Saturday, December 4, 2021

Give me an effective tyrant?

For anyone who still doesn't understand - or pretends not to understand - why the Alba Party needs to exist, I can recommend Robin McAlpine's article from around a week ago that summarises the campaign of dirty tricks that the SNP leadership indulged in to essentially overturn the results of the democratic internal elections in November 2020 that saw candidates from the Common Weal slate and the Women's Pledge slate do exceptionally well.  As Robin notes, the end result of that campaign was that the victorious candidates were largely replaced by the very people they had been elected to replace, and without any further vote.  There can be no greater perversion of the democratic process than that.  Of course the leadership loyalist version of what happened is that some of the winners randomly took a huff and decided to leave the party, and that the runners-up valiantly stepped up to keep the show on the road.  The reality is more like the equivalent of constructive dismissal - if it's made impossible for you to fulfil the obligations of your elected role or of your mandate, departure is not really a voluntary choice.  Remember that not all of the people who resigned from the positions they had been elected to ended up joining Alba - some simply resigned and remained within the SNP.  If you genuinely have power and influence within a party of government, you're highly unlikely to relinquish that power to languish on the fringes of the party, and you're equally unlikely to give up that power to join a much smaller party.  The fact that so many people did resign is entirely consistent with Robin's account of a leadership that refused to accept the results of the vote.  The victorious candidates had been left, to coin a phrase, "in office but not in power", and they had nowhere left to go but the exit gate.

But this raises another question. However maddening and unacceptable these events were, are we missing a bigger picture? Some would phrase it this way: is taking a stand against the arrogance and entitlement of the likes of Alyn Smith and Fiona Robertson really more important than securing independence for this country?  If that was truly the choice, I would say no.  There has been many a tyrant down the ages who has nevertheless been an effective leader capable of guiding his followers to the promised land. (To take perhaps the most extreme example, it was the mass-murdering despot Stalin who was more responsible than any other leader for rescuing Europe from the Nazis.)  If I felt that the SNP leadership were serious about delivering an independence referendum and had a viable strategy to achieve that, I would say "let's ignore every provocation and maintain iron discipline behind that leadership". As much as almost everyone who has joined Alba feels far happier in their new political home and are now free to just be themselves, it would be much better being miserable within the SNP for a couple more years and actually getting our independence.  That's realpolitik.  Sadly, however, what we seem to be dealing with in this particular case is an ineffective tyranny, or a tyranny that doesn't even want to be effective.  The determination to achieve independence in the real world, not just as a nice theory, appears to be entirely absent - as does any credible thinking about how that might actually be done.  In the scenario we're actually living in, then, the natural human response to the leadership's outrageous "counter-revolution" a year ago does not in any way conflict with strategic good sense about how to achieve independence.  If the SNP's strategic vacuum can't be changed from within, external pressure from another party will have to bring about that change.

There is one big caveat, though.  If an independence referendum does actually take place in the next two or three years, either because pressure from Alba has paid off or because the SNP leadership's resolve suddenly stiffens for some other reason, it will at that point become counterproductive for Alba to keep harrying Nicola Sturgeon - the only opponents we'll need to be fighting are unionists.  A lot of self-discipline will be required, because the SNP are unlikely to reciprocate with magnanimity towards Alba. Given one or two depressing precedents in recent weeks, I can well imagine that an umbrella Yes campaign will be set up that includes the SNP and the Greens but excludes "the Alba bigots".  If so, that will be an act of monumental stupidity and self-harm, reminiscent of Labour's catastrophic decision to exclude "the filthy SNP separatists" from the main Yes campaign in the 1979 devolution referendum.  But nevertheless, we in Alba will just have to turn the other cheek and get on with our own positive Yes campaign - because independence comes before everything.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Massive 21% increase in vote share for pro-independence parties in the Fort William & Ardnamurchan by-election

So I'm quite excited to be able to report on a local by-election result from a ward I spent a couple of nights in during the summer, although it's so geographically enormous that probably quite a lot of us have been there recently! While the Westminster village was preoccupied with a routine Tory hold in Sir Edward Heath's former constituency, for Scottish politics-watchers yesterday was all about Fort William & Ardnamurchan.

