Saturday, August 1, 2015

Blairites seem keen to erase from history Jeremy Corbyn's willingness to serve under Tony Blair

Apologies if this blog is giving the impression of turning into a pro-Corbyn site, because from a hard-headed tactical point of view I'm inclined to think it would be much better for the SNP if Labour elect Continuity Miliband and proceed with their slow, intensely boring descent into irrelevance. But some of the nonsense being spouted by panic-stricken Blairites really deserves to be called out. There's a downright offensive article in Labour Uncut today by Paul Richards, who with no trace of irony refers to rank-and-file Labour members who diverged from the leadership line in the 1980s as "non-entities", but then whinges about a trade unionist who referred to Blairism as "a virus" that needs to be stamped out. Here's a thought - if the Blairites disapproved of any threats to harmonious camaraderie, wouldn't it have been better not to give their own faction of the party a specific name, and then boast about that faction's triumph over the left by plastering the name over every Labour manifesto and conference backdrop while Blair was leader? Wouldn't it have been better not to make the total exclusion of the left from the cabinet or Shadow Cabinet a test of 'sanity' and ideological cleanliness, as Liz Kendall did in one of the recent televised leadership debates?

Richards also says this -

"There’s Jeremy Corbyn himself, obviously, who has been a hardcore Bennite for 30 years...never sullying his political purity with a single minute on the front bench."

It's true that Corbyn has never been on the front bench, but the snide implication is that this was through personal choice, rather than because of the disinclination of others to give him a job. A quick glance at the records of Shadow Cabinet elections in the mid-90s gives the lie to that notion, however. Corbyn stood in 1994, finishing 49th out of 52 candidates (believe it or not, among the three MPs who finished even lower was Rhodri Morgan, the future First Minister of Wales). He stood again in 1996, finishing 26th out of 26. Extremely unimpressive results, but the fact remains that simply by standing, he was making himself available to serve as a Shadow Cabinet member under Tony Blair. You can't get much more ecumenical than that.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Don't Mone, m'lady

I've no idea whether anyone was really daft enough to vote No last year simply because Michelle Mone didn't like the idea of independence, or because she kept making nasty comments about the SNP. But what I do know is that if she makes similar "contributions to the debate" in future, her credibility will be shot to pieces if it's true that she's about to be made a Tory peer - not a Labour or crossbench peer but a TORY peer - as a direct "reward" for her interventions during the referendum. People will also be bound to wonder whether other celebrities and public figures are only coming out against independence because they've been promised a peerage, or a bauble from the Queen.

James Forsyth speculated rather optimistically the other day that David Cameron was becoming better-informed on events in Scotland due to having to face Angus Robertson at PMQs every week, and that this would help to save the Union. It's probably true that he is slightly better-informed than he was before, but knowledge isn't much use if you have no instinctive sense of how your own decisions will impact upon public opinion and thus shape future events. The crassness of the Mone decision suggests we have very little to worry about.

The McColm accolade

I at last have the badge of honour of being called an "idiot" by Euan McColm, although I was a tad disappointed to fall short of "f***ing idiot". It was because I took issue with this tweet -

"those who were angry about "intrusion" after the bin lorry crash might now understand why so many questions were being asked."

First of all, the antics of Sky News and others on the day of the tragedy had nothing to do with searching for the facts - they were about emotional intrusion into the trauma of passers-by. If the suggestion is that journalists should have been permitted to intrude into the life of the driver in the days and weeks after the crash, that is entirely wrong as well - it could not possibly have assisted the official investigation, which to the evident astonishment of Mr McColm appears to have arrived at the facts without any journalistic assistance. There was no excuse whatever for the media doing anything other than giving the benefit of the doubt to a man who had just been at the centre of an unimaginable horror, and allowing him the space and privacy necessary to begin to come to terms with his role in what had happened.

* * *

From the BBC -

"Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said Ms Sturgeon had promised less than a year ago that the referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

He said: "People will rightly be concerned that the first minister appears ready to break that promise.""

For my money, people will be rather more concerned that Murray is lying through his teeth about a "promise" that he knows perfectly well was never made. Sturgeon did use the phrase "once in a lifetime opportunity" to build excitement about a Yes vote - that is not even close to a promise that the SNP would never propose another referendum, let alone a promise that they would actively thwart the Scottish people if it became clear they want another referendum.

