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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/…/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.

Sorry for having to repeat myself

Today, the Rev Stuart Campbell, has taken it upon himself to rebut the seat predictors in a piece called “The Limits of Science” (http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-limits-of-science/). He has a lot of fun putting funny numbers into the ‘Scotland Votes’ website (http://www.scotlandvotes.com/), including giving every vote to the SNP and finding that somehow or other the Unionist parties still end up with five seats. Or that if you put the numbers in for how the votes stacked up in 2007, then Labour win rather than the SNP (though Labour win only narrowly), though the inaccuracy in the number of seats, Stuart does say, is “tiny” (a couple of seats changing hands that year would have made all the difference). All a jolly good jape though.

However, while Stuart does point to the limitation of sites, that votes are not uniformly distributed across the country, he does not mention their other limitation to the use he has put them to this morning. That is that they do not start from zero, but from the previous outcome and make their prediction based on the uniform swing across the country (cue the first limitation again). This is what gives us the strange outcomes that Stuart majors on this morning.

However, the Rev is not just having a laugh. He is repeating his no doubt sincerely held #bothvotesSNP view – viz. “Much campaigning by the various fringe parties for the Holyrood contest has been based on “seat predictors” like the one deployed to produce the figures in the piece, purporting to show that a tactical-voting strategy on the list can deliver a large gain in numbers of pro-independence MSPs compared to using both votes for the SNP.” (my emphasis)

Just for a bit of fun of my own, I put the most recent Survation poll into another site – Cutbot (http://vote.cutbot.net/forecast/787e2c32) – which actually gives seat by seat predictions, though again based on there being a uniform swing. This suggests that the SNP overall would lose two seats (going from 69 in 2011 to 67), but win twelve more constituency seats than in 2011 (from 53 to 65). But they would have fourteen fewer Regional List members, winning only two Regional List seats.

The reason for this lies, as I explained in a previous blog, in the way the DeHondt voting system (which is used for allocating seats on the Regional List) works. In Central, Mid Scotland & Fife, Glasgow and the North East, the SNP win every constituency seat, but get not one Regional List seat. In fact, they only win Regional List seats in Highlands and Islands (where they have won all but two of the constituency seats) and in South Scotland (where they ‘only’ win four of the nine seats).

The problem, as I touched on in the earlier blog (https://iamsoccerdoc.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/how-far-can-political-altruism-take-you-part-2/), with the tactical voting strategy that is being urged on the electorate by such as RISE, Solidarity and the Greens, is that it needs a quantum state before it really begins to deliver results.

Its rationale lies in the fact that, for instance, if we take the Glasgow Region, because the SNP would have won all nine constituency seats, because of how the DeHondt system works in relation to the Regional List, the SNP in the first round of allocating List seats need ten votes (nine constituencies + 1) for every vote for a Unionist party. Cutbot suggests that this is too much of a disadvantage, and that even if their Regional List vote were to be what Survation forecast, which is more than the Labour and Conservative vote combined, the SNP get no Regional List seats at all, while Labour get four, Green get two and the Conservatives one.

What is required is a quantum shift from SNP to a single other independence minded party. Two things can go wrong with this. First of all, the shift from the SNP spreads itself over more than one party – purl anything you like from Green, RISE and Solidarity. Secondly, the shift does not go far enough to ensure that a single beneficiary party (any of the above three) gets past the Unionist parties.

To this end, and again just for fun, I reworked the Regional List forecast in only one way – to divide the SNP regional vote added to the Green regional vote (42% + 10% – so 26% each) which changes the outcome in two ways

  1. The Green Party would become the Opposition – bit of a blow not just to Ruth, but to Kezia – with 25 seats. I think that would be an excellent development (just for the avoidance of doubt, I am not a member of any party).
  2. The SNP would fall short of an overall majority by a single seat – they would have 64 seats, every single one a constituency member. This might be seen as a “bad thing”, though I have some sympathy for Patrick Harvie’s view to Nicola Sturgeon in one or other of the ‘Leader Debates’ that “a period in minority would do you the world of good”. Given that the SNP would need only one vote to secure a majority for any proposal, compared to 2007 when they were eighteen seats short of a majority, it should certainly be easier than then, particularly bearing in mind that the Unionist parties collectively would lose net seventeen seats – UKIP would gain two, Lib Dems lose one, Conservatives gain one and Labour lose nineteen.

