Since I first started doing my breakdown of HIGNFY guests by gender a few years ago, it’s always been a quite depressing experience. Sure, there are occasional chinks of light – the BBC stopping all-male panels, and the first show for 17 years with all-female guests – but the general trend is still absolutely nothing to write home about, and the very first series of the show back in 1990 is still its second-best for representing women.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the 49th season ended, and while I’ve had other things to distract me, I partly resisted updating the spreadsheet because it would be a rather annoying reminder of just how much this series did the bare minimum. Sure, there was a female guest on each show, but just one each time with four men around them. Only two of them – Jo Brand and Victoria Coren Mitchell – got to host it, with the other seven shows in the series all hosted by men. After series 48 got close to parity of hosts, this was a depressing return to the norm where only a quarter of the shows since the introduction of guest hosts have been hosted by women. (24.73% of guests in total are women while the exact figure for hosts is 24.35%)

You can see the spreadsheet for yourself by clicking here, and I’ll keep on doing it in the hope that series 50 improves the situation, but I’m not expecting it to break from the established norm.

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Ridiculously out-of-date book reviews: The Clegg Coup

gerardcleggMy Masters dissertation is on the role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system, so as part of that I’ve been looking at various academic and non-academic texts for background information. Today I plunged into Jasper Gerard’s The Clegg Coup, which may well be one of the worst books ever written about British politics.

It fails on multiple levels: for a start, Gerard’s writing style is rambling and unfocused with chapters, paragraphs and even sentences ending up in miles away from where they started. The book doesn’t have any focus, jumping between biography of Clegg, discussion of the Coalition and attempts at political analysis willy-nilly, though one overriding theme is that Gerard clearly likes Nick Clegg and distrusts anyone who doesn’t. The ‘coup’ of the title appears to be one that Gerard is fully in support of, happily denigrating anyone who disapproved of the direction Clegg wanted to take the Liberal Democrats.

Beyond that, though, it’s shockingly badly researched and edited. At some points, Gerard appears determined to crowbar in every piece of trivia he’s learned about people, but on the big points, there’s a shocking lack of knowledge. I’m not talking about obscure points of political history here but simple facts that could be checked with thirty seconds on Wikipedia. A lengthy section talks about how Clegg was working for Leon Brittan at the European Commission while Miriam Gonzalez Durantez was working there for Chris Patten, completely failing to notice that Patten replaced Brittan on the Commission and was Governor of Hong Kong at the time Gerard asserts Gonzalez was advising him on Middle East policy. The book’s littered with errors like that, including mention of Labour’s first leader, Kier Hardy.


The brakes/breaks confusion there is one of several homophone errors in the book, and at points it feels like there’s been a decision to have an error of fact or editing on every page.

The only truly interesting part of it is what it unintentionally reveals. There’s some interesting bits about how Clegg chose not to run an aggressively ‘Orange Book’ campaign for the party leadership, and there’s an interesting omission of any detailed look at his selection for Sheffield Hallam. However, beyond all that, it’s clear that Gerard sees party politics as very much an elite activity. There’s lots of discussion of people within the Westminster bubble, wealthy donors and think tanks, but almost no mention of party members or even voters. It presents politics as a rather consequence-free activity with little connection to the real world, where an eager hagiographer like Gerard can go far through knowing the right people and writing positively about them.

If I hadn’t been reading the book for any useful nuggets of information, however inadvertently revealed, I’d likely have thrown it to one side once the error count reached the dozens, but if you’re a fellow connoisseur of bad political writing, you may well find something to enjoy in it.

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An interesting perspective from Chris Huhne on the Election podcast

election-590x288I’ve mentioned before how much I’ve been enjoying the University of Cambridge’s Election podcast over the last few months. The format of each podcast follows pretty much the same pattern – a discussion between host David Runciman with regular panellists Helen Thompson, Finbarr Livesey and Chris Brooke, an interview between Runciman and someone usually very interesting with an interesting take on politics, then a closing discussion, discussing some of the topics raised in the interview.

I’d recommend listening to all of them, as even if some of the discussion in the panels might now be out of date as they were very focused on May 7th, the interviews were covering much deeper subjects and had some very interesting perspectives.