Without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own

I think this is possibly my favourite ever headline in the Independent -

"How to see the rare lunar event tonight"

The rare lunar event tonight is a blue moon, which is indeed a rare event, as we all know from the expression "once in a blue moon".  It is, however, simply a full moon.  It's called a blue moon if there has been more than one full moon in the same calendar month.

By some distance, then, the easiest way of seeing a blue moon is to look at the moon.

Astounding Aberdeen by-elections suggest the SNP's position may have strengthened further since May

There were a couple of local by-elections for Aberdeen City Council yesterday, both caused by sitting SNP councillors becoming MPs.

Kincorth, Nigg & Cove by-election result (30th July) :

SNP 61.0% (+26.9)
Labour 19.1% (-18.8)
Conservatives 9.8% (+4.4)
Liberal Democrats 6.5% (-1.6)
Greens 3.6% (n/a)

Hilton, Woodside & Stockethill by-election result (30th July) :

SNP 55.1% (+19.6)
Labour 25.1% (-19.9)
Conservatives 11.4% (+6.0)
Greens 4.2% (+1.6)
Liberal Democrats 4.1% (+0.2)

As ever, I've done the calculations myself to be on the safe side, because it's amazing how often reports on Twitter of percentage changes and swing turn out to be wildly inaccurate (probably because of the complexities of the STV system).

The swing from Labour to SNP in the two wards averages out at just over 21%, which is a touch lower than the 25% seen at the Thorniewood by-election a few weeks ago - but that's hardly surprising, because 25% was almost off the scale. Remember that swings in local by-elections are measured from the 2012 result, in which the SNP were already 1% ahead of Labour nationally. So a 21% swing is roughly equivalent to a 32% or a 33% swing in the general election, when the SNP were starting from a much lower baseline. The actual swings in Aberdeen in May were considerably smaller than that, so it could be that the SNP are now performing even better - which would certainly be in line with what the opinion polls have been telling us recently.

We also have Scottish subsample figures from a new GB-wide ComRes poll : SNP 54%, Conservatives 19%, Labour 14%, Liberal Democrats 5%, Greens 3%, UKIP 3%, BNP 2%.

At the moment it looks as if any Corbyn bounce for Scottish Labour isn't likely to come along until and unless he is actually elected leader, and even then there are no guarantees.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why has disgraced MP Alistair Carmichael just been appointed the Lib Dems' Shadow Home Secretary?

Labour's current Shadow Home Secretary is Yvette Cooper.  Imagine it became clear that she had been guilty of serious wrongdoing, and she reacted by saying : "This incident would have required my resignation if I'd been the actual Home Secretary, but as it is I'm just going to carry on as if nothing has happened."  Do you think that would have been considered tenable?  Of course not.  If you're not a fit and proper person to be a Cabinet minister, then you're not a fit and proper person to be a Shadow Cabinet member.

When Alistair Carmichael admitted knowingly lying over the "Frenchgate" affair, he carefully attempted to draw a distinction between his role as an MP and as an ex-Cabinet minister.  He insisted that the matter did not require his resignation as an MP, but acknowledged that it would have required his resignation as a Cabinet minister had he still been in office.  Conveniently, his position in the Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet did not arise, as it appears that no such body existed at the time.

But it exists now.  Tim Farron unveiled his list of spokespeople yesterday, and Alistair Carmichael has been given the Home Affairs brief.  He is, effectively, the Liberal Democrats' Shadow Home Secretary, just weeks after acknowledging that he could not possibly have carried on as Scottish Secretary.  How does that work exactly?  OK, we know that the Lib Dems are "the party of rehabilitation", but surely to goodness they haven't completed his rehabilitation already?

If only they were this quick when it comes to delivering federalism and electoral reform.

* * *

Meanwhile, Lib Dem Voice have continued to burnish their credentials as one of Britain's leading comedy websites, by describing Farron's new line-up as "the most diverse shadow cabinet team in the party’s history". As Sophia Pangloss pointed out on Twitter, the team actually includes more Baronesses (eight) than elected MPs (six). But don't be cynical - the Lib Dems have a really diverse range of Baronesses.

And at least they're making us feel nostalgic - this is the first time in several decades that any party's Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet has been drawn primarily from the unelected House of Lords. It's just like the good old days with Lord Palmerston.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What would a Corbyn win mean for the SNP?

