Saturday, April 4, 2015

SNP lead is up by 6% in a Panelbase poll of particular pizazz

We at last have our first full-scale Scottish poll from Panelbase for three months - I know the previous one was in January, because I remember that I was watching Patsy Reid at Celtic Connections when the numbers came through!

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election (Panelbase) : 

SNP 45% (+4)
Labour 29% (-2)
Conservatives 14% (n/c)
UKIP 4% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 4% (+1)
Greens 2% (+1)

(I've corrected the SNP figure, which I originally thought was 47% due to the difficulty of deciphering the Sunday Times front page.)

This is the fourth Panelbase poll since the referendum, but it's very difficult to make sense of the trend, because there have been some strange methodological changes along the way, leading to extremely volatile results.  I would imagine it's unlikely that Panelbase have repeated their January mistake of asking a leading question immediately prior to the main voting intention question.  That being the case, the last directly comparable poll is presumably the one from the autumn which had figures almost identical to tonight's (SNP 45%, Labour 28%).  That would corroborate the pattern shown by most other pollsters of absolutely no movement since the enormous SNP lead first became apparent in October.

The most crucial thing we need to know is the fieldwork dates, but there's no doubt that they'll mostly predate the nonsense Allo Allo "scandal" - the only question is whether a little bit of the fieldwork may have been done afterwards, but I highly doubt it.  So in that sense we're no further forward in judging the impact of Zinoviev II (which in my view could be almost anything, or nothing at all - voters are unpredictable at moments like this).

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I happened to be passing by George Square this afternoon (I think it must have been after the Trident demo), and I spotted this on the ground -

There was also a "vote SNP" one, but I couldn't get them all because I was in a rush!

Another Britain-wide poll suggests that Nicola Sturgeon won the leaders' debate

Thanks to Marcia on the previous thread for pointing out that today's Britain-wide Opinium poll contained a supplementary question on who won the leaders' debate -

Nicola Sturgeon 20%
David Cameron 17%
Ed Miliband 15%
Nigel Farage 12%
Nick Clegg 4%
Leanne Wood 3%
Natalie Bennett 3%

The figures for Scottish respondents only are -

Nicola Sturgeon 49%
David Cameron 13%
Ed Miliband 13%
Nigel Farage 7%
Natalie Bennett 3%
Leanne Wood 1%
Nick Clegg 1%

Although this result is only drawn from respondents who watched at least some of the debate, bear in mind that it's not directly comparable with the instant reaction polls, because this poll was conducted over a longer time-frame, and some people who took part will have been influenced by post-debate reporting.

The reason the overall numbers look a bit low is that Don't Knows and refuseds haven't been excluded this time.

Other figures in the poll are even more outstanding for Sturgeon - 32% of respondents across Britain say she did "very well" in the debate.  The highest equivalent figure for any of the other leaders is 18% for Nigel Farage.

A question for the mainstream media : why bother responding to a complaint if you haven't taken the time to understand it?

You might remember that a few days ago I pointed out a gross factual inaccuracy (and I use those words advisedly - there's absolutely no doubt whatever that it was an inaccuracy) in the reporting of the recent ComRes poll by both David Maddox of the Scotsman and Magnus Gardham of the Herald.  Both claimed that the Scotland Votes calculator suggested that the poll would translate to a close result of SNP 30 seats, Labour 27 seats.  This is categorically untrue.  There is no conceivable way of projecting from the ComRes poll that would give the SNP fewer than 42 seats, or Labour more than 13.  The most realistic projection would probably be something like SNP 44, Labour 13.

After I pointed out the inaccuracy, the commenter "yesindyref2" mentioned that he had raised the issue in a comment on Gardham's article at the Herald website.  Instead of correcting Gardham's mistake, the moderators simply deleted the complaints about it.  This is obviously deeply troubling - it's hard not to conclude that "inaccuracy without embarrassment" was being preferred to "accuracy with embarrassment".  That's not my (or I would hope anyone else's) idea of what journalism should be about.

Unbeknown to me, another reader of this blog also sent a complaint directly to the editor of the Herald, Magnus Llewellin, in which he quoted in full my explanation of Mr Gardham's inaccuracy and how it came about.  I've been sent a copy of both the complaint and Mr Llewellin's response, which is extremely courteous.  However, this is a rare occasion when I am actually just as troubled by a civilised response as I would have been by the more familiar mainstream media reaction of "your complaint is noted, but we never make mistakes, so go away".

