Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sagacity on Saturday : What Blairites mean when they talk about 'decentralisation'

"In the Soviet Union, whatever the Constitution said, in practice the constituent republics were run from Moscow and by local henchmen loyal to it. This is clearly Mr Blair's model of how Wales and Scotland are to be run after May 1999. Hence Alun Michael and the decision to people the Scottish Parliament only with leadership loyalists. The problem for Mr Blair is that the best conditions for the successful application of democratic centralism are a cowed, defeated nation and a supine press. This is also the challenge to the Scottish people and their media."

Tim Williams, writing in 1998, with a remarkably clear-sighted characterisation of how Tony Blair envisaged devolution working - basically as a rebranded version of the old Scottish Office, with London still indirectly pulling the strings via internal Labour party channels.  And he got his wish too, if only for the first eight years.  Let's have a quick straw poll - do you think the Scottish press have met the challenge that Williams laid down for them a decade-and-a-half ago?  (That may not be an entirely serious question.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Am I genetically programmed to review last night's Sturgeon v Lamont debate? Let's find out!

Derek Bateman's verdict was : "If there's been a worse 'debate' anywhere, I missed it."  To which the obvious response is : "You missed the one with Anas Sarwar, then?"

Of course it was dreadful, but it was hard not to sigh in despair when STV's Bernard Ponsonby of all people made a sanctimonious comment about "learning nothing from that".  These debates are the way they are because of the format that STV have consciously chosen.  The one with Sarwar was lambasted by one and all as a totally pointless exercise in which the only winner was indecipherable noise (hilariously punctuated with the odd random intelligible word from Sarwar such as "PANDAS!"), and yet STV clearly reflected on what happened that night and decided it was exactly what they wanted.  They're not interested in a sober format that helps to inform undecided voters, but in a bear-pit that excites political anoraks and creates the biggest possible social media buzz.

When the debate has effectively been destroyed (as it was both last night and in the one featuring Sarwar), by definition there isn't going to be a "knock-out winner", only someone who won on points.  Nicola Sturgeon was undoubtedly that winner, and although Ponsonby and his fellow pundit Colin Mackay did seem to just about concede that, I found the grudging nature of their verdict incomprehensible.  Yes, Lamont may have held her own in terms of demeanour, but don't we (at least occasionally) have to assess the actual content of what someone says?  Lamont's arguments were the stuff of the playground - how often did she say something like "but that's not your reason for wanting independence, you wanted independence BEFORE that".  Which basically translates as "that can't be your reason because you've got OTHER reasons as well".  Yes, Johann, most of us want independence for at least two reasons.  Some of us have more than five.  Crazy but true.

Probably the most satisfying moment of the night was when Lamont moronically suggested that the abolition of Trident wasn't Sturgeon's reason for wanting independence (yup, you've guessed it, because she wanted independence BEFORE that), and Sturgeon pointed out that she had joined CND before the SNP.  Lamont was momentarily struck dumb, before pathetically trying to rescue the situation by asking Sturgeon what her point was.

And I'm sorry, but how can anyone say that Lamont debated well when she waffled endlessly about extremely vague potential methods by which Trident can be got rid of without independence, and then failed to answer a direct question about whether she even wants to get rid of Trident or not?  It was Alice Through the Looking Glass stuff.

The classic line of the night that will echo down the ages was of course Lamont's mind-boggling "Scots are not genetically programmed to make decisions".  I presume what she meant (although I probably shouldn't be trying to get her off the hook here) is that Scots are not the only people capable of making decisions - from which we're supposed to conclude that it therefore doesn't matter who makes our decisions for us, or what those decisions are.  Decisions are decisions!  I can see how that might look like a fabulous point to a Primary 2 audience, but surely Ponsonby ought to have been raising at least one eyebrow?

It doesn't matter whether Holyrood or Westminster makes the decisions, you "still have to make the case" against things like the Bedroom Tax, Lamont tells us.  Well yes, of course you do.  It's just that it's a hell of a lot easier to make that case in a parliament that is 80% composed of opponents of the Bedroom Tax than it is in a parliament that is 60% composed of supporters of the Bedroom Tax.  Does Johann think Scotland would be in more danger of ending up with capital punishment being put back on the statute book if we were in political union with Texas than if we were in political union with Sweden?  "It doesn't matter, you still have to make the case against it!"  Jesus, give me strength.

Ponsonby and Mackay may think that Sturgeon only came out on top narrowly, but for those of us who inhabit the real world and are willing to form a judgement on the content of what was actually said, I think it was more like this -

Nicola Sturgeon (pro-independence) 7/10
Johann Lamont (anti-independence) 4/10

And Sturgeon is only as low as 7 because it was literally impossible for her to make her points at times due to the wall of noise - I'm struggling to see how anyone could have done any better in the circumstances.  The debates will only improve in quality when STV start placing their public service commitments ahead of their viewing figures.

