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Author Page for Dave Brockington

Born in San Jose, grew up in Seattle, received a Ph.D. in poli sci from University of Washington, worked for three years at Universiteit Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and have worked at the University of Plymouth for eight academic years now in Plymouth, United Kingdom.

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Musings on the Local Elections (UK)

[ 0 ] November 5, 2015 |

So, I do a lot of media.  The guy taking over the politics desk at the local rag has interviewed me a couple of times, and this is his latest offering.  To Sam’s credit, he got all the quotes correct.


Trans-Atlantic Diplomacy

[ 62 ] October 3, 2015 |


New York Jets style, on the sage advice of an intern:

“the toilet paper was very thin because their plumbing isn’t as good”.

Another Massacre, Another Interview

[ 3 ] October 2, 2015 |

My accent does media over here the United Kingdom, explaining to the fair citizens of the southwest of England why my home country appears to be composed of blood thirsty gun owners, while likewise utterly unable to do a damned thing about it.  Bill Buckley, the 1-3pm presenter on BBC Radio Devon, is very good.  He had me on today in response to the Umpqua Community College massacre.  Find it here about 1:31 in:

On a couple points I was slightly off at the margins — public opinion is 50-48 for tighter gun control right now (pre-Umpqua) whereas I went slightly in the other direction. It was also recorded, not live, and some bits were excised, including my discussion of Erik’s experience following his head on a stick tweet in December 2012.

I’m also on BBC Radio Cornwall, airing right now, also recorded (at least I got the public opinion data correct), as well as being yet again pissed off.


Pausing for Thought

[ 6 ] September 16, 2015 |


legolandAs I posted in July, senior management at LGM has applied intense pressure casually suggested that I share some of the media work that I do.  A regular morning feature on BBC Radio Devon is a brief segment towards the end of the Early Show (0500 to 0630) entitled Pause for Thought. The format is appealing, as rather than being a set piece interview, or a panel discussion, I get about three minutes of free air to discuss any topic that interests me. Given the nature of the format, I have to write a script, which I probably put more effort into than is really necessary.  The usual effort needs to be taken in pitching the topic and discussion to the audience; this doesn’t only vary across media outlets, but also within shows on the same station. Feedback has been positive (which might be why they keep inviting me back to do this), and while my earlier runs concentrated solely on purely academic issues, I’m branching out into more autobiographical material, which makes sense given the time of day and the nature of the audience.

I sort of like the routine of waking every morning at 5am, catch a taxi to the studio at 5:50, on air at 6:20, but I would not want to do this every day of my life.  Thankfully, Saturday and Sunday’s spots are recorded in the studio on Friday morning. I’m currently in the midst of my fifth weekly run on Pause for Thought since it first started in 2012, and the first three entries are linked below (it’s always at the end of the show, so the time in parentheses is about where I come on).

Monday, 14 September. (1:19:45) Blending Families. The photo above relates to this entry; it’s the five of us taken at Legoland Windsor on a typical August day in England.

Tuesday, 15 September. (1:21:00) Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s Chances. There’s some overlap here with my post on Saturday.

Wednesday, 16 September. (1:22:30) Heads of State and Government: the benefits of a dual system (UK) vs the same person (US).

Why I Voted Jeremy Corbyn for Leader of the Labour Party, With Reservations

[ 104 ] September 12, 2015 |

Executive summary: not due to any sense of ideological purity, but because I think he has the best chance to lead Labour to victory in 2020.

In 2009, I published an article in Party Politics that provides evidence supporting a relationship between choice-rich electoral environments and the probability of turnout. One argument that the article advances is that as the two main parties in any electoral context converge on the center ground, people are more likely to drop out of the electorate as the salient, viable choice is no longer a meaningful choice; i.e., when the parties appear the same to the voter, fewer people vote:

 . . . as the ideological coverage of the parties on offer becomes more constricted, turnout is reduced. These findings exist in the presence of numerous individual and contextual explanations of turnout, and are confirmed against estimated variance in respondent over-reporting and with robust standard errors. In short, analyses of turnout that ignore the benefits term in the equation present an incomplete understanding of why turnout varies across and within countries.

