Sunday, August 28, 2016

Athens of the North, no more?

Because of the disruption on the trains from Queen Street, I spent much less time than usual in Edinburgh over the first half of the year.  But I've been there quite a bit during the festival, and I've found myself becoming increasingly transfixed (and not in a good way) by the large construction site between Calton Hill and the Royal Mile.  My first reaction was that the powers-that-be are not complete idiots, and that they must have something very tasteful and carefully considered in mind for such a sensitive area.  So I consulted the internet for some reassurance, and naturally discovered that every expert in the field has blasted the plans as barking mad, and that the city council had only narrowly given approval on the grounds that the buildings were not quite "hideous enough" to reject.  That's the kind of logic that I'd expect to hear in relation to Cumbernauld town centre, not the UN-designated World Heritage site at the heart of our capital city. I really must stop kidding myself that the internet is ever going to provide me with reassurance about anything.

I at least drew some small comfort from learning that the height of the buildings had been reduced after the initial objections.  But even over the course of the last few weeks, the shape of the large hotel has become suddenly apparent, and 'unobtrusive' is not the first word that springs to mind.  It's already tarnishing the view from Calton Hill.  The completed Costa and Premier Inn buildings aren't so noticeable, but that's mainly because they're obscured by the equally hideous council building which has presumably been there for decades.  I wandered down to Market Street today, and when you're actually in between the council building and the Premier Inn, the whole concept of being within the Old Town ceases to have any meaning.

Not being a resident of Edinburgh, I can't get a clear image in my head of what that area used to look like, and maybe if I could I'd realise that less is being lost than it appears.  I also appreciate that the whole of modern history has been punctuated by a war between conservation and opportunistic "development", and that you have to be philosophical and recognise that the forces of conservation aren't going to win every single battle.  But you'd think local councillors might just be intelligent enough to recognise that it's counterproductive to attempt to economically exploit the heritage of a city in a way that fundamentally taints that heritage.

Last year, I spent about ten days in the Balkans, and went to the Old Towns of both Mostar and Dubrovnik, which are also World Heritage sites.  In contrast to Edinburgh, the Old Town of Dubrovnik is pristine and almost perfectly preserved.  The famous bridge in Mostar was destroyed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, but was swiftly and lovingly reconstructed, even using the original stones where possible.  You kind of feel that if Edinburgh city council had been in charge, they'd have said "ah well, it's gone now, we may as well stick a Starbucks and a car park there instead".

Apparently one of the biggest criticisms of "New Waverley" is the plan for a public square, which is alien to the architectural traditions of the Old Town.  But quite honestly, I hope the square fills up as much of the space as possible - that's the only part of the whole thing that won't be an eyesore.

I'll reserve judgement on whether New Waverley will turn out to be an even worse idea than allowing Donald Bloody Trump of all people to "stabilise the doons".  (Which the SNP have to accept a share of the blame for, although it has to be said that every political party apart from the Greens seemed to be wildly enthusiastic about it for some unfathomable reason.)

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I'm writing this on the train back to Glasgow, and I'm sitting opposite two Canadians who have been sneering about the Quebec sovereignty movement to anyone who will listen.  "That'll never happen!  They'd never survive!"  Just those same words over and over again.  Calm, Mr Kelly, calm calm calm...

Friday, August 26, 2016

It's a flippin' Fife phenomenon as stormin' SNP secure a super 9.5% swing from Labour in local by-election

The Lochs was the second-weakest ward for the SNP in the whole of Fife in the 2012 local elections (the only worse one was the rarefied setting of St Andrews).  They put up only one candidate, who finished third and received just 19% of the vote, a whopping 27% behind the combined support for Labour's two candidates.  Remember all of that happened on a day when, across Scotland, the SNP defeated Labour in the popular vote by 1%.  So on paper, this should be just about as tough a ward for Nicola Sturgeon's party as you'll find anywhere - but you certainly wouldn't know that from the by-election result yesterday.  The SNP stormed into second place, and slashed Labour's lead to just 8.5%.

