Podcast recommendation

election-590x288Yes, I know you’ve all been listening to podcasts a lot longer than me, but something’s not really a trend until I jump onto it several years later than everyone else.

Anyway, after Chris Brooke‘s numerous plugs for it, I’ve started listening to the Cambridge Politics department’s Election podcast and from the evidence of the two that I’ve listened to so far, it’s the show about politics I’ve been wanting for years. In depth interviews with interesting people where they get to talk at length about issues, coupled with interesting discussion about current political events that’s not just about discussing who’s done best at PR in the last week, it’s also just the right length to last for my walk between home and the University campus.

I enjoyed it, and if you’re the sort of person who likes this blog, then you might find it interesting too. Find it here, and if there are any other interesting politics podcasts you’d like to recommend to me, let me know in the comments.

Worth Reading 163: Impossible darts

The Ulster Question – A good summary of the situation in the Northern Irish seats at the start of the General Election campaign.
Why there won’t be a Labour-SNP coalition – Interesting analysis from Alex Harrowell about the difference between establishment In parties and challenging Out parties.
A shortage of optimism – Lewis Baston on the electoral and policy problems that haunt both major parties.
Grant Shapps is a lying liar who tells lies – Just in case you had any doubts, Tim Ireland exposes the full details of Shapps’ mendacity.
A troubling attitude to statistics – Jonathan Portes of the NIESR explains how the Government’s claims of £1.2bn in savings from the Troubled Families Programme are based more on wishful thinking than any sound methods.

Predict the election result and win beer! (Or a drink of your choice) (Possibly)

I said Carswell, not Criswell!
I said Carswell, not Criswell!
We are now just 58 days away from the 2015 General Election, which you might have heard about through the odd fleeting mention of it on the news, in the media or even on this blog. What you might also be aware of is that I’m currently a Masters student in the Department of Government at the University of Essex and the academics there are also aware of this upcoming event. (It’s usually known as a ‘large scale sampling of voter intention data’)

The department is having a competition to predict the outcome of the election, for which the winner will receive £200. Entries are limited to students within the department, but we’re not limited to the methods we use to generate our predictions, so I thought I should take advantage of this blog’s readership (and my Facebook friends too) to see what sort of prediction would come from the wisdom of (small and possibly skewed) crowds.

So here’s my idea. You give me your predictions, I put them through a complex process of weighting and discarding obvious outliers and submit my prediction. Should it win, I will use some of the winnings to pay for drinks at a pub-based gathering of you all (date and location TBC should I win). As a special bonus, the person in the comments who gets the closest to the final result will receive the traditional prize of British political blogging, dating back to before the 2005 General Election: Matthew Turner’s CD of Simply Red’s Stars.

I have to get my prediction in before 10pm on Thursday 12th March (eight weeks before polling closes) but you can keep predicting here long after that if you so wish. So, the two questions in the prediction are:

1) Predict the Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) percentage share of the vote for the Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. (1 penalty point awarded for each 0.2% the prediction is out per party)
2) Predict the number of seats won at the election by the Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and SNP. (1 penalty point awarded for each seat the prediction is away from the result)

The winner is the person with the fewest points. I think that makes it all quite clear, but please ask if it’s not. So go ahead and predict, and just maybe the post-election drinks will be (partly) on me.

What if Nick Clegg loses his seat at the election?

Nick-Clegg-004(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)

As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.

What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.

So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.

So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.

It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.

Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.

The One True Party needs no others, and it should pay no heed to reality

Back in October, I covered some of the madness of one of Labour’s ‘we are the One True Party and none shall stand in our way’ true believers, and as a blog written by someone outside the Labour Party could never change his mind, he’s doubling down on it.

The proposition this time is that the surefire way for Labour to win the election is to proclaim that they will govern as a single party, or they won’t be in government at all. Apparently the political equivalent of a child’s tantrum and declaring you don’t want to play with anyone at all will be the secret weapon that makes everyone vote Labour. Quite why Luke Akehurst thinks that a party getting just over 30% in the polls wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for suggesting that, he doesn’t explain (and if we had an even vaguely sensible electoral system the idea would be so bizarre as to be inconceivable).

