Monday, December 11, 2017

A gentle word in the ear of Tommy Sheppard: let's get real

My jaw has just dropped to the floor upon reading an article in The National in which SNP MP Tommy Sheppard argues that if Kezia Dugdale defects from Labour to the SNP, she should be required to stand down and fight for re-election under her new colours.  Now, for the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe for one moment that Kezia Dugdale is going to defect - I think the idea that she must be a secret SNP sympathiser because of her father and her partner is a paranoid fantasy put about by the Ian Smarts of this world.  But let's say for the sake of argument that she (or more likely somebody else entirely) were to make the jump.  Are we really supposed to accept that the SNP should turn down the golden chance to move closer to overall majority status at Holyrood, and to make the pro-independence majority in parliament more emphatic, just on some point of principle that no other party is signed up to?  Are the SNP going to treat politics as a game of cricket when other parties would be completely ruthless if the circumstances were reversed?

At Westminster, there have been instances of Labour MPs defecting to the Tories or Liberal Democrats without a by-election, Tory MPs defecting to Labour or the Liberal Democrats without a by-election, and even one instance of a Labour MP (Dick Douglas in 1990) defecting to the SNP without a by-election.  Why would we suddenly get squeamish at a time when the stakes are so much higher?  If we assume that Mark McDonald can still be relied upon to informally follow the SNP whip, just one more MSP would take the party to exactly 50% of the seats in Holyrood (excluding the non-voting Presiding Officer), thus making it much harder for the opposition parties to inflict any defeats.  By contrast, if Ms Dugdale or any other Labour list MSP were to simply resign, the SNP wouldn't even have a chance to win the seat in a by-election - a slavishly loyal replacement Labour MSP would simply be appointed from lower down the list, and we'd be no further forward.

I'd suggest to Tommy Sheppard that if we're going to win independence, it might be an idea not to turn our noses up at golden opportunities, especially any that may fall gift-wrapped from heaven.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ruth Davidson set for "future of demeaning irrelevance" as yet another Scottish poll puts the SNP on course for Westminster gains from the Tories

Stuart Campbell of Wings has tweeted the following Survation polling figures, which appear to be from a new full-scale Scottish poll.  I can't find any other reference to them yet, so I suppose there's an outside chance they may turn out to be from a subsample or something like that, but I doubt it.  If it is indeed a full poll, it's the fifth to be published since the general election, and the fourth of those to suggest that the SNP's support is higher than it was on polling day.  (The exception was the previous Survation poll a few days ago that had the SNP on exactly the same 37% vote share they managed in June.)

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

SNP 38% (+1)
Labour 29% (+1)
Conservatives 24% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (n/c)

Note: the percentage changes listed above differ from the ones in the Sunday Post graphic tweeted by Stuart, because I'm using the most recent Survation poll as the baseline, whereas the Post are using the last Survation poll but one.

We've now had three Survation polls since the election, and the sequence of results for the SNP has been 39-37-38.  That's the kind of minor fluctuation that is easily consistent with margin of error noise, so it could well be that SNP support bounced back a little after the general election aftermath and has remained steady over the last two or three months.  It's also worth recalling that the two non-Survation polls in the early autumn had the SNP in the low 40s, which leaves open the possibility that SNP support has been running steady at an even higher level than Survation are suggesting.

It's easy to become distracted by the eye-catching detail of Labour overtaking the Tories to reclaim second place, but the bottom line is that the SNP are the challengers in all of the Scottish seats held by the Tories.  What will determine whether the Tories can hold what they have is the lead held over them by the SNP - and, according to this poll, that lead has increased from eight points at the general election to a whopping fourteen points now.  And the direction of travel could be the most troubling thing of all for Ruth Davidson - if the lead grows to twenty points or more, the Tories could be facing carnage at the next election.

As for the SNP v Labour battle, it's much harder to judge.  This poll, just like the last Survation poll, implies a trivial net swing of 0.5% from SNP to Labour, which because of the large number of ultra-marginal seats would be enough to move several to the Labour column.  But the snag is that no poll can really be that precise due to the margin of error.  The figures are also perfectly consistent with a small swing from Labour to SNP, which could see the SNP regaining seats from Labour as well as the Tories.

Scottish Parliament constituency voting intentions:

SNP 39% (n/c)
Labour 28% (+3)
Conservatives 24% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-1)

Unlike the Survation poll a few days ago which dented the "progress for Labour" narrative by suggesting Labour's Holyrood support was absolutely static, this one does suggest a bit of an advance.  Obviously it's unlikely that anything significant has changed over such a short time-scale, so the difference can probably be explained by the margin of error, and we'll have to wait for more information to discover where the truth lies.