Labour 47.1% (+0.7)
SNP 38.6% (+19.6)
Conservatives 9.6% (+7.0)
Communists 3.1% (n/a)
Greens 1.6% (n/a)

As almost always seems to be the case, the quirks of the STV voting system are allowing some fairly extreme misinformation to do the rounds about the result. Labour are claiming to have "turned the tide" with a "gain". Well, yes, it's technically true that they "gained" the seat, in the sense that the vacancy was caused by the retirement of an independent councillor - but Labour topped the poll in the ward last time and did so again yesterday. Their vote effectively flatlined, in spite of the fact that a huge number of votes that had previously gone to the independent were now up for grabs.

On the other extreme, some people have claimed that the swing from Labour to the SNP was as high as 17%. I've squinted at the result in a number of different ways to try to understand where that figure has come from, but I'm mystified. Suffice to say it's inaccurate - the real swing was around 9.5%, which is plenty enormous enough to be getting on with.

UPDATE : It turns out that the 17% swing is not measured from the 2012 result at all, but from another by-election in the ward that was held in June 2014.  Well, I suppose that can be justified, although 2012 is the more natural baseline, and allows for direct comparisons with other recent by-elections.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Glitter, Murder, Echoes...

So I sat down to write a long blogpost in response to a bizarre Twitter dispute I had with Stephen Bush of the New Statesman a few hours ago. (It was on the relatively obscure topic of a wildly inaccurate Populus poll that was conducted towards the end of the EU referendum campaign.) However, just before I started, I noticed that Stephen had sent me a very gracious email after the exchange. It didn't touch upon his absolutely ridiculous (and now deleted) suggestion that challenging his claims about polling somehow made me a racist, but in the circumstances I'm happy enough to draw a line under the whole thing. In future I'm just going to try to avoid replying to his tweets altogether, because we do seem to rub each other up the wrong way - which is unfortunate, because as regular readers know, I've sung his praises more than once for his uncanny powers of political prediction.

Instead of the blogpost I was planning to write, here's something else I've been meaning to do for a while - the annual ritual of my Edinburgh Fringe mini-reviews. The Fringe only has a week left to run, so it's probably now or never anyway.

DIRTY GLITTER : A comedy-drama about two unlikely Private Eyes in 1970s America, and their investigation into the disappearance of a girl at a nightclub.  Some of it is very, very funny, although the logical part of my brain was struggling with one of the recurring jokes, about a character who constantly denies being Spanish even though he is clearly a native Spanish speaker.   If you were in America, why would you even assume he was Spanish in the first place, rather than, say, Mexican?  Ah well.  Leaving that quibble aside, the show is well worth seeing - fast-paced, breathless, with a relentless soundtrack of 70s hits.  RATING : 8/10

THE MURDERER : This is apparently a loose adaptation of a poem about an alternative universe in which murderers have 'carers' who help them reintegrate into society. Even though the focus is firmly on the 'caring' dynamic, I don't think there's any real excuse for the fact that the murderer just comes across as a random, bland person, rather than someone you can actually believe committed a serious crime or has been affected by many years in jail. There's just not enough meat on the bones, although the play does deserve credit for its sterling efforts to cultivate greater usage of the tragically-neglected expression "catch you later". RATING : 5/10

ECHOES : An absolute tour-de-force. In all honesty, it was a struggle to work out what the hell was going on for at least the first fifteen minutes, but the dialogue was so lyrical and beautiful that the meaning didn't seem to matter - you could just bathe in the words. Basically (and I hope I've got this right) it's about a bloke who returns to the woman he got pregnant and abandoned several years earlier...but then dark secrets emerge about the fate of the child. An act of extreme violence is depicted about ten minutes from the end, and I found myself wanting it to be over at that point, because I'm not a big fan of gore. But if you happen to have a very, very strong constitution, I can't deny you'd be hard-pressed to see anything better this year. RATING : 10/10

