Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Britain doesn't do hung parliaments'

Or so I was told by a Conservative a few months ago when I pointed out what seemed to me the obvious truth that there was now such a broad range of vote shares that would result in a hung parliament that such an outcome could be considered reasonably likely. Well, the irrefutable proof that Britain does in fact do hung parliaments was on prominent display throughout Friday, with a full re-run of the BBC's coverage of the February 1974 election, which resulted in deadlock between Labour and the Conservatives. Just for added measure, the programme was full of lengthy discussion of precedents from previous elections in the twentieth century that also hadn't produced an overall majority for any party - notably 1910, 1924 and 1929.

But what was quite startling watching the programme (or a portion of it, I didn't quite manage the full fifteen hours!) was how some of the contributors still couldn't quite bring themselves to believe that Britain 'does' balanced parliaments, even with the numbers bang in front of their eyes. A rather harassed-looking trio of journalists repeatedly took issue with the BBC presenting team's speculation about the various permutations concerning coalitions or looser pacts. "It is virtually impossible for there to be deadlock under the British constitution!" one of them bristled. Another incredulously brushed aside the suggestion that anything could be read into the Conservatives' deafening silence about their intentions - "of course they're keeping quiet, how else would they react when they've just suffered such a bruising defeat?". So the British establishment's world view appears to be that there quite simply has to be a winner and a loser, even when the numbers stubbornly insist that no-one has won and no-one has lost. Amusingly, David Dimbleby popped up only minutes later to bamboozle the trio by revealing the real reason for the Conservatives turning mute - they had been locked in intensive discussions to consider a dizzying array of possible options for clinging on to office.

Not that those who were taking a rather less one-dimensional view of matters necessarily did themselves any more credit. There was an extraordinary sense of people simply 'making up' constitutional proprieties as they went along - to suit themselves, naturally. There was one particularly jaw-dropping moment when the programme's host Alastair Burnett observed "but most importantly, we have to wait for the Conservative Party to interpret what the will of the British people is". Hmmm. Call me picky, but were they really the most appropriate arbiters?

In truth, I think the lesson from the brief chaos of the first 1974 election is not - as Conservative supporters would dearly love us to believe just at present - that hung parliaments in themselves are undesirable, but that the arrangements for dealing with their aftermath urgently need to be codified. Specifically, the active role of the monarch needs to be completely stripped away. We actually don't need to look any further than the Scottish model for a comprehensive solution. Admittedly, in the wake of the near-deadlock in 2007, parties were still offering their own convenient theories about what was the 'proper way forward', but the huge difference was that everyone knew exactly how and when the matter would be resolved - not by the whim of the Queen (and certainly not by the grey suits of the Conservative Party), but by an open contested election in the Scottish Parliament for the post of First Minister. Can't do much fairer than that.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The super soaraway subsample swindle

Anyone who follows discussions on polling in the blogosphere will know that whenever anyone (such as yours truly) has drawn attention to Scottish subsamples from UK-wide polls, it's always been quickly pointed out that the results are highly unreliable - not merely because of the small sample size, but more particularly because the sample is not properly weighted and will not reflect the characteristics of the Scottish electorate as a whole. My response has always been that it's equally foolish to go to the other extreme and suggest that the figures are utterly meaningless and 'just a bit of fun', and I stand by that, but nevertheless it's been quite jaw-dropping over the last eighteen hours watching some (I emphasise only some) of the exact same people undergo a Damascene conversion on the matter. Apparently, a subsample is utterly authoritative just so long as the media (ideally the Sun) tells them it is - and naturally some very mildly favourable figures for the Scottish Tories only help to consolidate this thrilling new world view.

The figures are -

Labour 37%
SNP 21%
Conservatives 21%
Liberal Democrats 15%

There is some confusion over at Jeff's site as to whether these figures might come from a full-scale Scottish poll (understandable, given the Sun's deliberate, shall we say, lack of clarity on the matter). However, if they did, given YouGov's standard practice the detailed breakdown would normally be on its website on the first working day after the headline figures were released (ie. today). It's not there, and the Caledonian Mercury's reporting leaves little room for doubt that this is simply an aggregate of two subsamples from UK-wide polls.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The entitled few

Jeff has picked up on a story on the Techwatch website suggesting that Alex Salmond may have a degree of involvement in one of the three proposed televised leaders' debates - the one produced by Sky. What's making me slightly cautious about this is that it's clear from the wording that the details of the story have been lifted directly from this Telegraph article from last week. It would be more encouraging if there was at least one other independent source, but if there is some truth to the story it would seem that sense may be starting - if only starting - to prevail.

