The Hillsborough Inquest

First of all, I have to say that I share in the joy of the families of the 96 that at last – 27 years later – those they have lost have been vindicated, and it has been made completely clear that they were not to blame in any way for the events at the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough in 1989.

But if not them, then who?

First of all they made clear that the Police played a central role in the tragedy. In particular, retired Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield bears a considerable responsibility for these terrible events, as it was he who authorised the exit gates at the Leppings Lane end to be opened so as to relieve crushing outside the ground. This led to a surge of fans on to the terracing at Leppings Lane and the crushing, almost entirely in the middle two sections.

The Police were held by the Inquest Jury to have failed on a number of counts

  1. With respect to planning before the event, they did not produce specific instructions for managing crowds outside the stadium, on how the “pens” (sections) were to be filled and monitored, or who would be responsible for monitoring the pens.
  2. There were no contingency plans for the late arrival of a large number of fans, and the response to this was uncoordinated and too slow.
  3. With regard to their management of events within the tunnel, prior to opening the exit gate, the Police should have blocked off the central tunnel as the middle pens were already full, which the match commander (Duckenfield) failed to recognise. Officers inside the stadium were not warned when the exit gate was opened, and the match commander failed to consider where fans entering via the exit gate would go.

Thus, in the view of the Jury, Duckenfield failed to plan for events both outwith and inside the stadium, opened the exit gate leading to an uncontrolled entry of fans through the exit gate and onwards to the central tunnel which should have been closed off.

However, set against that, there are two issues which perhaps might also have been taken into account – issues which take us directly into the role played by South Yorkshire Police itself.

First of all, Duckenfield, while an experienced Chief Superintendent, had only been in his present position in the force for three weeks beforehand. Moreover, he had little operational experience of crowd control, and no experience at all of managing policing at Hillsborough. We might ask why, with a such a high profile match, he was allowed (or required) to take command without support from a more experienced officer. We know that the previous match day commander – Chief Superintendent Mole – had occupied that position for a number of years. Given the size of the expected crowd perhaps management at a higher level might have considered that additional, more experienced support would be wise. This takes us into the role of the South Yorkshire force, a topic we will return to.

Also held to bear a responsibility were Sheffield Wednesday, who play at Hillsborough. Their safety certificate had not been re-issued since 1986, but more importantly their previous Secretary, Richard Chester (1984-1986) was aware that due to a lack of up-to-date drawn plans the certificate was not valid and that the club was open to criminal sanctions. Moreover, Chester was aware that the capacity of the Leppings Lane end had been reduced by the building of radial fencing to create the individual pens or sections in the standing area, but the certificate and plans were never updated to reflect this. In any event the turnstiles counting system could not track which part of the ground fans entered after coming through the turnstiles numbered 7 to 23, and therefore could not count how many were in the standing areas. In addition, the club’s consulting engineers never updated the safety certificate after 1986, and to calculate the ground’s capacity and re-calculate this after changes were introduced. Thus reverting to Duckenfield, this means that he handled incompetently a situation in a ground which not only was unsafe, but was known to be unsafe by its management.

In terms of what led up the disaster that is all. The Jury were given specific questions to answer about the role of the police on the day, and about Sheffield Wednesday and their consulting engineers. Other than two more questions about the response of the Police and the Ambulance Service after the event, that is about it. There are though others whose conduct should have been investigated, but the focus on Duckenfield, and the club, screens off a wider view. While the present Chief Constable of South Yorkshire has been suspended on account of public anger at the questioning by the force’s lawyers at the Inquest, which not only seemed to go back on the apology issued by South Yorkshire police to the families, by posing questions about the conduct of the fans and their role in the disaster, another sacrifice (of an office due to retire in November anyway) does nothing to widen our focus. The questions put to the jury never let them consider wider issues. The questions were never asked so they could hardly be answered.

What questions?

First of all, the conduct of the South Yorkshire force as a whole, not only in terms of what they were doing leaving a newly appointed Chief Superintendent to manage a high profile event where they would be a large assembly of people, when he had little or no experience of control of such crowds, but also in terms of their conduct afterwards. It might be argued that claims of officers being required to amend their statements, and/ or details in their pocket books are not matters for an Inquest, but if they are not, I hope very much that the part played by the force as a whole – whose culture was described today by Andy Burnham in the Commons as “rotten to the core” – in the subsequent cover-up is investigated at some point in the near future, as Burnham called for in the Commons, and done so thoroughly that those who were guilty at that stage can be identified and if still serving their position reviewed. I won’t, though, hold my breath, particularly as Alex Thomson has revealed on Channel 4 News that the chairman of the IPCC has said that he doubts whether anyone will be prosecuted as a result of this Inquest.

There are additionally two other organizations whose role in all of this has been, it seems to me, carefully organized away from any consideration.

The first of these is the FA. It has been axiomatic in health and safety law that the fundamental responsibility for the safety of premises lies with the owner, so the criticism of Sheffield Wednesday is well made. However, this does not utterly absolve the person who has rented the premises – the occupier. If for instance the occupier becomes aware of a safety issue in the premises he is occupying he would be expected to act, even if only to bring this to the owner’s attention so that remedial action can be taken. We therefore can ask whether the FA really knew nothing, nothing at all about the safety problems at Hillsborough? This is particularly so when we take into account that the new Chief Executive at the FA (appointed only the previous February) was Graham Kelly who had left his job as Secretary of the Football League to take up his new position. But the question was never posed. Indeed, Kelly never appeared at the Inquest, providing instead written evidence. For sure, given their control of the stadium, primary responsibility has to lie with club, but given that the game was the FA’s (an FA Cup semi-final) do the FA not bear some responsibility for their apparent policy of just not looking or asking appropriate questions?

