» Elections ¦ What You Can Get Away With

The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)

Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.

First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.

As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.

The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.

For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.

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electiondebateThe general election debate dance used to be simple. The leader of whichever of the Conservative or Labour partes was trailing in the polls demanded one, then the one who was in the lead hemmed, hawed and put so many conditions in the way of having one that they could never be accused of turning it down, but guaranteed that it would never happen. The leaders of the third and other parties presumably had opinions on this, but as the debates were never a serious proposition, they didn’t get aired, unless their inclusion or not was one of the roadblocks thrown in the way it happened.

Then in 2010, the stars aligned in just the right way and we had our three debates between the leaders of the three leading parties. Understandably, this has created an expectation that they’ll happen again, which would set us off on an even more complicated path of negotiation even without the changes that have happened in politics over the last few years.

In that context, the initial proposal for the debates – a debate with Cameron and Miliband, then a debate with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, and finally one with Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – would make sense as a wrecking proposal from someone who didn’t really want a debate. It’s bizarrely convoluted, it ignores the Greens, it means each debate is going to end up covering the same ground as the new inclusion in the later debates will want to revisit that and it doesn’t appear to satisfy anyone. Job done, except this came from the broadcasters, not a politician, and I’ve no idea how they managed to come up with such a dog’s breakfast of a proposal.

The key point here is that the broadcasters are in a position of strength as the public will be expecting debates this time, so they’ve got the ‘we’re going ahead with this format, with or without you’ card to play. The public would accept an empty chair, if they think the broadcasters have been fair and it looks like someone being petulant. As it is, this proposed system just guarantees Cameron and Miliband having the same discussion for three weeks, with extra guests being invited to interject on the reruns.

The way I see it, there are five parties that pass the credibility test for being included in a UK-wide debate: they’ve all had MPs and MEPs elected, polls suggest they will get MPs elected at the next election and they’re standing in a majority of the seats at the election. (To the best of my knowledge, no party is intending to stand in all of them) That means debates between the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens, and the formula should be on the same lines as last time: one on the economy, one on foreign affairs and one on domestic issues. The one thing I would agree with David Cameron on is that because of fixed term parliaments we now know exactly when the election will be, they could be spaced out over a few months before, not all crammed into the campaign. I’d also suggest that similar debates with similar criteria for entry should occur in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that the broadcasters should commit to showing these across the UK on free-to-air channels.

The debates worked last time because they were simple and everyone could understand what they were about and why the leaders were there. The political system now isn’t quite as simple, but that doesn’t mean we need to add an extra level of complexity into the debates. Three debates, each on a theme, with five leaders at each is the best way of achieving that this time around.

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Via Jonathan Calder, the words of a Telegraph ‘political commentator’:

For very good reasons, Britain’s political parties do not campaign on election day.

This will likely confuse all of you reading this who are involved in politics, though I’m sure we’ll all be glad to know that we get polling day off after those long campaigns. All that getting up at 5am to deliver the first leaflet of the day, followed by hours of knocking on doors and more delivery must just have been a recurring bad dream I had every May.

Or it may just be that we don’t understand what campaigning is. Iain Martin, the journalist who wrote those words, got into a conversation with Lib Dem activist Chris Lovell last night, appears to think campaigning consists of just rallies and speeches and anything else is just “people with clipboards driving voters to polling stations”.

But then, is that all most journalists see of political campaigns? Most journalists writing about politics have never had any direct experience of it or involvement with it, and their job consists of going where the parties tell them to go to and working out which spin doctor’s stories they’re going to pay the most attention to when they write their stories. For them, political campaigns are a mix of media stunts, rallies and Important Speeches by Important People where the only role of party members and activists is to make up a useful backdrop and make sure they hold the placards the right way up. As none of this happens on polling day and journalists don’t have any invites to anything until the counting starts, it’s easy to make the assumption that there’s no campaigning going on.

Whereas most activists will tell you that polling day is the most important and busiest of the campaigning. The reason everyone looks hollow-eyed at the count is because they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning (assuming they got any sleep at all) and subsisting on whatever food they can grab. The big campaign events may not be happening – because they won’t get any coverage in the media – but all the other parts of campaigning are going at full tilt.

For a journalist – and specifically one credited as a political commentator – to claim that there’s no campaigning on polling day reveals just how shallow most coverage of politics is. Campaigns are like icebergs – there’s a very visible part on the surface, but a whole lot more happening beneath that. Journalists used to know this, but now they’re so dazzled by the bit on the surface, they imagine there’s nothing going on underneath.