Voting intentions for next Scottish independence referendum:

Yes 46% (-1)
No 54% (+1)

No statistically significant changes on independence, but what very much is significant is that this is the third Survation poll in a row to put Yes support higher than the 45% recorded in the September 2014 referendum, and indeed substantially higher than the 43% recorded in the post-election Survation poll in June.

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UPDATE: Confirmation from Stuart on Twitter - "It's a full-size poll. 1006 respondents, 1-5 December."  It looks like Survation didn't send out the usual embargoed information about the poll (perhaps at the Sunday Post's request), because even several hours later it's barely been mentioned anywhere online.  Britain Elects haven't reported it, and it hasn't made it onto the Wikipedia list yet. 

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UPDATE II: The regional list results from the poll have now been revealed, and oddly enough Labour's step forward on the constituency ballot hasn't been mirrored at all on the list.

Scottish Parliament regional list voting intentions:

SNP 32% (-1)
Labour 24% (-1)
Conservatives 21% (-1)
Greens 10% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 10% (+2)

Friday, December 8, 2017

It's IMPOSSIBLE for a devolved parliament to have a Brexit veto (except when it's in the Tories' own interests, in which case it's obviously totally possible)

In my last blogpost, I posed the question: given the entrenched positions of the DUP, the Irish government and anti-European Tory MPs, how was it even possible for a deal to be reached?  Ireland required no hard border, which meant either that Britain as a whole had to remain closely aligned to the EU (ie. a soft Brexit), or there had to be a special status for Northern Ireland.  The DUP's red line was no special status for Northern Ireland, which left no other option for Theresa May but to concede the principle of a soft Brexit right now - except, of course, that would be totally unacceptable to anti-European Tory MPs.

The circle has theoretically been squared today by allowing Tory MPs to retain hope that a soft Brexit can be averted by means of a special status for Northern Ireland, while also keeping the DUP on board by giving the Northern Ireland Assembly a veto on such a deal (which, given the cross-community voting arrangements in the Assembly, amounts to a DUP veto).  Essentially, it's a temporary truce that hinges on the stupidity of Tory MPs - they have to believe it's possible that the DUP will eventually sign off on Northern Ireland becoming a "special administrative region", which is plainly never going to happen.  When that realisation hits home, it's not hard to imagine how everything could quickly unravel, and an extreme 'no deal' Brexit could be back on the cards.

As far as the consequences for Scotland are concerned, arguably today's developments leave the Tories in an even worse position than the proposed agreement on Monday would have done.  The Monday text merely conceded that one part of the UK could remain more closely aligned to the EU than other parts if it so wishes, which the Tories had previously said was impossible for Scotland.  Today's text goes further and gives a devolved legislature a veto on one aspect of Brexit, which was also supposed to be completely impossible.  The SNP are quite right to scent blood.

*  *  *

Two new Scottish subsamples have been published since my last update -

ICM: SNP 33%, Labour 27%, Conservatives 24%, Greens 8%, Liberal Democrats 6%, UKIP 1%

YouGov: SNP 38%, Labour 30%, Conservatives 23%, Liberal Democrats 5%, Greens 2%, BNP 2%, UKIP 1%

Across all firms, twenty-seven of the last twenty-nine subsamples have put the SNP in first place.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A paradox: did Tory losses at the general election make a hard Brexit more likely?

There was a great deal of speculation back in June about whether the election resulting in a hung parliament - albeit, crucially, one in which the Conservatives and DUP held a majority between them - made a hard Brexit significantly less likely.  The theory was that Labour would wield much more influence, and that even the DUP would help steer the government towards a softer Brexit because of their pragmatic desire for a 'frictionless frontier' with the Republic.  Well, the latter point is now looking distinctly ropey, because the one and only reason a hard Irish border even remains a possibility today is because the DUP vetoed the deal yesterday.  It's still the case that the DUP would probably sign up quite happily to a soft Brexit as long as there were explicit guarantees that the degree of 'softness' would be uniform throughout the UK, and that Northern Ireland wouldn't end up in a 'one country, two systems' scenario.  But any such guarantees would trigger a mass Tory rebellion and quite possibly bring the government down.

The trouble with trying to bounce people into an agreement they wouldn't ordinarily sign up to is that you have to move so fast that they don't know what's hit them until it's too late.  The gambit almost worked yesterday, but a miss is as good as a mile, and Theresa May's game has now been well and truly rumbled.  Having taken such open satisfaction in foiling Dublin's plans, the DUP will presumably only be able to get back on board if the Irish government are seen to publicly back down on points of substance, and that's surely very unlikely.  Meanwhile, Tory Eurosceptics are now wise to May's willingness to concede a soft Brexit if that's the only way of squaring the Northern Ireland circle, and they'll move over the coming days to close that option off.   Where else is there to go?

