And then there was Gardham

My previous post concerned Herald columnist David Torrance. However, a report in today’s Herald by their political editor Magnus Gardham caught my eye (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14231953.Health_care_in_Scotland_lags_behind_England__a_new_Europe_wide_report_says/?action=success#comments). It concerns a European comparison of health systems, which shows Scotland at number 16, two behind England – though only by two points out of one thousand – but a good many behind other European countries.

The political response to this was fairly predictable – oor Jackie Baillie said “The SNP asked to be judged on their record, and on the NHS we are seeing problems all across the service from A&E wards to delayed discharge to general practice and now we are lagging behind England on healthcare. Shona Robison needs to get a grip of her brief.” – but does Jackie not always say that? Just changes the name of the Minister. Meantime Jackson Carlaw, perhaps trying to be original but failing totally said “the Scottish Government has serious questions to answer about its record on A&E waiting times“. But he did get the “serious questions” meme in, so well done Jackson! And we call this “political debate” – goodness, it’s just as well there is no international league table for that (as far as I know).

Meantime, the Scottish Government said “”Simply reducing the performance of healthcare systems to a league table is misguided and ill-informed“, which might well be true since we don’t know how good their data was. Health statistics are notoriously hard to use for comparisons – variable definitions etc. However, the fact is that they find that Scotland lags 200 points behind the Netherlands. Their data would have to be AWFULLY bad to undermine the conclusion that there are things we might learn from their healthcare system. Not that we should throw our hands in the air, our health care system and our government out, but we should give some thought to the proposition that we might profit from looking at how another country organizes its health care, so that, even if we want to think our healthcare system performs well, we can help it to perform even better. Can we not have the humility to accept that things are not perfect and that we might just learn something from countries such as the Netherlands. Do we have to have a “Little Scotlander” attitude? I am sure we do some things very well, but is it not always possible to do them better than we do them now?

However to Gardham. Having reported on the dreadful news that we lag at 16th, and on a few specific findings – for instance the differences them was not significant – Gardham then turned to a few stats to give the Scottish Government a bit of a kicking (since the report didn’t really do that). He presents four pieces of evidence

  1. that the waiting time target (95% seen within four hours) was not achieved last month – true but the actual figure for December was 94.9%, which Gardham misses out.
  2. That half the hospitals didn’t achieve the 4 hour A&E waiting target. Of course it also means that half of them did, and as above, the target was achieved on a Scotland-wide basis for 94.9% of patients. As above, Gardham never lets on.
  3. That “1193 patients were found to be stuck in hospital ” which means their discharge was delayed. However, again, if we look at the data, what Gardham tells us is more important for what it doesn’t tell us rather than for what it does. The fact is that for nearly 40% of those whose discharge was delayed, it was by no more than three days,
  4. The Scottish Gernment had committed to addressing this problem. Gardham never actually says this – indeed he says nothing, allowing the implication to hang in the air – but clearly the implication of “However, 1193 patients were found to be stuck in hospital last month because they were waiting for care to be arranged, despite government pledges to end so-called bed blocking” is that this is only the case because the Government either did nothing at all, or it’s not working. But the fact is that every year this is a number which falls over the summer and rises again in winter. Comparing last December (2015) with the previous one (2014) the number whose discharge was delayed by more than three days – the more relevant number – had fallen by almost 20%.

Gardham is not some junior journalist – he is the political editor of one of Scotland’s leading newspapers (God help us). His comments on the report are nothing great, showing little in the way of insight. The report runs to 117 pages, and it’s hard to believe that Magnus did any more than read the Executive Summary. But what is more worrying is the second half of this story, where he presents the above highly misleading and distorted “facts”, with no attempt to contextualise them, other than that the report suggests there is scope for improvement in the Scottish NHS and he intends to illustrate this. But as we have shown the statistics he uses are in many respects important for what they don’t tell us – for instance that last year, the Scottish NHS was the only one in the UK whose A&E performance not only did not decline, but was the best in the UK. One would never think that, if your source of information is Magnus Gardham. These then provide a foundation for Jackie Baillie and Jackson Carlaw to offer up their usual quotes about needing to get “a grip” and “serious questions to answer”.

It’s hardly news that Gardham’s reports tend to favour Unionist opinion, and that’s fine. A debate needs two sides, and we need to know where we stand. But is his use of the above A&E and bed-blocking statistics not simply intended to mislead the reader, and if so should it be regarded as political commentary or rather poor political propaganda? But most importantly should we not expect better of the second oldest newspaper in Scotland? If their political editor wishes to proselytise a particular point of view, then this would be something that political commentators have done for years. I may not agree with him, but we need two sides (at least) for a debate. But let’s at least be honest and not distort the evidence to suit the argument.

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David Torrance. For whom the Bell tolls

David Torrance does his usual SNPBAD, very very bad routine in his weekly Herald column (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14227156.David_Torrance__Here_come_the_champagne_nationalists/). Much of this is based on the Alex Bell charge that the SNP is “composed of self-starting entrepreneurial types, Thatcher’s children to a person….. bustling aspirational types who see no wrong in getting rich” (http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexBell20a.html). So before we revert to giving David Torrance a bit of a kicking, let’s review that claim

Of whom does Bell speak? Well the obvious cases seem to be Michelle Thomson and Lisa Cameron and their “massive” property portfolios. After all the former is worth – it is said – £1.7 million, though the latter a more modest £600k (capital value not rental value btw).

And what is it that Thomson has done? We know that her solicitor was struck off by the Law Society, though it should be kept in mind that one can be struck off for doing things (or indeed for not doing things) that would not be considered illegal. For instance, not responding to client communications in good time, or using money from the client account (though not putting it back would certainly be illegal) would have a solicitor in front of the Discipline Tribunal, and possibly struck off if repeated often enough. We don’t know though whether, or how much involvement Thomson had with the conduct of her solicitor – who had been warned by the Law Society before for not advising lenders when a property had changed hands more than once in a short period. Nor do we know with any certainty beyond innuendo, if she has actually done anything illegal. But of course that doesn’t really matter for the Scottish media. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards” as the Red Queen cried in Alice in Wonderland.

