» Politics ¦ What You Can Get Away With

The first major judgment of the General Election campaign has been made, and although it was conducted with an obviously flawed system, I’m not going to challenge the result. Yes, according to the list here, I’m ranked 45th amongst journalists and commentators on Twitter based on some election-related algorithm, so I’m not going to challenge their findings for now.

More interesting on that site might be the listing by constituency of the various candidates with Twitter accounts, both to help find them but also to stoke pointless Twitter feuds between them to see who works hardest to get their ranking up. There’s five weeks to go to the election, we need to find some ways to amuse ourselves.

Talking of constituencies, it appears we’re going to have at least six candidates in Colchester this time around (we reached 9 in 2010) of whom four are the same as last time. Is there any other constituency where the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and UKIP candidates are all the same as last time? (There’s no five out of five because there’s a new Green candidate this time around)

But who’s the sixth? According to this, it’s Ken Scrimshaw of the Christian People’s Alliance, and beyond that your guess is as good as mine. The CPA is one of those fringe parties that has been around for a few years. According to Wikipedia, it emerged out of the old cross-party Movement for Christian Democray, and I recall their 2000 London Mayoral candidate Ram Gidoomal who actually finished ahead of the Greens in that election. Since then, though, the two parties have taken different courses and while the Greens have made it to Parliament, the CPA’s sole success was a couple of councillors in Newham in the last decade and nothing since.

Judging by their website, either God has forbidden all developments in web design since around the year 2000, or they’re not that big a party. The policies section doesn’t contain anything completely out of the ordinary at a first glance, and seems to be vaguely centre-rightish policies with a strong Christian flavour. It seems to be more a party for people with religious objections to same-sex marriage than one seeking to implement a British theocracy. Maybe I shall find out more if I get a leaflet from them.

Two days in, and only had one election leaflet delivered so far, but I don’t think the real flood will come until after Easter weekend. Royal Mail freepost deliveries should start coming in earnest after Easter when nominations have closed. If you can’t wait for them to be delivered, I would recommend Electionleaflets.org where people have been uploading leaflets from around the country, giving an idea of what’s going on in other places. I’m trying to upload the ones I get, and it’s simple to do if you want to join in and upload yours.

Not seen any election posters yet, with houses and gardens on any route I’ve travelled in the last couple of days remaining unadorned. Even the one Tory billboard that was in place last week has disappeared to be replaced by a beer advert which is probably symbolic of something. Not sure what it might be yet, though.

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the-nature-and-origins-of-mass-opinionAs we’re now into the election campaign, the entire purpose of which is to get people to form a certain set of opinions and then act on them on May 7th, I thought it was about time I went back to doing another post on a concept from political science that seeks to explain how opinions are formed.

What I’ll be looking at in this post is John Zaller’s 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and the model for public opinion he sets out in, which he terms the Receive-Accept-Sample or RAS model. This is a widely accepted model of how public opinion formed, but not universally agreed upon, and it’s also worth noting that it was published in 1992, so before any widespread use of the internet.

I’m going to try and explain the model as simply as I can, but remember that this is a 300+ page book with lots of charts and tables so Zaller’s arguments are a lot more complex and subtle than the precis of them I’ll provide here. The book is worth reading, or you can also try Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which takes a more psychological approach to public opinion, but is more up to date and discusses Zaller along with other approaches. (I wrote about it here)

Read the rest of this entry

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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.

After eight years, I still haven't memorised this list from the Council Chamber

After eight years, I still haven’t memorised this list from the Council Chamber

Those of you in Colchester likely already know this, but let’s make it official: I won’t be standing for re-election to Colchester Borough Council this year, so my eight years on the Council will be coming to an end in May.

It’s been an interesting and enjoyable time, but everything has to come to an end sometime, and it seems that this is the time for me and the Council Chamber to part ways. There have been various machinations going on behind the scenes and the stress from that, plus the pressure of just being a councillor (let alone the extra roles) has just been mounting over time to the point where the negatives now far outweigh the positives. It’s still enjoyable in parts, but the idea of going through the pressure of another election campaign, when I’m not sure I’d enjoy the reward – and then have to go through the whole thing again next year – isn’t appealing to me.

I can remember being told by certain people that there was no chance of me winning the first time around, because Castle ward was about to be subsumed beneath a Green wave, and then in 2011, there was no chance I’d get re-elected because of the coalition. So, just having had eight years on the Council has beaten a lot of people’s expectations, and having most of them where we’ve been leading the council and over half of them where I’ve been a member of the Cabinet wasn’t something I was expecting when I first agreed to stand.

Trust me, getting elected as a councillor right before the global economy goes into a tailspin, the country dives into a recession and austerity becomes the ruling dogma is a surefire recipe for living in interesting times. The last few years has been dominated by talking about cuts and savings and efficiencies, while laughing bitterly at anyone imagining local government is somehow profligate. There isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, either. The party manifestos for the next Parliament all promise some mix of tax cuts, deficit eradication, further austerity and certain services protected from cuts, all of which mean local government is going to take another hammering over the next five years.

But what about localism, I hear you ask? Don’t you have all sorts of new powers to do things your way? Pause to hear a legion of councillors laughing sadly at that. Localism sounds good, especially when put through the party political spin machine, but in practice it just means we get to locally decide how much we agree with Eric Pickles on something – total or absolute. For instance, the old centrally imposed housing targets have been removed, which sounds good, but the evidence base on which councils have to decide their housing targets haven’t, so it’s a case of no longer being told from the centre that the answer is 10, but instead being give two fives and told to go away and add them up locally, and you’ll be entirely responsible for the result. After a while being caught between voters’ expectations of what the Council can do, what it can actually do, and Whitehall’s continued belief that we should just be local delivery arms for the Government can get pretty tiring.

