Friday, March 5, 2010

Exploding a synthetic conviction

I wondered aloud the other day why the SNP hadn't yet made clear whether it would seek legal redress for its exclusion from the main televised leaders' debates. This article in the Scotsman goes a long way towards answering that question, because it appears the party (along with Plaid Cymru) were deliberately kept in the dark about the announcement, and thus hadn't even been given the chance to formulate a view on its strategy when it was forced to give an initial response. This does appear to be an extraordinarily high-handed way for them to have been treated - as has been set out many times here, the case for excluding the SNP from any debates shown in Scotland is extremely thin, but the case for excluding them even from the discussions over the issue, and from the general courtesies of the process, is absolutely non-existent. These are parliamentary elections - we are about to elect a parliament. Sleights of hand about 'Prime Ministerial Debates' do not alter that indisputable truth about the function of the general election, and of the television coverage that will inform voters' choices. To treat a party that has had continuous representation in parliament for the last forty-three years as if it has no stake at all in this process - as if it was some kind of fringe organisation on a par with the Natural Law Party - is genuinely outrageous.

However, it sounds as if - after a period of reflection - the SNP and its Welsh sister party have now come up with the right way forward. Firstly, they will seek the access to discussions they have thus far been denied, and if that is still not forthcoming they can then decide on the merits of legal action. For me, the key line of the article is this - "the SNP and Plaid want to discuss how they can receive a balance of 90 minutes lost to them from the leaders' debates". That zones in on the nub of the issue. When Question Time leaders' specials have been shown across the UK in previous elections, there has always been an equivalent programme shown only in Scotland featuring the SNP leader alone. So the precedents could hardly be clearer. The only thing that can correct the gross imbalance in coverage caused by the 'Prime Ministerial Debates' is a similar programme, or more likely series of programmes, featuring Alex Salmond or Angus Robertson alone. As has been repeatedly pointed out, additional Scottish leaders' debates cannot possibly fulfil the same corrective function, for the very simple reason that the three other parties that have already received their massive bonus coverage will also be invited to take part in them.

The myth, or perhaps it could be better described as a synthetic conviction, that the Scottish debates - which are perfectly welcome on their own merits - can in some way address this issue is what must be exploded in the coming days and weeks.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

One of the wonders of the world

I mentioned Michael Foot in my previous post - for me, the irony of hearing about his death yesterday was that, just by chance, the previous day I had been reading his legendary Commons speech from 1979 that concluded the debate on the motion of no-confidence in the Callaghan government. It has to be conceded that one of the wittiest lines from the speech was at the expense of Donald Stewart, then the parliamentary leader of the SNP, who had made a somewhat workmanlike contribution earlier that hadn't quite risen to the occasion in the way that Gerry Fitt or Gwynfor Evans had managed. Foot mischievously observed -

"However misguided the right honourable gentleman may be if he adheres to his apparent resolution to vote in the lobby with those who are most bitterly opposed to the establishment of a Scottish Assembly, honourable members who heard his speech must acknowledge the remarkable allegiance that the right honourable gentleman commands from his followers. It is one of the wonders of the world. There has bean nothing quite like it since the armies of ancient Rome used to march into battle. It is only now that we see the right honourable gentleman in his full imperial guise.

'Hail Emperor, those about to die salute you.'"

Fortunately for those of us of a nationalist persuasion, Foot reserved an even better joke for the Liberal leader David Steel, and that's the one that has been remembered from the speech down the years -

"But the leader of the Liberal Party — and I say this with the utmost affection — has passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever."

Given these extraordinary oratorical skills, his intellect and his humanity - in the 1990s he once threw every penny of his pension into funding a TV programme to highlight the plight of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia - it's a bitter irony that Foot was destined to be remembered as the 'worst' post-war Labour leader. Well, he may have been the worst as crudely measured by electoral outcomes, but in absolutely no other sense was he Labour's 'Iain Duncan Smith'.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

David Brent is a CyberTory

One or two of you may have noticed that I wasn't quite able to stand firm on what was my (genuine) resolve to stop posting on Political Betting at the start of the year - there's something about that site that seems to be more addictive than crack cocaine. Perhaps, though, I should heed the old adage that 'you should never give up giving up'. Anyway, after a short break I quickly reverted to posting regularly, but unsurprisingly I've now made myself such a target (by inexplicably and odiously turning my face against all things Tory) that a simple 'hello' tends to be greeted with a "why do you always have to be such a w****r, James?" from the usual suspects. Even worse, the membership of the usual suspects appears to be ever-expanding, and now includes a particularly delightful poster called 'Chris q00' (catchy moniker, I'll grant him that) who enjoys nothing better than interrogating me for hours at a time on why the SNP reneged on its pledge at the 2003 Holyrood election to hold an independence referendum by 2007. (Yes, I know, it's because the SNP didn't actually win the 2003 election, but the simpler the explanation the more the poor guy seems to struggle with it.)

