Vetting supporters with canvass data: the latest bad idea from the Labour leadership election

Every day, we think Labour’s leadership election can’t get sillier, then every day they find some way to prove us wrong. With two weeks still to go, I’m expecting a denouement in which Jeremy Corbyn meets a mad scientist, is blown up to be 100 metres tall and the only way to save the country from Corbynzilla is for Copper, Burnham and Kendall to fight him in a similarly-sized hastily built robotic Clement Attlee.

But for now, we’ll just deal with the decision that the party will be vetting new supporters against canvassing data they have on them in order to discover whether they’re Labour voters or not. (If they’re too young to have canvass data, then their school friends will be asked to assess and inform on their real beliefs

As someone who’s done plenty of canvassing in my time, the idea that canvass data can be used to accurately judge how people have voted seems incredibly optimistic. Canvassing – for those of you not in the know, it’s what politicos call knocking on your door and asking how you’ll vote – and canvassing returns are incredibly subjective experiences, and while the data you get from them as a whole can be useful, it’s essentially unreliable. Consider that the opinion polling industry has spent decades trying to work out ways in which to obtain useful and objective data from subjective interaction between people. There’s a huge amount of literature in psychology, political science and other fields looking at just how subconsciously biased our interactions with other people are, and this has influenced the way poll companies and other research organisations conduct their operations, especially how they ask questions and gather responses.

Political parties don’t do that. Most canvass data comes from a volunteer – who might not have been a party member for long themselves – given a clipboard (or if we’re being really modern, a tablet with relevant data loaded on to it) and rosette, pointed at a street and told to find out how people are voting there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the results that come back from this exercise are mixed. Send someone in an optimistic mood to do it, and anyone who didn’t threaten them with violence is marked down as being at least probable to vote for us, send someone feeling down and pessimistic and even the people with your posters in the window are marked as unsure. Catch someone at the right time and they’ll tell you how they’ve always voted for you, are happy to put up a poster and yes, now you mention it, they do want to join the party; come five minutes later when they’ve just had a bad phone call, the baby’s crying and EastEnders is about to start, and you’re lucky if they’ll even come to the door to tell you to go away.

Add to all that the fact that canvassing as it’s carried out nowadays is a legacy of a different kind of politics and society. When most people had strong party loyalties – and in most parts of the country there were only two parties effectively competing – it was quite easy to find out who would be supporting you and thus needing to be reminded to vote on polling day, and who you should avoid. Now, when there are multiple parties just about everywhere and people’s allegiances are a lot more fluid, things are very different. What someone told you about their political opinions in April could well be different in June. Canvassing now is about small pieces of reliable data in amongst a sea of false negatives and false positives: averaging it out might give you reliable figures for an area, but not about the opinions of an individual.

Labour’s move to their new system was supposed to be about acknowledging the new realities of politics, that political identities are much more fluid and people would be more willing to be be supporters rather than members or activists. Using canvassing data is an odd way to use the assumptions of old politics to stymie the aspirations of the new.

2015 General Election Day 29: My intentions are getting firmer

Let’s start with a couple of tales from the doorsteps, and see which one you find the most amusing. Both of them are from Devon, so maybe they do elections differently down there. First, we have the Greens of Exeter with a complaint:


Maybe I find this more than amusing than most, given that the Greens called on me back when I was first a candidate and also called on me the other week, but if you’re ‘appalled’ at someone knocking on a door, it feels to me that someone’s outrage-o-meter has been set a little too sensitively.

Meanwhile, in Torbay, the local Conservatives found all that door-knocking such a bother when they last did it in 2011 that they’re not going to bother doing it again this year. Not doing any canvassing is a model adopted by many candidates, few of whom are successful and even fewer of whom tell their electorate that they’re not doing it. We shall have to wait and see what success this approach bears for them.

On a wider note, I do think the model of canvassing that most parties use is badly broken, especially the further out from an election it’s used. It’s always good for politicians to get out on the doorsteps and talk to people, but expecting people to have firm political identities that an be recorded and treated as fixed is a mistake, in my opinion. The idea that you can define large chunks of the population as being definite supporters of any party isn’t backed up by any of the current data on how voters see themselves (see Elections and Voters in Britain for a lot more on this). As with so many things in our politics, a lot of canvassing rests on assumptions made in the mid-20th century that aren’t reflective of how people are now.

One other thought on voter intentions that might be of interest. A few weeks before the election, I went to a presentation by Chris Hanretty (one of the people behind Election Forecast) explianing their model. It’s assumptions follow polling trends from previous elections where for a long period in the run up to polling day, past electoral performance is as important as current opinion polling. It’s not quite as simple as taking an average between the two and calculating a swing – there are lots of weightings and demographic data in their model that are important – but one point he made is important: from around ten days out, current polling becomes a much more important part of the prediction than past performance. If that holds then we would expect to see increases in the Tory and Lib Dem shares in polls over the next ten days, while Labour and UKIP fade off while their overall prediction stays roughly the same. However, if the polling stays around its current level, then we’ll likely see opposite changes in the prediction.