Secondly there is the policy of HMG, as another axiom of health and safety law is safe access and egress. However, at the time of the disaster the focus of the government in respect of football was control of fan behaviour, following Heysel and the Luton Town riot (ironically an all seater stadium), as well as problems away from stadia by “firms” following particular teams and with “football casuals”. The solution to this was tighter policing outside of football stadia, with, for instance, fans sometimes being ‘escorted’ (or marched) from their arrival at the local train station to the ground they were visiting. Inside grounds, fencing was the order of the day, so that fan disorder would not encroach on to the pitch, but less thought was given to fan safety. For instance, one of the problems at Hillsborough, reported by Bruce Grobbelaar (Liverpool goalkeeper) was that when he asked a police officer to open the single gate into a pen, he was told the “steward has the key” ( In any event the gate in question only allowed the access or egress of one person at a time, so, in the event of large scale crushing its usefulness was minimal.

In other words, it is arguable that government policy was unbalanced toward control of fan behaviour, paying too little attention to safety and the possibility that something could go wrong. With little or no consideration given to how to act in such circumstances. Yet again that question was never asked of the jury who were carefully guided toward immediate causes and responsibilities without consideration of the wider issues of the role of the game’s governing body and of the government itself.

Below is a picture of the fans crushed against the fencing at the Leppings Lane end. (

To me it looks as the person in red, just right of centre is probably already unconscious (at best). The person in grey to his left (our right) may be as well. We might reasonably ask if they were among those who died of compression asphyxia, as a great many of the 96 did? But more importantly for the purposes of the Inquest, and in particular because of Richard Chester’s statement to the Inquest, that a Safety Certificate for a football ground “is to ensure that the paying public are catered for and are hosted in a ground safe in the knowledge that the ground is safe for them.”, we really must get answers as to why the government of the day put such a small price on the safety of football fans in a football stadium. It is more than abundantly clear that that Safety Certificate, and its ‘monitoring’ in this case did not achieve its end. Why did the government of the day put such emphasis on controlling fan behaviour that their safety ceased to be even secondary? Does that alone – indeed does the above picture – not make that government culpable?

We can wonder why the FA, and the government were not included in the questions to be answered by the Inquest jury, and would very likely be told that its purpose was to examine the direct causes of the disaster, which in itself is just another way of saying that other matters have been excluded. Then again we might contemplate explanations such as avoiding criticism of the British elite and establishment. For instance, the FA is an organization whose origins owed much to English public schools coming together to agree a code which owed more to dribbling skills rather than the strength required in a scrum. Moreover, since 1955, when the Duke of Edinburgh became its President, successive Presidents have been members of the Royal Family, or connected to them (Earl of Harwood, Duke of Kent) with Prince William currently occupying the role. Criticism of the government of the time might implicate the inheritance of Margaret Thatcher, who reportedly had particularly strong views on controlling football fans. The day after the disaster, Thatcher herself came to Hillsborough where her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, relied upon what he was told about the disaster by the police blaming “tanked-up yobs” for the deaths. “Liverpool,” he later said, “should shut up about Hillsborough.” These two facts alone make more understandable the limitations on the questions the Inquest Jury were allowed to answer.

Bachrach and Baratz seminal article “Two Faces of Power” (The American Political Science Review, Volume 56, Issue 4 (Dec., 1962),947-952) first introduced the concept of nondecision-making by asking how issues are suppressed and the scope of decision-making restricted. The structure of the questions put to the Jury in this Inquest are an instance of power being used in this way.

The outcome of the Inquest that the fans were unlawfully killed is of course to be welcomed, but, as well as the above questions, the Inquest simply concealed other matters. For instance, while the Police have publicly accepted their responsibility, Duckenfield’s barrister and lawyers representing the force, during the hearing continued to press home the issue of fan behaviour, including not only previous instances such as Heysel but also repeating allegations of drunkenness and hostility to Police instructions in Leppings Lane, outside Hillsborough, (contributing to Duckenfield’s decision to disastrously open the exit gate). Moreover, they have still not admitted to their conspiracy to lie in the aftermath in order to smear the Liverpool fans, including those who died. Where the South Yorkshire force is concerned serious issues remain which extend far beyond David Duckenfield, and even the present Chief Constable (now suspended).

In short this Inquest has given closure to the families in that their loved ones are no longer officially held to have been responsible in any way. Responsibility instead has been pinned on the club and on a retired Police Officer. However guilty they were – and they were very, very guilty in very many ways – there are other people who may be guilty who have avoided being identified in the course of this Inquest, which, in terms of the questions put to the Jury, did not intend to identify them. The inquest was a move forward, but this matter has much further to travel, and however welcome and positive yesterday’s decisions were, there are many questions still to be answered which were not even allowed to be asked at the Inquest.

The Rev revs again

Stuart Campbell has once again posted on Wings, arguing that people who argue as I have done, that a vote for the SNP on the Regional List (the List) could be better used by being put to another independence-minded party, “apparently STILL don’t understand either the Holyrood electoral system or basic arithmetic”. As I hope to demonstrate, this most recent post by the Rev suggests that it’s not such as me who fails to understand basic arithmetic, and certainly not us who don’t understand how the system works.

Essentially what Campbell has done is to start from the 2011 election, compared the SNP vote share on the List to their forecast vote share today on the List, and multiplied their 2011 vote by that multiplier. So the SNP in 2011 got 45% of the list vote. Just now the polls suggest they will get 46% of the list vote, so a multiplier of 1 (actually 1.013 he points out). Thus he multiplies the 2011 votes by 1. In the same way, Labour get 0.72, the Tories 1.2 and the Lib Dems 0.76, while the Greens get 1.8.

Using this methodology he adjusts the 2011 votes, and assumes that the SNP will win every seat other than Orkney & Shetland (which will go Lib Dem) and two in the south of Scotland (which will go Tory). Then working through every region on this basis – adjusted 2011 votes and with the SNP usually winning all the constituencies, he demonstrates that the outcome would be as follows

Labour 24 (+2 i.e. two more than 2011)
Conservative 17 (+5)
Green 9 (+7)
SNP 5 (-11)
Lib Dem 1 (-2)
Ind 0 (-1)

Thus horror of horrors, the SNP have lost11 regional list seats, or as Rev Campbell puts it

“And what we find is that a very significant swing towards the Greens in the list vote actually results in FIVE FEWER pro-independence MSPs on the list. The Greens gain seven seats overall, but every one was already a pro-independence seat.