Those who think as Stuart Campbell does will, of course continue to argue that the above is making use of an opinion poll, itself with a margin of error (and they weren’t very good at the last General Election), and a forecasting site which assumes a uniform swing over the country as a whole. Both of these are weaknesses, and there is no gainsaying that. However, weather forecasts are seldom precise – think “scattered showers” – but we continue to listen to and make use of them. I would not defend any of the forecasting sites to the nth degree (I doubt if they would either) – as with the polls on which they depend, there is a margin of error in the degree to which the average swing is replicated across Scotland.

However, it is equally true to say that if the SNP perform at Constituency level as the polls have consistently suggested for many months now, they give themselves a terrible handicap to win Regional List seats. Remember if the SNP take all the Glasgow seats their vote will be divided by ten for the first round in allocating Regional List seats in Glasgow – every Unionist vote will be worth ten SNP votes. That too would be a fact if the SNP constituency vote turns out as forecast at the election.

It is also true to say that a “first vote SNP, but regional list vote someone else” will only work if enough are convinced by it (i.e. there is enough transfer from the SNP) and if it goes to a single beneficiary. I am not a member of any of the three possible beneficiary parties – Green, RISE or Solidarity – so I have no axe to grind there. I can also see the difficulties for more ‘conservative’ (definitely lower case c) elements of the SNP vote having real difficulties in voting for RISE or Solidarity – indeed even for the Greens. This points me toward the value of Jim Sillars’ Yes Scotland Trust. I promised a blog on this a few weeks ago and haven’t yet got round to it. But in essence a Yes Trust would have Scottish independence as its primary aim, but act as a sort of citizens’ debating chamber about how best to achieve this, as well as its possibilities. There would also be the Electoral Commission to watch out for, lest they consider a Yes Trust to be nothing more than the SNP in another guise with the aim of undermining the electoral system. However, this seems to me to be the only viable alternative of asking people to vote for an alternative and hoping that in the main they chose just one, so giving us Sillars’ “independence Parliament”.

As a concluding aside my other ‘forecast’ based on the possibility of the Regional List vote for SNP and Green being evenly split, would yield these two parties 89 seats, or nearly 69% of the membership at Holyrood. In contrast the Survation poll would give SNP + Green only 79 seats between them, or 61%.

Follow the evidence

TNS have published a new poll today (1st March) showing that the SNP vote is holding up and probably growing.

The raw data, with don’t knows being excluded, show

Party

Constituency

Regional List

SNP

60%

55%

Labour

21%

21%

Conservative

13%

13%

Liberal Democrat

4%

4%

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

3%

6%

Putting this into Scotland Votes (http://www.scotlandvotes.com/holyrood) forecasts the following outcome

Party

Seats

SNP

80

Labour

27

Conservative

15

Liberal Democrat

2

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

5

There are a few immediately noteworthy aspects to the findings of this poll.

  1. That the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes are the same for constituency and regional list (i.e. both votes). The SNP vote is however slightly down between constituency and regional list – from 60% to 55% – suggesting some, though limited, traction to the proposition to “lend” your second vote to another party other than the SNP.
  2. Of the 56 regional list seats, the SNP would be forecast, on the basis of this poll, to win 9, but with 55% of the vote, while Labour with 21% of the vote would win 27, which emphasises that the “lending” of votes by SNP voters has not, so far, proceeded very far.
  3. If we treat “others” as independence parties (as the Greens, RISE and Solidarity are) – ignoring UKIP – then of the 129 MSPs, 85 could be said to support independence – that is 66% of the Parliament. Perhaps not quite Jim Sillars’ “independence Parliament” but certainly heading in that direction.

What is not apparent from the above figures is the degree to which respondents have excluded themselves by saying that they are undecided, or not being willing to divulge their intention. The raw data (http://www2.tnsglobal.com/l/36112/2016-02-26/j3jl1b/36112/156035/TNS___Holyrood_Voting_Intention_Poll___1_March_2016.pdf) shows that 31% were undecided and 5% were unwilling to say how they would vote. In other words, we don’t know how 36% of this sample of 1034 are going to vote (they seem likely to vote as there was an option to say “probably won’t vote”, but this was selected by only 7% of the sample.

So, it seems legitimate to conjecture how this group – larger than the vote for any party other than the SNP – are likely to vote.

