» Elections ¦ What You Can Get Away With

There are no MPs for the next thirty-eight days. Parliament was dissolved in the middle of the night, so if you see someone using the title MP you can let loose your inner pedant and correct them. Or report them to the proper authorities if that’s your preference.

Yes, after an extended build up that’s put Hollywood’s current trend of teaser trailers for trailers for blockbusters to shame, we’re finally into the full 2015 General Election campaign. I was looking back over my blogging from the last election yesterday and noticed that from dissolution to election day was only 31 days, so yes, election campaigns are getting longer nowadays.

Which means I’m going to be trying to find something to say and blog about for thirty-eight days in total. Hopefully, the campaign will generate some issues to keep me going – though I’m worried about the big lull in activity that the Easter weekend will no doubt bring – but please forgive me in advance if I end up doing a post on something banal and dull like the colour of leaders’ ties, what it must be like to spend days on the same ‘battlebus’ or minor opinion poll variations.

I’m not planning to do a series of posts that just recaps what’s happened in the day – that’s what newspaper website liveblogs are for – so I’m going to try and blog about any interesting ideas that have come up during the campaign, or obscure things that I think deserve a bit more coverage. I’m definitely planning to look at some of the micro and niche parties who’ll be competing in the election, because it’s a phenomenon that interests me. There’s something very noble about people putting hundreds of pounds into election campaigns that will likely return votes at a very poor ratio to the amount spent, and it’ll be interesting to look at some of those motivations.

The big difference from last time is that this year I’m not as involved in the campaign itself, so I’ve got a bit more freedom to talk about things, but won’t be regaling you with tales of things discovered while doorknocking or delivering. I’ll still be doing some delivering to help out friends, but nothing like the amount I was doing last time around.

One other thing worth remembering that there are a lot of council elections going on at the same time as the general election, as this year’s coincides with one of the biggest sets of council elections in England. The higher turnout will have an effect on these elections, and even if councils have fewer powers than most people think, they’ll still have a big effect on the political landscape for the next few years. It’ll be interesting times for the smaller parties and their presence in local government – can the Greens stay the biggest party in Brighton and advance anywhere else, and will UKIP end up in charge of a council somewhere? Not that there’ll be much coverage of the council elections during the campaign, but they’ll be an important part of it for a lot of people they’ll be just as important as the Parliamentary ones.

I’m going to stick to my guns and not make any public predictions about the election result and aftermath, but this does look like being a fascinating campaign, even if that fascination may end up being in who ends up winning the race to the bottom, and then who buys the mining equipment to go deeper. Sometime at the end of it all we’ll have a new government in some shape or form, and then we can begin speculating about 2020.

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

In no particular order:

The real winners last night were Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4. Given the chance to do what he does best and forensically interview leading politicians, Paxman was at his best. Both times, it felt a shame that the interview had to come to an end when it did: Cameron’s because he was on the defensive and clearly wanted it over, Miliband’s because he’d come to life and was clearly ready for more.

Kay Burley was as terrible as you’d expect. Fawning over Cameron, then continually interjecting and interrupting when Miliband was on, she was poor as a moderator, and helped the sections with the audience feel very much like filler sections in between the two Paxman interviews.

No one won, but Miliband didn’t need to. The Tory message has been that Ed Miliband is barely capable of tying his own shoelaces while David Cameron is the strong and capable leader capable of negotiating our relationship with the EU. Neither of those look like good arguments after last night, and the danger of setting such low expectations for Miliband is that it’s very easy for him to overcome them.

‘Cameron scared of debates’ is still a story. One of the messages being repeated in a lot of the morning reporting is people asking why they couldn’t have a head to head debate, or wouldn’t it be good to see them having a head to head debate. Agreeing to some debates means people are still asking why he didn’t agree to the full set of them.

