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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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A Brexiting Hypocrisy

[ 137 ] June 10, 2016 |


The United Kingdom votes in the European Union referendum in 13 days. The deadline for voters not on the electoral roll at their current address to register was Tuesday. Only, in the hours leading up to the midnight deadline, the system crashed. Now, if the Republican Party was in charge, one might naturally assume that this was intentional; one would certainly not expect the deadline to be extended. However, for all their manifest faults, the present Government of the UK is officially in the remain camp, so they extended the deadline by 48 hours.

This matters, for two reasons. First, in the run-in to the general election last year, the Government changed the system of voter registration. Under the old system, a single person could register an entire household in one go. This made registration simple for a lot if not most people, although, in theory, also made it vulnerable to electoral fraud. Yet, according to the Electoral Commission’s own report from January of last year, “We do not believe it is likely that fraud has been attempted in more than a handful of wards in any particular local authority area.” Basically, as in the United States, it doesn’t really exist. The new system requires each individual to directly register themselves to vote. This does not seem to be a big deal, and it remains simpler to register to vote in the UK when contrasted to the US. However, simple logic dictates that voters will be lost from the rolls. According to research published by the campaign group Hope Not Hate and the Labour Party several months before the 2015 general election, nearly one million people have vanished from the electoral rolls. Young voters are significantly more likely to be screwed by the new system. They’re less settled geographically, and whenever one moves, one has to re-register at their new address. The electoral commission admitted that certain demographics will be systematically affected by the change, specifically private renters, young adults . . . and students. Under the old system, students could be registered by their universities en mass based on their halls of residence. No longer; now it’s up to each individual student to ensure that they are registered.

For the EU referendum, this would not matter if there was no systematic relationship between age and probability of voting remain. However, there is, and it’s a very strong relationship, and a relationship that is only slightly mediated by education. “The young, whatever their age education, are very largely against Brexit; among the old, the intensity of their anti-EU sentiment varies substantially according to their qualifications.”   (“Age” is in the original, but given the context it’s probably a typo; regardless, look at the data which tell the story).

So, the young are significantly more likely to vote remain, more likely to have to continually monitor their registration status, and the system crashes under the weight of people trying to change their registration at the last minute. The Government sensibly extended the deadline 48 hours, because democracy is a good thing.

Those in favor of leaving the EU should applaud this decision. Their three arguments for leaving are unchecked immigration — that Britain is being overrun by nefarious forces from beyond the borders stealing jobs, crushing the health service, and causing all manner of mayhem. Because they’re different. The second is the money, and how much the EU costs Britain (which they all claim with a straight face will be invested in the NHS and those in need).  The third? Sovereignty and democracy. To quote Boris Johnson, “I’m telling you that if we vote on June 23 and take back control of our country, our economy and our democracy then we can prosper and thrive and flourish as never before.”  Michael Gove also weighs in with ” . . . though we are outside the euro we are still subject to an unelected EU commission which is generating new laws every day . . .”.

Democracy!  A key component of democracy is, you know, voting, and allowing as many as possible a means to cast their vote with minimal obstruction. It’s natural to assume that the Brexit camp would be completely supportive of extending the registration deadline 48 hours, to ensure that as many as possible, especially the itinerant young, get the chance to democratically express their preference on the most important question facing the entire UK in a generation or two.

To quote the inimitable Lana Kane, “nooooooope”.

A legal challenge to extending the registration deadline is under consideration.


Because duh. “BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins said many Leave campaigners see the deadline extension as a “fix” because they think people signing up late will be younger and therefore more likely to support the EU. The official leave campaign – Vote Leave, in which Mr Banks plays no part – has said the government is trying to register as many likely Remain voters as possible, but stopped short of suggesting that it would consult lawyers.”

The act of registering a voter is neutral. We do not know how these late registrants will vote. However, because political science, we have a pretty damned good idea. Apparently, the Brexit camp is smart enough to have figured this out as well.

But this does make their paean to democracy appear as unmitigated bullshit.

UPDATE: This in The Independent.