The article can’t explicitly make that causal argument, however, as it’s a cross section of 28 democracies, and not an analysis of one country over time. However, turnout and two-party vote data from the United Kingdom do provide some (admittedly limited) support for this argument. The following table includes the election, the percent of the vote that went to the two main parties (The Conservatives and Labour), and turnout in that election. While a first pass on the data do indicate a relationship between the two-party vote and turnout, this is further buttressed by the basic Pearson’s r of 66.8.

1945 85.9 72.8
1950 86.1 83.9
1951 93.1 82.6
1955 96.1 76.8
1959 93.2 78.7
1964 87.5 77
1966 89.8 75.8
1970 89.4 72
1974f 75 78.8
1974o 75 72.8
1979 80.8 76
1983 70 72.7
1987 73 75.3
1992 76.3 77.7
1997 73.9 71.3
2001 72.4 59.4
2005 67.6 61.4
2010 65.1 65.1
2015 67.3 66.1


What’s going on here? We know that people are more likely to vote if they perceive a difference between the choices on offer. We also see a relationship between the overall vote for the two main parties in the UK and turnout. I’m not suggesting that we immediately leap to a causal function between the two variables, but this will be a direction of future research. However, accepting the basic premise for the sake of discussion, one factor in the decline in recent turnout in the British polity is likely to be the absence of elections that matter. With both major parties converging on the center ground, the electoral narrative becomes who makes the best case as administrator of the economy, and not who has the best ideas for the organising of state and governance. Such elections don’t inspire, and voters turn away from the two major (samey) parties for various fringe third-parties, or for abstention.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party leadership election. I posted twice about this leadership election last month, but chose to focus on the Party’s mishandling of voting eligibility. He only qualified for the ballot literally in the last hour, entered the contest simply to broaden the debate, and nobody gave him a chance to win. He now appears to have the best chance of the four candidates to be named the new leader of the Labour Party in just a few hours time, although this is by no means a certainty. That said, I do lament not rushing down to the bookies and placing a bet on him when his odds were 100-1 as a rank outsider.

While turnout should increase with a Corbyn-led Labour Party standing against the Government, it’s no certainty that the new (or re-) entrants to the electorate will significantly prefer Labour to the alternatives. But there is evidence to support the notion that they will. Any increase or decrease in the voting pool does not effect all parties equally; the relationship is asymmetric. A reduction in turnout is likely to hurt parties of the left more than the right; likewise an increase in turnout is likely to support parties of the left more so than the right.

When it comes to electoral politics, especially under the FPTP (aka single-member district plurality) electoral rules, I’m a quite pragmatic member of the left. I don’t mind making compromises in my core ideological values in order to enhance the chances of electoral probability. I suggest that Corbyn has the best chance of leading the Labour Party to victory in 2020 due to several factors. One, the now famous mobilization of support for Corbyn, especially among the young. However, this alone does not guarantee the swing in support Labour would require to win in 2020, but rather might simply reflect the highly motivated, ideologically inspired electorate that typifies primary electorates in the US.

What is probably a safer bet is that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be best-positioned to reclaim a significant share of the vote lost to the Green Party in England & Wales, or the SNP up in Scotland. Here in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport constituency alone, the Conservative MP beat Labour by only 523 votes, yet there were 3401 votes for the Green Party.  Furthermore, there has been additional evidence from public opinion. An Ashcroft poll released this week indicates broad support across the electorate for a Labour Party that stood in clear opposition to the Conservatives. It would appear that the electorate is keen on having a real choice. There have been several similar polls released in the past few weeks, and likewise several indicating that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would have a rough time of it. Two issues need to be considered here in the interpretation of such polls. One, such polling questions are “extremely difficult if not impossible to make meaningful”, especially this far in advance of a general election. Two, Labour are faced with an extremely difficult electoral context in 2020, regardless who leads them into the 2020 election.

