I’ve seen a few people sharing this article from the Independent, so I was somewhat surprised to see how terrible it was when I read it. Not completely surprised, as anyone who self-describes as ‘centrist’ is effectively admitting that they let other people make their decisions for them, but if you’re going to write an article in favour of something then I would expect you to have at least a modicum of passion for it.

Centrism is intellectually and emotionally hard, apparently, and the implication is that we should feel respect for the brave centrists who’ve decided they don’t actually believe in anything except a vague idea that things might perhaps be better. Yes, it really is that vague, making even the most bland forms of liberal Anglicanism seem like fire-and-brimstone preaching by comparison.

There’s some vague talk about means and ends there, but there’s no explanation of what ends a centrist might be hoping for, and any potential beliefs are kept vaguely nebulous. It’s like the old Blairite mantra that New Labour is about ‘what works’, with no conception of what it might be working for, and as the old saying goes ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’

The problem with this version of centrism is that it stands for nothing and actually criticises others for daring to believe in something, choosing instead to cling to ‘the world as it is’. Now, that might make sense if everyone’s a centrist and wanting to make things into your version of vaguely better, but in the world as it actually is, that’s not the case. In this world, people – especially those in power – have visions of where they want to take society, and the amiable centrist, working happily on making a few little things vaguely better is merely working to deliver someone else’s ideology.

Centrism like this is occupying the same space as idealised technocracy, that belief that somehow all the ‘experts’ should ‘get together and sort it all out.’ The problem it completely fails to grasp is that in most cases what constitutes ‘better’ is subjective, not objective, and allowing someone else to define that for you is merely supporting the status quo and enabling the already powerful to keep doing what they’re doing. ‘Centrism’ like this is intellectually and emotionally hard because it has no content to itself, no theory or ideology to refer to in making decisions. Instead, it’s nothing but a series of ad hoc justifications for individual decisions attempting to pretend to be intellectually coherent, slapping a label on something that doesn’t exist in an attempt to pretend it does.

If you’re generally happy with the status quo and don’t want to rock the boat too much or think about things too much, just say so. Just don’t stick a label on it and pretend you’re being some brave hero for doing so.


Having more time to both read and blog right now, I thought I’d start writing about some of the books I’ve been reading. I’m probably not going to go back to the days when I tried to write about everything I’ve read, just the more interesting ones.

Team of Rivals is often billed as the inspiration for Spielberg’s Lincoln (my copy has a big photo of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln rather than the man himself), but the events covered by the film are only a very small part of a long book. As the title – and it’s subtitle The political genius of Abraham Lincoln – implies this is much more than a biography of Lincoln, being more of a political biography of Lincoln’s administration rather than the man himself. He sits at the centre of it, as the President, but the book is much more concerned with how he managed the interplay of the various strong characters who populated his administration than it is with the details of his life. Doris Kearns Goodwin begins with explaining the remarkable circumstances that led to Lincoln’s Presidency, and then explores how such an unlikely President and his team earned their places in history.

What becomes clear from the book is that Lincoln was a master politician by the time he was President but that was not an innate talent. Like almost everything else about him, it was something he’d taught himself to be, and there were plenty of early disappointments before he finally found himself as the right person at the right time in the tumultuous 1850s and 1860s. We see how a prairie lawyer managed to play off his vastly more experienced rivals to get the Republican nomination for President in 1860, and then how he brought his rivals into the fold to face the challenge that lay ahead.

It’s a fascinating account of a different political era, but it also shows how much Lincoln’s style has affected the American Presidency ever since even if few of his successors have had the political skills to go with the style. At times, Lincoln feels like an alien amidst the politicians, or a man playing a vastly different and much more complex game to everyone else, who only realise it when they discover they’ve lost. Goodwin is attempting to describe a style of political leadership quite unlike anyone else, with Lincoln sometimes seeming only to nudge his team to eventually get them where he wants, while at others he’s a master of leading and assessing public opinion, knowing that the war had driven the change in opinion that allowed for the abolition of slavery.

Although it’s a long read, and Goodwin sometimes seems determined to show every bot of her research, this book is definitely worth reading, both as an illustration of the Lincoln administration and how it won the American Civil War, and as an exploration of successful political leadership. Now, can anyone recommend to me a similarly interesting book about Franklin Roosevelt?

