Saturday, May 7, 2022

Analysis of local election results

Just a quick note to let you know that I have an analysis piece in today's edition of The National about the local election results and what they tell us about the future of Scottish politics.  You can read it HERE.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Why you should give a ranking to all (or almost all) of the candidates in today's election: text version

A couple of people have asked me to post a transcript of my podcast from yesterday about how the voting system for today's election works, and why it's so important to give a ranking to all or almost all of the candidates (and certainly to use your top rankings on all of the pro-independence candidates in your ward).  Now of course normally I wouldn't want to divert people away from the delights of my dulcet tones (the audio version can be found HERE, by the way), but given the level of confusion about the voting system, it might not be a bad idea on this occasion.  Voila...

Hello again, welcome to the Scot Goes Popcast, my name's James Kelly, and in this latest episode I'm going to be attempting to explain the voting system for the Scottish local elections that are taking place this week, and I'll try to give you an idea of the best voting strategy to use if you're an independence supporter, as most people listening to this will be. What you need to know from the start is that this voting system is totally and completely different from the system that was used to elect the Scottish Parliament one year ago, so if you successfully got your head around the Scottish Parliament voting system, well done, but sadly that's not at all relevant to this week's election. Our local councillors are elected by STV, which stands for the Single Transferable Vote, and it's actually an extremely rare system in international terms. For national parliamentary elections, it's only really used in two countries - Ireland and Malta, although you could make a case for three if you count the fact that the upper house in Australia is elected by a diluted version of STV. 

It's known for being a relatively simple system from a voter's point of view, but a fiendishly complicated system when you get into the counting stage. In Irish elections, the counts go on for an absolute eternity, and journalists from other countries are generally baffled about what is going on, what all the terminology like "quotas" and "surplus votes" refer to, and most of all why the same votes need to be counted so many times. But the million dollar question really is this: as long as the process of casting a vote is relatively simple and easy to understand, does it actually matter that the way the votes are counted is so complex? Well, in a way it does matter, because as a voter you'd need to know how your vote is going to be counted before you can really know how best to use it. 

In STV, you use numbers to vote rather than a cross, and you rank the candidates in order of preference using the number '1' for your top preference, '2' for your second preference, '3' for your third preference, and so on. However, there's no rule that says you have to rank all of the candidates. Instead, you can rank as many or as few candidates as you wish. And that is the crux of the dilemma for voters who don't understand how their votes will be counted - they don't know whether it's best to rank all of the candidates, or whether there's somehow an advantage to being very selective and only ranking maybe two or three candidates. Well, I can answer that question very simply. If you want to use your vote properly, and if you want to make very sure that you don't unwittingly help candidates that you don't like, you should rank ALL or ALMOST ALL of the candidates on the ballot paper. That is the way to do it, and if you're prepared to take my word for that, we don't need to go any further and you can stop listening now. However, the snag is that there are a lot of siren voices out there giving the completely opposite advice, and they also want you to just take THEIR word for it. There was the notorious letter that the SNP sent out to their members and former members a few weeks ago, that idiotically told people to rank the SNP and no other party. That advice was stupid, it was electorally illiterate, it was counter-productive, and from the point of view of the cause of independence it was destructive. So I want to take some time to explain why it's so important to rank as many parties and as many candidates as you can bring yourself to do. 

The clue, actually, is in the name of the system. Single Transferable Vote. That's a very literal name, so you just have to think about the meaning of those words. Single: that means you have a single vote, rather than multiple votes. Transferable: that means your vote CAN be transferred from one candidate to another, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it WILL be transferred. So what is your single vote? Well, in the first instance it's your first preference vote. Whoever you give your first preference to is the candidate you are giving your single vote to. In many cases that's the end of the process, and your lower preferences will not even be taken into account. I know that'll be a stunning revelation for many people who probably imagine that by putting numbers against the names of multiple candidates, they must be giving votes to all of those people. They probably think that there's some sort of elaborate points system going on, like the scoring system in the Eurovision Song Contest, and that's why they wrongly get the impression that there's some terrible danger to using their lower preferences, and they imagine that it can somehow backfire and dilute the effect of their top preferences. No. Categorically no. It doesn't work like that at all, and that's the first and most fundamental thing you need to understand. As far as the counting system is concerned, you just have that one single vote for one candidate, and that's your first preference vote. The only way that can change is if your vote is transferred from one candidate to another, and that will only happen in one of two specific circumstances. 