Fort William & Ardnamurchan by-election result (2nd December 2021):

SNP: 39.6% (+6.7)
Conservatives: 21.2% (+8.5) 
Greens: 14.3% (+14.3) 
Liberal Democrats: 10.1% (+5.5) 
Independent - McKenna: 8.5% (+8.5) 
Independent - Matheson: 3.8% (-0.5) 
Independent - Drayton: 2.4% (+2.4)

Almost every time I report on an STV by-election result, I have to explain that things are not quite as they seem - the result might be billed as a "hold" for a party that has jumped from second place to first in the popular vote, or as a "gain" for a party that has merely remained in first place in the popular vote.  Our old friend Mike Smithson was left red-faced after misunderstanding that point on one celebrated occasion - and he's a renowned letter-writing totally objective Liberal Democrat election expert, so it's very easily done.

Fort William & Ardnamurchan is a particularly complicated example, though, because yesterday's result is technically an SNP gain from the Conservatives - in spite of the fact that a) neither party topped the poll last time around (an independent candidate did), b) the SNP were well ahead of the Tories last time around, and c) there was actually a small swing from SNP to Tory yesterday.

The percentage increases that all of the parties enjoyed can be mostly explained by a large number of votes that went to the victorious independent candidate in 2017 being up for grabs this time, and splitting multiple ways.  That said, the SNP are still entitled to regard their own increase as impressive, if only because it was achieved in spite of a Green intervention - in other words they didn't face competition for the pro-indy vote in 2017, but this time there was competition and it was remarkably stiff.  The combined vote share for the pro-indy parties is actually a whopping 21 points higher than it was four years ago.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Pro-independence parties on course to win combined 56% share of the vote on the Holyrood list ballot - and Alba are still registering

Today's astonishing Ipsos-Mori / STV poll, which showed 55% support for independence, also had encouraging news for all three of the major pro-independence parties in the Holyrood voting intention numbers...

Scottish Parliament constituency voting intentions:

SNP 52%
Conservatives 19%
Labour 17%
Liberal Democrats 5%
Greens 3%

Scottish Parliament regional list voting intentions:

SNP 43%
Conservatives 20%
Labour 15%
Greens 12%
Liberal Democrats 6%
Alba 1%

Seats projection (with changes from May 2021): SNP 68 (+4), Conservatives 24 (-7), Labour 20 (-2), Greens 12 (+4), Liberal Democrats 5 (+1)

So Alba continue to register in the polls - and it can't be underestimated how important it is for the party to retain that toehold of credibility when it's trying to establish itself and is being starved of media publicity.  The fact that the Greens are so close to matching Labour on the list vote would have been a matter of huge concern for unionists if it had happened five or ten years ago, because it would have opened up the possibility of the main left-of-centre opposition to the SNP being a pro-independence party in the future.  However, that *ought* to be an academic consideration now, assuming the promise of a referendum by the end of 2023 is honoured.

As for the SNP, these numbers suggest they'd improve on May's result markedly in any new election and win an overall majority.  However, as mentioned in the previous post, Ipsos-Mori don't weight by recalled vote, and also overestimated the SNP's support back in the spring.  So it could be that a systemic error simply hasn't been corrected yet.

This rips up everything we thought we knew: Ipsos-Mori TELEPHONE poll shows massive majority support for Scottish independence

Before today, there had been eleven polls since the Holyrood election showing a No lead (albeit for the most part a slim No lead), one showing a tie, and just one showing a slim Yes lead.  The big majorities for independence that we got so used to in 2020 had begun to look, at least for the time being, like a thing of the past.  And yet, all of a sudden, today brought word of a poll that wouldn't have looked at all out of place one year ago.

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Ipsos-Mori / STV, 22nd-29th November 2021)

Yes 55% (+5)
No 45% (-5)

Can one extremely good opinion poll negate the previous thirteen? (Or, to be more precise, eleven of the previous thirteen?)  In usual circumstances, the answer would be no - the suspicion would be that this is probably an outlier result caused by random sampling variation.  At the very least, we'd be cautiously waiting for one or two more polls before jumping to the conclusion that the new trend is real.  But with Ipsos-Mori, in general the only firm to conduct Scottish polls by telephone, it's a different story.  There's still no consensus on whether telephone polls are superior to online polls, or vice versa, and the only reason the vast majority of polls are conducted online is to sharply reduce costs.  If the only telephone poll you have shows a picture that is wildly out of line with the sea of online polls, there are very good reasons for seriously considering the possibility that the telephone poll is actually the accurate one - or closest to being the accurate one.

