Saturday, August 8, 2015

Hi, I'm John MacKay. And the STV news.

In the wake of the local by-elections in Glasgow and Hamilton, in which the SNP required big swings simply to "hold" four seats, regular commenter bjsalba sent me this suggestion -

"You wrote "Welcome to the mad, mad world of by-elections conducted under STV."

Might be a good time to review STV in terms of how it works at the main elections - and how it works (or doesn't) in by-elections. Do you have any suggestions for an alternative system? Or changes to improve the current system? How is it done (or not done) in other European Countries?"

STV may have long been the Holy Grail for some electoral reformers, but it actually isn't a particularly popular system in Europe - to the best of my knowledge, it's only used here (for local elections), in Northern Ireland (for Assembly, local, and European elections), and in the Republic of Ireland and Malta (for all elections). So there are limits to what we can learn from international comparisons. The Republic of Ireland take the same approach to filling vacancies that we do - they hold by-elections, and just live with the fact that it undermines the proportionality of the system. By contrast, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, new members are simply co-opted from the same party that previously held the seat. That 'feels' much less democratic, but it actually ensures that the composition of the chamber remains more in line with the voters' wishes (albeit their wishes as expressed in an election that may have been a long time ago).

Neither approach is perfect, but then neither one is an automatic feature of STV, so criticism of any discrepancies that arise is not really a criticism of the voting system itself. I used to be an enthusiast for STV, but what started to change my thinking was the last Irish general election, when it became obvious in the run-up to polling that Fine Gael would probably win an outright majority if they received just 40% of the first preference vote. (In the end they fell short with 36%.) That just doesn't seem proportional enough to me. The problem is that STV discriminates against smaller parties, by creating quite a high de facto threshold to achieve any representation at all. It's not quite as bad as first-past-the-post in that respect, but it's bad enough.

The reason why STV is so highly regarded by anoraks is that it maximises voter choice. But there are other systems that allow voters to choose between candidates from the same party (as well as between different parties), while still producing more proportional outcomes.

* * *

I've been keeping an eye on the Labour leadership betting prices at Betfair, and I can't make head nor tail of what's going on. Jeremy Corbyn finally became the favourite for two or three days, before being overtaken again by Andy Burnham at the start of the week. Burnham then strengthened over recent days to become quite a clear favourite, but is suddenly trailing Corbyn again (marginally) right at this moment. Doubtless, the likes of Neil Edward Lovatt will be telling themselves that these fluctuations must reflect inside knowledge or a mysterious "wisdom of crowds" effect, but I have my doubts. I think it's more likely to be a herd instinct - punters assuming that other punters have inside knowledge, thus creating a snowball effect out of nothing.

Rationally, it seems to me that Corbyn should be an odds-against favourite. In other words, there is a greater than 50% chance that he will be beaten by either Burnham or Yvette Cooper in the final run-off. But as Corbyn seems to be virtually assured of a place in that run-off and the other two are not, his price should definitely be shorter than any other individual candidate's.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

SNP vote surges by 25% as heroic Hepburn is confirmed as Calton champion

As you probably know, there have been five local government by-elections in Scotland today - four in the City of Glasgow, and one in South Lanarkshire. We already have a result from one of the Glasgow wards...

Calton by-election, Glasgow (6th August) :

SNP 55.5% (+25.5%)

Labour 30.0% (-24.6)
Conservatives 4.7% (+2.1)
UKIP 3.8% (n/a)
Greens 3.6% (+0.6)
Independent - Ramsay 1.7% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 0.7% (-0.2)

The SNP's candidate Greg Hepburn was comfortably elected on the first count, albeit on an abysmal turnout of 16%. Glasgow in August - what do you expect?  I'll try to update this post as and when more information becomes available...

UPDATE I : The SNP's Eva Bolander has won the Anderston/City ward on the sixth count.

Anderston/City by-election, Glasgow (6th August) : 

SNP 48.1% (+18.5)
Labour 28.6% (-21.7)
Greens 13.8% (+3.3)
Conservatives 5.5% (+0.8)
Liberal Democrats 2.2% (+0.5)
UKIP 1.4% (n/a)
Libertarian 0.4% (n/a)

UPDATE II : The SNP's John Ross has won the Hamilton South by-election - looking good for a clean sweep so far.