We need more in depth interviews in the campaign. The Paxman sections were the most interesting part of last night, and needed to be longer, and some of the more interesting political moments of the last few years have come in proper interviews – James O’Brien and Nigel Farage, Eddie Mair and Boris Johnson, for instance – and the campaign would benefit from a lot more of these and a lot less photo ops and press conferences. A tough, forensic interview of a senior politician, going on for half an hour or more, is a pretty rare event nowadays, and last night showed it could be much more effective than another Q&A with an audience.

Will the story of the election now be Cameron vs Miliband? Last night framed the election as two-way fight between them, and the post-debate coverage is barely mentioning the other parties. Will this framing persist and keep portraying the election as between the two big parties – and will this effect the polls? – or will the start of the campaign and next week’s seven-way debate open it all up again?

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And she still hasn't got her new maternity unit, either.

And she still hasn’t got her new maternity unit, either.

The two major referendums we’ve had during this Parliament – 2011’s on AV and 2014’s on Scottish independence – were both very different, but I think the after effect of both of them has been quite similar. In both cases, it was expected by many that the rejection of change would be the end of the issue for a long time, and things would go back the way they’d use to been. The issues that had led to the referendum being called would slowly fade away, and there’d be no need to consider any further change.

The result of the AV referendum was not just presented as a disaster for the Lib Dems, but also an indication that we would return to an age of two-party politics. After all, at that time Labour and the Tories were both up around 40% in the polls, and the growth in support for other parties hadn’t begun. The people had spoken, it was thought, and would now get over the idea that we could have multi-party politics in this country.

Unfortunately for that view, things haven’t proceeded in that way. The factors that led to the breakdown of old party loyalties which led to the 2010 election result that gave us the circumstances behind the AV referendum were all still in place, and a single referendum was never going to end that. The social factors that supported the old two-party system – the class-based cleavages – have been losing their power for years and that wasn’t changed by the AV campaign. Instead, what we’ve seen is a continued unravelling of party loyalties and the situation we’ve got now where reaching 35% in the polls regularly would seem like a commanding lead.

In retrospect, the most important electoral event of May 2011 is clearly the Scottish Parliament election where we had the supreme irony of a proportional electoral system delivering the single-party majority that our existing national system now seems unable to. That of course laid the ground for last year’s Scottish referendum which again was meant to settle a question for a generation or more.

Yet again, in the aftermath of the vote, the assumption was made that the issue was over and that the SNP would fade away again. That’s most clear in David Cameron’s speech the morning after, where he clearly thought the Unionist position was a lot stronger than it turned out to be. Again, the assumption was that after a referendum, the people would have spoken and the issue would be somehow resolved by this, yet the underlying issues that had led to the referendum happening hadn’t been resolved by it. If anything, the referendum result clarified them even more, and that’s led to the SNP’s rise in the national polls.

This is why referendums aren’t good ways of making decisions because they imagine that a result will ‘resolve the issue’ regardless of which way it goes. What referendum proponents neglect to understand is that they an only tackle surface factors, and because they’re concentrated on just one piece of an issue, they can never address the wider factors. Those advocating that we should have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU ‘because we’d win it, and that’d end the argument’ should be aware that recent evidence suggests it would do anything but, and could well create even more issues in its wake.

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election-590x288Yes, I know you’ve all been listening to podcasts a lot longer than me, but something’s not really a trend until I jump onto it several years later than everyone else.

Anyway, after Chris Brooke‘s numerous plugs for it, I’ve started listening to the Cambridge Politics department’s Election podcast and from the evidence of the two that I’ve listened to so far, it’s the show about politics I’ve been wanting for years. In depth interviews with interesting people where they get to talk at length about issues, coupled with interesting discussion about current political events that’s not just about discussing who’s done best at PR in the last week, it’s also just the right length to last for my walk between home and the University campus.

I enjoyed it, and if you’re the sort of person who likes this blog, then you might find it interesting too. Find it here, and if there are any other interesting politics podcasts you’d like to recommend to me, let me know in the comments.

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1992graph

The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

As David Boyle wrote in a recent post, anticipating that this will also be the case in 2015. (It’s not like David’s the first person to say that, and he likely won’t be the last, but he happened to say it on the day I felt like writing about the subject.)