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One of them won't con an honest man.

One of them won’t con an honest man.

They call it the long con. You find your mark, someone with lots of money and a desire for something they can’t get and a willingness to bend the rules to get it. Then you tell him you know exactly how he can get what he wants. It’ll take time and cost money, but he’s got plenty of both of those, and you’ve got plenty of reasons why it’s going to take a little bit longer and need just a little bit more cash.

He might get doubts after a while of you milking him, and you can cut and run then if you like, or you can double down. Throw him a convincer, something that makes him think you can really do what you say. Sure, it might cost you, but think of it as an investment in keeping the mark happy, and a happy mark is a generous mark so the return on that investment is almost as good as the one you promise your marks.

No con can go on forever. There’ll come a day of reckoning when your mark is going to expect to get what you’ve been promising him, and that’s when all your skills need to come out to play. You need to persuade him that everything’s gone wrong, forces outside your control have intervened and you can’t get him what he wants. The heat’s on you, you tell him, so you’ve got to flee but you promise he’ll hear from you again when it’s settled down. Before you go, remind him how many rules you and he have broken to get this far, just to stop him going to the police if he susses out that he’s been conned. But don’t worry, most of them don’t ever work it out, and you’re free to do what you want with their money now.

That’s all taken from Hustle, but it’s also what David Cameron and the Conservative Party did to Michael Ashcroft. They found their mark, reeled him in, promised him the power and influence he craved, chucked in a couple of convincers (‘Do you want to be Party Treasurer? It’s such an important role.’) but then when push came to shove and the election had been won, it was ‘sorry, I’d love to put you in the Cabinet, but Clegg’s blocked it’.

The only problem is that the Prime Minister can’t close up the shop, throw away all the phones and disappear to a nice hot beach until it’s safe to show your face again. And when you and other teams of grifters have pulled the same con on multiple occasions to the extent that actually giving the mark his prize is almost accepted practice, there’s no way you can stop him telling everyone what you did.

Con men are lucky creatures, though. Sure, you’ll face pig jokes wherever you go for the rest of your life, but maybe that’s better than being remembered as the con man who actually managed to sell democracy to the highest bidder.

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winninghereI handed in my Masters dissertation a couple of weeks ago, and rather than reproduce the whole thing here, I thought a summarised version of the key arguments would be of more interest than the whole thing. (That some of it would be an absolute bugger to format for WordPress is entirely by-the-by) Should you be interested in reading the whole 10,000 word original (“The role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system: Strategic coordination and the structure of competition”) let me know.

The main aim of the dissertation was to look at Liberal Democrat positioning and strategy since the party was formed in the light of different theories. In the first part, I looked at spatial (Downsian) models of party positioning (which I discussed in more detail here), specifically in terms of papers by Adams & Merrill, and Nagel & Wlezien. They find some interesting patterns in British politics, most notably that when the two major parties diverge from the centre, the vote share of the centre party tends to grow (and when they converge, the centre party gets squeezed).

However, what’s interesting about this relationship is that it only applies to vote shares, not seats, and as even a cursory look at Liberal Democrat and Alliance electoral history will show you, there’s not a strong relationship between number of seats won and number of votes in the party’s results. Indeed, some of the best results in terms of votes (1983, 1987, 2010) have seen disappointing returns of seats. Why was the party suddenly so successful from 1997 at turning votes into seats, when it hadn’t been before?

To explain that, I looked at theories of strategic coordination by voters (also known as tactical voting), particularly in the light of the theories proposed by Gary Cox in his book Making Votes Count. Cox looks at voters as two different types: expressive voters, who are voting to make a point; and instrumental voters, who are seeking to achieve a certain goal. It’s very hard to get expressive voters to shift from their preferred party to another, but instrumental voters might if they think another party will have a chance of achieving that goal.

This is something that’s a key part of Liberal Democrat campaigning, of course: persuading people to shift from supporting their first choice party to the Liberal Democrats because the bar chart shows that only the Liberal Democrats can defeat Party X here. However, the assumption in that message is both that the voter wants to see Party X defeated (they’re an instrumental voter seeking that end), and that they see sufficient difference between the Liberal Democrats and Party X to prefer the Liberal Democrats over them. It’s that second point which to me is the key to explaining why the party managed to do so well in 1997 and after. It wasn’t just that the party got better at targeting seats, but that the way the party had positioned itself made it more attractive to tactical anti-Tory voters.