Hamilton South by-election, South Lanarkshire (6th August) : 

SNP 48.0% (+15.4)
Labour 35.6% (-15.9)
Conservatives 8.9% (-0.3)
Greens 3.2% (n/a)
Christians 2.0% (-1.1)
UKIP 1.1% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 0.8% (n/a)
Pirates 0.3% (n/a)

UPDATE III : The SNP's Anna Richardson has won the Langside ward.  Just one more to go for the full house.

Langside by-election, Glasgow (6th August) : 

SNP 49.9% (+12.3)
Labour 21.8% (-14.0)
Greens 13.5% (+5.0)
Conservatives 8.9% (+1.5)
Liberal Democrats 2.9% (-4.4)
UKIP 1.5% (n/a)
TUSC 1.4% (-1.0)

UPDATE IV : And it's the full house!  The SNP's Alex Wilson wins on the first count at Craigton.

Craigton by-election, Glasgow (6th August) :

SNP 54.2% (+22.8)
Labour 33.3% (-20.1)
Conservatives 6.1% (+2.5)
Greens 2.8% (+0.7)
UKIP 1.9% (+0.9)
Liberal Democrats 1.8% (+0.9)

Believe it or not, the end result of all that effort for the SNP is a net gain of just one seat - and the gain is from the Greens rather than Labour, in spite of the fact that Labour won the popular vote on first preferences in four out of the five wards in 2012.  Welcome to the mad, mad world of by-elections conducted under STV.

I make it an average swing of just over 19% from Labour to the SNP across the five wards, which is only a couple of points lower than the impressive average swing of 21% we saw in the two Aberdeen by-elections a week ago.  As always, bear in mind that swing in local by-elections is measured from the baseline of the 2012 result, when the SNP already had a national lead of 1% over Labour.  So a 19% swing tonight is the rough equivalent of a 30% or 31% swing at the general election, which is pretty typical of what we saw in Labour's former heartlands on May 7th.

It's been a moderately good night for the Greens, and ironically their first preference vote surged by 5% in the seat they "failed to defend".  Ian Smart will also be excited to see that the Conservative vote is up across the board in Glasgow (but not in Hamilton).  Clearly all that was needed for a Tory renaissance was for Ruth Davidson to announce she was leaving the city for good.

Unlike the Daily Telegraph, a broken clock is accurate twice a day

I know that I'm picking on an easy target when I say that the Telegraph are often pretty clueless, but their treatment of the Labour leadership contest has been woeful even by their standards.  For weeks now, they've been adding little pre-prepared inserts to their online articles, describing Jeremy Corbyn as "the bookies' favourite to finish fourth" (even though for much of that time he has either been second-favourite or outright favourite to win), and Liz Kendall's chances of winning as "improving" (even though her campaign has been a dead duck for ages).  I see today that they've finally updated the inserts to declare Corbyn the favourite - which is rather unfortunate timing, because Andy Burnham was re-established as the clear favourite earlier this week!

They also make this weird comment -

"Under the old Labour electoral college that elected Ed Miliband, union-backed Jeremy Corbyn would be a shoo-in. But rules brought in last year limited the unions' power by eliminating the college and giving a single vote to each party member."

Utter tripe. Any radical left-wing leadership candidate would have been hammered under the electoral college, regardless of any support from the unions, because the parliamentary party had one-third of the vote. Each MP's vote was effectively worth several hundred times that of a rank-and-file party member or trade unionist. Corbyn may or may not win under the new system, but there's no doubt that it gives him a much better chance.

The destroyer of worlds

Seventy years ago today, a nuclear weapon was used for the first time in warfare.  It was an act of genocide, immediately and indiscriminately killing between 60,000 and 80,000 Japanese men, women and children. Within four months, the death toll had risen to anything between 90,000 and 165,000.  Tens of thousands more died as a result of long-term health effects over the following decades.  All because of a single bomb, and a single explosion.

Britain's nuclear weapons system is based just thirty miles or so from where I am sitting right now.  It consists of almost 200 warheads, each of which has EIGHT TIMES more destructive power than the bomb dropped on August 6th, 1945.

Both the Conservatives and Labour want to renew those weapons, at a cost of £100 billion.  That money will either -

a) be wasted on weapons that are never used.

b) cause the deaths of tens of millions of people, perhaps contributing to the destruction of human civilisation within a single day.