I've just noticed an extraordinary New Statesman article from a couple of days ago, in which Stephen Bush reveals that extensive discussions with insiders have left him "more convinced than ever" that the polls are right, and that Jeremy Corbyn will become Labour leader in September.  We should probably take that assessment seriously, as Bush wasn't wise after the event in respect of the general election - he warned before May 7th that the polls might be misleading, in which case the most likely outcome was a Tory-led government (albeit he thought the coalition with the Lib Dems would have to be renewed).  My only quibble in this case is that the current polls aren't actually showing that Corbyn is the nailed-on winner - he has an enormous lead on first preferences, but all that matters is whether he is still ahead in the final run-off, and on that measure his lead is wafer-thin.  Assuming the private poll we saw last night was legitimate, that should actually be regarded as a statistical tie between Corbyn and Yvette Cooper.

However, if Bush is correct that the polls aren't wildly inaccurate, it's clearly the case that Corbyn at least has an excellent chance.  If he wins, it will turn the political world upside down, and the SNP will be affected just like everyone else.  Here are a few potential implications -

1) Left-wingers who turned to the independence movement because the Britain of Attlee, Bevan and Benn seemed to be gone forever may start to have second thoughts.  I know the counter-argument is that it will shortly be demonstrated that Corbyn is unelectable in the south, but in truth I wouldn't be at all surprised if he enjoys a prolonged honeymoon period in the polls.  Even Michael Foot enjoyed a poll lead over Mrs Thatcher at times.   If that happens, it will fuel a (possibly misplaced) sense in the Scottish left that all is not lost at UK level after all.

2) The SNP will, without changing any of their own policies, sometimes find themselves criticising Labour "from the right" for the first time in decades.  Corbyn will probably propose some nationalisations that the SNP think are a step too far, and he may also be more radical on taxation.  Unless Corbyn compromises with the mainstream Labour view on defence and foreign affairs, the SNP may end up defending NATO against a Labour party that wants Britain to withdraw from the alliance.  Speaking personally, I would find that incredibly disorientating, although admittedly it's a less important issue than Trident, on which Labour and the SNP would suddenly be on exactly the same page.

3) We won't have to worry any more about tactical unionist voting (or at least not to any great extent) - the choice between Labour and the Tories will become more polarised than at any time since the 1980s, and supporters of each side won't be lending each other votes to stop the SNP.  In some cases, Tory voters may even revert to seeing the SNP as a legitimate 'moderate' tactical option for thwarting Labour.  Admittedly, though, tactical voting was never really likely to be a major factor in the Holyrood election.

4) The SNP might find it harder to retain their overall majority next year.  The "good" news is that politics is very personality-driven these days, and I suspect voters will still look at the choice between Sturgeon and Dugdale and conclude that it's a no-brainer.  But the Corbyn factor could chip away at the working-class vote that defected to the SNP en masse in May, allowing Labour to lose less badly than they otherwise would have done.  That could make all the difference if the SNP are seeking a mandate for an independence referendum (regardless of whether the proposal is conditional on Brexit or not).

Of course, all of this assumes that the Labour parliamentary party would accept a Corbyn win, which they may well not do.  If there's a major breakaway, the SNP could end up being helped rather than harmed.  It would be fascinating to see which way the Labour group at Holyrood would jump if they had to choose between two rival parties.

An alternative to Blaixit, or "Pinochet without the tanks"

Over the last couple of weeks, I've made a few mentions of Diane Abbott's dictum that it's always the right that walks out on Labour, not the left.  I think that's probably correct, meaning that if there is any split in the party after the leadership election, it's much more likely to be caused by an SDP-style Blairite breakaway ("Blaixit") than by an exodus of the left.  But there is one possible exception to that general rule, which could come about if anyone is foolish enough to listen to the man with a unique track record of having helped Labour lose elections in both Australia and Scotland over the last couple of years, namely the one and only John "the Gardener" McTernan.

Astonishingly, McTernan has said today that Jeremy Corbyn should be instantly removed from office if he is elected leader.  I had assumed that the Blairite plan might be to give Corbyn a year or two, in the hope that his eventual demise would look like an organic process brought about by poor opinion polls and local election results.  But there would be no cover story for an immediate overthrow - it would be a coup, plain and simple.  Presumably the leadership election rules would then be swiftly changed to block off any possible mechanism for reversing the coup, even in the long-term - so how could the left possibly remain within the party after that?  It would inevitably be seen as Labour's own internal version of the Chilean coup of 1973 - Pinochet without the guns and tanks.