One case, involving Thomson, that got lots of exposure at the time by the Sunday Mail concerned a couple called Wright from Cumbernauld who had their mortgage paid off and went off down the road with at least 21k in their pocket. Their beef – “I don’t know how these people sleep at night” – seemed to be that Thomson secured a better price for the place than they could. When a property is for sale at £x, how often does someone come along and say “you are a poor soul. Your property is actually worth £2x (though valuations are always subject to uncertainty, arent they?), so I will pay you £2x”. It’s hard to see anything in that transaction that would trouble a Procurator Fiscal for even a nano-second.

What else? Money was reported to be missing from Women for Independence, and Natalie McGarry is being investigated for this, but so far without charge or clear indication of wrong-doing.

Ivan Mckee did business with Michelle Thomson.

Phil Boswell was paid in a manner not uncommon in the oil industry – perhaps he might have insisted on the readies, but would he have kept his job?

Tommy Sheppard owns the Stand comedy clubs.

Oh aye, and John McNally – MP for Falkirk – lets out his hairdresser’s shop now that he’s too busy in London to cut hair.

Then of course we come to Salmond, who has committed the unpardonable sin of being “good box office” just now. As such he has published a successful book, even if you would not get the sole of your shoes wet walking through its deepest thoughts. But no one made any of the purchasers buy the book (including me). He has a contract for a radio programme, but if he doesn’t put the expected number of bums on seats he won’t be doing that for long.

But the case of John Nicolson has to be something of a low, even for the Unionist press. This kicked off with a headline “SNP MP fashions a nice little earner at des res London pad” when the truth is that Nicolson bought the place as a wreck 20 years ago when he was a BBC and ITN journalist and restored it himself. He lives there when he’s on Parliamentary business – perhaps he should just let it out, make hundreds/ thousands of pounds from the rental and claim hotel expenses for himself? That’s allowed for we know of at least 46 MPs from other parties who have done exactly that (http://www.channel4.com/news/mps-expenses-46-claim-in-london-despite-owning-a-property). He also occasionally rents it out for overnight stays or fashion shoots, earning a few hundred pounds a time – about £320 seems the going rate. Is that headline a reasonable summary of those facts? Or malign innuendo that only intends to smear by implication?

But let’s suppose the above are all as guilty as sin – that Thomson and Cameron are latter day Rachmans, Boswell is a a serial tax avoider, Nicolson a property magnate and Salmond ….. well that Salmond has been successful (damn him!) We have mentioned, however briefly and even more tenuously, nine SNP MPs above. Let’s throw Brendan O’Hara into the mix, since he has been a director of a company that never traded, but didn’t put that in the Register of Members’ Interests when really he should have, giving us a nice round ten. What does even that say about the others in the 56 strong group? These are almost 18% of its total. Leaving aside that they have not at the time of writing been shown to have done anything that is either legally wrong, or morally reprehensible (if you exclude being in the SNP) since we can be pretty sure we would have been told, does the alleged, asserted “wrong doing”, as set out above, of 10 of their total really justify the charge that the SNP is “”composed of self-starting entrepreneurial types, Thatcher’s children to a person….. bustling aspirational types who see no wrong in getting rich”? Or is it just a tiny wee bit of an exaggeration about not just the Westminster MPs as a group, but about the entire party – 10 of over 100,000?

And let’s not forget the tissue thinness of what the media has “exposed” – that a candidate did legitimate business with Thomson, that an MP has let out his shop now he longer has the time to work there since he is now at Westminster, and that one of them has committed the offence of success. Most of the “exposes” hardly merit the description tittle tattle, but they are reheated by a right wing commentator to attack his political opponents. Is this journalism? Or abuse?

Moreover, it leaves out that the Westminster MPs will donate the rise in MP’s pay to charity? Sitings of reports mentioning this should be reported, especially if positive. Probably doesn’t fit the narrative, though, does it?

However, lets revert to Torrance, and leave Alex Bell to himself. Mr Torrance sets out his stall early on with his example of an argument that it was hypocritical to own one’s own flat but be against Right to Buy. In other words, so David’s argument goes, as far as I can understand it, it’s hypocrisy to own one’s own flat but deny others the right to own their own place.

If that was all there was to it, then perhaps I might agree. But that’s not all there is to it, for the person who has bought his Council house under Right to Buy has, instead of buying a nice place already in the private sector, or a nice new home built by (insert name of builder), did instead take an advantage of rather a nice deal – in the case of the Wrights, they got a 70% discount on the estimated market value – created by the party that I understand that Torrance supports. In so doing they take a unit out of social housing, and transfer it to the private sector. On the other hand, if I sell my house (just for the avoidance of doubt, it has never been a Council house) to buy another, it will be another in the private sector, Is that the same as diminishing the stock of social housing by a unit?

Thus Torrance’s argument is bogus. Even without Right to Buy no one is preventing Council house tenants from buying their own home – just not their Council house as to do so would diminish the stock of social housing. Except that didn’t have to be the case. I recall Michael Fry – hardly a raving lefty nationalist – relating the story of putting Right to Buy to Thatcher for the first time, and being told, oh no, they couldn’t do that for it would do nothing for “our people”, since the original proposition was to allow right to buy proceeds to be used to build new council houses. But it was ok once that was changed to requiring the councils to use the proceeds to pay down debt, for that would limit increases to the rates.

THAT is the issue about Right to Buy, as well – the diminution of social housing’s stock. But those homes – the ones owned by Cameron and Thomson – had been bought before they became involved. These homes are now in the private sector with no relevance for social housing any longer. We might regret that, but we are where we are and we should really keep in mind the distinction of private and social housing.

But as well as having the usual yawning void where the evidence should be, this article demonstrates Torrance’s rather typical lack of awareness when he claims that anyone paying £12.5k in school fees (I presume per year) would “fulminate against the suggestion they might also contribute towards the cost of university tuition.” I expect they would, but in terms of the debate about fees charged or not at University, the number putting that sort of money into their child’s education will almost certainly not be significant, and they will be likely to have the income to be able to do this. However, Torrance seems to find it irrelevant that £12.5k in school fees is half the average worker’s wage for a year (and that’s before tax). Those who would be hit hardest by charging fees will be the child of that same average worker who was not able to afford school fees, and has little or no way of paying the sort of University fees being charged in England.