This week’s interview guest was Chris Huhne, who Runciman admits was booked principally because they thought we’d be in the midst of coalition negotiations and his perspective having been part of the 2010 ones would be informative. As it was, that wasn’t the case, but Huhne still proves to be a very interesting interview with his perspective on the coalition and the Liberal Democrats, especially in the light of last week’s election result. Huhne talks about some of the issues he raised in the Guardian last year (and others raised before and since) about the party’s strategy, but also talks about his experience of working in coalition and the different approach the two parties took to matters. It’s definitely worth listening to (and fans of interviews with former Liberal Democrat MPs will enjoy the previous week’s edition with David Howarth too).

The team had promised that the podcasts would go on until Britain had a new Government ‘however long that takes’, so I was expecting this to be the final one. However, the realities of the new government have forced them to amend that pledge in the light of events, so there’ll still be a few more weeks of it, before they take a break and then return for the US elections and possibly European referendum next year. Well worth listening to, and I don’t even get commission for recommending them.

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Media endorsements are building a narrative to keep Cameron in office, whatever the result

Those of you who read Simon Wren-Lewis will understand his concept of ‘mediamacro’ – the tale of the UK’s macroeconomic situation over the last few years as reported and explained by the media. It’s a simple morality tale where the country overspent and now has to repay its debts, because just like a family budget, you have to pay off your credit card eventually. It’s easily repeated, easily expressed and also completely wrong in depicting how a national economy actually works. However, it’s a very useful story to have as the official narrative if you want to justify a certain set of ‘austerity’ policies.

What we’ve been seeing over the past few weeks of this election campaign, amplified over the past few days is what we could term ‘mediapolitics’ if it wasn’t such an ugly word. However, like mediamacro, it’s an attempt to report and explain the possible post-election situation in simple and easily-understandable terms that are completely wrong but very useful in pushing forward a certain set of political parties as the next Government.

As with mediamacro, it’s an attempt to create a framing narrative for post-election discussions. Just as mediamacro doesn’t question the assumption that all debt is bad and all debt must be paid off as soon as possible, so the political narrative is based on the idea that any Government formed post-election must be ‘stable’ and ‘legitimate’. These are useful words because they sound like they should be objective definitions, capable of being used to discriminate between different outcomes, when in terms of the way British politics and government work, they’re entirely subjective and capable of being used however you wish. It’s effectively the media accepting the Tory ‘coalition of chaos’ slogan and assuming that there would be questions over the potential stability and legitimacy of a government relying on the SNP, but not of one that needs at least the passive acquiescence of the DUP, UKIP and the Better Off Out wing of the Tories to survive.

This narrative then sets the tone for reporting on Friday and beyond, if the result is in line with the current forecasts: David Cameron will be portrayed as bravely staying in Downing Street to out together a stable government that can run the country, while Ed Miliband will be said to be cutting back room deals and threatening the stability of the country by refusing to denounce a backbench Labour MP who suggests talking to the SNP. The Tories will be portrayed as ‘winners’ for having got a handful more seats and votes and will thus possess some sort of ineffable momentum that gives them the right to form a Government, while Labour will be the sore losers, standing in the way of the will of the people.

(If there’s one lesson British politics in this election needs to learn from American politics it’s the way these sort of media narratives were used to spin the 2000 Presidential election. The right-wing media aggressively pushed the line that Bush had won Florida, and all the attempts to show otherwise were just being sore losers. Rather than fighting fire with fire, the left meekly decided to let the courts decide it, letting the right create the accepted narrative of events.)

One of the interesting things about this narrative is its flexibility. For the early part of the campaign, the message was simply about getting the Tories a majority to ensure they could be a stable and legitimate government but as the election has progressed, it’s become clear that the public are stubbornly refusing to break the ongoing opinion poll tie and so the Tories will likely not be able to stumble over the finish line by themselves. So, all the media endorsements of who to vote for aren’t a simple ‘vote Tory’ but add in a ‘vote Lib Dem in a few places as well’. As Jennie Rigg pointed out last week, no matter how gleefully you quote sections out of context, that’s not an endorsement of the Lib Dems, it’s an endorsement of the Lib Dem role in coalition now it’s become clear that the party is needed to ensure the Tories continue in Government. The Independent’s endorsement says that almost explicitly, and when even the Sun is recommending that people vote Lib Dem in seats that threaten Labour, it’s clear that something’s up.

