All posts by thomas

Is the SNP suffering from acute Labouritis?

sick patient photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images
All political parties over a certain size are essentially coalitions. Their members generally agree on some questions but disagree wildly on others. So long as the questions they disagree on aren’t too important, the party can hold together.

If the national agenda changes, however, the conflicts might be brought to the forefront, and as a result the party will suffer, as Labour discovered a few years ago. Labour members tended to agree on for instance education and poverty, but they simply didn’t see eye to eye on Scottish independence. So when the independence referendum was called and was felt to be higher up the agenda than education policy, the party essentially fell apart. Labour’s best chance is to make the Scottish independence question go away and make people concentrate on education and poverty again, rather than seeing these issues through an independence lens. (To some extent Corbyn has succeeded with this, convincing some left-wing Yessers to vote for Labour.)

If we call this condition Labouritis, I do wonder whether it’s fair to argue that the SNP has caught a milder dose of the disease after the Brexit referendum. Of course the SNP isn’t split down the middle, but it’s clear that there is a vocal minority of members (perhaps up to 30% of them) that are opposed to the EU and definitely don’t want to leave a post-Brexit UK in order to rejoin the EU.

As a result, I’m sensing that the SNP over the past year has gone from being a shining pro-EU beacon that made EU citizens in Scotland (like me) feel enormously better than our compatriots in the rUK, to being an uninspiring entity that tries not to offend too many people, making EU citizens in Scotland reconsider their future here. (It’s entirely clear that the SNP leadership is on our side, but they often feel rather tongue-tied, probably because some of their own members fight them every time they say something nice and coherent about the EU.)

It’s actually quite simple: If the SNP tries to keep all its members happy, they will send out conflicting signals, for instance by talking simultaneously about the importance of the EU and about wanting to join EFTA instead. The risk is that they end up appealing to nobody, so that the voters that prioritise the EU join the Greens or the Lib Dems, and the ones that are against EU membership jump ship for Corbyn’s Labour, or even for the Tories.

On the other hand, if the SNP prioritises the majority view, campaigning strongly for an independent Scotland within the EU, it might lose 30% of its members, but at least the rest will feel motivated, and the it might also attract pro-EU voters from other parties.

The alternative is to hope that the Brexit question goes away, by convincing the UK as a whole to remain within the EU. If that could be achieved, the fundamental disagreement within the SNP would again be hidden from view.

I don’t know what the best way forward is for the SNP, but I don’t think Labour’s cure for Labouritis was very effective. I hope a better remedy can be found for the SNP’s ailment. It’s possible that two pro-independence parties (one in favour of the EU and the other one against it) would do better than a broad church – but of course such a split will be disastrous in Westminster elections conducted using the FPTP electoral system.

Election reflexions

reflections photo
Photo by Theophilos
The SNP has lost a lot of excellent MPs, and Westminster will be poorer without them. Amongst them, my local MP – Kirsten Oswald – was a wonderful, hard-working MP who actually lived in the constituency, and her replacement is a young Tory who is unlikely to make a difference. It’s sad.

However, I’m not really surprised that the SNP had a bad election. You cannot tell the voters the election isn’t really about independence and then be surprised if they either stay at home or vote for a UK-wide party. I think many people in the SNP had convinced themselves that people were voting for them mainly because they liked their policies, when in reality they did so because they wanted independence soon. The rapper Loki’s tweet about his vote perhaps sums this up well:

Last weekend’s independence march in Glasgow showed the appetite for independence is still there, but the SNP seemed afraid of embracing it. As a result, left-wingers swung back to Labour, right-wingers went to the Tories, and many Remain voters opted for the Lib Dems. And of course, many people stayed at home (turnout in Scotland was down from 71.1% to 66.4%).

During the first independence referendum, we mobilised the young and the non-voters. Corbyn learnt from that, and to great success. However, it appears that the SNP is forgetting the lesson. Being a bland, centralised, slightly-left-of-centre party simply doesn’t inspire people. As Wee Ginger Dug put it:

The truth is that the SNP campaign was weak, lacking in focus, and didn’t resonate with the electorate. There was no vision being given, no dream, too often it seemed that they were simply going through the motions. “Stronger for Scotland” isn’t a vision, isn’t a story. People need a story, and all the SNP offered was a soundbite. It’s not enough. We need to paint a picture of a better country, we need to tell its story and sing its songs and make it live in the imagination.

The SNP probably also needs to realise that it simply cannot appeal to its old North-East stronghold at the same time as the Central Belt. Aberdeenshire seems to be full of former SNP voters who voted Leave, and appealing to them means that the party needs to shift right and against the EU; however, if they do that, other voters will disappear.