But more than anything else, coming from David Torrance, a Tory in tooth and claw, much of this is utter hypocrisy. Take another example I would love to hear Torrance redeem his criticism of Boswell saying that “we shouldn’t be frightened to reward hard work.” by quoting a socialist or indeed anyone of left views. Criticism from that perspective tends to be reserved for reward for little work or no work at all, as well as the scale of the reward. I can though recall a long line of those of a similar political philosophy to Torrance who would endorse the view that hard work shojld be rewarded, without a single condition or a moment’s hesitation.

Essentially what Torrance is arguing is that, on the basis of a small number of examples – and as above, I think its legitimate to contend that the rest of the SNP group of MPs must be squeaky clean not just of illegal, but also moral wrong-doing, or we would have heard – the SNP is just as bad as other political parties. What kind of argument is that? Vote Conservative because we aren’t any worse than the SNP? Vote Labour because our guys are no worse than the SNP’s? Better Together was roundly criticised during the referendum debate for negative tactics, and it’s pretty clear that the Unionist, and the Unionist press, intend to continue on this road. Instead of putting up a positive case for the Tory Party – or even Labour – Torrance prefers to develop a negative narrative against the other side. Even worse, he does this on the basis of the most slight of evidence, which amounts to little more than some of the SNP MPs were in business prior to being elected, which is of course their real offence. None of them – not a single one – has to date been shown to actually have done anything wrong. None of them, for instance, has bought a Council house and reduced the social housing stock, though they have bought what were once Council houses but were bought under Torrance’s party’s Right to Buy policy.

Whatever else it is capable of, prejudice can seldom masquerade as analysis for long. Thus while David’s concern for the “worst off in society” is laudable, I can’t help but feel that its expression here is nothing more than the means to another end.

Magnus Gardham starts at end and works his way back

Is Magnus Gardham really serious – I mean REALLY serious – when he seems to suggest in his most recent opinion piece (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14225376.Poverty_tsar_s_report__there_is_sting_in_the_tale_that_could_reopen_the_debate_on_universal_benefits/?action=success#comment_15263316) that doing away with universal bus passes and the winter fuel payment will make a significant impact on poverty in Scotland – one in five living in poverty?

The latter of course will not be in the gift of the SG till the Scotland Bill passes into law and becomes operational though in fairness he does himself make this point later on. I wonder why not further up the page?

Bus passes account for about 3% of the SG’s budget at just over a billion. It is though estimated to have a cost:benefit ratio of 1:2.8, so by returning more than it costs, seems not a bad investment (http://www.greenerjourneys.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Concessionary-travel-costs-and-benefits-September-2014.pdf). Moreover, the bus passes themselves don’t cost all that much – it’s when they are used that they create an expense, and I wonder just who it is that uses them most often? Is it the retired company executive who will not have seen the inside of a bus for a good many years, or is it the widow of the Clydeside engineer who, never having learned to drive would be somewhat inconvenienced without her bus pass? There is lazy thinking that because a universal benefit will be available to the wealthiest that they will use it, that the Daimler will be left in the garage to queue up at the bus stop in the rain, to go to the shops. An admittedly quick search on google throws up any number of sites with information on who is eligible, but nothing on what kind of person actually makes the most use. So Gardham’s assertion is clear. It’s just never proven.

Universal and targeted benefits is a highly contested area, and Gardham’s conclusion that “The SNP seems determined to avoid the kind of debate Ms Eisenstadt says is key to tackling poverty” is never justified at any point in his piece. It is true by assertion and because it suits his consistently anti SNP narrative. Even his preceding paragraph on Johann Lamont’s argument in the Daily Record about targeting expenditure more precisely on poverty really only says that the SNP disagreed with her, and that Alex Neill moved against doing away with a universal benefit that the SG doesn’t yet control.

Moreover, he considers Ms Eisenstadt’s last recommendation, that the SG adopt Harriet Harmann’s “socio-economic duty” which “could be used to oblige ministers to assess policies in terms of their impact on the poor and the contribution they make to tackling inequality.”. It is important to bear in mind two things.

First, that the same Harmann was happy to vote for large parts of the Tories Welfare Bill last year, so either she wasn’t pursuing her own thinking at that time, or we shouldnt put as much store by that duty as Magnus seems to think.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, to be practical, any duty must be benchmarked against what is practically possible. Even when the current Scotland Bill is operational the SG will still control only 20% of the welfare budget. It’s a big ask to address poverty with much effect when the other 80% is in the hands of the most reactionary government for very many years.

Lastly, I disagree with Gardham that that final recommendation is the most important. It seems to me that the “proportionate universalism” that Eisenstadt recommends is a much more interesting way forward, but in particular more likely to be effective. For instance, in deprived communities there is more ill health – should these communities not have access to GPs at a level that means these particular problems are addressed? We know that children in deprived areas perform less well in school, so might there not a be a scheme to encourage the best teachers to remain in (or even come to) schools in such areas, rather than gravitating off to the leafy suburbs as too many of them do now? In other words, everyone gets the benefits, but at a level appropriate to their needs, since, as we know, that it is not always true that “one size fits all” – there needs to be proportionality.

Unfortunately, while Gardham deserves credit for mentioning this, it is disposed of in a single sentence and not really pursued. Had he done so, he would have been aware that the NHS in Scotland has been considering proportionate universality for at least two years now. In “Proportionate Universalism and Health Inequalities” (http://www.healthscotland.com/uploads/documents/24296-ProportionateUniversalismBriefing.pdf) it is shown that the mortality rate among the least deprived is less than 1/3 of the mortality rate among the most deprived. Guided by proportionate universalism – “To reduce the steepness of the social gradient in health, actions must be universal, but with a scale and intensity that is proportionate to the level of disadvantage” (the Marmot Review g http://www.healthscotland.com/uploads/documents/24296-ProportionateUniversalismBriefing.pdf) the inequality in mortality rates can be reduced by implementing policies specifically to improve the health of the most disadvantaged, so reducing the gradient in their favour, without disadvantaging others – i.e. levelling up.