Yet again, though, it’s someone imagining that what’s happening in our politics is just a temporary blip and things will get back to normal as soon as those naughty voters stop messing about and give their votes to the two big parties, just like they’re supposed to. In this view, no one is voting SNP, Green, Lib Dem, UKIP or whoever else because they agree with their policies, it’s just because they need to be showing Labour and the Tories that they need to recommit to Full Socialism Now/Blairism/Proper One Nation Toryism/Red Blooded Hyper-Thatcherism (delete as applicable) and then they’ll return to the fold. In this view, Labour is the One True Party for voters who are vaguely on the left (where ‘left’ equals ‘not Tory’) but by occasionally being stupidly pluralist it has let voters forget that. If it now forcefully reminds people that it is the One True Party (accept no imitations), they will all be instantly struck by the truth of this statement and happily vote Labour again.

(The mirror of this argument is also used on the right with the same expected result – everyone who is not Labour seeing the error of their ways and voting Tory again, like they’re supposed to. This shared image of themselves is why many people can look from Tory to Labour and back again without noticing much difference.)

One day soon, it’s going to sink in to some people that the old politics has likely gone forever and won’t be coming back no matter how hard they might wish for it. Until then, there’ll be lots of laughs to be gained from watching them insist that the One True Party is so powerful, even reality must bend to its will.

Are there just too many opinion polls?

It’s the afternoon of the 19th of January as I write this, not long after Lord Ashcroft released his latest voting intention poll for the general election. According to the New Statesman’s database, this is the 22nd opinion poll released so far this year, and there’s at least one more to be released today. We’re still almost four months from the election and we’re currently averaging over one opinion poll being released a day, not forgetting the many different polling aggregators and polls of polls that update regularly based on the new figures that come in.

Given that I’ve blogged, tweeted and discussed polls many times before, and I’m a student in a department that has consistently used various types of polling data, this may be a somewhat heretical question, but are there just too many polls out there now?

It seems to me that we’re in a situation where we’re getting much more polling information than we’ve ever had before but there’s so much that it’s almost impossible to distinguish signal from noise. Minor up and down movements in daily trackers are dissected and analysed by a Twitter crowd of thousands, and that discussion is then forgotten the next day when the reverse movements are treated with the same reverence, despite it being just a return to the norm. Most of the polls are all within the margin of error with each other, giving us the oddly paradoxical result that only those that are significant outliers from that norm get properly remembered.

The other problem is with that so much polling out there it comes to dominate the conversation because everyone can find a little snippet of polling data that supports the argument they want to make. Want to argue that everyone should note the rise of the Greens? Ashcroft’s latest has them at 11%. Want to argue that UKIP are the main threat to the establishment and the Greens are nowhere? ComRes have UKIP at 18% while the Greens are just on 3. Looking to argue that as the election comes closer, people will stop flirting with minor parties and go back to voting Tory or Labour? Populus have them both over 35%. Want to argue about different polling methodologies and the effect they have on the results? Take your pick, and go for it.

This is in January for an election in May. As everyone steps up their operations as the election comes closer, and more and more attention is paid to the polls that do come out, they’re going to dominate the election discussion even more. We could reach a point in April where there’s a different poll showing opinions UK-wide, in Scotland, for a region, a constituency or the important left-handers under 35 demographic every hour of the day.

Yes, data is a good thing, but too much data thrown at people without the time to process it all is going to lead to everyone cherry-picking the results they like best and ignoring the rest. No one needs to change their mind because everyone can find support for what they want to believe.

We’re about to be buried under an avalanche of data, from which I’m not sure anyone will be extracted without injury. At least the election actually happening might give us a break for a few days, right until someone decides they need to know what the result would be if the election had been held a week later.

Danny Alexander is a bad choice to lead on the economy in the election campaign

vincedannySo, despite months of people consistently saying it’s a bad idea, the Liberal Democrat leadership has confirmed today that Danny Alexander will be the party’s main spokesperson on Treasury issues for the election campaign, while Vince Cable will be restricted to commenting purely on BIS matters. Some people are claiming that this is no big deal, as those are related to their Cabinet positions, while others are not very happy.

The point here is that this isn’t a case of two people doing the same jobs they’ve been doing for the last few years. This is the announcement of the party’s key election team, the ones who’ll be dragged out to do the morning press conferences and the rounds of the TV and radio studios, as well as the ones who’ll have to debate their counterparts from other parties. These are key election campaigning roles, not ministerial government ones.

Mario Cuomo’s recent death has reminded me of his old phrase about the difference between the two: ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.’ You may have to make compromises if and when you get into government, but in the campaign you don’t. You show the best of yourself, put forward all your best policies and argue for them as strongly as you can.

