Saturday, November 25, 2017

Extraordinary Perth by-election result illustrates the limitations of anti-SNP tactical voting

In my post on Thursday night, I pointed out three remarkable things about the Perth City South by-election result: a) that, on first preference votes, the SNP had moved from second place into first, b) that the SNP share of the vote had increased by 6.4%, and c) that there was a slight swing from Tory to SNP.  Well, here's a fourth remarkable thing.  In spite of the surge they enjoyed, the SNP still 'only' took 32.1% of the first preference vote, and almost all of the remaining two-thirds of votes were cast for unionist parties.  Given the perception of a unionist bloc vote that wants to stop the SNP at all costs, you'd therefore expect the SNP to have suffered a lopsided defeat once the lower preferences of eliminated unionist candidates were redistributed.  But that simply didn't happen.  Even after several rounds of redistributions, the SNP were still agonisingly close to winning the seat - they were only beaten by 154 votes.

The simplest way of demonstrating what happened is to look at how the Lib Dems' votes transferred once it became a straight contest between SNP and Tory.  Apart from a very small number of votes that had been transferred from the Greens at an earlier stage, almost all of these Lib Dem votes can reasonably be described as 'unionist party votes'.

Liberal Democrat transfers :

Non-transferable 44.4%
Conservatives 35.7%
SNP 19.8%

So almost two-thirds of this supposed unionist bloc failed to express a clear preference for the Tories over the SNP, and almost one-fifth actually expressed a preference for the SNP over the Tories.  Obviously the high number of non-transferable votes can be partly explained by unfamiliarity with the voting system, but nevertheless, even among those Lib Dem voters who did use their lower preferences, more than one-third backed the SNP.  The fact that more Lib Dems broke for the Tories than for the SNP explains why the Tories managed to squeak a victory - but unless the original first preference result had been extremely tight, that wouldn't have been enough to swing the balance.  You're not going to see the Tories overcome first preference deficits of 8% or 10% on this pattern of transfers.

I'd suggest all of this could pose a problem for the Tories at the next Westminster general election.  Assuming the 29% of the national vote they managed this year proves to be 'Peak Tory' (and there are many reasons for thinking it probably will), they're going to be looking to buck the trend in seats they already hold by appealing to Labour and Lib Dem supporters to cast an anti-SNP tactical vote.  It may be that not enough people are going to be receptive to that message - and the problem could get a lot worse if the Tory government goes on to become anything like as actively disliked in the north-east and the south as the Major government was in the 1990s.  I'm increasingly optimistic that the SNP can win back at least some seats from the Tories, whenever the election is held.

In SNP-Labour battleground seats, it's obviously a very different story, because most Tory supporters are for the moment obsessed enough with the constitution to think Labour are preferable to the SNP.  But for how much longer will that be the case?  Richard Leonard's elevation to leader could prove to be something of a watershed for unionist tactical voting, because Tory supporters will no longer be able to tell themselves that Scottish Labour is more centrist than the Corbyn-controlled UK party, and thus 'safer' to vote for.

We know that Labour are going to take every opportunity at the next election to peddle the fiction that voters need to abandon the SNP for Labour if they want to see a non-Tory government.  Well, Tory supporters are going to hear that message as well, and some of them may even start to convince themselves that a tactical vote for the SNP could be the most practical way of preventing a Corbyn administration.  At the very least, they may become more conflicted about whether the SNP or Corbyn is the greater and more immediate threat, which could lead them to simply revert to a non-tactical vote for their own first-choice party.

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After the SNP's 'curate's egg' performance in by-elections this week, I was hoping that the two new Scottish subsamples from YouGov would offer some clues as to what the state of play really is, but in fact they've just muddied the waters even further, because they're completely contradictory.