There are of course any number of possibilities. Each party would only be expected to claim that they will take more of this available vote than any others. However, if we look at the evidence, three things seem to be becoming apparent

  • The Labour vote seems pretty constant, with limited variance, suggesting that the hypothesis that Unionist but Labour voters, given some independence-friendly comments by Kezia Dugdale (to the effect that its ok to vote Yes but vote Labour in elections) has not encouraged their core, but strongly Unionist, vote to defect to the Conservatives. But despite constant arguments by such as Lord Foulkes and Duncan Hothersall that the electorate will “wake up” and the SNP will be ‘found out’, there seems to be little forward movement in the Labour vote. Indeed it might be argued that Labour’s aim in this election is to continue as the opposition to the SNP.
  • In turn the Conservative vote, certainly on the basis of this poll is slipping back to normal levels, and certainly shows limited sign of forward movement
  • The Liberal Democrats remain in the doldrums, despite the best efforts of Willie Rennie. Or perhaps because of them?
  • What forward movement there has been for the last 18 months is with the SNP. It might be argued then that the ‘undecideds’ and ‘wont says’ are more likely to vote SNP. Indeed, the tables above assume that 60% of the ‘undecideds’ and ‘wont says’ will vote SNP, that 21% will vote Labour and so on. The hypothesis informing what follows is that the SNP are able to win these ‘undecideds’ and ‘wont says’ at a faster rate.

We already pointed out that the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes were identical in constituency and regional list, suggesting their voters using both votes in the same way. The exception was the SNP whose constituency vote was 5% more than its regional list, suggesting a – albeit small – tendency to switch the second vote. Let’s suppose that the SNP, by winning more of the ‘undecideds’ and ‘wont says’ votes than other parties are able to correct that, giving the following distribution of votes.

Party

Constituency

Regional List

SNP

60%

60%

Labour

21%

19.5%

Conservative

13%

11.5%

Liberal Democrat

4%

3%

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

3%

6%

This requires the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes to shrink at least proportionately – the first two by 1.5% and the Lib Dems by 1%. The “others” vote remains the same.

Putting this into Scotland Votes (http://www.scotlandvotes.com/holyrood) forecasts the following outcome

Party

Seats

SNP

86

Labour

25

Conservative

12

Liberal Democrat

1

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

5

This raises the “independence MSP” number to 91, or 70% of the Parliament, so at least more of an “independence Parliament”.

The above forecast for the constituency vote suggests that Labour would be completely wiped out, but that the Conservatives would win two seats. However, if their constituency vote were to decline by 1.5% they too would be wiped out – a figure well within margin of error.

This would leave as the only seat the SNP would be unlikely to win is Shetland, but we might ask whether the transfer of votes there would be sufficiently similar for their candidate to hang on, given the shenanigans of their current MP.

In other words, we seem to be in the foothills of Jim Sillars’ “independence Parliament” – 65% – 70% would not be a bad outcome, though 75% would be better. On the basis of this poll the SNPx2 argument does appear to beginning to stand up. However, even in this poll, the great majority of SNP members would be constituency MSPs, with only 16 being Regional List, even if they did get 60% of the regional list vote.

If the following, very optimistic vote were to come about

Party

Constituency

Regional List

SNP

65%

65%

Labour

17%

15.5%

Conservative

11%

10.5%

Liberal Democrat

4%

3%

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

3%

6%

seats would be distributed as follows

Party

Seats

SNP

93

Labour

19

Conservative

11

Liberal Democrat

1

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

5

and I think it would have to be said that 98 of 129 seats being held by “independence MSPs”, or 76% would be an independence Parliament.

What would this require? The following table repeats that immediately above, but with the addition (in red) of the figures from the most recent TNS poll

Party

Constituency

Regional List

SNP

65% 60% +5%

65% 55% +10%

Labour

17% 21% -4%

15.5% 21% -5.5%

Conservative

11% 13% -2%

10.5% 13% -2.5%

Liberal Democrat

4% 4%

3% 4% -1%

Others (Green, Rise. Solidarity etc)

3% 3%

6% 6%

First of all the bigger changes are in the Regional List, particularly the 10% added to the SNP vote. However, half of that could be achieved by encouraging SNPx2 among those who already say they are going to vote SNP for their constituency vote. The addition to the SNP vote is therefore 5%. This might actually be achieved by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat being so demoralised that they fail to turn out to vote. In that case, without a single additional vote, the SNP could increase their proportion of the vote, because the vote for other parties has simply fallen. Otherwise it seems likely that they would have to persuade what we might call “soft” unionists to vote SNP, which might achievable, but would not be easy.

