Friday, December 2, 2022

Frustration as SNP narrowly fail to hold off the Labour challenge in Broxburn by-election

The Broxburn by-election yesterday was always going to be a fascinating test, because the SNP had a roughly 12.5% lead over Labour in the ward at the local elections in May, and the national swing suggested by recent polling implied that there should be something close to a dead heat this time.  So a big Labour victory might have implied that the polls are underestimating the swing, while a solid SNP win could have given us hope that the Labour surge is not all it's cracked up to be.

Broxburn, Uphall and Winchburgh by-election result on first preferences (1st December 2022): 

Labour 39.8% (+10.2) 
SNP 35.2% (-6.7) 
Conservatives 7.8% (-10.0) 
Independent - Horne 6.1% (n/a) 
Liberal Democrats 3.7% (n/c) 
Independent - Laidlaw 2.8% (n/a) 
Greens 2.7% (-1.6) 
Alba 1.8% (+0.4)

In the perpetually wacky world of STV by-elections, this is technically a Labour hold, even though Labour have overtaken the SNP on a substantial swing.

So the result is broadly in line with national polls, meaning there's no particular reason for the SNP to doubt that Labour's recovery may be a very significant obstacle to the goal of obtaining 50%+ of the vote in a Westminster election used as a de facto independence referendum.  Although the SNP-to-Labour swing will likely show up in polls for every type of election, including Holyrood elections, the point is that in a Holyrood campaign the SNP would have the means to counter the problem by stressing in TV leaders' debates and the like that they are seeking an outright mandate for independence, thus coaxing Labour-curious Yes voters back into the fold.  They will have no such means in a Westminster election, where they are likely to be crowded out of the TV coverage, which will focus mainly on the Tory-Labour horserace.

It's obviously of some concern that on this occasion, the SNP-to-Labour swing is not artificially generated solely by movement from Tory to Labour, with the SNP vote remaining more or less static.  The SNP vote has actually gone down.  However, I'd want to know more about the independent candidates before leaping to any conclusions - it may be that those individuals for some reason had greater appeal to SNP-inclined voters than to Labour-inclined voters.

As far as my own party (Alba) is concerned, this is effectively an identical result to the Linn by-election two weeks ago.  We've made some very modest progress, but still remain firmly stuck in the sub-2% zone.  I must admit I was quite surprised by the reaction of some senior Alba people to the Linn result - although it was far from a catastrophe, it seemed obvious to me that it fell short of what was being sought, and I thought that might be acknowledged.  Instead the verdict seemed to be that it was a decent enough result.  That implies that we're effectively settling for remaining in the 1-2% zone for the foreseeable future.  The combined results from both by-elections certainly put the kybosh on the narrative doing the rounds a few months ago that Alba somehow already had the level of support that would win us list seats in a Holyrood election.  In truth, if there was a Holyrood election right now, the result would almost certainly be the same as eighteen months ago - we'd take approximately 2% of the list vote and zero seats.

To be clear, we absolutely can turn things around and win list seats in 2026 - it's perfectly possible for a party to grow its vote from 2% to the required 5-6% over the course of three-and-a-half years.  But that will entail being honest with ourselves that we need a broader coalition of support, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and telling ourselves that the coalition is already there but is somehow being cunningly concealed by the minutiae of preferential voting (no, there is no reason to think somebody giving a low preference to Alba in a local election is a potential Alba list voter).  To reiterate my prescription from after the Linn result: we need to stop pandering to ethnonationalists within the party who want to restrict the voting rights of English people living in Scotland, we need to tone down the near-homicidal rage directed against Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, we need to put a stop to the dark hints that we might try to sabotage a plebiscite election conducted under first-past-the-post by standing directly against the SNP, and we should instead concentrate on our positive pitch for much more urgency on independence.  