Right at this moment, it does appear that the loss of the Tory majority has - against all expectations - created a dynamic that makes a hard Brexit more likely, not less so.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Schrodinger's No Regulatory Divergence

I've just been catching up with the fudge on Northern Ireland that looks set to save the Brexit negotiations - but at what price?  My first reaction was that it would bring down the Tory government because the DUP would withdraw support, but it looks like what we're actually moving towards is a situation where the EU and Ireland insist that a special status has been agreed for Northern Ireland, while the DUP insist the deal doesn't mean any such thing.  Or to put it another way, the DUP have seemingly decided to "explain" a sellout to their own voters, rather than oppose it.  I'm not sure that's sustainable, but if the DUP leadership do try to hold the line, they could quickly find themselves facing the same fate as David Trimble and Reg Empey.

And what of Scotland?  It seems to me there is one answer, and one answer only, to the question of why Scotland can't have the same deal as Northern Ireland.  That answer is "because it would create a border on the island of Great Britain".  But the moment the Tories actually say that out loud, the unionist population of Northern Ireland will hear the message loud and clear that a border is being created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the DUP leadership will be toast.

There are two political parties that are suddenly in a pickle today - and the SNP isn't one of them.

Ruth Davidson faces "utter humiliation" at next election as Scottish Tories slump to third place in landmark Survation poll

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

SNP 37% (-2)
Labour 28% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-1)

Note that the percentage changes listed above are from the last Survation poll a couple of months ago, rather than from the general election result itself.  The SNP's vote share is unchanged since the general election, while the Tories have slipped four points.  Curiously, Labour haven't taken much advantage of that - they're only up a statistically insignificant one point since June.  No word yet on the Lib Dems' showing in the poll as far as I can see.

Across all firms, this is the fourth full-scale Scottish poll since the general election, and it's the first of the four that hasn't been unalloyed good news for the SNP - ie. it's the first that hasn't shown the SNP with a higher vote share than they achieved at the election.  However, in my view it remains truly remarkable that the SNP's vote isn't down since the election. The momentum seemed to be totally against them during the summer, and yet the ship has since been steadied and they now enjoy a slightly greater lead over the second placed party than they did in June - albeit the identity of the second placed party has changed.  The most satisfying point is that there has been a net swing of 2% from Tory to SNP since the election, which ought to put the SNP in line for modest gains from the Tories if there were to be a hypothetical election tomorrow.

Scottish Parliament voting intentions

Constituency vote:

SNP 39% (-3)

Regional vote:

SNP 33% (+2)

Yup, that's literally all we have on the Holyrood voting intentions in the poll so far - the Record haven't bothered to mention the figures for any other party!  They do note that the SNP and Greens wouldn't have an overall majority between them based on the poll, but that's a statement of the obvious and isn't a change from the last set of Survation numbers.  It's reassuring at least that the SNP's list vote has bounced back from the unusually low 31% in the last poll.

John Curtice is quoted in the Record piece making the vitally important point that although the SNP now face much stiffer competition at both Westminster and Holyrood than was the case a year or two ago, that change in the political weather hasn't been accompanied by a drop in support for independence - far from it.  As we saw last night, Yes support in the Survation poll is back up to 47%, an improvement of some four points since the post-election poll from the same firm in June.  It strikes me that a minority of people within the SNP were determined to learn the wrong lesson from the general election result - they thought the party had talked about independence too much, but it seems far more likely that the opposite is true.  Quite plainly independence is significantly more popular at the moment than even the SNP, so it's hard to see what the harm would be in campaigning on independence more vigorously.  Remember that holding the first referendum in 2014 was the key to unlocking vast support for the SNP from ex-Labour voters who might not otherwise have ever made the jump. The recollection of that lesson now that the dust has settled on the general election may explain why the SNP leadership seem much more bullish about a pre-2021 referendum than they were a few months ago.

UPDATE: Survation have confirmed the full figures from the poll, which are as follows...