A TALE OF TWO CITIES - BLOOD FOR BLOOD : I studied Tale of Two Cities at secondary school, but it's so long ago I can barely remember anything about it, and unfortunately this is a production that does seem to assume knowledge of the text (probably because liberties are taken with it, and half the fun is supposed to be in the divergence - that was the impression I got, anyway). But what I can say is that the acting is excellent, and the staging is much more elaborate and impressive than you see at many Fringe productions. The review I read before going said that there was an inexplicable scene at the start that seems to be set in Edinburgh for no apparent reason, so I set myself the mission of trying to make sense of it - but I had to admit defeat. It really is totally baffling. RATING : 8/10

EN FOLKEFIENDE : I had very little pre-knowledge of An Enemy of the People either, but thankfully this is a much more accessible production - although ironically the acting isn't quite up to the same standard as in Tale of Two Cities, probably because it's a young cast cutting their teeth. Again, the staging is very imaginative and works wonders with limited space - everything takes place within or just outside of a rotating 'cube', and there are repeated instances of the exterior of the cube 'censoring' politically sensitive words that are spoken inside. RATING : 7/10

LE BOSSU : I had to keep reminding myself it wasn't Christmas, because this has the feel of the sort of family show you'd see at that time of year. (Although ironically I don't know how suitable it is for children, because there are one or two mildly adult references.) A kind of halfway house between a play and a musical, based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, with some limited audience participation thrown in. I'm not sure how much of the music is original and how much is borrowed, but it really works - I had one of the tunes going round in my head for hours afterwards. RATING : 8/10

LADIES IN WAITING - THE JUDGEMENT OF HENRY VIII : A great show, although I was more than a little harassed when I sat down at the start.  The venue is a hotel, and no matter how hard you try to mind your own business while waiting, you can't seem to do anything right - you're queue-jumping even though there is no discernible queue, you're in a corridor you shouldn't be in even though you were just following the signs, you're in the way of a scooter even though you've got your back pressed hard against a wall...and then you take your seat and find you've got a horribly restricted view, even though you're only in the second row.  You'd think it wouldn't be beyond the wit of man to raise the stage slightly (or organise a comprehensible queuing system, for that matter).  Anyway, the idea is that Henry VIII has found himself in purgatory and must submit himself to the judgement of his six wives, who are now free to speak their minds in his presence without fear of being executed or anything unfortunate like that.  The funniest bit is when Henry seems disconcerted that Catherine Howard is so pleased to see him.  "But Catherine, I had your head chopped off."  "Oh, that was ages ago!"  RATING : 9/10

I can also highly recommend a version of Northanger Abbey with puppets, which I saw two or three years ago and is on again, albeit at a slightly awkward time of day.  It's one of those things that sounds horrific, but is actually fantastic.

Friday, August 19, 2016

In vain I have struggled. It will not do.

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website, which allows me to fulfill a lifetime ambition by mentioning Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in a piece about a progressive alliance between Labour and the SNP.  (We're Elizabeth, obviously.)  You can read it HERE.

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Fundraiser update : Thank you for your amazing support since I started promoting last year's fundraiser again, which remains open for donations because it's in the 'In Demand' phase.  Around £1600 has been raised since Monday.  I'm relieved to say the problem with Paypal has been resolved much more quickly than I feared, so it's now possible to contribute by either Paypal or credit/debit card.  You can visit the fundraiser page HERE.  To make a donation during 'In Demand', simply click on one of the 'perk' options - if the exact amount you want to donate isn't listed, select the £10 perk and the next page will allow you to customise the donation.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The best time to hold a second independence referendum is while there is still a pro-independence majority at Holyrood to make it possible

Iain Macwhirter had a piece in the Sunday Herald yesterday arguing that Nicola Sturgeon won't and shouldn't hold a second independence referendum for several years (2021 at the absolute earliest), because there needs to be much greater clarity about what Brexit will actually look like before pulling the trigger.  Now, as you know, I'm inclined to favour a much earlier vote (not necessarily next week, but perhaps some time between next year and 2019), and that's mainly because I worry about the momentum we built up in 2014 gradually evaporating.  I certainly don't subscribe to the 'demographic inevitability' theory - if we sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for a glacial shift in public opinion towards Yes, I suspect we'll get a nasty shock and see a less-than-glacial shift towards No.  But whenever you think the right time is, it's worth bearing in mind that this is a discussion about fantasy politics unless you can be sure that there will actually be a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament at the relevant moment.  Without that, there will never be a referendum.  The biggest difference between arguing for a referendum in 2019 and arguing for a referendum in 2022 is that we know with reasonable confidence that the parliamentary arithmetic will be there in 2019.  All bets are off as far as 2022 is concerned.