(One in Lothian vacated by the sadly-deceased Margo McDonald, and the other six at the expense of the SNP, who also lose a further five to Labour and the Tories.)

It’s then left to the SNP to do the heavy lifting of ensuring there’s still a majority at Holyrood for independence by winning nearly all the constituency seats.”

Trying to put this as delicately and kindly as I possibly can – this is total bollocks! Indeed, it is actually quite hard to know where to start on the various parts of its nonsense.

The major problem is that Campbell has “projected” from the current polls that the SNP will win 69 constituency seats – that they will win every seat in every region bar two – Highlands & Islands, and South of Scotland. In 2011, they won “only” 53. The two years – 2011 and 2016 – are not directly comparable without much more.

As John Curtice reminds us in the Electoral Reform Society paper that, however unintentionally, was the touch paper to light this dispute within the Yes movement, (, there are two parts to the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament. One is the regular first past the post system in 73 constituencies. The second part, attempting to introduced some sort of proportionality to the system, as Curtis puts it, “In this part voters are invited to cast a vote for a list of candidates nominated by a political party (or for an individual Independent candidate should there be one on the ballot paper). Voters can vote either for the same party as the one they backed on the constituency ballot, or for a different party. Either way, the total number of these ‘list’ votes that are cast for each of the parties is tallied up in each of eight regions of Scotland into which Scotland is divided for this purpose. Once those totals are known seven ‘additional’ list seats are allocated in each region (making 56 across Scotland as a whole) such that the total number of constituency and list seats won by each party is as proportional as possible to the share of the list vote won by each party in that region”

Therefore, the more constituency seats a party wins, in order to restore proportionality, the number of list votes for each party is divided by the number of seats it has won + 1. Thus if the SNP, as Curtice goes on to consider, won all nine seats in Lothian, their list vote on the first round to select the first list member, would have been divided by 10 (9+1).

Thus one of the reasons for the SNP’s loss of list seats, which Campbell choses to just ignore, is because he projects that they will win 69 constituencies, compared to 53 constituencies in 2011. For instance, in Table 1 of his report, Curtice works through the allocation of regional list seats in Fife & Mid-Scotland in 2011. At that election the SNP “only” won 8 of 9 seats in that region, but manage to take the final (7th) seat quite narrowly from Labour. However, if they had won every seat in that region they would have won no list seats at all, since with their list vote divided by 9 in 2011 they only just manage to take the 7 list seat, but had their list vote been divided by 10 (i.e. 9 constituencies +1) this would have been too much of a disadvantage and the 7th seat would have gone to the Labour Party.

Secondly, it is therefore, an utter nonsense to somehow blame any swing to the Greens for the SNP’s loss of list seats. They have lost list seats because they have won more constituency seats. It’s how the system is supposed to work. It is quite unbelievable that someone with the depth of knowledge of Stuart Campbell seems to misunderstand this fundamental aspect of the Scottish electoral system. Let’s be quite clear about this, as the SNP vote grew post referendum, and particularly post Westminster General Election last year, this situation has become increasingly obvious. But no attempt has been made to address the problem of how SNP voters might most constructively use their second vote. For instance, as Curtice has indicated they might consider voting for another independence – “That would appear to imply that under this scenario many a list vote for the SNP would be ‘wasted’, that is it would fail to contribute towards the election of an MSP. Indeed, under our scenario that proves to be the case for any regional list vote cast for the SNP anywhere other than in the Highlands & Islands region, the only region where the party is projected to win any list seats.”

Instead, the only advice to SNP voters is #bothvotesSNP and from a coterie of commentators including James Kelly (!%29), G A Ponsonby ( and Peter Bell ( One might want to ask why, but while there are a number of hypotheses, there are no certain explanations. However, Liam Stevenson (a RISE list candidate for Central Scotland) offers some interesting thoughts.

“The reality is that the SNP are not the only party that are pro-indy. Now, there are others – all of whom offer their own vision as to what an independent Scotland should look like. If we have a parliament that is top heavy with Yes advocating parties of varying colours, at the cost of unionist MSPs, it is not only stronger for democracy – in that it creates a broader parliamentary force which represents a cross-section of the Scottish electorate, as opposed to everyone hedging their bets on the SNP, but it is also stronger for the independence movement for this exact same reason.”

While Stevenson has his own agenda (being in RISE) to argue for other indy supporting parties, he is right when he says that voting tactically could reduce the number of Unionist MSPs in the next Parliament, IF it is done to the degree necessary. We have already explored this in a couple of earlier blogs. However, he is also right when he argues that

“if the UK government see that we have returned a parliament with cross party support for independence, then it is another kick in the teeth for them…”

Right now the Unionist parties can attack independence by attacking the SNP – any weakness or failure on their part can be used to chip at confidence in independence. But if there is support in Holyrood for independence from parties other than the SNP then the attack on independence has to become a wider one on the entire country. Once the equation of independence = only SNP has been broken, then the attack has to become much more amorphous. For instance, to the extent the leadership of an independence campaign extends beyond the SNP, then the sort of attack that was regularly made on Salmond would no longer suffice. Such attacks would become much more difficult and would have to be much wider. Given the possibility of

And just as important is his observation that

“We witnessed throughout the referendum campaign that the Yes movement was so much more than the SNP”. Yes might have been disproportionately SNP, but one of its key strength was that people of different political view, or members of different political parties (or none) came together in a way that demonstrated how the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. While the SNP may have been far and away the largest part, others from other parties and none played their own part. The fact is that the SNP were not the entire independence movement, and to vote for anyone other than the SNP is not a vote against independence, but a vote to further the independence debate at Holyrood from one of “if independence” to one about “how independence”. In that respect the mutterings of the above commentators is both partial and unhelpful.