I know some might say that the above steps would in the first instance be noticed more by committed independence supporters than by the wider public.  But I don't think it can be underestimated how much we're limiting our own appeal to committed independence supporters by not appearing to be part of the pro-indy mainstream.  If we can claim a much firmer foothold among the independence movement, wider public support might follow before too long.

(Before anyone asks, the reason I think Alba could reasonably have been expected to do better in these two by-elections is that smaller parties can compete on a much more level playing-field when they're concentrating on a single locality and can bring in activists from across the country.  I know the response will be "but the SNP did the same thing", but the point is that the SNP as a larger party are not stretched so thin in national elections, so there's no equivalent disadvantage for them to overcome.  My guess is that Alba would have been privately hoping for 4-5%+ in both Linn and Broxburn.)

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Thursday, December 1, 2022

WINGS-WATCH: Thousands mystified as blogger claims Yes vote has been flatlining on 52% for the last three years, only a week after he claimed it has been flatlining on 47% for the last six years

Even Agatha Christie would struggle to come up with a plausible-sounding resolution for this mystery.  It's only one week since Stuart Campbell informed his readers that support for independence has remained absolutely static on 47% since 2016, and even supplied a Lib Dem-style chart to 'prove' his point.  Today he's posted about the new Redfield & Wilton poll showing Yes on 52%, which you'd think he'd be compelled to say is indicative of a rather sudden and marvellous 5-point jump after all these years of supposed "flatlining".  But nope, the story is now that Yes has been absolutely static at 52% since February 2020, just under three years ago.  It's almost like the laws of physics work differently over at Wings - no matter how much the Yes vote may go up or down, it's somehow still flatlining.  Actually, it's a kind of retconning - whatever the Yes vote is today, that's what it's always been.  Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, Yes has always been on 52%.

Of course the explanation is simple enough - Mr Campbell is treating his readers as mugs who have the attention-span of goldfish.  But let's take a moment to put this new poll in a more appropriate perspective.  Somewhat ironically, in order to make his bogus point today, Mr Campbell had to give Scot Goes Pop an indirect plug, because the February 2020 poll he's using as his baseline was in fact a Panelbase poll commissioned by yours truly.  I remember it well, because on the Friday before publication I was told by Panelbase that the Yes vote would most likely be 49%.  This was a major disappointment for me, because my hope had been to demonstrate that the December 2019 general election (which made Brexit inevitable but also produced an SNP landslide) had pushed Yes into the lead.  So I spent the weekend trying to work out how to put a brave face on 49% - only to be told on the Monday that the preliminary figures had been wrong and it was actually 52%.  Suddenly it was front page material for The National after all.

But the fact that it was Panelbase I commissioned is the first clue as to where Mr Campbell is misleading people. Panelbase and Redfield & Wilton are different firms with different methodologies, and you can't directly compare a poll from one with a poll from the other.  I'd be all over any mainstream media outlet that attempted a stunt like that, so there's no reason why Mr Campbell should be held to a lesser standard. This in fact appears to be only the third Scottish independence poll Redfield & Wilton have ever conducted.  The previous two were both in the second half of 2021, and both showed Yes on 48% and No on 52%.  So by that measure, 52% for Yes represents substantial progress.

Across all firms, this is the twenty-second independence poll to be conducted since the start of 2022.  It's produced a higher Yes vote than all but two of the previous twenty-one - and those two exceptions were Ipsos-Mori polls which used a non-standard question.  So although it's not possible to make direct comparisons between polls conducted by different firms, this pattern could potentially suggest that Yes support is currently higher than it has been at any previous point during the year, with by far the most likely explanation being the Supreme Court's ruling that Scotland is a prisoner in an involuntary union.

Furthermore, 52% is significantly higher than the polling average for Yes in all but one calendar year in the past.  It's much higher, for example, than the average of 45.3% in 2017 or the average of 45.5% in 2018.  The only year in which the average was slightly higher than 52% (indeed the only year in which it's been higher than 50%) was the 53% recorded in 2020.

