Saturday, April 22, 2023

The fundamental differences between Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon

Within an hour or two of Humza Yousaf's narrow and controversial victory in the SNP leadership election, which led to the SNP ceasing to be a party actively trying to win independence for the first time since at least 1942, I wrote a blogpost explaining how difficult it was going to be if I decided to continue with this blog. I could no longer in all good conscience enthuse about any good polling results for the SNP (not that I expect there to be any for the time being), because they would just bolster Yousaf's position and push independence further away.  They would also, incidentally, make the SNP themselves more likely to suffer election defeats, because the 2017 general election demonstrates that the SNP's weaknesses may not become apparent in the polls until very close to election day, meaning that an illusory healthy position in the polls prior to that could lull them into the complacency of thinking they don't need to do anything about the problem of Yousaf being an extremely unpopular leader.  But nor could I in all good conscience cheerlead for poor SNP polling results, because if independence is ever going to happen, there needs to be a strong SNP left for Yousaf's successor to inherit.

Over the last month, I've tried to navigate that minefield as best I can, but inevitably I've started to attract 'fan mail' stating or implying that I'm a traitor to the cause, because I'm critical of Humza Yousaf, who is apparently now the worldly embodiment of the concept of independence - even though he's opposed to trying to win independence in any circumstances likely to exist in the real world.  Essentially, Yousaf forms part of a long tradition of First Ministers and pre-devolution Scottish Secretaries who had no intention of enabling Scotland to become an independent country on their watch.  Other examples include Jack McConnell, Donald Dewar, Michael Forsyth and Malcolm Rifkind.  Supporting those politicians would self-evidently have not helped to bring independence closer, and the same is true of Yousaf.  In fairness, he's not identical to those predecessors because he's nominally pro-independence and pays plenty of lip-service to the idea, but that's a distinction without a difference unless you believe that a government treading water for years on end, but remaining nominally pro-independence while doing it, is somehow going to reap dividends later on.  In reality, the reverse is probably true, because voters tend to grow sick of governments eventually and replace them, so all the SNP are doing right now is squandering the opportunity to win independence while it's actually there.

I know some people will argue that the above also applied to the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon, and will point out that I thought trying to bring down Nicola Sturgeon was a counter-productive thing to do.  Well, I still think it was a counter-productive thing to do, and we're seeing the evidence of that before our eyes right now.  There are a number of key differences between Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf that demonstrate the two to be in completely different categories from each other - 

1) For most of her period of office (admittedly not all of it), Sturgeon had a stated and credible plan for winning independence. Of course there was a question mark over her sincerity, because the plan kept changing and the timetable kept being pushed back and back, so some people naturally concluded she had no intention of ever going through with it.  But that remained an open question for as long as a plan of some sort was on the table.  It's possible she wasn't entirely sure herself whether she was ever going to deliver what she promised, and it's also possible she would eventually have been shamed into keeping her word whether she liked it or not.  A comparison would be with Tony Blair endlessly stringing his MPs along about a ban on fox-hunting in England, but eventually giving in to them against his own instincts because he recognised the reality that he'd pushed people's patience as far as it was ever going to go.

Yousaf is fundamentally different, because there's no ambiguity over his position.  He promised during the leadership election to abandon all plans to win independence for an indefinite period, and that's exactly what he's done.  That's why the devolutionist wing of the SNP were so ecstatic in their anonymous briefings to the press after Sturgeon resigned.  It wasn't enough for them that the SNP was doing nothing about independence in practice.  They wanted the words to match the actions and for the SNP to openly embrace being a party that has stopped trying to win independence and that is getting on with other stuff like GRR challenges and the abolition of jury trials. That is what they've now got, at least for as long as Yousaf remains in harness.

2) Nicola Sturgeon was extremely popular with the public, and Yousaf is extremely unpopular.  That has a concrete impact on the independence cause, for two reasons.  Firstly, a pro-independence government needs to be in power if independence is ever going to be won, and if the SNP have an unpopular leader it becomes far more likely that a unionist government will take power in due course.  And secondly, if a vote on independence ever takes place, the prospects of a successful outcome become infinitely poorer if the pro-indy First Minister is disliked by the public (not least because they would see that person as the Prime Minister-designate of an independent Scotland).  It's paradoxical that Yousaf has set himself a higher target for the Yes support required to win independence than the 50% + 1 that Sturgeon accepted as sufficient, because that just further increases the credibility gap when Yousaf says he is the guy that will (eventually) get us there. In his short time in office, he's already reduced SNP support to the 30s - light-years away from his ill-defined supermajority threshold which presumably must be in the mid-50s at least. So even if you're crazy enough to think Humza's 'sustained supermajority' narrative is the way to win independence, you'd have to accept the evidence staring you in the face that Humza himself will have to be replaced before the idea ever has a hope in hell of working.