Now the Rev is at it too

Posted this morning on Wings is another #bothvotesSNP piece by the Rev Stuart Campbell, “Five hard facts about the election”. Unfortunately, they are not all facts.

  1. RISE are not going to win any seats. This might well be true, and indeed I suspect that on present form, it probably will be. But this is an argument based on a forecast by Stuart which is based on their apparently limited supported, measured by the pollsters, which, given the uncertainties of polling we are being warned about, seems to me at least a wee bit of a contradiction.
  2. More seriously that a “pro-independence opposition is impossible” because the scenario that Stuart sketches out to support this suggests that “If every single Tory, Lib Dem, socialist and UKIP list vote from 2011 had gone to the Greens, they’d still have been short of Labour’s total.” But really that is as maybe, first of all because that all happened five years ago, and much has changed since then, most notably that the Labour vote is likely to have shrunk even more since 2011. Moreover it’s a pretty meaningless argument since if I was a Green Party member looking for votes, Conservatives and UKIP voters are fairly far down the list of places I would look. But in any event, the issue is how SNP supporters who have cast their vote for the SNP constituency candidate, will cast their vote on the Regional List. I can assure the Rev Campbell that if enough SNP voters made that switch then the Greens would be the opposition. Remember that with Labour being on course for something like 27 seats, the Greens do need a large increase in representation, but remember the Greens would be the opposition if they get one more seat than any party other than the one in government. Difficult? Yes, very. Likely? At this stage of the game, almost certainly not. Beneficial? As I have worked through elsewhere, with a modest (less than 1%) move of SNP voters in John Curtice’s paper, Andy Wightman would be elected rather than Sarah Boyack. So I would argue Yes. Possible? It offends no known law of nature – after all many laughed a year ago when it was suggested that the SNP might take 50 Westminster seats. They’re no laughing noo!
  3. “A pro-independence opposition is meaningless anyway”, is a proposition I can only disagree with. I would respectfully the Rev to Sillars’ argument for an “Independence Parliament” where the proposition that we should be independent is taken as a given and the main issues become how best to achieve that, and what kind of place an independent Scotland would be. That is a totally different dialogue than the one that we have had for the last five years, with the Unionists. It is not just about numbers, but about isolating Unionism and rendering it irrelevant.
  4. That the SNP will not win every constituency seat. Of course, they don’t have to – 65 is enough and anything above that would be a bonus. They survived five years with 69. John Curtice suggests that 70 is possible. But let us look at some of the claims. First Orkney and Shetland, where he points to the very sizeable swing needed on the 2011 vote, and that Carmichael hung on in 2015. Then again, we all know how he did it. I wonder if he will stand again, or if either of their candidates would speak on the same platform with him? I know Stuart’s antipathy toward seat forecasting sites, and even using them, the Lib Dems often hang on in one of them at least, and sometimes both. But the reason for that is the swing that would be needed compared to elsewhere. However, how subject is either seat to normal considerations after the Carmichael affair? Conjecture I know, but we can hardly put that event to one side and just forget about it.

    I could go on further on this forecast that the SNP wont win every constituency seat – for instance it is suggested that in Glasgow Anniesland that the Unionists could vote tactically to get Bill Kidd out, or that Patrick Harvie might win in Glasgow Kelvin – but since I agree with the proposition baldly stated, I won’t. I will though leave it by saying that there are two important things here. First that the SNP get their vote out and do not become complacent, and secondly that by doing so I confidently expect them to get enough constituency seats for a majority, even if they do not win them all. There are ‘battle grounds’ – there always are – but I really have no idea how Stuart estimates there are 14 of them. For instance is Glasgow Anniesland even one of them. The move in the vote since 2011 has been toward the SNP and away from Labour, and if Bill Kidd has been a decent constituency MSP (I have no idea) then how much of a battle will that be, even given his small majority.

  5. “The Greens commitment to a second indyref is lukewarm”. To this end Stuart presents some instances from his very extensive collection of press cuttings, but essentially this seems to come down to two propositions, that
    1. they will support another referendum if there is public support for it
    2. there should not be an early re-run

    I am trying very hard to think who else, not in the Greens, that those conditions remind me of? How about this “”Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option” of most Scots – or if there is a “material change in the circumstances” since 2014, such as Brexit against Scotland’s wishes.” – that is from the SNP manifesto.

    Oh and by the way, Harvie does not say that Brexit would not be a material change in circumstances. If you read your own screen grab you will see that he said in his opinion winning the next referendum would he harder if the UK were outside the EU. I have to say that I think he is wrong in that judgement, but it is just a fact that he didn’t say what you seem to be claiming here.

    One last thing, I do wish the Rev Campbell would stop arguing that Wings “has never told readers how to vote in Scottish elections and never will”, and then go on to publish an article which pretty much tells readers how to vote (or in this case, how not to vote).

A reply to James Kelly (Scot goes Pop)

James Kelly continues his #bothvotesSNP contention in a blog entitled “It doesn’t matter whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about the SNP’s chances : “tactical voting on the list” is a bad idea either way“. James is entitled to his point of view, but having excoriated (rightly) the Sunday Herald for misrepresenting the views of Professor Curtice, I think at times in this blog he arguably does the same thing, though in different ways.

First of all, he contends that Curtice has “made clear” that “there is a chance the election result may differ somewhat from current opinion polls.” And so Curtice would. Indeed, he is quite transparent how he has come up with the numbers in his paper (see page 9, where he sets out the variety of assumptions that have been made to develop his forecast. As with any forecast, if the assumptions are wrong then the likelihood is that the outcome will be wrong as well. Indeed, opinion polls are usually only accurate to within a margin of +/- 3% (e.g. a forecast of 50% is usually 95% likely to be somewhere between 47 and 53%). If the SNP were within 3% of their Unionist rivals – or even something like this – then the problem of error would be acute. But the fact is that poll after poll tends to put the forecast vote for the SNP at often more than Labour + Conservative and Lib Dem votes put together. There is such a quantum difference between the parties that such considerations are substantially niceties.