You could easily imagine a "Real Labour" party being set up, led by "Labour's legitimate elected leader" and financially supported by the trade unions that backed Corbyn.  It wouldn't necessarily be only a Campaign Group outfit - many soft left MPs would be so infuriated by the death of democracy within official Labour that they might just be tempted to make the move across.  As McTernan is supposedly so keen on "realism" and winning at all costs, it would be interesting to know how he thinks provoking such a schism would help defeat the Tories in 2020, especially under an electoral system that severely punishes split oppositions.

If Corbyn is elected, and the parliamentary party find that they really can't live with him as leader, the most elegant way of averting a disastrous split would be some kind of negotiated "retirement" after two or three years, in return for a Corbyn proxy such as John McDonnell being appointed to a senior position in the Shadow Cabinet.  That would doubtless horrify McTernan, but in the "real world", John, the idea that the left can win a leadership election fair and square, and that you can then just ignore that and pretend that it has no consequences, simply isn't tenable.

Incidentally, the German Social Democrats won the 1998 election "in spite of" the left-wing Oskar Lafontaine being both party chairman and Finance Minister-designate (ie. Shadow Chancellor).  So the assumption that modern electorates will never countenance voting for a party with a strong traditional left component doesn't stack up.

*  *  *

McTernan also added that he thinks Corbyn's popularity is an emotional spasm, because "so many people believed Labour were going to win this election". Of course, McTernan himself didn't merely "believe" Labour would win, he knew it for a fact. At his Summerhall lecture that I went to just over a year ago, he told us that he could "guarantee" a Labour government if we voted No in the independence referendum.

We're still waiting for our money back, John.

With Burnham in danger of early elimination, Corbyn should now be considered the slight favourite

As you may have seen by now, there's yet another spate of reports in the press about a private poll for the Labour leadership contest, but this time with specific figures -

First preferences :

Jeremy Corbyn 42%
Yvette Cooper 22.6%
Andy Burnham 20%
Liz Kendall 14%

Final run-off :

Jeremy Corbyn 51%
Yvette Cooper 49%

I don't think we need to scratch our heads too much about the origin of this poll - the only candidate who benefits from it being leaked is Yvette Cooper, so it probably came from her team.  It's quite amusing to see that she is also the only candidate whose share of the vote is given to one decimal place, which suggests that the person who leaked the poll was rather more interested in her than in anyone else!

A number of commentators have pointed out that it's extremely unsatisfactory that we don't know which company carried out this poll or what the sample size was, but in fact what would interest me most is the fieldwork dates.  If it was wholly or mostly conducted after the publication of the YouGov poll, that would mean there's no longer any reason to suppose that Corbyn's initial support contained a significant number of people who merely wanted to "shake things up", and who are horrified by the thought of him actually winning.  Assuming his huge lead on first preferences has indeed survived the fallout from YouGov, it's very hard to see why it won't survive the next few weeks as well, because clearly the people planning to vote for him do genuinely want him to win.  If anything, his position may become even stronger as the result of a bandwagon effect - it's easy to imagine people being inspired to pay £3 to vote for Corbyn now that they seriously believe he can become leader, but who is going to care enough about stopping him that they will go out of their way to vote for a dismal candidate like Burnham?  Anyone who does care that much is probably already a party member, and is therefore already factored into the figures.

Given that it's impossible to win the leadership without being in the final run-off, and given that Burnham and Cooper each seem to have a roughly 50/50 chance of failing to make the run-off, it strikes me that Jeremy Corbyn should really now be considered the favourite to win, albeit still an odds-against favourite.  I'm surprised that the bookies are still marginally giving the edge to Burnham, but that may not be the case for much longer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cammo may not know so, but he has no veto

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the International Business Times, taking issue with David Cameron's apparent belief that he gets to decide whether the people of Scotland are allowed to choose their own constitutional future. You can read it HERE.

