Friday, April 8, 2022

Question about the local election voting system: "Should I rank all (or most) of the candidates?" Answer: YES, especially if you want to stop the Tories

In the wake of my April Fool (which alarmingly about 10-20% of people took seriously, even though I thought I had made it self-evidently absurd), I was planning to write a genuine guide to how the Single Transferable Vote system for the local council election works.  That's been slightly overtaken by the insanity of certain leaflets that have been dropping through people's doors recently, but there is one specific question that several people have asked me and that I feel I should respond to. In a nutshell, it's...

"I know I should rank all of the pro-independence candidates in my ward, but should I rank all (or most) of the other candidates as well?"

The answer is yes, and I'll explain why.  Suppose I lived in a ward which returns three councillors.  Suppose also that the SNP were putting up two candidates (a typical number in a three-seat ward where the SNP are strong), Labour were putting up one, Alba one, the Greens one, the Tories one, the Liberal Democrats one, and there was also one inoffensive independent candidate with no apparent stance on the constitutional question.  I would probably rank the candidates as follows -

1) Alba
2) SNP
3) SNP 
4) Green
5) Inoffensive Independent
6) Liberal Democrats
7) Labour
8) Conservatives

Most of those decisions are no-brainers.  I have the SNP ahead of the Greens because, at least on paper, independence is the SNP's number one objective, whereas for the Greens it's a somewhat lower priority.  The inoffensive independent is ranked below all of the pro-independence candidates, but ahead of all the unionist candidates, on the logic that a non-unionist is usually preferable to a unionist.  The Tories are ranked last because they're obviously the most objectionable party in all sorts of ways, and more specifically because it's important to reject their "muscular unionism" as emphatically as possible.  The only real dilemma is whether to have Labour ahead of the Lib Dems or vice versa, but I've given the Lib Dems the nod on the theory that Labour poses the greatest medium-term threat to the hegemony of pro-independence parties in Scottish politics.  It's worth giving Labour a ranking to help bury the Tories, but I'm inclined to think every other party apart from the Tories should be ranked ahead of Labour.

So why isn't ranking the pro-indy candidates enough to properly reject the Tories? Well, it might be, but only if you strike it lucky.  In my hypothetical example above, let's imagine that Alba are eliminated early on - which means that my vote will transfer to whichever SNP candidate I ranked highest. Then let's imagine that the two SNP candidates reach the quota and are duly elected.  That means there is one remaining seat to be filled, and it can only be filled by a non-SNP and non-Alba candidate.  Any surplus votes from the two SNP candidates (ie. the number of votes they exceeded the quota by) will be transferred to other candidates and will help to determine the winner of the final seat.  The upshot is that a portion of my vote will be transferred - but only if I gave a ranking to one of the candidates still in contention.  So if I only ranked pro-indy candidates, I'm banking everything on the Greens doing well enough to have a chance of the final seat.  If the Greens are eliminated, I've effectively abstained on the question of who I want to be the third and final councillor from the ward.

Maybe I'll be fortunate and the final count will come down to a straight fight between the Greens and the Tories.  A portion of my vote will transfer to the Greens, and I'll have done everything I conceivably could to freeze the Tories out.  But really it's up to other voters to decide whether the Greens are in with a shout.  If instead the final count is a straight fight between Labour and Tory, a portion of my vote will only transfer if I gave a ranking to Labour - and if I haven't done that, I've sat on my hands and thus could effectively have helped the Tories win the last seat. 

This is what is so bonkers about the leaflet and letter the SNP have just sent out.  There's no joined-up thinking at all.  The content of the letter makes clear that the priority of the SNP's campaign is not independence, but instead to "send a message to the Tories".  And yet it then goes on to recommend an electoral strategy (only ranking the SNP candidates and abstaining on all other rankings) that is tailor-made to help Tory candidates get elected.  That is not an exaggeration at all.  The SNP have huge influence over where the lower preferences of pro-independence voters go - either they'll help elect pro-indy councillors and non-Tory councillors, or they'll go nowhere and be wasted.  At present, the SNP are urging the latter.  If you think you can make any sense of that whatsoever, you're...well, you're probably drunk.

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To catch up with my Scot Goes Popcast interview with Alba candidate Lisa Keogh, please click HERE (video version) or HERE (audio only).

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Urgent message for SNP members and supporters: Please contact party HQ and your local representatives to ask them to sort this out. It's genuinely vital for the cause of independence.

Now, let me deal at the very outset of this blogpost with the objection a cynic may raise, ie. "Kelly's only saying this because he's on the Alba NEC these days". You can categorically be assured that I would be saying exactly the same thing if I was still a member of the SNP.  And here's the proof: during the campaign for the 2017 local elections, when I was still very much inside the SNP, The National asked me to write a lengthy guide to how the voting system works and how independence supporters would be best advised to use their votes.  I was absolutely crystal-clear in my piece that Yessers should rank ALL pro-indy candidates in their ward, regardless of party.  For the majority of people that would have meant using the top rankings for SNP candidates, and then using the next highest ranking for the Greens if there was a Green candidate in their ward.

