Predicting Scottish Councils elections: an impossible task?

By Jeremy Blackwell

A few words about me

Jeremy BlackwellJeremy Blackwell, almost 26 now, known on Twitter as @WeAreThe59. My friends usually call me Jez or JB but Jeremy is OK—actually I like it better. Born in France and studied statistics and political science there.

Living in Craiglockhart since late 2015 with my French boyfriend Alban and our beloved dog Bosco. Also member of the SNP, so no ambiguity about where I stand. Started seriously working on polls and projections during the 2015 General Election campaign; loved it and carried on during the 2016 Scottish Parliament campaign. And now giving a try at the 2017 Scottish Council election.

Hits and misses

Psephology is not an exact science. Sometimes polls are wrong. Sometimes your method is wrong. It’s closer to ‘trial and error’ than to rocket science, whatever the pundits might tell you about it.

Like everyone I totally missed General Election (GE) 2015 because UK-wide polls were so off the actual result. But I got Scotland right because Scottish polls were really accurate. Got the 56-1-1-1 part right; only got the exact seats wrong. I thought the Labour seat would be Glasgow North East; not Edinburgh South. I also thought that the Tory seat would be Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, not Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. Still, I got the Lib Dem seat right. That was the easiest one.

I did better on Scottish Parliament (SP) 2016. Everybody got it wrong because the polls were wildly overestimating the SNP vote. But I was the ‘least wrong’ of all, crediting the SNP with only 66 seats while others went up to 70 or even more.

Now to the heart of the matter

The main question is: can Scottish Council elections be predicted with the same level of accuracy as Westminster or Holyrood elections? And the answer is a resounding no. Standard or sophisticated statistical methods that work for Parliamentary elections mostly fail for Council elections because there are many more variables that interact in sometimes unpredictable ways.

The first factor is that there are many more independent candidates in Council elections than in Parliamentary elections, and they get a much bigger share of the vote:

  • 0.1% in the 2015 General Election in Scotland
  • 0.3% in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election
  • but 11.8% in the 2012 Scottish Council election

The second factor is that Council elections definitely follow a wholly different pattern from other elections, like Westminster (WM) and Holyrood (HR) elections did before 2015 when they finally aligned. Council elections are still very far from aligning on the WM/HR voting patterns. One reason is that we have 59 MPs, 73 constituency MSPs but 1,219 Councillors after the last Boundary Review. So personal factors have a heavier influence on the Council vote, while Parliamentary votes are closer to a divide purely on party lines that can be statistically projected.

The third factor (and probably the most important) is the voting system: STV (Single Transferable Vote). There are many technical explanations of STV to be found (just Google it and make your pick). All of them are technically right but all are wrong on one major point. STV is not and has never been PR (Proportional Representation). Quite the opposite, in fact. STV is the perfect vehicle for tactical voting, and is even worse in many cases than FPTP (First Past The Post). Partly because FPTP is basic and simple while many people find STV extremely complicated and don’t fully grasp its limits and implications, and also how it can be used to maximise tactical voting.

Continue reading Predicting Scottish Councils elections: an impossible task?


James Kelly, writing at Scot Goes Pop, 18 Apr:

It’s probable that the SNP will shed at least a few seats [in the upcoming UK general election]. They hit a ‘sweet spot’ in 2015 when the unionist vote was split in a particularly favourable way, but that’s no longer the case. Limited losses to the Tories (and perhaps to the Lib Dems) are to be expected, so it’s important that we don’t allow the narrative of what the SNP “need to do” to run away with itself. Even 38 seats out of 59 would be an emphatic victory… but it’ll hopefully be a lot better than that.

Roundup, Sunday 9 April 2017

Noteworthy news, analysis, and commentary from the past week or so…

What Scotland Wants

by Jason Michael McCann

With no less than 24 of its 31 MSPs sitting on the dubiously democratic list seats of the Scottish parliament, the Conservative and Unionist Party can hardly be thought to speak for the will of the Scots electorate. Yet this has never deterred its leader Ruth Davidson or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale—whose party is in an even worse position—from speaking on behalf of the Scottish people.

On 3 March, a touch over three weeks before the Section 30 vote at Holyrood, Davidson opened full salvo on the idea of another independence referendum—spelling out the unionist narrative of a Scotland that does not want to return to the polls. Her article in the Express, edged with clickbait links invariably containing titillating references to the female anatomy, insists a “second independence referendum is not inevitable, people don’t want one, businesses don’t one and even many SNP supporters don’t want one.”

Even with this apparent antipathy to another referendum, however, the Scottish National Party’s MSPs—according to Dugdale’s email to Labour members on the day of the vote—“forced through a vote” on having one regardless. Neither she nor Davidson appear to want to accept what the people of Scotland actually voted for in the last Scottish parliament elections. The SNP ran on a manifesto which unambiguously stated:

…the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people—or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.