Ruth Davidson's credibility lies in tatters

Ruth Davidson was asked a number of times in the run-up to the general election whether a Conservative government at Westminster would attempt to block a second independence referendum.  She replied that she'd had extensive discussions on the subject with David Cameron, and that she couldn't foresee any circumstances in which that would happen (although of course she went through the motions of adding that it would be a "betrayal" if the SNP brought such a proposal forward, blah blah blah).  She clearly made those comments for a reason - most likely that she wanted to demonstrate that the Tories had learned their lesson, and would in future respect the right of the Scottish people to democratically decide their own destiny.

I'm waking up to reports this morning that Cameron has now said that there will not be a referendum in this parliament or while he is Prime Minister.  That is clearly intended to indicate that he will haughtily wave his hand and 'overrule' any mandate that the Scottish people may give for a referendum at the election next May.  As Professor Robert Black has made clear, there is by no means a consensus among legal experts that the London government's permission is even required to hold a consultative referendum, as long as the question wording is carefully framed.  But Cameron clearly wants us to believe that he possesses such a veto, and that he will use it.  Forget the "equal partner in the Union" guff, we're back to the hostage situation.

So the hard questions this morning are for Ruth Davidson.  Does her word, and the word of the Conservative party, really not count for anything?

Give me joy in my heart, keep me praising, keep me praising till the break of day. Sing hosanna, sing hosanna, sing hosanna to the Blair of Blairs!

There are, naturally, a variety of different views on the exact moment that Tony Blair's megalomania reached its peak.  For me, it would be hard to beat the barking mad "forces of conservatism" speech, in which he defined progressivism as comprising himself and anyone who agreed with him, and "the forces of conservatism" as comprising absolutely anyone who took issue with Blairism, regardless of whether they did so from a conservative, liberal, nationalist or radical left perspective.  The differences between these people were as nothing compared to the fact that they all opposed Blairism - therefore they were all exactly the same.

I think it says something about any individual when you realise that they listened to that speech and didn't think "OK, poor Tone's finally lost it", but instead nodded quietly to themselves and thought "what a truly fabulous point".  Terrifyingly, it's now become clear that Stephen Daisley - who I and a number of other SNP supporters have maintained a degree of admiration for - falls firmly into that category.

"Blair in government was an enemy of conservatives of the left and of the right, and to this day boasts an opposition coalition of Trots, Eurosceptics, homophobes, Saddam groupies, the Daily Mail, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Countryside Alliance, and people who think New York stockbrokers had it coming. Unlikely bedfellows, you might suppose, but all share contempt for Blair’s liberal cosmopolitan worldview, with its open societies, blurred identities, and moral universalism."

When you read something like that, it's very hard not to wonder whether Stephen's claim to be unsure of how to vote in May was something of an affectation, one that he put on because he didn't want to look totally out of tune with the mood of the moment.  Surely to goodness he didn't set aside the loyalties of his beloved grandfather to even consider voting for a party that he regards as "conservative", and is quite happy to mention in the same breath as homophobes and Ba'athists?

The good news is that Stephen is rapidly establishing himself as one of this country's finest comic talents since Stanley Baxter.  The bad news is that his serious articles are now outpacing his satire in that respect.  Exhibit A -

"If you incline to the political left, [Blair's] is not a legacy to defend. It’s a legacy to hoist on your shoulders and carry through every street in the land with songful joy and pride unbecoming."

Well, I'm on the political left, and it has to be said I've fallen somewhat short on the "songful joy when talking about Blair" front, so let's go through some of Stephen's specific examples and see whether I've been getting it all wrong.

"What’s a right-winger not to like about Tony Blair? How about introducing a minimum wage, tax credits, the Human Rights Act, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and civil partnerships?"

Blair downgraded Labour's minimum wage policy - if John Smith hadn't died, it would have been set at a higher level.  Its introduction did represent significant progress, but it's meaningless to call it a Blair achievement without putting it firmly in that context.

Tax credits - fair enough.

The Human Rights Act - I don't know enough about internal Labour politics of the time to judge how much credit Blair (who loved nothing better than to castigate "libertarian nonsense") really deserves for the Human Rights Act, which appears so out of sync with his own authoritarian beliefs.  But, yes, it was a progressive achievement of the government he led.

The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly - forget it, Stephen.  He inherited the commitment to devolution from all five of his immediate predecessors, and was utterly unenthusiastic about it.  He only proceeded because he knew there would be civil war in the party if he did anything else.

Civil partnerships - fair enough.