It looks very much like Mr Llewellin's instinct upon receiving the complaint was not to make an effort to understand it and then establish whether it was well-founded, but instead to send a warm letter to mollify an unhappy subscriber.  In fact, what he does in the letter is go through the motions of defending himself against a criticism that no-one has actually made.  He points out that Scotland Votes is a respected tool which is also used by the Scotsman.  He notes that seat projections are not a precise science and each method will produce a different result.  All of this is true, but none of it has even the slightest shred of relevance to Mr Gardham's inaccuracy or how it came about.

The Scotland Votes predictor is no different to any other predictor - if you put nonsense figures in at one end, you'll get nonsense figures out at the other end.  The inaccuracy of the supposed "projection" you end up with is not the fault of Scotland Votes, but of the journalist who failed to use it correctly.  Scotland Votes ONLY WORKS if you put in figures from national polls.  The ComRes poll was not a national poll, but was restricted to Labour-held seats only.  And yet Gardham failed to spot that distinction, and put the raw voting intention figures into Scotland Votes as if they were national figures.  What he did was quite literally as ridiculous as taking the raw voting intention figures from a constituency poll in Dumfriesshire, pumping them into the predictor as if they were national figures, and "projecting" that the Tories are on course to win twenty Scottish seats.

Even more worryingly, Mr Llewellin claims that Gardham did not present the figures as anything other than what they were - "a certain website's calculation based on a national swing".  In fact, Gardham did not present them in that way, but if he had done he would have been wrong.  The calculation was NOT based on national swing, but rather on the false assumption that regional voting intention numbers can be treated as if they are national voting intention numbers.

Mr Llewellin's final remark is that he is satisfied that the use of the "projection" was justified because it illustrated that the poll was "significantly less bad" for Labour than previous surveys.  No.  It was an outright inaccuracy that helped to bolster an ENTIRELY FALSE IMPRESSION that the poll was significantly less bad for Labour.

I can't believe any of this is still in dispute several days on.  Most of us spotted Gardham's schoolboy error within seconds.  Readers have been seriously misled, and a correction should be issued.  End of story.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Time after time, we're faced with decisions : Which road to follow? How hard to fight?

Just a quick note to let you know I have a guest post at Bella Caledonia about last night's debate, and how it relates to the current polling situation.  You can read it HERE.

(The title of this post is from Cliff Richard's theme song to the legendarily dreadful 1990s TV series Trainer, which I haven't been able to get out of my head since I mentioned it two days ago.)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Nicola Sturgeon wins the debate by a landslide, say viewers in Scotland

The datasets from the Survation instant reaction poll are now out, and the Scottish subsample shows that respondents north of the border thought Nicola Sturgeon won the seven-way leaders' debate by a comfortable margin.

Who do you think won the debate?  (Survation, Scottish respondents only) :

Nicola Sturgeon 46.5%
Ed Miliband 24.8%
Nigel Farage 13.3%
David Cameron 8.9%
Nick Clegg 5.6%
Leanne Wood 0.9%
Natalie Bennett 0.0%

This is hugely significant, because at Britain-wide level the Survation poll was actually the weakest for Sturgeon of the four polls we've seen this evening.  So when we see all the Scottish subsamples, it's highly likely that Sturgeon will have scored a decisive victory across the board.

UPDATE : And here is the very similar Scottish subsample from ICM. I haven't actually located the datasets yet, so I'm taking these numbers on trust!

Which of the seven leaders taking part do you think won the contest? (ICM, Scottish respondents only) :

Nicola Sturgeon 49%
Ed Miliband 16%
David Cameron 12%
Nigel Farage 11%

Natalie Bennett 5%
Nick Clegg 4%
Leanne Wood 3%

The YouGov datasets have been released, but irritatingly they don't contain a geographical breakdown.  Perhaps more detail will appear tomorrow.  However, as Sturgeon won that poll on a Britain-wide level, we can safely assume that she was well ahead in the Scottish subsample.

What struck me most about the debate was that Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood pursued almost opposite strategies - Sturgeon downplayed the Scottish dimension and presented herself almost as a UK political leader, while Leanne Wood mentioned Wales several times in practically every answer.  The strange thing is that their objectives were exactly the same, ie. to maximise the vote for their party in their own constituent nation of the UK.  So they both thought they had the best strategy for achieving that objective, and they can't both have been right.

