNP's fault if Labour and the Lib Dems prove to be too rubbish to take that opportunity.  And it remains to be seen whether they will prove to be too rubbish - the electorate has been incredibly volatile in recent years and surprise election results have almost become the norm.

UPDATE: The last two paragraphs are moot now that Corbyn has backed a general election (literally within the time it took to write this blogpost!).  It's safe to assume he wouldn't have done that unless he'd known the vote was going to pass anyway - he couldn't go into an election campaign being seen to be scared of losing.  So that shows the value of the SNP not following the reverse Bain principle - sometimes a bold stance can force Labour to back down.

*  *  *

I simply cannot understand why Mr Campbell is once again pushing the self-destructive narrative that the SNP and/or pro-indy parties in general need a majority of the vote for a mandate, and not just a majority of seats.  For months he's been loudly calling on them to use their current mandate to call a pre-2021 indyref (and I agree with him on that) and yet that mandate was won without an outright majority of the popular vote.  Look up the 2016 election result if you don't believe me.  So why would we suddenly and needlessly start setting ourselves a much tougher threshold for future elections?  It makes no sense at all.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Will the SNP and Lib Dems bypass Labour opposition to bring about a December election after all?

Those of you with long memories will recall that, just after he became Prime Minister in the summer of 2007, Gordon Brown seriously toyed with the idea of holding a snap general election that the opinion polls suggested he couldn't lose.  Although legend has it that he took fright after David Cameron's well-received speech at the Tory party conference, it's likely that what actually played a bigger role in dissuading him was the publication of a poll showing that the Tories were faring significantly better in marginal seats that anyone had realised.

I wondered tonight if a similar turning-point had occurred with the publication of an Opinium poll showing a mammoth sixteen-point Tory lead, up three points on the equivalent poll last week.  Labour MPs were already highly resistant to the idea of allowing a December election due to their deficit in the polls, but if that deficit is growing even wider, it may be psychologically impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to lead his troops through the Aye lobby on Monday.

But just when you thought it was safe to forget all about an election until next year, tonight brings news of a joint SNP-Lib Dem initiative to circumvent the two-thirds majority requirement in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and bring about a December election regardless of whether Labour vote for one or not.  I said in my previous post that the only way of breaking the deadlock might be for the three parties that appear to have something to gain from an immediate election - namely the SNP, the Tories and the Lib Dems - to reach an understanding between themselves, and it looks very much like that's what's been going on behind the scenes.  Obviously there'll be no mention of Tory involvement to maintain plausible deniability on all sides, but the bottom line is that everyone knows this plan can only work with Tory acquiescence, and if Boris Johnson is serious about wanting a December vote, that acquiescence will surely be forthcoming.

Apparently Plan A is for the Liberal Democrats to attempt to amend the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to make provision for a general election on 9th December.  That would only require a simple majority, so it should pass with Tory support.  If for some reason it doesn't, Plan B would be for the SNP to table a motion of no confidence in the government under the existing terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which would also only require a simple majority.  Presumably the Tories would abstain, and the vote would pass if Labour don't actively vote against it.  (It would surely be unthinkable for Labour to vote that they had confidence in a Tory government, even as a means of avoiding an election?)  That would trigger a 14-day deadline for a government to emerge that can win a confidence vote, and if that doesn't happen, parliament would automatically be dissolved and an election would be triggered.

Ian Blackford is a great guy and has really grown into his job as SNP group leader, but I must confess to a wry smile when I realised that his solution to the terrible problems he identified with the "barking mad" proposed election date of 12th December is to hold the election three days earlier.  Yes, it's true, folks, canvassers will no longer have to ponder with dread the prospect of pounding the dark streets of Inverness in the middle of winter, because they'll now have a whole five more minutes of daylight to play with on polling day than they would have had if Boris Johnson had got his way.  The sun rises in Inverness at 8.45am on 9th December, compared to 8.49am on the 12th.  The sun sets at 3.32pm on the 9th, compared to 3.31pm on the 12th.  A game-changer by any standards.

So will this bold plan succeed?  It's far from certain, but if it fails I suspect it'll be because either or both of the SNP and the Lib Dems get cold feet.  I can't see the Tories standing in the way.