The economy is going to be a central issue of this election, and the treasury spokespeople are likely going to be the most called-on for press appearances of all of them. The Liberal Democrats need someone in there who’s good at those sort of media appearances, not someone whose previous appearances in the media have been more reminiscent of Ben Swain from The Thick Of It than a polished and confident media performer. The job of being a party’s spokesperson – and implied candidate for that position afterwards – in an election campaign is not the same as being a minister. (If it is, those arguing for Danny Alexander should explain why Tim Farron is the chief voice on foreign affairs, another high profile role, despite having little Parliamentary experience in the area)

Regardless of the issue of how much distance and independence on economic policy the man who’s sat alongside George Osborne for almost five years can claim, an election campaign needs the party’s best given the most high=profile jobs so they can communicate the party’s policy to the media. To not give the most high-profile and frontline role on the economy to the party’s best-known and most respected voice on economics is foolish and hampers the party’s ability to campaign.

(UPDATE: I changed the title of the post, because the original one was far too long)

Talk of a Tory-Labour grand coalition is just clickbait

Having realised that the long weekend after New Year is a very boring time for much of its target audience, the Guardian has decided to liven things up. All news websites now use clickbait headlines and articles to drag in readers looking to be offended by something wilfully controversial, and the Guardian is no different. Sure, it likes to pretend to be above that, and it doesn’t employ any of the Jan Moirs, Richard Littlejohns or Jeremy Clarksons who are masters of the clickbait article, but this piece by Ian Birrell is clearly intended as pure clickbait. (And from the number of people I’ve seen linking to it, very successful clickbait it is too)

Like all clickbait it begins with a catchy headline that will already be getting many of its readers angry at the implications – proposing a Tory-Labour grand coalition is a sure way of angering members of both parties – and then spends a few hundred words trying to justify the headline, hopefully stoking the flames of outrage. People then discuss their outrage on social media – complete with links to the article to help others get outraged – and the website editors sit back and smile as they watch the clicks roll in.

And like so much clickbait, the ideas it’s putting forward don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Unity governments of the sort Birrell proposes aren’t just rare in British politics, they’re rare in almost all countries. Yes, Germany has had two recently, but Germany’s a special case where not only the electoral mathematics and party positions forced it, but there’s also a strong aversion to minority governments (from what I can tell, they’re incredibly uncommon even at the state level) and Angela Merkel remains strikingly popular.

In Britain, by contrast, there isn’t a prescription against minority government – one of the arguments for the coalition within the Liberal Democrats was the alternative was a Conservative minority government – and national governments have only arisen in response to crises, not election results. There’s no Merkel-esque figure in British politics for a national government to form around, and the costs to the parties of agreeing it would be immense.

The mathematics might make a Tory-Labour coalition possible (as they did in 2010) but that’s about the only thing that does. For it to come about, it would have to be the least worst of all the options available to both parties after the election and short of some unforeseen international crisis erupting before then, I don’t see the circumstances in which that could happen. If various combinations of nationalist parties hold enough seats to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats unworkable for either party, I’m still sure that whichever is the larger would find running a minority government much more appealing than a grand coalition. Why collaborate with the enemy when you have a realistic prospect of working without them?

It also forgets the level of animosity that exists between Labour and the Conservatives. As far as I’m aware, there’s only been one case recently of the two forming a coalition in local government (in Stockton-on-Tees a few years ago) and that was in some rather odd circumstances. Birrell might believe that replacing Miliband with Chuka Umunna would solve all those problems, but I’m not aware that Umunna was educated at Hogwarts to have the magical powers needed to make the majority of the Labour Party think it’s OK. Similarly, the idea that the Tory Party are so desperate to remain in power that this wouldn’t be Nigel Farage’s greatest ever recruitment tool requires forgetting decades of political history.

I’m expecting the next election to create a very interesting result, and for there to be some interesting times after it, but in the absence of a major crisis, a Tory-Labour coalition will not be part of those interesting times.

Worth Reading 143: In France 16, in Germany 354

Victory in Europe – What Cameron and Osborne actually negotiated and agreed over the UK’s contribution to the EU.
Leadership in question – Good piece by Chris Dillow on how the search for strong leaders is a search for a false god. The one thing rarer than talent is the ability to spot talent.”
A Few Questions About the Culture: An Interview with Iain Banks – What it says on the title, really: talking in depth with Iain Banks about how the idea of the Culture developed in his work.
How to waste a staggering £15bn – David Boyle has some interesting facts about transport policy.
Dark vistas – A rather bleak, but possibly accurate, look forward to the next election and the Parliament that follows it from Lewis Baston.

And for your bonus video this time, if you haven’t seen Too Many Cooks yet, you’re possibly still sane.