YouGov (a): Labour 36%, SNP 33%, Conservatives 22%, Liberal Democrats 5%, Greens 3%, BNP 1%, UKIP 1%

YouGov (b): SNP 38%, Conservatives 25%, Labour 24%, Liberal Democrats 7%, UKIP 2%, Greens 1%

So we have the first YouGov subsample since the summer to put Labour in the lead...and then the first YouGov subsample since the general election to put Labour as low as third.  Across all polling firms, twenty-two of the last twenty-four subsamples have shown an SNP lead - but the two that didn't have both been published within the last week.  Make of that what you will.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

SNP vote surges in Perth by-election - but it's a tougher night in Rutherglen

It's already clear from gossip on Twitter that Labour have won the Rutherglen by-election.  That's a disappointing result for the SNP, who comfortably won the popular vote in the ward back in May, so clearly there has been a significant swing to Labour.  It's the third time over recent months that the SNP's performance in a west-central Scotland by-election has fallen well short of what the opinion polls would lead us to expect.  The obvious means of explaining that away would be to point to dismally low turnout - although it's not immediately clear why that would favour Labour so much (in contrast to the Tories, whose supporters are well known for flocking to the polls in low turnout contests).

All we know about the Perth South by-election so far comes from Pete Wishart, who says it's a two-horse race, with the SNP as one of the two horses.  My guess would be some sort of Tory victory, but we'll see.

UPDATE: I'll double-check the figures when I get a chance, but this appears to be the result from Rutherglen -

Labour 38.5% (+7.5) 
SNP 27.4% (-12.0)
Liberal Democrats 18.2% (+8.9)
Conservatives 12.1% (-4.2)
Greens 2.9% (-1.1)
UKIP 0.9% (n/a)

If true, there's no way of putting a positive gloss on that - it represents almost a 10% swing to Labour since May, and if extrapolated across the country would point to a clear Labour lead.  That obviously seems highly unlikely based on opinion poll evidence, so perhaps Labour are doing much better in some geographical pockets than in others, or perhaps they were simply better organised than the SNP in a low turnout by-election.  (Only about one-quarter of eligible voters took part.)

The only good thing is that the media, with their customary cluelessness about the quirks of STV by-elections, will report this in one-dimensional fashion as a Labour hold - which technically is what it is, but that doesn't tell the real story of Labour overtaking the SNP in the ward.

UPDATE II: As I suspected, the Tories have won Perth City South.  However, this one is much better news, because the SNP actually 'won' the by-election on first preference votes - an improvement from their second place in the ward in May.  The Tories only took the seat after the lower preferences of eliminated unionist candidates were redistributed.

The full result doesn't appear to be available online yet. Ruth Davidson seems to be suggesting that the Tories took 31% of the first preference vote - which would mean that the SNP must have done at least as well as that, pointing to an increase in the SNP vote of 5% (or more) since May.  A highly creditable result by any standards.

In the case of Perth, the media's cluelessness about STV by-elections will not work in the SNP's favour.  The result will be reported as a "Conservative hold", but the real story is the SNP jumping from second place to first (on first preference votes, that is), the Tories jumping from third place to second, and the Lib Dems slumping from first place to third

UPDATE III: According to Pete Wishart, this is the full result on first preferences -

SNP 32.1% (+6.4)
Conservatives 31.2% (+6.0)
Liberal Democrats 28.8% (-5.9)
Labour 5.7% (-0.7)
Greens 1.8% (-1.3)

Leaving aside the annoying fact that there's going to be a Tory rather than an SNP councillor, this is a cracking result for the SNP - it really is.  It looks like both the SNP and the Tories have been flattered by the drop in Lib Dem support (presumably caused by a popular Lib Dem councillor not being on the ballot paper this time), but even allowing for that, there has been a slight swing from Tory to SNP - which is not really what you'd expect given the greater tendency of Tory supporters to make it to the polls in local by-elections.  It's not a disastrous result for Ruth Davidson, and she'll obviously spin the 'victory' for all she's worth, but privately she must be less than thrilled with yet another second place finish in Perth.

There's also a reality check for Labour here - they may have done extremely well in Rutherglen, but it could be that they're being squeezed in traditional SNP-Tory battlegrounds.

For the fame, not the many

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website about Kezia Dugdale's ill-advised decision to take part in I'm a Celebrity.  You can read it HERE.