Far too often Gardham’s reports begin from the proposition of how best to criticise the Scottish Government. Of course he is hardly unique as he is followed in this practice regularly by David Torrance, Euan McColm and David Clegg, but does Scotland deserve such a poor standard of journalistic thinking? Gardham is after all the political editor of the Herald, a role Clegg fulfils at the Record. They are hardly junior, experienced journalists. If they chose to criticise the Scottish Government, then fine. Governments should be criticised and one thing this Scottish Government could profit from is a critical friend (a role I suspect was in mind when they secured the services of Naomi Eisenstadt), but, starting from a conclusion and working backwards to the argument, selecting and distorting the evidence to suit (Gardham’s omission of the fact that the Winter Fuel payment is in the control of the Scottish Government is too typical) is not acceptable. Yet this is what Torrance does almost on a weekly basis,

Ipsos Mori has recently published figures on perceived trust in different professions. Not only are journalists the third least trusted professional group, they are less trusted than estate agents and bankers. Taking Gardham’s contribution to our social dialogue as an instance, one can see why. Scotland needs a media which provides a robust level of analysis that begins from the evidence and comes to an evidence led conclusion. Too often, as in Gardham’s column today, what we are getting is little better than political propaganda.

As one final point, much of the above – with some of the less mild comments removed – was included in a comment on the Herald about Gardham’s piece. It has been removed. One wonders why.

Has #SNPBAD bottomed out with this?

In today’s Scottish Review there is a jaw dropping –an over-used phrase, but in this case true for me at least – article by Ronnie Smith – “Compared to England we are drifting in a policy free limbo” (http://www.scottishreview.net/RonnieSmith18a.html?utm_source=Sign-Up.to&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=8427-352345-The+ruthless+literary+Scots+and+their+skewed+vision).

To fully understand Mr Smith’s argument one has to first locate this in the article

The SNP’s problem is that they can’t make their privatisation strategy, under TTIP, public. Remember, they are a ‘party of the Left’ and they have an election to win. That is why they are largely silent on these issues and that is why their highly developed sense of party discipline is so important.”

Unfortunately, we only learn this toward the end.

Essentially Smith’s thesis seems to be that the SNP are secret fans of privatisation and TTIP (The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). Whether this is true or not the fact is that the Scottish Government has no locus in TTIP. The negotiations for this agreement are taking place between the European Union and its Commission and the US Government. The national government of the UK – the member state in the EU – is Westminster, and while Holyrood might expect to be consulted on the final agreement – which has not been struck yet, but never mind – they have no direct influence on the degree to which the UK state (of which Scotland is part, as a region) will participate in TTIP.

If, for instance, Westminster decides that it will not seek to exclude UK public services from TTIP, the fact that the Scottish NHS has minimal privatisation will be of no consequence. The fact that the UK has sought no exclusion will not allow a “region” (for such is what we are) of the UK to exclude itself, no matter what the Scottish electorate might think.

But let’s put even that, fairly significant, objection to Mr Smith’s argument to one side, just what is Smith’s evidence for his claim? Other than the fact that he claims to “have criss-crossed England over a two-day period“, his evidence seems to amount to the following

  1. That England’s motorways seem to be in a tumult of either repairs or development – “Every major trunk road linking English cities north to south and east to west is being significantly upgraded, widened, improved, resurfaced and having impressive new junctions constructed along the way.” In contrast “There are no major delays on the ageing Scottish motorways that I travelled on.” The idea that if “There are no major delays“, while the motorway network might be “aging”, should surely prompt the objection, why would one seek to develop it? It’s also interesting that the instances Smith offers in his article are all A roads, rather than motorways. Perhaps he hasn’t done Glasgow-Edinburgh for some time. Clearly he hasn’t been at Queensferry to witness the new bridge being built (though he is aware of the closure of the existing bridge, for which he holds the SNP responsible, despite the fact that until less than a year ago it was under the control of Forth Estuary Transport Authority which had majority of Labour members on its executive board).
  2. Cited too are such as HS2 and the possibility of new airports. Perhaps its HS2 which gives us insight into what might be going on here, for one of the “advantages” of HS2 (which might arrive one day in Scotland, at a time yet to be determined, though we will as usual pay our share) is that it widens the commuter belt for London. Make it faster and easier to get into London – or to get out – and it becomes possible for people living further out to work there. In turn the increase in people working in London puts strain on the existing considerable infrastructure of the city, and indeed gives justification for it to be developed still further. For instance, Crossrail isn’t even finished and there are demands for Crossrail 2. How about another couple of lanes on the M25 orbital, or the motorways into and out of London? If there is going to be a new airport then where else would we put it, making it all the more necessary to maintain London’s airports as the hub in the UK’s hub and spoke air transport system. In turn as more people use the London hub this adds justification for further development. Indeed, it might be interesting, reverting to our first point, to learn how much of the spending observed by Ronnie Smith is either in/around London, or directed at making London more accessible. As Tom Gordon observed in his report on Margaret Cuthbert’s paper on the UK economy, there is “a vicious circle in which London sucks in people and investment and holds back growth elsewhere, which in turn makes London more attractive, feeding the problem” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13107499.London_calling__the_shots_/).

When we turn to Scotland, however, the situation is rather different. Basically it seems very little is being done. While England is being tarted up for sale under TTIP, “Scotland appears to be drifting in the midst of a policy and statement-free limbo“, so the contention that “The SNP’s problem is that they can’t make their privatisation strategy, under TTIP, public” seems to be based on the view that they are doing at best very little and perhaps nothing at all in order to achieve a policy that they really want to achieve. Which might just be said to be a rather odd way of approaching their aim!

Or is this a new front in #SNPBAD, since Smith’s criticism of the SNP seems to be that they are doing nothing to prepare for the implementation of an agreement which they certainly have no locus? Where is his evidence of their “privatisation strategy”? It seems to be that they haven’t privatised very much at all, certainly compared to England where the NHS has been marketised and extensively privatised already. There are already toll roads in parts of England. In Scotland the NHS is a unified entity with minimal privatisation and there is not a single toll road (or bridge) anywhere in the country. What next? That their preferred choice between policy x and policy y would be x, but to conceal their true preference for x they actually do y! After that it has to be madness and insanity.