What I do flat reject, however, is the lazy argument that a non-Blairite left-wing Labour Party is doomed to the electoral wilderness. This argument always points back to Michael Foot and the 1983 electoral defeat against Thatcher. A credible argument exists pointing out this myth. The Falklands War had a measurable effect on Conservative chances in the 1983 election, such that it’s difficult to imagine a Tony Blair-led Labour Party winning against Thatcher in that context. Furthermore:

“For those who assert that Labour’s left programme cost it the 1983 election, it must follow that the party could have won had it moved right. We have test cases for this. Labour moved significantly rightwards for the 1987 election – and lost. It fought the 1992 election from a position still further to the right – and lost again. It took until 1997 for the ‘modernisers’ to be ‘proved’ correct, and only once the Tories had been stripped of all credibility by the ERM debacle, endless scandals, infighting and John Major.”

Every election is partially a function of its context — the fundamentals, if you will. John Major winning in 1997 was highly improbable, regardless who led the opposition. It was simply a matter of what the margin of defeat would be, and to his credit, Tony Blair did run up the score. It’s a good thing that he did, too, given between those gains in 1997 and the 2005 election, the Blair-led Labour Party lost 3,965,731 votes, haemorrhaging 8% of the vote share secured in 1997. Tony Blair was not the magician that he’s purported to be.

Another common argument is that Labour must win Tory votes to win an election. This is predicated on several assumptions, most lacking empirical merit. First, that the electorate is static. Second, that non-voters will always remain non-voters. Third, protest voters (presumably anybody voting Green, SNP, or Lib Dem) will always vote for a party with little chance to gain power. The first two are not supported by the evidence; to wit, Obama’s 2008 campaign benefitted significantly from mobilising new voters. There is some degree of support for the third, at the margins, but a large percentage of the Liberal Democrat’s support between 2001 and 2010, and the Greens since, was because the Labour Party was perceived to move too close to the Conservatives. The only argument of those that does have any merit is that a vote “stolen” from the Conservatives counts twice. While true in a vacuum, this does ignore that in positioning the party just to the left of the Conservatives, aping their narrative and accepting their assumptions, would result in an overall constriction of the electorate.  In short, fewer voters. Plus, there would be more defections to parties of the left, which in the current electoral context are the Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru.

There are more concerning arguments, of course. Nationally, the media will not be supportive. I typically find media-orientated arguments in politics lazy (they’re very easy to state with authority, yet far more difficult to measure with any empirical rigour) but in this case it will be important for the Corbyn leadership to get out ahead in framing the narrative, which is rarely a Labour Party competence.  I mentioned my distaste for a subset of the Corbyn support in my previous post, but their shrill attitude has many moderate MP and MP candidates fearing a purge by the Corbynistas, which would do significant damage to the party’s electoral chances in 2020. Several foreign policy positions of Corbyn’s are frightfully naive (though I do not have the time to go into it right now, which is a cheap cop-out, but leaving NATO is one such policy).

Finally, locally, we will have some hurdles to overcome in campaigning in the city council elections this upcoming May under a Corbyn leadership. He is famous for wanting to scrap Trident, which would negatively impact jobs here in Plymouth. That said, it seems cooler heads in the Corbyn camp, sensing victory and the concomitant responsibility, are suggesting that these policies be quietly shelved. While I think scrapping the Trident deterrence and re-investing the tens of billions of pounds in the Royal Navy proper is a wise policy, neither Corbyn nor any other potential Prime Minister is likely to make such a like-for-like re-investment with the savings (and I can readily get away with this opinion as having no desire to stand for office locally).

Ultimately, 2020 will be a tough fight, nationally, for the Labour Party. That said, Jeremy Corbyn offers the best chance to mobilise new and disaffected former voters, thus increasing the electoral pool, as my own research has suggested. A larger turnout should translate into a greater share of the vote for the Labour Party. Likewise, he offers the best chance at “winning back” those who voted Green or Scottish National as they perceived even the Ed Miliband Labour Party as accepting the basic narrative of austerity.

Of course, the 2020 election is 4.5 years away. Any number of exogenous or endogenous factors that we can not now anticipate might come into play. One thing is certain: should Corbyn win the leadership contest, politics in the UK will get somewhat more interesting in the months and years ahead.

