Saturday, June 23, 2012

Will Carwyn Jones be required to 'clarify' his remarks?

Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister of Wales, has very wisely suggested that it would be a good thing if Scots had a wider constitutional choice than just the status quo and independence. After all, the purpose of an authentic exercise in self-determination is to ascertain what the people actually want, not to dream up ever more bizarre excuses for not giving them a say on the option you suspect they want the most. The latter course is, however, the one that Jones' Labour colleagues in London and Scotland are hellbent on pursuing alongside their Tory allies, so if by any chance we see a hurried 'clarification' of the First Minister's views over the next few hours, we'll know that Welsh Labour autonomy isn't quite what it's sometimes cracked up to be.

On a related theme, I see that Johann Lamont has tried her luck taken another principled stand -

"We believe that the process of setting a single question should be taken out of the hands of elected politicians and given to relevant experts the public can have faith in."

I'd like to suggest a very, very minor adjustment to that proposal -

"We believe that the process of deciding whether there should be more than one question should be taken out of the hands of elected politicians and given to relevant experts the public can have faith in."

Can I assume Ms Lamont's new-found enthusiasm for technocratic decision-making is undimmed by this small enhancement?

* * *

This is the composition of the panel at a forthcoming 'explaining the mysteries of Jock chippiness to metropolitan sophisticates' event in London -

Henry McLeish (Unionist)
Danny Alexander (Unionist)
Margaret Curran (Unionist)
Fraser Nelson (Unionist)
Jim Mather (Nationalist)
John Curtice (Neutral Expert)
Mandy Rhodes (Neutral Expert)
Jon Craig (Non-Neutral Non-Expert)

You might be a tad concerned that this isn't the most balanced panel in history, but fear not - in true Question Time fashion, it's nothing that the last-minute addition of Melanie Phillips can't solve.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The broadening political horizons of North Britons

Perhaps because of the contents of my previous post, I've found myself thinking back to what happened the last time I posted a lengthy exchange from PB. I had been a bit startled that Kenny Farquharson went out of his way to tell me on Twitter that he thought I'd lost the argument. When I asked him why he'd reached that conclusion, he said "I just felt that the others' arguments were more convincing than yours". Given that the others had been putting forward arguments that someone with Kenny Farquharson's views was always extremely likely to agree with, and I had been putting forward a contrary opinion, I wasn't entirely convinced that a verdict based on such unspecific reasoning took us much further forward. He did add as an afterthought that he specifically disagreed with me that people in Scotland would be more interested in the Slovakian general election than in the London mayoral contest. That didn't really take us forward either, given that I hadn't actually made such an unlikely claim (I had merely said that I was personally interested in the Slovakian election), but it was nevertheless an insight into the assumptions that are routinely made about the limited horizons of 'North Britons'. It could perhaps be seen as a less sneering version of Tom Harris' dismissal of the notion that anyone in Scotland might feel somewhat Nordic - a case I'd like to have seen him make in Lerwick or Stromness, rather than in his comfort zones of London and Glasgow South.

But bearing in mind Farquharson's strictures about what types of elections we North Brits are and aren't interested in, isn't it extraordinary how much fascination there was at the weekend about an election in a smallish country in the eastern half of Europe, one that isn't all that far away from Slovakia in the overall scheme of things? There are almost certainly now a large number of Scots who can recite off the top of their heads the names of the three largest parties in Greece, and name-check at least a couple of the party leaders. Some of them were probably consciously rooting for either New Democracy or Syriza when the results came in on Sunday evening. Suddenly, it appears that elections in far-off EU lands of which we know little can indeed be exciting for the narrow nationalists of Britain (Northern Administrative Zone).

