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Polling Failure in the UK

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As the occasional (charitably) LGM Senior British Correspondent, I’m going to weigh in with a series of thoughts on the British General Election last week.  Cards on table: one of several reasons for my extended sabbatical(*) from LGM has been my active involvement, time permitting, in the Labour Party campaign here in Plymouth.

When I walked into the Plymouth Guildhall Thursday night around 10:15 to participate in the counting of the ballots as a count agent for my Constituency Labour Party, following 14 hours on the campaign trail, I was immediately confronted with the exit poll conducted by several pollsters for several media organisations.  The poll was a shock as it was inconsistent with the narrative created by the last year of public polling released by the major houses.  All the major polls, and the five or six seat projection models, suggested a hung parliament. The largest single party in this new parliament would likely be the Conservatives, but they would only have anywhere from five to 15 more seats than Labour, and the maths suggested there was no way the Tories could form a stable minority government, let alone a coalition:

The exit poll will be out very shortly, and then we’ll have a good idea (or a false one). But first, here’s the game. No one is going to win an overall majority, so it’s all about who can cobble together 323 seats – the number needed for a majority – by banding together with other parties.

Second, Labour seem the most likely to win that game. May2015’s Poll of Polls, which has averaged all the latest polls since September, has finally finished adding numbers up. It’s conclusion? The Tories are going to win 33.8 per cent of the vote, and Labour are going to win 33.7.

This was the narrative the pollsters stood by, and the narrative that those of us academics called upon by the media used as the foundation for discussion (with our own various caveats).  Quite obviously this was wrong, and I’m plastered all over the media both in Devon and the Southwest of England as getting it very wrong.

For the 2015 General Election, we had access to considerably more, and richer, data than in elections past. It felt like an embarrassment of riches, and a certain hubris resulted.  In addition to the national level polling, Lord Ashcroft released around 130 constituency level polls of marginal seats.  These, with the expected N of around 1000, for the first time allowed us to understand how the national numbers and trends were being reflected at the constituency level not only occasionally, but systematically. We were in a position where we could finally bury the swingometer based on the mythical uniform national swing.

The interesting academic question from this election is why polling in the UK failed as bad (if not worse) than it did in 1992.  At this early point, we don’t know, and anybody offering a definitive explanation is taking a significant risk.  There are working theories and interesting questions; four can be found here from YouGov, ICM, Populus, and ComRes. Labour’s internal pollster has an observation here, which is intriguing given the methodological insight revealed for the internal polling. Of course, as these data are not in the public domain, any conclusions drawn are not definitive.  Finally, Eric Kaufmann (one n removed from a relation with our own SEK) has this intriguing take here at the LSE blog. I have one potential minor critique of the Kaufmann piece — his methodology is based on 130 of the Lord Ashcroft constituency level polls, and some of these were ancient in political terms.  Speaking for the two constituencies that represent 15 of Plymouth’s 20 electoral wards, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport was polled in August, while Plymouth Moor View was polled in December.  (The third, Southwest Devon, wasn’t touched, as it’s a very safe Conservative seat.)  These polls estimated a 13 and 11 point Labour victory respectively; on May 7th, the Conservatives won both constituencies by 1.1% and 2.4%.

It is likely that no single cause will explain the polling failure of 2015.  I have an additional theory that I’ll discuss soon assuming it passes prima facie.

(*) The other reasons include being elevated to an administrative role in my department (cue up Bunk to McNulty here), and that this election has increased my media calls significantly. I’ve done somewhere north of 60 appearances in the past twelve months. Rob suggested last week that I link these to LGM.  I will in the future when I can, if only that you, too, can laugh along with the audience at home.

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  • elm

    The internal pollster’s comments are very interesting. We know that question order effects answers and that priming and framing can be very powerful in surveys. But I can’t remember any real discussion of this topic with regard to election polls. If first asking the respondents a lot of questions about policy makes their vote intention answer more accurate, this might give an advantage to the online pollsters, who can more cheaply add questions to their surveys.