Magnus Gardham wrote in the Herald on 26th December last year that “SNP bad isn’t just a way of deflecting questions or criticism, it’s a way of mocking opponents who have the temerity to raise issues of legitimate concern.” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/columnists/magnus_gardham/14168043._SNP_bad__is_contributing_to_an_infantilized_political_culture/) Issues of legitimate concern are, though, fine. These should be raised and the Scottish Government’s game would, I think, be raised by more critical friends. For instance, faced with their Government’s rather timid proposals on land reform, their own members told them to go away and develop something much more radical.

But as long as there is nonsense like “Compared to England we are drifting in a policy free limbo” which starts from the conclusion that the Scottish Government or the SNP are wrong, and must be wrong because they are the SNP and believe in Scottish independence, and therefore interprets and marshals the facts to prove their pre-established concclusion, then #SNPBAD will be a legitimate response. This is not analysis its political dogma and propaganda masquerading as serious analysis. Most worryingly of all though, Ronnie Smith is so not alone. Step forward David Torrance, Magnus Gardham, David Greig, Euan McColm, Chris Deerin, Jenny Hjul and her other half Alan Cochrane (and others too numerous to mention). Or does Scotland just not deserve a journalism that starts from the facts and comes to conclusions based on those facts, rather than from the conclusion and then picking/interpreting the facts to suit? Is it really too much to ask? Or is it as the aforementioned Cockers wrote in his book on the referendum “”Jenny [Hjul, Cochrane’s wife and fellow columnist] said I should do what Darling asks. He’s in charge after all. It’s not really good journalism but what the hell does journalism matter? This is much more important.”

As Stephen Daisley wrote in his review, “No enraged cybernat, no Hacked Off pontificator could match those sentences in their contempt for journalism.” (http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/analysis/303773-stephen-daisley-reviews-the-alan-cochrane-referendum-diaries/). Well perhaps not yet anyway.

An addendum

Today I came across a Twitter reference to a website called “Yes We Can” (http://www.yeswecan.scot/index.php/5-the-scottish-voting-system) and an article there called “The Scottish Voting System“. While it gives a decent introduction to the De Hondt system of voting that will be used to appoint Regional List MSPs, it includes the following

There are many sources that claim the second vote (especially from SNP voters) should be used ‘wisely’ to help other pro-independence parties gain list seats and hence gain a voice in the Scottish Government. This would also deny Unionist parties list seats into the bargain.

This is a complete and utter MYTH

The word “myth” is defined as

“a :  a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially :  one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society

b :  an unfounded or false notion” (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary).

There are aspects of this assertion which do correspond to that definition. For instance, the assertion is a popular belief – it would be a bad thing if SNP voters don’t vote SNP for regional list. This even makes sense – if you believe the SNP is the party to vote for, should you not vote for it twice? Yes, yes, yes. That is common sense. The problem is that it doesn’t deal with the entire issue, for on the basis of every poll that has come out in more than at least the last six months, the SNP are heading for a majority, even on the basis of constituency seats won alone. But, as we discussed before, what kind of opposition is it better that it faces? One that is predominantly unionist, or Sillars’ independence Parliament where the majority of the opposition might not agree with policy specifics, but like the SNP is committed to independence?

“Yes we can” works through a scenario where, in the representative region they work through, Labour take four seats and the Tories two. The SNP are left with one. Yet as they note Labour “had half the votes of the SNP”, while winning four seats.

The crucial factor at play”, they assert, “is the number of constituency seats won [by the SNP] in the region“, which we accept is important, but not the only matter which is important. This is sort of “look after the constituency seats and the regional seats will look after themselves”. But they won’t, because, as indeed is noted by “Yes we can”, how the system works is that the more constituency seats you win, the more difficult it is to win list seats. If you win nearly all the constituency seats then its about as difficult as it gets to win regional list seats.

“Yes we can” notes tactical voting – voting for the SNP in your constituency, but someone else for Regional List – “would be greatly reduced in effectiveness since there are a number of pro-independence parties standing and the votes would split amongst them.”, and it is the case that if the pro-independence regional list vote is split then this would be likely to be ineffective. At the same time, we have to ask how much less effective than voting SNP twice, and ending up with a single list MSP (or 8 if we gross it up), while Labour and the Tories clean up the rest of the regional list seats, splitting 48 between them? That’s not exactly a great outcome either, is it?

Despite almost every poll pointing to a near clean sweep of the 73 constituency seats (which by itself would give the SNP a majority), it is asserted by “Yes we can” that “any such scheme [of tactical voting] would seriously compromise the chance of the SNP securing a majority government and to be blunt, an SNP majority is in the best interests of every pro-independence party and the Yes movement in general“. The first part of this seems to fly in the face of the evidence we have just now (and indeed the evidence of the Westminster election last year), as it seems likely the SNP will secure a majority simply on the basis of constituency results. However, the latter part is interesting for its reference to the “Yes movement”.

It was a matter of personal regret and concern to me that Yes Scotland was closed down so precipitately after the referendum. Were it to have continued, it would have had to alter its aims to securing independence rather than simply a Yes vote in September 2014. It would have had to seek new, different sources of funding which would probably have been much reduced. But, it arguably had a role to play. For instance, as a non-party pressure group for independence, it could have served to coordinate the work of independence seeking parties as well as maintaining the involvement of those of us who support independence but are unwilling to make a commitment to a specific political party. However, this didn’t happen, Yes Scotland did close down, and instead the existing political parties have cannibalised the Yes vote between them, the main beneficiaries being he SNP, whose membership grew almost exponentially after the referendum, making it the third largest party in the UK, despite operating only in Scotland. In short, it might be argued that narrow sectional political interest took precedence over the aim of independence, whether unintentionally or not.

