Thursday, May 21, 2020

Some unsolicited advice for the new pro-indy party: "get on or get out"

Last September, I said that I didn't think there was any need or space for a new pro-indy party to put up list candidates against the SNP and the Greens. But I added that if such a party were to be formed, it needed to meet two conditions -

"1) A party that exists for reasons other than perceived tactical advantage. If your Party Election Broadcast is an embarrassing three minute monologue about the d'Hondt formula, you're going wrong somewhere.

2) A party that is not organised on the Il Duce principle. Any party with aspirations to hold the balance of power in our national parliament must be controlled by its members, rather than being the personal possession of its founder - regardless of the magnetic hold that individual may have on his followers."

In fairness, I get the impression that the new ISP (which stands for Independence for Scotland Party, and not Internet Service Provider) will meet the second condition. It seems like a fairly collegiate outfit, and although I'm not entirely sure of the process by which Colette Walker was selected as leader, I would imagine that's merely an interim arrangement and that there'll be a democratic internal vote at some point. But the signs are not so good as far as the first condition is concerned. Ms Walker's article in The National contained the usual bogus claims about the Holyrood electoral system that are so familiar to us from a million RISE press releases in 2016. Even more troublingly, a strong sense of entitlement came through from the article, as if the SNP somehow owed smaller pro-indy parties a favour and should get out of the way by no longer actively seeking votes on the regional list ballot. We should be extremely thankful that the SNP didn't go down that road in 2011, because without the sixteen list seats they won in that election, there would have been no overall majority and quite possibly no independence referendum in 2014. Even the four list seats they currently hold are a crucial component of the pro-indy majority at Holyrood. If too many SNP voters were to drift off to fringe parties on the list next year, that could in the nightmare scenario lead to a unionist majority.

I was accused in 2016 of wildly underestimating the potential of RISE to win list seats. As it turned out, I hadn't underestimated them at all, and they didn't come within light-years of taking even a single seat. History is repeating itself now and I'm being accused of underestimating the ISP - and I fully expect to be proved right once again. But let's suppose for the sake of argument that I'm wrong and that the ISP do have some sort of chance of clearing the de facto threshold of 5% and thus winning list seats. If there's any possibility of that, it should start showing up in opinion polls over the coming months - and I must emphasise that I'm talking about credible opinion polls that give parity of esteem to all parties, rather than Mickey Mouse poll questions that ask "would you consider voting for this party?" If by the end of the year the ISP are polling at, say, 7% or 8% on the standard voting intention question, they'll be perfectly entitled to conclude they have a fighting chance of winning seats and could end up helping the cause of independence rather than harming it.

But the much more likely scenario is that they'll be polling somewhere between zero and 3%, and will be firmly on course to win no seats. Now, admittedly, even at that stage there'll be no absolute proof that the mission is doomed, and they might still nurse the hope that the official campaign period will turn things around - but that's pretty unlikely, given that they'll be excluded from the leaders' debates, along with all of the other disadvantages fringe parties face. With no pre-campaign breakthrough in the polls, the rational thing to do would be to abort the whole plan and not put up list candidates after all, because the balance of probability would be that any votes they take will be wasted and will thus harm rather than help the pro-indy side (ie. by making it harder for the SNP and Greens to win list seats). Or at least, that would be the rational call for anyone who regards independence as the absolute priority. If they push ahead in spite of knowing that they're likely to cause harm, we'll be entitled to conclude that their priorities actually lie elsewhere.

In a nutshell, my advice to the ISP would be what Jo Grimond famously said to the Liberal party in the 1950s: "get on or get out". In other words, there's no point in a fringe party existing just for the sake of it. If there's a realistic chance of making a positive difference, by all means put your heart and soul into it and make it work. But if there's no realistic chance, and if you discover from the polls that you've been caught in a Twitter bubble all along, then for heaven's sake step aside before you cause any real damage.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sarah Smith's unforgivable lapse of judgement last night may be career-defining

I suspect Sarah Smith's outrageous allegation on live BBC news bulletins last night that Nicola Sturgeon is "enjoying" the "opportunity" of the pandemic is destined to become as notorious as Nick Robinson's "he didn't answer" lie in 2014. Let's be honest - no leader, no leader at all, is enjoying this crisis. Ms Sturgeon isn't enjoying it because of the intolerable stress of having to make life and death decisions, and because (like the rest of us) she's unable to spend time with her family and friends. Boris Johnson isn't enjoying it because of the obvious fact that he almost died. Donald Trump isn't enjoying it because he's a known germaphobe and because it may have screwed up his chances of being re-elected in November.

So what could possibly have given Sarah Smith the impression that the First Minister is somehow having lots of fun? The specific claim was that, although Ms Sturgeon insists her decisions have been driven by scientific advice and not politics, she is in fact relishing the chance to diverge from London policy. No evidence was provided to support this suggestion - which is hardly surprising, because no such evidence exists. Ms Smith was given total licence by the BBC to speculate and editorialise from a partisan anti-SNP perspective in front of millions of viewers, and without any right of reply.

What's so stupid about this incident is that it's blindingly obvious to anyone who has paid attention since March that the truth is the polar opposite of Ms Smith's claim - the First Minister was in reality determined to remain in lockstep with London, and did so for several weeks, even though that meant disregarding all of the key recommendations of the World Health Organization. It took a catastrophe of near-biblical proportions for her to finally accept that London didn't know best on this occasion - and even then she diverged from Boris Johnson's decisions with the greatest of regret and reluctance. She would infinitely have preferred Johnson to have compromised in order to maintain a UK-wide approach.

It's bad enough for a BBC correspondent to drop all pretence of impartiality and shove their own political opinions down viewers' throats - but when they're just plain factually wrong at the same time, that really is unforgivable.

* * *

To return briefly to the subject of the previous post, my eye was caught by this claim from Kevin McKenna in the Herald -

"A wide-ranging poll conducted this week for Wings Over Scotland by Panelbase has already produced one astounding conclusion: that the number of SNP voters who’d be willing to sacrifice power for the sacred goal of independence has dropped from 82% to 59%. It bears out my worst fears for the future of the independence movement: that the party which alone is defined by this has now become so dazzled by the trinkets of high office that it’s fast losing the stomach for the fight."

That's highly misleading on one count, and inaccurate on another. The poll quite simply didn't ask whether voters would "sacrifice power for independence". It didn't ask them whether they would prefer power or independence. It didn't ask any other variant of that question either. It instead asked whether people would vote Yes or No to independence under wildly implausible hypothetical circumstances, and didn't give them any opportunity to explain their reasoning. By far the most likely explanation for people getting cold feet about independence in the specified scenario is that they were concerned that Scotland might not be competently governed if the SNP suddenly ceased to exist. They therefore concluded it would be a risk too far. I doubt if it even occurred to them that they were "sacrificing power", and quite right too - ordinary voters don't have much power to sacrifice, and they generally don't have any control at all over the political party they vote for.

The direct inaccuracy is that the figure has "dropped from 82% to 59%". That suggests the result is being compared to a previous poll that asked a similar question - but it isn't. No such previous poll exists.