In a way it's quite inspiring that an election in Greece, of all places, was being billed in some quarters as "the most important election ever", with the leaders of the US and Europe supposedly trembling in anticipation of discovering the verdict of voters in Athens and Thessaloniki. Even if there was only a small grain of truth in that, it's a striking reversal of fortune from the normal scenario of the world's fate being decided by the 4% of its population who happen to live in the US. Of course it's a position of weakness that transformed Greece's political leaders into household names in the rest of Europe, but their new-found fame has in itself strengthened their hand, and by extension made the voices of Greek voters more powerful. The whole of Europe knows just how hard the new coalition had to work to eek out a narrow win against the anti-austerity parties, which means there will be considerably more sympathy for the idea of softening the conditions of the bailout.

But now for the reality-check - it almost certainly wasn't, of course, the most important election in history, nor even anything close to that. Indeed, it's hard to pin down what was really meant by that claim. It's true that the election was unusual in that a far-left party was vying for power, but it wasn't unique in that respect - Greece's neighbour and fellow EU member state Cyprus currently has an elected communist government, while a radical left-wing party is now part of Finland's complex governing coalition. So we can rule that factor out. Perhaps what was meant was that Greece's voters held the fate of the eurozone in their hands? If so, it's far from clear that the voters had such direct power to decide, because no-one really knew what the consequences of each potential result might be - or indeed if the result would make any difference at all to the outcome for the eurozone. A Syriza-led government might have surprised everyone by brokering a successful compromise from a position of strength, or on the other hand the New Democracy-led government might yet fail in its efforts to keep Greece in the euro. And if there's one lesson from the unravelling of the ERM in 1992, it's that markets can sometimes end up making the decisions on these matters, while the voters and even governments look on as spectators. So it would be misguided to automatically perceive either a Greek exit from the euro or a successful resolution of the crisis as being a direct product of the election result.

If Sunday's contest is to have even the slightest chance of being looked back on as literally the most important election in history, it would have to overcome some truly stiff competition. The result of the November 1932 election in Germany directly resulted in the abolition of democracy in much of Europe, the murder of six million Jews, and the greatest military conflict the world has ever seen. There were also a number of pivotal elections during the Cold War, such as the Italian general election in 1948 which looked set to produce a communist victory until the CIA got involved. The Americans weren't so successful in preventing a Marxist being democratically elected as president of Chile - at which point they naturally decided that Chilean democracy itself was surplus to requirements.

* * *

Once again, the most troubling feature of Sunday's election was the distorting effect of the rule which hands 50 bonus seats to the largest single party. It doesn't just distort the way that votes are translated into seats, but also the way in which people cast their votes in the first place. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence that moderate left-wing voters who probably would have preferred Pasok felt pressured into voting for New Democracy to prevent Syriza getting the bonus, while radical left voters felt pressured into voting for Syriza to prevent New Democracy getting the bonus. This effectively negated one of the primary purposes of proportional representation - to allow people to vote for their preferred party without fretting about unintended consequences. Just like first-past-the-post, the Greek system makes votes for New Democracy or Syriza more equal than other votes - the electorate know that, and alter their behaviour accordingly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mike Smithson's credibility as political analyst sinks to new low as he boasts that he "can't be arsed" to check his facts

I didn't see Alex Salmond's testimony before the Leveson Inquiry last week because I spent the day in Edinburgh, but one of my first clues that he must have come out of it rather well was the deafening silence emanating from Mike Smithson at Political Betting. For months now he's been gleefully seizing on any scrap of bad news for the SNP he can find, and if there isn't any bad news out there he'll just take some good news and turn it on its head, however implausibly. When Alex Salmond captured the mood of the nation by telling The Economist it would rue the day it had belittled Scotland on its front cover, Smithson confidently declared that the First Minister had "screwed it". When the SNP secured its historic local election victory six weeks ago, Smithson somehow reasoned that Salmond was one of the day's "losers". And most bizarrely of all, when long-time opponent of independence Sir Tom Farmer intimated for the first time that he was minded to vote Yes in the referendum if London forced through a single-question vote, Smithson informed his readers that it was a "gift for the unionist campaign"! So if there had been absolutely any conceivable way that Smithson could use his vivid imagination to write up Salmond's interrogation at Leveson with the use of words such as "SNP hubris", "SNP panic", "SNP catastrophe", etc, etc, you can rest assured he would have done it.

