NEW PB / Polling Matters podcast: What now for Scotland?

October 10th, 2018

On this week’s PB / Polling Matters podcast, Keiran Pedley is joined by pollster Mark Diffley to deep dive on the latest round of polls in Scotland.

Topics discussed include:

1) How support for Scottish independence has changed over time and the impact that Brexit could have

2) When the next Scottish Independence vote will happen

3) What’s going on in voting intention polls for Holyrood and Westminster and what this means for the main players north of the border (SNP, Tories, Labour)

You can listen to the episode by clicking the link below:

Follow this week’s guests


Victorious sponge. When competing freedoms clashed in a bakery

October 10th, 2018

George Bernard Shaw is one of those writers, like Spenser, Milton and Dr Johnson, who is now much less read than known.  Nowadays all that most people know of him is My Fair Lady (ironically, he refused permission in his lifetime to allow Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical) and the odd quotation.  One of those quotations came to mind this morning: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

Most people, if someone asked them to make something with a message that they disapproved of on moral grounds, would inwardly sigh and do it if it was within the bounds of normal public debate.  Most people, if they asked for something to be made with a message and met with a refusal on the ground that they were opposed to that message, would inwardly sigh and simply go elsewhere.

This morning we had the Supreme Court decision in Lee v Asher’s Baking Company, a case that came about only because of one unreasonable company and one unreasonable man.  Mr Lee wanted a cake iced with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the message “Support Gay Marriage”.  The Baptist owners of the bakery after anxious consideration decided that they could not produce such an immoral consumable good.  Battle lines were drawn and a legal showdown has ensued.

There is to be no doubting the sincerity on either side.  Mr Lee was a stalwart of an organisation called QueerSpace.  Asher’s is named after a Biblical reference (“Bread from Asher shall be rich, and he shall provide royal dainties” – Genesis 49:20).  We see a very 21st century Northern Irish collision of values.

Neither side was prepared to back down, so in what must be a legal first on this side of the Atlantic, the Supreme Court has been asked to set legal boundaries for freedom of conscience in relation to marzipan, fondant and cochineal.  Like Asher’s cakes, the Supreme Court have risen to the challenge, opining on the use of ganache with panache.

The jokes write themselves but there is an important point (which is why the Supreme Court took the case – it only takes cases of national significance).  Both religious freedom and sexuality are protected characteristics.  What happens when they collide?

In the end, the Supreme Court sidestepped the problem.  It found (questionably, given the findings of the court of first instance, which had found that the bakery had assumed that Mr Lee was gay) that the bakery had not treated him differently because he was gay.  So the question was whether this was discrimination by association.

It firmly concluded that it was not.  Its rationale is most clearly expressed in the postscript, where the Supreme Court discussed its US namesake’s finding in a case where a bakery had refused to supply a wedding cake for a gay couple:

“The important message from the Masterpiece Bakery case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics. One can debate which side of the line particular factual scenarios fall. But in our case there can be no doubt. The bakery would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics. So there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.”

So the matter is now acte éclair.  Freedom of speech does not entitle one to demand a platform, even if that platform is made of cream and sugar rather than printing ink.  And that, for the devout Baptists of Northern Ireland, must be the icing on the cake.

Alastair Meeks


First post-Kavanaugh polling suggest the Democrats are moving up with less than 4 weeks to go

October 10th, 2018

The female-male gap widens

With so many different elections in 50 different states taking place on November 6th it can be hard to discern specific trends. One polling series is the Generic Congressional Vote and the latest numbers we have are in the CNN report overnight and posted above.

The big number is that the survey shows the Democrats with a 13% margin over the Republicans which, even taking into account local variations should be enough for the them to win back control of the House of Representatives.

The Senate, though, could be a different matter and individual key state polling suggests that Trump’s might hold on.

In the betting punters on Betfair make it a 63% chance that the Democrats will win the House which is now some way below the US-based prediction markets. Betfair has it as a 69% chance that the GOP will retain control of the Senate.

The thing to remember is that all seats in the House are up on November 6th but only 35 of the 100 Senate seats. Those at stake this year have been held since 2012 when Obama won his second term and are mostly held by the Democrats.

A big issue is that turnout rates are generally much lower at the midterms than in Presidential races which puts a premium on turnout.

There’s little doubt that last week’s Senate hearing and vote approving the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination has fired up voters. The question is whether the Blues (Dems) or the Reds (GOP) will benefit more.

In my betting I was laying (betting against) the Republicans holding onto the Senate but cashed that in taking a profit last week. Some more numbers like the CNN data and I might go back in but that is just one poll.