    • divadab

      I agree – internal pollsters operate in a world where they have to get it right, without the complications of the public process. They are therefore IMHO ahead of the rest because they have to know empirically (and intuitively) what works for their only client.

  • Salem

    The people, like Kaufman, talking about “Shy Tories” are obviously wrong, because the exit poll was right. If they were shy of pollsters, why weren’t they shy of exit pollsters? Compare to 1992 (a genuine case of “Shy Tories”) where the exit poll was wrong. This is not a case of polls generically getting it wrong, but rather the pre-election polls getting it wrong.

    My own theories:

    1. The dramatic reduction in variance in the relative results of the polls is suspicious. Survation did an eve-of-election poll that got the result right, but they didn’t publish because they didn’t want to look “out-of-line” with the other polling companies. I suspect they may not have been the only ones declining to publish polls, resulting in an artificial compression of the polling space and an exaggeration of the certainty of the result. I also think that by “anchoring” onto the previous conventional wisdom in this way, polling did not pick up shifts in public opinion.

    2. The exit poll only samples people who actually voted. Pre-election polls are still not good enough at distinguishing between voters and non-voters.

    • John F

      The dramatic reduction in variance in the relative results of the polls is suspicious.

      538 refers to that as herding, noticed it a bit with the 2014 US polls as well, that seems to be becoming a serious problem, one of the early theories behind poll aggregation wasn’t just about increasing sample size- it was a wisdom of the crowds type theory-

      each pollster has somewhat differing ideas about what turnout will look like, the demographics of the electorate, what % of 18-25 year olds will vote, seniors, etc., how things are worded etc.

      Crowd projections work when each person independently makes their estimate/guess- classic example is having people guess how many marbles are in a jar- everyone guesses blind and the final average will be remarkably close- if everyone knows what everyone before guessed, all guesses start clustering around that point and the final average will skew that way.

      Here we have pollsters are looking at eachother, and they really seem to be massaging their numbers to match everyone elses (and you even may have some people faking polls at this point). So if the first guy to publish has Labour +3, and the next guy has Conservatives +3, that second guy may not release Conservative +3, he may adjust his turnout filter to be more pro-Labour and release it as Conservatives/Labour even… that will pull the average of the two polls from even to Labour +1.5, pretty soon if you have enough pollsters making small adjustments IN ONE DIRECTION, the average starts skewing.

      Everyone in the US laughed at the “unskewed guy” in 2012 who was massaging the polling numbers to match his wishcasted demographic turnout, but in a sense that’s fine- if everyone does that you’ll have left skewed polls and right skewed polls, and they should even/cancel eachother out, but here you don’t have that what you have instead is pollsters massaging their numbers to avoid being the outlier, so they are all skewing towards the perceived median. Which would be seemingly fine if the perceived median actually turns out to be near the real median, but more often than not it won’t.

      • Craigo

        For what’s worth, the polls conducted within the last week of the campaign were actually not completely terrible. On aggregate they were wrong, but two surveys currently forecast the margin, most of the others showed a tied race or a very small Conservative lead. Given that the average polling error in UK general elections is about 3-4%, this election was only moderate worse than normal. It doesn’t come close to 1992.

        • Dave Brockington

          There was one poll within the last two or three weeks that showed a six point margin; the final margin was 6.5. That’s one out of how many? The last 13 polls released show one L+3, four L+1, four tied, three C+1, one C+2. The 6.5% Conservative victory does make that terrible. May 2015’s aggregator showed C33.8, L33.7 on election day. The miscue in 1992 was 8 points off. What’s also telling about 2015 was the sheer number of polls available and houses conducting polls in contrast to 1992.

          • Craigo

            Of the 25 polls conducted partially or entirely in May, five show a Labour lead, ten show a Conservative lead, and fifteen were tied. Three of the Labour leads, including the only +3 are from Apr 30-May 2, among the stalest in the population. That +3 lead was the largest shown for Labour while two other surveys, Survation and SurveyMonkey showed the correct -6. Both of these finished a day before the election. Time-weighted, there is not only a clear Conservative lead, but a sharp trend as well.