Westminster voting intention:

SNP 37% (-2)
Labour 28% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament constituency voting intention:

SNP 39% (-3)
Labour 25% (n/c)
Conservatives 24% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)

Scottish Parliament regional list voting intention:

SNP 33% (+2)
Labour 25% (n/c)
Conservatives 22% (+1)
Greens 8% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-2)
UKIP 3% (n/c)

No wonder the Record didn't want to say too much about the Holyrood figures, because it turns out that Labour's support is absolutely static - putting the wild claims that Labour have made great strides under Richard Leonard in a somewhat different perspective.  It's perfectly possible the party haven't made any real progress on the Westminster front either - their 2% boost could easily just be a margin of error illusion.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Ruth Davidson SHUDDERS as support for independence increases to 47% in long-awaited Survation poll

We're getting a bit closer to solving the mystery of the elusive full-scale Scottish poll from Survation - it turns out it was commissioned by the Record.  Given that publication's virulently anti-SNP, pro-Labour and anti-independence stance, it's intriguing that the first detail they've chosen to reveal is not Holyrood or Westminster voting intention, but as David Clegg himself puts it, "Indyref 2 voting intention".  He's probably correct to anticipate Indyref 2 on these numbers, which suggest support for independence is higher than at the 2014 referendum, and is within just three percentage points of victory.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

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

The percentage changes I've listed above assume this is an online Survation poll, which it probably is.  If that's right, it's the second consecutive increase in support for Yes, which has bounced back from the low of 43% recorded just after the general election in June.  If by any chance it's a telephone poll, the recovery for Yes is even more dramatic, because the last Survation phone poll was conducted just before the June election, and had Yes on only 39%.

An indyref is much more likely to take place in 2019 or 2020 than next year

First things first: a Survation-Watch update.  Stuart Dickson has spotted an article in the Sunday Post about a Scottish poll conducted by Survation between the 27th and 30th of November.  It was commissioned by an organisation called 38 Degrees and asks whether EU powers over devolved areas should be transferred direct to Holyrood after Brexit (as would happen automatically if it wasn't for the UK government's power grab in the Great Repeal Bill).  The results are predictable, albeit devastating for the UK government - almost two-thirds of the Scottish public want the powers to go to Edinburgh, not London.

The poll looks for all the world like a bolt-on question added to a full-scale poll commissioned by a different client.  So it looks like Survation have carried out the Scottish poll they promised - but so far the voting intention results are nowhere to be seen.  Maybe those will still appear over the coming hours or days - and if they don't, there'll be the tantalising possibility that maybe, just maybe, the client is holding them back due to disappointment with the numbers.  Something like that happened a couple of months ago, as you may recall.

What did turn up last night was a UK-wide Survation voting intention poll, which caused a sensation because it puts Labour in overall majority territory for the first time in years.  The Scottish subsample shows the following: SNP 34%, Labour 29%, Conservatives 23%, UKIP 8%, Liberal Democrats 7%.  That's not to be sniffed at - any sort of SNP lead in a poll that puts Labour on 45% at UK level is pretty good going.  Across all firms, twenty-five of the last twenty-seven subsamples have shown the SNP in first place.

To turn to a different subject, this month's issue of iScot magazine features Peter A Bell and myself making entirely opposite points about the timing of the second independence referendum, and doing so with equal confidence.  For reasons that I find hard to pin down, Peter is certain that the referendum will be held in September 2018, whereas I think a 2018 referendum is close enough to being impossible as makes no difference - although of course I do firmly believe that it should (and probably will) be held before the current mandate expires in May 2021.  Yesterday, Peter claimed that Nicola Sturgeon had dropped a heavy hint that 2018 was going to be The Year in remarks to the SNP National Council.  Others disputed that she had done any such thing, and I'm not surprised, because I'm baffled as to how Peter thinks a 2018 referendum is even feasible in practical terms.

If the UK government were prepared to pass a Section 30 order without fuss upon request, then of course holding a snap referendum at almost any time would be a trivial matter.  But all the indications are that they intend to persevere with the "now is not the time" tactic for a few years, which means any vote in 2018 would have to be of the consultative variety, held without Westminster's permission.  That makes it harder to do on a tight timetable, because the following steps would have to be followed -

1) Nicola Sturgeon would need to allow ample time for a renewed Section 30 request to be considered, in order to demonstrate that she isn't just going through the motions in making it.  She'll want to establish in the public mind that she bent over backwards to reach an agreement, and wasn't hellbent on going it alone.

2) She'll then need time to explain to the public why an "unauthorised" consultative referendum has become necessary - not least because the media will point out she's changed her own mind on that subject.

3) The Scottish Parliament will then need to go through the process of legislating for a referendum, which from a legal perspective will not necessarily be that easy.  The Presiding Officer's legal advisers will have to be satisfied that the proposal is within the parliament's current powers, which will require very careful wording.  If that is achieved, it'll still be important that the SNP are not seen to railroad such controversial legislation through parliament - there'll have to be proper time for reflection and debate.

4) There may then be legal challenges to overcome.