Instead what he appears to have done is bide his time, and hold back the rough draft of his latest account of fictional nationalist woe until he could find a more 'suitable' news story to hang it on. And what story did he select? Try not to laugh, but all he could come up with was that daft piece in the Scotsman (already effortlessly discredited) about the SNP supposedly banning the use of the word "independence". The man really is beginning to make himself look a bit silly. These kind of antics would be entirely unremarkable from openly partisan, Nat-bashing hacks such as Alan Cochrane or Iain Martin, but Smithson is someone who in the past has assiduously marketed himself as a dispassionate analyst of electoral trends, even winning a slot as a 'resident expert' on radio election coverage. That isn't a gig you'd expect to be given to a Cochrane Mark II.

So what the hell has he been playing at over the last few months? I can think of a couple of possible explanations for his behaviour. The first is that the SNP posters at PB have irritated him by not displaying the level of sycophantic deference he's accustomed to from the Tory Herd (including the highly partisan Tories he's installed as his moderation team), and he's now decided to take revenge. The second possibility is bound up in the nature of a site about political gambling - he has a self-image as a kind of 'seer', someone with a special gift for detecting changes in the political weather much earlier than others. Having fallen in love with one of his own pseudo-clairvoyant 'insights', he thus finds it very difficult to let go of it, regardless of what it is, and is inclined to seek out only confirmatory evidence. That leads him to a particular problem with Scotland, because viewing politics through the London media lens as he does, he has much less exposure to the sheer weight of inconvenient information that would otherwise force him to face up to an error of judgement. In any case, if anyone is going to come up with unusually early and perceptive insights about the SNP's prospects or about the referendum campaign, it's highly unlikely to be someone whose basic grounding in Scottish politics is so poor. To give a trivial example, we noticed a few years ago that he had completely misunderstood the meaning of the phrase "ninety-minute nationalist", based on a garbled account he had once heard. After we tried to help by explaining the true meaning, he decided to "correct" us!

In his article today, he yet again trotted out his fantastical interpretation of the SNP's local election victory as being some kind of devastating setback for the party. For the umpteenth time, I tried to set the record straight with a follow-up comment detailing the true facts and figures. But I knew that he hadn't shown any sign of noticing my previous comments, so the strange thought entered my head that I might send him an email instead. I planned to say something like : "Listen, it really is beginning to look as if you're genuinely unfamiliar with what actually happened in May, perhaps due to your limited exposure to the Scottish media. As the saying goes 'everyone has the right to his own opinions, but not to his own facts'. So I'd invite you to take a cold, hard, sober look at these actual results from the local elections, with changes from 2007 provided in brackets. No-one can have any complaint about any subjective analysis you might then produce, just so long as it's rooted in the arithmetical facts that the rest of us recognise." I was going to add that although he was entitled to argue the case for his subjective perception of SNP panic and disarray, the evidence for it seemed pretty threadbare from where I was sitting. Lastly, I was planning to point out that one thing there was very little doubt that he'd got wrong was his belief (also trotted out again today) that the SNP had 'misread' its Holyrood landslide last year as being a vote for independence, and had impulsively decided to hold a referendum on that basis. That, I intended to inform him, was an absolute dead giveaway of the gaping holes in his knowledge about the Scottish political scene, for reasons I set out in a previous post.

But I'm glad I didn't bother doing something as constructive as writing the email, because he did in fact respond to my comment this time, and what he said removed any doubts in my mind that his new-born Nat-bashing stance is anything other than utterly mindless in character, and impervious to greater acquaintance with factual reality. I'm going to reproduce the full exchange here, but first of all I'd better provide a little glossary of lingo for those who are unfamiliar with the scary right-wing swamp that is PB...

"Can't be arsed" : As noted a few times before, this is one of Smithson's absurdly over-used pet expressions, along with "Gawd". Alas, we only heard one of the two today.