Should Obamacare be repealed?

[ 66 ] May 20, 2016 |

So read the subject line of an email that Paul Ryan sent me. Well, not me, but somebody who has a name awfully similar to mine. I was an early adopter of gmail, so I’m blessed (or cursed) with an email address that is basically, you know, my name. There are apparently a ton of other Brockingtons out there, unrelated to me, who accidentally use my email address instead of their own to sign up for stuff (or do it purposefully for whatever reason, which given that this happens often is probable in some instances). My favorite by far was the time when I was serving as a bridesmaid several years ago at some stateside wedding. I should have crashed it; I’d have looked pretty good in that dress.

The email from the Speaker of the House includes a “survey”, which I reproduce below. This reminded me of Ross Perot’s infamous TV Guide “survey” from the 1992 election. This isn’t the first time in this election cycle that I’ve received email from the GOP (virtually every campaign team in the primary race — aside from Trump’s, strangely enough — have emailed me mercilessly) and when I have the opportunity to screw with their propaganda data, I’ve done so.

“So sue me.”
— President Obama

Dxxxxx . . .  —

President Obama taunted conservatives when we expressed concern over his executive overreach. And when we sued him in federal court to protect the Constitution’s separation of powers, President Obama called it “a stunt.”

Now President Obama is eating his words.

Last Thursday, a federal judge ruled that Obamacare violates the Constitution by granting spending power to the Executive branch.

Daniel, I need to know if you stand with me in the fight to repeal Obamacare.

Should Obamacare be repealed?

ID: xxxxxx

The House represents you, the people. And if you want Obamacare repealed, it’s my obligation to you to make sure I do everything in my power to make that happen.

House Republicans need to hear from you immediately: should Obamacare be repealed?

Should Obamacare be repealed?


Thank you,

Speaker Paul Ryan


The Past Few Days in the Special Relationship

[ 79 ] May 17, 2016 |


Donald Trump, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the newly elected Mayor of London have gotten themselves into a spot of bother.  In an interview with Piers Morgan, Trump assailed the clearly less-intelligent office-holders in the UK. To prove his assessment of their relative intellects, he’s challenged Sadiq Khan to an IQ test because . . . well I guess that approach to trans-Atlantic diplomacy hasn’t been tried recently.  This received some play in the media over here yesterday, prompting one of the regional BBC radio stations to interview me about the fate of the special relationship (my ten minute interview could be summed up as “don’t worry, it’s no big deal, on several levels”).

My question to my fellow Americans actually living in, you know, America is did this story get any play in the US?  I couldn’t find it on the NYT at all, which was an observation that elicited surprise from the presenter on Radio Berkshire yesterday morning.

In other more local news, even though the Labour Party secured the most votes citywide in the recent city council elections, the Conservatives have officially gone into coalition with UKIP in order to run the city for the next two years. I was asked for a react quote from the local paper when the story broke, but given I was teaching American politics for two hours, it had to wait until this morning. There should be something out there by now. I’m sure it’s made everybody involved very happy.

Local Elections in the UK

[ 10 ] May 12, 2016 |


First, a disclaimer. There isn’t much of an argument in this post. There isn’t even much of a narrative arc. What I do promise are some words strung together somewhat coherently to form paragraphs. Individual paragraphs might be a satisfying à la carte experience, but the aggregate meal will probably disappoint as it’s largely autobiographical. I’m shaking the rust off of the blogging thing following a lengthy hiatus. If you take anything away from this post beyond light food poisoning, it should be the video on the Plymouth city council elections put together by The Guardian’s John Harris (link below).