Although Wood was the least polished performer (with the possible exception of Natalie Bennett), it seems to me that the constant mentions of Wales may be a big part of the reason why she fared so poorly in the GB-wide polls.  Many English people will have thought "she's not even interested in me".  That doesn't necessarily mean that she made a misjudgement - if she was able to speak directly to her target voters and if they liked what they heard, then it will all have been worth it.  She'd much rather see Plaid Cymru make two or three gains in May than finish third or fourth in a Britain-wide debate poll.  But the flipside is that her target voters could actually have been impressed by a good showing in the British polls, and that's an advantage the SNP will now enjoy and Plaid Cymru won't.

The polling firms are split on whether Cameron or Miliband performed better, but they're all agreed that it was a very close battle between the two.  So, as was the case with the Paxman interview show last week, Miliband has exceeded expectations, and is probably closer to neutralising Labour's huge leadership handicap - which was the one and only factor that led most commentators to anticipate that the Tories would eventually pull away as the election approached.  Although an incumbent government can normally expect to benefit from swingback in the opinion polls, it generally happens before the start of the formal campaign period.  So it could be that Labour have already dodged that bullet, in which case some sort of Labour/SNP governing arrangement is now firmly on the cards.

Stunning Sturgeon WINS Britain-wide YouGov debate poll

Britain-wide instant reaction poll (YouGov) :

Nicola Sturgeon 28%
Nigel Farage 20%
David Cameron 18%
Ed Miliband 15%
Nick Clegg 10%
Natalie Bennett 5%
Leanne Wood 4%

With ComRes it's practically a four-way tie...

Britain-wide instant reaction poll (ComRes) :

Nigel Farage 21%
David Cameron 21%
Ed Miliband 21%
Nicola Sturgeon 20%
Nick Clegg 9%
Natalie Bennett 5%
Leanne Wood 2%

The ICM poll bears little resemblance to the first two...

Britain-wide instant reaction poll (ICM) :

Ed Miliband 25%
David Cameron 24%
Nigel Farage 19%
Nicola Sturgeon 17%
Nick Clegg 9%
Natalie Bennett 3%
Leanne Wood 2%

And Survation is showing...

Britain-wide instant reaction poll (Survation) :

David Cameron 25%
Ed Miliband 25%
Nigel Farage 24%
Nicola Sturgeon 15%
Nick Clegg 6%
Natalie Bennett 3%
Leanne Wood 2%

Bear in mind that well over 80% of the respondents to these polls are not voters in Scotland - when we see the figures for Scottish respondents only, it will be very surprising if Nicola Sturgeon is not ahead across the board.

Predictions for tonight's leaders' debate

I can't think of any useful way of "previewing" tonight's leaders' debate on ITV, so instead I thought I'd attempt a wild Eurovision-style prediction of what the instant reaction polls might show.  There should be at least three polls from YouGov, ICM and Populus respectively, who will all be in a madcap race to try to get their results out first.

I haven't heard anything definite about a poll of Scottish respondents only, which would be the only meaningful way of assessing Nicola Sturgeon's performance.  If it doesn't happen, we'll have to home straight in on the Scottish subsamples of GB-wide polls.  Here's what I think they might show.

Prediction for Scottish subsamples :

1. Nicola Sturgeon
2. Ed Miliband
3. Nigel Farage
4. David Cameron
5. Leanne Wood
6. Natalie Bennett
7. Nick Clegg

I don't think a Sturgeon victory among Scottish respondents is a foregone conclusion by any means - if you cast your mind back to the debates she was involved in during the referendum, she was majestic in most of them, but there was the occasional messy stalemate.  Probably the most frustrating one was the head-to-head with Johann Lamont - and with that in mind, it may be significant that the other two female participants tonight are effectively her allies, rather than her opponents.

The only reason I've got Leanne Wood as low as fifth is that respondents to the polls will presumably only be allowed to choose one leader, in which case those sympathetic to Wood and her arguments would be most likely to plump for Sturgeon as their outright winner.

There have been suggestions that Sturgeon or Wood might have a chance of topping the GB-wide polls, but I don't think that's likely - however well they perform, I think there'll be a natural resistance to "outsiders" (I know we're all supposed to be #bettertogether, but that doesn't seem to be the prevailing mood down south).  I suspect Wood might fare slightly the better of the two, partly because leek-phobia hasn't tightened its grip on the metropolis in quite the same way that haggis-phobia has, and partly because she's so difficult to dislike.  In fact, one of the presenters of the BBC "youth" debate the other week rather patronisingly said - in her hearing! - that she had a "lovely accent", and that if we were choosing the best voice to read an audiobook, she'd be the clear winner.

