Friday, March 19, 2010

YouGov admits 'we got it wrong, gov'

As I've mentioned in previous posts, one of the most diverting spectator sports over the last few weeks (it even marginally beats the curling, seeing as we haven't been winning) has been keeping up with the increasingly fantastical array of theories that panic-stricken CyberTories have dreamt up in an attempt to explain away the reality that their party's once-impregnable YouGov poll lead has pretty much receded to nothing. No wonder YouGov have just given their website a dodgy makeover - the old version must have been creaking under the weight of all the rather tired and emotional number-crunchers who had turned up, desperate to spot The Killer Flaw. With truly delicious irony, their efforts have finally coaxed an official response out of YouGov's chairman Peter Kellner, in which he refreshingly concedes that a mistake has indeed been made with the weightings - but that the party whose support has been underestimated is not the Tories, but the SNP! Kellner candidly spells out the precise extent of the blunder -

"These [new weightings] will typically reduce Labour’s recorded share of support in Scotland by two-to-three percentages points and increase the SNP’s recorded share by a similar amount."

In other words, Labour's lead over the SNP has been regularly overstated by a whopping four to six percentage points in YouGov polls. This doesn't entirely clear up the mystery of the disparity between the Scottish findings of YouGov and Ipsos-Mori, but it certainly narrows what had previously been a yawning chasm between the two.

Perhaps the only disingenuous part of Kellner's statement is when he suggests that the discovery of the mistake doesn't really materially alter the 'big picture' of the Scottish political scene. I beg to differ. Only a man who reckons that 'only Westminster matters' could possibly make such a statement, because (unless I'm missing something) Labour's recent five-point YouGov lead in Holyrood voting intentions has essentially just been shown to be a mirage. But even on the issue of Westminster voting intentions, a great many overblown 'big picture' claims were being made on the back of YouGov's recent flawed Scottish polls, most notably that the Tories may be on the cusp of overtaking the SNP in the battle for second place at the general election. That prospect now, at a stroke, looks considerably more distant. As an illustration, here is YouGov's latest Scottish poll/subsample aggregate for the Sun (covering Westminster voting intention only), with the figures reweighted under the new system -

Labour 39%
SNP 26%
Conservatives 18%
Liberal Democrats 12%
Others 6%

Now, those numbers could of course be better still, but doesn't that look a lot healthier for the Nats?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Murphy's Law

Call me a sadist, but what a pleasure it was to see Jim Murphy well and truly floundering on Reporting Scotland tonight on the subject of tidal and wave power. You might say that, in fairness, it's impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but isn't this guy supposed to be Scottish Labour's latest Messiah? Water into wine is the required standard, I'm afraid, and any party that freely chose to elect Iain Gray as its leader is in dire need of some miracles soon.

Murphy would have been even sicker when he saw the context in which his feeble soundbite had been inserted into the report. First, it was pointed out in a straightforward factual way that it costs £21 per kilowatt to connect this new source of renewable energy to the National Grid from the north of Scotland, whereas in Cornwall you would actually be paid £6 per kilowatt for your trouble. Then, we heard from Alex Salmond in full statesmanlike mode noting that, while this outrageous discrimination wouldn't stop developments like this, it clearly wasn't helping matters. And only then did Murphy have his chance. So not the most helpful build-up when all you've got to offer is a load of incoherent mumbling about how "there is no evidence to suggest" that any of this is really a problem. If it turned out it was a problem, the UK government might just get round to doing something about it eventually - but no promises, mind.

