Friday, March 11, 2011

Seeking the gift of knowledge? Get a Ferrari.

"Let me tell you my background," said Nick Ferrari on tonight's Question Time from Edinburgh, when invited to offer some words of wisdom on the release of Megrahi. Given the gravity of his tone, I naturally expected I was about to learn that he had a position of some expertise on the matter. No, it turns out that he "has a show on LBC" and that irate Londoners have regularly been on the blower to tell him what a bloody awful thing those Jocks did. Yes, I think we get the picture, Nick. Later on, he authoritatively informed us that football doesn't cause half as much violence against women in England as it does in Scotland - he presumably knows this because Dave from the Office of National Statistics is a regular caller to his show. Clearly when I wondered aloud whether the link between Old Firm matches and incidents of domestic violence had been firmly established by statistical evidence I shouldn't have been looking towards academic research to provide the answers - Nick "The Encyclopedia" Ferrari was my man.

As for Douglas Alexander on the same show...well, I can only admire his brazenness. As he nodded furiously in response to Nicola Sturgeon's reminder that he had once described Megrahi's release as "stomach-churning", I wondered how on earth he was going to reconcile the reaffirmation of that view with the revelation that the UK Labour goverment of which he was part had wanted Megrahi released at all costs. Silly me - it turns out that it was merely the "scenes in Tripoli" after the release that he had been referring to as stomach-churning, and not the release itself. In that case, let's recap - the Labour government a) privately thought Megrahi's release was highly desirable, but b) thought (as did we all) that a triumphalist welcome in Tripoli was inappropriate. That being the case, wasn't it more within the Foreign Office's province to take steps to head off the latter problem, something they should have been in a position to do given Tony Blair's demonstrably close relationship with the Gaddafi regime?

Last but not least, we had David Dimbleby musing with a glint in his eye that Alex Salmond only likes to appear on Question Time when it is in England. Well, I can't claim to know for a fact why that is the case, but I'm prepared to hazard a confident guess. By my rough calculations, Question Time comes to Scotland somewhat less often than our 9% of the UK population would justify - the infamous show in Glasgow was a full four-and-a-half months ago, which even taking account of the Christmas break is a much longer gap than you'd expect. The producers can't really avoid having an SNP representative on during the Scottish editions, and Salmond may well have rightly calculated that his agreeing to appear only in non-Scottish editions is the sole way of ensuring that the party receives its fair share of participation on the programme. You can guarantee that if Salmond did routinely participate in the Scottish editions, there would have been no SNP representatives at all in shows recorded elsewhere. Not for the first time, it seems that Dimbleby is totally oblivious to the Anglocentric irony of his own bemusement.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why a Yes to AV would make it impossible for the BNP to win a seat at Westminster

I see from yesterday's Daily Mail that a Tory party panicked by the possibility of a Yes vote in the AV referendum is about to raise the silly spectre of "advances for the BNP" under a reformed electoral system. Now, I'm all for saying we shouldn't be squeamish about the potential effect of PR on representation for extremist parties - a fair voting system is a fair voting system, full stop. But the fact is that AV is not a proportional system, and far from making it easier for far-right parties to win seats, it will actually make it much, much harder. For a vivid illustration of why this is the case, let's have a look at the 2002 French presidential election, fought under a run-off system that is similar in principle to AV. Here is the first round result -

Jacques Chirac (Rassemblement pour la République) 19.88%
Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front national) 16.86%
Lionel Jospin (Parti socialiste) 16.18%

So if that had been a first-past-the-post election, Le Pen would have come within a terrifying three per cent of becoming President of France, on an absurd "mandate" consisting of less than a fifth of electors who turned out to vote. But as it was, the backers of the assorted eliminated candidates (Jospin was one of fourteen) were given the chance to express a preference between Chirac and Le Pen in the run-off vote. Look at the difference that made in terms of how close the National Front came to claiming the keys to the Élysée Palace -

Jacques Chirac (Rassemblement pour la République) 82.21%
Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front national) 17.79%

The lesson could hardly be clearer - if you want to make absolutely certain that Nick Griffin will not become an MP, vote to replace first-past-the-post with the instant run-off system AV.