Personally I believe the SNP should continue being a left-wing, pro-EU party and simply realise that it won’t ever get many votes in the North East again. However, others might prefer it to return to its roots, but then most of the Central Belt is likely to return to Labour and other parties. As I wrote back in September, discussing the next independence referendum, rather than the SNP:

[T]he potential problem for [ScotRef] is that you can’t create a successful coalition of [Yes–Leave, Yes–Remain and No–Remain]: As soon as you start appealing to the [No–Remainers], the [Yes–Leavers] will walk out in disgust, and vice versa. It’s already very clear that the [Yes–Leavers] are deeply unhappy about [ScotRef] being run on the basis of continued EU membership. On the other hand, if we focus too much on keeping the [Yes–Leavers] on board, we’ll be unable to appeal to the [No–Remainers].

Apparently some SNP people are already suggesting that ScotRef should be delayed. I think that would be disastrous. If the SNP stops pursuing independence, even more people will swing back to Unionist parties, and the activists will feel utterly demoralised.

We need to return to the happy, hopeful days of 2014, when we were inspiring so many people who had never been interested in politics before, and having a plan for independence in Europe has to be part of that.

I don’t understand…

I don’t understand why the vast majority of people haven’t sussed yet that Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster.

I don’t understand why most people don’t understand that the Tories now stand for the same as UKIP, and that you shouldn’t vote for the former if you wouldn’t have considered voting for the latter.

I don’t understand why so many people in Scotland don’t realise that Scottish Labour don’t agree with Corbyn, and that voting for them to get his policies will backfire, because you’ll get a Tory instead of somebody from the SNP (who actually would have voted with Corbyn on many things).

I don’t understand why people are interested in what the manifestos say about spending money on this or that, given that Brexit means there won’t be money for anything.

I don’t understand why people aren’t up in arms about Theresa May’s desire to turn the UK into a totalitarian state without human rights or civil liberties.

I don’t understand why people aren’t noticing that the Tories are aligning the UK with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US Alt Right, and that an opposing liberal block consisting of the EU, Canada and other countries is being formed. Surely Scotland belongs in the liberal block, not in the totalitarian one.

I don’t understand why 90% of people in Scotland aren’t demanding a new independence referendum now to escape this madhouse, why they aren’t all voting SNP to get a get-out-jail-free card.

I don’t understand why people don’t get that time is running out.

I despair.

The irrelevance of the main political axis of the 20th century

This is the world we all grew up in. The red circle is the large left-wing party (Labour in the UK, Socialdemokratiet in Denmark, SPD in Germany, The Socialists in France, the Democrats in the US, etc.); the blue circle is the dominant right-wing party (The Tories in the UK, Venstre + De Konservative in Denmark, CDU/CSU in Germany, various parties in France over time, the Republicans in the US, etc.). The yellow circle is the small liberal party that many countries had (the Liberal Democrats in the UK, Det radikale Venstre in Denmark, FDP in Germany, various parties in France), and the purple circle represents the populist/nationalist (also called far-right) parties that sprung up in many countries towards the end of the 20th century (UKIP in the UK, Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark, Front National in France). Of course there were also other parties in many places, but these were recognisable groupings in most countries.
In most democracies, politics in the past century was dominated by two large parties – a socialist or social-democratic party on the left and a conservative one on the right – as well as a few smaller parties (see the first figure on the right). The parties themselves had many different names, and they could be further left or right depending on the country, but that was the normal pattern.

However, it seems to me that we’re moving towards a new configuration, dominated by different questions. The main reason for the change is probably that the left-wing parties to a large extent gave up on socialism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by a general acceptance of globalisation by all mainstream parties, which again bred resentment when it failed to create prosperity for all.

This is the world we seem to be moving towards: A large party that is liberal, pro-globalisation, pro-EU, in favour of protecting the environment, but hard to pin down on the left/right axis (the yellow circle). Macron’s En Marche and the SNP in Scotland are perhaps the best examples of this new movement. Opposing this is another large party that is authoritarian, anti-globalisation, anti-EU, anti-immigration and weak on environmental protection. France’s Front National is a great example of this, but it would also appear that Theresa May’s Tories are becoming this kind of party. There might still be small old-fashioned left-wing parties, such as Mélenchon’s La France insoumise in France and perhaps Corbyn’s version of the Labour party in the UK, as well as corresponding right-wing parties, such as Les Républicains in France.
The main political axis now seems to be authoritarian/anti-globalisation/anti-immigration/anti-green vs. liberal/pro-globalisation/pro-immigration/green (see the illustration on the left).

The country that demonstrates the new set-up best is probably France, where Macron’s En Marche and Le Pen’s Front National now are the leading political forces, supplemented by smaller left-wing and right-wing parties. It’s interesting Macron is called a centrist and Le Pen is characterised as far right, because they really aren’t that far apart on the old left/right axis, whereas they’re miles apart on the new axis. I think we might need new names that are as easy to relate to as left and right, but I’ve haven’t seen any good suggestions yet.