This is a point that worried me even before the EU referendum.  There seems to be a complacent attitude in some quarters that the SNP ascendancy at Holyrood is going to remain in place indefinitely, and that Nicola Sturgeon can just gaze down at the polls from an Olympian height and choose the absolutely ideal moment.  The reality is that the 2021 election could be a very tough one indeed, and by that point we may have much more to worry about than passive-aggressive "tactical voting" campaigns run by a certain RISE-supporting website.  The SNP will have been in power for fourteen years by 2021 - that's one year longer than the Blair/Brown government lasted, and it's only four years short of the record set by the Thatcher/Major government.  No party is immune to the changing of the seasons (as even the ANC are starting to find out).  It's true that the Tories overtaking Labour as the largest opposition party makes a fourth successive SNP victory somewhat more probable, because Scotland scarcely seems likely to elect a Tory-led government any time soon.  But unfortunately there's a very obvious middle possibility - the SNP could be re-elected with a significantly weaker mandate, and without a pro-independence majority even after the Greens are taken into account.  If that happens, the 'patient' plans for a second indyref in the early 2020s will look a bit bloody silly in retrospect.

Both Iain Macwhirter and David "and on the third day He reactivated His Twitter account" Torrance point to supposed polling evidence that there hasn't been much of a boost for Yes in the aftermath of June 23rd.  I strongly suspect that they're both mainly talking about a single YouGov poll showing only a 1% increase for Yes, and assuming that's going to prove typical.  Well, it might do, but there again it might not do.  Drawing too many conclusions from an individual poll is a dangerous game for any commentator, and we'll just have to see whether they've jumped the gun.  It's particularly worth remembering that even before the EU referendum, telephone polls had Yes in the lead.  There has only been one telephone poll since the referendum, and again, it had Yes in the lead.  Anyone who claims to know for certain that there is a currently an anti-independence majority is either being dishonest or doesn't know what they're talking about.

As for Torrance's claim that the SNP got carried away with their rhetoric on a second indyref because they bought into their own "hype" about the effect of Brexit on public opinion, that strikes me as being silliness on stilts.  Nicola Sturgeon and the people around her are not idiots - they'll have seen the pre-referendum polls suggesting that Brexit might only increase support for independence by a modest amount, and yet they went ahead with the early statement that an indyref was "highly likely" without waiting to see what the post-referendum polls would show.  They would never have done that unless it was a carefully-thought-through strategy that was not dependent on short-term polling trends.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Sturgeon sensation as swanky SNP surge ahead of lousy Labour in two local by-elections

I was a bit disconcerted last night when I heard that Labour had "gained a seat from the SNP" in a local by-election, but as is so often the case with STV by-elections, things weren't quite as they seemed.  The SNP were "defending" the seat in the spite of having lost the popular vote in the ward last time around, and they actually moved ahead of Labour to win the popular vote yesterday.  They then perversely lost the seat anyway due to Tory voters breaking almost four-to-one in favour of Labour on lower preferences.  So, other than the fact that the "Auld Alliance" from 2014 is alive and well, and the fact that Irvine West will now have to put up with a Labour councillor rather than Nicola Sturgeon's dad, the nominal "Labour gain" is of very little significance - the underlying trend is still the familiar one of Labour support draining away in former heartland areas.

Irvine West by-election result (11th August) :

SNP 37.5% (+0.7)
Labour 33.1% (-7.1)
Conservatives 20.6% (+8.6)
Socialist Labour 4.2% (+2.6)
Greens 3.0% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 1.5% (-3.2)

Swing from Labour to SNP = 3.9%

Much the same trend was seen in yesterday's other by-election in Renfrew South and Gallowhill - except here, the SNP built up enough of a first preference lead to actually gain the seat from Labour, even allowing for the "Tories for Corbyn" factor.

