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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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.

'Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.'

‘Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.’

Certain over-excited speculation (totally unlike the reasoned deliberation you find on this blog) about the possible fallout of a Corbyn win in the Labour leadership election has suggested some MPs might leave Labour for pastures new. As ever, with rumours of MPs defecting, it’s worth taking them with a bucketful of salt as while speculation of possible defections is often rife, actual defections are usually very thin on the ground.

However, Labour swinging to the left after a leadership election has been a trigger for a major wave of defections before, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out straight away. However, as I see it, there are two main problems any would-be defectors would face.

First up is the simple question of where would they go? Jumping straight across to the Conservatives seems unlikely, and there have been very few examples of MPs making that switch (the last was Reg Prentice in 1977), especially compared to the number who’ve gone the other way. However, switching to the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t be as easy as some may think. While the right of the Labour Party might be close to the Lib Dem economic position, it’s also the part of Labour that’s most likely to differ with them over security and civil liberties issues. Effectively, you’d be asking the wing of the Labour party that were among the biggest cheerleaders for invading Iraq and ‘anti-terror crackdowns’ to make common cause with a party that was amongst the fiercest opposition to those.

The only other option open to any potential defectors is to set up a new party, at which point the image of the SDP becomes the ghost at the feast (and David Owen is awakened from his slumbers to stalk news studios). It’s not an entirely impossible proposition (and Progress has always looked to me like something that could be turned into the nucleus of a new party if required) but it’s still a major step, coupled with a very high level of risk. Sure, you might form the party that can claim the whole of the centre ground and dominate British politics for a generation, but history suggests a gradual fade into oblivion is more likely.

Even after those structural issues are set aside, the second – and much more important in the short term – issue how any potential defector answers the Carswell Question: ‘will you be re-standing in a by-election?’ Carswell’s defection last year wasn’t just interesting because it came with little speculation beforehand, but because of the example he set (and Mark Reckless then followed) in calling a by-election to validate his defection. Now, you could argue that those were exceptions to the rule (no other defector since Bruce Douglas-Mann in 1982 had done the same) but you can sure that the media will ask the question incessantly. Any defector has to be prepared to face a by-election, or have a good answer to that question that they’re prepared to stick to – saying you wouldn’t call a by-election, then doing so, would likely be a good way to lose it.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see any defections if Corbyn wins, but as the cost and risk of doing it has been raised, expect any potential defectors to try and resolve their issues with the party first instead of jumping ship immediately. Indeed, the perfect scenario for any defector would be to get themselves pushed out before they get the chance to jump.

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chapmansillySomewhere in Labour HQ this morning, a junior apparatchik is frantically scouring the party constitution and rulebook, attempting to find a Graham Chapman Rule that allows the party’s NEC to step in and declare that the leadership election is over because it’s all getting too silly. I’ll admit that my own party’s leadership election has been occupying my attention for the last couple of months, so I may have missed some developments in Labour’s but it does appear to have gone particularly silly over the last few days, culminating in a poll that shows Jeremy Corbyn could actually win. The summer is traditionally the ‘silly season’ of British politics, and Labour are putting on a fantastic end of the party pier show for us all to enjoy. Anyway, some thoughts:

Leadership elections are hard to poll. First, you have to find a sample of party members, affiliated members and newly registered supporters. Then you need to make that sample representative of the party membership as a whole, which is difficult because you don’t have the benchmarks to judge your sample against. I don’t doubt that YouGov have tried their best to ensure this poll is representative – and given the size of their panel and the information they have on them, they’re possibly the only pollster who do stand a chance of doing it right – but there are lots of variables in play here. The broad picture – Corbyn ahead, Burnham and Cooper fighting for second, Kendall slipping back in fourth – is probably right, but the figures attached to them may not be.

But, this poll will help Corbyn the most. One of the interesting factors in the breakdown of the results is that while Corbyn leads in both groups of voters, he’s got an overwhelming lead amongst affiliates and supporters. One of the key drivers of his campaign has been to appeal to the wider left outside the Labour Party to encourage them to sign up to vote for him, and this seems to be working. A poll that puts him in the lead is a great recruiting tool because now they can persuade people that they’re not wasting their £3 in signing up to support him, because he has a genuine chance of winning.