Now, again, this is where some people will panic and they'll start thinking "Oh my God, I've got to make sure my vote ISN'T transferred, I don't want to unwittingly end up voting for the wrong candidate". But if you are thinking like that, you need to get into a totally different mindset, because believe me, you should WANT your vote to be transferred. I'll say that again: having your vote transferred is something you should want to happen. If you reach one of the two circumstances in which your vote CAN be transferred, you want to make very sure that your vote IS transferred, because if it's not, your vote will either be totally wasted and count for nothing at all, or else it won't count for as much as it could have done. And the only way to make sure that your vote is transferred is to rank all of the candidates, or almost all of them. 

So what are these two circumstances in which your vote can be transferred? The first is if the candidate you gave your top preference to is eliminated altogether because they didn't receive enough votes. If that happens, your vote will be transferred to the candidate you gave your next highest preference to. But if you didn't actually give a next highest preference, or if you only gave preferences to other candidates who have already been eliminated as well, your vote will be declared 'non-transferable'. In other words it'll be completely wasted and you'll be sitting out the remainder of the process. So you need to make sure that doesn't happen by using all or almost all of your preferences. 

The second circumstance in which your vote can be transferred is harder to understand because it's less intuitive. It doesn't happen when you've voted for a candidate who has too few votes, but instead when you've voted for a candidate who has too many votes. This is the concept of 'surplus votes', meaning votes that a successful candidate doesn't actually need and that can therefore be transferred. In each election in each ward, there will be an exact quota of votes that a candidate needs to hit in order to be declared elected, and that quota will be different in each ward. It depends on the total number of votes cast, and the number of councillors that are being elected in the ward. As an example, let's look at the Giffnock and Thornliebank ward in East Renfrewshire in the 2017 local elections. There were three councillors to be elected in that ward. You add one to that number of councillors, which gives you four, and you then divide the total number of votes cast by four to calculate the quota. There were 7595 votes cast, so that was divided by four, meaning the quota for a councillor to be elected in Giffnock and Thornliebank was exactly 1899 votes. 

But of course in the real world, it's very unlikely that any candidate is going to end up with precisely 1899 votes. In 2017, the first person to be elected in Giffnock and Thornliebank was an SNP candidate who had reached 1990 votes after the four least popular candidates were eliminated. That meant he was over the quota by 91 votes - and those were surplus votes that could then be transferred. Once again, if you voted for the successful SNP candidate, you actively WANT your vote to be transferred in that situation, because what it's doing is giving you a second bite of the cherry, and it's not doing your favourite candidate any harm at all - he's already been safely elected. 

So here's a hypothetical scenario. Imagine that after an SNP candidate you've voted for with your first preference is elected, the next seat in the ward comes down to a straight battle between the Tories and the Greens. If you haven't bothered ranking the Green candidate, you'll be sitting that battle out, because your vote will not be transferred as a surplus vote to the Greens. You'll effectively be abstaining and thus indirectly helping the Tories to win a seat. 

There are many analogies that can be used to help get across how preferential voting works. Suppose you're ordering dinner from a very limited menu - you can have haddock, beef or chicken. So you order haddock, but then they tell you that there might not actually be haddock available. They ask you whether you want to give them a second preference just in case, or whether you want your fellow customers to decide for you what you'll be having for dinner if there isn't any haddock. But if you let the other customers choose, and you then end up with beef when you would actually have preferred chicken, there's no point complaining about it, because you had your chance to indicate a preference. That's effectively what's happening if you don't use your lower preferences in the local elections. It doesn't in any way increase your chances of getting your first choice candidate elected, but it does mean your fellow voters will be making the decision for you if your first choice falls short, or if it turns out that your first choice doesn't actually need your vote because he or she already has so many votes. 

