Thursday, July 16, 2020

The other side of the coin

An anonymous commenter said this on the previous thread - 

"This may come back to haunt you James. I think there's every chance that next years Holyrood vote, if it's seen as a defacto vote for a new referendum will be heavily gamed by the unionist parties.

It may be an absolute necessity that a new Independence list only party does stand just to reverse any shenanigans."

I very much hope the unionist side does make a hapless attempt to game the system - for exactly the same reason that I hope the pro-indy side doesn't.  If, for example, George Galloway persuades a few thousand gullible Labour and Tory supporters to lend him their list votes, he won't win any seats, but he could easily gift an extra seat or two to Yes parties.  (That is, as long as we're not foolish enough to attempt to "balance out" the mistake he's making!)

Why is Galloway doing this?  It's about himself, as always.  He's seen how a small minority of Yessers have hopelessly fallen in love with the dream of 'hacking' the list vote, and thinks he can sell the same dream to unionist voters and win himself a passport back to semi-serious politics.  I very much doubt if he'll even succeed in doing that, though.

Dialogue with the Reverend

As you may have seen, Stuart Campbell took a little time off from poker and Gaelic-bashing last night to leave a comment on this blog about his views on 'gaming the voting system', and went on to demand a point-by-point reply from me. There's been a bit of a recurring pattern in the past that if I accede to his demand for a detailed reply, he then uses the fact that I replied as evidence that I am "dementedly obsessed" with him. I asked for an assurance that he would not play the same tedious game again, and he gave it. I have every confidence he will stick to his word this time (ahem). Here goes...

"But you're quite right, I have changed my mind. I don't regard that as being anything to be ashamed of when circumstances change."

But circumstances haven't changed.  The arguments against 'gaming the system' in 2011 and 2016, including the arguments that Stuart advanced himself, were based largely on the nature of the voting system and the laws of arithmetic.  Neither of those things have changed.

"The difference is that unlike Mike [Small], I've clearly and repeatedly explained WHY I've taken a different position this time - tiny wee parties nobody's ever heard of have no chance. But Wings has very high recognition with the Scottish public, especially among Yes voters - in the real world, not on social media"

This appears to mean that the "changed circumstances" Stuart is referring to essentially amount to his exceptionally high opinion of himself - and, if so, a few unkind souls might say those circumstances haven't changed much either.  But he seems to be deadly serious about this point, so I'll give a serious answer.  As far as I can see, he's convinced himself that he's super-famous largely on the basis of Panelbase polling which asked the general public whether they've read or have heard of his website.  As I've explained many times before, that's the sort of question on which online polling is bound to produce a less reliable result than telephone polling, simply because volunteer online polling panels contain far more politically engaged people than you'd find among a random sample.  Every single time there's a Panelbase poll in the field, at least two or three readers of this blog mention that they were among the 1000-strong sample who took part.  The chances of that happening during the fieldwork for a telephone poll would be much slimmer - in fact, in the whole twelve years I've been blogging, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone has mentioned being polled by telephone.  Conclusion: people who respond to online polls are considerably more likely to have heard of Scot Goes Pop than the population at large, which almost certainly means they're considerably more likely to have heard of Wings too.  In a nutshell, Stuart has a distorted notion of his own fame due to polling numbers that he should have taken with a heavy dose of salt.

"So either of us might actually have a shot, and I also regard it as something worth doing for other reasons, which I've also explained at length."

The "either of us" refers to himself and Alex Salmond.  Many people will be utterly incredulous that he's mentioning himself in the same breath as the former First Minister of Scotland, but that does seem to genuinely be the current state of his thinking.  All I can say is that, to put it mildly, I disagree with him that his own name recognition is even vaguely comparable with Mr Salmond's.

"And even more so because I don't share your apparent complacent certainty that current polling will continue until next May. I remember the SNP being on 62% about this far out from the last election, and then dropping about 15 points and losing their majority, and that was WITHOUT the trainwreck that the Salmond inquiry is going to be."