The SNP is also a decent example of a modern global-liberal party (it really isn’t a nationalist party in spite of its name, but simply a liberal pro-EU party that happens to be in favour of Scottish sovereignty), although Scotland as a whole hasn’t rearranged the political spectrum yet.

In England, it appears that the Tories under Theresa May are swallowing up UKIP and are becoming a proper authoritarian anti-globalisation party – it is interesting how the Tory manifesto is moving them strongly towards authoritarianism (e.g., ID cards and Internet censorship) and anti-globalisation (cutting immigration and preparing the country for a hard Brexit), while softening up on right-wing policies (increasing the minimum wage and capping energy prices). However, many right-wing liberals are probably still voting Tory, and the opposition hasn’t regrouped at all, which is why the Conservatives are likely to get an enormous majority. That wouldn’t be the case if they were facing a unified opposition along the lines of En Marche or the SNP.

I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that major changes like this one can come about. In the 19th century, British political battles were between Whigs and Tories, and later between Liberals and Conservatives, and many of the biggest questions (like voting rights and free trade) were not easy to place on a left/right axis. The world is changing dramatically, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the fundamental political questions change, too.

It creates enormous problems for parties that don’t adjust to the new questions, but it’s also is a colossal opportunity for those that do.

Mentally accepting proportional representation

meditation photo
Photo by PMillera4
I’ve seen quite a lot of people girning about elected representatives as if they weren’t properly elected if they didn’t get the most votes in your constituency.

Sometimes people are insinuating that list MSPs aren’t proper MSPs, calling them losers if they had the temerity to stand as constituency MSPs but “only” got in on the list, or saying there should be a time limit on being a list MSP.

At other times people are criticising the second and third parties in various council areas if they get together and form an administration that doesn’t include the largest party, and today people on Twitter were furious that the Greens in Glasgow had the cheek to increase their own influence by voting together with Labour and the Tories instead of just accepting that the SNP had won the election (getting 40% of the first preferences and 45% of the seats).

I grew up in Denmark, and I only moved to Scotland after my 30th birthday. As a result, I consider proportional representation to be normal, and First Past The Post to be weird. I’m also not shocked in the slightest by any of the above. In my book, if you got elected, you got elected, and you’re not inferior to other members just because you got fewer votes. Furthermore, I fully expect smaller parties to do whatever they can to maximise their influence if the largest party didn’t get more than 50% of the seats.

I’m therefore starting to think that a lot of Scots are still mentally living in a FPTP world. They somehow don’t consider elected representatives to be proper unless they would also have won their seats under First Past The Post.

Perhaps that’s just inevitable teething pain resulting from changing the election system, and it’ll disappear over time. If not, perhaps Scotland just isn’t ready for proportional representation. Would people really be happier if we starting using FPTP for all elections again?

I strongly believe that FPTP is democratic poison, and that countries function much better if they use proportional representation. Scotland would have been a very different place today if Holyrood always had used FPTP like Westminster.

I just wish people would start mentally accepting the consequences of proportional representation. It’s better for you!

Net migration in the tens of thousands? If only!

immigrant photo
Photo by Matias-Garabedian
I’ve no idea why people are saying May will struggle to bring net migration down to under 100,000 per year.

The way Brexit is going, I bet it will soon be in negative territory for the following reasons:

  • Many EU citizens will go home or move to other EU countries where they feel welcome.
  • Many UK citizens will follow their jobs abroad.
  • When the UK economy collapses, the number of people wanting to come here will fall like a stone.
  • When UK universities lose many of their best staff because of the removal of EU funding, foreign students will go elsewhere.

(Of course some UK pensioners will return from abroad, too, but there are many more EU citizens in the UK than UK citizens in the the rest of the EU, so that won’t cancel out anything.)

Obviously, this is going to be disastrous, and soon people will start waxing poetically about the good old days when immigration was high and life was good.

However, as a result May will easily meet her net migration target. Unless she cancels Brexit, of course – so the fact she’s reaffirming the net migration commitment is yet another sign she’s hellbent on a hard Brexit.

Notional results

Photo by AlexDROP
Computing notional results is a useful technique for comparing two FPTP elections with each other. The problem it is trying to solve is that it’s really hard to do a meaningful comparison when the boundaries change, so psephologists calculate the notional results of the last election to have something to hold the new one up against.

So notional results basically means “this is what we think would have happened last time if the new boundaries had already been in place back then”.

Calculating accurate notional results isn’t really possible because we don’t know what each voter actually would have done if the boundaries had been different – it ignores tactical voting, for instance. However, for parliamentary elections they’re normally decent, because we tend to have access to the results on a ward basis. For instance, if Barrhead ward gets transferred from East Renfreshire to Paisley in a boundary change, we can subtract the ward figures from the former and add them to the latter and get a decent result.