Final thought : when Johann Lamont repeatedly asked Sturgeon if she was capable of taking "no" for an answer on the currency union, it occurred to me that this was as much a squeal of pain as it was an attack line.  The No campaign evidently thought that their opponents would be rattled by the coordinated announcement on the currency, but the calmness with which the Scottish government have stuck to their original stance (while taking no hit whatever in the opinion polls) has led to a few heads being scratched over at McDougall Central.  I still think that the SNP will eventually have to flesh out the most likely alternative to a formal currency union, but on reflection I think they've been entirely right to take their sweet old time about it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

So should Cameron debate with Salmond, or should he just butt out of the referendum altogether? "Er..." says Danny Alexander's aide.

I can't tell you how honoured I was to start my Tuesday morning by having a brief exchange of views with the "Head of Office" for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, no less.  (Although I presume that's the office in Mr Alexander's soon-to-be-ex-constituency of Inverness, rather than in the Treasury itself.)

Graeme Littlejohn : So, SNP don’t like English MPs coming to Scotland to intervene in #indyref debate, but want PM to come to Scotland to debate? #SNPlogic

Me : Cameron feels free to intervene in the #indyref at his leisure, but thinks the debate should be "between Scots"? #LondonLogic

Graeme Littlejohn : So does FM "PM would do well to butt out, certainly anybody who has a vote in Scotland is entitled to contribute to the debate"

Me : But he isn't butting out, is he? So what excuse does he have for not debating? Do explain.

Graeme Littlejohn : PM of UK certainly has the mandate to govern, and hold government meeting, in Scotland. But he doesn’t have vote on Sept 18th.

Me : Graeme, this is simple : do you think Cameron should butt out of the #indyref, or should he debate? Can't have it both ways.

Graeme Littlejohn : (no reply)

If I hadn't been restricted to 140 characters, I would also have pointed out that Graeme's argument is based entirely on the premise that yesterday's visit of the UK cabinet to Scotland for the first time in 90 years had nothing whatever to do with the independence referendum, and that Cameron never actually spoke about the referendum at any point during the day.  Defending that premise would certainly be profoundly challenging, but it would still be great fun to see someone give it a go.

(Duncan!  You're needed!)

*  *  *

Hot on the heels of that exchange, I also had a slightly longer one with the London-based "American turned Brit" comedian Erich McElroy, who boasts about his "Scottish heritage" and his quest to "save Britain" from Scottish voters taking part in the "Brit referendum".  (He's basically John Barrowman, but with a better singing voice.)  I've no idea whether his patriotic fervour is real or only for ironic effect, but given that I spotted his "I'm more British than you are" show in the Edinburgh Fringe programme last year, I'm guessing we might be dealing with the genuine zeal of a convert here.

Me : Cameron let out "cry of joy" at Bowie. Are we supposed to vote No to make our Tory overlords joyful?

Erich McElroy : It's not the Tory overlords I worry about. It's the lizard people.

Me : What's the difference?

Erich McElroy : Tory's often have nicer hair.

Me : "Often"? I rest my case : London Tories don't even have nicer hair than lizards on a consistent basis.

Erich McElroy : You must be able to say one nice thing about them?! And I don't mean the lizard people.

Me : I was hoping for guidance from you on that, as you're the one that wants Scotland to be ruled by them!

Erich McElroy : Did I say that? Hmmm let me check my past posts...

Me : Interesting. For clarity : you DON'T want Scotland to be ruled by Tories we didn't vote for?

Erich McElroy : Nope. Defo never said that!

Me : Hmmm. Call me cynical, Erich, but you appear to be ignoring my question. Uncomfortable area?

Erich McElroy : Cynical.

Poll of Polls : the long-term trend towards Yes - now in graphical form!

Huge thanks to Sandy Brownlee for providing this graph, which offers a visual accompaniment to the Poll of Polls long-term trend figures that I posted yesterday.

(Click to enlarge.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Poll of Polls : the long-term trend towards Yes

As the evidence mounts that journalists in the mainstream media (including the BBC, the Scotsman and the Guardian) have been letting their profession down all day by earnestly reporting the results of what is little more than a voodoo poll, I thought now would be an opportune moment to step back into polling reality and have a look at the long-term trend towards Yes that has taken place over the last few months. One or two people have asked me to provide some sort of graph for the Poll of Polls, which I would really like to do, but I've no experience of that kind of thing and I can't make head nor tail of the online chart generators that I've looked at. If anyone can point me in the right direction that will be great, but in the meantime I'll just give you the numbers. I'm hugely grateful to Ivan McKee of Business for Scotland, who retrospectively calculated the figures all the way back to September of last year and sent me his table.