            As I said, there was definite polling error. But only a point or so worse than average, and not on the scale of 1992.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      I tend to agree with you, but in fairness, I think the idea is “in denial” rather than shy. Once they have actually done the deed they are honest about it, it’s during the run up that they are reluctant to think of themselves as supporting the tories.

  • MacK

    One possible reason why internal polling numbers that showed problems were suppressed is that they might have led to a shakeup at central office while there was still time. I recall that in the late summer and early fall of last year there was growing disquiet about Ed Miliband and the overall team including Ed Balls. It would not surprise me to learn that the numbers were kept quite to suppress that dissent.

  • rhino

    I find it strange that every time the polls end up wrong, it’s the right wing that wins…

    …I realize I am paranoid, but when unexpected results always favour one side, I start to wonder if someone is cheating.

    • Craigo

      http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-polls-might-be-skewed-against-democrats-or-republicans/

      http://election.princeton.edu/2008/11/12/the-exuberance-of-likelier-voters/

      Polling error has not had a partisan bias in the US over the last three decades, and in fact overestimated Republicans in three straight elections from 2008-2012.

    • John F

      2012 the US polls were off nearly 3 points nationwide, the last pre-election polling aggregates were only Obama +0.7 (538 was so confident of an Obama victory because the distribution of the electoral college was so favorable to Obama, he’d still win even if the popular vote had been Romney +1.5) Obama actually won the popular vote by +3.9

      The 2012 Generic Congressional Vote had GOP up by 0.2, Dems actually won by +1.2 (Again distribution of votes was a problem, Dems needed +2.5 or more to take the House)

      On 2010 the polls were also skewed to some extent, people didn’t notice because the GOP won by a landslide anyway, the House by +6.8, but the pre-election polling aggregate had GOP +9.4.

      538 had a couple articles on this before the 2014 elections, the polls in some years are systematically off by up to 3 points or so- but the partisan bias is RANDOM (UK is different, the polls historically, last 30 years or so, when they err tend to be in favor of Labour as in 2015).

      In Israel, Likud had under-performed recent polls until this year when it over-performed (and it seemingly over-performed more by cannibalizing the vote from other rightwing parties)

  • joe from Lowell

    The polling in the Israeli elections was similarly off-base, and in a similar direction. Could they have gotten it wrong in the same way? Could something be happening in either the electorates across countries or with the polling process (changes in technologies or practices? At the pollster end or the respondent end?) that caused both results?

    • Craigo

      This was alluded to by John F above, but if you look at it through an ideological lens, and not a partisan one, then the Israeli polls nailed it. They predicted a decline in the right wing, and slight gains by the center and left, which is what happened.

      Big caveat: What they got wrong was the exact distribution: That Likud would cannibalize the other right-wing parties (and maybe Yesh Atid to an extent) and increase its vote share even as their wing’s fell. Netanyahu’s explicit appeal to racism in the final days may have driven up Arab turnout, but it also brought in extremist right-wing voters who thought of him as a squish beforehand. (And probably again, now that he’s “repudiated” his own words.)

    • Becker

      With the Israeli election, some articles guessed that the polls themselves influenced the result by encouraging right-wing voters in other parties to tactically vote Likud.

      More generally, it’s just getting much, much harder to poll people and find a truly representative sample. It seems really weird to me that with all this data we have available to us, we seem to be getting worse outputs.

      • joe from Lowell

        Interesting.

        Could something similar have happened in the UK with Lib Dem voters choosing to tactically support the Tories?

        • Becker

          The Liberal vote split among several parties. It’s being interpreted as a repudiation of the Coalition and the broken promise on tuition fees. In Liberal-held districts where the Tories came in second last time, the Liberal vote fell enough to turn the district blue, without the Conservative vote increasing significantly.

          Tactical voting seems to have worked best in areas where people leaning toward UKIP came back to Cameron.