Prediction for Britain-wide polls :

1. Nigel Farage
2. David Cameron
3. Ed Miliband
4. Leanne Wood
5. Nicola Sturgeon
6. Natalie Bennett
7. Nick Clegg

The part of the prediction I'm most confident about is that Clegg will be at or close to the bottom.  Five years ago, he prospered courtesy of a heavy dose of fake humility, but his supplies seem to have well and truly run out.  Almost everything he says these days sounds arrogant, complacent and hectoring.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It's not all grim for Jim - he has neigh problems with the equine vote

Just before we leave the topic of the ComRes poll entirely, I thought you might be amused to hear about a particularly extreme example of a "control question" that I found buried within the datasets.  Some of you will recall a previous discussion on this blog about a question of that sort - a few months ago, YouGov created a fictitious Cabinet minister (I can't remember the name they used) to help put in context the personal ratings of real politicians.  For example, if 23% of respondents claimed to recognise the bogus minister, that would make Anna Soubry's 27% recognition rating look considerably less impressive.

ComRes appear to have a rather less subtle approach to control questions, though, and have bizarrely asked each respondent midway through the question sequence whether or not they are "a horse".  I can only assume the purpose of this is to make sure that people are actually paying attention to the questions, and aren't just randomly giving any answer to get the survey over with as quickly as possible.  But what makes it particularly strange is that this was a telephone poll.  Non-attentive respondents are generally much more of a danger in online polls, where there is an incentive of a small monetary reward if the poll is completed (usually 50p).  It must have been very awkward for the telephone interviewers to innocently enquire whether or not the person at the other end of the line is a horse - if anything, I'd have thought that would make it more likely that the call would be abruptly terminated.

ComRes poll, 26th-28th March (Labour-held constituencies only) :

Are you a horse?

Yes 2%
No 98%

It's rather alarming that as many as 2% of the sample were dozing off to such an absurd degree, and in a way this calls into question the credibility of the poll's other findings.  However, I suppose it's possible that some people may have been taking the attitude of "a stupid question deserves a stupid answer".  The most entertaining part of all this is that we've ended up with a unique "horse" crossbreak throughout the datasets, meaning that we're able to see how the attitudes of "horses" differ from their human counterparts.  For the most part, there's nothing of any statistical significance, but there is one intriguing exception...

Jim Murphy's net satisfaction rating by group :

Men:  +2
Women:  -5
Horses:  +37

So if things don't quite work out for Jackanory Jim in May, all is not lost.  Perhaps he should take a leaf out of Cliff Richard's book and recognise that there is so much More to Life than naked ambition.  There is, for example, horses.

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Someone asked me yesterday if I was ever going to update the Poll of Polls again.  Your wish is my command (well, within reason).  Today's update is based on eight Scottish subsamples from GB-wide polls - three from YouGov, two from Populus, one from Ashcroft, one from TNS-BMRB and one from ComRes.  Yesterday's Scottish poll from ComRes is excluded, because it's not a national poll - ie. the fieldwork only covered 40 out of 59 Scottish constituencies.

Making its debut (and quite possibly its swansong) in the Poll of Polls is the new Middleland Integrationists party, which somehow managed to register 1% support in a YouGov subsample last week.  It's an eccentric fringe party that was set up last year, having drawn inspiration from Rory Stewart's BBC series about the fantasy kingdom of "The Middleland" (twinned with Narnia).  Basically they want Dumfries & Galloway, the Borders, Cumbria and Northumberland to secede from Scotland and England, in order to form a fifth (and naturally ultra-unionist) constituent nation of the UK, presumably with Rory's cairn as the capital city.  Rory himself has had to disown them, though, because they're planning to put up candidates against the Tories in May.

Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :

SNP 43.6% (-1.7)
Labour 25.5% (n/c)
Conservatives 16.1% (-1.6)
Liberal Democrats 7.6% (+2.7)
Greens 3.4% (+0.2)
UKIP 3.3% (+0.4)
Middleland Integrationists 0.1% (+0.1)

(The Poll of Polls uses the Scottish subsamples from all GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided, and also all full-scale Scottish polls that have been conducted at least partly within the last seven days. Full-scale polls are given ten times the weighting of subsamples.)