Corsica to the rescue

I was encouraged to learn on a few blogs that France had pulled a late rabbit out of the hat in what thus far has looked like being the worst Eurovision since the 1999 contest in Jerusalem. Having had a listen to Sognu, I'd agree it's probably the best song in a very weak field, surpassing my previous favourite Taken by a Stranger (Germany). And I'll actually be able to vote for my favourite this time, because that won't transgress my long-standing personal rule of only voting for songs not performed in English. Better still, it's not even sung in French, but in the Italian-sounding Corsican language, which is the rough equivalent of the UK putting forward a Gaelic-language entry. I think we can safely assume that will never happen, given that it's difficult enough for Scottish acts to even get into the UK national selection - just one since 1997, with the last Scot to actually go on to represent the UK being Scott Fitzgerald way back in 1988. Indeed, on recent form, Scots have a much better chance of representing France or Cyprus than the UK!

The last remaining pieces of this year's Eurovision jigsaw are the Swedish Melodifestivalen final at the weekend, and the long-awaited presentation of Blue's UK entry on Friday night. As far as the latter goes, we're promised something wonderfully anthemic, and the best entry in years. Hmmm. I'll keep an open mind until I actually hear it, but as a reality-check it's worth bearing in mind that Pete Waterman honestly seemed to believe he'd crafted a potential winner last year...

UPDATE : The UK song has now been leaked, 24 hours ahead of its official unveiling, and the reaction so far seems to be overwhelmingly positive. It's not my cup of tea, it's not as distinctive as the French song, and it's not as imaginative as the German song. But, whether by luck or judgement, it's just possible that the powers-that-be have stumbled across the formula to take the UK to a second top-five finish in three years. Credit where it's due!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A one-way conversation on domestic violence?

There's an interesting guest post at Better Nation by Lily Greenan (who I met briefly at the Political Innovation conference in November) which observes that while there's a linkage between football matches and incidents of domestic violence, football itself is not the underlying problem. I must admit, though, that I winced when I saw Richard Gough on TV the other day talking about the link between Old Firm games and domestic abuse, because I actually had a nasty feeling he was trotting out an urban myth. Severe doubt has certainly been cast on similar claims in relation to other sporting events such as the Superbowl, so it would be interesting to know if there is hard statistical data to confirm this is really happening in Scotland. The idea undoubtedly seems intuitively plausible - football is such a dominant part of the lives of some that it's not hard to see how a defeat on the pitch could trigger violence in those already predisposed to it. But as someone pointed out to me the other day at considerable length, just because something seems intuitively likely doesn't necessarily mean it is actually happening, and it would be an error to simply take it as read without proper examination.

Either way, what troubled me more about Lily's piece is the implicit and familiar assumption that domestic violence is exclusively something that men do to women - or if not exclusively, then at least so overwhelmingly that it's not worth the trouble of acknowledging the existence of abuse that does not fit this pattern. For example -

"Women who experience domestic abuse talk about being controlled by their partner, isolated from family and friends, made to feel worthless. The violence their partner uses has a purpose – it reinforces the control he has over them."

"Men who abuse their partners don’t act in a vacuum."

"What is missing is real engagement with the wider public. In particular, what is missing is the voices of men. What is missing is a much needed conversation about what it means to be a man in Scotland today and why it is so intrinsically linked to violence and aggression."

I'd suggest something else is missing from the conversation as well. If "men's voices" are heard on domestic violence, some of them will be delivering uncomfortable and unwelcome truths - that they have been abused themselves. Some of them will have been abused by women. The million dollar question is - will anyone be listening?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Coalition catastrophe was written in the polls

I was slightly bemused to see a post from Political Betting's Lib Dem (but Tory-friendly) proprietor Mike Smithson in which he draws attention to a YouGov poll from last May that saw Lib Dem voters revealing by a margin of 4-1 that they would be "dismayed" if a Tory-Lib Dem coalition was formed. Smithson goes on to ask -

"Was the LD collapse all predicted in pre-election polls? Is the amazing thing that the yellows are not doing worse?"