"OGH" : Stands for 'Our Genial Host', an affectionate name the Tory Herd have awarded to Smithson, who now uses it for his Twitter account. Whoever first dreamt it up clearly had a splendid sense of irony, given the foul-mouthed abuse Smithson routinely subjects his 'house guests' to (he once called a leading Labour poster a "sh*thead"), and also given his summary banning of SNP poster Stuart Dickson for the heinous crime of referring to one of his posts as "pure comedy gold".

"Hubristic" : With typical self-awareness, this is what Smithson has repeatedly accused the SNP of being.

"Devo Max" : In PB terms this is not, as you might think, a reference to maximum devolution, but instead the name of a trolling anti-SNP poster who I and a number of others strongly suspect to be Tom Harris. For the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that Harris has categorically denied to me on Twitter that he is Devo Max. That may be significant, because as far as I can remember he never explictly denied being "Admin" of Labour Hame fame. However, DM's writing style is identical to that of Harris, and sometimes he repeats almost word for word things that Harris has said elsewhere. Whoever he is, he clearly has something to fear if his identity ever emerges, judging from the extraordinary level of special protection that Smithson and the moderators have accorded him.

And now to the exchange itself. Along with Smithson's jaw-dropping admission that he "can't be arsed" to check if he actually has his facts right, look out for the gloriously ironic bit where he seizes upon the suggestion from another poster that the difference between the SNP's local election and Holyrood performances on the same day in 2007 can be used as a baseline to produce an 'adjusted' figure for this May, and to judge how well the party is actually doing in rough comparison to last year. Smithson triumphantly declares that this is a great point, but that facts like those will "never convince Mr Kelly". The only snag being that this is precisely one of the great points I've been repeatedly making to him over the last few weeks (such as HERE), and that he's been studiously ignoring. It'll be fascinating to see if he really is going to take it on board now, because an adjusted figure from the local elections to take into account the SNP's greater popularity at Holyrood would give the party a projected constituency Holyrood vote share of approximately 37% - enough to remain comfortably the largest party. And that's before we even take into account the fact that the local elections were a mid-term poll, and that accordingly you might reasonably expect the SNP to do even better than such a projection.

Me : "the SNP came out with a overall vote share in Scotland of 32%. That was some way short of the 45% of the Holyrood elections a year earlier."

Mike, will you please confirm what I know you would say in any other situation - you simply cannot make direct comparisons between different type of elections. I note that you're using a slightly different form of words from the "SNP vote share fell 13 points" that you've trotted out 574 times in the last six weeks - I trust that's some indication that you realised what a fool you were making of yourself by trying to paint the SNP's historic victory in the local elections as some kind of defeat. Let's try to build on that limited progress, shall we?

Here are the facts :

1) The SNP's vote increased by 4.5% in May. That was a higher increase than Labour enjoyed.

2) The SNP's number of councillors increased by 63. That was a higher increase than Labour enjoyed.

3) The SNP won the popular vote for the first time ever in local elections, and won the highest number of councillors for only the second time ever. In a nutshell, they won the election on every measure.

4) When the local elections took place on the same day as the Holyrood elections in 2007, the SNP were several points lower on the local election popular vote than on the Holyrood vote - unsurprising given their parliamentary strength in rural areas which tend to elect independent councillors. They were also behind Labour on the local election popular vote, but ahead of them at Holyrood. That is the context in which the SNP's margin of victory last month needs to be seen.

5) They achieved their victory in mid-term, after five years in government, at a time when you would expect an incumbent government to be hammered in local elections, rather than making sweeping gains.

6) Labour did not "gain overall control" of Glasgow except in the very technical sense that they regained seats lost to mass defections. The SNP had a substantial net gain in Glasgow, Labour had a net loss compared to 2007.

7) The SNP did not "tell the world" they were going to win Glasgow. They told the world it was their aim, and they were right to do so.