To be clear, there's no great surprise in Ipsos-Mori showing a Yes lead - in recent years they've been on the Yes-friendly end of the spectrum, so a slim No lead with Panelbase or YouGov might be expected to translate into a slim Yes lead with Ipsos-Mori.  But what is genuinely startling is that Ipsos-Mori are showing a completely different trend from the online firms.  The No leads in the online polls have generally represented little or no change since the latter stages of the Holyrood campaign, whereas today's poll suggests there has been a massive Yes resurgence since the election.  That seriously calls into question the story we have been telling ourselves, and more importantly the story the media have been telling us, about the state of public opinion over the last few months.

Having said all that, the slight health warning that needs to be added is that data collection by telephone is not the only thing that sets Ipsos-Mori apart from other polling companies - they also have a different attitude to weighting by recalled vote.  So in theory that could be an alternative explanation for the disparity.

As Marcia has pointed out in the comments section below, there is a clear Yes majority in today's poll even if Don't Knows are left in: Yes 52%, No 43%, Don't Know 4%.  It's to be hoped that the SNP leadership don't repeat the mistake of last year by treating this Yes lead as a precious piece of china that might break if anyone so much as sneezes, and instead use it to loudly demonstrate that there is a strong appetite for a choice on independence in the near future.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

This must be the line in the sand - Nicola Sturgeon's promise of a referendum by the end of 2023 must be honoured to the letter

Nicola Sturgeon: "In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023."

In fairness to Ms Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP leadership, that's a reasonably clear and specific promise compared to some we've heard in the recent past - which means it will be possible to objectively determine on certain cut-off dates whether the promise has been kept or broken.  If, by 31st December 2022, action has not been "initiated" that would "enable" a referendum to take place, then the promise will have been reneged upon - and that initiated action will clearly have to go significantly further than simply sending another letter requesting a Section 30 order, because it's abundantly clear by now that would only result in a firm "no" from London and a dead end.  Realistically, the minimum required for the promise to have been kept will be the tabling of referendum legislation in the absence of a Section 30.

If you read carefully, the promise does not, strictly speaking, require a referendum to have been actually held by 31st December 2023, but from Ms Sturgeon's other comments it's clear that the only reason envisaged for delay beyond 2023 would be the continuation of the pandemic.  So if normal life has more or less resumed by 2023 but no referendum occurs by the end of that year, it'll also be reasonable to conclude the promise has been broken.

If words and promises were enough to get the job done, we'd all be able to relax on the basis of what Ms Sturgeon has now said.  But unfortunately, there have been very similar promises made in the past about the dates by which action would be taken, and those were not honoured.  Even after we were marched back down from the top of the hill in the wake of - ironically - the SNP's landslide victory in the 2017 general election, we were still being told that there would be a referendum once the terms of Brexit became clear, but before Brexit actually occurred.  That simply did not materialise, and no, Covid is not an alibi for that.  Brexit Day was at the end of January 2020, and the threat of Covid was not being taken seriously in this country until late February 2020.

I totally understand the desire to give Ms Sturgeon the benefit of the doubt and assume she means what she says, because I fully shared that desire myself in 2017.  There are still hardcore Wings devotees who excoriate me for my supposed "naivety" back then, but I would strongly argue that it was rational to cut the SNP leadership a little slack at that point.  Less than three years had passed since the first indyref and there was not yet any track record of broken promises.  It would have been wildly premature to assume bad faith - but it's certainly not premature now.

Some people retrospectively justify the lack of a referendum before Brexit by saying "it would have been suicidal to hold one" - well, I'm sorry, but that's just nonsense. The results of referendums are decided during referendum campaigns, not before, and the idea that Yes in the mid-to-high 40s was not a good enough starting position to make victory a possibility is just so ludicrous as to be, frankly, not even worthy of serious consideration.  In any case, there were no conditions attached to the promise of a pre-Brexit referendum.

So I really urge people who have remained loyal to the SNP leadership to make this latest promise your line in the sand.  Believe it to be genuine, by all means, but if it turns out not to be, admit to yourself what has happened.  Don't pretend to yourself that the promise was never really made or that it somehow didn't really count, or that the next promise to hold a referendum in 2030 or 2035 or whenever is somehow the 'real' promise.

This is it.  A referendum by the end of 2023, and certainly the start of a referendum process by the end of next year - or it'll be time for the current SNP leadership to make way for people who are actually serious about independence.