3) Yousaf represents factional rule to a greater extent than Sturgeon.  This is a matter of degree, because the factionalism plainly started with Sturgeon herself - the sacking of Joanna Cherry (and the way it was done), the trashing of Alex Salmond's legacy, etc, etc.  But Yousaf has taken it into a whole new dimension, with all but one of his ministerial team being people who supported him during the leadership election. Factional rule is the institutionalisation of internal division, and divided parties generally do not win elections or referendums.  What Yousaf has done has certainly not gone unnoticed by the public - the new YouGov poll shows that voters regard the SNP as divided, and the opposition parties as united.

4) Sturgeon was universally accepted as the rightful leader, whereas the process that led to Yousaf being narrowly elected is widely and rightly regarded as rigged. I think the SNP establishment reckon the manner in which Yousaf became leader will eventually fade from memories and thus become irrelevant, but that couldn't be more wrong - it'll haunt him forever unless the issue is addressed.  Whether you call that a "re-run" or a "leadership challenge" or a "stepping down to allow the members a fresh vote to decide if they wish to confirm my position", it amounts to the same thing.  In order to move on, the SNP need to have a leader chosen through a fair electoral process.

What all of the above tells us is that if we are going to win independence, Yousaf either has to be replaced or he has to (at the very least) reverse course by appointing his internal rivals to senior positions in government and by reintroducing a credible plan for winning independence.  The latter course of action is so improbable that it's safe to assume he would only do it if he felt his leadership was under imminent threat.  So from our own point of view, the conclusion is the same either way - if we're serious about independence in anything like the foreseeable future, we need to press for fresh leadership.

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Friday, April 21, 2023

Humza Yousaf is less popular with his own party's voters than any of the opposition leaders at Holyrood are with their parties' voters

Throughout the SNP leadership election, polls consistently showed that Kate Forbes was far more popular with the general public than Humza Yousaf.  Weirdly, though, Yousaf made several attempts to get those poor polling results to work in his favour by zeroing in on his showing among SNP voters, which he claimed was all that mattered.  The claim that he was ahead of Forbes among SNP voters was always based on smoke and mirrors, because only roughly half of polls actually showed that.  The other half showed Forbes ahead among SNP voters, which probably means the two leading candidates were roughly level-pegging with each other on that measure.  Combined with Forbes' far, far greater popularity among the wider public, that should have been more than enough to seal the deal for her in any party that cared about winning elections and was thinking rationally.

But if Yousaf's claims of popularity among the SNP's own supporters were questionable during the leadership campaign, they're even more questionable now, because the new YouGov poll shows his net approval rating dipping to just +4 among people who voted SNP at the last general election.  The best way of putting that into perspective is to compare it to the opposition leaders' net ratings among their own parties' voters from 2019.

Humza Yousaf's net rating among SNP voters: +4
Anas Sarwar's net rating among Labour voters: +28
Douglas Ross' net rating among Conservative voters: +28
Alex Cole-Hamilton's net rating among Liberal Democrat voters: +7

So Humza Yousaf is not well placed to keep the voters that the SNP already have, or did have before he became leader.  He's appallingly poorly placed (unlike Kate Forbes) to reach out to voters the SNP don't have but would need to build the "sustained supermajority" that he insists is so essential.  He's indefinitely ditched all plans to win independence and has divided the SNP by appointing a weak, factionally-based ministerial team.  Was there even one good argument for electing this guy?  Ah yes, the GRR legal challenge.  Well, I hope his supporters make the most of their futile day in court, because it's coming at a very, very high price.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Heartening YouGov poll adds to weight of evidence that support for independence is Humza-proof - but leadership crisis deepens as SNP vote drops five points and Yousaf hits abysmal approval rating of minus 25

YouGov poll, 17th-20th April 2023:

Do you think Humza Yousaf is doing well or badly as First Minister?