Nevertheless, what is reportedly being proposed by Sky - that Salmond could come in at the end and ask one question on each debate topic and then give his own view - is a relatively modest compromise. Given that, it was quite astonishing to see the apoplexy which greeted the story when it broke last week on blogs such as Political Betting. One of the usual suspects (yes, her again) sniffily observed that she couldn't care a tuppence one way or the other about Scottish nationalism, but what she did object to is the SNP's "sense of entitlement" in thinking they have a right to be part of the 'national' debates. This appears to be a variation on the theme that if 'the children' really must be seen, they certainly shouldn't be heard by civilised folk south of the Tweed - whoever said the old imperial mindset was dead?

Let's ponder this for a moment - who exactly is displaying the 'sense of entitlement' here? Is it the SNP, who despite being faced with the outrageous prospect of receiving literally no coverage in three high-profile debates to be shown in a constituent part of the UK where they are unquestionably one of the major parties, have not precipitously jumped into legal action, and have instead engaged intensively and constructively in the search for an acceptable compromise? Or is it the London parties, who haven't given an inch, and who undoubtedly seem to feel an automatic 'entitlement' that their cosy, private, exclusive, three-way chat should be broadcast in primetime in Scotland, without even the slightest concession to the fact that they are not the only major parties who contest elections here?

The Labour MP Nick Palmer, who is typically one of the much saner voices on Political Betting, nevertheless also joined in the chorus of unionist indignation. In his view, "common sense" demanded that there be room for debate in which "Scottish" issues were covered, and in which the SNP should be included, but that there also be room for debate in which "UK" issues were dealt with, in which the SNP most definitely should not be included. In other words, the familiar holding-line that as long as there's a dedicated Scottish side-debate, it's somehow perfectly OK to pretend the SNP don't really exist and don't really have major-party status in Scotland when the main debates come round. This seems to be one of those classic occasions when 'common sense' is invoked despite (or perhaps because of) the proposition being put forward defying all sense of true logic. For what exactly, Dr Palmer might like to ponder, are the 'Scottish' issues supposedly at stake in this election? If he's talking about devolved matters, they're a complete irrelevance in a Westminster election. All four main parties in Scotland, including the SNP, are standing solely on their proposals for matters reserved to Westminster (at least that's the theory) and all should have an equal chance to put their case to the electorate in Scotland. But, of course, the debates will cover far more than just matters that are reserved in Scotland - much of them will focus on English domestic matters. In so doing, they will utterly confuse Scottish voters, many of whom will undoubtedly assume that what Labour or the Tories are proposing for the NHS or the criminal justice system would have full application in Scotland, whereas of course it would have no application here at all. So this is where the 'common sense' argument completely falls apart - if the format for these debates were being formulated rationally to reflect the way things actually are, there ought to be England-specific debates shown only in England in which the parties set out their policies in the many areas that are utterly irrelevant to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then there could be equivalent debates shown only in Scotland which reflect the special circumstances that a) we have a four rather than three-party system, and b) only reserved matters are at play here.

But, of course, this being the Anglo-centric UK, such a rational arrangement is probably utterly impossible. In which case, natural fairness demands that some kind of compromise arrangement be agreed that allows the SNP to put their case in the main debates, however inconvenient that may be, and tiresome it may seem, to the 'entitled' few.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tories clutch at straws in the scrum

Obviously as an SNP supporter I'm not exactly over the moon about Gordon Brown receiving a free hour-long Party Political Broadcast so close to an election last night, without any equivalent provision made for leaders of other parties. But it has nevertheless been a diverting spectator sport over the last few days watching Tory supporters in the blogosphere go into near-meltdown over the programme. Leaving aside the utterly distasteful 'Tears for Piers' meme (referring to the tears in Brown's eyes when he recalled the death of his daughter), they were, we were assured, entirely relaxed that this could have no conceivable impact on the Tory lead, and if anything would backfire horribly on Labour. Curious then, that we saw them desperately scouring the TV listings trying to convince themselves that the sheer irresistibility of Derren Brown : Evening of Wonders on the other side would ensure that no-one was actually watching anyway. Then, last night, someone on Political Betting triumphantly spotted that BBC Wales had scheduled Scrum V for the same timeslot. "So much for the core vote strategy!" he observed gleefully.

Is it just me, or are the Tories getting distinctly jittery about the outcome of the election?

What's the opposite of a non-denial denial?

The 'non-denial denial' is of course a long-established staple of politics, with perhaps the classic of its kind being Michael Heseltine's insistence that he could "conceive of no circumstances" in which he would challenge Mrs Thatcher for the Conservative leadership. Well, the current Conservative leader seems to be close to perfecting the polar opposite of the non-denial denial - perhaps it could be christened the 'non-confirming confirmation'. BBC Scotland reported in their evening news that David Cameron had committed the Conservatives to transferring more powers to the Scottish Parliament within the lifetime of his (hypothetical) first term of office. But in the excerpt of the actual interview with Cameron that was shown in the package, he - as far as I could see - committed the Tories to no such thing. Indeed, when he was specifically asked to do so, instead of answering he darted off onto a pedantic point about how he couldn't know the result of the election in advance, or how long the next parliament would last. Somehow I don't think the interviewer was asking him if he could commit to pushing through further powers for Holyrood if he lost the election, so his decision to respond with such absurd literalism is probably rather telling.