Had this not happened, had Yes Scotland carried on for instance as Sillars suggests, as a Yes Trust, then, as we noted in our previous entry Yes Trust might have run Regional List candidates which SNP supporters might have voted for. “Yes we can” observes, as we did in our first article (“How far can political altruism take you Part 1”) that there needs to be a significant transfer of votes from SNP at constituency level to something else – Yes Trust for instance – for tactical voting to be effective. We calculated somewhere between 30% and 50%.

It’s fair to say that not every SNP voter would be motivated to support Green, or RISE or Solidarity, and if the vote is split then the effectiveness of the tactic is certainly reduced. However, is it not more likely to work if the SNP vote is asked to vote for candidates whose commitment to independence is as unquestionable as the SNP, and whose policies might be different, but are still be motivated by the fairer Scotland that we were promised during the referendum?

In short, “Yes we can” are wrong when they conclude “Those who insist Tactical Voting can specifically influence the outcome of the seat allocation have misunderstood how the scoring system works (or they have a hidden agenda).” While it’s true that some parties or political groupings have used for their own ends the limited degree to which the SNP are likely to be successful in securing Regional List places, this is not the only possibility. It almost seems as if such as “Yes we can”, Wings over Scotland, and Peter Bell want to keep that possibility concealed, by making the apparently obvious argument to vote SNP x 2, and/or to attack encouragement by supporters of RISE, Solidarity and the Greens to vote for them on the regional list by pointing to the very real dangers of a split vote (though this is likely to return only marginally worse outcomes than voting for the SNP). There are other possibilities, including an agreed “Yes” slate of regional list candidates, produced by a Yes Scotland Trust. It is not, therefore, inevitably a misunderstanding, nor does it have to be a hidden agenda. Rather it’s a commitment to the aim of independence, and suggesting a means by which we might secure Sillars’ “independence Parliament”, rather than a continuation of the Kezia and Ruth show, which “Yes we can” seems quite happy to see continue. Perhaps “Yes we can” doesn’t fully appreciate those possibilities in the regional list vote? Or choses not to?

In all likelihood, it is now far too close to the Holyrood election to revive Yes Scotland as a Yes Trust, and the likelihood is therefore that the opposition to be faced by the next SNP government will be of much the same hue (though perhaps a little smaller) as the one they face today – bitter, carping, misleading, always looking for faults but with no alternative vision of their own. However, there will be another election in five years, and during those five years a Yes Trust could be involved in coming to the more definitive answers that are necessary to address the issues which played badly during the referendum debate – for instance currency, pensions, what to do when the bottom falls out the price of oil and what we might do when it recovers, relations with rUK on independence, etc. In 2021, with an established record of policy proposals – even if only setting out the range of what might be possible or practical – Yes Trust might then be able to run Regional List candidates, and give Scotland the independence Parliament that we might need to finally secure independence.

How far can political altruism take you? Part 2

Some things take a long time to get done, and this has been one of them. Nearly three months ago (October 13th in fact) I drafted Part 1 one of an examination of how the independence supporting voter might use their two votes in May for the next election to the Scottish Parliament.

What we showed there was that the SNP were likely to win at worst almost all the constituency, first past the post, seats. However, for Regional List seats, because a party’s regional list vote is divided by the number of seats won in a region, including constituency seats, plus one, the SNP would win very few Regional List seats, with the majority going to the Unionist parties, in particular Labour, then the Conservatives and then the Liberal Democrats.

Since October that situation has changed little. The most recent poll at the time of writing (Thursday, 07 January 2016) is one by TNS (http://www.tns-bmrb.co.uk/press-release/snp-shrugs-opposition-attacks-increase-holyrood-poll-lead). For constituency seats the voting intentions are as follows

SNP             58%

Labour         21%

Conservative        12%

Liberal Democrat    4%

On regional list, the numbers are

SNP             54%

Labour         20%

Conservative        12%

Liberal Democrat    4%

Greens        9%

If we put these numbers into Scotland Votes (http://www.scotlandvotes.com/holyrood) the number of seats for each party is

Party

Constituency seats

Regional List seats

Total seats

SNP

71

7

78

Labour

0

25

25

Conservative

1

14

15

Liberal Democrat

1

1

2

Green

0

9

9

 

The number of seats needed for a majority in the Scottish Parliament is 65 (total seats 129), thus even on the basis of their constituency seats alone, the SNP would have a majority.

I am quite clear that independence supporters should vote for their SNP candidate in their constituency. What I want to examine is what independence supporters should do with their second, Regional list, vote. Should it go to the SNP? Or elsewhere?

First of all, TNS makes clear that the majority of Scottish voters – 54% – intend to vote SNP on the Regional List vote. Yet this will get the SNP “only” 7 additional seats. Thus for each Regional List member, the SNP must win 7.7% of the vote. Contrast that with the other parties

Labour win 25 seats with 20% of the Regional List vote – that is 0.8% of the vote per Regional List member

Conservatives 14 seats with 12% of the vote – that is 0.88% of the vote per Regional List member

Liberal Democrats 1 seat for 4% of the vote, so 4% of the vote per Regional List member

Greens 9 seats for 9% of the vote, so 1% of the vote per Regional List member.

Thus for every Regional List member elected, the SNP must get 9.6 votes for each one secured by Labour. They must get 8.75 votes for each one secured by Labour and 1.9 votes for each Regional list seat secured by the Liberal Democrats. Finally, they must secure 9 votes for each seats secured by the Greens. Less so in relation to the Liberal Democrats, it is quite clear the voting system for allocation of Regional List seats works substantially against the SNP. If we believe in independence should we not ask how that might be mitigated?

However, there is another reason for posing that question – what kind of opposition do we want at Holyrood?

Currently the opposition at Holyrood numbers 59, mostly (37) Labour, with 15 Conservatives and 5 Liberal Democrats. The remaining 2 are Greens.

If we think of this as independence supporting, or Unionist, then the former would include just now only the Green Party’s 2 members (3%), with the other 57 (97%) being Unionist of one party or another.

If we use the figures from the TNS survey, then the situation has changed only a little. The opposition (ie not SNP) would number 51, with only the Greens 9 members (18%) supporting independence, while the remaining 42 (82%) would be Unionists of one type or another. Is this a situation that we want to see come about? Might an initiative to encourage those of us who supported Yes in 2014 to vote for someone who is other than SNP but supporting independence, be a worthwhile project?