So it's naturally quite difficult to maintain any sort of patience with such a buffoon, and when today he ludicrously suggested that Michael Foot as Prime Minister would have taken the UK into the Warsaw Pact, I told him rather directly that I thought that was an utter joke. Curiously, this did not provoke a reaction from Chris q00 himself, but from another Tory poster called Casino Royale, who launched into this bizarre tirade, which by the sounds of it he's been storing up for, well, quite some time -

"Can you come onto this website without being nasty and vindicative to people James?

Quite frankly, I’m tired of your attitude. You never have a good word to say about anyone and are permenantly sarcastic and insulting to other posters.

In other words: an a**ehole.

You being “you” I know you’ll try and instantly turn that back on me but why not be a mature adult for once?

Take the feedback, reappraise how you behave on here and act on it."

I naturally pointed out the supreme irony of a man complaining about 'insults' and 'never having a good word to say about anyone' when he's in the middle of using words like 'a**ehole' to indulge his own personal grudge without the slightest provocation. But there was more to come, and fascinating it was too. It appears that his criticisms of me are not personal or partisan at all, but are instead objective, constructive, and deeply rooted in his - ahem - professional experience.

"This is serious. YOU HAVE A PROBLEM.

Trust me: I’ve worked with several individuals in my company who’ve exhibited the same behaviours you do on here. The HR training was incredibly interesting. The ones who became happy and successful people took the feedback on board and learnt from it. They didn’t take it personally. Even if at first, they did. They understood HR were trying to help them.

Of the rest, the ones who chose to ignore it or refused to attend the training, a couple had nervous breakdowns and all of them managed to alienate all their peers and colleagues which only compounded the problem. Some lost their jobs because of it.

Which approach do you think was the right one?"

Is it just me, or do you get the feeling that the understandable stress and panic induced by the rapidly vanishing opinion poll lead is causing some CyberTories to turn into David Brent?

Angus Robertson for Prime Minister!

Last night, I posted a comment I had left on Michael Crick's blog, pointing out that it is not necessary for a party to stand in a majority of seats for its leader to become Prime Minister, blowing a hole in the argument that simply rebranding the leaders' debates as 'Prime Ministerial Debates' somehow justifies at a stroke the total exclusion of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. So I was intrigued to hear on Newsnight tonight Crick subtly switching to a different rationale - "of course, the Nationalist leaders are not seeking to become Prime Minister..." I'm of course not suggesting for a moment that my comment was responsible for this shift, but I do wonder if he reflected on his original explanation and realised for the same reasons just how woolly it was.

So assuming we now have the definitive explanation for why the SNP don't qualify for inclusion in the leaders' debates (sorry, keep forgetting, the 'PMDs'), it seems on the face of it there is now a very simple remedy available for the party. All they have to do is release a statement confirming that their (nominal) aim in this election is for their parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, to become Prime Minister at the head of either a minority or coalition government, as is perfectly possible according to numerous precedents both in this country and beyond. And since, according to Crick, the PMDs are intended for politicians seeking to become PM, that should remove any lingering objections to the SNP's participation.

In any case, I've thought for a long time that the SNP should make clear that Angus Robertson is the person they are seeking to put up for the debates. That would deprive their opponents of the red herring argument that "Alex Salmond isn't even standing in this election", which was always a deliberate diversion from the central issue - the SNP's right as a party to have representation in the main debates.

It's interesting that there is no indication yet of whether the SNP are planning to seek legal redress on their exclusion. I can understand their caution, because if by any chance they were defeated in court there would unavoidably be a degree of negative publicity. However, I personally really feel that the stakes are just too high for this to go untested in court. Remember, it's not just about this election - a precedent is about to be set that will affect every subsequent election for the forseeable future.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When is a leaders' debate not a leaders' debate?