"Nor were traditionalists keen on his ban on fox-hunting, repeal of Section 28, and removal of most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords."

Hmmm.  Nor was HE especially keen on "his" ban on fox-hunting - he dragged his feet on it for years, using opposition in the House of Lords as an excuse (complete rubbish, because the Parliament Act could have been invoked to overrule the Lords at a much earlier stage).  As on so many things, his instinct was to reach a compromise on hunting with (ironically) the forces of conservatism, but he eventually resigned himself to his backbenchers' unyielding determination to see it through for real.

Repeal of Section 28 - fair enough.

Removal of most of the hereditary peers - well, those words give the game away, don't they?  He not only downgraded his predecessor's policy on Lords reform, he ultimately downgraded his own policy, and allowed many of the hereditaries to stay.  Why?  Again, it was because his instinct was to tack towards the forces of conservatism whenever a dispute arose.  He wanted to be seen to compromise in a gentlemanly fashion with that splendid Lord Cranborne, even though there was absolutely no political need to do so. And remember - he sold his timid proposal to the party as a tactically brilliant "Stage 1" reform that was a necessary prerequisite for the much more radical "Stage 2" which would follow shortly afterwards. That never materialised, and yet we're now being invited by Stephen to rejoice in Stage 1 as an end in itself.

"British nationalists were less than enthusiastic about the peace he brokered in Northern Ireland and the Bloody Sunday inquiry he established."

The Blair government's achievement in Northern Ireland was extraordinary, but it wouldn't have happened if John Major hadn't paved the way for it. You really do have to wonder what Blair's attitude to Sinn Fein would have been if Major hadn't normalised the idea of making overtures towards them. Would Blair have spoken of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in much the same way that he did of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic? It scarcely seems outlandish to suppose that he might have done, given the way that his fellow travellers are currently demonising Jeremy Corbyn for simply having dialogue with Sinn Fein in the 1980s.

"the most successful leader in the history of the Labour Party"

Debatable, at best. Harold Wilson won four elections out of five. Blair only fought three, and won all of them - but the last of those was on a pathetic 35% share of the vote. Wilson's lowest share was 37% in February 1974 (he got 43% even when he was defeated in 1970). Clement Attlee also easily outshines Blair with the share of the vote he received in the five elections he fought as leader, even though he only won two of them.

*  *  *

Without question, my favourite bit of the BBC's Scottish Labour leadership debate was Ken Macintosh's intriguing explanation that Labour MPs made a mistake by not voting against the Welfare Bill, but that it would have been much better if none of them at all had voted against it, rather than only some of them - because that way they could have made clear that they were opposing it by not voting against it.

Sure, Ken. Whatever you say.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Is currency really such a huge dilemma?

As a result of my previous post arguing that there is a respectable case for a relatively early second independence referendum, a number of people left comments suggesting that we can't even think about doing that until we get the currency issue sorted.  The reality is, though, that the complexity of the issue is reduced by the fact that there are only so many options open to us, and some of them can be swiftly eliminated for political reasons.

Option 1 : Apply to join the Euro.  Might have been a vote-winner fifteen years ago, but now a complete non-starter.

Option 2 : Propose a common Sterling-zone with the rest of the UK, and decline to specify a Plan B if London refuses to agree to the plan.  There is broad consensus that this policy was one of the weakest points of the Yes campaign last year (from a tactical rather than economic point of view), so a repeat can probably be ruled out.

Option 3 : Propose a common Sterling-zone, but have a clear Plan B to cover the theoretical possibility of a London veto.  This falls foul of the very reason we were so reluctant to specify a Plan B last year - arguing the case for two completely different policies might not come across as terribly credible, and can be easily misinterpreted as meaning that we don't really believe Plan A will happen.

Option 4 : Use the pound outside a formal Sterling-zone.  A perfectly respectable possibility in theory, but in practice leaves us open to more sneering about "Panama".

Option 5 : A Scottish currency pegged to the pound.

Option 6 : A Scottish currency not pegged to the pound.