That's a straw man argument on a couple of counts.  Firstly, if he's read what I've written on this subject (and presumably he's implying that he has) he'll know that, far from being complacent, I've repeatedly stressed that an inflated SNP lead is unlikely to come through a bruising election campaign totally unscathed.  It's also the case that I was one of the few people in 2016 itself who flagged up the danger that the SNP might lose their overall majority if they shed too many list votes.  That warning was greeted with disbelief in many quarters.

But the more important point is that the dangers of mucking about with attempts to game the system would be much greater if the SNP poll lead dips sharply.  Stuart seems to be implying that we should be more willing to take risks with the pro-indy majority if the polls tighten, whereas self-evidently the reverse is true.

"This isn't a very remarkable opinion - you completely agree with it in principle, and you think it could work for Salmond"

I've said that it might work for Alex Salmond due to the public's massive familiarity with him, but that it would not work for any other person I can think of.  To characterise that crystal-clear assessment as "you agree in principle that a Wings party would work apart from some minor detail" is so grossly misleading as to be indistinguishable from outright dishonesty.

"you just think that because I swear sometimes and I'm 'controversial' nobody would vote for a Wings party. You're perfectly entitled to that view, however obviously stupid and wrong it is - controversy and being disliked by a lot of people didn't seem to stop Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump winning. Nor Alex himself, come to that. And I do still find it hilarious that you think the Scottish public has great fainting fits over swearywords like you do, because you're apparently from 1932."

This is something I've noticed with Stuart before - when he imagines Scotland, he imagines a pub full of male, working-class football supporters.  A very substantial minority of the Scottish electorate does indeed look like that - but the operative word is "minority".  As it happens, though, I think Stuart is getting a bit muddled here.  I believe he's harking back to the iScot article from a few months ago that he had such a meltdown over.  As far as I can recall, what I actually said in that article is that Stuart's online persona would make it difficult for the SNP to work with him if he held the balance of power at Holyrood.  I do not regard that scenario as remotely likely or even plausible, but the point I was making is that if it does happen, that could lead to the SNP doing a deal with a unionist party instead - which would be the worst of all worlds.

Oh, and you'll note that having previously mentioned himself in the same breath as Alex Salmond, he's now doing it again with Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.  No comment.

"Still, be as mental as you like. But to pretend that I'm the same as Mike Small is a bit below the belt even for you."

Count your blessings, sunshine.  I could have compared you to David Leask.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The brass neck

A Wings-style title for today's blogpost in tribute to the great man himself - who I think may be getting a touch paranoid.  A few hours ago, in the comments section of his site, he made this characteristically angry remark about me - 

"Not if he’s going to lie about me, no. I’m not an 'ISP-supporting blogger'. I’ve admired them for actually getting off their arses and doing something, but to the best of my recollection that’s as far as I’ve gone."

There's just one snag about that accusation of lying - the 'ISP-supporting blogger' I was referring to was in fact Barrhead Boy, not Wings.  (And now Barrhead Boy will doubtless have an even bigger meltdown because I've just identified him directly, but hey-ho.  Such fragile egos we deal with.)

Stuart's comment was beneath the latest of countless furious blogposts and social media posts he's written over the last year attacking me and my views on "gaming the system".  In it, he moans that I've written "literally dozens" of "hysterical articles" on the subject.  I do feel it's just possible there might be a certain irony about that complaint, but I'll bring you confirmation as soon I have it.

He also lumps me in with an array of commentators, pundits and politicians who have attacked the idea of 'tactical voting on the list', but who generally wouldn't agree with each other on other topics - such as my Labour MSP namesake, Bella Caledonia's editor Mike Small, and the controversial journalist David Leask.  The implication is that this means we must all be arguing disingenuously.  I'm quite sure Stuart is right about that.  For example, he himself has criticised JK Rowling over many years as a "litigious bully", and it would therefore be utterly unthinkable for him to now find himself on the same side as the Harry Potter author on, let's say, the trans issue.  He'd know that would totally deprive him of all credibility, and he'd make very, very sure it never happened.  He's refreshingly consistent and non-hypocritical in that way.