On May 5th, the United Kingdom enjoyed an electoral orgy in what sort of passes for ‘off year’ elections here. Some mayors were elected in some of the municipalities than have such things (and the one municipality in Devon that has an elected mayor voted 62% to eliminate the position in a referendum), the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Irish assembly had elections, and the patchwork of local government also had elections. This is quite varied in England; geographically, England is divided into metropolitan counties, non-metropolitan counties, and London. These are all dual-tiered. To use the example of a non-metropolitan county, district councils are nested within county councils, and the two of them divide the administration of services. Alongside all these are “unitary authorities”, which combine all responsibilities under one body. The City of Plymouth is a unitary authority. To make matters more complex, some of these bodies elect a third of their council in any given year, some half, and some elect the entire council once every four years. Plymouth is elected on the thirds system, so we have elections to the city council three out of every four years.  (Incidentally, to the social scientist this makes for a brilliant data source, and I have a paper under review that pitches this as as close to a natural experiment as I can achieve). Some national media took to calling the 2016 election here “Super Thursday”, which is apt I guess given that this is the largest election day in the UK outside of a general parliamentary election.

Readers who remember who I am might know that I’ve been active in the local Labour Party for the past several years (and I also do a lot of media as an academic, which makes for a fine line) and this year was no different. The photo at the top was taken on election day a week ago, at our traditional morning breakfast before our targeted, data-driven GOTV effort begins. I’m sat in the center of the picture, discussing the day’s plan with the canvassing team I cobbled together and led throughout this electoral cycle, the campaign coordinator for the southern wards in the city (Luke Pollard, also the parliamentary candidate for the southern constituency last year who lost by only 523 votes) and Tudor Evans, the leader of Plymouth City Council. (Photo credit to Cllr. Jonny Morris, the campaign coordinator for the northern wards of the city). One thing I appreciate about this picture is that Jonny’s shot visually inflates my centrality to events, so I’m running with it.

In all last Thursday, I walked 15 miles between 7am and 9:30pm (and still had time to drop in on the university to deliver a scheduled lecture). Then it was home for a quick shower and nibbling on some fish & chips before heading to the formal count, where I was from 10:30pm until the final declarations; I think we left the count at 4:45am.  This was my third election running as a verification agent; I wrote about my first experience in the role two years ago here at LGM. Unlike the past two years, where I was assigned to one candidate in one ward, this year I was more of a trouble-shooter, allocated where needed on the fly, and in the end I worked five different wards throughout the evening.

In the end, Labour won 11 of the seats up for election to the Conservatives eight (Wikipedia overview here; note the swing was from the last time these specific seats were up for election in 2012, not last year). However, given only a third of the council was up for election, we ultimately lost a net one seat, thus resulting in a city council deadlocked on 27 Labour councillors, 27 Conservatives, and three UKIPers. That said, we “won” the vote. Plymouth consists of 20 wards, and in the 19 up for election city-wide, the result was Labour 36.5% Conservative 35.5% UKIP 16.3% Liberal Democrat 4.4% Green 2.5% Others (TUSC & PISWUK) 4.8%.  Two parliamentary constituencies are located wholly in Plymouth, and Thursday’s results, normed to those two constituencies had Plymouth Sutton & Devonport: Labour 43.3%, Conservative 30.2%. Plymouth Moor View: Labour 38.2%, Conservatives 30.6%. The five remaining wards in the east of the city form 60% of the population of South West Devon, which is a Conservative stronghold. Note, we lost both of the marginal parliamentary constituencies last year, so the Count featured the attendance of all three Conservative MPs representing Plymouth (all of whom I know, which makes for interesting conversations on election night).

There was a decent media presence as well, and I had what was an off-the-record chat with a local print journalist that found its way into the paper as a “Labour source”. What I didn’t know is that the highly regarded John Harris of The Guardian was down from London, and he put together an excellent ten minute video on the Plymouth elections. It opens in the count late Thursday night, and gives a decent idea what it’s like. When this was released the next day it spread through our circles quickly, and it was pointed out to me that I have brief cameos at 35 seconds in (blurry, in the background, doing verification on Stoke ward’s table; taking our samples, the Conservative and I would help each other out on ballots either of us missed) and then a three second closeup from 8:09.  The latter, I was on the Southway ward table, the last ward to call on the night, furiously chewing my nicotine gum. We had to win, given we lost Eggbuckland, thus at best putting us level with the Conservatives. Since I wasn’t on that ward for the initial sample I was flying blind (we had some numbers, but I didn’t have a sense how reliable they were), and it was close. Very close. I’m watching not only the Labour count just to my right, but the Conservative count two tables to my left (I also had someone on that table I trusted) while stood immediately next to the Conservative candidate for the ward (pleasant conversation ensued). In the end, we held Southway by only 88 votes, but it was probably the tensest moment I’ve had in three elections of doing this. Following the counts, it was time to settle in for 19 speeches by winning candidates. My favorite was Darren Winter’s, newly elected to St. Budeaux ward, directly critiquing the Conservative MP for the north of the city (while looking right at him on occasion).