      • Craigo

        In the US at least, pollsters are prohibited from using random-digit dialers to call cell phones, and fewer people than ever even answer their landline if they don’t recognize the number. Back in 2006 I remember being concerned that response rates had dipped below 20%. Now single digits are the norm.

        The cultural, technological, and regulatory barriers to getting a good sample are intimidating, and getting worse every year.

        • Becker

          Right. This explains me as well. Never call anyone on the land-line. Never answer if I don’t know who it is. But I don’t answer my mobile if I don’t recognize the number either.

          I’ve only owned for a year, and not long after I got it I was getting calls from strange numbers. I don’t imagine I’d answer, or even know, if a pollster contacted me via cell.

  • matt w

    This isn’t directly related to the polling failure, but exactly how did the Tories gain so many seats while barely increasing their vote percentage? Labour’s Scotland wipeout doesn’t explain it as those seats all went to the SNP. Is it that a lot of votes in safe Tory seats shifted over to UKIP while the Tories took over a lot of Lib Dem seats? And what were Liberal Democrat voters who went Tory thinking–“might as well have the authentic article”?

    • Craigo

      The Liberal Democrats, contrary to popular image, have a significant center-right or classical liberal presence, the Orange Book faction. Nick Clegg is a member of this group, as is Vince Cable.

    • Salem

      1. They didn’t gain that many seats – only 28. The Conservative vote increased 0.8%. There’s nothing remarkable there. They were close to a majority before, and this pushed them over the line.
      2. The collapse in the Lib Dem vote meant that the Conservatives picked up every single Lib-Con marginal – and quite a few non-marginals! This didn’t require a lot of votes.

    • The after pool by Ashcroft is interesting. See table 5 which suggests that LDs broke 45% LD, 16% con and 18% Labour. I think this split the Labour vote somewhat, so the conservatives went over.

      • Becker

        Are they defining LDs as people who voted thusly in 2010, or just as people who expressed a generic party preference?

        • 5.
          Which party have you usually voted for in previous general elections?

          • Becker

            Thanks. I tried opening the PDF, but it crashed my browser, so I just thought I’d ask.

            • No worries!

              The label in the table is “% saying that they have usually voted…”

      • MacK

        The number of :about supporters that went LibDem was interesting – the conservatives lost fewer to the LibDems – which made a difference.

        The Prime Minister and Senior Pols numbers are also interesting – Miliband and the Labour front bench did not come off well.

        • Yeah. That was striking.

          But look at the economic outcomes. Conservative voters really really believe in austerity. Labour, not so much, but they don’t disbelieve it as dramatically.

          • Becker

            I wonder if polling analysts like Silver thought of incorporating the party leaders’ approval ratings (or at least the approval ratings of the PM) into their forecasts, as they sometimes do with presidential approval ratings? The media foregrounding of the party leaders and the focus on debates is lending British politics a presidential aspect, and Ed Miliband had absolutely terrible personal approval ratings.

          • MacK

            There is a surprising amount of economic illiteracy out there. Another are you see it is on EU regulation – you here Tory politicians complaining generically about “European Regulations” the way that elderly aunts remind you of starving children in Africa – but no journalist ever asks the Tort to “name two.” Of course there are regulations the tore is would like to get rid of, but they won’t say which ones because the reality is that many are the source of popular policies, like minimum vacation provision (20 days), etc. So they talk in vague terms about the awful regulations, but never identify them.

            The same thing applies to the Human Rights Act. First, it is important to know that while it did bring the European Convention into UK law, the UK’s judges have taken the position that they can read the same language more stringently than the Strasbourg does – a lot of the decisions that the Conservatives rail about fall into that category. Second, most people do not know the laundry list of rights protected under the Act – I did finally hear a journalist ask a Conservative this morning – so which ones do you want to abolish … panicked dissembling and dodging ensued.

          • joe from Lowell

            The equation of a government budget with a household budget is easy and intuitive. Understanding the differences is hard, counter-intuitive, and requires a certain degree of specialized knowledge.

            “I live within my means and so should the government!” is something people can feel in their bones.