Clowns to Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

[ 40 ] August 21, 2015 |


The current leadership contest for the Labour Party is demonstrating two of its purported weaknesses: narcissism and disorganisation. A lot of this was unavoidable. The bulk of the current party as is came of political age post-1994, so the entrenched power structure, down to local councillors, have a certain set of ideological, strategic, and tactical expectations, and a common accepted narrative. Anybody who teaches Thomas Kuhn would immediately recognise the relevance of this quote:

Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend most all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments. As a puzzle-solving activity, normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.

In search of a Kuhnian paradigm shift is the unexpected surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn. This, too, comes with a common narrative of sorts (if less unified or tidy): one of distrust for the “normal” politicians, established party structures, and a messianic, near cultish belief in their saviour, quite similar to Erik’s take on the support of Bernie Sanders: “Good take on the problem with Bernie Sanders: the cult of personality his fans are erecting around him that make any criticism an attack on their hero.

The results of this clash are distasteful and unhelpful. A large segment of the status quo patronise Corbyn and his support as childish, amateur, and lacking in a basic understanding of electoral politics, perhaps best illustrated by Paul Blanchard’s shrill article:

The people who are joining right now are not living in the real world – or in many cases they’re just too young to understand how the real world will inevitably impact their future. They are desperate to indulge their fantasies of a utopian socialist state; and many really do believe that it’s actually possible to create it in the 21st Century. Jeremy Corbyn resonates with people who don’t want to govern. They just want to protest . . . So where do Labour people like me go from here? If Corbyn becomes the leader then I’ll have to think about resigning my membership.

Likewise, many insurgents respond by branding any who disagrees a Tory and nurture a deep, distrust of any extant party structures, including the local party. They proudly display their ballots as ranking only one candidate, because not one of the other three can possibly conform to their precise ideological purity. Under the alternative vote electoral system, we are allowed to rank order our candidates on the ballot below (which is not mine), and it seems short sighted to me to not utilise the electoral system to its fullest:


Ultimately, this clash is understandable, combining ideology with the possibility of a Kunhian paradigm shift. However, some of the damage being caused was clearly avoidable. Last Friday, I discussed how Labour has created a problem in the way it has defined the eligible electorate for the 2015 leadership contest. One must be a full member for a year before being allowed a vote in candidate selection for parliament or council in one’s own Constituency Labour Party. Yet, in the first truly democratic election of party leader, all one needs to do is spend three quid as a registered “supporter” of the party before the deadline of 12 August, with voting to commence three days later. My main concern in the post last week concerned how a poorly conceived system could create the appearance of illegitimacy in the outcome, especially if the winner is Jeremy Corbyn perceived to be riding a surge of support on the backs of Three Quid Tories. However, Labour’s attempt to filter or, face it, purge these rolls has created a public relations problem, and is viewed by many Corbyn supports as an explicit attempt to limit their electoral effectiveness. Indeed, it might even have created a legal problem.

Ultimately, the Labour Party is right to prevent those who openly campaigned against it in the previous election, or stood as candidates against Labour, from voting in the leadership contest. However, there is a profound lack of clarity and transparency in the process, and it’s being conducted on an ad-hoc basis on a shoestring which allows for considerable error, and error that will be publicised. Creating a truly democratic election for party leader has some merit, yes, but this should have been limited to full party members, not just anybody with £3. In choosing the latter, the party should have a) chatted with some political scientists about the ideological shape of the electorate in primary elections, and b) created clear, transparent rules for who can, and who can not, vote. It apparently didn’t effectively do the former, and clearly not the latter, so finds itself stunned that Corbyn is leading in most polls, and that a minor public relations disaster is in the making.

Regardless who wins the election, I’ll happily remain a member of the Labour Party (yes, even if Liz Kendall wins), for all its faults, and put in the same amount of work campaigning for Labour at the upcoming local elections in May as I have done the previous two years.

After all, I am pretty sure that they’re still going to let me vote in this thing.

The Labour Party and Paranoia

[ 80 ] August 14, 2015 |


So, the Labour Party lost an election a few months ago. The rhetoric and framing of this defeat are breathlessly disasterous, such as “an awful result“, “catastrophic“, and a “calamity“, among others.  Yet, Labour increased votes (740,787) and share (Labour gained 1.5%) of the national electorate from the 2010 election (while the Conservatives likewise added votes and share, their gain was only 0.8%). This meant that Labour, as is their wont, must dive into a summer’s worth of soul searching and incrimination dressed up as a leadership election.