Direct participation in local politics has been educational, and my lecturing on both British and American politics is richer for it. It’s also been a lot of exercise, both physical and mental.  And this should serve as a warning: LGM’s Senior Analyst for British Politics is coming out of extended hibernation, dammit.  I’ll get around to writing about some of the reasons for this extended hiatus, but the next few weeks I’ll likely be solely occupied with the UK’s European Union referendum, to be held on the 23rd of June.

2016 Political Predictions, A Little Late

[ 8 ] January 23, 2016 |

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 12.17.38

We at LGM have a long, glorious tradition of boldly making predictions that inevitably don’t pan out.  I’ve always tried to avoid this particular game, given the risks are high and the potential payoff the opposite.  However, over the Christmas break, the political reporter for the local paper asked me to send him some predictions, which resulted in this article. When it ran in print (which the university forwards me) it was with the pictures above: Hillary Clinton, Tudor Evans (the leader of Plymouth City Council, awarded an OBE in the New Year’s List), and yours truly.  I expect electoral ramifications for the two politicians portrayed alongside the shambolic academic).

Below, I reproduce the email I sent to Sam about said predictions.  Consider it the director’s cut of what ultimately ran in print (very lightly edited for the LGM audience).  Feel free, indeed obligated, to mock me in 11 months.  Note that the first two are about local issues that probably will not resonate with the broader LGM audience.  Also note the fine line I walk as an academic who is also a member of and activist with the Plymouth Labour Party. Tudor is a friend of mine, and indeed as part of a seminar series I run with the School of Government here I had the honor of introducing him this past Wednesday, which marks the first, and perhaps only time I’ll have introduced an OBE.


Here we go. A mix of local / national / intl. Hope this helps.

1. Plymouth City Council elections in May. With LAB on 28, CON on 26, and UKIP on 3, it’s technically NOC, but (and I’m sure you agree) from all accounts the coalition (of sorts) is working harmoniously. The best target ward for a Labour add is probably beyond them, while Labour have two very marginal wards (and that’s putting it charitably) to defend in order to retain the current 28 seats. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that I don’t see Labour adding seats, so the best that Tudor Evans (Leader of Plymouth City Council and the Labour group) can hope for is retaining the status quo.

That said, empirically the opposition party gains seats and councils in local elections, so it’s possible that Labour can get some momentum behind them and pick up one of the current Conservative wards. However, the best bet is Peverell, which is a long shot. The paradox faced by Labour is this would ordinarily be their year, but both locally and nationally they’re protecting the massive gains made in 2012.

In pure sporting terms, I’d rather be Ian Bowyer (Leader of the Conservative opposition) than Tudor Evans going into the local elections. The Conservatives can play offense, while Labour is on the defensive. Regardless of the outcome, Labour will be electorally well positioned for 2018.

Finally, while both Tudor Evans and Ian Bowyer applaud the pragmatic, positive working relationship between Labour and the Conservatives on the council thus far, the budget next month could play havoc with that.

2. Again, locally, a major issue will continue to be transportation. The pressure to re-open the airport will get play, but continue to be kicked into touch, to Cllr Bridgeman’s dismay. There’s always the possibility of another storm causing havoc with Dawlish (we’re fortunate that Storm Frank didn’t cause more trouble than it did), but even if it gets wiped out again, expect the national government to say a lot of soothing words, and do nothing.