There is no third option.

That is all.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Will Burnham's cynical tactic backfire?

When I saw the headlines claiming that Andy Burnham had pledged to renationalise the railways, I initially thought that may well have been the moment that he clinched the Labour leadership.  If you think about a typical Labour member who is genuinely wavering between Jeremy Corbyn and the "mainstream" candidates, what he or she is crying out for is some red meat from a candidate deemed by conventional wisdom to be somewhat less "unelectable" than Corbyn.  Renationalising the railways looked like a masterstroke - it would be a policy dripping in symbolism for the left, but wouldn't actually diverge from public opinion in Middle England.  It wouldn't even be especially radical - it was official Labour policy under John Smith in 1993/94, and would represent only a very modest reversal of the huge programme of privatisation undertaken by the Thatcher and Major (and indeed Blair) governments.

But it turns out that Burnham wasn't proposing renationalisation at all.  He was simply reaffirming the Ed Miliband policy of allowing the public sector to compete against the private sector for individual rail franchises, as and when they come up.  What he did do, of course, was deliberately use a form of words which he knew would be misinterpreted as a commitment to renationalisation, in the hope of generating headlines that would win over left-wing waverers in a cost-free way.

In a nutshell, what Burnham has just done is a prime example of the insincerity and doublespeak that has driven people to consider Corbyn in the first place.  It'll be fascinating to see whether he's done it subtly enough to get away with it this time, or whether he's simply dug a deeper hole for himself.

Coming up tomorrow : Burnham calls for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes*

* In a mock trial to be held at a school for educational purposes.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What could be more nonsensical than the most sensible part of a ludicrous statement?

Kezia Dugdale in the Guardian -

"I want an elected second chamber for the UK and I believe it has to be based beyond London.

I’ll campaign for it to be based in Glasgow – where better than the biggest city of a nation that has just reaffirmed its commitment to keeping our country together? A yes city."

Is anyone else's head hurting?  It's obviously possible to pretend to misunderstand a statement from a Labour politician to make a mischievous point, but I genuinely had to read that several times before I had the faintest idea what she was talking about.  The first problem is that she uses the words 'nation' and 'country' in the same sentence and somehow expects us to know she means completely different things.  The only clue is the affectionate use of 'our', which is evidently meant to indicate that 'country' is a superior term, referring to Britain.  The inferior Scotland, which clearly 'we' have less emotional investment in, is merely 'a' nation.

Second problem : Glasgow is seemingly the most appropriate host for the UK's second chamber for two reasons - a) it's the largest city in 'a nation' that voted No in the referendum, and b) it's a city that voted Yes in the referendum.  Isn't that a total contradiction?  Or is it the contradiction itself that's supposed to make Glasgow so uniquely suitable?  Heaven only knows.

To get to Kezia's actual point rather than the extraordinary way she tries to explain it, this is the sort of thing that drives me mad about provincial-minded politicians.  Oh yes, she can "campaign" to her heart's content for something she has no power to deliver, and which is completely infeasible anyway.  Then her masters in London will pat her on the head, say no, and add "but isn't it wonderful to have someone so ambitious for Scotland?"

What does this fatuous charade mean or achieve?  If Kezia was making a serious point, she would campaign for the whole seat of parliament to be moved outside London - and probably not to Glasgow, but to somewhere central like Manchester or Newcastle.  At a stroke, that would transform the UK into a healthier nation state, where tens of millions of people are no longer suffering from the illusion that the far south-east corner where they live is basically the whole country.

Is there the slightest chance she will ever make that case?  Of course not.  That really would be getting above her station, and challenging the 'natural state of things'.  Instead, she makes the self-evidently daft proposal that the two chambers of parliament should be several hundred miles apart.  Can you think of any other country with such a ludicrous arrangement? 

Perhaps Kezia should take the advice Labour is forever doling out to the SNP - ie. forget the posturing, and concentrate on the powers she will actually have as Scottish branch office manager.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Euan McColm's examples of the SNP's "Blairism" are mostly policies Jeremy Corbyn agrees with

In a bid to upgrade myself in Euan McColm's mind from "idiot" to "f***ing idiot", I thought I'd take a quick look at his latest Scotland on Sunday column. As you know, I do accept that there's a grain of truth in his notion that the SNP would find itself to the right of a Corbyn-led Labour party (assuming Labour holds together after a Corbyn win, which is doubtful), and that this would at times be uncomfortable and disadvantageous. But his contention that the SNP are a centrist, Blairite party posing as left-wing, and that Corbyn would expose the fiction, is absurd.