Those endorsements aren’t about backing Liberal Democrat principles or wanting to see the party govern on its own, they’re about binding the party permanently into the right-wing bloc within the Parliamentary arithmetic to ensure Cameron can stay in office. ‘We backed you as part of the coalition, so now you have to go ahead and be part of it again’ will be the message given out on Friday and afterwards with the expectation being that negotiations won’t be over whether there can be another coalition with the Tories but merely what shape it will take and which pledges the Tories will symbolically shed to let it happen. Unless Labour can confound this narrative by winning both in terms of votes and seats, there’ll be extraordinary pressure to ensure that ‘the winner of the election’ be allowed to form a Government. It’s highly unlikely Cameron will find the press calling him ‘the squatter in Downing Street’.

And yes, Liberal Democrat members will have a say in deciding if the party goes into coalition again or not, but the same pressure of the narrative will apply here. How dare you presume to go against the winner of the election? The people have spoken! We must be in Government to ensure it’s stable and legitimate, etc etc The membership will get a vote, but they’ll only get to cast that vote once the media have decided the frame it will be cast within – do you support a stable government for the country, or do you want to bring the illegitimate losers to power and send the entire country into chaos? Besides, we’ll likely here how the Federal Executive and Conference are just arcane committees stuffed full of sandal-wearing bearded weirdos who shouldn’t be allowed to hold the country to ransom. And what’s all this about a two-thirds majority being required? That’s just some bizarre procedural foible that’s standing in the way of us having the stable government we need.

The narrative is being built and the rest of the media will fall in line with it, just as they have with mediamacro, because it makes it so much easier if you can portray elections as having clear winners and losers. Complexity – especially the idea that elections might not be about simple winners and losers – takes time to explain, the narrative wins out. We need both to challenge it and build a counter to it, or everything will be settled by the time our brains are working properly again on Saturday.

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Harold Wilson at microphoneA couple of weeks after the General Election, we’ll all be gathering around our TVs for another night of overblown histrionics and complicated voting analysis when it’s time for 2015’s Eurovision Song Contest. With the death of former British Eurovision entrant Ronnie Carroll causing a bit of a stir in the election a couple of weeks ago, I decided to look at under which parties and Prime Ministers we’ve had the most success in the contest.

My first discovery was that only three Prime Ministers have presided over British Eurovision victories: Wilson, Thatcher and Blair. They’re also the three longest serving Prime Ministers of the Eurovision era, which perhaps indicates a link between success and Prime Ministerial longevity. Wilson’s the most successful, with three victories and just one each for Thatcher and Blair. It is worth noting that Blair’s victory (Katrina and the Waves, 1997) came on just his second day in office, while Wilson’s final victory came just two days before he left office, so there is also a possible link between victory and Prime Ministerial transition.

Despite having more victories under Labour Prime Ministers, the overall record under Tory governments is better with Britain’s average finishing position under purely Tory governments being 4.88 and just 9.12 under Labour governments. The coalition has fared even worse, with an average finishing position of 19.6, which makes the average under Tory PMs 7.16 – still better than the Labour average. Of course, there is an effect of the number of contestant countries increasing over the years, which I haven’t controlled for.

In terms of individual Prime Ministers, the list goes like this (excluding Douglas-Home, who only saw one contest during his time in office, Matt Monro’s 2nd place in 1964):

1) Wilson (average finishing position of 2.66 over 9 contests)
2) Heath (3 over 3 contests)
3) Macmillan (3.5 over 6 contests)
4) Thatcher (5.27 over 11 contests)
5) Callaghan (6.66 over 3 contests)
6) Major (7 over 6 contests)
7) Blair (14 over 11 contests)
8) Brown (15 over 2 contests)
9) Cameron (19.6 over 5 contests)

What’s clear from that is that there’s been a general decline in Britain’s performance over the years with each Prime Minister doing worse than their predecessor except for Wilson and Thatcher. The general trend appears to be for a long-term decline beyond the control of any political party leaving little hope of a British revival, unless someone finds a way to resurrect Harold Wilson.

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Prime Minister meets with controversial hate preacher

Prime Minister meets with controversial hate preacher

I’m not a Sun reader. You’re not shocked to discover that if you’ve ever had any dealings with me before, of course. Usually, I’m happy to let it carry on doing whatever it wants to do and let us coexist in our separate spheres, but sometimes it crosses a line. This time, though, it’s published something that even by its normal standards is absolutely horrific:


Katie Hopkins’ job is, like so many tabloid columnists, to be offensive and get people’s backs up so she and the paper can feed off their indignation. This, though, isn’t just the usual outrage-for-clicks that characterises a Sun column, this is pure hate speech: ‘spreading like norovirus’, ‘plague of feral humans’, ‘cockroaches’. It’s calling for the death of people she regards as somehow less than human, and then revelling in the prospect of death and suffering.