            The Keynesian case is an intellectual one.

            It’s always going to be an uphill fight for the good guys here.

            • Except it’s advice that households just don’t take. People buy houses. Cars. Educations. They use credit cards. They smooth consumption. They have some understanding of investment.

              The problem is “live within my means” is ill-defined. People think that home purchasing is better than renting even though they they are renting money! They think they are living within their means even when it makes their debt load scary (because they think their house will always appreciate).

              “Living within means”, I’m increasingly convinced, is code for “not spending on things I don’t like”. Cf Obama phones. I don’t think it’s that household budgets are understood while govt budgets are not.

              • joe from Lowell

                The biggest way households “smooth consumption” during economic downturns is to spend less. That’s the problem.

                I don’t think it’s that household budgets are understood while govt budgets are not.

                I think I’d be pleasantly surprised if 1/3 of American adults could explain the difference between a the deficit and the national debt.

                • MacK

                  The biggest Keynesian device in most modern economy is unemployment benefits. Constraining them causes recessions to be much more acute because their absence fuels consumer panic.

                • The biggest way households “smooth consumption” during economic downturns is to spend less.

                  Sure, if their income drops. Or they pull from savings. None of this really is quite “living in their means” per se. They still have a mortgage. They might move or buy a new car if a job opportunity comes along.

                  I don’t think it’s that household budgets are understood while govt budgets are not.

                  I think I’d be pleasantly surprised if 1/3 of American adults could explain the difference between a the deficit and the national debt.

                  You misunderstand me. I don’t think people understand household finance either. I think people have trouble with concepts like net worth, renting vs. renting money, net benefit, inflation, etc.

        • matt w

          “:about”=Labour?

    • MacK

      Some of it was the influence of the LibDems.

      If you look at political parties as coalitions, the Tories span a spectrum from one-nation conservatives, some of who might be regard as close to social democrats, centrists – i.e., christian democrats, the patricians, tory-boys, the rich-right and the lunatic right. Cameron and Osborne come from the patrician/tory-boy/rich-right part of the party. However, the lunatic fringe of the Conservative party is not small and a lot of the current MPs joined the party when it positively relished its nickname of the nasty party. A lot of people I know, including some very rich people indeed cannot bring themselves even now to vote conservative – there is still a profound sense of disgust at the party in 30-55 year olds, even upper middle class ones.

      The lunatic fringe has been a problem for conservative leaders going back to Ted Heath (not so much for Thatcher because she frequently joined the fringe.) There are about 60 or so Conservative MPs who are quite simply bat-shit crazy (there were a few Labour MPs too, but much fewer now.) Perversely this right wing was not a problem for Cameron when he was in coalition, because – after the fixed term parliament act – he could always use the LibDems as a rationale for not delivering their wish list – and he could always use them as an explanation to placate Murdoch, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. This had the odd effect of making a Conservative government after 5 years of a Conservative dominated coalition look a lot less scary to many voters. We will see how they feel in a few months ….

      The LibDems origins goes back to Labour lunatic fringe, the Militant Tendency (usually known as Militant) and the Social Democrats, who were moderate Labour party members who found themselves forced to bolt the party as the bat-shit ideologues took over in the 70s and 80s. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals which ended up as the LibDems. However, New Labour reintegrated much of the support lost to the SDP.

      The LibDems are primarily a party of those turned off by the ideology of parts of Labour and parts of the Conservative party. The are a centrist coalition whose support is prone to ebbing both to Labour and to the Conservatives because it consists primarily of those who are fearful of either party going “off the deep end.” As a party they exist not so much to advance policies, but to constrain the larger parties.

      The problem was that Cameron, Osborne and the rest managed to curtail the apparent nastiness of the Tories enough to bring the right of the LibDems home, while Miliband failed to remember that he had to keep in the Labour fold – or attract from the LibDems those who worry about the Labour party’s ideological views (and the fear of extremism) or question its economic competence.

      That and Miliband and Co. simply ran a terrible campaign. For crying out loud – the Ed-Stone!!

