Every day, we think Labour’s leadership election can’t get sillier, then every day they find some way to prove us wrong. With two weeks still to go, I’m expecting a denouement in which Jeremy Corbyn meets a mad scientist, is blown up to be 100 metres tall and the only way to save the country from Corbynzilla is for Copper, Burnham and Kendall to fight him in a similarly-sized hastily built robotic Clement Attlee.

But for now, we’ll just deal with the decision that the party will be vetting new supporters against canvassing data they have on them in order to discover whether they’re Labour voters or not. (If they’re too young to have canvass data, then their school friends will be asked to assess and inform on their real beliefs

As someone who’s done plenty of canvassing in my time, the idea that canvass data can be used to accurately judge how people have voted seems incredibly optimistic. Canvassing – for those of you not in the know, it’s what politicos call knocking on your door and asking how you’ll vote – and canvassing returns are incredibly subjective experiences, and while the data you get from them as a whole can be useful, it’s essentially unreliable. Consider that the opinion polling industry has spent decades trying to work out ways in which to obtain useful and objective data from subjective interaction between people. There’s a huge amount of literature in psychology, political science and other fields looking at just how subconsciously biased our interactions with other people are, and this has influenced the way poll companies and other research organisations conduct their operations, especially how they ask questions and gather responses.

Political parties don’t do that. Most canvass data comes from a volunteer – who might not have been a party member for long themselves – given a clipboard (or if we’re being really modern, a tablet with relevant data loaded on to it) and rosette, pointed at a street and told to find out how people are voting there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the results that come back from this exercise are mixed. Send someone in an optimistic mood to do it, and anyone who didn’t threaten them with violence is marked down as being at least probable to vote for us, send someone feeling down and pessimistic and even the people with your posters in the window are marked as unsure. Catch someone at the right time and they’ll tell you how they’ve always voted for you, are happy to put up a poster and yes, now you mention it, they do want to join the party; come five minutes later when they’ve just had a bad phone call, the baby’s crying and EastEnders is about to start, and you’re lucky if they’ll even come to the door to tell you to go away.

Add to all that the fact that canvassing as it’s carried out nowadays is a legacy of a different kind of politics and society. When most people had strong party loyalties – and in most parts of the country there were only two parties effectively competing – it was quite easy to find out who would be supporting you and thus needing to be reminded to vote on polling day, and who you should avoid. Now, when there are multiple parties just about everywhere and people’s allegiances are a lot more fluid, things are very different. What someone told you about their political opinions in April could well be different in June. Canvassing now is about small pieces of reliable data in amongst a sea of false negatives and false positives: averaging it out might give you reliable figures for an area, but not about the opinions of an individual.

Labour’s move to their new system was supposed to be about acknowledging the new realities of politics, that political identities are much more fluid and people would be more willing to be be supporters rather than members or activists. Using canvassing data is an odd way to use the assumptions of old politics to stymie the aspirations of the new.

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I’m still alive, and still working through my Masters dissertation so my time for thinking about things to blog about is limited, which is somewhat handy as just about the only political topic to write about at the moment is just how silly Labour’s leadership election can get and I’ve already covered that.

However, things are coming close to the finish (though I may also be writing a PhD research proposal, because I don’t have enough on my plate right now) so more regular posting may resume here sometime soon. Until then, some statistics from my dissertation that a few of you might find of interest:

Parties in second place in Liberal Democrat seats post-election:
1992: Conservatives 16, Labour 4
1997: Conservatives 39, Labour 6, SNP 1
2001: Conservatives 44, Labour 8
2005: Conservative 43, Labour 18, Plaid Cymru 1
2010: Conservative 38, Labour 17, Plaid Cymru 1, SNP 1
2015: Conservative 4, Labour 2, Plaid Cymru 1, SNP 1

Parties holding seats in which Liberal Democrats were second:
1997 (Pre-election, notional results for new boundaries): Conservative 157, Labour 11, Plaid Cymru 1
1997 (post-election): Conservative 73, Labour 32
2001: Conservative 57, Labour 53, Plaid Cymru 1
2005: Conservative 83, Labour 106
2010: Conservative 167, Labour 76
2015: Conservative 46, Labour 9, SNP 8

(I’m pretty sure that’s all accurate, but please flag up any errors you spot!)

And if you’re interested in election data, you might find this collection of datasets interesting.

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A bit too busy with the dissertation to blog much right now, but a couple of thoughts I thought I’d put out there to see if they might spark a discussion.

First, returning to a thought I had a few months ago, what if John Smith hadn’t stood for Labour leader in 1992? (Probably for health reasons, but the whys of it aren’t important) Would the line up of candidates look that impressive at the time? Sure, Blair was only two years away from winning the leadership but in 1992 he was relatively obscure and hadn’t come up with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Would a call to modernise then fall on the same stony ground as Liz Kendall’s have now? Who else would be a credible contender in the climate of 1992?