While Ed Miliband was selected leader in 2010 based on an electoral college system, where MPs, unions, and the membership writ large each had an equal say, the party has switched to a (more or less) one-member-one-vote system, in part to attenuate the power of unions over the selection process. As the link points out, this is ironic, considering it was the union component of the electoral college in 2010 that put Ed Miliband over the top at the expense of his brother.

Of course, it’s not quite this simple. All full party members get a vote, as do members of affiliated unions (who have to register with the party) and anybody who wants to pay £3 to become a “Labour supporter”. To this day, I’m not entirely clear on the purpose of the latter (a revenue stream, or a means to generate data) but it was a half baked scheme not only open to abuse at the margins, but worse, open to the perception of mass abuse.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy. The serial back bencher, representing the left wing of the party, received the necessary 35 MP nominations to stand for the leadership literally in the final hour, with many MPs stating that they would not support him, but wanted him on the list to provide for a healthy debate. Given the perception of Corbyn as an unreconstructed, Michael Foot-esque socialist, many on the right believe it’s in their interests to plonk down the three quid and cast a spoiler vote under the banner of “Tories for Corbyn“, thus ensuring the destruction of the Labour Party as a viable electoral alternative, tantamount to submitting a “resignation letter to the British people” (that quote is from Liz Kendall, best described as the Blairite candidate for leader). Stories abound of Conservatives “caught” registering as a supporters, as well as Greens or those on the hard left. The Labour Party is trying mightily to “weed out” the infiltrators, including some high profile cases (such as the comedian Mark Steel, whom the Labour Party decreed as not “supporting their values” even though the party didn’t prevent him from campaigning for Labour in the 2015 election), to several backbench Labour MPs calling for the leadership election to be suspended.

Why?  Because Jeremy Corbyn might actually win this thing. Many of the MPs who nominated him only to broaden the debate are now regretting it, as recent polling suggests that he’ll win the leadership on the first ballot.

This post isn’t about the merits of any of the four leadership contenders; I’m writing that one over the weekend and will post it on Monday. As a full party member, I get a vote, and I know how I’m going to rank all four candidates. Rather, this is about the wisdom of the system. Should Corbyn win, it’s on the back of legitimate members, not a handful of Tories (or Marxists) infiltrating the party as three-quid supporters in order to gleefully cast a vote. The numbers support this assertion; the electorate at the close of registration on Wednesday is 610,753: 299,755 full members, 189,703 affiliated members (via affiliated unions) and 121,295 registered supporters. It’s mathematically possible that the 121K registered supporters, if voting as a bloc, can swing it to Corbyn, but data from the YouGov poll suggest that £3 supporters back Corbyn only marginally more than full members. However, the perception will always be there that the win was illegitimate. Labour have enough trouble as it is framing the debate; this will only serve to compound the problem.

Is it electoral fraud to give Labour three quid to vote for Corbyn? Not at all. Hell, the only Republican I ever voted for was in the 1996 primary in the Washington State gubernatorial election. Polls had Gary Locke well ahead in the Democratic primary, so a bunch of us crossed over to the Republican primary to help nominate state senator Ellen Craswell, a prototypical batshit crazy representative of the religious right, who successfully went on to get crushed in the general election (yet somehow still managed 42% of the vote). Labour have invited such shenanigans, and have only themselves to blame for creating electoral rules that cast a modicum of doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome.

The Leadership Contest for the Labour Party

[ 64 ] July 20, 2015 |


As those poor souls who make a hobby or profession of following British politics know, the opposition Labour Party (and the party that I am a member of) is in the midst of one of our traditional periods of soul searching.  There are four MPs standing, and roughly from right to left, they are Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Jeremy Corbyn.  The latter has been receiving a lot of press as the insurgency candidate from the left, “movement” wing of our party.

I’m still in the decision process on this, so I’m not making a public endorsement yet, but will later in the week.  Suffice it to say over the course of the past few days I’ve found myself leaning in one clear direction, thanks in part to the compelling arguments of my partner (and her explicit threat to withhold intimate relations if I vote for Kendall).