8) Glasgow was not the SNP's "principal target" as Mike repeatedly claims. Scotland was their rather bigger target on May 3rd - and they won it.

Carlotta Vance : Thank you for once again rehearsing your different interpretation of the results from OGH. Care to turn your attention to the topic - why the SNP want to avoid 'Independence'?

What do you think of the unionist 'A Stronger Scotland. A United Kingdom'? I think it's rather good - focussing on positives..

Me : "Care to turn your attention to the topic"

I don't need to 'turn' my attention to the topic - I addressed at great length why much of Mike's thread-header was based on a false premise.

"why the SNP want to avoid 'Independence'?"

If they are doing so, no-one seems to have told some of their senior spokespeople, who have carried on using the word. My assumption is that it's largely an embroidered story. Even if we were to take it at face value, the decision was to use "independent" rather than "independence", which is rather less radical than Tony Blair's decision in 1994 to start using "schools and hospitals" rather than "health and education". Was Blair's decision a sign of "blind panic", Mr Smithson?! If so, it was rather constructive panic, given the result of the 1997 general election!

"'A Stronger Scotland. A United Kingdom'?"

My first thought is that it's something of a mystery how Scotland would become "stronger" by retaining the status quo. Surely the most they could reasonably claim is that Scotland would remain "as strong" - unless of course Cammo is about to put some flesh on the bones of the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan that might be implemented after a No vote if we're very nice to him.

Moniker of Monza : James , why did the SNP vote drop from 45 % in 2011 to 32 % in 2012 ? What's up ?

Me : Moniker, did UKIP's vote fall a disastrous 14% between the 2004 European election and the 2005 general election, and then rise an astonishing 14.5% between the 2005 general election and the 2009 European elections?

Or would it be more meaningful to say that different types of elections aren't comparable because people's voting habits are different, and that UKIP's vote stayed more or less steady between 2004 and 2009?

I've already pointed out the hard evidence we have that the SNP poll a lower share of the vote in local elections than in Holyrood elections. And that's before we take into account the mid-term factor - on that basis a 4.5% increase in their share of the vote was truly remarkable.

Mike Smithson : As I said in the header the SNP is putting a brave face on its May 2012 disaster.

The idea that you can't compare elections one year to what happens a year later is bullshit and you know it. What do you think the national equivalent share and other projections put out by Rallings and Thrasher is after each set of May local elections.

You cannot get round the fact that the SNP vote dropped enormously between May 2011 and May 2012. 45% to 32% is huge.

Also the way you skim over your party's abysmal failure in Glasgow is pathetic. I can't be arsed going back through the records but you expectation that you'd take the city was stated time and time again by your party.

So stop bullshitting and deal with the issue.

The SNP gives the impression of being scared out of its mind by the referendum which is why it is desperately trying to find a way of taking some of the negatives away.

Me : "As I said in the header the SNP is putting a brave face on its May 2012 disaster."

"Disaster"? Are you on drugs? How on earth can you portray a 4.5% increase in their share of the vote, 63 extra councillors, their first ever triumph in the popular vote, etc, etc, as a "disaster"?

Do you actually want to retain whatever credibility you have in the mainstream media as a serious analyst, or do you just want to be a Nat-bashing troll 'cos Mick Pork and Stuart Dickson have been beastly towards you? The evidence, I have to say, is pointing to the latter. It's sad.

"The idea that you can't compare elections one year to what happens a year later is bullshit and you know it. What do you think the national equivalent share and other projections put out by Rallings and Thrasher is after each set of May local elections."

I think that's a way of comparing LOCAL ELECTIONS from year to year. You know, contests in which Liberal Democrats always have a higher national share than at general elections - a fact that serious analysts take account of. Or if the Lib Dems got 24% in a local election, and then 18% at the general election, would you describe that as a 6% drop, or would you make the comparison with the previous general election? I suspect it would be the latter somehow.