Mike Smithson


Footing the bill. The challenges for freespending politicians

October 9th, 2018

I like big buts and I cannot lie.  If I am presented with a rosy apple, I look for the worm.  If I’m covered with dark clouds, I look for the silver lining.  I’m that guy who likes to say “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.  I’m unapologetic: it usually is more complicated than that.

Sometimes, however, important simple truths are hiding in plain sight.  Hercule Poirot noted that on one occasion he could not persuade anyone that something was a clue because it was four feet long.  Many basic political truths come into the same category.

One such truth is currently giving British politics an air of unreality. Both main parties have decided that public restraint is so 2015 and they are currently competing to bribe the public with goodies of all kinds. Theresa May has declared an end to austerity. Jeremy Corbyn is building on his 2017 election campaign, for which one of his own advisers reckoned the spending commitments could be costed at a trillion pounds.

So you could be forgiven for not realising that Britain’s national debt has tripled in absolute terms (to more than £1.7 trillion) since 2005 and more than doubled as a share of GDP (to over 85%). The best that one could say is that it is now levelling out as a share of GDP. Britain continues to run a deficit of 2% or so. Far from being frugal, Britain has continued to live beyond its means and shows no signs of starting to.

If spending really is going to be unleashed in some areas, it can only come from reduced spending elsewhere, increased revenues from taxation, increased borrowing or expropriation.

The economy has grown anaemically for most of the last decade and shows no signs of producing the growth that would increase tax revenues to fund new spending promises (and reduce social security spending). Indeed, pessimists point out that on the normal business cycle a recession is well overdue. Recessions put a much greater strain on public finances and one would make an end to austerity even more challenging.

Getting the money by reducing spending elsewhere looks very difficult to achieve now. Local authorities have to date borne the brunt of the cuts and many are under severe financial pressure. One, Northamptonshire, has already gone bust. Others may follow. Central government looks an equally unpromising source in the main. For starters, if austerity has ended, that implies any cuts are going to be painless (and you would have thought they would have been made already if they were). The one department where cuts would not be noticed immediately by the general public, defence, is off limits for the Conservatives.

So Labour’s solutions, tax rises and increased borrowing, look a bit more promising than the Conservatives’. In practice the Conservatives would need to adopt those solutions too.

These are not get out of jail free cards.  If the markets lose confidence that borrowings will be paid back, the costs of borrowing rise and can rise very sharply very quickly indeed.  The Italian government fell in 2011 when lenders turned their backs on it, despairing at its inability to get a grip on public spending.  The latest Italian government has suddenly seen its borrowing costs rise sharply when it thumbed its nose at EU spending.  An obviously irresponsible British government would not be able to push its luck for all that long.

Tax rises are therefore going to form a big part of any spending spree.  So whose pips are going to squeak?  Like Doctor Samuel Gall, as recounted by Tom Lehrer, Chancellors of the Exchequer find their fame and fortune specialising in diseases of the rich.

This leads on to another obvious truth.  Any rise in taxes is going to be very unevenly regionally distributed.  London is far richer than any other part of the country, however you slice it.  The Gross Value Added per head generated by London is twice that of the rest of the country.  If you look at it on a GDP per head basis, it’s as though Switzerland were tacked onto Portugal.  If property taxes are to be considered, the properties in ten London boroughs are worth more than all the properties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

London already subsidises the rest of the country to an extraordinary degree.  Any increase in taxation will make that imbalance still greater.  That would not matter if London shared political values with the rest of the country.  Increasingly, however, the capital’s politics are following their own path.  In the last London-wide opinion poll, the Conservatives tallied just 25% of the vote, roughly 14% behind their nationwide polling level.  As a reference point, in 1992, the Conservatives secured 45% of the London vote, 2% ahead of their nationwide polling level.

Any Conservative attempt at raising taxes to pay for spending is likely to be perceived in London, correctly, as an attempt to fleece the capital to prop up the government’s client base.  This is unlikely to be accepted passively for any length of time.  The Conservatives have spent so long using London as target practice for their provincialist rhetoric that they have forgotten that wealth creators always have options available that are not available to the recipients of largesse.  So far Londoners have not used them, though their growing impatience with the Conservatives is shown in the polling.  That forbearance will not last indefinitely if pushed.

Labour start with much more political capital in the capital.  Their plans, however, are far more ambitious than the Conservatives’ and so the impact on voters’ pockets will be that much greater.  It has to be highly questionable whether voters will accept the reality of much heavier taxation if it happens.

So both party leaders’ mouths are writing cheques that the body politic can’t cash.  Is there another way?  Pure expropriation is prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights (though it would be amusing to watch Conservatives make that argument against any attempt by Labour to nationalise without compensation).  That would probably be a step too far for either main party.