Therefore, what this data, and making a few, we would argue not unrealistic assumptions, suggests is that an “independence Parliament” is becoming a possibility. But ……………..

A former senior Civil Servant writes

Saturday’s Daily Record (20/02/2016) includes an item written by Professor Jim Gallagher about the long- running negotiations between the Treasury and the Scottish Government on the Fiscal Framework which will underlie the Scotland Bill when it comes into force.

Gallagher, we are often told, is an expert on devolution and all matters appertaining to government. His Wiki entry tells us that he “was Whitehall’s most senior civil servant concerned with devolution until he retired in June 2010, as Director-General for Devolution in the Cabinet Office, the No 10 Policy Unit and Ministry of Justice” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Gallagher_%28civil_servant%29). He is now a Research Fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford, as well as, since 2005, being a Visiting Professor at Glasgow University. The man clearly has considerable background in this matter.

It is therefore worrying that he can come put his name to an article which is little more than a deception followed by, followed by a gross over-simplification, followed by an error (lets be nice). Let’s take a few in order

  1. Perhaps the most serious, I think, comes right at the beginning. Starting from the unremarkable observation that the Scotland Bill will hand over all powers to Scotland over income tax in Scotland, Gallagher slips from that to the assertion that “now that we in Scotland get to keep all our own income tax, should we get a share of England’s income tax too?” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99)

    In putting this forward, it is as if Gallagher is asking us to believe that government, anywhere in the world, survives purely on income tax. This is not what the negotiations are about.

    The proposal to allow Scotland not only to set, but to keep all of its income tax (as well as getting half of the VAT raised in Scotland) which will require a suitable deduction to be made from the block grant. The Smith Commission’s emphasis on “no detriment” means that that income tax deduction made in the first year when Scotland has full control of income tax, must be indexed for future years The question has been how we do this?

    The Treasury has put forward some possibilities which have been found wanting by the negotiators from the Scottish Government, as their proposals are perceived to disadvantage Scotland. They are hardly alone this, since, as Nicola Sturgeon wrote in a recent letter to David Cameron, the method of indexation proposed by the Scottish Government is “considered to be the best way of satisfying the Smith Commission’s principles, not just by the Scottish Government, but also by committees of both the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament, the broad consensus of academic opinion, the STUC and four out of the five parties represented on the Smith Commission.” (https://www.holyrood.com/articles/inside-politics/nicola-sturgeons-letter-david-cameron-fiscal-framework-negotiations)

    But that issue notwithstanding, where will the money come from to pay the block grant?

    Gallagher is trying to tell us it will come from “English income tax”, which is just rubbish. It might come, for instance, from the corporation tax which is earned in Scotland from our normal economic activity – things like excise duty on whisky – or National Insurance (which despite the name is not hypothecated). Or perhaps from oil tax revenue, when the oil price reverts to more accustomed levels. The more assiduous of you might have noticed that OPEC has agreed to stop adding to the glut on the world market by freezing production (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-oil-idUSKCN0VO01K) – the price rose by 7% on a single day. This won’t get oil back to where it was a couple of years ago, but it has been suggested that it might lead to actual cuts in production over the next few months (http://oilprice.com/Energy/Oil-Prices/Why-OPEC-Production-Freeze-Could-Pave-The-Way-For-Actual-Cuts.html) and the return of a healthier flow of oil tax revenue to Westminster.

    All of these are sources of tax revenue, which flow directly from Scotland to Westminster now, and will continue to do so even after the implementation of the Scotland Bill and whatever form the fiscal framework might take.

    So when a supposed expert tries to tell us that the balance of the block grant will be paid from “English income tax”, when the fact is that it will come from normal taxation, some at least of which, if not all, will have come from Scotland, then there is clearly something up with his argument.

  2. Next Gallagher tells us “With tax powers you get risk – how many taxpayers there are and how much tax they pay. If you don’t want those risks, don’t ask for tax powers. And remember, risk cuts both ways” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#y0ivDVYh5coa7lgf.97) which is true enough Professor, but only if we ignore two slight problems.
    1. Risk is something we are all accustomed to. I might look out the window and think “it won’t rain” and not take an umbrella. If I am wrong, my risk is that I get wet. The whole essence of insurance is paying others to take on risk for you – for instance damage to your home, or in the event of a car accident. But just as it is my decision whether or not to take an umbrella, it will be my decision, AND the decision of the insuring company to agree that they will take on my car insurance risk. We are all free social actors. However, Scotland isn’t in that position, as a whole plethora of powers that will affect economic – and given its significance to the fiscal framework negotiations and Gallagher’s argument , population growth – will remain with Westminster. Put briefly we are being asked to take on risk, without having control of the full range of policy options which might affect our economic and/or population growth.

