Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading the runes

Exactly five years ago (give or take the odd day) I was busy trying to work out in my head what the outcome of the 2005 general election might mean for the SNP's chances of winning power at devolved level in 2007. Although I'm not sure I truly believed it in my heart of hearts (it was difficult to when the SNP had just scored its lowest vote share since 1987, and had been unexpectedly beaten into third place by the Liberal Democrats), the conclusion I came to based on hard logic was that fate had thrown up almost the ideal result. Why? Because it meant that Labour would have to defend its Holyrood powerbase right in the middle of a third consecutive term of office at Westminster - exactly the moment at which public dissatisfaction with the party could reasonably be expected to be at its peak. Even better, I supposed, Labour's middling majority of 66 was just high enough for Tony Blair to resist calls for him to depart the premiership earlier than he intended. The nightmare scenario for the SNP was always that the Holyrood campaign might have taken place in the midst of some kind of Brown honeymoon.

So, in spite of my instinctive doubts, that line of logic turned out to be remarkably well-founded - although Blair's departure just two months after the Holyrood vote can admittedly be seen as a very near miss! But can the runes be read in a similar way this time? Firstly, in spite of Jim Murphy's predictable gloating, the SNP's result is actually better than in 2005, with a clear second place in the popular vote that had looked distinctly unlikely throughout much of the campaign. That's the good news, but unfortunately a few alarm bells are ringing in my head about the drama presently unfolding in London.

Perhaps the greatest danger resulting from Thursday's inconclusive result is that it could lead to a snap second election - one which could very easily take place exactly one year from now, ie. coinciding with the Scottish Parliament election. It hardly bears thinking about what the effect on voting patterns might be if the Holyrood campaign was effectively subsumed into a Westminster one (although on the plus side it would probably boost the SNP's vote for Westminster).

Secondly, a Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in London - especially one implementing savage cuts in public spending - might provide Scottish Labour with a kind of perfect storm one year from now. They'd be the only one of the four main parties contesting the Holyrood election not to be hampered by problems of incumbency - ie. they could paint themselves as the only true 'opposition' party, and even (risible though it might seem) as the sole party of 'change'.

And leaving aside the SNP's own fortunes for a moment, what about the impact on the cause of Scottish self-government more broadly? All we can really conclude for the moment is that meaningful progress on fiscal powers might be more likely under a Tory/Lib Dem government than under a majority Tory government - but only very fractionally more likely. For all that the Lib Dems are probably sincere in their desire for enhanced devolution, it's hard to imagine them making it much of a priority in the current negotiations. Probably the only hope for progress now lies with a Labour/Lib Dem arrangement, but that scenario looks increasingly implausible - Nick Clegg seems to have boxed his party into a position whereby failure in the negotiations will most likely lead directly to a Tory minority government, rather than to alternative negotiations with Labour.

But, to finish on a positive note, such an outcome does nevertheless provide some clear opportunities for the SNP. My suspicion is that the party's message in this campaign - that they could deliver significant concessions for Scotland in a balanced parliament - didn't resonate as much as it could have done for the very simple reason that the public couldn't visualise it actually working out that way in practice. That is very likely to now change. Even if the Lib Dems agree to a 'confidence-and-supply' arrangement, it's almost inevitable that individual votes will crop up in which the SNP hold the balance. If so, Jim Murphy - or his successor - will be greeted with considerably more scepticism in future when he tries to dismiss the SNP as an 'irrelevance' in Westminster elections.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Labour suddenly in urgent need of those 'totally irrelevant' SNP votes at Westminster

I'll give some more considered thoughts on the outcome of the general election when I have more time, but one quick thought occurs to me, particularly with Vernon Bogdanor's repeated suggestions that we're heading towards a snap second election ringing in my ears - suddenly the SNP's pending judicial review on the TV debates looks a whole lot less academic. And if the legal route isn't successful, I hope they have a backup plan up their sleeves - with the Greens now having made their long-awaited parliamentary breakthrough, there must be some way in which the 'smaller' parties can join forces over this and ensure that the total exclusion of alternative political voices is never allowed to happen again.

We also seem to be unmistakably in a position where Labour only have a theoretical chance of holding onto power if they are willing to court SNP support. Which begs the obvious question - will Jim Murphy be Labour's emissary? If so, how on earth is he going to square that with his most beloved jibe that "the SNP are a total irrelevance in a British general election"?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

People queueing up to vote? In Scotland?

I've just gone to vote, at roughly the same time of day I've chosen at previous elections, and...holy dooley. I've never seen such queues. It was quite a contrast to a certain European election a few years ago (turnout 25%) when they looked completely shocked to see me! So as much as I hate reliance on anecdotal evidence (naming no names at this point) I think it's a fair guess we're in for bumper turnout figures tonight, perhaps exceeding the low 70s range we saw in 1997.