Every party member gets a vote this time, and it’s one person, one vote, and preferential voting (a form of the alternative vote / SNTV).  One way to gauge preferences in this mini-electorate is to see which Constituency Labour Parties have endorsed which candidates.  There’s 650 CLPs, and their decision method varies with the CLP.  Today’s standing is here.  Corbyn has 70, Burnham 69, Cooper 58, and Kendall 12.

However, these are not reliable measures.  At the AGM for my CLP a couple of weeks ago, we decided to hold off on an endorsement.  Hence, my surprise that not only my CLP but also one of the two other Plymouth constituencies has apparently come out in favour of Cooper.  I got in touch with one of the two campaign coordinators for my constituency, and he assured me that this is most definitely not true.

So, given the difficulty in polling this particular electorate, we’re basically not going to have a sense of this until the results are announced in September.

Shameless Self Promotion, UK “Emergency” Budget Edition

[ 2 ] July 11, 2015 |


radiodevon514croppedIn the course of my job, I done a fair share of media work, but it has ramped up significantly in the past couple of years.  In a rare display of organisation, I’ve been keeping track of each appearance on television, radio, or in print since the beginning of 2014, and I’m somewhere over 65 spots. I have some friends to whom that’s not much at all, but a colleague in the media/PR office (or whatever it is named this week) at my august institution of higher learning said I likely have the most appearances at the university, which led me to quip that I should get paid or promoted or something for all this free publicity the place is receiving.  The majority of it is one of several local BBC radio stations, where I’m on to discuss American, British, and local politics, as well as some EU stuff, but national thus far has been limited to American politics (where with my accent I could say just about anything and be taken seriously). I did have an opportunity to go national for British politics on Radio 4 this last election cycle, but it fell through at the last minute for reasons beyond my control.  All that said, I’ll never feel like I’ve made it until I appear live in studio on Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

Of course, one aspect of this is pitching the analysis to the audience, and this does vary depending on the media outlet; fortunately, academics are supposed to be good at this.  Another aspect is the delicate balance between identities.  Much like in the classroom or in my office, I’m invited to comment in the media because of my academic credentials.  I have to set aside the bit where I’m an active member of the Labour Party.  All of this is a way of introducing the context for my commentary in the link below.

I do somewhere north of 50% of my media stuff for BBC Radio Devon.  The early afternoon presenter, Bill Buckley, is a politics geek, and has recently introduced a new format for Radio Devon around scheduled, live national political events, namely the budget.  This consists of a panel representing several interests or viewpoints, and we’re on air from one to two hours.  With the “Emergency Budget” announced this past Wednesday, the panel included the Chief Executive Officer of the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Regional Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, and yours truly as the academic “expert”.  We watch a bit of the speech in the House of Commons off air, then react live to the various announcements in the studio (as well as the occasional listener phone-in or email).  This is the third of these I’ve been on (the normal budget speech in March and the “Autumn Statement” in December being the other two) and I’ve really enjoyed it, even though I can only speak in general, nearly superficial terms on these panels, not having a specific interest to elaborate upon.  According to Buckley, the station is receiving excellent feedback from listeners for this format’s ability to explain what’s going on in accessible language, which is encouraging.

Senior management here at LGM has suggested that we should start linking to these appearances, which is a good idea.  So, here’s the link to Wednesday’s panel on BBC Radio Devon, which remains live for a month.  We’re on from about 14 minutes in, and I’m the one with the American accent.  I also did a live remote interview for BBC Radio Cornwall from the Radio Devon studios about an hour before this, as well as a phone interview on Buckley’s show the previous Friday.

The Most Disproportionate Result in British Election History

[ 100 ] June 2, 2015 |


This verdict courtesy of the Electoral Reform Society, who have issued their report here (one of the authors of the report is a past student of ours):

Few parties saw their vote shares fairly reflected in terms of seats. The Greens and UKIP won nearly five million votes but re- ceived just two seats between them. Few can look at those figures and think that the voting system is working for our democracy.

This was the most disproportionate result in British election history1. Labour saw their vote share increase while their number of seats collapsed. The Conservatives won an overall majority on a minority of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly all their seats – despite winning 8% of the vote. The SNP won 50% of the Scottish vote share, but 95% of Scottish seats.