      To take a specific example, Universities Scotland and the Scottish Government are seeking powers to allow new graduates at Scottish Universities who are from outwith the EU, to remain in Scotland for at least a year after graduation (http://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/blog/post-study-work-visas-when-it-works-and-when-it-doesnt/), rather than having to leave at the end of their course unless they find work, as proposed by the Home Office. Or what about economic policy? How much influence is exerted here by the City of London and how much by Scotland? If I were to drive my car carelessly then my insurance premiums would go up. But that would be because of my behaviour. In Scotland’s case, whether our population goes up is not entirely in our control, so it seems a strange argument that we should bear the risks, but without control of all the factors that contribute to that risk.

    2. What happened to “pooling and sharing”? The “broad shoulders of the UK”? Essentially what Gallagher is saying is – “To be strictly fair to English taxpayers, we shouldn’t. After all, if we pay more income tax, they won’t get any benefit from it.” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99)

      No, wrong again Professor. While clearly it would be unfair for Scotland to be in a “heads we win, tails we don’t lose” situation, the notion of pooling and sharing has to mean that under certain circumstances – for instance if Scotland does lag behind the rest of the UK – then we do get some of tax raised outwith Scotland (though as above, we aren’t just talking about their income tax, but about the taxation raised within the UK to pay the block grant).

      Gallagher might find merit in Ruth Davidson’s suggestion of “a guarantee of no less than Barnett for five years, reducing risk further. (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99) but what happens after five years? No more pooling and sharing is it?

  3. Gallagher is also exercised that “As well as per capita indexation, [Nicole Sturgeon] made welfare demands – £600million to administer the benefits that Holyrood can run from 2017.That’s just to pay for the bureaucracy, on top of the £2.5billion cost of the benefits themselves, which the Treasury cover anyway. Administration usually costs three to four per cent of the benefit bill but the SNP want nearly 25 per cent.” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99). The problem here is that this is just not true.

    Let’s quote her directly from her letter to David Cameron. The relevant section is

    “based on information provided by DWP and our own analysis of published data from DWP’s Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit business cases, we estimate ongoing administration costs to be approximately £200m annually, and set up costs to be between £400m-£660m.” (https://www.holyrood.com/articles/inside-politics/nicola-sturgeons-letter-david-cameron-fiscal-framework-negotiations).

    In other words, the £600 million which Gallagher refers to is not “to administer the benefits”, but for set up costs, for the Scottish Government has, at the moment, no Welfare responsibilities, and thus has no administrative infrastructure for this purpose.

    Moreover, if we accept Gallagher’s claim that £600 million is 25% then the £200 million running cost must be 8% – still above the 3 or 4% which Gallagher claims would be normal for administration, but much closer (and for the record Sturgeon was also clear that Swinney would be prepared to compromise on these figures). In return the Treasury has offered £50 (fifty) million pounds to cover transition costs. How well does this meet the Smith recommendation of “an increase in Scotland’s block grant equivalent to existing UK expenditure in Scotland, including administrative savings and a share of the implementation and running costs “sufficient to support the functions being transferred”. (https://www.holyrood.com/articles/inside-politics/nicola-sturgeons-letter-david-cameron-fiscal-framework-negotiations)?

How shocking is it that someone of the experience of Jim Gallagher (senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office), and with his academic expertise (Senior Research at Nuffield College) should put his name to an article which is misleading in relation to where the revenue for the block grant comes from, in relation to the nature of risk, and in relation to welfare costs quite simply wrong about what Sturgeon had sought from the Prime Minster?

Yet should we be surprised? We have known for some time the clear Unionist sympathies of Sir Nicholas McPherson, the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, something which provided George Kerevan last week with the ammunition for a thorough demolition of his “neutrality” (http://www.thenational.scot/comment/george-kerevan-nick-macphersons-quiet-but-calculated-sabotage-of-the-democratic-process.13722), if that fantasy still existed. As Kerevan notes “It is unheard of for a senior civil service mandarin to enter the political arena so brazenly.”