But more seriously, while Curtice would be, I am sure, among the first to acknowledge margin of error as an inevitable feature of opinion polls and political forecasting, he has hardly said that the numbers on which he based his paper were thought up one night after work in the pub with a few of the boys. In other words, while Curtice did acknowledge that the result may differ from current opinion polls, his use of the word “somewhat” would suggest a degree of caution in that caveat which I do not think Kelly follows.

Secondly he argues “Crucially, the direction in which the polls lead us astray doesn’t really matter – if the SNP are being overestimated by the current polls, they’ll need list votes and list seats simply to retain their majority, but if they’re being underestimated on the list vote, they stand to win a decent number of list seats even if they take a clean sweep of constituency seats.  Both of those possibilities are very real, but if you were a gambling man/woman, you’d probably be betting more on the latter, simply on the basis of past history.”

Well actually though, it does matter. If the SNP are overestimated, then the problem of winning no list seats that Curtice describes becomes less acute to the degree they have been overestimated (on the constituency vote). The specific problem that Curtice (the “Curtice problem”) refers to is based on an analysis of Lothian region where the SNP win every constituency, but no regional list seats because they begin with their regional list vote being divided by 9 (constituency seats) +1 – i.e. 10.

In fact, the reduction in constituency seats won would have to be substantial to significantly change the regional list situation the SNP face. For instance, Curtice works through the consequences of them winning every constituency in Lothian (which is what his forecast suggests), which means their regional list vote is divided by ten, reducing it from 41% to 4.1%. But suppose they win “only” seven of the nine, then their vote would be divided “only” by eight (7+1), which would reduce their regional list vote to 5.12%, which would win them no Regional List seats either. In fact, with a regional list vote of 41% they would have to win no more than four seats to win any Regional List seats (4+1, so meaning their regional list vote would be divided by 5, which would be 8.2%, so all other things equal on Curtice’s figures, they would win the 4th of the 7 seats, at the expense of the Labour Party. But more than four seats would mean they would win no Regional List seats with a vote of 41%. Of course cet.par. would not apply in reality as if the SNP only won 4 seats, other parties would between them win 5. However, set against that, interestingly in 2011 the SNP won 8 of the 9 constituency seats, and with 39% of the vote won absolutely no regional list seats at all in Lothian (though Margo did secure a regional list seat).

Of course then the argument might be that those SNP voters who have been seduced by the siren voices of the smaller parties would have been better to vote SNP on the regional list. Let’s assume then that the entire Green vote goes to the SNP (which is kind of unlikely, but let’s take the limit case). This would give the SNP a Regional List vote of 52.8% (41.2 + 11.6), but with 9 constituencies in the bag, they still would not win a single regional list seat. In fact, the independence movement might well be one seat down, for the Greens would not have a member elected at stage 3. Instead that would go to the Labour Party. The SNP might win a seat on the last, seventh round. The SNP (with Green ) vote would be reduced to 5.28%, but the Conservatives would be running them close with 5.2%, so it would depend on very few votes. In any event we are well in to margin of error, and the point to note is that maximising the SNP regional vote is not guaranteed to achieve very much at all. From the wider point of view of achieving independence, there may be better uses for it.

Underestimation of the SNP vote is easier to deal with – quite simply it makes the “Curtice problem” all the more acute. In his paper, there are at least two regions where the SNP do not win every seat and they win two regional list seats. The extra seats could be at the expense of these two regional list seats (not entirely a bad swap though!). Moreover, without a very substantial increase in their regional list vote, if the SNP won every constituency seat, they are unlikely to win “a decent number” of regional list seats as Kelly blithely tells us. Indeed if Curtice is right, they are unlikely to win any.

Moreover, what is meant by “past history”? Is it 2007 (when 26 of the 47 the seats they won were regional list), or, to much a lesser extent, 2011 (when only 16 of the 69 seats were won on the regional list)? Or is it May last year when the SNP won 56 of 59 Westminster seats, which proportionately to Holyrood’s 73 constituency seats, would see them win 69.3% – or more reasonably 69 or 70 (coincidentally the latter being what Curtice forecasts).

Thirdly, we are told there is “an implausibly wide gap between the SNP’s support” between constituency votes and regional list votes, as well as the forecasting error of the SNP Regional List vote in 2007 and 2011, leading Kelly to argue “So in trying to interpret what the polls are really telling us about the current state of play on the list, there are two basic options – either we can assume that the polls are broadly right about the constituency vote but are underestimating the SNP on the list, or that the polls may be somewhat wrong about both ballots”.

I think I have been clear about the latter contention, but with regard to the former, this is quite a different election from 2007 and 2011. The former saw the SNP squeak in to minority government by a single seat, and in 2011 left us all – and Labour in particular – quite gobsmacked by winning the “impossible” overall majority. The present election is coming a year after the SNP came within less than 5,000 votes of taking every one of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland, and after a year of polls that vary really only in respect of how far they suggest the SNP are ahead, or, if you want to look at it another way, how far behind the others are.

In turn this has led an argument (exemplified by Curtice), which I know Kelly rejects, that SNP voters should think about how they use their regional list vote. If the SNP were to achieve the level of support in constituencies that has been forecast, then their chances of achieving much on the regional list are limited. Maybe, just maybe, a minority element of the SNP support has listened to that, and decided to vote for someone else with their regional list vote? I wonder why this was not considered on the list of explanations? Seems plausible to me.