This isn’t surprising, and the ERS do a convincing job of pitching both the problems inherent with the present electoral system, and the tradeoffs inherent in three alternatives (STV, list PR, and the Alternative Vote), at a level that a layperson can understand.  The report correctly points out that the current government commands a (slim) parliamentary majority on just 36.9% of the vote (and only 24.4% of the eligible electorate). What it doesn’t point out is that this artificial mandate will be used to push through a radical agenda.

An alternative scenario is illustrated in the figure below:


The ERS states a preference for STV. I disagree; it would be a much easier sell to move to MMP/AMS. The report suggests that some semblance of direct constituency representation can be retained under STV using a low district magnitude, but this defeats the purpose of PR in general (less proportional results are attained with lower district magnitudes) yet diffuses direct representation. Up until the past couple of years in working with and campaigning for the Labour Party I had always downplayed the need for direct representation (why is it important to represent dirt and trees?), but I’ve changed my mind on the issue (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”, a quote possibly misattributed to John Maynard Keynes, though Churchill in The Grand Alliance attributes it to Keynes if my recollection is correct). At least the perception exists in the minds of many voters here that such direct representation matters to them, so selling any switch away from FPTP should retain this one direct representative model.  MMP does this in Germany, New Zealand, and the Scottish Parliament, to name a few applications.

I strongly encourage the next leader of the Labour Party to place electoral reform front and center, and to campaign on this issue relentlessly for the next five years. Of course, there are two negative consequences of using either list PR or STV with the 2015 votes: the only plausible outcome would have been a Conservative-UKIP coalition (the Alternative Vote actually predicts more Conservative seats than achieved under FPTP). The second is that Labour would lose seats under list PR (down to 208 from the present 232).*  Tactically, this would only add political weight to the argument.  Finally, when The Economist, typically not a friend of progressive ideas, has come out in favor of electoral reform (even before the fiasco of 2015), surely the Labour Party can. Of course, the current contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party arguably lack the originality or initiative for such an obvious move.

See also Frustrated Progressive on the issue of electoral reform in Britain, and Niall Hughes at the LSE blog for a somewhat contrary view.

[*] These estimates on how different electoral systems translate the 2015 vote into seats assumes that the vote remains the same. It’s likely that different electoral rules would create different incentives and decision rules, hence, at least at the margins, a different outcome.


The Separation of Church and State: America and the American Military (Guest Post)

[ 219 ] May 26, 2015 |


DB: In honor of Memorial Day, I offer the observations of my cousin.
The scary part for me, on this Memorial Day, is how separate from the military most Americans are. With such a small percentage of the population serving in the military, people’s every day lives are not impacted. This is not a bad thing; it takes a bit away from someone to see the real horrors of war.

CNN and Fox News do a good job putting out their respective party’$ message. As an adult it amazes me how the same story can be told in two different ways, both of which miss the point.

A case in point would be Operation Jade Helm, a large multi-branch training event that one side thought was training the American Military how to impose martial law in America. This went so far that the governor of Texas activated the Texas National Guard to monitor the exercise to ensure the rights of Texans were not being violated.

Let me just say that again: the Texas National Guard was activated to monitor the entire United States Military. I am sure that the Texas National Guard is well funded. However, imagine a yippee dog fighting Mike Tyson: he might get bitten and despised by the media, but the fight would be brief. Yet, one news organization is reporting that the motivations of Jade Helm are nefarious. The real motivation for having American troops “training on American soil” is clearly either the imposition of martial law, or taking away Texans’ guns. (ed: because Waco, obviously).

I ask you where are we (who are also Americans that signed a blank check to the government payable up to and including our lives) supposed to train? If we go outside of the United States it looks a little bit like we are invading, which doesn’t play well in the news. Meanwhile, the other news source (ed: CNN) is portraying veterans as ticking time bombs just waiting for their PTSD to push them over the edge, or highlighting the mistakes that have been made in a very complex environment.