An example of the argument that there should not be any such initiative is by the well-known nationalist blogger Peter Bell. He has argued (this is from a note on his Facebook page at 09.02 on 31st August) that it’s hard to see “how fragmenting the pro-independence vote makes independence more likely“. An important part of Bell’s argument concerns the proposition that while a “multi-faceted approach was beneficial during the referendum” – ie that a Yes vote was not necessarily a vote for the SNP – “it must be a good idea in the context of electoral politics“. Bell argues this is simplistic in the extreme, and that the SNP is the “effective political agent with the capacity to realise the fundamental aims of the campaign.” The left wing agenda of such as RISE can be achieved, he argues, once Scotland is independent, but until that point we should all support the SNP.

It is certainly arguable, as Bell does, that politics in an independent Scotland will be different from where they are now, and that a changed, and perhaps wider range of politics will be the norm in an independent Scotland. But that is a matter for the future. The issue at hand though is how best to get there. In that respect the recent experience of the independence movement in Catalonia during the Spanish elections, when their relative success owed much to their willingness to enter into agreements with other parties is instructive.

While Bell endorses the “multi-faceted approach” of the referendum, he contends that this worked during the referendum because its diffuseness was focused by “the lens of the SNP“. Where Yes is concerned, its success, Bell argues, was because it had “the SNP as an effective political agent with the capacity to realise the fundamental aims of the campaign“.

The SNP, as Bell’s argument implies, is indeed a fearsome political machine. But is he really arguing that the SNP alone – without that rainbow coalition that was Yes – could have achieved so much last year? If we return to ‘business as usual’ do we not lose something of the unity that Yes formed?

A similar point is argued by Jim Sillars in “In Place of Failure”, that “The strength in depth [of Yes] came from the number of local Yes groups, in which thousands of people right across the political spectrum came together, learnt organisation, and engaged in political study and action. Rarely did those local groups rely on one political party, the SNP” (pg 17, my emphasis).

In any event, what those of Bell’s opinion have to contend with is that, the numbers suggested by current polls indicate that the SNP will themselves profit little in Regional List (reverting to the figures above, less than 9% of their MSPs would be Regional List and they would still have a majority without a single Regional List MSP), if they succeed to the degree the polls also suggest in individual constituencies. If there is no switching of votes, then its inevitable (on the basis of current polls) that the SNP government will face an Opposition dominated by Unionist parties. If so, should we not be looking at how we might at least limit this? It is all very well for Bell to argue that the SNP has been the leading actor in the pursuit of independence – and so it has – but if it cannot profit from the Regional List should we not expect it to act in a way that maximises support for independence from that source, otherwise? A little altruism, perhaps?

A similar argument is put forward by Stuart (ok Stuart?) Campbell in “Some very brief thoughts on RISE” (http://wingsoverscotland.com/some-very-brief-thoughts-on-rise/) Rather than try to precis his argument, I will just reproduce it here, because it is very brief:

If you’re primarily or solely contesting regional seats, and you’re chiefly (as seems to be the case) targeting people who are going to use their first vote for the SNP, “Vote for us so that we can provide strong opposition to the SNP” is a pretty weird pitch.

You’re basically asking people to use their second vote to cancel out their first. And that’s quite a tough angle to be trying to sell them. Just saying, like.”

What I want to take issue with here are two things. One is the latter assertion that if you vote for different parties in constituency and regional list votes you are using your second vote to cancel out your first. Yet, for instance, some people may perceive that the Green candidate has no chance in the constituency vote, but they want to show their support by voting for them in the Regional List. That seems eminently reasonable to me, and indeed one of the justifications for a constituency and Regional List vote.

More importantly, I disagree with Reverend Campbell when he argues that “Vote for us so that we can provide strong opposition to the SNP” is “a weird pitch“. The fact is that unless they secure every single seat whether constituency or regional list, the SNP will face an opposition of one kind or another. Would it not be better for them to face an opposition which supports independence, or at the very minimum has a stronger element of supporting independence than the opposition we are heading for which will have more than 80% Unionist content? Would it not be better if the opposition were putting forward progressive and innovative policies on how Scotland might be improved, even under devolution, rather than the constantly negative, carping and often downright misleading, if not dishonest, opposition that we have just now? Put short, is it not better to have an alternative to the Kezia and Ruth show?

Sillars develops a similar argument in “In Place of Failure”. He argues that the SNP manifesto for 2016 may go down the road, consistent with Bell’s argument, of defending its majority, and continuing the strategy of increasing the perception of its competence in govt as a way of increasing confidence in independence, so that at some future point we will take their advice and vote Yes. But as Sillars points out (pg. 114) while that strategy got them into government and secured a majority, it did not succeed in winning the referendum vote. If the aim is to do more than simply elect an SNP government, but instead a Parliament that will lead us to independence, do we not need to embrace and yoke the same multi-faceted approach of the referendum? This makes stark the choice facing us. Do we proceed as before to elect an SNP government, or an independence Parliament?

How might this be done? Sillars makes an interesting proposition to this end in an article in the National (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/jim-sillars-new-book-extract-we-need-an-honest-assessment-of-what-the-yes-campaign-got-right-and-wrong.7247), that “Yes Scotland’s central organisation in Glasgow was seen as too close the SNP in the formative stages of the campaign, perhaps not surprising as the party provided its start-up costs, and it never quite shook off the Better Together gibe about it being an SNP front“. He suggests one means to do this would be by establishing a “Yes Referendum Trust Fund”, appealing to the 1.6 million who voted Yes. The organization would be run by trustees from Yes organizations still in existence, using crowd funding and other fund-raising. If establishing a Yes Referendum Trust Fund seems over-optimistic, the crowd funding achievements of Wings over Scotland should not be forgotten, nor that the fund for the People versus Carmichael stands, at the time of writing, at £204,101 (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-people-versus-carmichael#/). Would an organization, committed to supporting and working toward the achievement of a Yes vote in due course, be likely to fall short of funds, particularly from the politically uncommitted? Would the establishment of a non-party, politically non-aligned organization, but committed to independence and working out the best route(s) to this, and specifically what options it might follow once independent not be a good thing? An organization such as a Yes Trust might even act as an umbrella organization – without limiting their independence – for such as the range of think tanks (Common Weal for instance) and Yes supporting media organizations.