*  *  *

It was statistically inevitable that the SNP's extraordinary run of being ahead in twenty-one consecutive subsamples would eventually be brought to an end, and it finally happened earlier this week with the publication of Kantar's first poll since the general election.  It's a weird poll all round - not only are the Tories several points ahead across Britain (a finding that is completely out of line with what all other firms have been showing for the last two months), but there's also a substantial Tory lead in the Scottish subsample.  As this is the most recent poll to be conducted, we can't completely exclude the possibility that it's picking up something new, but it's probably more likely that it'll prove to be a freakish result.  I'd be a little more concerned if the Scottish subsample had put Labour substantially ahead, but a Tory surge in Scotland just doesn't have the smell of truth at the moment.

Bizarrely, Kantar appear to be unaware of the change in Scottish Labour leadership.  According to their datasets, one of the voting intention options they offered to respondents in Scotland was "Labour party (led by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Kezia Dugdale in Scotland)".

*  *  *

We should get more of a clue of the state of public opinion overnight, because there are two important local by-elections in Scotland today - one in Perth City South, and one in Rutherglen Central & North.  On paper, the SNP should have a decent chance of gaining the seat in Rutherglen, because they topped the poll in the ward in May, with an 8% margin over Labour.  However, the ward is in one of the six parliamentary constituencies that Labour gained in the general election, and the arithmetic also looks very similar to a seat that the SNP failed to win in a Glasgow by-election a couple of months ago.  In practice I'd say Labour are slight favourites - which obviously means it would be a huge psychological boost if the SNP were to pull it off.

The Perth contest looks much tougher for the SNP - they were nine points behind the Lib Dems (of all parties) back in May.  Although it's perfectly possible the Lib Dem vote will prove to be soft, you'd think those people would be more likely to break for the Tories rather than the SNP.  But you never know - Pete Wishart famously defied gravity in Perth at the general election, so let's hope history repeats itself.

If by any chance you live in either ward, don't forget to vote over the next few hours!

Monday, November 20, 2017

David Leask makes serious allegation against Ofcom - but does he have any evidence?

Because I'm now blocked on Twitter by the Herald's legendary David "Let's Block Everybody" Leask (as a result of just one polite interaction with him), it's harder for me to keep up with developments concerning his increasingly paranoid obsession with a 30-minute weekly TV show on Freeview.  Someone mentioned yesterday that he now believes The Alex Salmond Show is the "defining story of our age", which seemed a bit too unhinged to be plausible, so I naturally assumed it was a quote that had been taken wildly out of context for comic effect.  But, remarkably, it wasn't.

David Leask: Scotland's reputation 'damaged' by Alex Salmond's Russian TV show

Fenner: Absolutely pathetic that this is still being discussed.

David Leask: It's the defining story of our age. Are you with Trump, Brexit & Putin lie machines or with, among others, the SNP who oppose them. Your choice.

Jim Gibson: It's "the defining story of our age". Yes! Leask actually did write those words. Forget Brexit, Cataluña, Trump, child slavery, refugees, wars, the Middle East, climate change, Greggs sausage rolls. Forget all of them! The Alex Salmond Show defines our age.

Lyn/SNP member: I am much more interested in Theresa May's relationships with Duterte, Salman, Erdogan and Netanyahu. As we break away from the EU these partnerships will tighten. May herself is no fan of democracy or human rights. She is in office. Salmond is not.

David Leask: So you're an SNP member. Why do you think the party boycotts RT?

Lyn/SNP member: I am. I can't answer that. I haven't spoken to the party about RT. So you're a journalist. Why wait until Salmond has his own show before jumping on the bandwagon? Others sat before him including Corbyn. Why is RT AVAILABLE in UK? Who sanctioned it?

David Leask: People who want to make sure the BBC isn't jammed in Russia. You still haven't explained why you oppose the SNP on this. But alas inn (sic) guessing you're not gonna. Best.