Second, would a lot of the current trouble have been avoided if Labour’s electoral system was more like the Conservatives? Rather than just increasing the number of MPs needed to get nominated, Miliband’s reforms had followed the Tories in giving MPs an extended primary where they whittled down a large number of candidates to just two to face the membership/supporters/affiliates vote? With a much lower initial bar to being nominated, but a much-higher one to reach the voters, candidates who dropped out because of insufficient support this time like Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt could have been part of the process, while no one would have needed to lend Corbyn any nominations, but a lack of support from MPs would prevent him making it to the final stage. Would it have ended up as Burnham vs Cooper, or might something different have happened?

(I actually think the Tory leadership election process is a good one, that only has such a bad reputation because the first time it was tried, it was given a selection of poor candidates and a party that didn’t want to be united)

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Ashes-Urnx640A few years ago, I came up with the concept of the Alternative Ashes, effectively a linear championship of Test cricket, looking at what would have happened if every cricketing nation played for the Ashes rather than just England and Australia.

The rules are the same as those for the regular Ashes – a team holds the title until they lose a Test series to another nation who then hold it until they’re defeated and so on until there is no more cricket left to be played. At our last update a couple of years ago, Australia had just taken the title from Sri Lanka, but what happened next?

Australia only kept the title for a short time, losing it to India in the next series when they lost 4-0. India defended the title against the West Indies later in 2013, but then lost it to South Africa in December.

Having won back the original Ashes, Australia then travelled to South Africa and unified the two versions again, beating the South Africans 2-1. However, their grasp on the title only lasted until their next series when they lost to Pakistan (which I believe is the first time the title changed hands outside of a Test-playing country, in the UAE). Pakistan defended the title in a drawn series against New Zealand in the UAE before travelling to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for two more victorious series.

So, England will take back the original Ashes at the end of this series, but the alternative Ashes still remain in Pakistan’s hands. England’s first series this winter? A trip to the UAE to face Pakistan in a three-test series with the chance to reunite the two titles.

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It’s an Ashes series, and one side appears to be spectacularly out of form. Their first innings has been a very bad performance where the opposition’s “seamers had shown what could be done by bowling straighter and to a fuller length than their counterparts” and their batsmen “were occasionally undone by deliveries performing contortions at speed”. At the forefront of the falling wickets, one of their bowlers had “moved further up the list of bowling immortals”.

Batting was much easier for the other side, and they racked up a score around 400, declaring with nine wickets down, creating the sort of first innings lead that sides just don’t come back to win from.

The second innings for the troubled side didn’t offer them much prospect of success. There were some chinks of light compared to the bad first innings, but with seven wickets down and still 90 runs behind, “the distant objective of avoiding an innings defeat surely their only available prize”.

Yes, that’s the position for Australia at the start of today’s play at Trent Bridge, but the description above and the quotes are all from the 1981 Headingley Test. England, following on after a poor first innnings in response to Australia’s 401-9, had collapsed to 135-7. Ian Botham was still in and Graham Dilley had just walked out to the centre to join him – and if you don’t know what happened next, here’s the Wisden report those quotes came from. Sure, Adam Voges isn’t Ian Botham, but neither was Botham himself back then – Headingley and the two Tests after it were what turned from being a great all-rounder into a legend.

Incidentally, it’s interesting that there aren’t any dramatic interpretations of that series, despite all its potential for storytelling. There’s the traditional comeback story of Botham hitting his lowest point and bouncing back, coupled with the story of Mike Brearley who was the surely the last player to be selected for a Test side purely for his skills as a captain. All that with a background of a Royal Wedding and riots across Britain and I’m wondering why there’s been no Damned United-esque exploration of that series.

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220px-PaddyAshdownCampaigningOne interesting side-effect of my dissertation research has been looking at some of the responses to the 1992 general election. Any parallels to then are obviously inexact – Labour had a leadership contest then that didn’t threaten to split the party, for instance – but some of the reaction to the Tories’ fourth election victory in succession was to claim that everyone was doomed and John Major and Norman Lamont were now masters of all they surveyed in the political landscape. It’s interesting how much our conventional narrative of ‘Tories win election, then Black Wednesday happens’ elides the fact that there were several months between the two events when things looked very different.

It was in that gap – just a month after the election – that Paddy Ashdown delivered a speech in the town of Chard. It’s an important moment in the history of the party because it’s where Paddy began the process of switching the party’s strategy from one of equidistance between the two main parties and towards the goal of ‘realignment on the left’, a strategy first advocated by Jo Grimond in the 50s. The Chard speech didn’t make that leap in one go, but it does mark a clear positioning of the party as an ‘anti-Conservative’ one even though Ashdown is generally dismissive of Labour’s chances of recovery. Indeed, the idea that Labour was a hopeless case after an election defeat is perhaps the biggest parallel between 1992 and now – before Black Wednesday, things did look dire for Labour.

So the first lesson from 1992 is that in politics, things aren’t often as bad as they seem, and no matter how dominant a Government may look, events can always get in the way of even the best laid plans. No one expected that within twelve months of the 1992 that the Tories would have lost their reputation for economic confidence and would be facing guerilla warfare from their own back benches over the Maastricht Treaty.