It’s become a truism, often spoken by worried Liberal Democrat activists as a morale-booster to lift the hopes and the spirits as they see another set of polls recording the party in single figures and duelling for fourth place with the Greens. The election campaign will be starting soon, they eagerly say, and our poll rating always improves during the election campaign.

Unlike most political truisms, this one actually happens to be broadly true. If you look at the records of polling from 1970 onwards that are kept on UK Polling Report, there’s an uptick in Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat voting intention in the last part of every graph, so it is true that Liberal Democrats have generally done better than the pre-election campaign polls suggest they would. And yes, I’m being careful to use the past tense there.

Two things worth remembering here:

  • Past trends do not indicate future performance
  • Trends in politics and other fields always continue applying right up until they don’t
  • At this point, I don’t know if the campaign will see a rise in Liberal Democrat support as happened in other general election campaigns, but given that there’s one major difference between this and those other campaigns, I think it’s misguided to just assume it will happen regardless.

    (I did have a look to see if I could find any academic studies on this, but couldn’t find any – please point me in the direction of any you know of)

    They key difference, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats have been in government for the last five years, something that wasn’t true at the time of any of the previous surges. Leaving aside issues of ‘party of protest’ votes, what this means is that the Liberal Democrats have been much more prominent in the media over the last five years than they have during previous Parliaments. Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet and ministers are regularly in the news, and the party as a whole is getting much more coverage outside of election time than it ever has before. In short, voters are much more likely now to have much more information about the Liberal Democrats than they ever had before.

    One of these days I’m going to do a longer post explaining Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, but for now it’s important just to note that one of the important determinants of how people vote is the amount of information they have about a party. In previous elections, most voters came into the election campaign knowing relatively little about the Liberal Democrats because the party’s dearth of mainstream media coverage didn’t give them the opportunity to receive much information about the party. So, when election time came around and the media started featuring Liberal Democrats more at a time when people’s awareness of political issues was heightened, it understandably affected their voting behaviour. Coupled with an ability to run a strong campaign (one of the few campaigns where this effect didn’t seem to happen was 1987, when the Alliance campaign was a mess), this meant that when voters made their decision, they had a number of positive thoughts about the Liberal Democrats.

    The situation this year is completely different as time in government means the Liberal Democrats are no longer an unknown and fresh party to voters. While the party will obviously get good amounts of coverage in the election campaign, this will not be received by voters in the same way it was before as they now already have a bank of opinions about the party to weigh any new considerations against. People seeing Nick Clegg aren’t seeing the effectively new person voters saw in 2010, they’re seeing the man who’s been Deputy Prime Minister and regularly on the news for the last five years with all the connotations that brings. In previous elections, voters were open to receiving campaign messages from the Liberal Democrats because they didn’t have many pre-existing views about the party, but now they do, and we don’t know how those will affect voters’ decisions.

    The idea that voters in 2015 are going to react the same way to exposure to Liberal Democrats that voters in previous elections did completely misses out that the party is in a fundamentally different position going in to this election than it was in any of the previous ones where the ‘Liberal surge’ occurred. Expecting things to happen just as they did before when fundamental conditions have changed is nothing more than wishful thinking.

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    I said Carswell, not Criswell!

    I said Carswell, not Criswell!

    We are now just 58 days away from the 2015 General Election, which you might have heard about through the odd fleeting mention of it on the news, in the media or even on this blog. What you might also be aware of is that I’m currently a Masters student in the Department of Government at the University of Essex and the academics there are also aware of this upcoming event. (It’s usually known as a ‘large scale sampling of voter intention data’)

    The department is having a competition to predict the outcome of the election, for which the winner will receive £200. Entries are limited to students within the department, but we’re not limited to the methods we use to generate our predictions, so I thought I should take advantage of this blog’s readership (and my Facebook friends too) to see what sort of prediction would come from the wisdom of (small and possibly skewed) crowds.