On the back of this promise the SNP secured 59 constituency seats—almost 81 per cent of those available, all by gaining a 46.5 per cent share of the constituency vote—the highest percentage won by any party in the history of devolution. So when Davidson and Dugdale talk about mandates and what Scottish people do and do not want, they do this—once all the distortions which have been imposed on our parliamentary democracy are discounted—in the face of the greatest political mandate modern Scotland has ever known. Scottish voters were perfectly clear about what they want. They want another independence referendum.

While decrying Scotland—a nation represented by 59 MPs in a 650 seat Westminster parliament in London—as a “one party state,” the Scottish unionist parties continue to refuse to concede to the reality of their marginal place in the opinion of our own country. Only when the votes cast in the 2016 election for all three unionist parties are combined do the numbers begin to resemble the figure reached by the pro-independence parties—the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

When the Section 30 vote was held, every seat in the Edinburgh parliament was filled and every member of the chamber cast their vote. The First Minister’s motion was passed by 69 votes to 59. There was no hint of a possibility that any party forced through this decision. The implication that parliament had been in some way subverted was a figment of Dugdale’s imagination. Unionism’s resounding defeat on 28 March was democracy.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the defeat of the Union, democracy is not good enough for the Scottish Tory. No sooner had the Scottish parliament voted in favour of seeking a Section 30 than Annie Wells, a list MSP for Glasgow who finished third in 2016 but was still elected with less than 9 per cent of the vote, gave an interview to the press; saying she did not accept the sovereignty of “this parliament.” It stands to reason that a public representative no one voted for would have such contempt for our parliamentary democracy. Had we been granted the same democracy as Westminster, Ms Wells would be without the £48,000 salary we pay her and back stacking shelves in Marks & Spencer.

What Scotland’s unionist politicians sorely need is a lesson in the meaning of parliament. In no democratic nation is the populace governed by continual assessment. Rather, the electorate—those eligible to vote—delegate power via the ballot box to their chosen representatives who in turn represent them in the institution of the national parliament. In this regard the Scottish parliament is no different from state parliaments elsewhere in the world, save for the fact that at present Scotland is not a state; exercising instead that fragment of state power that has been devolved to it.

Even as a devolved administration the Scottish parliament has a wide ranging set of competences, included in which is the right to ascertain the sovereign will of the Scottish people—and it does this by virtue of its members being democratically elected. This implied sovereignty of parliament—of any national parliament—while not having the legal or constitutional right to do so, has the inalienable moral right to seek independence from any and all wider constitutional claims over it. It can do this either by agreement—which by voting to seek a Section 30 order from London the Scottish parliament has sought to do; or by declaration—which the United Kingdom has experienced before in the cases of the United States (1776), the Irish Republic (1919), Egypt (1922), Rhodesia (1965), and Anguilla (1967).

So now Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale, and Willie Rennie—and all their supporters the length and breadth of the UK—can kick and scream until they are blue in the face. We are having another independence referendum, and we are having one because we want one. But wanting one and having one are now only a part of the equation. The route that we are taking is one which recognises the supremacy of the London government, and, while requesting a Section 30 order may be considered a mere legal formality, it is to all intents and purposes a request for permission.

Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, stated ahead of the vote that “now is not the time.” We haven’t been refused permission. Permission is pending. Like the proposals the Scottish government sent to the Prime Minister regarding Scotland and Brexit, we are in a holding pattern until London sees fit to make a decision. This decision, like that on the Brexit proposals, may simply be ignored while the Scottish people continue to be dragged in a direction in which we do not want to go.

Where this brings us to here is to the question of will. Leaving the European Union was not the will of Scotland, but now we are the ones being forced against our will out of Europe. We expressed our will—our free and informed decision—when we elected a Scottish government, and we have said that Brexit is not our will. Being taken out of Europe is the imposition of London’s will on us, and this is unjust.

Will and volition are inextricably linked to justice, and right now the justice of our will has been shelved because it is at variance with the will of Westminster—where our national will is categorically not being represented. Despite the fact that the will of the Edinburgh government has now been voiced, it is to be delayed for no other reason than Theresa May—someone we did not elect in Scotland—says so.

As justice delayed is justice denied, Nicola Sturgeon is quite right to assert that any delay on the part of the Prime Minister in granting the Scottish government a Section 30 is a fundamental betrayal of the principles of justice and democracy. We, as a nation, have decided what we want to do next, and the ball is now in Mrs May’s court. What is clear from this moment on—both philosophically and morally—is that every hour that passes in which we are not given permission to exercise our free will we are being denied justice and, in that, freedom.

Jason Michael McCannJason Michael McCann is a journalist and blogger from Ayrshire, currently living in Dublin. He is a regular contributor to iScot Magazine, edits the Butterfly Rebellion, and publishes his own Random Public Journal.

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