However, perhaps there was a sign at a very early stage in Gallagher’s article of what was likely to follow. This was when he referred to (in line 3), “the argument between the SNP and the UK Government” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99) Why, Professor, the SNP and the UK government? Or am I being a trifle touchy here? If you think so then allow me to reword this, and then we will see what you think – “the argument between the Scottish Government and the Conservative Party”. That would seek no less influence on the reader, but be equally accurate, as John Swinney might be a member of the SNP, but is acting in his capacity as Finance Minister of the Scottish Government. In the same way, Gregg Hands might be a Conservative Party member, but is acting in his role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Why Gallagher expresses himself this way becomes obvious toward the end of his article, when he concludes

“It’s becoming pretty clear that the SNP won’t promise another referendum after the next Holyrood election. They think they’d lose. But without it they’ll have nothing to talk about. So maybe their aim is to reject the fiscal framework, whatever is offered and so derail the new powers in the Scotland Bill.” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99)

First of all, it’s not exactly clear at all – never mind “pretty clear” – that another referendum during the next Holyrood Parliament would be lost. In fact, it might be argued that given the relative weakness of Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership, thus raising the possibility of a UK vote to leave while Scotland votes to remain, another referendum is seen as quite possible by many commentators.

Secondly, and more importantly, what point is there in securing new powers if we don’t have the necessary resources to exercise them properly?

So the reason for the reference to the SNP, rather than the Scottish Government in his opening is not accidental. Indeed, it is part of the whole piece of the argument to put responsibility on one side in a negotiation, and to explain this by reference to the claimed bad faith of that political party, seeking to further its own political ends. Of course, “political party following self-seeking political strategy” is hardly news. But secondly, Gallagher himself says that a deal which was advantageous to Scotland would be “a hard sell to MPs in northern England, who get much less spending than we do” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devolution-expert-jim-gallagher-asks-7399820#sfc1F8dTghqTi1l4.99) In other words there are political ends being pursued by the UK government (not the Conservative government), but that is not remarkable, only that the SNP (never the Scottish Government) is doing this.

Then again, given Gallagher’s connections to Better Together during the referendum campaign (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-25657929), maybe not such a surprise really?

 

 

 

 

    

 

European football’s brave new world

There is an advert being run by Barclay’s Bank just now, which shows a young guy phoning one of their customers. He tells the customer that he is in the process of upgrading their account and that he just needs their security details. In the background someone else is saying “he’s lying”. “He’s lying”, going on to remind customers that Barclays will never phone and ask for security details. At the end of the ad the customer is told “thanks very much and have a nice day”, which is followed by the comment “well, that’s true at least”.

Much the same can be said of today’s initiative by Europe’s “big clubs” to give them a privileged position, either through “reform” of the Champions League, or the replacement of the Champions League with a separate ‘European Super League’ drawn from England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. This is being proposed by Bayern Munich and Juventus (http://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/bayern-munich-and-juventus-call-for-20team-european-super-league-to-replace-the-champions-league-a3155766.html) and would involve 20 teams, including, according to the Evening Standard, “Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs”.

Karl-Heinz Rumenigge – Chief Executive at Bayern Munich – presents this as an inevitable development – “I see that in the top five leagues in Europe, the big teams are always getting stronger and stronger.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/35535729). Well of course they are – they are almost permanently in European competition where the big bucks are.

But the problem for the big clubs is that occasionally some guttersnipe gets above itself and outperforms the biggest teams. The best example this season, of course are Leicester, whose team cost less than 10% of what it cost Manchester City to assemble their side last Saturday, but who, by general agreement, took the much more expensive team apart.

Leicester though, aren’t about the occasional result. It seems almost inevitable that even if they don’t win the Premiership, next season they will qualify for the Champions League, or at least be given the opportunity to qualify through the final qualifying round.

Remember the names of the teams from England that the Evening Standard suggested would be included in the Super League – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs. Of course as only four teams from England can qualify for the Champions League, all five of these won’t be there every year. In the past the regular “loser” would have been Manchester City, though with the billions spent on the team in recent years that has ceased to be the case. Arsenal, on the other hand, have never failed to qualify, and it’s only been since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that Manchester United’s permanent involvement has become uncertain. With the vast sums of money spent on the Chelsea team since Abramovich became the club owner, the team that has tended to be squeezed out in recent years has been Liverpool.

However, this year, Leicester have created a more difficult problem, in that, given their current position, it would seem likely that only three other places will be available. Let’s suppose Manchester City, Arsenal and perhaps Manchester United if Tottenham Hotspur don’t gate crash the procession. But no Chelsea, no Liverpool and perhaps even no Manchester United, who will all lose out on the considerable rewards of playing in the Champions League.