He has particularly strong words for Mike Small, who he points out has appeared to do a complete U-turn on the desirability of tactical voting since the last Holyrood election.  And, indeed, I can testify to the truth of that better than most people.  One night, in early 2016, I was one of several Twitter users who pointed out to Mike that Bella had turned into a propaganda site urging people not to "waste" their list vote on the SNP and to tactically vote for RISE instead.  Mike was insistent that wasn't the case, and that Bella was open to publishing all views.  I asked him whether he'd therefore run a piece by me putting forward an alternative view, and he encouraged me to go ahead and write something.  So I did it straight away, in fact I stayed up half the night doing it, and to put it mildly I was not best pleased when he wrote back immediately and indicated that he had no intention of publishing it unless I completely rewrote it to change the central message.  I didn't keep quiet about what had happened, and eventually Mike published our entire correspondence to supposedly set the record straight - but instead all he succeeded in doing was removing all doubt that he had declined the article simply because it argued against the feasibility of tactical voting on the list.  A number of his regular readers were quite shocked.

So, yes, it's true that Bella doesn't have a leg to stand on when they now attack parties like the ISP for trying to game the system.  Their position seems to boil down to "gaming the system is workable and constructive when the beneficiaries are radical left parties, but impossible and destructive when the beneficiaries are non-woke parties".  And of course Stuart is the ideal person to draw attention to this hypocrisy, because he has in no way done a complete U-turn himself since correctly stating in 2016 that attempts to vote tactically on the list were "a mug's game" that could cost us pro-indy seats at Holyrood.  

Speaking as one of the few people who is actually saying exactly the same thing now that I said in 2016, and who isn't arguing that the laws of arithmetic somehow change depending on how woke or non-woke a political party is, I must say I can only look on in total bemusement at the way Bella and Wings have swapped sides on the subject but seamlessly continued to argue with each other.  What makes it even more comical is that very few of their followers seem to have clocked what has happened.

That said, Stuart does take a moment to deny that he even wants to game the system - he innocently claims that his support for the concept of a list-only party is simply about making sure that the views of a particular segment of the electorate are represented in a way that isn't currently the case.  And naturally he's in a good position to make that claim with a straight face, because at no point has he published lengthy blogposts explaining that one of the main purposes of a list-only party is to win far more pro-indy seats on the list than the share of the vote would otherwise warrant.  Nor has he at any stage published a pseudo-scientific analysis by Gavin Barrie setting out how this would supposedly work in practice.  Nope, none of that happened.  If you think it did, you imagined it.  Stop imagining things.

Oh and by the way (as Bernie Sanders would say), it's categorically untrue that I've been "frantically punting the both votes SNP line".  I lost count of the number of times in 2016 that I had to point out that "both votes SNP" was not my message, even though people kept erroneously ascribing those words to me.  All I've ever done is point out that the list vote is the more important of the two votes, because it determines the overall composition of parliament.  It doesn't lend itself to tactical voting, and people should therefore vote for their first-choice party on the list, regardless of which party that happens to be.

It's particularly odd that Stuart should mischaracterise my argument as "both votes SNP" just one day after I wrote a blogpost saying I would have a big decision to make if Alex Salmond sets up a new party.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Let's inject some sanity into the "gaming the system" debate

On the day that yet another breakaway pro-indy party is launched, I'm becoming more and more concerned that the "tactical voting on the list" lobby are displaying cult-like tendencies.  There's one particular ISP-supporting blogger who is increasingly extreme in his personalised denunciations of anyone who takes issue with his quasi-religious certainties - if you don't think it's possible to game the Holyrood electoral system, you must be a liar, or in league with "the Yoons", or every other unhinged accusation under the sun.  One of his fellow travellers took it a step further today by asking me in all apparent seriousness if I was only arguing that the idea isn't feasible because I had been paid to do so.  That's the moment at which you know people are losing touch with reality - when they cannot conceive of any reason why someone might disagree with them other than bribery or corruption.

It's an uphill struggle, but let's try to re-inject some sanity into this debate.