      • Becker

        “The Tories’ heart and Labour’s head,” as Clegg put it.

        I don’t believe that #edstone moved any votes. Everybody acknowledged it as silly, but was anybody on the edge pushed one way or another because of it?

        As for Labour’s “batshit ideologues,” I’ve been reading about Tony Benn recently and the Labour left’s battles with the Blairites. I’ve come to think that, like with the Democratic Party, the center-left’s capitulation to neoliberalism has been disastrous, and has only served capital at everyone else’s expense. And now Chuka Umunna is penning odes to the “wealth creators”!

        • MacK

          I come from a pretty left wing family and I observed Militant in action as a teenager (and they were not Tony Benn and the Bennites, that was another left wing grouping.) Miltiant was genuinely the lunatic left and in places like Manchester and Liverpool they tried to purge the party of anyone centrist.

          The debate over the left or centre-lefts so called “capitulation” to neoliberalism – and calling the Clinton/NewLabour years disastrous is frankly silly – up there with the brilliance of voting for Ralph Nader because Al Gore was “just as bad.” Looking at the history of W Bush, anyone who thinks that has self-lobotomised.

          If you want to good as a left wing party you first have to get elected. The idiot wing of the Labour party will now wander around saying “the problem is we were not extreme enough” just as they did in the Thatcher/Major years – just as the Republicans think when wondering why Obama won a second term. It is just intellectual onanism.

          • Becker

            In the short term, we got boom years like the 90s. In the long run, financial deregulation and free trade have ripped the heart out of our economies. Vast sums of wealth have been hoovered up into the pockets of a handful of families, and the bipartisan orthodoxy dictates that their interests not only come first, but that there are no other interests. Empathy for those harmed by all this isn’t extremism. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are not crazy persons. And working for progressivism within amenable party structures isn’t remotely similar to the electoral sabotage of Naderism.

            • MacK

              Becker –

              I genuinely think you either have no idea who Militant were – to how bat-shit crazy the far left was in the 70s and 80s. Warren is no where near that left wing – she’d be to the right of the current Labour Party in the UK, as would Sherrod Brown – she might even fit in with some one nation Tories.

              You also I think fail to hear how utterly silly many Labourites can be – attacking pushy middle class families who try to send their kids to the best state schools (which they did) and the broad sense that the Labour Party sees its constituency as the working and benefits class. That is the issue that Chuka Umunna is pointing out – not penning odes to the wealth creators, but rather pointing out that the majority of the electorate is middle class and a party that sneers at middle class values, or only presses issues like benefits hard, loses their votes.

              That by the way is the key lesson of tuition fees, introduced don’t forget by Labour. At the time they came in some of the arguments for them was that free University was primarily a middle class benefit – that it was the pushy middle class parents whose kids got to avail of that free tuition. Of course making that point not only antagonised the middle classes, it ignored a key detail – it was their taxes that supported the university system. The Labour Party had just decided to take away a benefit from middle class taxpayers. Admittedly the Conservatives went further, but the motivation of Labour was what it was, the middle class are undeserving … they just pay for it all.

              The UK is on the verge of a national rail strike that will cripple the South-East, largely afflicting middle class voters who commute on the train. The Rail Unions, backed by the more lunatic in the Labour party propose to do this just as the new Conservative government is proposing all sorts of changes to the right to strike, with special provisions for “essential services.” To describe the timing as a little less than brilliant would be an understatement – why not just hand Cameron the justification he needs? It is the punch your face enough and you will win theory of political action.

          • Richard Gadsden

            There is a huge gap between Militant and the so-called “Old Labour” that Blair defeated in his internal struggles. The Militant era is from the mid-seventies to about 1990.

            Militant were the real thing of actual communists (mostly Trotskyites). They were great believers in working the system, notorious for using the procedures to get their way (including, e.g., kicking out the leader who had won the 1981 GLC election the day after polling day and replacing him with Ken Livingstone). They also had some pretty strong tendencies toward physical intimidation of opponents. There were other Trot factions within Labour at that time, most of whom hated Militant but, from the outside, were essentially indistinguishable.