The American public has become so disconnected with a military that has been going to and coming back from a war zone for over 13 years that they don’t understand why it is not okay to ask if you killed anyone over there. Or even how good it is in America because a third world war zone is no place for anyone. That you have people thanking the troops for their service while at the same time telling them that they don’t support the war. Wonderful, I am glad that I am not being spit on and being called a baby killer like the Vietnam Veterans when they came home. If you don’t support the war you have the power to change it. Tell your Congressional Representative what you need from them, then you have to follow through and not vote for them if they continue to do things you don’t support. Don’t tell the person that probably just got back from a bad place that you don’t think that they were doing any good over there. Because on this MEMORIAL day weekend they are thinking about the friends that they lost, most of them right before their very eyes. You are telling us that those young men died for no purpose. The civilian says thank you for your service and shakes your hand feeling good about themselves. The Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine awkwardly mumbles something along the lines of thank you while returning a hand shake.

Less than one percent serve, and of those most are from a military family. They are stationed in places that mostly military people retire (people stay in places that they are comfortable) so the businesses are generally military serving military. Thus, across America there there are pockets of military but again the general public doesn’t see them. I am interested to see where we as Americans go from here. I do still think that it is good to have the civilian government in control of the military. I can see that it would not be a good idea for the dogs of war to let themselves loose. But maybe not making decisions based on the party’s political agenda or the election cycle would be better.

If you are going to start something be sure that you give a clear path on how to finish it.

Brandon Nall
Former Infantry Captain with the 101st Airborne, United States Army
2 tours in Afghanistan

The Battle for the Soul of the Labour Party

[ 56 ] May 25, 2015 |


The public narrative of the cause for 2015 and the way forward has already been framed by the right wing of the party:

It failed in small-town England but advanced in London and big cities. It continued to lose working-class votes but bolstered its middle-class support. How to weave together a winning electoral coalition out of such fragmentation is far from straightforward. But you’d never know that from the response of Labour’s leadership candidates. Taking their cue  from Blair and a string of former New Labour luminaries, all have fallen in – with more or less enthusiasm – behind a Blairite agenda.

The problem with Ed Miliband’s leadership, they intoned from the start, was that it was “anti-business”, put a “cap on aspiration”, threatened rich people with punitive taxes, and failed to accept that the last Labour government “overspent” in the runup to the crisis of 2007-08.

However, the numbers are not on the side of the “modernisers” (a misnomer, given the modernizers are refighting the battles from 1992-1994).  John Curtice (a well known political scientist in the UK) suggests the problem with 2015 was in part the loss of support on the left:

 Britain’s most respected opinion pollster has warned Labour its chances of winning a majority at the next election verge on the “improbable” and that blaming its defeat on a shift away from Blairism is “wholly inadequate”.

Setting aside his pessimistic assessment for the future as I haven’t had the opportunity to explore those numbers at all (but will not be improved by the near certainty of a boundary review during the current Parliament) I do agree with the suggestion that a shift to the right would not enhance the electability of the party. Anecdotally, campaigning on the doorstep over the past two years, I haven’t once heard somebody tell me what the Labour Party needs is more Blairism. I have heard from many former Labour supporters who lamented that the party “has abandoned people like me”. I’ve also heard a lot of anti-immigrant vile, which as an immigrant myself are always my favorite moments (said without sarcasm) because invariably they don’t include me as a target for their life’s frustrations.

While Curtice focuses solely on the debacle in Scotland, the nearly 1.2 million Green Party voters also need to be included in any assessment:

If Greens had backed Labour in Derby North, Croydon Central, Bury North, Morley and Outwood, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Brighton Kemptown, and Telford, it would have been enough to deny David Cameron a majority, and Ed Balls would still be in his job. That’s just 2984 votes that would have needed to change hands.

Plymouth Sutton & Devonport is my constituency.  The Labour Party candidate, Luke Pollard, lost to the incumbent Conservative MP by 523 votes.  The Green Party candidate received 3401 votes.

I’m not arguing that the 2015 loss was the fault of the Greens or the SNP.  I am arguing that the Labour Party needs to make itself a more appealing alternative for those voters, one that combines addressing progressive issues and concerns with the chance of actually forming, you know, a government.

It’s Labour’s fault that many former Labour supporters voted for what they perceived to be a more attractive alternative. Embracing 1994 all over again will not get them back.

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