For months now I've been resistant to the idea - repeatedly put forward by the likes of Michael Portillo - that the perception of a close contest would be enough in itself to fuel a significant increase in turnout. I don't necessarily think I was wrong about that, though - it's been the (rigged) leaders' debates that have made most of the difference. That point in itself might seem like cause for concern for the SNP, but more broadly, how can we expect a high turnout to affect their prospects? Logically, it ought to be a bad thing, because support for the party is highest among older age groups, who are usually more likely to vote regardless of circumstance. In theory, a higher turnout among young people might be expected to dilute that advantage. But there's one big problem with that theory - if anything, the SNP have underperformed in the last four general elections, with the assumption being that nationalist voters are less likely to take Westminster elections seriously. A higher level of voter interest this time might counteract that problem.

So you can look at it either way - not long to wait until we find out which way it will go.

A small piece of history for the SNP?

Polling day has arrived at last, and I face it with more than a degree of foreboding now, following Michael Crick's hints last night that some Tory sources think they will probably win a small majority. Still, that at least leaves the words 'probably' and 'small' to cling to over the coming hours! If by any chance the worst doesn't happen, I'm encouraged to see a report in the Scotsman revealing that the broadcasters have been urged not to 'shape' the result by prematurely declaring a winner in the event of a balanced parliament. I recall after the Canadian election eighteen months ago being somewhat bemused to see CBC "project a Conservative minority government". Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Even the most sophisticated computer would be hard-pressed to read the minds of the other party leaders sufficiently to "project" whether there's a chance of them forming a coalition or not. And, just to prove that point, the three non-Tory parties in Canada did indeed sign a coalition agreement just a few weeks later, only for it to be subsequently scuppered by a bizarre sequence of events.

To accentuate the positive, if a Conservative government is elected today, every poll indicates that our new rulers will come to power having just been beaten in Scotland by the SNP. Those polls may be wrong of course - they were in 1992 (in Scotland as much as in the UK at large). But if that is the way it works out, it would be a historic first. The Nationalists have beaten the Tories in the popular vote on no fewer than four previous occasions, but those were all elections the Tories lost at UK-level - October 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005. The outcome of this particular tussle will have much greater psychological significance, not least in any game of cat-and-mouse (sorry, relationship of mutual respect) that unfolds between a new Tory government at Westminster and the SNP government in Edinburgh.


A brilliant line from Rory Bremner about the Tories, from one of his shows earlier in the week -

"We're going to be a stealth government - people you've never heard of, doing things you wouldn't believe."

It's indeed very striking that for all Cameron keeps repeating the (mildly irritating) phrase "if you want a new team", we've heard virtually nothing from this most lightweight of teams over the last month.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In many parts of Scotland it's 'vote Labour, get Cameron'

At (the oddly scheduled) First Minister's Questions earlier this afternoon, Alex Salmond did a great job of driving home the truth revealed by David McLetchie's gaffe earlier this week - namely that votes for the Lib Dems and Labour in Scotland are essentially 'enabling' votes for Tory rule. It really drives a coach and horses through Jim Murphy's desperate (and depressingly familiar) attempts to hoodwink people into thinking that 'the only way' to prevent a Tory government is to vote Labour. In truth, it's not just that Labour aren't 'the way' to thwart a Cameron victory, they're not even 'a way' to do so. Thanks to the majoritarian voting system so beloved of both main London parties, if you live in Scotland and want to stop the Tories...basically, forget it. In most parts of the country, you simply don't have a part to play. While Jim Murphy mouths endless touching platitudes about how important it is for people to go out and use their vote (perhaps he should release a charity single?) he's quite content for your vote not to count for anything, and for the election to be decided over your heads in the 150 or so marginal constituencies - the overwhelming majority of which are in a few specific regions of England. In most cases, the only conceivable way out of this bind is to cast a vote for a party that refuses to legitimise such a rotten system.

However, for a lucky minority in Scotland, their constituency will genuinely be in contention tomorrow, and that's where anti-Tory tactical voting does come into play. Unfortunately for Murphy's argument, it's only in a small number of these seats that Labour are the party best placed to stop the Tories (ironically Murphy's own seat is one of those few exceptions). So I was particularly bemused to note that in the Daily Mirror's cut-out-and-keep guide of how to vote tactically to block the Tories, the SNP's vital role in many constituencies is mysteriously airbrushed out of the equation. I left this comment on Kevin Maguire's blog -

"I see in your tactical voting guide that you couldn't quite bring yourself to admit that there are at least four seats where only the SNP can stop the Tories - that's more than the number of Scottish seats where Labour are the 'Tory blockers'. In many parts of Scotland it's 'Vote Labour, get Cameron'."