As independence supporters, the last thing we want to do is let other voters make the decision for us, because lots of those other voters will be unionists, and you can guarantee that THEY'LL be using the voting system smartly by ranking lots of candidates. At the very least, we should be using our top rankings to rank ALL of the pro-independence candidates in our ward. As you probably know, I'm an Alba member, so if there was an Alba candidate in my ward I'd be voting Alba with my first preference. My next highest preferences would go to the SNP candidates, and then I would rank the Greens. If there were any non-unionist independent candidates standing, I would probably rank them next, on the logic that non-unionists are generally preferable to unionists. And then lastly, I would give my lowest preferences to the unionist parties. The reason for using those lowest preferences is that I'm not neutral on who the worst unionist party is: it's the Tories, and if you want to bury the Tories you have to ensure that you've ranked every single other candidate ahead of them, including Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates. However, before you give a ranking to Labour and the Lib Dems, just doublecheck your ballot paper to be very sure you've already given higher rankings to all of the pro-independence and non-unionist candidates. 

Which is a slightly long-winded way of saying: on Thursday, vote until you boak. And that was Episode 16 of the Scot Goes Popcast, my name's James Kelly, and until next time, bye for now.

Support for independence surges by 2% in eve-of-election ComRes poll - with more signs of a potential breakthrough for the Alba Party

As you may have seen, the very last day of campaigning for the local elections brought word of the first Scottish poll for just over a month, and on the independence question the results were pretty encouraging - perhaps surprisingly so.

Should Scotland be an independent country?  (Savanta ComRes / Scotsman, 26th April - 3rd May 2022)

Yes 49% (+2)
No 51% (-2)

Although Yes miss out on the bragging rights for getting to 50% or higher, that's a solid result from a firm that has tended to be on the No-friendly end of the spectrum in recent times.  It's also, of course, a statistical tie - meaning that it's impossible to tell for sure which side is in the lead, due to the standard margin of error.

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 46% (-)
Labour 25% (+1)
Conservatives 18% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 31% (-3)
Labour 23% (+1)
Conservatives 18% (-2)
Greens 14% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 10% (+2)
Alba 3% (+1)

There don't appear to be any specific local election voting intentions in the poll, so instead we're left trying to glean indirect clues about what might happen today from the Holyrood numbers.  However, I would guess that a local election question would have produced fairly similar results to the Holyrood constituency numbers anyway - and that would have almost certainly misled us by overestimating the SNP, who are unlikely to get close to 46% in the first preference vote.  Based on past precedents, I'm sure they would be more than happy to end up somewhere in the high 30s.  Their biggest concern will be that Labour are polling a few points higher than five years ago - which opens up at least the theoretical possibility of Glasgow changing hands.  You can imagine how the unionist media would gloat about that - the coverage of it would obliterate any favourable results for the SNP elsewhere.

I suspect a certain individual who is rather precious about his "project", and who recently demonstrated himself to be stuck in the "box" (ahem) of his own partisan Green propaganda, may be a tad dismayed at Alba's fine showing in this poll. 3% in the recent BMG poll was the best result for Alba in any poll from any firm since last year's Holyrood election, and the fact that it's been replicated in the ComRes poll makes it somewhat less likely that the progress is an illusion caused by margin of error noise - however much some people might desperately want that to be the case!  If there is an Alba resurgence, I don't think there's any great mystery about how it's happened - it's just sheer hard work by a committed membership that has succeeded in boosting the party's visibility.  Bear in mind that under the STV voting system, any party will need far more than 3% of the first preference vote in any individual ward to have a realistic chance of grabbing a seat.  I'm not convinced that will be an insurmountable hurdle for Alba, though, who should have the advantage of a strong personal vote in specific wards for high-profile candidates (such as Chris McEleny).