The national government will renew Trident as scheduled in 2016 which will give a boost to local economic confidence. Likewise, it should negate what is perhaps Plymouth Labour’s biggest vulnerability – the personal position of Jeremy Corbyn in opposition to Trident. Locally, Labour can already say that the official position of the Party is for renewal, but the concerns on the doorstep are real.

3. At the end of 2016, Jeremy Corbyn will still be the leader of the Opposition, and it will still be known as the Labour Party. While there is predictable friction between the Progress (Blairite) wing of the party and Momentum, do not expect the Opposition to fracture the way it did in the 1980s. Momentum might be agitating, but they’re no Militant Tendency. Corbyn’s massive electoral mandate garnered in the leadership election this past September will get him through 2016 easily. This remains true even if Labour
lose councils and councillors in the local elections, because, again, Labour have to defend the massive gains that they made in 2012.

4. David Cameron will claim that he has comprehensively renegotiated Britain’s relationship with the European Union. In reality, what will result is little more than symbolism (either dropping or giving Britain yet another opt out regarding the “ever closer union”), with anything practical existing only at the margins – perhaps an understanding that EU nationals in the UK can not automatically qualify for
benefits without being in work in Britain for a specified period of time. However, should a referendum on EU membership be held in 2016, Yes (i.e. remain members of the EU) will win, and this will partially deflate UKIP’s bubble.

5. But UKIP will not entirely go away. The support for UKIP transcends the single issue that it was founded on, and it’s tapped into a much deeper fear and concern about slipping standards of living for the middle and lower classes and the seeming powerlessness that national governments have in warding off the perceived injustices of globalisation. While the bogeyman is immigration, the deeper fear and motivation for said fear is real and legitimate. This explains the continued existence of the far right across Europe (and the far left for that matter) as well as the popularity of both Bernie Sanders (Democratic candidate for President) and Donald Trump in the United States.

6. 2016 is of course a Presidential election year in my home country, and everybody here wants to know about Donald Trump. I’m not going to make him the odds on favourite to win the Republican nomination – he’s slipped a bit in the polls in the past week – but whereas in 2012 between August and January there were four different candidates leading the Republican polls, by this stage Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, was ahead by 12 points. Today (5 January) Trump is ahead by 15.5%. Ted Cruz might win Iowa, which could knock back the Trump bandwagon, but the latter is currently leading healthily in New Hampshire. It looks more likely now than a month ago that Trump could take the GOP nomination, but I still put the odds at slightly better than 50%.

That said, come November, Hillary Clinton will be elected President of the United States.


[ 13 ] January 11, 2016 |

Thanks, of course, to Scott L. for getting the jump on this one.

My friends know that I have a certain attitude towards pop music: it needs to continually and frenetically push the boundaries, redefine itself, and never look back.

When i woke at 6am (GMT) to set up the morning coffee, I looked at my phone in order to figure out the time of the day. I saw the newsflash, and it didn’t register. I told my girlfriend that Bowie had died, but it still didn’t register. He just had a birthday two days ago, and on his birthday released his new (and final) record, which BBC Radio 6 had been previewing for the past couple weeks.  What 6 has played, it’s typical Bowie: awesome, and unlike anything he had done.

Bowie came close to capturing the ideal: never look back.

Lacking words, we will look back.  I’ll leave you with this, perhaps the best marriage of two outsized performers and artists.  And I’m old enough to have bought the 45 when it was released.

EDIT: read this, it’s better than anything I could possibly conjure up.

Thoughts and Media on Labour’s Longest Reshuffle in History

[ 145 ] January 8, 2016 |


Don’t piss me off.

As LGM’s Senior British Correspondent, I discuss how the opposition Labour Party has just completed a reshuffle of its front bench team. Because nothing screams “clickbait!” like a good reshuffle.