This is not to say there would not be problems. The proximity of a “Yes Referendum Trust Fund” to the SNP would be watched with considerable attention by the Unionist parties and their toadies in the media. Any hints of a split would be emphasised at the same time as getting too close to the SNP would be criticised fiercely. The two would need to be kept clearly and distinctly separate, and avoid at all costs the proposition that if the Trust Fund were to run Regional List candidates that this is not simply a means of avoiding the normal rules of constituency and regional list votes – put simply that the Yes Trust fund candidates aren’t SNP sheep in Yes Trust clothing.

However, the issue of keeping the SNP and Yes Trust distinct raises the issue of what the policy set for the latter would be, other than supporting independence. The SNP is a broad church which has its own centrist set of policies that have clearly found favour with the electorate. What policies would be followed by a Yes Trust? Just now the policies being put forward by parties/ organizations pitching for support on the Regional Lists are broadly left of centre – the Greens and Rise. Some of the more centrist or even right wing SNP vote might be unwilling to support such organizations. Moreover, as we showed in part 1, to be successful in electing an “independence parliament” – to adopt Sillars’ phrase – that vote cannot afford to be split. Ideally, the entire SNP constituency vote would transfer to Yes Trust Regional List candidates.

Perhaps the centre of gravity for “Yes Trust” might be working on many of the issues that plagued the campaign the last time (e.g. EU membership, currency, pensions etc), but more currently on working on policies that would be widely accepted for Scotland to become the better and fairer place that was promised during the referendum?

Assuming that all the regions were identical – unlikely but taking an average – the Regional Lists would work out as follows (the winning party in each round being indicated by red),

  1. using the TNS figures for Regional List votes,
  2. assuming that the SNP Regional List vote would transfer over to Yes Trust en masse,
  3. in return for a commitment by Yes Trust not to run constituency candidates, while the SNP committed to not running Regional List candidates

Party

Round One

Round Two

Round Three

Round Four

Round Five

Round Six

Round Seven

Yes Trust (SNP vote transferred)

54%

27% (vote divided 1+1)

18% (vote divided 2+1)

18%

13.5% (vote divided 3+1)

10.8% (vote divided by 4+1)

10.8%

Labour

20%

20%

20%

10% (vote divided 1+1)

10%

10%

10%

Conservative

12%

12%

12%

12%

12%

12%

6% (vote divided by 1+1)

Liberal Democrat

4%

4%

4%

4%

4%

4%

4%

Greens

9%

9%

9%

9%

9%

9%

9%

 

Thus in the admittedly unlikely event that the entire SNP vote transferred to a Yes Trust candidate (though how much of the 9% Green vote will have voted SNP for their constituency), the opposition at Holyrood would gross up to (there being eight regions)

Yes Trust        40 seats (71%)

Labour         8 seats (14.5%)

Conservative         8 seats (14.5%)

In the Parliament as a whole

SNP             71 seats (majority of six)

Yes Trust        40 seats

Labour        8 seats

Conservatives    9 seats

Liberal Democrats    1 seat

Or put another way

Unionist Parties         18 seats (14%)

Independence Parties     111 seats (86%)

Stuart Campbell is right in many of the criticisms he makes of an approach which asks people to vote on way for their constituency and another on Regional List. In an earlier excursus into this he suggests the following problems, some of which at least can be addressed

  1. A constituency landslide doesn’t prevent list seats” – true enough, but as we have shown above, despite having the majority of Regional List votes the SNP would end up with just seven seats. Having 54% of the Regional List vote gets them 12.5% of the seats. There is absolutely no doubt that winning a lot of constituency seats makes winning Regional List seats more difficult, and the more you win the more difficult it becomes. That is how the system works. Is this not a problem that should concern us? What we are arguing here is that a way round this needs to be put in place.
  2. “You can’t predict local factors” – again, true enough, but these can be taken into account in the advice given on how to vote locally. A “one size, fits all” approach might well not be appropriate in every case.
  3. You don’t know what percentage of the vote the landslide party will get.” – true enough, but the trends to date, as well as the May 2015 election do suggest a fairly clear direction of travel. The TNS poll we have cited here, as well as the others since Part 1 have tended to indicate “no change” after weeks of the Unionist media hammering away at Jennifer Dempsie, Michelle Thomson, Nicola McGarrie, Lisa Cameron and Phil Boswell. However, what this and the previous point to is the need for some kind of organization to influence the necessary change, and that this requires a local dimension.
  4. People don’t actually like voting tactically“. Certainly it’s true that the “SNPout” campaign, encouraging tactical voting by Unionists to resist the SNP voting tsunami last May, which resulted in 56 SNP MPs, failed spectacularly. But, of course there was little organization or planning for this initiative. This therefore, points less to an insoluble problem than to a need for organization.
  5. The tactical vote itself is split“. In itself a reason for a Yes Trust to be established, to work for independence alongside – though not in partnership – with the SNP, and to focus the independence vote on the Regional List.

Of course there remains the view put by Peter Bell that fragmenting the vote makes no sense and “that the SNP is the “effective political agent with the capacity to realise the fundamental aims of the campaign.” But in respect of the former, we have shown that voting SNP x 2 actually makes no sense, as it leaves the Unionists with a larger foothold in the Parliament.

As for the latter, as Joni Mitchell wrote when she told Graham Nash that she was leaving him “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-2418626/Graham-Nash-Come-house-Ill-care-Graham-Nash-Joni-Mitchell-Crosby-Stills.html). In the same way, if the SNP seek to corner and maximise their vote in May then they actually do a disservice to the cause of independence, in that by accepting the need, as in the Yes movement during the referendum campaign, to reach out to those who believe in independence but who, for their own reasons, are not minded to join the SNP, they maximise support for the cause of independence. Rather than drifting in the political wilderness they can be structured into an organization which supports independence, if not the SNP. This is neither a challenge not a conflict, but an addition to the core purpose of the SNP.