How considerable? The following table makes this clear (source http://www.totalsportek.com/money/uefa-champions-league-prize-money/)

Thus from playing in the Champions League, an English team winning the competition could make 100 million euros. There are some points to note from this:

  1. That an English club could make as much from “market pool share” as from winning the Champions League. What is the market pool? This is defined by UEFA as “The market pool amount will be distributed according to the proportional value of each television market represented by the clubs playing in the UEFA Champions League (group stage onwards), and will be split among those teams competing from a given association”. In other words, a team from Scotland will get much less than an English club might hope to get from the market pool because the English TV audience is much larger than the size of the Scottish TV audience. Or a team from the Netherlands will get much less than a team from Germany, or Spain, or even Italy or France because these are much larger countries with much larger TV audiences. In other words, while UEFA are cutting back on the market pool from 45% to 40% of revenue over the next four years, it is not an accident that the Super League would involve teams from England, Germany, France, Spain and Italy because teams from these countries have a built in, permanent advantage when revenues are distributed from the Champions League.
  2. What does it tell you when a club can make as much from the market pool as it can from playing success? It might well be the case that the argument that the bigger countries contribute more than an equal share of revenue from their television operators, but is the Champions League a sporting competition or a financial one? Sadly, I think we know the answer to this.
  3. How do the rewards from the Champions League correspond to domestic rewards? In many countries of course – particularly the smaller ones – they dwarf what can be earned from domestic success. The above table tells us that if Celtic can manage to get through the qualifying rounds this time, they will make 12 million euros, even if they don’t win a point – that, at current exchange rates, is £9.3 million. For winning the Scottish Premiership, it was reported by STV at the time of the creation of the SPFL, the Champions would win approximately £2.5 million, so if they did nothing more than turn up for eight Champions League group games, Celtic could make getting on for four times more than they can in Scotland. When they last qualified for the group stages in 2013/14, while they lost five times (in a group that included Barcelona, Milan and Ajax) they did win once, which alone would have earned them another 1.5 million euros (£1.16 million). On top of that they would also secure a share of the market pool (though being a smaller country, a smaller share).

    In short, in smaller countries the rewards from Europe dwarf those from the domestic game. Celtic win £2.5 million (or thereby) from winning the SPFL, but from this season could make £10.5 million + their share of the market pool, even if they do as dismally as they did in 2013/14.

    Moreover – and perhaps arguably even more important – that type of money is just not available to other Scottish clubs who don’t play in Europe, giving Celtic a considerable advantage over other Scottish clubs, in much the same way as clubs from bigger countries have an advantage over Celtic because of their preferential access to the market pool.

    In many respects football has become a self-reinforcing process, in that if Celtic win the Scottish Premier League and qualify for Europe, the much greater rewards from Europe make it more likely they will win the Premier League again which qualifies them for Europe which make the much greater awards in Europe available to them, which makes it more likely they will win the Premier League again which qualifies them for ………….

  4. But what about in the bigger countries. The following table suggests what would be won by each club at the end of the current season should Leicester win the Premiership

As we can see the reward for winning the Premiership is broadly similar to that from wining the Champions League. However, this avoids a very difficult point. The above forecast – for such it is by Sportek (http://www.totalsportek.com/football/premier-league-prize-money-table-2015/) – suggests not just that Leicester will win the Premiership but that Tottenham will be second, meaning that of the clubs suggested by the Evening Standard for the Super League only two will actually compete – Manchester City and Arsenal. Or put another way, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea will not, and because they wont compete in the Champions League they will not have access to up to £100 million in revenue from European competition.

OK, they can’t all win it, and it’s probably unlikely that any of them would win it. But even if they only got to the last eight, they could still make 70 or 80 million euros – between £54 and £62 million – which instead becomes available to Tottenham and Leicester. It is obvious that a revenue hit of that sort of magnitude has to be harmful, particularly as with Manchester United it will have happened (according to the above forecast) for two seasons on the bounce. It simply cannot be allowed to happen, or at least not too often.

So, in conclusion, let’s go back to Herr Rumenigge who is quoted later on as saying

“A super league outside of the Champions League is being born. It will either be led by Uefa or by a separate entity, because there is a limit to how much money can be made.”