Reshuffles are common in parliamentary systems for a variety of reasons. The most recently executed Labour reshuffle did have some legitimate motivations; of the three shadow ministers sacked or moved, two (with excruciatingly minimal profiles) had been explicitly criticising the very leadership of which they were participants, and one (Maria Eagle) held a policy position in direct opposition to the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s all well and good. Michael Dugher, former shadow minister for culture, had written at least one column in the New Statesman directly critical of the leadership (to the point where immediately following the sacking, Dugher edited his Twitter bio to read, in part “MP for Barnsley East. Sacked by Jeremy Corbyn for too much straight talking, honest politics.” which is sort of funny). The sideways shift of Eagle from defence to culture is more problematic; she’s in favor of the renewal of Trident, which is Labour Party policy, but Corbyn is stridently opposed to Trident and wanted a defence spokesperson consistent with his views.

It’s critical that the leadership of either party speaks with a common voice and presents a coherent face and message to the nation, the overwhelming majority of whom are not paying any attention to politics at the present time. Furthermore, this is consistent with the very concept of collective responsibility. While the rank and file in the back benches are free to publicly criticise the party leadership (though it is preferable that they do not) to have the leadership team sniping amongst itself is highly problematic. However, when you’re conducting a reshuffle a mere three and a half months into the leadership, you quite clearly got it wrong in the first instance. Furthermore, this was a laughably amateur reshuffle:

“On what planet is it even slightly a good idea to take four days to reshuffle what turns out to be a derisory number of posts?”

While it took four days, this does not take into account the briefings to the media that kicked off in mid-December.

This speaks to two more profound problems afflicting Labour at the moment.  First, the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn (whom I voted for) has not accomplished what it needs to: to craft a clear, succinct, shared narrative offering a credible alternative to the policies of the Conservative Government. Second, to varying degrees the narrative that the media are running with is that the Labour Party is at war with itself, not only within the Parliamentary Labour Party:

Of course the media are partly to blame, though I scarcely see the point complaining about it. If the British press wasn’t overwhelmingly hostile to a Labour leader who opposed the status quo, then it wouldn’t be the British press. If the British press really could just brainwash the public into thinking what media moguls wanted them to believe, we might as well give up. The dysfunctional relationship between the Labour leadership and the broader parliamentary Labour party (PLP) – inevitably exploited by the media – is something that can be addressed. All Labour leaders reshuffle their top team: but media-savvy Labour opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, such as Michael Dugher, have capably framed any changes as a “revenge reshuffle”

But beyond, as well:

What we have seen in the past days is a collective attack on Corbyn by the right-wing press, the right-wing Tory party, and many of the right-wing members of the PLP who are so very wrongly dubbed as ‘moderates’ within Labour. An attack that is being used by all the groups named above as a way of deepening the rifts within the Labour party, in an attempt to discredit the leader.

Yet when people look in on the Labour party and see the great chasm that the party has become, the Bitterites blame it all on the leadership and use it for their personal, ideological advancement. The Bitterites claim to want to oppose the Tories, yet they are stopping their party from being one of effective opposition, and are creating great divides within the party.

The reason I include that as “beyond” is that piece represents a broader battle being fought even at the local level.  Bitterites? Placing all the blame on the Blairite wing of the party?  Come on, improve or you’ll convince nobody of your position.  I have two good friends, both activists in different parts of the country who represent two different wings of the party (one clearly Corbynista, the other a centrist within the context of the party itself) who have grown somewhat disillusioned because of the interminable in-fighting within the Party itself.

This has to stop.

An awkward bit of my role here is that I’m often called upon by the media to comment on stuff. When the topic is Donald Trump, I’m in a very safe space, free to (perhaps overly enthusiastically) speak my mind. However, when it’s about British politics in general and the Labour Party (of which I am a member and activist) more specifically, I walk a fine line; I speak as an academic, not a member of the party.  Twice this week BBC Radio Devon called on me to offer commentary on the reshuffle:

Wednesday 6 January (about 38 minutes in, following a quite inspiring Phil Collins track)

Tuesday 5 January (about 1:30 in, following an equally inspiring piece on naming teddy bears).

Note, the above will expire a week after the interview.  Thankfully.

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

[ 107 ] 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.

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