Consider that when someone is casting a vote, especially a tactical one, they’re not just thinking about their constituency but the national situation. So, when asking a Labour voter to tactically switch to the Liberal Democrats to defeat a Tory in their constituency, they’re not just considering whether they prefer the Liberal Democrat candidate to the Conservative one, but the effect that will have on the national picture. A voter may want to beat the Conservatives, but in order to tactically switch, they have to see a difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives not just locally but in terms of the end result. If the party’s being officially equidistant and not saying who it’d support, it weakens the argument for tactical switching as it doesn’t help prevent the end the voter wants to avoid.

To see this in action, look at what Paddy Ashdown did from 1992. Starting with the Chard speech soon after the election, he positioned the party as explicitly anti-Tory and the party’s general behaviour up to and including 1997 general election tended to reinforce that. (One key signal in this, I think, was both parties standing down in favour of Martin Bell in Tatton) You can see the change in British Election Study data – at the 1992 election, 44% of voters thought the Liberal Democrats were closer to the Tories, 38% to Labour, but by 1997 that had shifted to 56% saying closer to Labour, and just 10% to the Tories.

That’s important, because at the 1997 election, the party had a huge number of seats it could win from the Conservatives if enough Labour voters would switch. So, even though the party saw its share of the vote drop as Labour moved to the centre, the increased level of strategic coordination by voters meant that the Liberal Democrats won a lot more seats than ever before. Voters who were seeking to remove the Conservatives felt able to vote for whichever was the best anti-Tory option in their constituency because Ashdown’s actions had made it clear what we would do afterwards. Similar things happened in 2001, when even more voters thought the party was closer to Labour than in 1997, as the results of 1997 had made the best anti-Tory option in a constituency clear.

2005’s a bit more complex to explain but one interesting fact from then is that voters still saw the Liberal Democrats as closer to Labour than the Conservatives at the same level they did in 1997. That, I believe, is what led to the gains from Labour that year – people who would normally vote Labour switching as a protest, but generally these voters were demographically close to existing Liberal Democrat voters (this article by John Curtice explains it in depth, if you can access it). In other countries, this is the sort of voter shift that would be called intra-block movement, where voters still want the same block of parties in power but shift their support between the parties within that block – Denmark and Sweden have good examples of this sort of system.

By 2010, the party had returned to equidistance and this affected voters decisions, hence why the share of the vote went up, but the number of seats went down. The overall share of the vote went up because there was more space in the centre, but because Labour voters couldn’t be sure that the party wouldn’t support a Tory government, there was an unwinding of the tactical votes that had previously won seats for the party. (While the party’s national share was going up, it was going down in many held seats) This was only accentuated after 2010, when the ‘we voted for you to keep the Tories out, but then you joined the coalition’ argument undid the tactical vote. It’s interesting to look at the different patterns of where the Liberal Democrat vote went in seats lost in 2015 – in seats gained by the Tories it tended to scatter, while in seats won by Labour there was a much more pronounced direct swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour.

I could go on at a lot more length (I haven’t even mentioned Mair’s structure of competition yet, which was an important part of the dissertation) but the key point to remember is that in the British system, votes and seats aren’t the same thing. As the Alliance showed, and the result in 2010 echoed, it’s easy to pile up 20-30% of the vote in a lot of seats, but that sort of share of the vote isn’t going to win you many of them. Unless the party can get above a tipping point level of about 30% of the vote to win seats by itself, victories are going to require tactical voting and tactical voting requires giving people the motivation to switch their vote. Equidistance doesn’t help in providing that motivation, and any wins rely on motivating purely local factors. The national factor – and the significant level of gains – came when the party had picked a side, and gave voters much more motivation to tactically switch because they could be sure of what effects it would have outside of the constituency battle.

In short, equidistance when the two big parties are moving away from the centre might be a good way of increasing the party’s vote in 2020, but it’s not going to bring a lot of seats with it.

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As we finally stagger towards the announcement of the result, the four candidates for Labour leader have been making their final speeches. Here’s what they said:

Liz Kendall: “People have asked me if I’d change anything about my leadership campaign, and I can only think of one thing I’d have done differently. Back in May, I should have decided to spend the next few months catching up on a few box sets and let Tristram Hunt destroy his career instead.”