As far as I can see, it's overwhelmingly likely to be either option 5 or 6, so it's just a question of war-gaming the two possibilities to see what would be most likely to stand up to intense scrutiny during the campaign.  It might seem regrettable that the decision can't be made on economic grounds alone, but the reality is that the choice of currency has to command public consent, both before and after a referendum.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

If we put off a second independence referendum until it's risk-free, we'll never do it

Unless there is some kind of split in the SNP hierarchy, it's very hard not to interpret Alex Salmond's comments on the Andrew Marr show this morning as a careful preparing of the ground for a relatively early second independence referendum - not necessarily in the next Holyrood term, but certainly with that possibility left open.  The direction of travel seems to have spooked Andrew Tickell (aka Lallands Peat Worrier), who has written a blogpost begging people to be cautious.  Essentially his argument is that if we rush into a second referendum and lose it, we'll destroy the chances of independence forever. 

I'm not sure that's actually true - it might be a generational setback, but the experience in Quebec has been that the pro-independence movement can survive a second narrow defeat (the issue is still very much alive there, in spite of what some people would have you believe).  However, I would agree that it's important to avoid a second defeat if at all possible.  Where I part company with Andrew is that I don't think we will ever reach the point where a referendum can be held without the risk of defeat.  The idea that opinion polls might show 70% support for Yes in twenty years from now is probably in the realms of fantasy - and even if that did happen, there would still be some risk in taking the plunge.  Big and rapid swings in opinion are scarcely unheard of in referendum campaigns.

If our starting point is that we are aiming for a second referendum at some point, the correct time to do it is not when the risk of defeat has been eliminated (it never will be), but instead when the probability of victory is highest.  Even if that probability is only 30% or 40%, it's still rational to take the risk if you've got reason to believe that the odds will lengthen in future.  So there is in fact a perfectly respectable case to be made for an early referendum - it's hard to believe that the good will towards the SNP is ever going to be stronger than it is now, or that Nicola Sturgeon's personal standing with the public will ever be better.  Furthermore, we have to remember that there needs to be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood for a referendum to even be possible, and we can't rely on that majority being there indefinitely.

I also want to take issue with a couple of points about polling that Andrew made in support of his argument.  He's simply wrong to say that there was only one poll during the campaign that put Yes in the lead.  There were in fact two such polls - the famous one from YouGov on the penultimate weekend, and one from ICM the following Saturday night.  Martin Boon later regretted the methodology used for the ICM poll, but nevertheless it did exist, and it gave Yes a commanding 54% to 46% lead.  There was also a TNS poll which showed a dead heat with Don't Knows excluded, and of course there were sensational telephone polls from ICM and Ipsos-Mori giving the No campaign a statistically insignificant lead of 51% to 49%.  And those were just the public polls - it's an open secret that what really panicked the London establishment was a private poll giving Yes a 53-47 lead. 

I presume what Andrew is getting at is that the YouGov poll gave a false impression that Yes were on the brink of victory, and therefore it's wrong to say, for example, that The Vow could possibly have had a decisive effect.  But in fact the evidence that the Yes vote slipped back in the closing days is pretty extensive and compelling.  The polls were probably slightly inaccurate, but it seems likely that Yes were at the very least on course to poll higher than 45% - before being thwarted by a combination of The Vow and the "shock and awe" culmination of Project Fear.

The second point Andrew makes is that "no poll has shown a sustained or substantial majority for independence" since the referendum.  I'm not sure I understand what that means - how can any individual poll show a "sustained" majority?  Some polls since the referendum have shown a Yes majority, others have shown a No majority, and there has been one dead heat.  All of them have pointed to an incredibly tight race, mostly with a lead for either side that is within the margin of error.  And every single one has agreed that the Yes vote is stronger than it was in September (even though most of them have been weighted by recalled referendum vote).

The existence of Andrew's post is in itself a vivid demonstration of how dramatically the debate has moved on.  In the days after September 18th, he bluntly told people who even raised the topic of a second referendum to "stop it".  It's got to the point where opponents of an early second referendum are having to engage, rather than attempting to shut down the whole discussion.

YouGov poll : Perceptions of Labour in Scotland seem to be more negative than ever before

From a partisan SNP point of view, one of my concerns about the Corbyn surge has been that it might lead to working-class voters in Scotland changing their negative perceptions of Labour, even if one of the "mainstream" candidates is ultimately elected leader.  However, if the Scottish subsample of a YouGov poll conducted on Thursday and Friday is anything to go by, I needn't have worried.