            Benn and the Bennites were the most leftwing you could get and still be democratic socialists; the two got referred together as the “Hard Left”. Benn was quite happy to let Militant run wild destroying his enemies, without getting his own hands dirty, but they all knew he wasn’t really one of them, but he was a far better politician than the Militant leaders, so they accepted him as a figurehead.

            Kinnock came from what was known as the Soft Left (the leading soft-left figure for most of the pre-Kinnock period was Peter Shore). Prescott comes from this fraction, though he was more of a union man than an ideologue. Most of the union leaderships were either Soft Left or from the moderate Right.

            Foot wasn’t really from a faction, beyond simply the Left; he was the one person who united the Soft and Hard Left, which is why he became leader 1980-1983.

            The traditional (Croslandite/Gaitskellite) right of the Labour Party was chiefly represented by Healey and Hattersley, which is why Hattersley became Kinnock’s Deputy Leader, and it was their alliance that broke Militant and the Bennites. They ultimately expelled most of the Militant people from the party, and broke the power of the Bennites, while letting them stay as powerless backbench MPs. John Smith (Kinnock’s successor in 1992) was from this fraction as well.

            There had been a grouping even further right, led by Roy Jenkins for a time, and including the other leading figures of the SDP (Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, etc). David Owen had similar positions but never personally associated with them. This is the group that, faced by Foot as leader and the Militant take over of the party structures, walked out and formed the SDP.

            And then you get to the “modernisers”, which fell into two camps, Brownites and Blairites. Brown was slightly left of Blair but firmly to the right of the old right – I’d say that Brown was right on the line between those who went SDP and those who stayed, while Blair was definitely in the proto-SDP section, but was pretending to be more left-wing than he actually was in order to become an MP – I think if he’d been elected in 1979, he’d have gone SDP; his politics fit most naturally with David Owen’s.

            After Kinnock had lost in 1992, Labour chose Smith as leader and then he died of a heart attack two years later … and that gave Blair and Brown the space to take control of the party and drive it a long way right.

            Even Ed Miliband, the first leader to win from the left since Kinnock in 1983, was really a Brownite in those terms; even the Croslandite right of the 1970s was to the left of Ed. There are still Labour MPs from all of the left-wing factions above: Campaign Group (which has an official membership) is the residual Hard Left. Tribune was the traditional Soft Left grouping, but was dragged right in the Kinnock years, so the actual Soft Left people are harder to identify, but you could start with Jon Cruddas (though he’s a bit idiosyncratic, and not really a factions type of guy).

            • MacK

              That is a really good summary. I had missed pointing out that Militant were Trots. For genuine lunacy you had the CP(ML) and CPI(ML) – i.e., the Communist Party (Marxist Leninist) who were Albanian line Marxists, who spend as much time denouncing the Soviets and after the end of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese Communist party as sellouts. Their leading light when I encountered them was a guy called Tommy Graham – aka Tommy the Commie – he was genuinely nuts. Last I heard he was on staff at some US University, I think he’s an administrator….

              You really had to run into the Militant crowd in person, or have to deal with them, to understand how lunatic they were. The term “Political Correctness” was created to actually refer to their special style of doctrinaire politics by others on the left of the Labour Party.

              I’d add that a good few now write for the Gruniad.

              • Richard Gadsden

                I grew up in Merseyside when my father was a right-wing Labour councillor and then later Liberal (at the time the SDP was formed, but he didn’t trust Owen, so joined the Liberals instead). I was very well aware of the way the Labour party broke down, and of just what a bunch of gits Militant were.

                • MacK

                  My father was a diplomat (not UK) and one of the ways he explained how awful Owen was (no one trusted him, in any party he was in) was to describe a multilateral conference he was at, where a very senior UK diplomat walked into the room and said to his 9 assembled counterparts “do you know, my foreign secretary is a complete shit!” It seems that others agreed because that diplomat’s career continued with promotions.