Kelly then goes on to argue, “If we can’t entirely trust what the polls are saying on either ballot, then all of the incredibly precise “predictions” (ie. projections) of seat numbers that are being used to make the case for tactical voting are completely meaningless”. Well that is more than a bit of an exaggeration, is it not? It’s not that they would just have to be wrong (and in a very precise sense they probably will be – they are an indicator and little more), they would have to be totally and utterly wrong to make much difference to the SNP’s difficulties on the regional list. Curtice suggests that they would win every seat in Lothian, but as I pointed out already their constituency seats would have to be reduced not by one or two, but by about half before they would win a regional list seat on the basis of the regional list share of votes that Curtice works from. I would suggest that it is not so much a matter of tactical voting being meaningless, but that the polls would have to be meaningless before the loss of SNP votes would have substantial effect.

I am in any sense rather puzzled why someone like James Kelly, who has built a very successful and well-respected blog on the basis of interpreting opinion polls and trends in these, is casting such doubt on a forecast by a respected psephologist. Or is it just the question that he poses – “That this situation could arise in a number of regions, given the SNP’s current standing in the polls, has led to speculation that nationalist supporters might be wise on the second ballot to vote tactically for a different party, such as the Greens or the left-wing RISE grouping, both of which also support independence. That way their vote might contribute to the election of another independence supporting MSP rather than apparently being wasted.” Kelly rightly excoriated the Sunday Herald for reading much more into this than Curtice would have intended, but is Kelly himself not trying to undermine the point by challenging the data at its foundation? Just why would he do this?

It is fairly well-known that, in addition to having a system with some proportionately, one of the aims of the voting system we have for Holyrood, was to make it difficult – perhaps it was seen as impossible – for a single party to achieve a majority on its own – even Labour. However, the SNP have thoroughly disproved that. In short, the problem of how SNP voters should use their second vote is quite a deliberate outcome for the electoral system in Scotland. The aim always was that when a party did well in constituencies that they should be disadvantaged – or looked at the other way, the parties which had done less well, should be advantaged – in the allocation of regional list seats. This is not an accident, but something designed into the system.

The use of Curtice’s work by the Sunday Herald was wrong – and Kelly is to be congratulated for his earlier blog pointing that out – but the issue for SNP voters that Curtice points to is not a matter of chance, but a function of how the system works (deliberately? For another day). It is wrong that it has been ambushed by the Sunday Herald, and Cat Boyd’s piece in the National ( is no more than I would expect from a politician playing politics (however elegantly she might put it). But Nicola Sturgeon is doing basically the same thing when she says the election “is not ….. a game of chance with the electoral system – it is about choosing a government and a First Minister to lead the country forward for the next five years and into a new decade.” ((

Yet if we follow the #bothvotesSNP recommendation then, given the difficulties the SNP will have with winning regional list seats, then the advantage goes to the Unionist parties who polls suggest will have been almost wiped out at constituency level. That is how the system works. But, in the case of the Lothian region, if a small number of SNP voters (less than 1% in fact) transferred their regional list vote to the Greens this could see Andy Wightman rather than Sarah Boyack elected. I think that would be a good thing. Would you not agree?

Dogs bark, and political parties seek to maximise their vote, but do we not have to ask whether the aim of an electorate is only to support a political party or support a cause, in this case independence? Are we best served by maximising the vote for the SNP on both votes, even if it means allowing Unionist politicians (e.g. Sarah Boyack) rather than an independence supporting candidate (e.g. Andy Wightman) to be elected? Sure there are risks. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the only certainties in life are death and taxes” (and maybe not even the latter these days if you have enough money). But maybe, to maximise our impact, the independence supporting electorate will have “to live a little dangerously” as Sir Charles Gray put it, in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 General Election.

One thing is certain, if the polls are accurate – within margins of error – then if a portion of the SNP vote does not transfer to other parties for the regional list, then we will have missed a chance to minimise the Unionist involvement at Holyrood. Ideally there would be a single beneficiary, but that chance is long gone (something to talk about for next time?), but even if spread over three parties, it could be the difference between 8 Green MSPs – Curtice’s projection – and 16 (one more in 8 of 9 regions) which would mean more than 20% fewer Unionist MSPs. Is a Holyrood with 86 (70 SNP + 16 Greens) independence supporting MSP not better than 78? Is 66% of that loaf not better than 60% of it? None of this will happen without appropriate advice, and #bothvotesSNP, since it will allow more Unionists to be elected, is not appropriate advice in my opinion for the reasons set out here. Scotland goes Pop is both helpful and though provoking, but in this instance, I think James Kelly is wrong.

You need friends

Our last blog dealt with John Curtice’s article suggesting that some SNP voters might care to think about where to put their second regional list vote, since if the SNP do as well as forecasts suggest they might at constituency level, their party is unlikely to achieve much on the regional list precisely because they have done SO well at constituency level. In particular, they might consider voting for another, smaller, independence minded party such as the Greens, RISE or Solidarity.

We are though being enjoined by a large number of well-respected commentators to avoid a tactical voting strategy at all costs as this will play to the advantage of the Unionist parties.

James Kelly (Scotland Goes Pop) in a blog yesterday “Have the Sunday Herald just totally misrepresented John Curtice’s stance on so-called “tactical voting”?” sets out how Curtice has been misrepresented by the Sunday Herald story, but in a way which points directly to ‘let’s not take a chance on this’. For instance, Kelly, whose own blog relies substantially on psephology, ventures the opinion here that “2) Opinion polls are not necessarily even 100% accurate as snapshots, and averaging them cannot be assumed to eliminate any error.” Or that “4) Extrapolations of constituency seats are also problematical, not least because we don’t know in advance the extent of anti-SNP tactical voting in a handful of potentially close contests.” – well that worked well for the Unionists in May last year, did it not James?