    So here’s my idea. You give me your predictions, I put them through a complex process of weighting and discarding obvious outliers and submit my prediction. Should it win, I will use some of the winnings to pay for drinks at a pub-based gathering of you all (date and location TBC should I win). As a special bonus, the person in the comments who gets the closest to the final result will receive the traditional prize of British political blogging, dating back to before the 2005 General Election: Matthew Turner’s CD of Simply Red’s Stars.

    I have to get my prediction in before 10pm on Thursday 12th March (eight weeks before polling closes) but you can keep predicting here long after that if you so wish. So, the two questions in the prediction are:

    1) Predict the Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) percentage share of the vote for the Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. (1 penalty point awarded for each 0.2% the prediction is out per party)
    2) Predict the number of seats won at the election by the Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and SNP. (1 penalty point awarded for each seat the prediction is away from the result)

    The winner is the person with the fewest points. I think that makes it all quite clear, but please ask if it’s not. So go ahead and predict, and just maybe the post-election drinks will be (partly) on me.

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    digitaldemocracyThey had the Digital Democracy debate in Parliament this morning. This link should take you to a transcript for the rest of today, but I’ll need to go to Hansard in the morning to get a permanent link to it. (UPDATE: Here it – hopefully permanently – is) That does show just one of the problems we have with the concept of ‘digital democracy’ and as I said before, I think a lot of the Commission’s proposals, especially around education and participation, are very good and the next Government needs to work to introduce them.

    However, all those good ideas flee the room the moment online voting gets discussed. What we get at that point is the MPs doing the equivalent of demanding that everyone gets their own hoverboard by 2020, regardless of what the laws of physics might say about that possibility. If the House of Commons wants to ignore the laws of physics, it damn well should be able to!

    Eppur si muove, as they say, and if I had better Latin, or any Latin at all I’d add ‘and yet it’s still not secure’ to all their beliefs that everything will be fine with online voting if we just wish for it hard enough. Robert Halfon gave a speech that was a masterpiece of Parliamentary because-I-wish-it-so nonsense, that in a true online and digital democracy would have been littered with ‘[citation needed]’ markers as he spoke. For instance, in one short paragraph of his speech:

    People want new options[citation needed], and it is up to us to provide them with some[dubious claim – why can’t the people generate their own?]. We must not fool ourselves: the decline in voter participation is strongly linked[citation needed] to the fact that new generations interact in different ways[citation needed] and therefore require different ways of appealing to them[citation needed].

    He then later goes on to discuss Estonia’s online voting as though no one had pointed out the many many security holes in that system but then, it seems that anyone who wrote to him about voting security was apparently ‘abusive’ and using a ‘farcical argument’ because our current voting system is not perfectly secure. By the same logic, the next time Mr Halfon needs to replace a bucket with a hole in it, I shall recommend he buys a sieve.

    Robert Halfon is not alone in suddenly shedding any demands for reasonable evidence in order to embrace the bright shiny precious of online voting. Tom Brake manages it too, telling how a survey on Facebook reached a whole eleven people of which seven were in favour of it, and someone called Andy thinks it can be made secure. There’s your slogan: Online voting – Andy says your vote is safe.

    There is a point here, and it’s that MPs need to be sceptical about claims of the proposed benefits of online voting because there are far too many people out there who’ll happily ignore all the flaws in the hope of making large sums of money from it. For an example, see this blog post from Electoral Reform Services (the commercial arm of the Electoral Reform Society) which asserts that online voting, and particularly their version of it that they want to sell to you, is perfectly safe.

    It may be that we’re just days away from a breakthrough in security that will make online voting safe, just like physicists might now be putting the final working touches to the gravity-nullifying devices that will make hoverboards a reality. Then again, it might never come, and rushing ahead as though it will definitely come is asking for disaster. When we get tweets like this from MPs:


    I wonder what else they would like to legislate will happen before 2020? If Parliament wants to put serious investment into electronic security (particularly to educating people to keep the computers they’d be voting on free from viruses and malware) then maybe we might get somewhere, or at least the spinoff benefits of improved security systems would benefit us all. If they just want to rush ahead regardless, we’re all in trouble.

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