So whichever way you cut it, 52% is an unusually high Yes vote.  That doesn't mean, of course, that the vote will necessarily hold up at that high level, but it does mean that anyone who looks at 52% and shouts "flatlining!" is not being intellectually honest.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Westminster trembles as pro-independence campaign storms into poll lead - BUT DON'T WORRY, THIS IS PROBABLY ILLEGAL OR SOMETHING

We've been in the 'fog of war' stage since the Supreme Court ruling.  On the one hand there was the Find Out Now poll suggesting that public opinion had been riled up by the discovery that the UK is not a voluntary union and that Scotland is being held prisoner.  On the other hand, that poll used very unconventional wording, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been claiming that they've actually found on the doorsteps that the de facto referendum plan is not going down well.  (In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn't they?)  So the impact of the ruling has been far from clear, and I wouldn't have been surprised if the first conventional poll had shown either a big drop in the Yes vote, or a big increase.  Here's the very good news: it's the latter.

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Redfield & Wilton Strategies, 26th-27th November 2022)

Yes 52% (+4) 
No 48% (-4)

So it turns out that people don't like being told that they can't have what they vote for in an alleged democracy, or that they can't even vote at all.  Who'd have thunk it?

An even more dramatic example of that effect - which unionists perhaps should have seen coming due to what we know about basic human psychology - is that there is now a plurality in favour of holding an independence referendum within the next year, which represents a massive turnaround since the last time the question was asked.  Tell people they're not allowed to have something, and they'll start wanting it.

In favour of an independence referendum within the next year: 46% (+12)
Opposed to an independence referendum within the next year: 43% (-7)

I can't ever remember any previous poll from any firm showing such clear support for a second indyref within such a tight timescale - usually the public's reaction is 'yes to the principle of a referendum, but not just yet'.  So this is a very significant shift, and it'll be interesting to see if it holds up.

So far, it may look like Nicola Sturgeon's strategy is working brilliantly - the Supreme Court ruling seems to have substantially increased support for both independence itself and for a quick independence referendum.  There is, however, a fly in the ointment.  The poll shows that pro-independence parties are actually going backwards in Ms Sturgeon's preferred arena for obtaining an independence mandate, namely the next Westminster election.

Scottish voting intentions for the next UK general election:

SNP 41% (-4) 
Labour 31% (+12) 
Conservatives 16% (-9) 
Liberal Democrats 8% (-2) 
Greens 2% (+1) 
Reform UK 2% (+2)

Even with the SNP and Greens in combination, that's only 43% for pro-indy parties, at a time when there's actually 52% support for indy.  Let me take this opportunity yet again to appeal to the SNP leadership and their loyalists to think again, and to see the overwhelming sense of using an early Holyrood election as a de facto referendum instead.  There is absolutely no point in a strategy that successfully builds support for independence if that support simply won't translate to the election you've decided to use as a plebiscite.  What's clearly going wrong here is that the SNP are losing pro-independence votes to Labour at Westminster, because people can see that Labour are on the brink of power and (wrongly) think that voting Labour is the best way to finish off the Tories.  That problem isn't going to go away, unless Labour's mammoth GB-wide poll lead collapses over the next two years.  But it's a problem that wouldn't apply in a Holyrood election - even if polls show a swing from SNP to Labour at Holyrood as well, it would be much easier to reverse that swing over the course of a 'home fixture' campaign that is not totally dominated by Britain-wide issues, and by Britain-wide TV leaders' debates that might exclude Ms Sturgeon altogether.

And to reiterate the other considerable disadvantages of using a Westminster election: 16 and 17 year olds can't vote (most of them would likely be Yes), EU citizens can't vote (most of them would likely be Yes), and photo ID rules would disproportionately disenfranchise younger voters (who are more likely to be Yes).