Renfrew South & Gallowhill by-election result (11th August) :

SNP 47.8% (+6.9)
Labour 36.9% (-8.5)
Conservatives 13.4% (+9.1)
Liberal Democrats 1.9% (+0.1)

Swing from Labour to SNP = 7.7%

So the average pro-SNP swing yesterday was around 5.8%, and of course that's measured from the 2012 result, when the SNP were already slightly ahead of Labour nationally. Certainly there's nothing in these results that would call into question the sense of inevitability about what will happen next May - Labour remain firmly on course to lose their remaining local government strongholds, including most obviously Glasgow, which will be a landmark moment on a par (almost) with the fall of Byzantium.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The future of this blog

As long-term readers will recall, the third and most recent Scot Goes Pop fundraiser was run last autumn, and with your incredibly generous help it raised £5680.  As with the previous two fundraisers, the aim was mainly to help cover my own living expenses - and certainly not "running costs", which is the red herring always brought up by the concern trolls. Blogger is a completely free platform and it doesn't have any running costs at all. Although this blog is now considerably more popular than it was prior to 2014, it's still not a Wings or a Bella - there's probably a natural limit of around £5000 or £6000 that any crowdfunder is going to raise, and even that may sometimes prove to be optimistic.  There simply isn't the scope to muck around with expensive bells and whistles.   Writing Scot Goes Pop has been the equivalent of a very time-consuming part-time job (and at the busiest times a full-time job), and that's what the fundraisers have made possible - just about.

In spite of my frugal lifestyle (ahem), and more to the point a few other sources of income, the money from last autumn has now basically gone.  The EU referendum was something of a crossroads - I knew if the UK voted Remain, Scottish politics would go relatively quiet for a few years, and another fundraiser might not even be feasible.  I imagined in those circumstances I would probably start to wind things down, and continue with the blog on a much more limited basis.  As it turned out, things went the opposite way, and I've been planning to run a fourth fundraiser when the time felt right.  Unfortunately, I incurred a large and unexpected expense a couple of weeks ago, so that brought things to a head, and I was intending to get things underway either yesterday or today.  Just my luck that a small number of readers decided that right now was the time to declare all-out war on the way I run the blog.  This was what my inbox looked like yesterday...

I had to spend about an hour deleting dozens of comments from an anonymous troll, all containing the words "JAMES KELLY IS AN ARROGANT PR**K" over and over and over again.  I strongly suspect this is the same chap who called me a "twit" on Tuesday for disagreeing with his ideas on how the blog should be run, and who then gradually escalated the personal abuse after I informed him that the discussion was closed and started deleting his comments.  Now someone calling himself "Scottish Labour" (who may or may not be the same person) is declaring his intent to repost a comment no matter how many times I delete it.  In a nutshell, people who refuse to accept the very light moderation rules that I apply are now making the blog unmanageable, and it's getting to the stage where I may have to disable commenting altogether as a temporary measure.

For months upon end now, I have replied to repetitive comments asking me why I refuse to ban the unionist troll "Glasgow Working Class".  There are only so many times that I can explain that it is not possible to ban individuals on the Blogger platform.  For months upon end now, I have replied to repetitive comments asking me why I do not switch to another platform.  There are only so many times that I can explain that I actively prefer sticking with the Blogger platform and that migrating to another platform often causes more problems than it solves.  This is not a decision that can be made by committee, and there comes a point where for everyone's sanity I have to declare the matter closed and refer people to my previous replies.  That point has now arrived.

I'm not sure whether it's possible to run a fundraiser in these circumstances - some people would just take it as free licence to unleash further chaos.  I'm going to ponder on what to do - I may delay my plans, or I may revert to my 'Remain plan' and blog much less frequently without running a fundraiser at all.  But whatever I do, please note that Scot Goes Pop will continue to run on Blogger (unless the platform changes in some way or becomes too bug-ridden), very light-touch moderation will in general remain in place, and I will reserve the right to delete comments that serve no other purpose than to give me hassle.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Democracy 1, Labour Plotters 0

I suggested the other day on Twitter that TV detector vans had better be an urban myth, because it's hard to think of a more self-defeating use of licence fee money.  But I think I've found something even more self-defeating - how about using Labour membership fees to launch a costly legal appeal to attempt to prevent Labour members from exercising their right to vote in a leadership election, which is one of the main reasons many of them joined the party in the first place.  It's really not a great look, is it?