Well: 19%
Badly: 44%

That gives Yousaf a dismal net approval rating of -25.  And his boasts during the leadership debates of being phenomenally popular with SNP voters have aged very badly as he barely even stays in positive territory (+4) with people who voted SNP in the 2019 general election.

To be blunt, the direct comparisons between Yousaf's net ratings among all respondents and those of other party leaders are deeply concerning.  He is way behind the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (-6), and also a little way behind the UK Labour leader Keir Starmer (-19), although there may be some consolation in the fact that Starmer is almost as unpopular as Yousaf is.  (Indeed, Starmer's ratings have very suddenly fallen off a cliff - he had a positive rating in the previous YouGov poll.) Incredibly, Yousaf is virtually level-pegging with the UK Tory leader Rishi Sunak (-27), an almost unprecedented situation for an SNP leader in modern times.  And although Yousaf does have an advantage over the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross (-36), it's not an especially enormous one.

There's also grim news for the SNP's "Trendies" who have been lecturing the Alba Party for two years about how no party can expect to do anything but fail with a leader as unpopular as Alex Salmond.  As it turns out, there's very little to choose between how the public rate Mr Salmond and Mr Yousaf, with 34% saying Mr Yousaf will be a better First Minister than Mr Salmond, and 28% saying he will be worse than Mr Salmond.  That's a gap that barely even reaches the level of statistical significance.  Presumably the Trendies' conclusion will be unavoidable - if Mr Yousaf is no more popular than Mr Salmond, the SNP can be expected to fail very badly under his leadership.  

One really big surprise from the poll is that, so far at least, Nicola Sturgeon's reputation is astoundingly untouched by recent revelations, with 53% of respondents saying she was a good leader for Scotland (an increase of three points from the previous poll) and 31% saying she was a bad leader.  That underscores that the problem here is very definitely a Humza-specific problem, not a 'whoever happened to be carrying the can' problem.  Only 9% of respondents think Yousaf will be a better FM than Ms Sturgeon, with 41% saying he will be worse.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 46% (-)
No 54% (-)

This is the latest in a long string of polls from a variety of different firms suggesting the Yes vote has either held up or even increased slightly as the SNP vote falls - thus implying support for independence has become decoupled from support for the largest pro-independence party. With Don't Knows left in, the No lead has actually dropped since the last YouGov poll from eight points to six.  The SNP's troubles and the ongoing Humza leadership crisis have also failed to diminish the public's appetite for an independence referendum, with 44% wanting one within the next five years, and with only 42% opposed.

A clear majority of the public now feel that Scotland should not require permission from London to hold an independence referendum.  51% think no permission should be required, compared to 39% who take the opposite view.

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 38% (-5) 
Labour 30% (+4) 
Conservatives 16% (+1) 
Liberal Democrats 10% (+2) 
Greens 2% (-2)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 30% (-5) 
Labour 26% (+1) 
Conservatives 17% (+1) 
Greens 12% (+1) 
Liberal Democrats 9% (+1)
Alba 2% (-)
Reform UK 2% (-1)

Seats projection (with changes from 2021 election): SNP 51 (-13), Labour 33 (+11), Conservatives 23 (-8), Greens 12 (+4), Liberal Democrats 10 (+6)

So Humza is on course to lose us the precious pro-independence majority at Holyrood, although admittedly it would be close.  The SNP and Greens in combination would have 63 seats, and unionist parties combined would have 66.

Scottish voting intentions for next UK general election:

SNP 37% (-2) 
Labour 28% (-1) 
Conservatives 17% (+1) 
Liberal Democrats 8% (+2) 
Greens 5% (-1) 
Reform UK 2% (-1) 

Seats projection (current boundaries, with changes from 2019 election): SNP 34 (-14), Labour 14 (+13), Conservatives 6 (-), Liberal Democrats 5 (+1)

First-past-the-post would just about rescue the pro-indy majority in this case, but the SNP's seat losses would still be heavy, with Anne McLaughlin, David Linden and Alison Thewliss among the high-profile casualties.

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Monday, April 17, 2023

No, the problem is not that the SNP promised a vote on independence - the problem is that they didn't *keep* that promise. If independence is ever going to be won, the SNP will sooner or later have to re-adopt Nicola Sturgeon's policy of a de facto referendum.