None of Kelly’s critique – not one ounce – actually engages with the point that Curtice has made, that with the likely outcome being that the SNP will dominate constituency seats in a big way (in passing if last year’s General Election result is replicated proportionately then the SNP would win 69 seats at Holyrood – 56 SNP Westminster seats/59 Scottish Westminster seats x 73 constituency seats at Holyrood) then their chances of Regional List seats are seriously diminished. The outcome might not be as bad as Curtice suggests in this respect, for with 70 seats the Regional List would be nearly as difficult for the SNP as it possibly could be. But even if it’s not as bad an outcome on the Regional List as Curtice suggests it might be, he is till posing a very real question for SNP voters, unless the polls, for more than a year now, have not just got it wrong, but totally and utterly wrong. We are not after all talking about two or more parties within margin of error of each other, or even almost so. Rather the situation is one where one party is not just way ahead, but so far ahead that their support is more than the sum of their next three challengers put together. Arguably, it’s not about the numbers but about the quantum.

Nor can any of this be addressed by outrage about Sunday Herald’s misrepresentation (Kelly in a subsequent blog debunks several Sunday Herald claim by juxtaposing them with what Curtice actually did say – I think Kelly is right here –!%29) or roping in Willie Sullivan of the Electoral Reform Society (under whose auspices, Curtice published) that politics “should contain lots of different voices” ( and objecting that this is “telling people which parties they should and shouldn’t vote for”. “Lots of voices” might well be a ‘good thing’, but I would agree with Stuart Campbell that it is not such a good thing that it allows us to tell people how to vote. But Curtice is not telling people how to vote. He is drawing to our attention a very real lacuna in the voting system for the Scottish Parliament.

Nor does Derek Bateman get to the core of the matter when he concludes in a blog today that “I welcome diversity and support a move to STV for future elections. I also promote all views in debates at Newsnet and have given more airtime to RISE-supporting voices than any other outlet. None of which gives anyone a claim on my vote. To repeat – if you’re RISE, vote RISE. If you’re a green Nat – vote SNP and Green (like Peter Arnott). And I’m voting for the party most likely to deliver the outcome I want. So stop trying to hijack my vote to your cause.” ( That as a matter of principle is of course, fine, but it does not address the problem that Curtice isolates – that with 41% of the Regional List vote in Lothian, more than the combined Regional List votes of the Conservatives + Labour + Lib Dems, the SNP get no Regional List members at all. This is no longer a matter of principle, but of practical politics and maximising the value that we can obtain from the independence vote.

One thing that really makes me laugh is when SNP minded commentators warn us that tactical voting could let the Unionists in, when on the basis of practically every poll, it is NOT voting tactically that is letting the Unionists in. In our earlier blog (John Curtice and Prediction) we saw that if 0.6% of the SNP Regional List vote in Lothian moved across to the Greens, Andy Wightman rather than Sarah Boyack would be elected. The Unionists are, in fact, already coming through the backdoor. The issue is how to stop them.

In truth, it probably is at this stage (18th April), just over two weeks before the vote, too late to do much about this beyond raising the point that Curtice rightly does, and hoping that enough SNP voters take cognisance so that even if the differences are limited (eg Andy Wightman rather than Sarah Boyack) there are some differences and that we don’t end up with the same sort of Parliament as the one just dissolved, with the SNP defending independence against the three Unionist parties, carping their negativity one the sidelines. Our aim though should be to reduce them to a rump.

Curtice will almost certainly be proven right when he concludes “Even though the party could conceivably win a higher share of the vote than it managed last May, the SNP will not sweep the parliamentary board”. But should we be concerned about this, in either of its two senses

  1. That to achieve independence we need to maximise the SNP vote. Certainly that might take us closer, but does independence need to be so tightly coupled to the prospects of a single party? In Catalonia the independence movement is a number of parties, going pretty much across the political spectrum from left to right. Catalonian independence is not a matter for just one party, but for several. It is extremely unlikely the Scottish independence movement will not be dominated by the SNP, but should we be concerned if other independence supporting parties develop? Should the SNP perhaps, even passively, encourage such developments to the extent that their development supports the movement toward independence?
  2. The alternative claim that Scotland has become a one party SNP state, as if Scotland was some sort of North Korea. This coming Thursday the Electoral Reform Society is holding a meeting under the title “‘One Party To Rule Them All: Does Scotland Have A Predominant-Party Problem?’ – i.e. predicated on the idea that single party rule is dysfunctional. In principle of course, it can be argued that a plurality of almost equal voices is best, but what the proposition forgets is that it depends on the views of the electorate. Iain McWhirter has, for instance argued recently that “The whole point of a proportional electoral system is to lever in diversity into parliament and prevent one party unfairly dominating the legislature, as so often happens in Westminster. Many Scots may be tempted to split their ticket, whether they support independence or not, because they believe the Holyrood system works better with minority governments” ( But however true that is, the electorate has to be master of its own destiny. We cannot say to the electorate, you should – or even wors, must – vote in a diversified way because that achieves an outcome with more diversity of opinion.

This second point has been linked to the issue Curtice raises, certainly by the use that the Sunday Herald put his work to, but also by those – such as Kelly, Bateman and Wings – who sought to rebut the interpretation by the Sunday Herald. But even if we accept the rebuttal of the Sunday Herald’s view, Curtice’s question still remains. If the SNP are likely to clean up the constituency vote to the point where they cause themselves difficulties in securing Regional List seats, how should an SNP voter use their second vote?

John Curtice and prediction

Rather a lot of heat, rather than light, has been generated in the last couple of days by the Sunday Herald picking up on a paper by the statisticians’ psephologist, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University published by the Electoral Reform Society. You can find the offending article here – – though describing it as “offending” is a bit tough on the Prof, who has done little more than run the numbers and pose a few questions.

What seems to me to be the main issue comes from the data of Table 3 in Curtice’s article, which sets out how the allocation of seats from the regional list vote in Lothian would play out. To do this, he calculates the variation in support for parties since the last election in 2011 and applies this over the country as a whole. This allows him to predict results on a constituency by constituency basis and then, with a forecast of regional votes, as well as the allocation of constituency seats, how Regional List seats would be allocated. The outcome of this is a forecast that the SNP will win 70 out of 73 constituency seats, but only two Regional list seats, in the Highlands & Islands. The Lib Dems would win one constituency (probably Shetland) and the Conservatives would win two. Curtice does not divulge where these are, but it seems most likely to be in South Scotland. Thus in the other five regions – Central Scotland, Glasgow, Lothian, Mid Scotland & Fife, and West Scotland, it is likely that the SNP will have won all the constituency seats.