So far, so good. Calculating notional results in local elections is much harder, however, because we don’t have access to any breakdown of the smaller areas. Furthermore, the STV voting system makes it even harder because the ballot papers are so different – how can you know what a voter would vote in a constituency with one SNP and one Green even if you knew what they voted in one with two SNP candidates?

As an example, if I had to calculate to 2012 notional results for my local ward, Newton Mearns North and Neilston, I would start with the closest 2012 equivalent, Neilston, Uplawmoor and Newton Mearns North, which elected four members last time. Here’s a graph of what happened:

So one Tory got elected easily in the first round. It then took the elimination of one SNP candidate to get the other one elected. Once the Green got eliminated, it pushed one Labour candidate above the quota, and once the last Tory got removed, it led to the last man standing, the second Labour candidate, to get elected.

Losing Uplawmoor has caused this ward to drop from four members to three. So what would have happened last time if the ward had already existed back then? It’s impossible to tell for sure, but the way I’d do it is to simply assume that the last Labour guy wouldn’t have got elected, resulting in one SNP, one Tory and one Labour. If Uplawmoor was really different from the rest of the ward (e.g., much more strongly Labour than the rest), one might change this, but you’d need to have solid evidence for this to do so.

If I repeat this exercise for all of East Ren, I end up with the following notional results:

Party Ward 1 Ward 2 Ward 3 Ward 4 Ward 5 Total
SNP 1 1 1 1 0 4
Con 0 1 1 1 3 6
Lab 2 1 1 2 1 7
Ind 1 0 1 0 0 1

However, it’s really not an exact science. Especially the new ward 4 (Clarkston, Netherlee and Williamwood) is almost impossible to estimate because it’s a combination of most of two wards, including a really successful independent in one of them.

I don’t think my estimates seem too implausible because they all the same or slightly smaller than the actual results. (Smaller is good because the council got reduced from 20 to 18.) However, the BBC’s estimates seem really odd in comparison:

Party Actual 2012 results My notional results BBC notional results 2017 results Actual diff. My notional diff BBC notional diff.
SNP 4 4 6 5 +1 +1 -1
Con 6 6 5 7 +1 +1 +2
Lab 8 7 6 4 -4 -3 -2
Ind 2 1 1 2 +1 +1

In other words, according to the BBC’s notional results the SNP did a lot better five years ago than they actually did, and that means the change from 4 to 5 seats looks like a fall from 6 to 4 in their terms. I find it really odd because they’re assuming that a reduction in the size of the council would have resulted in more SNP councillors, not fewer.

If your calculations of notional results produce weird outcomes like this, I think it’d only be fair to publish the way you calculated them and emphasise that it’s your best estimate, not actual values. However, look how the BBC don’t mention the actual 2012 figures anywhere, and only write a small warning without any link to the underlying calculations:

If this was just a freak event, I wouldn’t be too bothered about it. It’s so hard to calculate notional results that they’re likely to come out somewhat weird in a few places. There seems to have been a systematic bias in their algorithm, however, making it look like the SNP did much better five years than they did, and that in turn has made it look like the SNP did badly this time.

Here are the national results:

2012 actual seats BBC 2012 seats 2017 actual seats Actual change in seats BBC change in seats
SNP 425 438 431 6 -7
Con 115 112 276 161 164
Lab 394 395 262 -132 -133
LD 71 70 67 -4 -3
Grn 14 14 19 5 5
Other 204 198 172 -32 -26

Note how the notional results are making the SNP’s rise from 425 to 431 councillors look like a fall.

It’s perhaps even clearer if we look at the share of seats rather than absolute numbers:

2012 share of seats BBC 2012 share of seats 2017 share of seats Actual change in share BBC change in share
SNP 34.8% 35.7% 35.1% 0.3% -0.6%
Con 9.4% 9.1% 22.5% 13.1% 13.4%
Lab 32.2% 32.2% 21.4% -10.8% -10.8%
LD 5.8% 5.7% 5.5% -0.3% -0.2%
Grn 1.1% 1.1% 1.5% 0.4% 0.4%
Other 16.7% 16.1% 14.0% -2.7% -2.1%

So the BBC estimates that the SNP five years ago would have won 35.7% of the seats rather than 34.8% if the new boundaries had been in place back then (taking seats mainly from independent, but also from the Tories). This means that the new seat share of 35.1% looks like a 0.6% decrease rather than 0.3% increase.

For a voting system such as STV, I think it would be fairer to compare two elections by looking at what has happened to the actual number of seats and the share of the total.

Notional results may be a necessary evil in FPTP elections, but they can be strongly misleading under STV, as demonstrated convincingly by the BBC yesterday.