And how does your brain cope when (as has happened several times) local and general elections take place on the same day, and the Lib Dems' national share is several points higher in the locals? Do you regard that as a "catastrophic drop of 7 points in the space of just 0.0007 microseconds", or do you maturely note that people vote differently in different types of elections?

"I can't be arsed going back through the records"

Oh WHAT a surprise. Mike Smithson "can't be arsed" to check he's got his facts right.

"So stop bullshitting"

You're the one that's bullshitting, mate, and you damn well know it. My strong suspicion is that you decided on the 'SNP disaster' line before you'd even bothered to check the national results, and now you're desperately trying to mould the facts to fit your narrative. Rather hubristic, I'd have thought. I'm afraid facts are chiels that winna ding.

"The SNP gives the impression of being scared out of its mind by the referendum"

Well I dare say it might look like that if you get all your Scottish news from the Mail, the Telegraph, Devo Max, and your own vivid imagination. I and other SNP supporters have been waiting for this referendum all our adult lives, and at times thought we'd never achieve it - no, Mike, "scared" is not the word.

Stephen Curtis : The difference between the Scottish Parliament election list result and local election in 2007 was 3.1%. In 2011/12 the difference was 11.7%. So even making an adjustment, the SNP were clearly down on 2011, by at least 8.6%.

Me : If Mike would at least concede that such an adjustment needs to be made, we'd be making progress. As it is, he's sticking his fingers in his ears and trying to sustain the ludicrous idea that Holyrood and local results are directly comparable.

And, by the way, the difference between the SNP's Holyrood constituency share and local election vote in 2007 was even bigger than that - it was a full 5%.

Stephen Curtis : Since the Scots seem to have got the hang of this split ticket thing, I look forward to the miserable SNP performance in 2015 of say 23% being hailed as a great 3% advance...

Me : "23% being hailed as a great 3% advance..."

It certainly would be a 3% advance - I hope you're not going to go all Smithsonian on us and claim that the correct comparison is with the Holyrood election (ie. a "22% fall"!). Whether that would constitute a "great" advance is obviously a matter of perception, but it would certainly be the SNP's second-best ever showing in a Westminster election.

Mike Smithson : Thank you Stephen a very good point. I hadn't thought of going back to 2007 when both the local Scottish elections and the Holyrood ones were held on the same day.

Unfortunately facts like this will never convince Mr. Kelly who refuses to deal with the main point that the SNP performance in May was sharply down on 2011.

Me : "I hadn't thought of going back to 2007 when both the local Scottish elections and the Holyrood ones were held on the same day."

But luckily, Mike, I had thought of doing that. That was probably why I mentioned it in the post you appeared to respond to earlier. Couldn't you "be arsed" to read the whole thing?

"Unfortunately facts like this will never convince Mr. Kelly who refuses to deal with the main point that the SNP performance in May was sharply down on 2011."

If you're taking Stephen's point on board (something that I would wholeheartedly welcome, although it's only one important point out of the several you've conveniently ignored thus far), can we now look forward to you dispensing with the "SNP vote fell 13 points" fantasy you've been trumpeting for the last six weeks?

Tub of Lard : It can't always be that rosy in 'SNP Paradise' ?

Come on James. Give us a wee bit of constructive critcism of your beloved party its performance, or its leader.

.....or failing that, your eight 'Desert Island Discs'.

Me : "Give us a wee bit of constructive critcism of your beloved party and its performance."

Their performance in the 2004 European elections was crap. I disagree with them on the monarchy, Trumpton, and certain aspects of gender politics, as I've rehearsed here umpteen times. Funny how when I do that the PB Tory complaint goes from "Kelly never criticises his beloved party" to "SNP out of touch with its membership"!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Scottish Roundup

Just a very quick note to let you know that I'm the editor of this week's Scottish blog roundup - you can read it HERE.

I was all set to write a rambling post about Greece's shock Euro 2012 victory last night and its potential impact on the election today, but on reflection I've decided to declare my blogging duties well and truly done for the weekend!