What’s important here, though, is that the reason we’re seeing these words isn’t just because of Hopkins. She’s been commissioned and paid for them by the Sun. At least one editor would have looked over that column and approved it for publishing, a sub would have checked it over, designers would have put that page together and printers would have produced the final version. This isn’t some random troll shouting on the internet, desperate for attention, this is the considered and published view of one of Britain’s best-selling newspapers.

In a couple of weeks time that same newspaper – and some of the same people who worked on the Hopkins column will be involved – will tell its readers how to vote in the election, and given what they’ve published recently about Ed Miliband, we can expect they’ll advise a vote for David Cameron and the Conservatives.

Norovirus. Feral. Cockroaches. A paper that used those words to describe human beings and wish for their death will endorse the Conservative Party, and the leader of the Conservative Party – the Prime Minister of this country – will welcome that endorsement. If David Cameron – if anyone in the Tory Party – had a shred of decency or dignity, he’d reject that endorsement and refuse to accept it. Do you think he will?

When The Sun makes its endorsement, other journalists – those who work for outlets that don’t brand other humans as norovirus, feral or cockroaches – should ask David Cameron if he’s happy to accept that. And not just him – there are hundreds of Tory candidates all over the country, standing for Parliament and in the local elections, who’ll benefit from that endorsement. They’ll happily accept the backing of a newspaper that regards some people as less than human and deserving to die, expecting that no one will challenge them on it. So let’s make sure they’re asked about it and let us know what their position is on being backed by a paper that’s fuelled by such hate.

(And if you want to do something constructive, go sign Save The Children’s Restart The Rescue petition)

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The Green Party video: reaching voters other parties can’t reach?

changethetuneThe Green Party’s ‘Change The Tune’ election broadcast has generated quite a response since it was first released on Wednesday. Most of that reaction – and I include my initial ones – to it was pretty derisory, with lots of political types on Twitter saying it was the worst election broadcast they’ve ever seen, what a terrible idea it was, why didn’t it feature Caroline Lucas talking about policy etc etc

What we didn’t consider was that it wasn’t aimed at us, and indeed wasn’t really aiming to be the traditional election broadcast. How many of them get reported by MTV?


Consider how many people have learnt about it just from that tweet (MTV UK have 1.5m Twitter followers, by the way, much more than all the political parties combined) and look at how many people are talking about it on social media. This is a broadcast that’s succeded on two fronts – it’s got lots of traditional media coverage, but perhaps more importantly, it’s reaching an audience who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to party election broadcasts.

I wrote the other week about John Zaller’s model of how public opinion forms, and this is an important illustration of part of that. One of the important ideas in Zaller is the difference between ‘high information’ and ‘low information’ voters. If you’re reading this blog, then you’re most likely a ‘high information’ voter – that’s not back slapping, just a fact that the sort of person who reads political blogs is someone who’s probably accessing lots of information about the election, has well-formed opinions on many issues but because they have so much information is unlikely to change their views or who they vote for. On the other hand, low information voters aren’t paying much, if any, attention to the election and don’t have many opinions on political issues. However, they’re also likely to be very resistant to political messages delivered in a traditional way even if they see them. They’ll ignore PEBs on TV, won’t be following politicians or parties on social media and will likely ignore political messages they see, especially if they’re from a source they don’t know or trust.

This Green Party video, however, isn’t getting shared by the traditional channels. Sure, it’s being shared and discussed by high-information politicos on Twitter and blogs, but that’s incidental. Because we’re high-information, we’re going to pay attention to things like that, even if it’s very unlikely to change our minds. The problem for most election broadcasts is that’s pretty much the only audience they reach after they’ve been shown on TV. Most people won’t see them on TV, won’t notice them even if one of the few shares of them makes it to their social media streams and will be blissfully unaware that they even exist. The Green video, though, has effectively gone viral with people beyond the usual political suspects sharing it and saying ‘you need to watch this’. Going back to Zaller’s model, this is how it’s reached the Accept stage of opinion formation: because it’s recommended by someone they trust, people will choose to watch it and, crucially, pay attention to the messages in it.

It’s not going to have such an affect as to sweep the Green Party to an unexpected or even a surge in the polls, but it’s got their message out to a lot of people who wouldn’t normally take on political messages. That doesn’t make them more likely to vote, but if they do vote, it’s more likely that they’ll think of voting Green.

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