This isn't actually a premeditated attempt to demonstrate Professor John Robertson was comically wide of the mark when he said I was in a "gang" of four that also included Robin McAlpine, Stuart Campbell (!) and Craig Murray, but as it happens I was scathing about Stuart Campbell in my previous post, and in this post I'm going to be critical - or at least quizzical - of Robin McAlpine, albeit for completely different reasons.

Robin was on the side of the angels during the SNP leadership election, and I found myself agreeing with almost every word he wrote during that period.  He understood it was essential that one of the two 'non-continuity' candidates, ie. either Ash Regan or Kate Forbes, had to win, and he also stated explicitly that one of the key reasons for that (one of several, admittedly) was Humza Yousaf's lack of a credible plan for winning independence.  And yet, at face value, Robin's approach to winning independence, both before and after the leadership election, seems almost indistinguishable from Humza's.  Both men believe that the problem with Nicola Sturgeon was not that she failed to deliver the vote on independence that she promised, but that she promised it in the first place.  Both men, curiously, think the problem is at least partly solved by simply abandoning the promise.  They both think we somehow get closer to independence by not actually holding a vote on independence and by constantly telling ourselves that such a vote is too difficult or impossible or not actually desirable anyway, even though that essentially means lying to ourselves.

Robin has been absolutely explicit in recent days: he thinks we're further forward because the leadership election forced people to wake up to the 'truth' that he has supposedly 'known' for years - ie. that Nicola Sturgeon's promise of a vote was never deliverable.  But of course that isn't what's just happened.  The leadership election didn't show that a vote on independence was impossible - far from it.  The problem was simply that the election was won by a candidate who had committed himself to abandoning the independence vote.  If it had instead been won by a candidate who was committed to sticking to the Sturgeon plan of a de facto referendum, that vote would have gone ahead and nothing could or would have stopped it.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but to the best of my knowledge Robin has never actually explained why he thinks a vote on independence is undeliverable - he just seems to always invite us to take it as read that grown-up people understand from their more mature perspective that the vote can't happen for some entirely unspecified reason.  I'd suggest the reason he doesn't explain his belief is that no such explanation is actually possible.  A commitment to an independence vote is actually an unusually easy one for a political leader to deliver.  If Ms Sturgeon had held her nerve, a Referendum Bill could have been passed by the Scottish Parliament, and then either upheld or struck down by the UK Supreme Court.  If it had been struck down, moving on to a de facto referendum would have been an elementary step, because it would have simply involved inserting into the SNP manifesto for a scheduled election that a majority of votes for pro-independence parties would be taken as an outright mandate for independence, and also as a mandate to negotiate an independence settlement with the United Kingdom government. 

All of the claims about a de facto referendum being a "conceptual nonsense" were just people who didn't like the idea scrabbling around for any excuse to oppose it.  No, a de facto referendum doesn't mean having a single-line manifesto - you can, if you wish, have 200 pages packed full of policies on the bread-and-butter issues voters care most about.  You simply place those policies in the context of the SNP's plans for an independent Scotland, and explain they're all reasons why people should vote Yes to independence in the de facto referendum.

But if Robin truly believes an independence vote is undeliverable, even though it plainly isn't, it leaves him with a further commonality with Humza Yousaf, who uses magical thinking to claim that you can get independence without ever holding a vote on it because the "barriers will just melt away" if independence support rises high enough.  Surely Robin cannot be that naive?  Surely he must know that the higher the Yes vote gets, the greater the incentive there is for the UK Government to erect even more barriers against any exercise of Scottish self-determination?

My suspicion is that, deep down, Robin understands perfectly well that a vote on independence is both eminently possible and absolutely necessary.  I'm just guessing, but I think what he really means when he says the Sturgeon plan was undeliverable is that he had a prescription after 2014 for how independence was going to be won, involving policy development and a mass movement, and a vote much later on once the spadework had been done.  He was therefore annoyed with Nicola Sturgeon for announcing a quick referendum in 2016 which he felt was putting the cart before the horse, and he wished the whole thing would just go away.  But believing something is a bad idea or that it might backfire is not the same thing as believing it is undeliverable, and there's a touch of intellectual dishonesty in suggesting that it is.

The reality is that we can go on a scenic detour for however many years Robin and Humza want, but ultimately we'll always come back to that stubborn 'process' question that simply can't be magicked away.  And whenever the SNP are ready to answer that question (almost certainly after replacing Humza as leader), they'll find that, just like now, the only realistic answer consists of three words: "de facto referendum".

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
- T.S. Eliot