If I can be permitted to put on my own partisan hat just for a moment, I'd like to strongly urge any of you who live in a ward with an Alba candidate to give Alba your first preference vote.  This will almost certainly be the last chance for Scotland to get serious about seeking a mandate for independence this side of the 2024 general election.  If, like me, you don't believe for one moment that the SNP leadership are sincere about holding an independence referendum next year, an Alba vote is a no-brainer.  But even if you're merely not sure whether the SNP leadership are sincere, a first preference vote for Alba is a totally risk-free insurance policy, as long as you give SNP candidates your next highest preferences.  You can fire a warning shot across the SNP's bows while still voting for the SNP to defeat the unionist parties.  That's the beauty of a preferential voting system - you really can have your cake and eat it.

To reiterate what I've said before, the best voting strategy for independence supporters today is as follows...

1) Rank all, or almost all, of the candidates in your ward.
2) Give your highest rankings to ALL of the pro-independence candidates, in your own order of preference.  (For me it would be Alba first, then the SNP's candidates, then the Greens.)
3) Give your next highest rankings to any inoffensive non-unionist independent candidates who may be standing.
4) Give your lowest rankings to the unionist parties (but first make very sure you've ranked all other candidates ahead of them).  This allows you to vote against the Tories properly by having them at absolute rock bottom, below even their unionist rivals.

For an explanation of the rationale behind this strategy (often called "vote until you boak"), you can listen to my new podcast about how the STV voting system works.

*  *  *

Britain Elects have a prediction model out which gives a central forecast for the SNP of a net loss of twelve councillors.  That's not a totally implausible outcome, but what is completely and utterly absurd is that the supposed best case scenario for the SNP is a net gain of just three councillors.  My guess is that the Britain Elects model is an Anglocentric one that only takes account of GB-wide polls - which means, as far as Scotland is concerned, it's pumping nonsense in and getting nonsense back out.  It can be safely ignored.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Explained: How the voting system for the Scottish local elections works, and the BEST voting strategy for supporters of independence to use (listen on the Scot Goes Popcast)

As promised, and just in the nick of time, I'm using Episode 16 of the Scot Goes Popcast to explain how the notoriously complicated Single Transferable Vote (STV) system works, and to set out why ranking all or almost all of the candidates in your ward is by far the best voting strategy for independence supporters tomorrow. 

I've been meaning for some time to try to explode some of the myths relating to STV that have been doing the rounds.  Here are three myths I've heard recently -

"It can be very dangerous to use your lower preferences, because you may find that you're accidentally helping to defeat the candidate you give your top preference to" - RUBBISH.  Using your lower preferences is, in fact, an entirely risk-free thing to do and cannot harm your favourite candidate in any way whatsoever.

"There is no effective way of voting against a party or candidate in this system" - RUBBISH.  If you rank every other candidate ahead of your least favourite party or candidate, you are voting against the latter comprehensively, and with great precision and effectiveness.

"Lower preferences are still votes, and nobody should be voting for unionist parties, therefore you shouldn't use your lower preferences at all" - RUBBISH.  Voters who rank all of the candidates with the Tories rock bottom are voting against the Tories properly.  Voters who don't rank unionist parties with their lowest preferences are not fully voting against the Tories, and may in some circumstances be helping the Tories to win seats.  

Hopefully I've managed to explain all of these points and more in the podcast, which you can listen to via the embedded player below, or via the direct Soundcloud link HERE, or on YouTube HERE.  The Scot Goes Popcast is also available on Stitcher and Spotify.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Predictions for the local elections

As many of you have correctly deduced, I've been held hostage by PIRATES over the last two weeks, so all my plans for local election blogging and podcasting were sent into total disarray.  However, in an act of inspiring humanity, they did give me my mobile phone back for long enough for me to pass on my predictions for the election to the Sunday National.  You can read the predictions HERE.  As you'll probably spot, there's a small error close to the top - my reply to the "what's changed for the SNP since 2017" question is attributed to "MM" rather than "JK".

I'm off the pirate ship now, so if I can recover from my ordeal in time I'm hoping to record a podcast explaining the voting system at some point before Thursday.