To return to my earlier observation about Jim Murphy, I think the moment in the Scottish debates that made my blood boil like no other was when a member of the STV audience zoned in on the point about voters in safe Labour seats being effectively disenfranchised, and Murphy responded by saying - "I understand the point you're making, sir, but with respect I don't agree", before going on for the 1,147th time to recite his "We Are The World, We Are The Children" line about the only wasted vote being one that is not cast. Of course he did understand the point that was being put to him perfectly well, but you'd never have guessed it from the answer he actually gave. If he had been remotely sincere about treating that voter "with respect", he'd have addressed the substance of the question, and explained why in his position of power he's been quite content to uphold the injustices of the current voting system, rather than essentially patting the guy on the head and telling him not to think too deeply about the whole thing.

Do we really want a repeat of Ian Lang's '92 taunt?

The unionist party leaders on Newsnight Scotland tonight did an admirably good impression of three utterly baffled individuals, when Nicola Sturgeon was pointing out that the Tories were planning to 'claim as their own' Labour and Liberal Democrat votes in this election to justify their rule in Scotland, and that therefore only SNP votes could be regarded as true anti-Tory votes. But I think we all know that Tavish, Annabel and "The Snarl" doth protest too much. To understand why, we only have to recall Ian Lang's 'victory cry' the last time the Tories attained the full levers of elective dictatorship, despite attracting only a small minority of the vote in Scotland -

"Tonight, Scotland has said 'no' to nationalism, and Britain has said 'no' to socialism, and that's a double-whammy."

There can rarely have been a more brazen political taunt, given that implicit in it was an acknowledgement that Scotland had just voted 'yes' to socialism, or at the very least 'no' to five more years of Conservative rule. But that didn't matter, Lang was essentially saying, because the majority of Scots had just indirectly legitimised Tory minority rule by voting Labour or Liberal Democrat, on the basis that both those parties supported the continuance of the union. Precisely the same logic will apply this time round, as evidenced by the fact that Iain "the Snarl" Gray has just pronounced himself positively relaxed about the prospect of a Tory government that lacks a Scottish mandate - to his eyes, devolution is sufficient to resolve the issue of legitimacy. I doubt most Scots will agree.

So Tavish, Annabel and Iain - do you understand the point now, or will you be requiring a diagram?

Absence speaks louder than words

In the early afternoon, I had been planning to write a mischievous post about UKIP, after I spotted in the TV listings that they had put their leader Lord Pearson up for a four-cornered debate with the "three main parties" on immigration. I was going to say - what were they thinking? Hadn't they learned anything from Pearson's (intensely amusing, it has to be said) humiliation at the hands of Jon Sopel? I knew that Nigel Farage had resigned as leader to concentrate on his Buckingham campaign, but surely to goodness he could have afforded to nip away for a few hours to prevent another meltdown for his party on national TV?

But then I switched on the debate, and lo and behold, Farage was there in Pearson's place. It seems even UKIP are capable of spotting a dud leader when they see one...eventually.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

No postal vote numbers here, guv.

I'm very sorry to hear that Jeff Breslin may be facing the stress of a police investigation for revealing information about postal votes, especially since - a) if a mistake was made it was plainly an honest one, and b) no actual numbers were published in any case, only general impressions of which way the wind might be blowing. The latter point makes me think the complaint was nothing more than a stunt by the SNP's opponents, as I'd be amazed if anything comes of it.

But I asked this question on Political Betting after the Kerry McCarthy incident - is it just my imagination, or didn't a newspaper reveal precise figures for postal vote numbers (in Ochil for example) a few days before the 2007 Holyrood election? I certainly recall Nick Robinson making reference to what those numbers were showing on The Daily Politics - it sticks in my mind because I was furious that as a London journalist he was clearly allowing himself to be fed information by Labour sources only. I don't recall Robinson, or the newspaper in question, having their collars felt. Has the law been tightened in the interim?

Monday, May 3, 2010

'Braveheart was a long time ago...'

In my last post I briefly mentioned Richard Bacon's interview with Ieuan Wyn Jones on BBC3, which was one of a series of interviews with the party leaders specifically for the benefit of first-time voters. Each programme contained voxpops from young people, allowing them to articulate their concerns, and deliver their verdict on the political party in question. There was an interesting contribution from one guy on the programme featuring Alex Salmond, in which he expressed his disdain for the idea of Scottish independence in the following terms -

"Braveheart was a long time ago. You know what, English people? I forgive you. We still kicked your ass, but I forgive you."

A very witty line, but also of course a monumental red herring. It's an attempt to conflate two entirely different things - chippiness against the English, and a desire for Scotland to stand on its own feet as a normal independent country. Most British people got over America's uppitiness in 1776 a long time ago, but it doesn't logically follow from there that we all now want to be ruled from Washington DC. (Leaving Tony Blair's deepest longings out of this for a moment.)