Andy Burnham: “Throughout this campaign, I have been listening to you, and giving you what you wanted, no matter how many crazed u-turns that required me to pull. As leader, I will continue to give you what you want, and that is why I, Jerendy Corbynham, will be the next Labour leader.”

Yvette Cooper: “Labour needs someone to be a campaigner, and throughout the three long weeks of this election, I have been campaigning as hard as I can. You can be assured that I will campaign just as hard in the 2020 election as I have for the party leadership.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “That was weird. I dreamt I was running for Labour leader, people were publishing books of poems about me and Buzzfeed were running articles illustrating people’s dreams about me. Oh, I see. Right. Shit.”

I’ve mentioned before that election junkies looking for their next fix should be looking to Canada, who’ll be electing a new government on October 19th. It’s a country where elections often deliver unexpected outcomes, with really big poll movements often happening during the campaign and this year’s campaign seems likely to keep up that trend. There are three parties that the polls can barely separate, each also rising and falling in different parts of the company so first past the post voting looks like it could deliver some very confusing and unpredictable results when the votes are cast. Remember that this is the country where a majority ruling party lost all but two of its seats at a national election, where the Opposition lost over half its seats last time, and at the same time a party that had never won more than a handful of seats in Quebec swept the province to the extent that a candidate who never even visited her constituency during the election was elected.

There’s still over a month until the voting takes place but the campaign’s in full swing already and this piece from Maclean’s gives an idea of the mood around Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s campaign. It all feels very pessimistic – though I recall us debating whether David Cameron really wanted to win in April and if he was just going through the motions – but one section from it caught my attention and got me thinking:

As early as 2009, Conservatives close to Harper were describing his political aims in terms that lasted beyond Harper’s own career as leader of the Conservative party. Earlier Conservative leaders—John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney—had left their parties so worn out that their opponents rolled over them, leaving them without influence for many years. If the Liberals have been Canada’s natural governing party, in this analysis, it’s because Conservatives have failed to build something that could last and compete long after the first flush of a new leader’s novelty.

If you look at the Canadian politics since the war, it does appear to be long periods of Liberal dominance punctuated by occasional Conservative success, making it the mirror of Britain where we’ve had long periods of Conservative dominance, punctuated by the occasional Labour government. The diagnosis of the cause is also similar: both Labour and the Canadian Conservatives have been unable to renew themselves in government in the same way Britain’s Conservatives and the Liberals have been able to. The two successful parties were able to hand over the Premiership from one election-winning leader to another, while the two unsuccessful ones were able to get into power with the right leader at the right time but couldn’t stretch that success into another generation.

I’m reminded of one of the criticisms levelled at Tony Blair during this Labour leadership election: that he didn’t pay attention to what would happen to the Labour Party after he left, leaving it short of credible future leadership candidates to carry on his ethos. Meanwhile, David Cameron appears to have made the focus of his second term in office ensuring that George Osborne succeeds him as seamlessly as possible, and if he should stumble, there are plenty of others willing to continue the Cameron project.

Is the secret to success for parties having that focus on the real long term? Not just planning how to win the next election, but already thinking about who’s going to win the ones after that? It seems that a good leader can make a party successful and electable in the short term, but something else in the party’s institutions and operations is needed if it’s going to win after they’ve moved on or the electorate has tired of them.


In today’s ‘glad I didn’t submit my dissertation yesterday’ news, Nicholas Whyte has drawn my attention to an interesting article from the upcoming Parliamentary Affairs supplement on the General Election. “From Coalition to Catastrophe: The Electoral Meltdown of the Liberal Democrats” is by David Cutts and Andrew Russell, academics who’ve written lots on the party over the years (Russell’s the co-author of Neither Left or Right: The Liberal Democrats and the electorate, which has been very useful for my dissertation) and available to read for free. I look forward to watching people read it and then playing the ‘my anecdote trumps your academic data’ game…

In dissertation news, I am 99.9% complete, and just have to convert a couple of spreadsheet data tables into text format to add them into the document. Once done, and probably when the deadline’s passed, I’m going to post it in section son the blog as I think a lot of will find it of interest, and it’ll hopefully spark a debate. So look out for that either before the weekend or in a couple of weeks, depending on if I manage it before or after I go on holiday.

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