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

More polling evidence that Europe could be Keir Starmer's Achilles Heel when facing the SNP in a general election functioning as a de facto independence referendum

My ears pricked up a couple of nights ago when I heard there was a new YouGov poll of GB-wide voting intentions out, because YouGov appear to structure and weight their Scottish subsamples correctly, and I thought it might be the first proper straw in the wind (leaving aside the Find Out Now poll) about how the fallout from the Supreme Court's ruling is affecting Scottish voting intentions.  Frustratingly, though, it turned out that the fieldwork was conducted on 22nd and 23rd of November, which almost certainly means the bulk of responses were taken before anyone knew about the legal bombshell that the UK is not a voluntary union.  However, the results are still of some interest -

Scottish subsample (YouGov, 22nd-23rd November 2022):  SNP 42%, Labour 32%, Conservatives 16%, Greens 4%, Reform UK 4%, Liberal Democrats 2%

Obviously a 10-point gap between SNP and Labour is a lot narrower than we'd feel comfortable with.  However, it can be regarded as not too bad in the context of an ongoing mammoth Britain-wide lead for Labour - a party that of course tended to do better in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain until very, very recently.  It leaves open the possibility that the SNP lead might grow again if Labour start to slip back down south.  And with a combined SNP / Green vote of 46%, a pro-indy majority in the popular vote at a plebiscite election remains within touching distance - although nobody should be under any illusions about what a tall order that will be in the 'away fixture' of a Westminster vote.  (To repeat the obvious yet again, the SNP really should be looking at an early Holyrood election instead.)

I gather Kezia Dugdale has a column in The Times arguing that Keir Starmer is a "major threat to a reanimated Yes campaign", which has "a Labour problem".  Well, a supplementary question from the YouGov poll points to the case for the defence, because it identifies one very obvious reason for suspecting Keir Starmer has both a "Yes problem" and a "Europe problem".  Respondents were asked if they would support a Swiss-style deal between the UK and the EU, restoring freedom of movement, removing trade barriers, and reinstating many EU rules and regulations.  A remarkable 54% of respondents across Britain were in favour, with only 24% opposed.  Predictably the gap is even bigger among the Scottish subsample, with 56% in favour and only 18% opposed.  

Keir Starmer has in recent days made clear that he opposes freedom of movement and therefore a Swiss-style deal will be ruled out under any Labour government.  That means the SNP are much, much closer to the centre of gravity among Scottish public opinion on Europe than Labour are, which could be a secret weapon for them in marginal SNP-Labour seats at a general election used as a de facto independence referendum.  Remember that Starmer has the excuse in England that he's just upholding the 2016 referendum result - he has no such alibi in Scotland, where voters opted to remain in the EU by the huge margin of 62% to 38%.

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Monday, November 28, 2022

The SNP have to display absolute conviction that an election is a decision on independence, not on a Section 30 order, if they want Labour supporters and the BBC to react in the desired way

As I've noted a few times over recent days, the SNP leadership have clearly decided that using a Westminster election - as opposed to a snap Holyrood election - as a plebiscite vote is not even up for discussion, and have no intention of telling us the real reason why they're so determined to go down that road.  To the extent we're hearing any reasons at all, they're just 'truthy' sounding excuses that don't stand up to the remotest scrutiny.  So for the sheer hell of it, let's speculate as to what the real explanation might be.  Here are a few obvious possibilities that spring to mind...

1) They're worried that if a Holyrood plebiscite election goes catastrophically wrong, they might lose power altogether (something that can't happen in a Westminster election).  This is not a completely unfounded concern, because electorates in western countries are more volatile than a few decades ago, and if things start to go wrong in the middle of an election campaign there is the danger of the wheels coming off completely - as they did for Iain Gray in 2011, for example.  But it still doesn't make sense to give in to that worry, because the purpose of the SNP having power is to use that power to attempt to bring independence about.  It's not the function of the independence campaign or of the independence cause to keep the SNP in comfortable, risk-free power for its own sake.