And surely Jim missed his cue? Given that the UK government had just been shown to be cynically stacking the economic odds against Scottish renewable energy, could there ever have been a more propitious moment to break into some passionate Brian Wilson-style evangelising about how nuclear is the only conceivable option, given that renewables are famously so 'uneconomic'?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Demand your voice on the election issues that won't affect you

I gather that during the televised leaders' debates, selected email questions from the public will be asked of the three leaders lucky enough to have the novel and extra-constitutional status of 'Prime Ministerial Candidate' conferred upon them by the broadcasters, in addition to the questions posed by the live studio audience. In which case, could I strongly suggest that it might be a good idea in the debate covering 'domestic' matters for Scottish viewers to send in highly pertinent questions, such as "do you propose to abolish the Scottish Parliament, in order that you will have the chance to implement your health or education policies in Scotland, and if not, why are you talking as if your policies apply to the whole UK?".

You see, we've been constantly told that the reason why it is legitimate to ban one - just one - of Scotland's four principal parties from the three main debates to be shown here is that these are "UK" debates, and as such the programmes must reflect the political balance across the whole UK, not just in Scotland. Of course, this makes a mockery not only of the broadcasting regulations but also of clear-cut precedents spanning decades, but let's just for a moment take this bogus proposition at face value. As Scotland has 9% of the population, and as each debate will be ninety minutes long, it stands to reason that any accurate reflection of the make-up of the UK as a whole necessitates that approximately eight minutes of the domestic debate be taken up with a discussion of the entirely separate situation that exists in Scotland in respect of nearly all the issues to be covered over the course of the evening - namely that the outcome of this election is utterly irrelevant, since the issues concerned are the province of the Scottish Parliament. I must confess I haven't a clue how this could be done with a straight face - perhaps an air of benevolent colonialism could be affected as Scottish viewers ponder how they should exercise their onerous responsibilities for helping to decide the fate of another country's health and education system. Such a scenario would, I freely concede, be "pure Monty Python" (in the immortal words of Charles Wheeler), but it's nevertheless precisely what logic demands. The much more likely alternative - that the entire domestic debate will be conducted under the false premise that the policies being discussed are equally and uniformly relevant to every elector watching, regardless of where they live - means that the broadcasters will be making the basic error of confusing a debate that truly reflects the political reality of the whole UK with one that reflects the political reality of England alone. Simply showing it outside England does not somehow magically confer upon it the status of a "UK debate".

And one thing's for sure - if the Scottish public want to use their right to submit questions as a last-ditch opportunity to put things right and force the Scottish dimension onto the agenda, they'll absolutely have to do it by email, because they'll be banned - literally banned - from taking part in person on the night. Only people who live within thirty miles of the three English venues will be entitled to be part of the studio audience. Call me naive, but I was genuinely flabbergasted when I first heard of this a day or two ago. A few weeks back, it occurred to me to raise the issue of whether the make-up of the audience would be politically balanced (thus including SNP and Plaid supporters) even if the panel itself was not. But I didn't bother, because when I reflected on it for a moment, it seemed self-evident that the broadcasters would put together audiences that reflected the make-up of the UK as a whole, not just England. It would, it seemed clear to me, make a mockery of their whole "UK-wide" logic for excluding the nationalist parties if they followed any other course. But, astonishingly, they have.

So in absolutely every sense of the word, these are English rather than UK debates. The three leaders have been chosen because they are the leaders of the three main parties in England - certainly not the UK, because two of the three will not be standing candidates in any of the eighteen Northern Ireland constituencies. The audience will be selected to form a representative cross-section of the population of England - certainly not the UK, because residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be specifically banned from taking part. And the issues up for debate will reflect what is at stake in this election in England - certainly not the UK, because the only issues uniformly at stake throughout all four constituent parts of the country are non-devolved issues.

So, morally at least, it seems the SNP have got the broadcasters pretty much bang to rights over this. All that remains to be seen is whether the law views things in the same way, or indeed whether some compromise can still be reached at this late stage that would head off the unfortunate need for legal action. So far, though, there's precious little sign of progress. Having said that, the SNP did secure a minor, almost comic moral victory by persuading ITV to consider ensuring that their Scotland-specific side-debate is shown throughout the whole of Scotland, not just in the regions covered by STV - by the sounds of it this problem hadn't even occurred to them until the SNP pointed it out! It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry...