Saturday, November 28, 2015

There are no consolation prizes for getting it wrong because you erred on the side of caution

As you may have seen, Derek Bateman commented yesterday on my post about his views on the timing of a possible second independence referendum.  I won't try your patience with a full dissertation by way of a response, but there are a few points that I'd particularly like to pick up on.

Firstly, very loud alarm bells started ringing in my mind when I saw Derek's suggestion that demographics are working in favour of the independence movement.  That's a slightly softer version of the refrain we often hear in the comments section of this blog that "more No voters die every day", and that the main thing we have to do is wait for the slow passage of time to weave its inevitable effect.  I don't think that's so much a complacent view as just entirely misconceived.  If you trawl through the archives of Scotland on Sunday from fifteen or so years ago, you'll find a headline story about a poll of teenagers showing that people who hadn't reached voting age yet were strongly in support of independence.  SoS concluded (somewhat provocatively) that the SNP were entitled to take the same view as Sinn Fein : "Our day will come."  All they had to do was be patient, wait for a generation to pass, and independence would fall into their laps.  In fact, a generation did pass, those teenagers became voters, and yet by 2012 the independence movement had a larger deficit in the polls than for many years.  It took a referendum campaign to turn that around, not a further dose of patience.

As I alluded to in my post the other day, there were a number of polls in 2005/6 (including one from YouGov) showing a lead for independence.  Indeed, there was a famous poll in the run-up to the 1992 election giving 50% support for independence, even though a three-option question had been asked.  It's very difficult to track down datasets for old polls, but if we could, it's highly likely we'd discover that the strongest support for independence was among the younger age groups, just as it is now.  So the believers in demographic inevitability could easily have said in 1992 or 2005 : "Aha!  All we have to do is wait for ten or twenty years, and Yes will be completely out of sight."  If anyone did say that, they must have been scratching their heads slightly at the state of play in 2012 and 2013.

The flaw in this whole line of thinking is, of course, that the independence movement does not "own" people who say they support independence at any given moment in time.  The biggest changes in public opinion are not caused by older voters dying or by younger people becoming old enough to vote, but simply by people changing their minds - and that can happen in either direction.  The idealistic teenagers of 1999 are today's working-age adults with bills to pay and a different set of priorities.  The bullish fifty-somethings of September 2014 will be the pensioners of 2029, and may well develop the same fears as their forerunners.  Demographic shifts are not our enemy, but they're not our friend either - they shouldn't affect our thinking on the timing of a second referendum.  Whether that vote is held in five years' time or thirty years' time, it will have to be won through hard persuasion.  There are no short cuts.

The second assertion of Derek's that I want to take issue with is that a second referendum defeat would be "the end".  What does that mean?  Does it mean the end for a generation?  If so, I'm struggling to understand how we'd be in a worse position, because we're effectively being asked to put off holding a referendum for a generation in order to, killing the issue for a generation.  Why is the generational wait less bad if it's self-imposed?

Of course, Derek could mean that a second defeat would be the end for all-time.  If so, I just think that's wrong.  Twenty or twenty-five years is an eternity in politics, and voters won't be impressed by the idea that they can or should be bound by something that happened such a long time ago.  You only have to look at the arguments that were put in favour of the in/out EU referendum : nobody under the age of X has ever had a say, and nobody could have foreseen in 1975 what Europe would look like today.  Very similar arguments will apply in respect of the independence question once enough time has elapsed, irrespective of whether there has been two previous referendums or only one.  And if you want to be reassured that there's no supernatural law preventing a country holding a third (or even fourth) independence referendum, I'd point you in the direction of Puerto Rico.

Thirdly, Derek has reiterated (and indeed amplified) his point that it's an insult to all Scots who voted in the referendum last year to be even talking about the possibility of another referendum so soon.  I must say I struggle with that line of argument.  The way that the Labour party show respect for the democratic process is by accepting that the Conservatives are the legitimate government at present, and that there can be no change of government until there is another general election.  They don't do it by saying that there shouldn't be another general election, or that the next election should be postponed indefinitely, or that they won't put up candidates in the election.  By the same token, we show our respect for the people's verdict in the referendum by accepting that we are part of the United Kingdom at present, and that we won't and shouldn't cease to be a part of the UK unless the electorate freely decide to reverse their decision.  That would be a two-stage process - firstly, they would give a parliamentary majority to a party or parties with a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and secondly they would vote Yes in that referendum.  If either or both of those things never happen, last year's result remains in force indefinitely and we remain part of the UK.  Our respect for democracy is total and impeccable because we accept that.  We aren't going to declare UDI.  The more interesting question is how respect for democracy can be reconciled with the view that the Scottish people should be denied a referendum even if they vote for one.

Derek's objection seems to be that a referendum would just be one manifesto commitment out of many, and that the mandate for it wouldn't be clear or binding.  That's fine as a debating point, but it falls apart when you think about it in a real-world context.  If the SNP have any mention of a referendum in a future manifesto, the opposition parties will ensure that it completely dominates the election campaign.  For heaven's sake, they ensured that it dominated the 2015 general election campaign even though the SNP manifesto DIDN'T propose a referendum!  So there's not much danger of a mandate for a referendum being won by accident.

The broader point I would make about the need to respect the voters' verdict is that Derek seems to view the referendum outcome as totally self-contained, whereas I think most of us now see it as merely the first act in a two-act drama.  It was said more than once in the days after the referendum that something truly extraordinary would have to happen for an early second opportunity to come around, but the fact is that something truly extraordinary has indeed happened - the SNP won all but three Scottish seats at the general election, and pro-independence parties won an absolute majority of the votes cast.  OK, that isn't sufficient in itself to trigger a referendum, but the idea that it changes absolutely nothing is, I think, quite difficult to sustain.  David Cameron sought a No vote on the basis that all options for further devolution were on the table and all were possible.  The Scottish people took him at his word by voting No and then using the general election to express their wish for maximum devolution to be granted.  Cameron has cheerfully ignored the second part of that mandate, and indeed has retrospectively redefined the No vote as precluding the possibility of maximum devolution.  That cynical sleight of hand has not gone unnoticed, and I would suggest the average voter would not find it unreasonable that the prospect of a second referendum has been brought at least somewhat closer as a result.  I also think most voters will have been nodding along when Sally Magnusson put it to Jim Murphy that, irrespective of what the SNP themselves said, it was just a statement of common sense that an SNP landslide was bound to reopen the question of independence.

Paul Kavanagh has said that the correct time to hold a referendum is when we're going to win.  I almost agree with that, but with a slight modification : the correct time to hold a referendum is when we have a better chance of winning than we will at any future time.  If the chances of winning in 2019 are 40%, but we have good reason for thinking they would rise to 70% by 2027, the right thing to do is wait.  But if we think a 40% probability is likely to prove our high watermark, it's absolutely rational to go early even though the odds would be slightly against us.  Derek thinks it would look "desperate" to push ahead because of a fear that the political seasons will change.  I'd call it realism.  I'm not sure whether it would have looked desperate for James Callaghan to call an early election in 1978, but there can't be many people on the Left who don't think that would have been a price worth paying for averting Thatcherism.  It also seems highly probable that the Yes vote in the first devolution referendum would have been higher if the ballot hadn't taken place just after the winter of discontent in 1979.  Seasons do change, unfortunately.  It really shouldn't be a controversial point to say that the time to make the next push for independence is when the SNP are still in the ascendancy, not when they're in a long spell of opposition and Nicola Sturgeon has been long since replaced by a less popular successor.

Of course, it's impossible to know for sure whether your stock is going to rise or fall in the near future - it just comes down to instinct, or educated guesswork at best.  But there are no consolation prizes for getting the timing wrong because of over-caution rather than rashness.  If you succeed in arguing for a twenty year delay, and if at the end of that period First Minister Dugdale (or whoever) is at 50% in the polls and independence has reverted to being a pipe-dream, I'm coming looking for you.  I don't have your address, but Maryhill isn't that big.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Daisley Commandments (even God only had ten)

1. Thou shalt give daily thanks to the United States of America, the greatest force for good in the modern world.

2. Thou shalt give daily thanks to the State of Israel, which sitteth at the right hand of the United States of America, and is the second-greatest force for good in the modern world.

3. Thou shalt referreth to the Israeli invasion and annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem as "the liberation".

4. Thou shalt calleth the West Bank by its true name of "Judea and Samaria".

5. Thou shalt commit extra-judicial killings.  (Note : This commandment only applieth if thou art a member of the American, British or Israeli security forces.)

6. Thou shalt torture.  And thou shalt make damn sureth thou calleth it "enhanced interrogation techniques".

7. Thou shalt speaketh of the achievements of the Lord thy Blair with songful joy in thy heart.

8. Thou shalt honour the memory of thy Blessed Mother, the Lady of Finchley, for restoring thy love of freedom.

9. Thou shalt unreservedly idolise any billionaire children's author in thy midst, even if she does imply thou art a Nazi.

10. Thou shalt vote Liz Kendall.

11. Thou shalt titter at my hysterical anti-Palestinian one-liners, on pain of being mocked by all right-thinking men for lacking intelligence and a sense of irony.

12. Thou shalt perceiveth no contradiction in my claims to be both a traditional Labour man and a centre-right commentator.

13. As thou profess my Gospel, thou shalt say to unbelievers : "We are right.  You are wrong."

14. This last one's for you, Tatchell : A lifetime of campaigning for human rights and equality is no excuse for supporting a Palestinian state, m'laddio.

SNP live the high life in Fife as they soar to two by-election wins on big swings

There were two by-elections in Fife yesterday - and they both featured the familiar STV paradox (so lovingly misunderstood by Lib Dem commentators when it suits them) of a party 'defending' the seat in spite of having lost the popular vote in the ward last time around.  Labour would have technically 'gained' both seats from the SNP simply by standing still - but to put it mildly, they failed to do so.

Rosyth by-election result :

SNP 45.2% (+9.4)
Labour 34.5% (-13.2)
Conservatives 9.1% (+3.3)
Liberal Democrats 3.6% (-3.5)
UKIP 3.3% (+0.7)
Independent - Macintyre 2.5% (n/a)

Dunfermline North by-election result :

SNP 43.5% (+11.9)
Labour 29.6% (-19.7)
Conservatives 12.5% (+5.9)
Liberal Democrats 9.5% (-4.1)
Greens 2.6% (n/a)
UKIP 2.4% (n/a)

(Note : I've already had to make a slight adjustment to the above figures based on my own calculations, because there was a small error in the Twitter reports of the Dunfermline North percentage changes.)

The swing from Labour to SNP in Rosyth was 11.3%, and in Dunfermline North it was 15.8%.  To make sense of those numbers, you have to bear in mind that the SNP start from a much higher baseline in local elections than they did at the general election.  So the average swing of 13.5% in the two wards is the rough equivalent of a 25% swing in May - which is very much within the range of swings we actually saw across former Labour heartlands, albeit not at the top of that range.

It looks as if the SNP are performing almost exactly as well in this part of Fife as they did at the general election (the swing in Dunfermline and West Fife in May was 27.1%).  That will give them enormous heart after one or two recent Scottish by-elections in which they did OK rather than spectacularly well.  And there's certainly no sign in these results of any electoral fallout from the Natalie McGarry controversy.

Once again the Conservatives have achieved tolerably good results, although the jury is out on whether that reflects a true increase in their popularity, or is simply caused by the greater motivation of their supporters in low-turnout contests.  And as for that all-conquering Scottish Lib Dem recovery we heard so much about a few weeks ago...well, at a minimum it doesn't appear to have breached the borders of Fife yet.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

There's a difference between disempowerment and democracy

Given the reaction to John McDonnell brandishing Mao's Little Red Book yesterday, it's probably not the best idea for me to start quoting Karl Marx, and actually I'm going to avoid that danger because I can't track down the exact quote anyway. But I seem to recall that he once said that the English (by which he meant the British) were only truly free for one day every few years, ie. on the day of a general election. For the intervening years, they revert to being slaves of an elective dictatorship. Whatever else we might think of Marx, it's very hard to disagree with that assessment, because for as long as the UK government has an absolute majority in parliament there is nothing it can't do. There is no constitution or court that can constrain it.

That line popped into my head when I watched the Altered State video yesterday. As you've probably seen, it finishes in rather provocative fashion with Derek Bateman arguing that a second referendum held too quickly would be "catastrophic" and "suicidal", because it would be an insult to people who voted No last year. After suggesting that a timescale of twenty years is quite possible (and indeed that it may never happen at all), his parting shot is : "Live with it, guys. It's called democracy."

As you know, I don't disagree with the view that the independence movement could easily find itself going nowhere for several decades. Paradoxically, that's one of the reasons why I think we have to be open to the idea of a relatively early referendum, perhaps within the next five years. There is a danger of catastrophe or suicide in being too hasty, but there is also a danger of catastrophe or suicide in squandering the momentum that has been built up. I don't quite understand why it's less bad to see a dream die quietly and gradually through inaction and over-caution than it is to see it spectacularly go up in flames as a result of rashness. In the long run, both of those outcomes amount to the same thing. When you're in the middle of a major historical event, it's easy to lose a sense of perspective, but the fact is that we're currently living through "our 1997". For the Blairites, it wasn't 1997 forever, and it won't be for us either. The time to act is when the sun is still shining.

I also disagree with Derek's claim that one of the reasons the first referendum was lost was that it was rushed into. There actually wasn't a campaign for independence prior to 2011 - nothing was happening, and the SNP were only going through the motions in putting forward the arguments. They were caught in a trap, because the first priority had to be to win and then retain power, and for as long as that was the case they couldn't afford to scare the horses too much. The only way to break out of that trap was to actually hold a referendum, and either secure a Yes vote in one push or build a platform for a second referendum. I see absolutely no reason to think that support for independence would have gradually crept up if Alex Salmond had played a more cautious game, and saved a referendum for a hypothetical third or fourth SNP term. The trend was actually in completely the opposite direction - opinion polls showed that independence became considerably less popular between 2005 and 2011. For some reason, SNP rule was making people more content with the Union - although thankfully that contentment proved to be fairly superficial when the question was put for real.

What I want to take issue with most of all is the idea that a second referendum would be somehow "undemocratic". To return to the Marx quote, that would mean it's more democratic that voters are enslaved to a decision they've already made. Even if circumstances change. Even if they conclude that they made the decision on the basis of a false prospectus. As we know, almost everyone (and certainly everyone in the SNP leadership) agrees that there can only be a referendum if a mandate is received for one at a Scottish Parliament election. So in a sense what Derek is hinting at is that it would be anti-democratic to give people a referendum even if they vote for it! I think that's a rather grotesque parody of what respect for democracy is all about.

If you take this through to its logical conclusion, the result of any quick second referendum should be regarded as null and void because the electorate has supposedly already voted to disempower themselves for an unspecified but very long period of time. We'd be saying to people who switched from No to Yes : "Sorry, we can't take any notice of your wishes now, because it would be disrespectful to the person you used to be." I don't think that's credible. Democracy is about giving people control over how they are governed on an ongoing basis, not using their past vote against them as if it constitutes some sort of lifelong marriage vow.

Derek also pours cold water on the idea that the EU referendum could be a trigger for a second independence referendum, partly because he doesn't think that the gap between the UK and Scottish results will be all that great. It's possible that it won't be, but for that to be the case there'll have to be a major convergence between now and polling day. Have a look at the gap between the results of recent Britain-wide polls, and the Scottish subsamples of the same polls -

ICM (20th-22nd November)

Britain-wide figures :

Remain 54%
Leave 46%

Scottish subsample :

Remain 67%
Leave 33%

ORB (18th-19th November)

Britain-wide figures :

Remain 48%
Leave 52%

Scottish subsample :

Remain 60%
Leave 40%

Survation (16th-17th November)

Britain-wide figures :

Remain 52%
Leave 48%

Scottish subsample :

Remain 63%
Leave 37%

ICM (13th-15th November)

Britain-wide figures :

Remain 53%
Leave 47%

Scottish subsample :

Remain 59%
Leave 41%

Survation (9th-11th November)

Britain-wide figures :

Remain 47%
Leave 53%

Scottish subsample :

Remain 59%
Leave 41%

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The State We're In

Episode 3 of Phantom Power's Altered State series is now out, featuring contributions from myself, Greg Moodie, Derek Bateman, Paul Kavanagh, Christopher Silver and Professor John Robertson. Bear in mind that I was interviewed about a week or so after the referendum, so the line "You would hope that the London government would be mature enough to move at the pace that the Scottish people clearly want" wasn't intended to be quite as ironic as it probably sounds now!

If the embedded video doesn't work, the direct link is HERE.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

To survive as leader, all Corbyn has to do is decide to survive

You know, it's on days like this that Mike "can't be arsed" Smithson utterly baffles me.  The title of his post on Stormfront Lite this morning was "You can get 11/8 on Corbyn being leader at general election. Why I’m not tempted."  For 11/8 to be a value bet, you merely have to think there is a better than 42% chance of Corbyn still being leader in May 2020.  So I was waiting with bated breath to hear why Smithson thinks the likelihood of that happening is in fact 42% or lower - but he didn't say anything at all. (Maybe he couldn't be arsed?)  The post simply consisted of four reposted tweets, two of which clearly support the idea that Corbyn is NOT likely to be deposed.  One is a link to a Stephen Bush article with the title "A new poll shows Jeremy Corbyn is going nowhere", and the other shows that Labour members questioned by YouGov think by a margin of 54% to 33% that it is more important for a party to put forward policies it really believes in than to make compromises that would allow it to win an election.

Bush is particularly worth listening to on this topic. He hasn't been right about absolutely everything this year, but he made a very confident call about the Labour leadership contest that proved to be spot-on, and he was much closer to being right about the general election than most people. There are two major question marks in my mind over whether Corbyn can cling on, and Bush deals with one of them very helpfully. He links to a post by a barrister offering a legal opinion on whether Corbyn would require to be nominated by 20% of the PLP to simply make the ballot paper if he is challenged for the leadership. Although it's conceded there is some ambiguity in the relevant part of the Labour rule-book, the answer is basically no. If that's correct, it removes any realistic chance of Corbyn being directly removed against his will, because any challenger would have to defeat him in a members' and supporters' ballot, and the latest polling evidence suggests that would be nigh-on impossible.

That still leaves the other question mark in my mind, though, which is to do with Corbyn's own commitment to the job. Would he, as Damian McBride implied recently, resign voluntarily at the first sign of a push against him? The fact that he never seemed to have any personal ambition to be leader or Prime Minister doesn't inspire huge confidence that he has the stomach to fight for his position. But the counter-argument is that he has shown plenty of ambition for his own wing of the party. He knows that what happened in September was a historic achievement for the left, and that it could be totally squandered if he walks away. For all the talk about him paving the way for a left-wing succession before the general election, he surely knows that it doesn't work like that. As soon as there is a vacancy, anything could happen. Even if the new leader was vaguely left-ish, who is to say it wouldn't be somebody from the soft left (such as Lisa Nandy) who would then "do a Kinnock"?

To survive as leader, all Corbyn really has to do is decide to survive. And if he's being rational (and receiving rational advice), that's the decision he'll take.

* * *

The SNP's motion calling for Trident not to be renewed was voted down in the House of Commons today by 330 votes to 64. There are 60 MPs from the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, so assuming there was a high turnout among those three parties, the vast majority of Labour MPs -including Jeremy Corbyn himself - must have abstained on the question of whether Britain should retain its nuclear weapons. Surely Corbyn's position as the vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is now untenable?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Labour MPs don't need a free vote to exercise the same freedom that Corbyn enjoyed

Amidst all the uncertainty about the position Labour will take on bombing Syria, one thing that intensely irritates me is the claim of the party's "moderates" that Jeremy Corbyn has no business imposing any kind of discipline on MPs, given his long record of rebelling against his predecessors.  The rules of the game are actually pretty simple -

1) You can't vote against the party line on a motion of confidence in the government.  (If you do, you'll be suspended or expelled from the parliamentary party.)

2) If you vote against the party line on a three-line whip, you have to give advance warning and explain yourself.

3) Except in unusual circumstances, you can't defy the whip if you're a minister or a shadow minister.  If you do, you'll be expected to leave the front bench.

To the best of my knowledge, Jeremy Corbyn has not broken any of these rules since he became an MP in 1983.  If he had, in all likelihood he would not be Labour leader now, because the whip would have been withdrawn and he would not have been eligible to put himself forward.

So if a whip is imposed on Syria or any other vote, Corbyn will simply be asking MPs to adhere to exactly the same rules he was bound by as a backbencher.  They'll have the same freedom to rebel that he had - although Shadow Cabinet members and other frontbenchers will have to pay a heavy price if they exercise that freedom.  And it might not be a bad thing for Corbyn in the long run if some of the "moderates" in his team force him into sacking them, because at the moment his ecumenicism is proving more of a weakness than a strength.