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Many thanks to Brian Nicholson on the previous thread for pointing out the most shocking misreporting of a poll that I've seen in a long, long time.  Both David Maddox of the Scotsman and Magnus Gardham of the Herald have taken the ComRes voting intention figures for Labour-held constituencies only, and pumped them into the Scotland Votes calculator as if they were national figures, thus producing an utterly nonsensical seats "projection" of SNP 30, Labour 27.

Holy Jesus.  Even on a uniform swing, the ComRes poll suggests that the SNP would take 28 of the 40 Labour seats.  Here's the thing, Magnus and David - the SNP already hold six seats.  So if you add 28 to those six, you've already got 34.  Surely that very basic piece of arithmetic ought to have been enough to set alarm bells ringing about your "projection"?  In reality, the SNP would also be winning at least seven of the 11 Liberal Democrat seats, plus Eric Joyce's Falkirk seat, so there's no conceivable national projection based on the ComRes poll that would give the SNP fewer than 42 seats.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cracking ComRes poll of all Labour-held seats in Scotland shows gigantic 19% swing to the SNP

The headline pretty much contains all the information I have at the moment, but I'll update this post when more details are made available.  A 19% swing is (unbelievably) a touch lower than the Ashcroft constituency polls were generally showing, although that may simply be because the swing isn't quite as huge in affluent Labour-held areas that Ashcroft hasn't covered yet.  It would still be enough to cause absolute carnage.

If there was a uniform swing of 19% across the whole country, that would imply a national SNP lead of approximately 16% - exactly the same as suggested by the recent ICM poll.  However, you'd expect the Labour-SNP swing to be somewhat lower in seats that Labour aren't competitive in, so the fact that ComRes have only surveyed Labour-held seats would - on the face of it - indicate that they're picking up a slightly lower SNP lead than most other pollsters.

There's a big caveat here, though.  Most Scotland-wide polls are sensibly weighted by recalled vote from the last Holyrood election, and from the referendum.  One thing we'll have to look out for is whether ComRes have made the same mistake that Ashcroft did, and weighted their results to recalled vote from 2010 - a procedure that we know is wildly unreliable.  They may have felt they had no option but to do that, because they wouldn't have been able to match 2011 Holyrood vote recall to the correct boundaries.  But the reality is that if 2011 weighting isn't possible, it would be much better to simply dispense with past vote weighting altogether, because otherwise there's a severe risk of underestimating the SNP's lead.

UPDATE : According to the Daily Mail, these are the voting intention numbers in the ComRes poll.  The percentage changes are from the 2010 results in Labour-held seats.

SNP 43% (+24)
Labour 37% (-14)
Conservatives 13% (-1)
Greens 2% (+1)
UKIP 2% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 2% (-12)

Don't be startled by the seemingly 'narrow' lead - you'd see much the same thing if other polls were restricted to Labour-held seats.  The wonders of the first-past-the-post electoral system can easily translate these sorts of figures into something approaching a clean sweep of seats if the votes for the leading party are sufficiently evenly spread - and that's exactly what we suspect may be happening.  The recent ICM poll suggested that the swing was highest in the Labour heartland seats which are toughest for the SNP to win, and lower in No-voting seats where Labour are starting from a more vulnerable position, due to a split unionist vote.

ITV, who commissioned the poll, are suggesting that the SNP would take 28 Labour seats, while Labour would hold the remaining 12.  But that's based on a uniform swing, and almost certainly underestimates the SNP's potential gains.  Labour's hopes of achieving respectability in defeat depend on cutting the SNP's lead, not on getting their prayer-mat out and hoping for a uniform swing that simply isn't going to happen.

A crude look at the percentage change figures would suggest that the SNP are hoovering up almost all of the lost Labour votes, and almost all of the lost Liberal Democrat votes - ie. the SNP vote is up by far more than the Labour vote is down.  But it may not be quite as simple as that - the datasets will hopefully tell us if underlying movement from the Liberal Democrats to Labour is being disguised by the gargantuan swing from Labour to the SNP.  That's what appeared to happen in the 2011 election.

UPDATE II : I've now had a chance to look at the datasets, and they are truly bizarre.  ComRes have indeed committed the cardinal sin of weighting by recalled 2010 vote - but when they asked people how they voted in 2010, they didn't even give the SNP as an option!  The only options were Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, or "some other party".  That approach will take quite a bit of justifying, given that the SNP outpolled both the Tories and the Lib Dems in 2010.  (Even in 2010.)