Thinking about how the Labour party have performed since the election, has it made you think more positively about them, more negatively about them, or made no difference? (Respondents in Scotland only)

More positively : 1%
More negatively : 50%
No difference - I had a positive view of Labour and still do : 11%
No difference - I had a negative view of Labour and still do : 26%


That looks to me like an electorate with Labour's abstention over welfare cuts at the forefront of its mind, rather than Corbyn's success.  Having said that, there is some limited evidence from the poll that Labour might make progress in Scotland if Corbyn actually becomes leader - a combined total of 27% of the Scottish subsample say they would be more likely to support Labour if he wins, or that they would support Labour anyway.  That's the highest figure by some distance of any of the four candidates, with the next best performer being Yvette Cooper on 18%.  Unsurprisingly, Liz Kendall is bottom of the pile with just 14%.

Even at Britain-wide level, this poll again challenges the conventional wisdom that Corbyn is a guaranteed voter repellent - a combined total of 23% say they would be more likely to support Labour if he wins or that they would support Labour anyway.  That's identical to Burnham's figure, and higher than the figures for Cooper and Kendall (with Kendall again at the bottom).

Very few respondents on either side of the border give Labour much of a chance of winning in 2020, but those in Scotland are even more sceptical - just 12% of people here think Labour are likely to win, compared to 19% across Britain.

The electoral system would punish a Labour breakaway

RevStu has suggested today that if the Labour party splits in two following its leadership election, it could make it easier for the Tories to be defeated at the next general election, with a new "Real Labour" party able to motivate the "missing millions" of left-wing people to turn out to vote for the first time in decades, and a centrist "Middle Labour" able to take on the Tories in the marginals.  I have to say I disagree.  Firstly, it's open to question whether it's even possible to win by increasing turnout - there's always the danger that your success in motivating your own lapsed supporters will be noticed by the normally apathetic on the other side of the fence, who will be sufficiently scared to turn out to vote themselves.  That appears to be what happened in the independence referendum.

But even if, for the sake of argument, it proves to be possible to increase turnout on the left but not on the right, a split in Labour is still not a viable strategy for defeating the Tories, because the current electoral system punishes split oppositions.  1983 is the classic example - contrary to popular belief, Mrs Thatcher's share of the vote actually fell from 43.9% to 42.4%, but her parliamentary majority rocketed from a relatively modest 44 to an overwhelming 144.  That happened simply because the left-wing vote, which had been relatively united behind Labour in 1979, ended up more or less evenly divided between Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

RevStu has cited Douglas Carswell's re-election in May to support his belief that it will prove possible in practice for incumbent MPs from both of the post-split Labour parties to hold their seats.  But that ignores the fact that for every Carswell, there is likely to be ten Mark Recklesses.  The vast majority of incumbent SDP MPs lost their seats in 1983, including the hugely popular Shirley Williams.  That such a thing could happen even when the SDP and their allies were almost level-pegging with Labour in the popular vote shows how utterly unforgiving the electoral system can be.  Carswell is a very special case, and indeed Clacton is a very unusual constituency.

The only theoretical hope would be some kind of electoral pact between the two parties, but that's almost certainly a non-runner.  In 1981, there were hopes that the social democrats who had decided to stick with Labour might at least be able to stay on good terms with their ex-colleagues in the SDP, but the reality is that within months they could have cheerfully strangled each other.  That's the nature of a split - and indeed the same thing happened to the SDP itself a few years later, when one faction merged with the Liberals, and another tried to plough on by itself.  It's true that the Liberal Democrats eventually agreed not to put up candidates against Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright at the 1992 election, but that was practically an act of charity towards individuals who by then had seen their party cease to exist.

In any case, I think a split is only likely if Corbyn wins.  If he loses, some of Labour's new members and registered supporters will be bitterly disappointed and may drift away from the party, but the hard-core of Socialist Campaign Group MPs will stick it out in their traditional futile manner.  When fellow travellers of Corbyn have ended up in other parties, it's mostly because they were expelled.  (Think Galloway.)  As Diane Abbott has observed a number of times, it's the right that tends to walk out on Labour, not the left.

If a Corbyn victory leads to the creation of a "new SDP", I would imagine that the people behind it will be betting everything on their party being perceived as "the real opposition", and the rump Corbyn-led Labour swiftly withering away into irrelevance, much like Murphy-led Scottish Labour in May.  I very much doubt that would happen, but it's the only way the electoral system can be beaten.