In truth, and it may seem counter-intuitive to some, chippiness against the English is most commonly found among people who are - at least passively - political unionists. It's the 'ninety-minute nationalist' phenomenon identified by Jim Sillars all those years ago. People who have a victim complex on behalf of Scotland actually need the union to be maintained so they can carry on nursing their grievance indefinitely.

Salmond wins the best debate

It has to be said my own immediate impression of the TV debates during this campaign hasn't always borne a lot of relation to the 'definitive' version of events I've read in the newspapers the following morning. But, for what it's worth, I thought last night's was by some distance the best of all the debates (UK or Scottish), with an electric atmosphere, an air of spontaneity, and a moderator who was not only empowered by the rules to hold the combatants to account, but actually did so very effectively. Indeed, Glenn Campbell said a couple of things out loud that I've been waiting for someone to point out for weeks now. Firstly, that the supposed 'right to sack MPs' is being massively oversold, as it will seemingly only apply when an MP has explicitly been found guilty of wrongdoing by the parliamentary authorities, which won't be very often. Secondly, that the Liberal Democrats cannot credibly claim to be a 'new' party, when via their predecessor party the Liberals they've actually been around for longer than Labour, and just as long as the Tories. The SNP were in fact the youngest party involved last night, although even they go back all the way to 1928!

My other strong impression was that Alex Salmond emerged as the clear winner, with Alistair Carmichael failing to sparkle quite as much as he had in the two previous debates, and David Mundell once again living down to expectations. It's much harder to meaningfully assess Jim Murphy's performance, as I've always felt that he's a wooden, transparently insincere debater - and yet Hamish Macdonell somehow felt able to score him the narrow winner of the first STV debate. Evidently there's something I'm missing, and I missed it again last night. But at least Murphy resisted the temptation to tell us yet again about how "as a Scottish patriot, and as a Murphy, it gives me no pleasure to have to say that Ireland is very nearly as rubbish at governing itself as Scotland would be". Perhaps he's happy to give someone else a shot at being the toast of Dublin.

One mildly encouraging point is that, to my surprise, a couple of my (non-political) relatives were just as keen to catch this debate as they had been for the UK one on Thursday. Given that it received only a tiny fraction of the hype, I was amazed they even knew it was on.


No wonder Ieuan Wyn Jones looked utterly baffled when Richard Bacon asked him on BBC3 whether the English or the "French Celts" were the more natural allies for Wales. Would that be the Bretons you're talking about, by any chance, Richard?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Snooker sickener

Of all the professional snooker players I might just have thought capable of corruption, John Higgins - seemingly the gentleman of the game - would have been the absolute last. The apparent revelation today is a real sickener for his legion of supporters just at the moment he was due to once again become the official world number one after a vintage couple of seasons. His impeccable reputation is one reason why I (perhaps naively) think his explanation that he was "spooked" by the way the conversation was going, and just went along with it to make sure he "got out of Russia" in one piece, might just about be theoretically plausible. I wouldn't say it was likely on the balance of probabilities. But there's the rub - is the burden of proof in a disciplinary matter like this the same as in the criminal law? If so, it's hard to see how his version of events can be entirely disproved, unless there's more to come out.

But the real loser here is, of course, the nation of Ukraine. Nineteen years on from independence, and John Higgins still thinks Kiev is in Russia. Tut, tut.

SNP comfortably ahead of Liberal Democrats in TNS-BMRB poll

Rather infuriatingly, and for the second time in a row, Scotland on Sunday have made reference to a new full-scale Scottish YouGov poll on their website, without (as far as I can see) revealing the voting intention figures. However, judging from the commentary the SNP seem to be behind the Liberal Democrats. There's much better news, though, in a TNS-BMRB poll for the Scottish Mail on Sunday that puts the Nationalists in second place by a full seven points -

Labour 44%
SNP 23%
Liberal Democrats 16%
Conservatives 13%

We've become almost desensitised to the catastrophic figures for the Scottish Tories, but it remains the case that we could easily be just one week away from the utterly unprecedented situation of the UK party of government languishing in fourth place in Scotland, both in terms of votes and seats. That'll suddenly seem hugely significant if and when it comes to pass, even if it doesn't quite yet.

Much seems to be made in the reporting of this poll of Salmond having lower personal ratings than Brown, Clegg or Cameron. However, this seems considerably less important once you discover that the question actually asked was "which leader has impressed you most during the General Election campaign?". You can only admire the brazenness of the unionist media at moments like this. They move heaven and earth to ensure Salmond is barely seen during the campaign, and on the very rare occasions that he is seen, they ensure that he's certainly not given the same status as the 'national UK' leaders. Then they innocently ask the public if they've heard as much from Salmond as from the other three guys. The public ponders this for a moment, and says "actually, no...right enough, we haven't".

"Salmond campaign flops!" the unionist media triumphantly screams.