Now let's just hit the rewind button for a moment, and treat the first sentence of that final tweet with the seriousness it warrants. Leask's response to the question "Who allows RT to broadcast in the UK?' was "People who want to make sure the BBC isn't jammed in Russia". For the avoidance of doubt, the "people" he is referring to are collectively known as Ofcom - the regulatory body that gave RT a licence to broadcast in this country and so far have not revoked it.  The only reasonable way of interpreting his words is as an allegation that Ofcom ignored their legal duties, and awarded a licence to a broadcaster that did not meet the very strict criteria laid down.  Furthermore, Leask is alleging that Ofcom broke the rules for political reasons (ie. to prevent retaliatory action against the BBC in Russia).  There may even be a hint in there that they took the decision under external political pressure.

If those allegations turned out to be true, it would be a bombshell that would undoubtedly lead to the resignation of Ofcom's management.  Which begs the obvious question: why hasn't Leask written in the Herald about this outrageous Ofcom scandal?  He would of course require evidence before going into print with it, but doubtless he wouldn't have made such an extraordinary claim in the first place unless he had plenty of proof.

(That said, he does now routinely imply that anyone who speaks in support of Alex Salmond must be in the pay of the Kremlin, and is perhaps even Russian themselves.  He's also in the past advanced a crackpot conspiracy theory that Wings Over Scotland and Wee Ginger Dug were set up by dark forces to discredit the independence movement.  So perhaps he isn't quite as much of a stickler for evidence as you might expect from someone of his profession.  In case you're wondering how on earth two immensely popular pro-independence websites are supposed to have discredited the movement, he appeared to mean that they hadn't shown sufficient deference to the mainstream media, which as we all know is the sole determinant of credibility.)

*  *  *

You might remember that a couple of months ago, there was a discussion on this blog about whether it was reasonable for the media to say that Angela Merkel had "won" the German federal election, given that she had only roughly one-third of the seats in the Bundestag, and that if she remained as Chancellor that would be a decision of other parties, not of the voters.  It was argued by some that yes, it was reasonable, because voters had delivered a result that everyone knew would result in a fourth term for Merkel.  That theory went out of the window yesterday when the FDP pulled the plug on three-way coalition talks with Merkel's party and the Greens, meaning there is no longer any viable majority coalition available to Merkel.  Germany thus reverts to the raw arithmetic the voters actually delivered in September, which won't in itself be sufficient to sustain Merkel for a fourth term.  And yet the BBC reiterated today that Merkel "won" the election.  So here's my customary question - if that non-victory (33% of the votes and 35% of the seats) must be described as a "win", what possible excuse is there for not acknowledging that the SNP won the general election in Scotland with their superior 37% of the vote and 59% of the seats?

*  *  *

I was surprised earlier today by a number of angry reactions I received when I made what I thought was a pretty obvious point on Twitter - that while I admired Richard Leonard's honesty, it was likely that his admission that he supports England against Scotland at football would be quoted back at him a million times.  One point that a few people made was "he's English, so why is this surprising."  Well, is he English?  Or is he someone with a more complex identity because he's lived in Scotland for longer than he lived in the country of his birth?  Presumably that was one of the points the question about football was intended to illuminate, and I'm not sure that's totally unreasonable.  Imagine the reaction if a New Zealand party leader said they weren't supporting the All Blacks against the Springboks, for example.  In Australia, political leaders aren't even allowed to have dual nationality - the implication being that wherever you originally come from, seeking political office means that you're a fully paid-up member of Team Australia now.  I personally think that takes it way too far, but it's scarcely an uncommon attitude.  How long would a US presidential candidate of any national origin last if they didn't show sufficient American patriotism?

As frivolous as it seems to many, it's become one of the ritual duties of political leaders to speak on behalf of those they represent by offering encouragement and congratulations/commiserations to national sporting teams.  I think that may prove to be a little awkward for Leonard in certain circumstances, because the media won't be shy about reminding their readers and viewers that he's an England supporter.  However, as I said - good for him.  I think it reflects well on him that he answered the question honestly, even though there may be a political cost.

*  *  *

The Scottish subsample from the latest Britain-wide Opinium poll: SNP 38%, Labour 30%, Conservatives 29%, Greens 3%.  This is the twenty-first subsample in a row, across all firms, to put the SNP ahead.