The No campaign's lead in the Poll of Polls headline figures :

Sep 2013 - 20.2%
Sep 2013 - 20.0%
Sep 2013 - 18.4%
Oct 2013 - 17.9%
Oct 2013 - 17.5%
Oct 2013 - 17.4%
Nov 2013 - 17.5%
Dec 2013 - 17.1%
Dec 2013 - 16.3%
Dec 2013 - 16.2%
Dec 2013 - 15.8%
Jan 2014 - 14.2%
Jan 2014 - 14.8%
Feb 2014 - 14.8%
Feb 2014 - 14.7%
Feb 2014 - 15.1%
Feb 2014 - 13.6%
Feb 2014 - 14.0%

As you can see there was a very steady trend towards Yes until the start of this year, since when the position has oscillated somewhat, but we've nevertheless ended up right now with the second-lowest No lead to date - and that's from a sample that has a substantial post-Osborne chunk. Almost a third of the deficit (6.2% out of 20.2%) has been made up since September.

Norman Smith : I would say he's lost the plot, but did he ever have it?

The BBC's Norman Smith, he of the cringe-inducing "Sassenachs" monologue, continues in his fearless one-man quest to bring the standard of London media reporting of the independence referendum down to an even lower level. He tweeted this about an hour ago -

"Poll in today's Aberdeen Press and Journal gives huge lead for No campaign (65%) versus just 17% for independence"

Of course those numbers are mind-bogglingly implausible in the wake of four Scotland-wide polls by established pollsters in recent days showing very modest No leads of between 9% and 13% (and one of which put the No vote as low as 42%). So to say I smelled a rat would be to put it mildly, but to begin with I couldn't find any trace of the poll online. All I could do was post this reply -

"Norman, come on man : basic journalism. Who was it a poll of? Scotland-wide? Obviously not. Don't treat us like idiots."

Sure enough, it turns out to be a poll of "the north and north-east" only. But the numbers still aren't remotely credible even on that basis - there's no way a pollster like ICM would be finding Yes on 37% across Scotland if the figure in the north and north-east was even vaguely close to 17%. The Press & Journal give very little information about the poll's methodology on their website, but are billing it as the second poll of its type, following on from an earlier one in the spring of last year. That in itself should be enough to set alarm bells ringing about its credibility, because Professor Curtice and other analysts were unequivocal in treating the January 2014 poll conducted by ComRes in the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway as the first regional poll of this campaign, which implies that any poll in the north last spring was not regarded as serious. The P&J insist that their new poll is "an independent snapshot of public opinion", but in the absence of any hard information my best guess is that it's one of those "half-breed" polls - not quite a self-selecting voodoo poll, but not scientifically rigorous either. A rough equivalent would be the Scotpulse poll the other day that showed a dead heat between Yes and No across the country. You have to ask yourself this - why is Norman Smith trying to hoodwink people into thinking the P&J poll is something it's not, when it would presumably never even occur to him to give the Scotpulse poll the time of day?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

YouGov subsample spectacular

Just as a bit of fun, I thought it might be worth mentioning the results of the 206-strong Scottish subsample from today's GB-wide YouGov poll in the Sunday Times -

Westminster voting intention :

SNP 38%

Labour 33%
Conservatives 14%
Liberal Democrats 7%

That's the first time in ages that the SNP have had a clear lead in the Scottish subsample of one of YouGov's daily polls, but it gets better still -

Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?

Support 42%
Oppose 43%

And how likely or unlikely do you think it is that Scotland will vote to become independent in the referendum this year?

Likely (total) 41%
Unlikely (total) 48%

Economically, do you think Scotland would be financially better off or worse off if Scotland became independent?

Better off 38%
Worse off 39%
No different 11%

Economically, do you think it would be good or bad for the remainder of the United Kingdom to continue to share a currency with an independent Scotland?

Good 55%
Bad 20%

Of course, these figures are relatively meaningless - they won't have been properly weighted, and even if they had been the margin of error for such a small sample size would be a hefty 7%. All the same, though, that makes two Scottish subsamples of GB-wide polls today (the other is Vision Critical in the Sunday Express) suggesting that the referendum race is essentially tied, so it's an interesting straw in the wind.  I also have the general impression that the SNP's average vote on the YouGov daily poll has been creeping up over the last week or two - there seem to have been more polls showing them above 30% than usual.

In case anyone missed it, I made an important update at the top of the previous post to make clear that Panelbase have introduced a new and much more neutral preamble. The fact that the No lead in the new poll has only dropped by two points probably means that the preamble wasn't having as much of an impact as we feared (and may well not have been having any impact at all), but I'm still hugely relieved - it's important that we can all have confidence in the methodology, and that there is full transparency.  (UPDATE : OK, this is getting very complicated - I now realise that the new Panelbase poll was commissioned by the SNP, which means that the neutral preamble was probably used at their request, and that there must be a big danger of the subtly biased wording being reinstated in future polls for the Sunday Times.)