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Officials count ballot papers in WitneyWriting on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Steven Ayres looks at where UKIP’s vote came from in the 2014 local elections, and what this might mean in next year’s general election.

It’s an interesting piece, but it brings me back a thought I’ve had recently with regard to UKIP’s chances next years and whether analysis is factoring in the effects of differential turnout and the motivation to vote of UKIP voters.

One assumption that we tend to make in projecting local election results forward to a general election is that the different turnout at the two elections can be ignored as a factor. We know that general elections have larger turnouts that local elections, but we assume that the voters who turn out at local elections are a proportional sample of the voters who’ll turn out at the general election. As an example, imagine a constituency with four parties where 20,000 people will vote at a general election, but only 10,000 of those will vote at the preceding local election. At that local election, we get the following result:

  • Party A: 4000 votes
  • Party B: 3000 votes
  • Party C: 2000 votes
  • Party D: 1000 votes
  • The tendency is to assume that the percentages of votes received in that election represent the share of opinion amongst the wider electorate and that thus amongst the general election electorate of 20,000 Party A will have 8,000 voters (40%), Party B will have 6000 voters (30%) etc. We assume that the 50% who will turn out for the local election is drawn equally from the parties – a Party A voter and a Party D general election voter both have a 50% probability of voting in the local election.

    The reason I’m writing this in relation to UKIP votes is that it seems to me that projections of what UKIP might do in 2015 assume that their voters turned out at the same rate in 2013 and 2014 as did supporters of the other parties. I’d need to go back to some of the polling from before May’s elections to confirm this, but my recollection is that it showed UKIP supporters were much more likely to intend to vote than those of other parties.

    To go back to the example, we assume it represents voter intention amongst the wider population, but what if each party’s supporters had a wildly different likelihood to vote at local elections? For example, if Party A’s supporters were 80% likely to vote at local elections, while Party D’s were only 20% likely, both could actually have 5,000 supporters amongst the general population. Extrapolating a general election result from a local one when the parties have had differing levels of turnout is not going to produce accurate forecasts.

    To return to the UKIP question, one thing I have noticed is that while they have had relatively high percentages in some elections, they’ve not gone beyond around x% of the total electorate. By my calculation, the share of the electorate UKIP have got in high-profile elections recently is:

  • Eastleigh by-election: 14.7%
  • Newark by-election: 13.7%
  • 2014 Euro election (East of England): 12.4%
  • 2014 Euro elections (East Midlands): 10.9%
  • 2014 Euro elections (national share): 9.4%
  • Rotherham by-election: 7.3%
  • Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election: 6.7%
  • South Shields by-election: 6.4%
  • My suspicion – and it’d take a lot of time with a lot of polling and election data and a stats package to explore that in more depth – is that UKIP’s peak support within the electorate is somewhere around 15%, but they are much more likely to turn out at all elections than voters for the other parties are. Thus, in elections with a lower turnout, their higher propensity to vote and our tendency to assume that those elections are a mirror of voters as a whole makes them look more of a threat in the general election than they will actually be. However, in a general election with turnouts of over 60%, it’s very hard for a party that can’t get more than 20% of the electorate to win a seat. That would require winning a seat with 33% of the vote or less, and while that’s possible, it’s very rare.

    UKIP’s dilemma for next year is that their best chance of winning seats comes if a) there’s a low overall turnout in a seat, allowing the higher motivation of their voters to be a factor and b) there are multiple parties competing for a seat, thus making it possible to win with a low share of the vote. However, seats with strong competition between multiple parties are unlikely to have a low turnout because of the amount of campaigning that’s done in them. It seems that UKIP are very good at getting out the vote, but they’ll need to broaden the number of people willing to vote for them to have a serious chance of winning a Westminster seat.

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    These are the results for Colchester in the Essex County Council elections. Full results can be found on the Essex County Council website.

    Abbey: Lib Dem (Margaret Fisher) 1273, UKIP 786, Labour 519, Green 467, Conservative 395. LD hold
    Constable: Conservative (Anne Brown) 2075, UKIP 1471, Labour 504, Green 387, Lib Dem (Carolyn Catney) 303. Con hold.
    Drury: Conservative (Sue Lissimore) 1957, Lib Dem (Nick Cope) 1127, UKIP 951, Labour 527, Green 314. Con hold.
    Maypole: Labour (Dave Harris) 1665, Lib Dem (Lyn Barton) 933, UKIP 573, Conservative 475, Green 143. Labour gain from Lib Dem.
    Mersea and Tiptree: Conservative (John Jowers) 1913, UKIP 1134, Labour 629, Green 216, Lib Dem (Gill Collings) 181. Con hold.
    Mile End and Highwoods: Lib Dem (Anne Turrell) 1417, Conservative 888, UKIP 725, Labour 408, Green 180. Lib Dem hold.
    Parsons Heath and East Gates: Lib Dem (Theresa Higgins) 1259, UKIP 809, Conservative 609, Labour 489, Green 192. Lib Dem hold.
    Stanway and Pyefleet: Conservative (Kevin Bentley) 1723, UKIP 929, Lib Dem (Jessica Scott-Boutell) 829, Labour 491, Green 247. Conservative hold.
    Wivenhoe St Andrew: Labour (Julie Young) 1895, UKIP 599, Conservative 562, Lib Dem (Shaun Boughton) 383, Green 248. Labour hold.

