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I’d recommend listening to all of them, as even if some of the discussion in the panels might now be out of date as they were very focused on May 7th, the interviews were covering much deeper subjects and had some very interesting perspectives.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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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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The 2015 Why Vote books

After discovering that the University library had Biteback’s ‘Why Vote 2015′ books on the shelves, I thought they might be interesting to read to get an idea of the parties’ policies and presentation before the official manifestos come out. This plan was somewhat scuppered by the library not having a copy of the Green book (which seems to have been produced after the others, possibly when they started rising in the polls), and the UKIP book having already been checked out for the Easter vacation by someone else. Still, that left me with three books to look at, and the probability of UKIP’s policy remaining the same between the manifesto launch and election day, let alone between the book and the manifesto, being rather slim.

However, even amongst those three, there’s a question as to how much two of them actually represent the policy of the party they’re ostensibly about and how much they’re just about the author pushing his own agenda and settling some scores. This is the problem with entrusting a book like this to a single author: how much are they going to let their own views eclipse those of their party?

whyvotelabThe one that doesn’t fall into this trap is Why Vote Labour, where Dan Jarvis has written the introduction and conclusion, but in between has got various Labour people, including several Shadow Cabinet members, to contribute chapters on their areas of interest. This makes both for a longer book than the other two, and a more interesting one as it can actually go into more detail in some areas, and you’re confident that what’s being discussed actually is Labour policy.

Some sections are more interesting than others, but I suspect each reader would have their own opinion on that. Personally, I found Stella Creasy’s chapter on people power and Steve Houghton on localism an interesting insight into the broader directions Labour might go in the future, while Rachel Reeves’ chapter on work was of her usual tenor in that one could imagine Iain Duncan Smith contributing a near-identical chapter in a Tory version of the book. The chapter titles – ‘An economy for all”, “Supporting modern families” and “Aspirational Britain: Empowering young people” amongst them – show the sort of studied slogan neutrality that mean they could just as easily be plastered on a podium from which David Cameron is speaking or a Lib Dem policy paper without change. There’s little in the book that’s too radical (assuming the claim that ‘Under Labour, our classrooms will be at the centre of a cultural revolution’ (p75) is a sign of someone not being up on their history of China) but it at least gives the reader an idea of Labour policy.

whyvotetoryBy contrast, Nick Herbert’s Why Vote Conservative is much more one person’s vision of what Tory policy should be. Herbert has been a Government minister during this Parliament – he was responsible for steering through Police and Crime Commissioners, amongst other things – but is now a backbencher, apparently because David Cameron didn’t share his view that he should be promoted to the Cabinet. According to Tim Montgomerie’s quote on the cover, it’s ‘a compelling reminder that the facts of economic, social and cultural life remain Conservative’ which only goes to show how easy it is to persuade him of anything. I found it more of a compelling reminder that for all Tories might talk about responsibility, they’re masters of whinging and blaming the problems of life on anything but themselves. Everything is either the fault of the previous Labour Government or occasionally, if the present one hasn’t achieved something, the Liberal Democrats, and it seems the Conservative Party only needs to take responsibility for good things.

The book is so dominated by blaming Labour for everything that you almost feel glad when he gets to a policy, except that policy is often just defined as ‘whatever Labour don’t do’ or appears to have been cut-and-pasted from a report by the Reform think tank Herbert used to run. What policy there is appears to be privatising anything that’s not nailed down then putting out a lucrative nail-removal tender before getting to the rest while stripping rights from everyone. Now, that may well turn out to be the Tory manifesto, but I suspect they’ll at least make a better job of presenting it than Herbert does here.

whyvoteldWhile Herbert is offering a slightly idiosyncratic take on Tory policy, his book at least bears some resemblance to the party’s actual policies. The same can’t be said for Jeremy Browne’s Why Vote Liberal Democrat. As Alex Marsh points out in his more detailed review of the book, Browne appears to be more interested in putting forward Coalition policies than Liberal Democrat ones, and the book feels more like an advocacy of voting National Liberal, but unfortunately published in a world where they no longer exist.