Michael Crick should be commended on his honesty, because he's effectively conceded in his blog that the broadcasters are deliberately cooking up a wheeze for the sole purpose of entirely excluding the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the main televised election debates. The proposed 'solution' to what many have conceded is the Nationalists' fairly unanswerable case for representation seems to be the rough equivalent of just sticking on a sultry voiceover from Dervla Kirwan to inform us that "these are not just leaders' debates...these are BBC/Sky/ITV Prime Ministerial Debates".

As explained by Crick, the logical basis for this brainwave is that, as the SNP are only standing in 59 out of 650 seats, Alex Salmond can't become Prime Minister, and therefore by definition can't qualify for a 'Prime Ministerial Debate'. I left the following comment on the blog to express my (to put it mildly) scepticism, which will hopefully appear once it's been through the moderation process -

"Nope. This still won't stand up in a Scottish court, which is presumably exactly where the SNP will be heading if they are to be outrageously excluded altogether from the main debates. Contrary to the implication of Michael's post, it is simply not necessary for a party to stand in a majority of seats to become Prime Minister - the 1924 Labour government had just 191 seats out of 615. In the early 1990s the Indian Prime Minister represented a party that had a tiny minority of seats in parliament, and there are numerous examples from continental European countries as well. Once that indisputable fact is pointed out in court - and it'll take about ten seconds - this rather desperate and cynical attempt to draw a distinction between 'party leaders' and 'Prime Ministerial candidates' will disintegrate rather quickly. Of course everyone knows Alex Salmond isn't going to be PM, but then everyone knows precisely the same about Nick Clegg. The principle is exactly the same for both leaders - and neither of them, incidentally, are leaders of nationwide parties (the Lib Dems don't stand in Northern Ireland, and nor do Labour for that matter).

Strictly speaking, under the British system it's not even necessary to be a party leader to become Prime Minister, only an MP or peer - witness the cases of both Lloyd George or Churchill. So by that standard, there are not three potential 'candidates for Prime Minister' standing at the election, nor four, or even five, but in fact several thousand. I'd suggest a conventional party leaders' debate would be preferable to such a melee, even if (horror of horrors) that means actually providing fair representation to the leaders of all four major parties in both Scotland and Wales."

SNP still polling strongly with ComRes

In the light of the utter confusion over the last 48 hours about the polling situation in Scotland (the entirety of this evening's Newsnight Scotland was even devoted to it), just about any scrap of additional information is potentially useful. I must admit my pessimistic working assumption has been that YouGov's bleaker figures for the SNP are probably closest to the truth, but a little bit of contrary evidence has been provided by the latest ComRes subsample. It appears that the previous figures from the same firm were not the blip we might have assumed, and the SNP are still well ahead of where YouGov say they are, although admittedly they have once again slipped marginally behind Labour. Here are the full figures -

Labour 31% (+4)
SNP 29% (-5)
Conservatives 20% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 17% (+6)
Others 4% (-2)

Set against this relatively good news for the SNP, we have to bear in mind that the Scottish subsamples from YouGov's daily GB-wide polls have typically been showing somewhat lower figures for the party, broadly in line with their full-scale poll in Scotland on Sunday.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Another sensational Ipsos-Mori poll for the SNP

What numbers would you expect from an opinion poll that the Times are portraying as superb for Labour and an unmitigated disaster for the SNP? I suspect you'd be a tad surprised to hear that they put the SNP on course for their best general election performance in history? Well, that's exactly what they show. You can only really laugh at the newspaper's breathless attempts to help its readers appreciate the sheer scale of the SNP's 'collapse' - "the SNP, on 32 per cent support, are now 2 percentage points behind Labour on 34 per cent — a direct reversal of MORI’s findings only three months ago." So a change fully within the standard margin of error over a period of a mere quarter-of-a-year - yes, this is an implosion of truly apocalyptic proportions we're talking about here.

To be fair, of course, there was a YouGov poll in Scotland on Sunday yesterday that would have justified every bit of the Times spin. You can just imagine Jenny Hjul in the editorial meeting plaintively asking "why did we have to get landed with frigging Ipsos-Mori?"

These polls are of course utterly irreconcilable - so which is the accurate one? As a natural pessimist, instinct tells me that the position can't possibly be quite as rosy for the SNP as Ipsos-Mori paints, but on the other hand their figures aren't being conjured out of thin air. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes, and given the premature gloating from the likes of Kenny Farquharson over the weekend, I suspect the SNP would settle for that.