My guess is the only early action Cameron is committed to on devolution is the pursuit of some very long grass.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Tories in war with Planet Reality

The right's paranoia about the 'liberal' (ie. light on active Tory advocacy) BBC reaches a new height of absurdity today, with a bizarre claim in the Sunday Times that the corporation used Doctor Who as a vehicle for anti-government propaganda in the late years of Margaret Thatcher's rule. The paper has taken a characteristically mischievous comment from Sylvester McCoy (who played the Doctor in the three seasons before the show was 'put on hiatus' in 1989) and, using regenerative technology worthy of the TARDIS itself, transformed it into a full-blown BBC conspiracy to "hire left-wing scriptwriters" to write "propaganda into the plots in an attempt to undermine Margaret Thatcher’s premiership".

Sadly for the Sunday Times, the details of their own story make unmistakably clear that what was happening was not directed from on-high, but was simply the result of a young script editor following his own political idealism. What I find especially amusing about the paper's spin is the 'secret conspiracy, only just uncovered' angle - the idea that anyone could have missed the political message in those episodes is risible. Sheila Hancock's character Helen A in The Happiness Patrol, who ruled a planet where everyone 'had to be happy', was instantly recognised at the time as a not-very-subtle satire of Thatcherism. Any pro-CND slant in the story Battlefield (written by David Aaronovotich's brother Ben) was not going to easily go over people's heads either, given that at the conclusion of the story the Doctor screams as the villain "are these weapons YOU WOULD UUUUUSE?". Perhaps there were some viewers who came away thinking they had spotted a nod towards the case for proportionate nuclear deterrence in that outburst, but I have my doubts.

Even funnier is the article's rather desperate attempt to imply that the BBC's effort to foment a "TARDIS revolution" backfired and was responsible for viewers leaving the show in "droves", leading to its ultimate demise! As any Doctor Who fan of the right or left will tell you, the real reasons for the programme's dip in fortunes were rather more prosaic - shocking scheduling and almost zero publicity.

Margaret Curran - politics by numbers

One of the enduring mysteries from the Glasgow East by-election of summer 2008 is quite why the media ever labelled Margaret Curran the most impressive candidate. Maybe it's because she reminds me of one too many tyrannical west-central-Scotland schoolteachers, but I've certainly never rated her myself, to put it mildly. The media narrative at the time was that the SNP had beaten Labour in spite of the respective merits of the two parties' candidates, not because of them. But for my money that particular characterisation will be closer to the mark if Labour regains the seat at the general election.

If you doubt the truth of this, take a look at the bizarre press release that Labour have sent out - featuring a lengthy quote from Curran - shamelessly vilifying Jeff Breslin as if he was a member of the SNP cabinet. It's not the morality of this I would question, so much as the general stupidity. As I pointed out only a few days ago, Jeff is an extraordinarily decent, fair-minded, free-thinking, honest, and above all ecumenical SNP blogger. The one thing he categorically isn't is a propagandist, which, let's be honest, is a rare quality indeed in any blog that favours one party. How many SNP bloggers are there out there who would go out of their way to say when they think the SNP are underperforming, or that they agree with Labour more than the SNP over the topical issue of the day, or - and this is the biggie - that they're not even sure about the wisdom of independence itself?

Can Labour not see the golden opportunities they've just thrown away here? Instead of sending out childish press releases smearing Jeff, they could have lovebombed him, issuing press releases praising the "leading SNP blogger" for his latest post welcoming a particular Labour policy. They could have delightedly quoted Jeff's latest positive write-up for a Labour politician. They could have pointed out that even the leading SNP blogger can, like Labour, see the potential advantages of maintaining the union with England. But now they'll never be able to do any of those things with credibility, now that they've made him just another part of 'the enemy'.

Even worse for Labour, anyone who is remotely interested in the muck they're desperately trying to rake up (and that won't be many) will simply pop along to Jeff's blog to make up their own mind. What do you think will be the outcome of a quick compare and contrast session? Would the average member of the public be more impressed by Jeff's carefully considered thoughts of evident personal conviction, or by Labour's hysterically-worded propaganda piece?

It's as if Margaret Curran and Labour simply saw words they could twist to their advantage, saw those words were tenuously linked to the letters 'S', 'N' and 'P', and just automatically followed the standard pre-programmed course of action. No thought at all - just politics by numbers.