» Politics ¦ 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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snp_cards_and_coin_0A comment by Andrew Hickey got me thinking this morning about how the SNP’s surge in membership fits in a European context. In the post-referendum period, the party now reportedly has 80,000 or more members which makes it the third-largest UK party by membership, but also means its membership is about 2% of the total Scottish electorate. (As a comparison, to achieve that UK-wide, a party would need a membership of over 900,000)

Luckily, to place that into a European context, I don’t need to do a huge amount of work because someone else has already looked at party membership in general across Europe. Van Biezen, Mair and Poguntke looked at the decline of party membership across Europe and their original paper not only includes the overall membership figures for each country, but breaks it down by party. By looking through their figures, I’ve found the following parties that all have around 2% or more of the electorate as members:

Austria: Peoples Party – OVP (700k members/11% of population) and Social Democratic Party – SPO (300k/5%)
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Socialist Party (210k/3%)
Cyprus: Democratic Rally – DISY (40k/9%) and Democratic Party – DIKO (19k/4%)
Finland: Centre Party – KESK (192k/5%)
Greece: New Democracy (350k/4%) and PASOK (210k/2.5%)
Spain: People’s Party (725k/2%)

(Note that these figures are from around 2008, so don’t include new parties that might have reached the 2% milestone by now, or reflect any drop in members since they were obtained. I’d be very surprised if the Greek figures were still even vaguely accurate, for example. They also don’t include regional or national parties like the SNP like the Catalan nationalist parties or the Italian Lega Nord that might make an interesting comparison.)

What these figures do show is that the SNP’s relative size is definitely a rare feat in modern Europe. To have 2% of a population as members of a single political party is rare, even when there’s a general trend of higher party membership than there is in the UK. Most of the countries with a higher percentage achieve that by having membership scattered across several parties, with none reaching 2% or more of the electorate.

While the trend across Europe has been for a gradual decline in party membership, I do need to re-emphasise that these figures aren’t based on current data and so don’t reflect the appeal of new parties and movements. While I suspect the SNP’s tripling of membership post-referendum isn’t common, it would be interesting to see membership trends in other nationalist/regionalist/separatist groups since 2008, as well as the membership levels and trends of new political movements like Greece’s Syriza or Italy’s Five Star Movement. The interesting question is whether the downward trend in membership is set to continue inevitably or if it’s linked solely to the persistence of existing parties and can be reversed by introducing new ones to a political system.

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I mentioned Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracyin a post during the week, so thought it was time I explained the area of his theories that has possibly had the most impact on politics.

Downs_Figure_2Downs’ work originates from the work of twentieth century rational choice theorists. Downs was looking at all areas of how rational individuals approach politic, but for this post we’ll just be looking at the ‘Downsian Model’ (also known as spatial theory and the median voter model). This assumes that voters are arranged in a normal distribution, with the bulk of voters in the centre and gradually reducing numbers of voters to the left and right of that centre. (See the diagram, where 50 is the ‘centre ground’, 0 is extreme left, 100 is extreme right and the vertical axis is the number of voters of that view) It’s important to note that this is a model of the real world, an approximation of the actual position in order to create and test theories, not a claim that this is exactly how people are organised. Downs was seeking to explain why political parties in a majoritarian system like the USA’s tended to converge ideologically upon the centre ground.

Downs assumed that a rational voter would vote for whichever party was closest to their views. For instance, a voter at point 70 would be more likely to vote for a party at point 75 than one at point 50, and a voter at point 50 would be more likely to vote for a party at point 40 than one at point 65.

The key to electoral victory – and why this is also known as the median voter model – is capturing the centre ground and the median voter at point 50. In a two-party system, whichever party best appeals to that mass of voters at the mid-point (which includes the theoretical median voter, whose views are the exact ideological centrepoint of the nation) will win a majority of the vote. As Downs assumes that parties are vote-seeking and power-seeking, this gives them a clear motivation to appeal to that median voter. As an example of how this thinking works:

If we assume that a ‘left’ party exists with an ideology at point 25 and a ‘right’ party exists with an ideology at point 75, what we would expect to see is votes splitting 50-50. The median voter (the one sitting at the ideological centre point of 50) will be equidistant between the two parties, while everyone to the left of them would be closer to the left party and everyone to the right of them closer to the right party. If the left party then moved its ideology towards the centre (say to point 35), things would change. The midpoint between the two parties would now be at point 55, and everyone to the left of that would back the left party, giving them a majority as they are now closer to the median voter than the right. The right party would then be expected to react by moving its ideology closer to the centre, and so on and so forth until both parties are right up against the centre.

It’s important to note that while this is the most commonly seen use of Downs, he didn’t say that all societies had preferences distributed in the same manner, and also looked at what might happen with different distributions of voters. For instance, in one where voters were distributed roughly equally between views, or with a number of peaks in the distribution, parties wouldn’t have the same pressure on them to move, and there would be more of an opening for multiple parties to emerge. It’s also missed by many that Downs was proposing a model, and models in political science are always simplifications. As with many rational choice theories, Downs was trying to establish a framework of how things would be if everything was fully rational, not saying that was the way it had to be. Indeed, by setting up a model of what should happen if everything was rational, we can see where things are actually irrational, which are more likely to be interesting to study. After all, where’s the fun in writing ‘everything went exactly as the theory predicted’?