                  In 5 months as foreign secretary he managed to alienate every British diplomat and every significant foreign ministry he had to deal with, as well as most of the EEC foreign minister. He was considered an untrustworthy asshole. I have never encountered anyone who dealt with Owen, Social Dems, Labour, diplomat, etc., anyone who had anything good to say about him. He was widely though to have wrecked the party by his conniving and intrigue and he was the main reason many Labour Party people did not come over. “A complete shit!”

            • MacK

              Incidentally – Healy was not that right wing, he had before WW II been a member of the Communist Party – and on two separate occasions he reduced Thatcher to tears of fury in the House of Commons – he was that effective a debater.

              Healey should have been Labour leader. Under Foot (who really was a clown, who makes Miliband look good) he was made shadow defence secretary when Labour, headed by the far left, adopted a unilateral nuclear disarmament policy, one that Healey was known to privately disagree with. This led to one of the most entertaining things I have ever seen on TV, involving Richard Perle, who then was in the Reagan administration.

              Perle was in London and was on a TV politics program hosted by (Sir) Robin Day, then the UK’s leading political TV interviewer. Healey was also on, but from a link studio in the House of Commons. In any event the subject of disarmament came up and to be blunt, Healey, a brilliant debater, wiped the floor with Perle. Humiliated the Prince of Darkness (a notorious Chicken-Hawk) started openly calling Healey a coward and accused the Labour Party of wanting to appease the Soviets just as they had appeased Hitler (this ran into the problem that Baldwin (the main appeaser) and Chamberlain were actually both Tories.) In any event, before Healey had a chance to reply, the bell went for a division in the House (i.e., a vote) and he had to leave.

              This left Robin Day to put the final knife into Perle. Signing Healey off he said “that was the Right Honourable, Major Sir Dennis Healey MP, Beach Commander at Anzio, Military Cross, (various medals) etc.” The camera focussed on Perle during this recitation – his face was quite astonishing (oh shit! does not even come close.) It was well known that the Thatcher administration told the Reagan White House to keep Perle out of the UK for the foreseeable future after the interview. In contrast to Perle, Healey was special forces (from the Royal Engineers) and most of his military career was classified – he is said to have served behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia.

              • Richard Gadsden

                I think I described Healey as a Gaitskellite or a Croslandite, which I think is fair. Right-wing in terms of the 1970s/1980s Labour Party which he operated in, but left of anything in modern UK politics, aside from the few surviving Labour backbench Campaign Group dinosaurs (and, perhaps, the left fringe of the Green Party).

                Healey was a bruiser, and a hell of a Parliamentarian. He was the one that described being attacked by Howe as being “savaged by a dead sheep”, which proved particularly hilarious (particularly for cartoonists) when Howe’s resignation speech ended Margaret Thatcher’s career.

        • MacK

          I come from a pretty left wing family and I observed Militant in action as a teenager (and they were not Tony Benn and the Bennites, that was another left wing grouping.) Miltiant was genuinely the lunatic left and in places like Manchester and Liverpool they tried to purge the party of anyone centrist.

          The debate over the left or centre-lefts so called “capitulation” to neoliberalism – and calling the Clinton/NewLabour years disastrous is frankly silly – up there with the brilliance of voting for Ralph Nader because Al Gore was “just as bad.” Looking at the history of W Bush, anyone who thinks that has self-lobotomised.

          If you want to good as a left wing party you first have to get elected. The idiot wing of the Labour party will now wander around saying “the problem is we were not extreme enough” just as they did in the Thatcher/Major years – just as the Republicans think when wondering why Obama won a second term. It is just intellectual onanism.

        • MacK

          Did the Ed-Stone move things. Who knows, but it was certainly illustrative of how awful the Labour campaign was. What cretin came up with that stunt – why did it not occur to Miiband or anyone around him – sheesh this is stupid! Here I am posing next to giant tombstone with my so-called policy pledges carved into it – and by the way, hey they are all pretty meaningless hortatory statements. When a campaign can allow something that stunningly cretinous – you have to know that it is a disaster.

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