The more interesting, and possibly important, lesson is how much of what Ashdown says in the speech is relevant today. Indeed, there are large sections of it that you could cut and paste into a speech for Tim Farron to give today, and they’d seem just as appropriate. Consider these as aims for the next five years, for instance:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

Or this as a reason why it needs to be done:

The poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have lost and will increasingly lose the small luxuries of hope as our public services continue to decline, our environment continues to get dirtier, and our pride in a compassionate and caring society withers away in the face of a continued Conservative assault on the things we took for granted as part of a civilized society only a few years ago. As we now contemplate our strategy for the years ahead, let us never forget that these are the people who sit huddled outside, waiting for us to get it right.

And this, on the role and ideology of the Liberal Democrats:

It is our task, as Liberal Democrats, to set our sails to the new winds which will blow through the nineties; to establish the new frontier between individual choice and collective responsibility; to draw up the practical means to change our economic system in order to respond to the environmental challenge; to liberate the political power of the individual within a practical system of government; to build a powerfully competitive economy, based on individual enterprise and founded on a flexible labour market; to create a taxation system whose purpose is not just to redistribute wealth, but also and perhaps chiefly, to redistribute opportunity; to extend ownership as a means of spreading wealth and diffusing economic power; to establish a network of individual rights which will fill the gap left by the death of collectivism; to rediscover pride in being English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish within a Britain that is big enough to allow different cultures and diffused government to flourish; to respond to the decline of the nation state in Europe without recreating the nation state on a European scale; to find practical means to strengthen global institutions so as to increase our capacity to act to preserve world peace and respond to global catastrophe.

It’s an interesting speech, and worth reading in full, but this is at the heart of it. At the time, the popular media caricature of Paddy, thanks to Spitting Image, was that he led a party that was ‘neither one thing, nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’ and this is an attempt to move beyond that by pushing forward a policy agenda that’s both liberal and of the left. Yes, it’s straying into some of the territory and language that Tony Blair would use for New Labour, but it was those similarities that allowed Ashdown and Blair to develop a working relationship after 1994, by which time Ashdown and the party had been able to develop the party’s position in more detail.

What’s important is that while Ashdown couldn’t predict the events of the next few years, he understood the fundamental pressures that would drive the party’s strategy. The nature of the political and electoral system meant it was unlikely that someone would defeat the Tories on their own, but combining efforts to achieve a common aim doesn’t mean you have to surrender your own identity to achieve it. That’s something we need to bear in mind over the next few years if we want a happier result in 2020, regardless of the events that come between now and then.

And one final idea to take away from that speech: Paddy proposed working with other parties in a National Election Reform Commission, which doesn’t seem to have taken flight back then, but in our more diverse politics with more high-profile parties seeking electoral reform, maybe now its time has come?

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police_electionsIf it was up to me, we wouldn’t be having Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year. They’re a pointless position, and in most cases appear to have become nothing more than a highly paid spokesperson for the police than providing scrutiny and challenge to them. I don’t get to make those decisions, and as the Government’s now made up of the only party that appear to think they’re still a good idea, we can expect to have another two sets of PCC elections before we get the chance to replace them with a system that might actually do a useful job in holding the police to account.

As they’re here for a while, the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive’s decision that the party should contest the elections with a bit more enthusiasm than we did in 2012 is a welcome one. While there is an appeal in the purity of abstentionism, I don’t believe that sitting on the sidelines and carping about the positions will achieve many liberal goals, whereas by actually taking part, we can achieve things. (It’s also worth noting that while no one would call the results last time good, the party did keep its deposit in all of the 24 contests it stood in, even though we failed to get into the top two in any of the contests)

What’s important, in my opinion, is that the FE shouldn’t just say ‘go ahead, stand’ and then wash its hands of the campaigns themselves. These elections are a great opportunity for us to get get out a message that should reach out to the core vote identified by Howarth and Pack. What we can pretty safely assume is that most of the other campaigns in these elections – Labour, Tory, UKIP and independent – are going to be competitions to see who can shout ‘tough on crime’ the loudest while looking stern in photo ops. There’s no point in us joining in a battle for ground that’s already very heavily contested by others, when we should be looking to reach the voters who are looking for a different kind of message. It’s an opportunity to run a national campaign stressing liberal values, stressing the difference between us and the other parties.

There’s an opportunity for us to set out the case for liberal issues like drug law reform (the Durham PCC’s statements on this may be the first interesting thing a PCC has done in the three years they’ve been around) and civil liberties. These elections will be taking place across all of England and Wales (except for London), and we should treat it as a national election campaign. A lot of areas won’t have any local elections next year, and running it as a national campaign can give lots of people all over the country to chance to take part it. Remember that for a large chunk of the party membership – those who’ve joined since May, and will hopefully keep joining until these elections – what’s drawn them to the party is national issues and liberal values. Running with a distinctive liberal message for these elections will be an investment in the long-term viability of the party and we might still surprise ourselves and others by winning one or two.