I can think of two possible explanations for what ComRes have done - either a) stupidity, or b) it's a cunning plan to try to make people less confused over how they voted in 2010, ie. if you don't even offer the SNP as an option, people who voted Labour in 2010 but then switched to the SNP in 2011 might be more likely to answer the question accurately.  You'd have to be ultra-charitable to think that was the plan, but even if it was, it doesn't appear to have worked to any great extent.  Respondents who say they voted for "some other party" have been downweighted from 264 to 207, meaning that the SNP's position may well have been underestimated due to false recall.

At the very least, the use of 2010 weighting means that this poll is not directly comparable with any full-scale Scottish poll, and so the superficial appearance that it may be marginally less awful for Labour than the results we've seen from other firms is fairly meaningless.

The point I made above about where the Liberal Democrats' lost votes are going is borne out by the datasets - fractionally more Lib Dem voters from 2010 are planning to vote Labour than for the SNP, but that is being offset by a much bigger shift from Labour to the SNP than the headline numbers would suggest.

Perhaps the most devastating detail of the poll from Labour's point of view is that just 33% of respondents say that Labour is the party they most closely identify with, irrespective of their current voting intention.   The SNP are only just behind on that measure, on 31%.  Remember these numbers are only from seats that Labour won in 2010, in most cases by a massive margin.  It really does look as if a large number of ex-Labour voters are not merely "on holiday", but have undergone their own personal revolution, and as a result are not coming back any time soon.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Me and Jim

Jim makes me feel so special.  Please don't be jealous, but I saw the new Labour Party Election Broadcast this afternoon, hours before the rest of you did, and it was all because Jim wanted me to.  He sent me a personal email to explain why I'd been singled out for such an honour.  It was a moment of beauty that I'll cherish in my heart forever.

Now, look.  I'm not going to suddenly start disliking Martin Freeman just because he's taken a side in a Scottish political battle that he probably has little interest in or understanding of, but suffice to say that the argument that was (presumably) scripted for him was utterly vacuous.  One thing that did interest me, though, was that there was no mention of the SNP at all, even in the clumsily tacked-on concluding bit that specifically referenced Scotland.  Perhaps Labour are starting to realise their strategic mistake in talking up the "SNP threat", but I'm afraid it's a bit late now to try to get everyone to forget that the SNP exists.

It's also intriguing that David Tennant agreed to do the voiceover, because he was presumably asked to do exactly that sort of thing for the No campaign and refused.  From which I deduce that he's loyal to Labour, but not so slavishly loyal that he'll help them out even when they're in a toxic alliance with the Tories - which is a selectiveness that I can respect.

All the same, David - "only Labour is strong enough" to get the Tories out?  Who says that any single party needs to be strong enough?  Why do Labour have to separate themselves off, and make themselves smaller in an interdependent world?  Let's renew our McDougall vows, and say it loud and proud - after the election, Labour and the SNP will be #bettertogether in a progressive anti-Tory pact.

You wanna be fair, and maybe you're right, let's burn our fingers, stop the fight

I winced slightly when I saw this reaction from Mike Small to the anger in some quarters over the SNP's plans to introduce all-women shortlists, and 'zipping' on the regional lists -

"I for one am getting bored by mid-spectrum male monotone bloggers who can only speak in the language of anger. The lack of self-reflection, the complete absence of solidarity or connectivity with a wider movement and the inability to see beyond the narrowest political gauge is a depressing spectacle...

People seem angry because they don’t perceive this as a problem. But it is...

And, of course, shortlists on their own are only really a partial remedial measure, they do nothing to challenge the wider cultures of sexism and misogyny. They do nothing to challenge the fundamentals of male power. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be tried."

I didn't wince because I was in any sense one of the bloggers that Mike was talking about. As it happens, I feel quite ambivalent on the subject of all-women shortlists, and I've certainly never felt angry about the idea. I do look around me and see a society that is riven by gender-based discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion, and I do see that as a serious problem that must be addressed. But, on the other hand, I'm not wedded to a dogma that insists I can only acknowledge the marginalisation of women, and never the marginalisation of men when it occurs. It seems utterly fatuous to talk in unqualified terms about "male power" when you consider, for example, the way that male victims of domestic violence see their experiences trivialised or completely denied.