    I don’t have the full result yet, but I have been informed that, along with Janet Nunn and Nigel Quinton, I’ve been elected as one of the members of the East of England Liberal Democrat Regional Policy Committee. Thank you to everyone who voted for me – I look forward to having the chance to get on with the things I wrote about here.

    There are other places on the committee still to be filled, and there are three places available for Liberal Democrat councillors in the region, as well as two from the region’s parliamentarians and two from the regional executive. If you are a councillor and interested in one of those positions, then you should have received details from the regional secretary about how to put yourself forward as a candidate.

    I’ll hopefully be providing some updates and feedback here during my time on the RPC, and I’m always open to hear your thoughts and comments.

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    There’s an interesting article on Buzzfeed about American right-wing bloggers and their determination to prove President Obama was somehow unfit or unqualified for office.

    (Spoiler: they failed)

    It’s interesting because it’s an examination because even though it doesn’t use the word, it’s an examination of political groupthink. We have a group – however informally constituted – who have decided on a plan of action and then continue to press on with that course of action despite evidence that it isn’t working. The article goes through a lot of the ideas that this group were pushing, having committed themselves to the belief that Obama was a dangerous radical and that all they needed was the single piece of proof that would bring him down. (In that light, the belief in, and desperate searching for, the seemingly mythical video in which Michelle Obama used the word ‘whitey’ becomes something like a grail quest)

    The consensus that soon emerged on the right was that if Americans were fully aware of Obama’s relationship with extremists like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, they never would have elected him. And since tank-dwelling mainstream reporters couldn’t be trusted to expose The Real Obama, it would be left to the crusading online right to get the job done.

    The reality – that Obama is a moderate Democrat, whose political views would likely place him on the centre-right of European politics – just doesn’t get a look in. It’s very easy for us to point and laugh at the Tea Party types because their errors are so extreme. Outside of the bubble. the idea that he’s a radical socialist, a secret Muslim or Kenyan-born is obviously nonsense, but does that help us to forget that we’re sitting in our own bubbles?

    It’s easy enough to point to groupthink on the extremes where it’s obvious – the belief that if the Tories swung hard to the right and embraced the UKIP agenda, they’d get a majority, for instance, or the old Left belief that Labour’s mistake was not being revolutionary socialist enough in 1983 – but I think that there are many examples within the mainstream of politics too.

    In the closest parallel to Obama, consider the attempts to depict Ed Miliband as some kind of socialist firebrand dominated by the unions. As with Obama, the idea that ‘Red Ed’ wants to take the country back to some cartoon version on the 1970s is barely plausible in the real world but is an article of faith on the right. (The same applies to an extent on the left, though, where the caricature David Cameron drinks the tears of starving children with his nightly caviar)

    The problem is that the web has made it much easier to slip into groupthink mode. It’s very easy now to launch an attack on a political opponent, get lots of support and back-slapping from an army of Twitter warriors and congratulate yourself on a job well done, despite the fact that your attack has never registered with the public at all. However, you can point at the blog hits you’ve got, the retweets you’ve received, the likes and +1s you’ve achieved while not drawing attention to the fact that all these are coming from the same pool. It’s a classic reward for groupthink – do something that appeases the group and reaffirms their central idea and get praise, criticise it and get ostracised. (Or at least, not linked to.) Compare that to the work the old political operatives had to do to create their networks.

    Of course, you could argue that in order to exist and thrive, political parties have to practice some form of groupthink, otherwise they’ll splinter too easily over internal divisions.

    And no, I’m not excluding myself and my fellow Liberal Democrats from falling victim to political groupthink. Indeed, I think much of the party is falling into groupthink mode over staying in the coalition where lots of evidence is being ignored or twisted in order to proclaim that it’s a good thing and that we must stick it out for the long term. Slivers of good news get praised to the skies, while bad news is ignored or rationalised away. Don’t worry about a lost deposit in Corby, praise some local by-election victories instead!

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