Let's just run through some of McColm's specific examples...

1) 'The SNP are centrist because they're opposed to tuition fees, and that's a middle-class preoccupation.' But Corbyn is opposed to tuition fees as well, whereas Blair introduced them in the first place. You were saying, Euan?

2) 'The SNP are centrist because they would slash corporation tax.' The last time I checked, that policy had been abandoned. Unless you have psychic foreknowledge that it is going to be reintroduced, I can only assume that's a bit of a fib, Euan?

3) 'Corbyn is likely to raises taxes on the better-off, but the SNP have refused to use Holyrood's tax-varying powers.' Holyrood's tax-varying power is on the basic rate of income tax only - there's no option for singling out the better-off. More extensive powers are on their way, but they haven't arrived yet. Again, unless you've got psychic foreknowledge that the SNP will choose not to use the new powers when they do arrive, I'm not quite sure what your point is?

* * *

If Labour follow Eric Joyce's advice and withdraw their peers from the House of Lords next year, what would the Tories be forced to do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They would just find it much easier to get their legislation through. As things stand, the Lords is likely to be the more problematic chamber for the government over the next five years (they're way short of a majority there), but a Labour boycott would solve that problem at a stroke. Even if Corbyn becomes leader and adopts the SNP practice of refusing to nominate new peers, that would be mildly helpful to Cameron in resolving his arithmetical challenge.

From a Scottish point of view, there are two ways of getting rid of the Lords. The first is independence, and the second is a UK government committed to abolishing the upper house, or making it elected. The idea that there is a third option of depriving it of legitimacy and then shaming a Tory government into abolishing it is a total non-starter. You can't delegitimise an institution that never had any democratic legitimacy in the first place. It's less than twenty years since all the hereditary peers were still in place, which gave the Tories an obscene and permanent numerical advantage over all other parties combined. Did that lack of legitimacy trouble their consciences? Not in the slightest.

Is Ian Murray's triumphant tenure as Shadow Scottish Secretary drawing to a close?

I suggested semi-facetiously the other week that if Liz Kendall won the Labour leadership, she'd probably ennoble John "the Gardener" McTernan and make him Shadow Scottish Secretary. But in truth, I think we've all been assuming that Ian Murray has a guaranteed job until either the 2020 general election or Scottish independence (whichever comes soonest). As with so many other assumptions, that's been abruptly called into question by the Jeremy Corbyn surge. A couple of days ago, Murray made an extraordinarily rude and ageist comment about Corbyn (who is eighteen months younger than the current frontrunner for US President). He certainly didn't sound like a man gearing up to be the Islington MP's loyal Scottish lieutenant after the leadership contest is over.

It could be that he's just lazily assuming that the Labour party will, in McTernan's phrase, "come to its senses" in time for September. If so, he might see things differently in the event of Corbyn actually winning. But would he already have burnt his bridges by then? With almost any other leader, the answer would be yes, but Corbyn does seem to be remarkably magnanimous and free of grudges. The snag is, though, that Corbyn is also the only candidate proposing to reintroduce elections for the Shadow Cabinet, and with the best will in the world, it's very hard to imagine Murray being favoured by his parliamentary colleagues in a beauty contest of that sort. If the system works as it used to, the leader will be able to add a couple of unelected members (a bit like captain's picks in the Ryder Cup), but why would Corbyn waste his wildcards on Murray when he could use them to bring in allies like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott?

My guess is that a Corbyn win would trigger Murray's exit from the Shadow Cabinet, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Labour might then take a leaf out of Tim Farron's book and decide that having an elected party leader at Scottish level is sufficient, and that the post of Shadow Scottish Secretary is superfluous. At most, Murray might continue in a downgraded spokesperson role, if only to ensure there is someone to face David Mundell at Scottish Questions.

* * *

Is anyone else gutted that the Sunday Times has named eight Shadow Cabinet members who would refuse to serve under Corbyn, and Rachel Reeves isn't one of them? What does it actually take to get shot of her?