Glossing over the obvious point that it's truly amazing that anyone thinks the Lib Dems could actually be doing any worse than they are, the first thing that popped into my mind is that Mr Smithson spent much of the period from 2007 to 2010 excoriating Labour for having failed to take heed of the crystal-clear polling evidence that had suggested all along that a Brown premiership would lead them to calamity. I'm wondering, therefore, why he didn't take his own advice on that fateful day last May when he wrote a post saying that he feared his party would be making a terrible error if they didn't opt to go with the Conservatives? It should never, in any case, have been that much of a revelation to learn that the Tory-leaning Clegg/Laws tendency was not remotely representative of the party's support at large.

Richard Nabavi also adds his two penn'orth on Mr Smithson's post -

"If those 43% didn’t want a LibDem/Con coalition, why the hell did they vote LibDem? Were they perhaps hoping for a majority LibDem government?"

You've gotta love PB. It seems the only two possible outcomes for the Lib Dems were majority government or a full coalition with the Tories. Aye, whatever.

Monday, March 7, 2011

TNS-BMRB : Labour list vote lead trimmed

Evidently while I was busy noticing that I'd been very slow on the uptake about the last Angus Reid poll, I was being equally slow on the uptake about today's full-scale Holyrood poll in the Herald -

Constituency vote :

Labour 44% (-5)
SNP 29% (-4)
Conservatives 12% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 11% (+4)

Regional list vote :

Labour 39% (-8)
SNP 29% (-4)
Conservatives 11% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 10% (+3)
Greens 6% (+3)
Others 5% (+3)

UPDATE : The ever-delightful Labour wind-up merchant "Braveheart" (ahem) popped along earlier to helpfully point out that I had the SNP's percentage share of the list vote wrong - it should have been 29%, not 33%. I've updated the figures above, and changed the headline to reflect the rather smaller cut of the Labour lead than the one I thought we were dealing with. However, I haven't updated the following text, so it should be read with the changed figure in mind...

It goes without saying that the constituency figures make for sobering reading, but a dramatic reduction of the Labour lead on the list vote (which in theory ought to be the more important of the two) offers some grounds for encouragement at this stage, with the proper campaign period - during which the SNP will have the considerable advantage of the most popular party leader - still to come.

As I've suggested before, the most important figure in this election could well turn out to be the combined support for the SNP and Tories - because even though those two parties are highly unlikely to enter into coalition with each other, they are also both unlikely to enter into a deal with Labour. Anything close to a combined SNP/Tory majority would therefore call into question the viability of a minority government led by Iain "the Snarl" Gray. On the constituency vote in this poll, SNP + Tory support comes to 41%, and on the list vote it comes to 44%.

Overall, these figures at least seem somewhat more plausible than the completely unrealistic Labour ratings that TNS-BMRB reported last time round - you don't need to be an expert in polling methodology to know that Labour were never going to receive 47% of the vote on the list. Indeed, even 39% still seems rather improbable given that Donald Dewar only managed 35%.

Last but not least, if James MacKenzie is telling us the truth when he says that the Greens are merely prudently keeping their options open about a coalition with Labour, he might want to urgently have a word with the Herald about it. They seem to see things in a rather different light -

"Despite likely Green support for a coalition..."

The way things are going, the "vote Green, get Gray" meme could soon be picking up a head of steam.

Angus Reid/Vision Critical subsample : SNP on 33% for Westminster

I must be slipping - it took an SNP press release to alert me to the latest Angus Reid/Vision Critical poll! I think I may have missed last month's as well. Here are the full figures from the Scottish subsample -

Labour 41% (-)
SNP 33% (-3)
Conservatives 13% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-2)
Others 7% (+1)

As I've mentioned a few times before, Angus Reid subsamples seem to be in a different category from those of other pollsters because the numbers are far more stable over time, suggesting they have been weighted. Whether they have been weighted accurately is of course the million dollar question - but on the face of it, these figures are far more encouraging for the Nationalists than the recent YouGov poll, because they relate solely to Westminster voting intention, and the SNP always score higher in Holyrood polls.