Curtice however focuses on one of the regions where the SNP has won all the constituencies – Lothian (where there are 9 constituency seats), but the same analysis could be done for the other four regions set out above.

The playing out of the allocation of Regional List seats in Lothian demonstrated by Curtice in this table, which shows that on the one hand, the SNP Regional List vote is 41.2%, which is more than the three Unionist parties’ Regional List votes put together. Yet the SNP win no seats, while the Unionist parties win six – three Labour, two Conservative and one Lib Dem. The Greens take the other Regional List seat.

The operation of d’Hondt works against the SNP, since their 9 constituency members means their Regional List vote is divided by ten from Round 1, meaning they go into the first round of allocating Regional List members with a vote of not 41%, but 4.1%. There would have to be ten rounds (and thus ten Regional list members) before the SNP would take a seat.

The section in Curtice’s paper on which there has been all the comment is this “That this situation could arise in a number of regions, given the SNP’s current standing in the polls, has led to speculation that nationalist supporters might be wise on the second ballot to vote tactically for a different party, such as the Greens or the left-wing RISE grouping, both of which also support independence. That way their vote might contribute to the election of another independence supporting MSP rather than apparently being wasted.”

On the basis of this analysis this seems to me to be a reasonable observation, though it most certainly does not justify the Sunday Herald’s headline that “Independence supporters should not cast second vote for SNP at Holyrood election, says study”. I think it is clear that Curtice is saying no such thing. He is pointing to an issue – that if the SNP dominate constituency outcomes as much as the polls (and Curtice’s own forecast) suggest, the operation of the Regional List allocation of seats makes it difficult for the SNP to do well there. Might SNP members do better to use their Regional List vote otherwise than voting for the SNP? What is an SNP voter to do, is basically what, I think, Curtice is enjoining us to think about?

One noticeable feature from the above table is that the party that just loses out on round 7 are the Greens, who on 5.8% are just a fraction behind Labour. To get in front of Labour they need a further divided vote of just 0.3% to have 6.1%. Taking that back to the opening vote (what Curtice calls Stage 1) this would be a vote of 12.2%, or 0.6% more than they are forecast to get. Thus if that proportion of the SNP Regional List vote were to vote Green instead, then instead of Sarah Boyack (3rd on the Labour list) being elected for Labour, Andy Wightman (2nd on the Greens list) would be elected. Seems a decent swap to me.

Thus, Curtice is posing a very a real question. If the SNP are so dominant on the constituency vote, the electoral system we use makes it very hard for them to win more than a handful of Regional List seats. Taking the Lothian example, it means that 41% of the Regional List vote elects precisely no one, and given its relative allocation among the other parties, allows the Labour Party to pick up 3 seats with just under 18% of the vote, but with a small addition to their vote the (independence supporting) Greens could have had 2 seats and the Labour Party would have been reduced to two seats .




Sarah Smith on BBC News

I am a little surprised that there has been so little comment about Sarah Smith’s quite disgraceful report in today’s BBC national news at 6.00 and 10.00) on the Scottish election, some of which sounds like the sort of election broadcast Labour would like to make, but won’t because they don’t have the cojones. You can find this here just now (i-player) about 22 minutes in…/ep…/b076pmhd/bbc-news-at-ten-12042016

In particular, there are two points where her prejudices don’t so much show as come out the screen and punch you in the mouth.
The first is where, after talking to some pensioners in Coatbridge who seem unclear about what Labour stand for these days, Smith simply rolls over their view to say “that is why Labour have come up with eye-catching policies that are obviously to the left of the SNP”. She then goes on to laud their income tax policy as “bold” (I wonder what she thinks about the Greens’ proposals for a 60% top rate?), which are “designed to win back traditional supporters”.

This is followed by an extract where the same interviewees say that they would be happy to pay more tax without really making clear WHO would be paying more tax – i.e. would it be

  • people like the interviewees (all pensioners) who might well be paying more tax under Labour’s “bold” proposals which might not take more money from the bottom 10% (most of whom don’t earn enough to pay tax) but do take it from the second bottom 10%, OR
  • is just or mainly high earners.

The section concludes with the one of the three interviewees, who remains explicitly loyal to Labour, arguing that the SNP are making promises “they will not be able to keep”. This is used by Smith to justify her claim that there is a desire for Labour to be restored to challenge the SNP.
Secondly, having repeated her claim that the Labour Party have moved “significantly to the left to win back traditional supporters and interviewed some younger voters (also in Coatbridge, and presumably aged sixteen or seventeen) who say that they don’t know what Labour stands for, Smith concludes with the claim that Labour cannot win over new voters if these voters are “not listening to their promises”. At this point I half expected someone like Tom Harris or Jim Murphy to step out and say “told you so”.

The difficulty with that assertion is that there is no definitive proof. Labour can point to new policies and lack of movement in the polls to justify the “they’re not listening to us” claim. But without more, it does not disprove the alternative that the electorate have indeed listened to Labour, and don’t like what they hear.
Try to imagine if a BBC journalist were to put up a report with that sort of degree of bias, and I would suggest, pretty naked prejudice toward the SNP. I doubt if their feet would touch. Sarah, given who her father was, is always going to be under suspicion of favouring Labour. She is going to have to raise her game considerably from this virtual party political if she is to avoid that charge in the future.

This post – in an unamended form was originally posted on my Facebook page. One respondent advised that, while it might not achieve anything, I should make a formal complaint in the above terms to the BBC. I have and expect their excuses response in the next week or ten days. I will keep you posted.