1) Part of the reason the "game the system" brigade have become so militant is because they've genuinely convinced themselves that the list vote system is some kind of conspiracy to reduce pro-indy representation.  As I pointed out in my recent National Extra piece, that simply isn't the case.  Both the SNP and the combined pro-indy camp are in fact slightly over-represented in the Scottish Parliament as compared to the votes they received in the 2016 election.  The purpose of list seats is to bring the overall composition of parliament more into line with the percentage of votes cast for each party - sometimes, as was the case in 1999, 2003 and 2007, that leads to a correction in favour of pro-indy parties, and sometimes, as was the case in 2011 and 2016, it leads to a correction in favour of unionist parties.  But whichever way it goes, the effect of list seats is always to make the result more proportional.  In other words, to make the outcome fairer.  There really isn't anything to be angry or concerned about in that.

2) The system is actually biased against one type of party, though - namely, very small parties.  Almost every system of proportional representation around the world is intentionally loaded against tiny fringe parties - for example in national list systems, there's often a 5% threshold to attain any sort of representation at all.  The Holyrood system achieves a similar effect by being conducted on a regional basis, which in practice ensures that any party will need 5-7% of the vote in a region before it will win any seat.  So if you're thinking of voting for a small party, you need to be very hard-headed and realistic about its chances of securing the required number of votes.  There may well be good reasons for giving your vote to a party that isn't going to win any seats.  But if your main reason for choosing a small party is to "game the system" and to win a truckload of extra seats, your logic has gone wrong somewhere.

3) The only way to game the system is with a large party, not a small party.  And the only way a "pop-up party" is going to be large enough is if it's fronted by Alex Salmond. I literally cannot think of any other person who is capable of pulling it off.  I suppose it's possible that Dave Thompson's initiative today might be part of pre-planned choreography that is paving the way for a Salmond-led party.  But if that isn't what's going on, Mr Thompson is just adding to the collection of very small parties who will be scrapping over the small number of people who want to vote "tactically".  The more of those parties there are, the more distant are the hopes that any of them will win even one seat.

4) To the best of my knowledge, Alex Salmond has not publicly denied suggestions that he might set up a new party.  That may or may not be significant.  If he eventually goes down that road, I and many other SNP members and supporters will have a big decision to make.  The reason for my current allegiance is that the SNP are the credible party that most closely represents my own views.  That might no longer be the case if there was suddenly a Salmond-led party, which would almost certainly be somewhat stronger on independence than the current SNP leadership, and less obsessed with "woke" identity politics.  But it would still be a very tricky decision, because I have fears about the long-term/medium-term consequences of fragmenting the independence movement.  And I would always vote for a party on the list because it's my first-choice party, and not for any "tactical" reason.  

5) If a Salmond-led party does not fight the 2021 election, the only other way of bringing about a stronger line on independence is to win the internal debate within the SNP - and the more people that desert the SNP to join fringe "game the system" parties, the less likely that is to happen.  I firmly believe Colette Walker made a tactical mistake by leaving the SNP.  It's less than a year since she almost won the Women's Convener vote, which meant that for as long as she remained in the SNP, she was a very real threat to the "woke" hegemony.  By walking away, all she's done is help to entrench that hegemony - as can be seen from the jubilation in certain quarters on social media.

6) Jason McCann recently wrote a blogpost about the Holyrood voting system that was misleading or inaccurate in a number of respects.  He stated that it was "a mathematical impossibility" for any one party to dominate the parliament - it "cannot be done", he added.  That is simply untrue.  If a party were to receive 100% of the votes, it would get 100% of the seats (as long as it put up enough candidates).  There is no artificial 'cap' on the number of seats that the SNP or any other party can win.  Jason conveniently neglects to mention that part of the reason the SNP lost list seats in 2016 is because its pecentage list vote fell.  If you get fewer votes, you get fewer seats - it's not rocket science.  On a point of pedantry, it's also wrong for Jason (and indeed the Solidarity account on Twitter) to refer to the Holyrood voting system as "the D'Hondt system".  AMS is a hybrid system and the D'Hondt formula doesn't apply to all of it.  It's ironic that the tactical voting lobby refer to it as "D'Hondt", though, because it's the very fact that it isn't a pure D'Hondt system that makes it (theoretically) suspectible to gaming.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

It was true in 2011 and 2016, and it's still true now - attempting to vote "tactically" on the Holyrood regional list is a mug's game