However, for those of you wondering about the accuracy of the different focusing models, I must arn you of a potential flaw in May 2015‘s. As I’ve mentioned before, my department are having an election prediction competition and if May 2015’s current prediction is the final result, then I’d win the contest (and £200). This implied accuracy of my predicting skills is something you might want to take into account while assessing different forecasting models and websites. (For comparison, I’m 11th of 37 based on Election Forecast and 5th against Elections Etc’s current numbers)

Today’s minor party focus breaks from the order of the list in response to a request from Therese on Twitter who wants to know more about the Hoi Polloi who are not so much a party as one person’s description of themselves. That person is Geoff Moseley, a cinematographer and he’s standing for Parliament as the vanguard of a peaceful revolution, wanting to stop politics being just “the current dichotomy of power rocking back and forth between the left and right wings of the same deranged bird”. Beyond that webpage, though, there’s very little about him which implies that the revolution will be a very peaceful one.

Today on Election Leaflets, we have the first sign of an organised anti-SNP tactical voting campaign on the ground with this leaflet from Scotland In Union. How many of them there are being delivered, I don’t know, and their recommendations for who to vote for on their website seem to be based more on bookies’ odds than polling data, but it will be interesting to see if there is tactical voting in Scotland as part of the wider shift in voting intention there that seems likely to show up there next week.

There are just ten days left. I’m starting to feel that I might just find something to write about every day until then…

2015 General Election Day 21: Knock Knock

Judging from some of the things I’ve been seeing on social media, this appears to be the point where the stress of campaigning is getting a bit much for some people, and levels of tetchiness are reaching dangerously high points. This is accompanied by its traditional cry of ‘I’ll report this to the returning officer!’ when confronted by anything from their opponents that seems even slightly dodgy, as though they have any power to intervene.

Something most people don’t understand about British elections is that the powers of the Returning Officer are pretty much constrained to organising the running of the election itself, not regulating any behaviour of candidates. While election law is a distinct field, it’s not separate from the criminal law and breaches of it are dealt with by the police, not the returning officer. There is not, as far as I know, a separate electoral crimes division within any of Britain’s police forces so any investigations are handled by regular officers. In the quest for TV novelty, someone may one day hit on the idea of an officer specialising in the field of electoral crimes, but no one seems quite that desperate yet.

Two firsts for this election for me today. First I went out and did some deliveries for a friend, then then this afternoon had something that hasn’t happened for several years and actually had a canvasser knocking on my door. It was an interesting, but somewhat awkward experience as it turned out they didn’t quite know the area they were in and their canvass cards didn’t have basic information on them like ‘by the way, one of the people at this address is a local councillor’. Of course, if it happens again, I might not be so forward about my status, just to find out what they’re saying about me.

Question of the day: after planning to sell houses off at less than the market price, Tories now want to sell Lloyds shares off at a discount too. For the party that keeps telling us that they know business, it’s a bit weird that they keep selling things off for less than they’re worth, as that’s not what successful businesses do.

A couple of articles that may be of interest. May 2015 look at post-election coalition scenarios and how things seem to stack up a lot better for a Miliband government than a Cameron one. I think their scenarios tend to overplay how keen the Liberal Democrat membership would be to agree a second coalition – the leadership might be, but the decision’s not in their hands. Meanwhile, and fitting with my earlier talk of door-knocking, the Economist looks at campaigning on the ground, and how Labour’s better organisation is giving them a distinct edge there. In close races, having a better ground team – especially on election day – can make a big difference.

Moving down the party list, we find a regionalist party that’s probably not going to swing this election but could represent interesting trends in years to come: Yorkshire First. They’re not tied to many specific policies but rather to their ‘Yorkshire Pledge‘, calling for Yorkshire to have decision making powers of its own. It’s something that could be of interest in the next Parliament as devolution – particularly city regions – seem set to go ahead whoever is in power, and the debate over the geography of devolution, not just the powers, could be an interesting one to follow. Will Yorkshire be treated as a whole, or broken into city regions?

Nothing too interesting on the leaflet watch for today, but there is a UKIP candidate who seems to have misunderstood ‘sea change’ as ‘sea of change’ and run with that motif for his leaflets.. As he’s standing in Battersea, I’m not sure people there would welcome the prospect of the sea rushing in, as it would mean the Thames Barrier had failed.

Eighteen days to go, and if you want to do something positive before the election starts you can sign Save The Children’s Restart The Rescue petition to get EU action to save lives in the Mediterranean.