I gave that advice in the full knowledge that it contradicted the advice that SNP HQ was quietly giving to doorstep campaigners, which we heard anecdotally was that voters should be urged just to rank SNP candidates and nobody else.  I had no qualms at all about advocating the opposite of what my own party wanted, because it was an absolutely open-and-shut case - it was beyond all dispute that what the SNP were saying was stupid, counter-productive, destructive and electorally illiterate.  Their message could only have been devised by people who didn't understand how the STV voting system worked - or perhaps more accurately didn't want to understand how it worked.  I never had any problem with the SNP being a bit tribal when the logic of a given electoral system supported that - for example, "both votes SNP" was a perfectly defensible message for the Holyrood voting system, because under AMS, voting for different parties on the two ballots can have perverse results.  But the STV system used for the local elections is totally different from that: there is literally NO DOWNSIDE to ranking as many of the candidates and parties as you feel able to.  By using your lower preferences on other parties, you literally CANNOT HARM your first choice party in any way, because those lower preferences will NOT EVEN BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT unless your first choice candidate is either elected or eliminated.  And if SNP strategists really don't understand that, they need to be politely but firmly told to sit down and shut up by the people who do understand it.

At least in 2017 the SNP were only peddling their naive strategic advice on the quiet - anecdotally, it appeared that they were only doing it if a voter specifically raised the issue of giving lower preferences to other parties.  But we've learned today that the SNP have been sending out actual LEAFLETS to voters instructing them to "ask friends and family to ONLY vote SNP 1, SNP 2 and for no other party". Whether this is a localised or national message isn't as yet clear, but either way it is breathtakingly idiotic.  What they are effectively saying to people is "please urge your friends and family to ABSTAIN on whether they want pro-independence councillors or unionist councillors"

As explained above, the lower preferences of SNP voters will not be taken into account unless all SNP candidates have been either elected or eliminated.  So if that's what happens, if for example the final seat on the ward comes down to a straight fight between Labour and the Greens, by telling people only to rank the SNP, it means anyone who follows that advice will be sitting out the final choice between anti-indy Labour and pro-indy Green.  By contrast, if the SNP told their supporters to rank all pro-indy candidates, there would be lots more votes for the Greens on the all-important final count, and Labour would be more likely to be defeated.  It's not rocket science - but incredibly the SNP are instructing their supporters to go out and to actively harm the cause of independence.

What is most disgraceful about this is that the leaflets contain an implicit lie.  Because most people don't know how the STV counting system works, they would probably infer from advice to only vote for SNP candidates that using lower preferences on other parties can somehow 'dilute' the impact of higher preferences for the SNP.  That is the polar opposite of the truth, and the SNP should be ashamed of misleading people in that way.

This stuff really matters.  Around one-third of wards in Scotland will have an Alba candidate in May.  I don't know how many candidates the Greens are putting up but it will undoubtedly be a substantial number.  I know some SNP supporters believe Alba are an irrelevance and that it doesn't matter if they rank Alba or not - I firmly believe they're wrong about that, but one thing they cannot seriously dispute is that the Greens have a chance of getting a substantial haul of councillors elected if they receive enough transfers from SNP voters.  How can the SNP justify telling people to abstain on the question of whether their own pro-independence coalition partners should be preferred to unionist parties like the Tories? It makes no sense whatever.

It's no secret that I've been urging Alba supporters who don't want to give second or third preferences to the SNP to change their minds.  Rest assured that I'll continue to do that, but please: we need some sanity on the other side of the fence too.  All pro-indy parties should be encouraging their voters to rank all pro-indy candidates, and at the very least they should not be instructing their voters to do the complete opposite of that.  If you're an SNP member, please get in touch with your party and urge them to reverse this catastrophic strategic blunder before we all needlessly wake up to newly-elected anti-independence Tory and Labour councillors in May.

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UPDATE: Thanks to a reader for getting in touch and clarifying that there are 239 Green candidates - meaning the Greens are standing in the majority of wards.  I don't think they're going to be very happy with their coalition partners, because they stand to suffer the most from what the SNP are doing.  Only the unionist parties will benefit.

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To catch up with my Scot Goes Popcast interview with Alba candidate Lisa Keogh, please click HERE (video version) or HERE (audio only).

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Alba AHA! New Survation poll reveals Alex Salmond's upstart new pro-independence party is continuing to make headway

So the answer to the question "James, why haven't you covered yesterday's Survation poll yet?" is, of course, that I didn't actually notice there was a Survation poll yesterday. Polls have been so thin on the ground recently that I keep forgetting to check for them, so if anyone could devise some sort of alarm system for me, that would be splendid.  Anyway, this is an interesting one because it contains independence, Westminster, Holyrood, AND local election voting intention numbers - which to the best of my knowledge makes it only the second poll to specifically ask for voting intentions for the 2022 local elections (the previous one was the Panelbase poll I commissioned myself in the autumn).