5) Last but not least, Ms Sturgeon will need to allow an appropriate length of time for the campaign proper.  I don't think anyone would want a campaign anything like as long as the one that preceded the 2014 vote - but any attempt to cram it into a few short weeks would look like a cynical tactic and might backfire badly.

I would suggest the last realistic date for a 2018 referendum is late October - anything beyond that would lead to concerns about the weather.  (Alex Salmond initially proposed that the first indyref should be held on St Andrew's Day 2010, but fate proved that wasn't such a great idea - there was heavy snow and traffic chaos on that day.)  So basically we're talking about a little under eleven months from now.  If Ms Sturgeon got the ball rolling right now or very soon, there might be just about enough time.  But that clearly isn't going to happen.  There'll be no announcement this side of Christmas, and probably not until well into the New Year.  That means the 2018 option will be effectively timed out, and we'll be looking at a probable date of 2019 or 2020.  I'm not at all downhearted by that, because it wasn't very long ago that siren voices within the SNP were seemingly trying to use the general election result as an excuse to "park" any talk of a referendum until beyond the 2021 election.  They now appear to have comprehensively lost the internal debate.

Does the near-impossibility of a 2018 vote mean that the referendum will be held after Britain officially leaves the European Union?  Quite possibly, yes.  Is that sub-optimal?  In my opinion, absolutely.  But if we wanted a September 2018 referendum, the time for making that case was during the summer.  It seems to me we lost that particular battle, but won the wider war to keep a pre-2021 vote firmly on course.  Speaking personally, I'm more than satisfied with that outcome.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Never make predictions, especially about the future

Just a quick note to let you know I have a new article in the December issue of iScot, pondering whether it's even worth the bother of making political predictions for 2018, given how difficult it's proved recently to forecast election results and other major developments even a few hours in advance.  If you're not a subscriber to the print edition of iScot, you can see a preview of the article on Twitter HERE, and a digital copy of the magazine can be purchased HERE.

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Still no sign of the full-scale Scottish poll from Survation that we were told would arrive this week - so unless the timing has slipped, it's probably for one of the Sunday papers, which means we ought to hear about it tonight.  It'll be the first full Scottish poll for almost two months, so it's best to be braced for the possibility that there may have been a significant change since the huge SNP leads of September and October.  That said, the Scottish subsamples from GB-wide polls are still mostly telling a good news story.  The latest is from Ipsos-Mori and shows the following: SNP 45%, Labour 24%, Conservatives 17%, UKIP 6%, BNP 3%, Liberal Democrats 2%, Greens 1%.  Bear in mind the sample size was extremely small, even by the normal standard of subsamples.  Across all firms, twenty-four of the last twenty-six subsamples have put the SNP in first place.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"So you don't think minor roadworks are a news story? Are you nuts, or just a member of the SNP?"

Earlier this evening, STV News asked an engineering expert about the repairs on the Queensferry Crossing, and his firm verdict was that they just weren't a major issue.  That was rather inconvenient, given the almighty song and dance the media have been making about the subject, and the STV reporter's follow-up question was nothing short of astonishing -

"You're not a member of the SNP or anything like that?"

That sort of question is just not asked.  When you have some economic expert from the "independent and respected" Institute for Fiscal Studies on TV to cast a critical eye over Labour's tax plans, you don't demand to know whether they're privately a Tory sympathiser (even though in most cases they probably are).  I'd suggest that STV either have to apologise for this episode, or regard it as a precedent that must be followed for all future interviews of experts, including experts who are making points that are favourable to unionist parties. 

Somebody suggested on Twitter that the reporter might have been trying to be helpful - ie. he knew the expert was non-partisan and was just trying to emphasise that fact for anyone who might be sceptical.  But by asking the question and broadcasting it, the clear implication was that incredulity is the natural reaction, and that it's somehow amazing that an expert with no political agenda would dare to disagree with unionist parties' claims that minor roadworks on a bridge are the end of civilisation as we know it.  It also implies that if the expert had been a member of the SNP, his insight would have been rendered worthless.

The next time an SNP politician is given a hostile grilling on STV, it's hard to see how there can be any complaint if they choose the optimal moment to ask the interviewer: "You don't have any links with the Labour party, do you?"

*  *  *

We were told to expect a full-scale Scottish poll from Survation at some point this week, but there's no sign of it yet as far as I can see.  There was a GB-wide ICM poll a few days ago, though, and the Scottish subsample showed the following: SNP 38%, Conservatives 32%, Labour 25%, Greens 3%, UKIP 2%, Liberal Democrats 1%.  Across all polling firms, twenty-three of the last twenty-five subsamples have shown the SNP in the lead.