I’ve previously written about Browne’s Race Plan, and this is a better book than that but that’s mainly because it is – in the words of the old quote – both good and original. The parts that are good are pretty much Lib Dem boilerplate and could have been taken from hundreds of manifestos and party documents over the year, while the original parts are little more than Browne making the same points he does in Race Plan, with some added extra sneering at the Labour Party bolted on. As Alex puts it “the argument pretty much amounts to saying: scratch the surface of Ed Miliband and you’ll find Tony Benn underneath.”

The choice of Browne to write this book, and releasing it a long time in advance of a general election whose date has been known for some time, is one of the curious decisions that make these books a lot less useful than they could have been. As we know now, Browne’s not going to be an MP in the next Parliament, regardless of the result in Taunton Deane, and anyone reading his book isn’t going to find out much about what the party might want to do, or the range of opinions with it. Herbert’s still a backbencher, without much clamour heard for his return to Government, and these two books feel like they’ve failed to answer the question of their titles. It perhaps explains why Dan Jarvis is seen as a rising star of the Labour Party, in that he’s willing to work with others to deliver a vision, not assume that all people need to support his party is hear from him in more and more detail. If the others had followed that approach, then not only would their books have been more interesting, but their Governmental careers might have seen more success.

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Not Watching This Weekend: Eggbound 2: The Powdering

"I still have a very particular set of dietary requirements."

“I still have a very particular set of dietary requirements.”

The Pitch: Following the unexplained success of Eggbound, a sequel was inevitable. With production set to start, no original script was available so another script was press ganged into service, with names hastily find-and-replaced to match the original, and no one really caring that it moved the franchise into a whole other genre.

Brendan McPuncherson, the world’s most inexplicably Irish accented and still egg-dependent CIA agent is on a visit to London to meet an equally inexplicable friend who happens to be a Professor of Science at the Queen’s London University of Sciences. After a scene in which McPuncherson mentions the quality of British eggs (special marketing consideration: the British Egg Marketing Board), his friend is brutally murdered by a group of vaguely Eastern European terrorists (played mainly by actors taking a few weeks off from EastEnders) who want access to ‘the Device’ created by Brendan’s friend. Brendan discovers it amidst his friend’s cluttered office in a castle, and accidentally activates it, which sends him and the chief terrorist back in time to the Blitz. Brendan finds himself hunting London both for Albert Einstein, the only man who might be able to understand the Device and send him back to his own time, and for a source of egg-based protein in a country under rationing. Meanwhile, the chief terrorist falls in with a group of upper-class Nazi sympathisers, ready to use his knowledge to overthrown Winston Churchill and let the Nazis win the war.

Can Brendan find Einstein in a world where he’s weakened by only being able to eat powdered egg that he has to specially prepare every thirty minutes? Will the plucky Cockney girl he meets be able to help him and convincingly pretend to have a sexual attraction to an aging actor while deploying an accent even Dick Van Dyke would wince at? Which actor will get the chance to don the fat suit and carry the unlit cigar to play a curiously cheerful Churchill? How many historians will die laughing when attempting to watch the film and catalogue its inaccuracies? Will the promotions department be able to resist publicising it as ‘Finally, Liam Neeson Punches Nazis!’?

The Cast:
Brendan McPuncherson: Liam Neeson
Chief Terrorist: David Tennant
Plucky Cockney Girl: Mila Kunis
Deputy Chief Terrorist: The bald one from EastEnders who’s not a Mitchell brother
Chief upper class Nazi sympathiser: Tim Pigott-Smith
Other terrorists: That one from EastEnders who used to be in Hustle, Vinnie Jones, A couple of non-speaking Polish extras looking uncomfortable
Nazi sympathising aristocrat who realises the error of her ways, then sacrifices herself to help McPuncherson escape: Someone from Downton Abbey
Albert Einstein: Mark Gatiss
Winston Churchill (and most of the budget, because someone’s got to get the money to keep the Old Vic going): Kevin Spacey

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