2) They're worried about the symbolism of Nicola Sturgeon resigning as First Minister, as she would be required to do to trigger an early Holyrood election without a two-thirds majority vote.  If so, they're being absurdly risk-averse, because from a procedural point of view there really is nothing that can go wrong.  The SNP and Greens in combination have enough seats to prevent any alternative government from being viable.  Any unionist government that might technically take power on a minority parliamentary vote would find itself humiliated in a confidence vote within a matter of days.

3) They've decided to make a virtue out of necessity by using the clamour for a 'Plan B' to help the SNP win seats at a potentially tricky general election.  Although this would be a very cynical motivation, it's the most interesting one, because it would suggest they've war gamed it (perhaps with the help of private polling and focus groups), and come to the conclusion that the SNP would do better in a plebiscite Westminster election than in a regular Westminster election.  And ultimately anything that's in the self-interest of the SNP in a plebiscite vote is also in the interests of the independence cause.  Perhaps they think Yes-supporting Labour voters (the Cat Boyd Paradox) would be more likely to switch to the SNP if independence seemed to be genuinely on the ballot.  Maybe they reckon the BBC and other broadcasters would be more open to giving the SNP fair access to leaders' debates if the election is presented as a de facto referendum on independence.

But if that is their thinking, it further underscores what I said the other day about the absolute imperative of closing down any suggestion that the plebiscite election is just a ruse and all you're really looking for is a Section 30 order.  If you don't have absolute conviction that the election is an outright decision on independence, don't expect Labour voters or the BBC to believe it either - and if they don't believe it, they simply won't change their behaviour in the way you're banking on.  One of the most extraordinary spectacles I've ever witnessed on British television was the edition of Newsnight on the day Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the plan of using an election as a de facto referendum if the Supreme Court ruled against her.  Astoundingly, it never even occurred to Kirsty Wark to pose the question of whether the UK Government would respect a mandate for independence at a plebiscite election and would then agree to negotiate an independence settlement.  Instead, she just took it as read that the plebiscite plan was nothing more than yet another attempt to gain a Section 30, and only considered the question of whether that ploy would have the desired effect if the SNP won a majority.  Angus Robertson, who was one of her guests, did nothing to challenge that narrative.  

If this strategy is to have a hope in hell of working, the implicit surrendering has got to stop right now.

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Sunday, November 27, 2022

The BBC's "respect" deficit

When TV news journalists on both sides of the Atlantic report on comments from Donald Trump or one of his allies about how the 2020 presidential election was rigged or stolen, it's become standard for them to add: "But these claims are false and baseless.  The 2020 election was not rigged and Joe Biden won it fair and square.  Mr Trump has provided no evidence to dispute this." They do that on the basis, as the adage goes, that it's not the job of journalists to provide balance between one person who says it's raining and another person who says it's dry - their job is instead to stick their heads out of the window, discover the truth, and report it.  

That can't be a selective principle, though - it can't only apply to the comfort zone of Donald Trump as an international bogeyman. It has to apply fearlessly to every other politician, regardless of political persuasion or status, who says things that objectively simply do not stand up.  Which brings me to the formulation that the BBC have used for an extremely long time, and used again on the day of the Supreme Court ruling, about the positions of different parties on the holding of an independence referendum: "The SNP say that the result of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election gives them a mandate to hold a second referendum in October 2023, while the Conservatives say that the result of the 2014 referendum should be respected."  These two positions are presented as direct opposites - which implicitly endorses the Tory nonsense that if you want a second referendum, you're not respecting the result of the first.

What the BBC should be saying, of course, is: "The Conservatives say that the result of the 2014 result should be 'respected'.  However, the result of that referendum has indeed been respected by all sides, and the SNP have made clear that they will continue to respect it.  There is no suggestion from any significant part of the Yes movement that independence can be declared without a fresh referendum or equivalent democratic event.  The Conservatives have provided no evidence to dispute this."

So how about it, BBC?  Or do you see your role as to provide balance between truth and lies?

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