I’m reminded of what Tony Benn said when he left the House of Commons, that now he’d have more time for politics. One of the problems of being involved in the day-to-day politics of being a councillor is that you get swamped by the process and forget the wider issues. There’s a tendency to let everything become a process story, and I think that goes some way to explaining why a lot of politicians are suckered by the cult of managerialism – you can feel that the important thing is the sheer action making of decisions, rather than what decisions actually are. One thing about doing my Masters degree has been that it’s given me the space, time and context to think about politics on a much wider scale: I like talking about big ideas and ideologies, and not being involved so much in the day-to-day of being a councillor will give me the opportunity to do that.

What this means, of course, is the coming election campaign will be the first one in about a decade that I’ve not had heavy involvement in, which gives me more time to work on my dissertation – and I’ll likely bore you with more details of that after May 7th – but also to blog about the election, and hopefully find something interesting to say. There’s still a lot to discuss politically, even if the campaign itself is likely to be little more than game playing and process stories.

I’ve still got a month left on the Council, so it’s probably a bit early for epitaphs, but it’s been fun and I’d still recommend it to people who want to have some impact on their community, even if the Council’s not quite the grand seat of power it used to be. To those who remain, and those who come after me, I can only echo the words of someone much older and wiser than me:

One day, I may come back. Yes, I may come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.


mphbasicA few weeks ago, I mentioned that a poll had shown 36% of people in the UK supported the idea of a basic income and promised to look in some more detail at the results when ComRes released them. Unfortunately, that slipped my mind for a while thanks to other things going on, but I’ve now found the details of the poll and a PDF file of the more detailed results, broken down by demographics.

The question asked was one of a series of Green party policies that respondents were asked if they supported or opposed (there was also a don’t know option) but the policies were presented without any party labels attached. The general question was “Do you support or oppose each of the following possible future Government policies?” with basic income posed as “Introducing a ‘Citizens Income’, giving every single person in the country £72 per week irrespective of their working status or income”. There don’t appear to be any questions before this that would have primed or influenced respondents to answer that in a certain way. There were just over 2000 respondents, which is a decent sized sample and means the margin of error for the full sample is around 2.5%. As we saw, the result here was that 36% were in favour, 40% against.

What the details of the poll give us is some information on how different demographics responded to the question, and that’s very interesting. However, we do need to be slightly sceptical of the results at this level, as they’re small sub-samples of the larger set which means the margin of error is bigger (much bigger in some cases) but I think they’re still interesting.

First up, there’s no real difference between men and women on the issue: men respond 37% in favour, 41% against, women are 35% in favour, 40% against, which are so close they’re well within the margin of error and show us nothing significant.

Where things get interesting is when we look at the breakdowns by age, which are broken into six groups:

  • 18=24 year olds are 39% in favour, 36% against (total sample 240)
  • 25-34 year olds are 50% in favour, 31% against (total sample 339)
  • 35-44 year olds are 42% in favour, 28% against (total sample 339)
  • 45-54 year olds are 41% in favour, 34% against (total sample 358)
  • 55-64 year olds are 33% in favour, 45% against (total sample 299)
  • 65+ year olds are 18% in favour, 61% against (total sample 438)
  • Again, the smaller sample sizes mean these aren’t as reliable (the margin of error is around 5 or 6%) but the trend they show is very interesting with those up to 54 having a slight tendency to be in favour of basic income, while those 55 or above tending to oppose it.

    We also see a pattern in the breakdown by social class (for those not familiar with this system of classification, some details are here). These break down like this:

  • AB social groups are 30% in favour, 51% against (total sample 539)
  • C1 social group are 35% in favour, 41% against (total sample 558)
  • C2 social group are 41% in favour, 35% against (total sample 438)
  • DE social groups are 41% in favour, 33% against (total sample 478)
  • There’s not as much variation here, but there’s still a trend for those in the ‘lower’ groups to support it more. As these groups tend to correlate with income, that indicates that those on lower incomes are more likely to support the idea of a basic income.

    A final breakdown indicates that those working in the private sector are possibly more likely to support basic income (41-35) than those in the public sector (37-37), but the sample sizes there don’t make that a very reliable result.

    I thought the original result was interesting, and this extra information confirms that. The important thing to remember here is that most people have had no information about the idea of basic income as it’s something rarely discussed in the media. However, the general idea does have support, and even seems to appeal to a plurality of younger people. We’d need some more detailed polling with a larger sample to know more, but this suggests that there could well be a receptive audience out there for basic income and arguing for it and promoting it may not be as hard as we might think.

    Now, is there anyone out there who wants to fund some more detailed polling to find out?

    (Update: Have changed image at the top of the post. As someone pointed out, a similar slogan has been used by fascists and I wasn’t comfortable with the possible implications that might be drawn from that)

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    After all, they’re a modern, progressive and liberal party, the party of the metropolitan elite, the one with all the forward-thinking ideas. A truly internationalist party you might say, one that looks outward to the world and has a positive attitude towards it…

    They’re also the party that will sell you this:
    I wonder how many Ed Miliband’s bought for his family?

    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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