Something I have never understood from the word go is why registered supporters, who paid a one-off fee a few weeks ago for the sole purpose of voting in the leadership election, have supposedly demonstrated a greater commitment to the Labour party than people who paid to become full members several months ago.  And yet that is seemingly the logic of the rules that the Labour plotters are trying to reinstate at enormous expense.  It would be nice if at least one journalist gets around to asking them to explain that to us.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

YouGov poll has a painful message for the Labour plotters - they actually need the radical left if they are to ever win power

One of the main justifications for the moral compromises of Blairism was/is that Labour "have to live in the real world", and can't win elections without putting forward policies that appeal to Middle England.  Well, here's a dose of reality that isn't going to be quite so welcome for the anti-Corbyn plotters : a new YouGov poll provides powerful evidence that the Corbyn wing of the party is not, as the plotters like to tell themselves, a trivial and dispensable part of the Labour coalition that currently wields wildly disproportionate influence.  In fact, there doesn't appear to be any path to victory without the radical left.

YouGov asked hypothetical voting intention questions based on the assumption that Labour would split into two parties, with the Corbyn wing remaining at the helm of one.  No matter which way round the split occurs, the left-led party attracts significant support, and the bulk of it comes from the current Labour vote.  If Corbyn and co retain the Labour brand, they hold on to 21% of the vote, but even if it's assumed that they break away and set up an entirely new party with a new name, they still get 14% - almost half of Labour's support.  In both scenarios, the plotter-led "moderate" centre-left party would receive less than 20% of the vote, and would thus be left in territory familiar to the Liberal Democrats prior to their disastrous decision to install David Cameron in Downing Street.

It's interesting to ponder whether a radical left party could have attracted 14% or 21% of the vote if Corbyn had never become Labour leader.  But even if that support is largely driven by Corbyn's new-found celebrity and status, it doesn't make any concrete difference - the plotters can't wind the clock back and erase the last year from history.  As bad as poll respondents are at answering hypothetical questions, it seems inconceivable based on these findings that "moderate Labour" would not at least suffer a big electoral hit as a result of any split.  The radical left are clearly now an essential part of any winning coalition of Labour voters, and the plotters are therefore going to have to somehow make peace with Corbyn if they mean what they say about being motivated by a single-minded pursuit of victory.  (They don't, of course.)

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Helen Lewis has been castigated in some quarters for dubious claims about the SNP in her latest New Statesman piece about Corbyn, but for my money the silliest part of the article is when she implies that the Labour leader is guilty of hypocrisy for criticising the plotters over their refusal to serve in the Shadow Cabinet, given that he himself declined to serve in Blair's Cabinet.  I'm sorry, but in what reality did Tony Blair ever offer Corbyn a job on the lowest rung of the ministerial ladder, let alone in the Cabinet?  It may well be that Corbyn would have refused to serve even if he had been asked, but you just don't get to score points about the refusal of a job offer that was never made, and would never have been made in a million years.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Majority for independence in new Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls

We've now had enough post-EU referendum polls on independence to make it worthwhile reintroducing the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls.  I'm going to tweak the rules slightly, though.  As before, the headline figures will be based on an average of the most recent poll from each polling firm, but only firms that have reported since the EU referendum (and thereafter within the last three months) will be included.  If a firm has recently conducted both telephone and online polls, the midway point between those two polls' results will be used (in effect each of the two polls will count as a 'half-poll').

Today's figures are based on an online poll from Panelbase, an online poll from YouGov, and both an online and telephone poll from Survation.  I'm excluding the ScotPulse poll showing an enormous Yes lead because I don't think it was an entirely credible poll (and ScotPulse aren't a BPC firm in any case).

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 50.8%
No 49.2%