Just as in the Barclays advert, eventually we get some truth – “there is a limit to how much money that can be made”. This is an obvious truism, but what is missing is the determination of the big clubs to secure as much money for themselves, a point emphasised by Andrea Agnelli (President of Juventus) who said “You need to protect shareholders of the club, who are the real stakeholders” – not fans, but shareholders, which is at the heart of another Agnelli observation that “top football clubs should be able to make as much money as their counterparts in American sports” (http://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/bayern-munich-and-juventus-call-for-20team-european-super-league-to-replace-the-champions-league-a3155766.html) Where will this money come from? Well eventually one way or another it will come from fans, even if in the form of TV revenue, which can be disguised as much as we like, but with pay TV comes from fans. But fans aren’t stakeholders in the world of the 20 European Super League – shareholders are stakeholders. Fans are customers to be milked as thoroughly and regularly as possible. But, fair play to Rumenigge and Agnelli – at least we did get the truth eventually.

But before you go, one last point in passing. How odd is it that the “champions” (if Leicester do it) are on live TV less often than Liverpool, Chelsea and even Newcastle?

A wee word about SNPx2

A TNS poll out this morning offers the following predictions

Constituency vote                    Regional List    

    

The net result, if one uses Scotland Votes (http://www.scotlandvotes.com/holyrood) would be

SNP 73 seats

Labour 26 seats

Conservatives 20 seats

Liberal Democrats 6 seats

Greens 4 seats

In the constituency vote the SNP win 69 seats, Labour are wiped out, the Tories win 3 seats and the Lib Dems hang on in Shetland.

All of this assumes a uniform swing and no effective local issues – always dangerous assumptions. But note this – that with 52% of the regional list vote, the SNP win 4 regional seats – not even one in every region. While Labour, totally blitzed in the constituencies, win no fewer than 26 regional seats but with 19% of the regional vote which is closer to one third than half the SNP regional vote. With 17% – again nearly a third of the SNP regional vote – the Tories win 17 regional seats (having three constituencies), more than four times the regional seats won by the SNP.

Two points from this

  1. While the use of Proportional Representation and DeHondt was to give Scotland a more democratic Parliament, let’s be clear too that the difficulty that is normally encountered with such systems for a single party to secure a majority was not out of mind either. If we think back to the AV referendum in 2011, the Labour Party was split on that issue. While Ed Miliband was in favour, many of his cabinet – in particular the Blairites, including John Healey and Caroline Flint, as well former ministers such as David Blunkett, Lord Prescott and Margaret Beckett – actively campaigned against AV. There is a strong strand of support for First Past the Post in the Labour Party. An important reason for the voting system in Scotland was that Labour were in partnership with the Liberal Democrats when plans for the Scottish Parliament were being drawn up by the Convention, and some form of PR would be a key demand of theirs to go along with the plan. However, the SNP chose to boycott the Convention. Would things have been different had they participated?
  2. The problems with advising SNP constituency voters on how to use their second vote are well known – not every SNP voter is happily going to vote for the main alternatives (RISE, Solidarity or Green) and if the vote is split between them, it allows the Unionist parties to profit. But where we are, with SNPx2, will allow the Unionist parties to profit. The opposition given the SNP’s 73 seats will number 56, but the Unionist opposition (Labour + Conservative + Liberal Democrat) will be 93% of that. Might we have had a more desirable outcome had there been Yes candidates run at Regional level, distinct from the SNP? Could this have given us the “independence Parliament” that Jim Sillars have called for, where the debate is not about “if independence”, but about “how independence” and “the reality of independence” – i.e. not about whether we should be independent, but debating how best to achieve this and what kind of Scotland we want to use our independence to create and how we will do this? Clearly we have missed the opportunity for this for next May. Instead we have locked ourselves into the same old carry on at Holyrood. Does anyone think that today’s FMQs is a good advert for an independent Scotland (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-35459606 and start at 12.02)? We have to look forward to five more years of the Kezia and Ruth Show.

It might also be worthwhile bearing in mind what the Presiding Officer has had to say at the end of FMQs –

Some of the behaviour in during first minister’s questions has been quite unacceptable. Members watch the proceedings again and basically take a long hard look at themselves.”

Today was hardly an edifying spectacle, and not a good advert for an independent Parliament (mind you, neither is Westminster). Surely we cannot make the same mistake again in five years? We simply have to find a way to resolve the problems of how the Regional List works. But for now, on the basis of this poll, it looks very much like ‘business as usual’.

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.

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.