However, there are assets comprising the odd trillion that are available to a particularly shameless or desperate government.  The government could nationalise private pensions.  Preposterous?  The idea has already been tried in Hungary and Poland.  Britain’s private pension provision currently stands at roughly 120% of GDP.  

The government would need to pay the pensions in the future, but that would be another government’s problem and the government has the ability to manufacture reserves by the use of racier actuarial assumptions than the private sector could justify.  It would release a lot of immediate funds for all those exciting projects that the public crave without immediate losers.  With some very well-publicised pensions failures recently, the cash grab could be sold as an improvement in pension scheme member security.

The idea has already been floated in Labour circles.  Ann Pettifor, who sits on Labour’s Economic Advisory Committee, has called for pensions to be nationalised.  It might be a very bad idea from the viewpoint of the economy in the long run but it could provide an answer in the short term to Labour’s trillion pound question.  Definitely something to watch.

Alastair Meeks


Three new Scotland polls find Corbyn’s LAB struggling to recover

October 9th, 2018

The first public surveys since Corbyn’s August Scottish initiative

It might be recalled that in August Corbyn had an extended visit to Scotland with the aim of revitalising the party where it used to be so dominant. Over the past few days we have seen the first published polling since that move

Ahead of the SNP conference which is currently going on there have been three new Scotland-only polls – the first since July. All show LAB still in third place north of the border the part of the UK where they were totally dominant. This all changed, of course, the post September 2014 SNP surge following the IndyRef.

In the past two general election the 59 Scottish seats have seen far more turbulence than just about anywhere else in the UK. At GE2015 Scottish LAB went from the 41 seats to just a single MP. There was something of a recovery at GE2017 when the Scottish total move to 7.

    If Labour is to get anywhere near winning most seats at the next general election it has to regain ground in Scotland and given it had so many seats were not so long ago the potential must be there

These are the latest three polls:

Survation Oct 2nd for Sunday Post
CON 26%
LAB 24%
SNP 41%
LD 7%

Panelbase Oct 4th for S Times
CON 27%
LAB 26%
SNP 38%
LD 6%

Survation Oct 5th for SNP
CON 28%
LAB 26%
SNP 37%
LD 6%

At GE2017 the shares were SNP 36.9%, CON 28.6, LAB 27.1, LD 6.8%.

Mike Smithson


Punters now make it a 57% chance that TMay will be out next year

October 9th, 2018

There’s been more movement on the TMay exit year market on Betfair as seen in the Betdata.io chart.

The 57% that next year is now rated is a record high and reflects the view that she’ll hang on until the UK is out of the EU at the end of March and then she’ll stand aside.

But will she? That she is still in Number 10 today is a remarkable achievement given that last year she took the advice from DDavis and made the fatal decision to call the last election.

Almost every day at the moment we hear of growing pressure on her over Brexit some accompanied by threats to her leadership. She’s still there because there’s no clear view amongst CON MPs about her successor.

I’m not convinced that she intends to go quietly next year. She has said in the past that she wants to lead the party at the next election which means that she’d only go earlier if she was ousted.

Detractors within the party are always making threats which they never follow up – thus weakening their credibility even further. They’ve cried wolf too often to be taken seriously.

Mike Smithson


If there is a second referendum then the hardline Brexiters should take the blame

October 8th, 2018

The article from Robert Shrimsley of the FT linked to here is just about the most clear-headed one I’ve seen recently on where Brexit stands and where things might be heading.

He argues strongly that a second vote won’t settle the matter and suggests that the best route for Remainers is to accept that they lost and seek to “to thwart the hardliners and deliver the most manageable deal in line with the 2016 vote.” That mean Customs union, single market, which is broadly Theresa May’s Chequers plan.

As a Remainer myself this is broadly where I am.

Mike Smithson


New Midterms survey finds the Democrats making progress in 69 key marginals

October 8th, 2018

In what we in the UK would describe as a poll of marginals the Washington Post is reporting a survey in 69 key Congressional districts which overall voted 56% Republican to 41% Democratic last time,

This latest survey by the Schar School at George Mason University has the Democrats on 50% to the Republicans on 46%. In UK terms that represents quite some swing.

The paper notes that they went for this approach because “we know less about the opinions of this decisive slice of the electorate, which is demographically and politically distinct from the country as a whole.”

This sounds similar to the ComRes polling of groups of marginals at GE2015 which proved to be just about the most predictive polling of the campaign.

In the betting the Democrats are a 63% chance to take the House with the Republicans on 37%. This has remained fairly stable although the Senate betting has seen a GOP majority harden up to a 69% chance.

Voting is four weeks tomorrow.

Mike Smithson