Nor do I think that male domination of political office is some sort of "racket" that automatically works in favour of all men, in all circumstances. There's a peculiar brand of macho pseudo-feminism among some male politicians that can lead to "manning up" being demanded of men where "understanding" would be the watchword in identical circumstances involving women. (The American Vice-President Joe Biden is sometimes cited as an example of this phenomenon.)

I've mentioned before on this blog my incredulity at reading a bizarre quote in a Scotsman article a few years back that referred to the growing imbalance in favour of women in the field of medicine. It was suggested that, instead of seeing this as a problem to be solved, we should simply embrace the feminisation of the medical profession and the advantages it brings to patients. Can you imagine the reaction if anyone suggested that we should stop trying to get more women into parliament, and instead embrace the wonderful masculinity of politics?

In spite of all these flagrant double-standards, I do think parliamentary representation is a special case, and is the one and only sphere where positive discrimination by gender may deserve a fair hearing. Members of parliament aren't simply professionals providing a service in return for a salary - they presume to take the place of the whole populace, and legislate on behalf of every single person. If we don't see ourselves reflected back in them, there's an obvious deficiency, and talent/competence (even where it exists) does not make up for that.

So my views on all-women shortlists have oscillated over the years. I remember being quite sympathetic to Labour's initial experiment, before gradually changing my mind and feeling that any form of discrimination was so repugnant that it couldn't be justified, no matter how noble the objective. I've now gone back a little bit in the opposite direction, and genuinely don't have a clear opinion anymore.

But I don't feel angry about it, and for anyone who does, just consider this - whatever the rights and wrongs of the SNP's plans, there may be a hard-headed tactical advantage to be gained from having more female candidates, no matter how that comes about. And it's not simply that the cause of independence faces a particular problem among women voters. I've also seen academic studies suggesting that female politicians gain a small but significant number of bonus votes simply by virtue of their gender, after all other factors are controlled for. That may be somewhat irrational, but is any political party going to turn up its nose at the prospect of extra votes?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

In just a few weeks' time?

David Cameron seemed all but assured of another five years in power last night after his pro-austerity Queen's Speech was passed amid angry scenes in the Commons.  The vote was carried by 296 votes to 71, with only the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and a handful of Labour rebels entering the opposition lobby in an attempt to kick the Tories out of office.  Outgoing Labour leader Ed Miliband instructed his troops to sit on their hands, even though his party and the SNP would in combination have had easily enough votes to oust the Prime Minister.

Constitutional experts warned that Labour were now "caught in a trap of their own making".  Having abstained on the pretext that the largest single party has a "moral right" to form the government, it will be nigh-on impossible for them to seek to bring the Tory administration down at any point over the coming five-year term.  Mr Cameron will however be well short of a majority in parliament, meaning he will require help from Labour to implement his programme.  With the Fixed Term Parliaments Act making an early election very unlikely, Labour know they will be severely punished by the electorate in Middle England if they create a US-style 'gridlock' scenario by failing to cooperate with the government.

Speculation mounted overnight that a leading Blairite will be lined up as Mr Miliband's successor, in order to smooth the path for the informal Tory-Labour alliance that now seems inevitable.

Immediately after the vote, former SNP leader Alex Salmond rose to his feet to denounce Labour's "final and deepest betrayal of the Scottish people".  In an ironic echo of Neil Kinnock's attack on the Militant Tendency thirty years ago, Mr Salmond observed : "You end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour opposition - a Labour opposition - allowing their blind hatred of the SNP to lead them to install a slash-and-burn Tory Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street."

Westminster observers broadly agreed with Mr Salmond's contention that the only real bar to Labour voting against the Queen's Speech had been the party's unwillingness to work with the SNP.  Although it was believed that Mr Miliband had been keen to explore the option of forming a minority Labour government after narrowly failing to take top spot at the general election, he found himself boxed in due to the "Nat-phobic" views of several Shadow Cabinet members and a significant chunk of the Labour parliamentary party.

One seasoned Scottish political commentator drew a parallel with the stigma suffered by the SNP after helping to bring down the Callaghan government in 1979.  He suggested that the opprobrium that will now be heaped on Labour north of the border "could be a hundred times worse than that", because the SNP's actions in 1979 had merely brought a general election forward by a few weeks, whereas Labour have just needlessly put the Tories back in power until 2020.

A Scottish poll published this morning showed the early signs of a backlash, with 74% of respondents - including 53% of Labour voters - agreeing with the statement that "only the SNP were serious about getting the Tories out".  Meanwhile, support for independence had crept up again to 54%.