For the others, while it does show that they might need to rally around an ‘anyone but Corbyn’ candidate, it’s hard to see them getting people to sign up as supporters of the Labour Party in order to stop Corbyn winning. Corbyn has a ready pool of people to go and target to grow his electorate, but it’s hard to think of a large group of people who’d do the same for one of the other three. Surely almost anyone with a pressing desire to keep the Labour Party moderate is already a member?

The curse of the Serious People and their Serious Politics. Part of the movement into the Silly Phase of the leadership contest has been the inevitable arrival of various newspaper comment pieces and TV appearances by Labour’s Very Serious People to wearily scold the party membership for not being Serious People who want to vote for Serious Politicians. This has culminated in the reappearance of the Most Serious Politician himself, Tony Blair, to explain to the Labour membership that they should be forming a movement that calls for him to be restored as leader immediately doing absolutely nothing that disturbs the consensus.

As Jennie pointed out the other day, the exasperated sigh of benevolent paternalism that accompanies most of these interventions is apt to backfire as much as it is to succeed. For all his faults, Corbyn offers a vision of hope to the Labour membership and the wider left, not capitulation to the ruling narrative and the continuation of austerity seemingly for ever. I’ve said before that this Daily Mash piece proves that the best truth is often in satire and a message of hope, even if it’s nothing more detailed than Maybe Not That in response to Endless Austerity For Everyone, is always going to play better with this electorate. The world looks quite differently to most Labour voters who aren’t Very Serious People in the Westminster bubble.

Even if Corbyn doesn’t win, Labour’s internal dynamics are changed. Maybe the poll is wrong, and Burnham or Cooper will win by a comfortable margin (I’m hoping for Cooper, so I can still hope to point smugly to this post in the future) but unless it’s wildly and badly wrong, Corbyn will gather an impressive share of the vote and will have signed up lots of new people as Labour members and supporters. It’d be a huge show of strength by the Left within Labour and whoever the new leader is, they couldn’t ignore it. As Corbyn’s vote looks likely to substantially eclipse Kendall’s, the left of the party will have a much stronger case to be involved and included compared to the party’s right. Will the new leader seek to accommodate them, or keep freezing them out in the hope they’ll drift away? Do they decide to hang around and hope for better luck next time, or set off on their own?

Are Labour mirroring the Tories in opposition? Ed Miliband was Labour’s William Hague: promoted to the leadership after a short Parliamentary career beating more favoured candidates because the party thought he was a new and fresh choice. Despite occasional chinks of light and numerous shifts in policy and direction, his party remained mired in roughly the same position for most of his tenure though was convinced that the new Government was an aberration and they’d just sleepwalk into power. At the election, his campaign featured a campaign to save a national institution (for him it was the NHS, for Hague the pound) that the electorate outside of his own party weren’t convinced was under threat and he went down to defeat.

Having done that, Labour are now echoing the Tories of 2001 by having a chaotic leadership election in place of a debate about the party’s future that could well elect a figure from the party’s fringe who’s benefited from MPs voting against their preferred candidate (IDS’s supporters voted tactically to keep Portillo from the member ballot, Corbyn’s been nominated by MPs who don’t support him). So, which veteran MP gets to play Michael Howard and remove him in 2017?

What happens if Corbyn actually does win? Nothing dull, I think we can be sure of that. While some in the Corbyn camp are already plotting the first purge, no one actually knows what sort of leader he would be. He’d likely be the least-experienced leader of a major party since the war having never held a frontbench position. Some compare him to Michael Foot, but Foot had been a Cabinet minister under Wilson and Callaghan, and had decades of experience as a senior Labour figure, while Corbyn has been a backbencher for 32 years. He wants to bring back Labour’s Shadow Cabinet elections, but who would actually stand for them given how few MPs there are from the left in the Labour Party?

What would the reaction of the Labour right be? Should they hang on in there and hope he is the new IDS so he can be dumped, hopefully contaminating the whole idea of a leader from the left on the way? Or do they decide that the SDP had the right idea, they were just a few decades too early? Lots of Very Serious People would welcome a Party of Sensible Non Boat Rocking Centrists, but could they get the critical mass to make it work? Electing Corbyn throws everything into flux, and it’d be foolish to make predictions at this point. That won’t stop many people doing so – I look forward to the Sun or the Mail showing us the nightmare of life in Britain under the communist jackboot of Comrade Corbyn – but for now all that speculation just threatens to be silly enough to summon the spirit of Graham Chapman, telling us to stop.

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