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Survation, 24th-28th March 2022)

Yes 47% (-1)
No 53% (+1)

The percentage changes are measured from the most recent Survation poll, which was conducted way back at the time of the Holyrood election last spring.  The movement towards No is statistically insignificant, and while we might normally regard a 47/53 split as mildly disappointing, I think in the difficult context of the Ukraine war we just have to be happy that the Yes vote is holding up.  We'll get a better sense of where we stand when the war ends - which will hopefully be very, very soon for the sake of the people suffering on the ground.

While I'm on the subject, I should mention that there's also been another poll on independence with even more recent fieldwork, conducted by YouGov on behalf of the deeply eccentric anti-independence propaganda outfit "These Islands".  Bearing in mind that YouGov's results tend to be on the No-friendly end of the spectrum, it confirms the impression that nothing much has changed.

Should Scotland be an independent country?  (YouGov, 29th-31st March 2022)

Yes 47% (-)
No 53% (-)

Now let's move on to the Holyrood numbers from the Survation poll - and because this is the first Scottish poll conducted by Survation since last May's election, there are no percentage changes for this one.

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot voting intentions (Survation):

SNP 46%
Labour 25%
Conservatives 20%
Liberal Democrats 7%

Scottish Parliament regional list voting intentions (Survation):

SNP 34%
Labour 23%
Conservatives 19%
Greens 11%
Liberal Democrats 8%
Alba 2%

That's the fourth poll in a row, across all firms, to have Alba on 2%, which is a marked improvement on the situation towards the end of last year when most polls were showing Alba on 1% or zero (although admittedly there were two Panelbase polls that didn't even offer Alba as an option).  So the hopes from certain quarters that Alba might be in the process of completely fizzling out appear to have been based on wishful thinking.  The SNP's low-ish 34% showing on the list, which is similar to what ComRes have been reporting recently, will perhaps raise a few eyebrows, but as I always say, the list results from both Survation and ComRes have to be taken with a pinch of salt because of the way the question is worded.  What probably is more significant is the comparatively good showing for Labour on both ballots.  If Labour do start to emerge as the main anti-independence challenger to the SNP, that may not be entirely optimal for the independence movement, because we'd probably prefer to frame the choice as being straightforwardly between Tory rule and independence.

Scottish voting intentions for next Westminster general election (Survation):

SNP 45% (-3)
Labour 27% (+7)
Conservatives 19% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)

Again, Labour's figure is a cause for concern here - it's higher than they managed in their mini-comeback year of 2017.  On a more positive note, the Tories on this showing would be heading for calamity.

Local elections first preference voting intentions (Survation):

SNP 44%
Labour 23%
Conservatives 18%
Liberal Democrats 6%
Greens 3%
Alba 1%
Independent Candidates 1%

I must say I feel slightly vindicated by this, because the local election results from the Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll were criticised at the time on the basis that the SNP were clearly being overestimated, and that "if only there had been a generic independent candidate option", the supposed flaw in the poll would have been easily solved.  The Survation poll demonstrates that's a load of nonsense, because even with a generic independent option added, you still get an unrealistically low figure for the independents, and an unrealistically high figure for the SNP.  The reality is that unless a poll somehow lists the actual names of independent candidates standing in the individual respondent's ward, it will never accurately capture the support for non-party candidates.

The format of the Survation poll is different from the Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, because instead of asking respondents which parties they'll give any sort of ranking to, it asks specifically for second preference and third preference votes. But the good news for Alba supporters is that the combined 7% of respondents who plan to give Alba one of their top three preferences is higher than the 6% in the Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll who planned to give Alba any ranking at all.

Percentages of respondents who will give one of their top three rankings to each party:

SNP 56%
Labour 52%
Greens 37%
Liberal Democrats 31%
Conservatives 27%
Alba 7%
Independent Candidates 7%

I'm not sure this question format is ideal, though, because I doubt if most respondents were bearing in mind that in some wards it's possible to give your top two or even your top three preferences to candidates from the same party.

There's also a supplementary question that purports to find massive public support for proportional representation...

Proportional Representation is the collective name given to electoral systems which ensure that the proportion of seats a party receives in Parliament closely reflects the proportion of votes they received from voters. To what extent do you support or oppose such a system for elections to the UK Parliament?


I suppose we supporters of proportional representation can draw some technical satisfaction from the fact that a particularly favourable question wording can produce a good outcome, but I'm not sure what it proves in the real world.  If there was ever a referendum on switching to PR for Westminster, we all know the choice would instead be framed in terms of the importance of "decisive outcomes" and of maintaining the constituency link, and also the supposed danger of a small party (rather than the voters) deciding who to "put into government".

Final thought: I'm bemused by commentary on this poll that breathlessly refers to approval for "the SNP-Green cooperation government".  As Orwellian language goes, that's right up there with "special military operation".  Let's call a spade a spade: what we have is an SNP-Green coalition government, within which the junior coalition partner has negotiated some special exemptions (very similar in principle, incidentally, to the special exemption the Liberal Democrats negotiated for themselves in the 2010 Westminster coalition with the Tories).

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To catch up with the my Scot Goes Popcast interview with Alba candidate Lisa Keogh, please click HERE (video version) or HERE (audio only).