That hasn’t stopped people – including many who advise, or want to advise, political leaders – of assuming that Downs was making recommendations, not theories, and since the publication of his work in the 50s, we’ve seen many people assuming the only way to assure political victory is to head to the centre. Note that this is to take all of Downs’ assumptions – including the left-right spectrum and the normal distribution of voters along it – as given, when they might not necessarily be the case.

There’s been a lot of writing that’s followed on from Downs in the decades since An Economic Theory Of Democracy was first published, and it’d be foolish to try and summate it all in a single blog post. Suffice to say, though, that there’s been plenty studied and written on every aspect of it, from the question of whether people form coherent enough political views to be able to judge which parties are closer to them to the ongoing issue of whether the left-right spectrum is the best way to look at people’s political views. So, the objections you’re already thinking of have likely been asked already, but it doesn’t mean they’ve been answered.

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It must be a thing if two Sunday columnists have both noticed it – Andrew Rawnsley and Matthew D’Ancona both notice that there are simultaneous plots against both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and attempt to work out what it means.

For me, it’s Rawnsley who finds the best explanation:

In Britain, it runs deeper than that. Austerity has sharpened and accelerated a much longer-term trend of disintegrating support for the two major parties. They’ve gone, the solid blocks of red and blue voters that the major party leaders used to be able to mobilise. There has been a decades-long decline in the blue-red duopoly. It is the bad luck of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband to be leaders of their parties when the music finally stopped.

As I’ve said before, we’re still living through the process of a long and slow breakdown of the old party system in British politics. The number of people not voting has steadily risen – 1997 was the last election when a party got more votes than the number of people not voting – and amongst those who are voting, support for the main two parties has been continually dwindling to the point where polls are now showing them both dropping below 33%, meaning ‘other’ could now be said to be topping the poll.

The various plots – in all parties – are often coming from people who are trying to persuade themselves that this is only a temporary blip and that normal service will be resumed as soon as they confidently state that they’ve rediscovered what normality is. Once they’ve got their particular Johnson as leader, everyone will suddenly realise what fools they’ve been and things will go back to the way the plotters think they should be. That ‘the way things should be’ hasn’t been the way things are for almost fifty years now is entirely inconsequential. Some people have an assumption that Britain should be a two-party state and any diversion away from that is just a temporary blip that will be corrected as soon as the right people are back in charge.

Maybe I’m wrong and getting the right leaders in place is all it would take to magically revert the system back to its default settings, but I suspect not. It feels to me that what people want and expect from politics and politicians has fundamentally changed, and the current system can’t address it. A continuing series of tweaks can stave off a full collapse for a short time, but not for good. The foundations of the system are crumbling away from beneath us, and that must be acknowledged before any real fix can come.

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downsI’ve been re-reading Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy again for part of my MA course, and it reminded me that I need to write a long post explaining some of his ideas in there as they are pretty fundamental to how a lot of modern party politics is conceived and reported.

But I don’t have time for that today, so instead I’m going to share with you an interesting couple of paragraphs from it:

According to our hypothesis, party officials are interested only in maximizing votes, never in producing any social state per se. But voters are always interested in the latter. Therefore a rational voter who is not a party official himself cannot assume members of any party have goals similar to his own. But without this assumption, delegation of all political decisions to someone else is irrational – hence political can never be the agents of rational delegation.

There is only one exception to this rule: if a voter believes a certain party will seek to maximize votes by catering to the desires of a specific interest group or section of the electorate, and if his own goals are identical with the goals of that group or section, then he can rationally delegate all his political decision-making to that party.

Downs’ book looks at what’s rational for voters and parties to do, rather than what they necessarily actually do, but this section jumped out at me as an interesting description of what’s happened to party politics in Britain since the 50s. (There’s probably an interesting debate to be had about whether An Economic Theory Of Democracy was a self-fulfilling prophecy in some countries, with the question of if parties began acting in the way Downs predicted because he said they would, rather than vice versa, but we’ll leave that for another time)

What strikes me is that Downs’ ‘one exception’ matches with the way things were in the UK (and other countries too) in the 50s and 60s. Parties then defined themselves as the representatives of certain sections of the electorate and for most (though never all) members of those sections, it made sense to not think much about politics and assume that the party would get on with the job of representing them. This is the classic era where of cleavage politics where two parties represented each side of a cleavage within society. The classic societal cleavage – and the one on which most party systems developed around – was class, though there are others (church and state or centre and periphery, for instance). When there were strong cleavages in society, more people would closely identify with ‘a certain group or section of the electorate’, but as those cleavages have faded, the nature of the parties has changed and they are now more preoccupied with vote-seeking than representation, as Downs had assumed they would be from the start.

Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that the membership of political parties has dropped so precipitously since the 50s, followed by the support for the traditional parties from the electorate. However, what’s also dropped since that period – matching up with the first part of Downs’ prediction – is that the amount voters in general identify with parties has dropped dramatically as well (I don’t have the figures to hand right now, but they can be found in Elections and Voters in Britain). The number of people willing to describe themselves as ‘Tory’, ‘Labour’, ‘Liberal’ or whatever else has dropped over time, with a corresponding drop in their willingness to vote the same at every election. Ironically, becoming organisations that are more about seeking votes has made them less likely to get them.

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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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(Linda Jack was the final candidate to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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