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Category: Dave Brockington

The Most Disproportionate Result in British Election History

[ 100 ] June 2, 2015 |

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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:

disprop

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 |

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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

[ 55 ] May 25, 2015 |

Mayor_Quimby

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.

The Tory War on Unions and Mathematical Hypocrisy

[ 6 ] May 13, 2015 |

256px-Quintin_Hogg,_Baron_Hailsham_Allan_WarrenThe Conservatives here in the United Kingdom have taken several pages from the Republican Party playbook.  Following an election campaign predicated on fear, they’ve broken the shackles that the Liberal Democrats allegedly constrained them with and are now free to enact their agenda unfettered.

One of the first items is to enact legal hurdles to industrial action.  Instead of a majority of those submitting ballots for a strike action, “a strike affecting essential public services will need the backing of 40% of eligible union members under government plans” with a minimum 50% turnout. To quote the new Business Secretary, Sajid Javid:

We’ve seen, including in the last five years, strike action that took place where perhaps only 10% to 15% of the members of that profession actually voted for it, and that’s not right, it’s unfair, especially when it comes to essential public services.

This is pretty rich considering the Conservatives translated 36.9% of the vote into an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons, thus achieving (for the time being) an elective dictatorship in the inimitable words of Lord Hailsham (pictured). Yet, this was based on a turnout of 66.1%.

In other words, the Conservative government has derived its mandate from a mere 24.3% of the eligible electorate.

Again, our Business Secretary:

By increasing the thresholds it will certainly increase the hurdles that need to be crossed, but that’s the right thing to do, it’s the fair thing to do.

Uh huh.

Polling Failure in the UK

[ 50 ] May 12, 2015 |

UK_opinion_polling_2010-2015

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.

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum III: Ramifications

[ 133 ] September 18, 2014 |

Unlike my previous two posts on today’s referendum in Scotland, on electoral ramifications for the remainder of the United Kingdom, and on interpreting polling data, this piece is more of a speculative nature. Here, I consider constitutional, political, and international ramifications of a yes vote, as well as the constitutional ramifications of a no vote.

A No result, which I consider likely, will have both constitutional and political ramifications throughout the United Kingdom.  Constitutionally, the devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament will be greatly enhanced.  This, of course, presents as many challenges to the constitutional order of the UK as problems it solves by retaining the union. The legendary unwritten British “constitution” encourages muddling through, and the implementation of devolution in 1997-99 makes for clearly delineated (and fair) distribution of powers as Heathrow makes for efficient air travel.  What the UK has at present is a vague form of ersatz federalism, and one that is asymmetrically distributed at that. Among its powers, Scotland’s parliament has control over health, education, and policing primary legislation, and it can vary its income tax by 3% (up or down) from the national baseline. Among things it can not touch are corporation tax. This is considerably greater power than the Welsh Assembly, and of course infinitely more than any English region.

Any increase of these powers (an excellent overview of the nature of these enhanced powers on offer and some of the pitfalls surrounding implantation was posted yesterday at the UK Constitutional Law Association) will cause resentment not only in Wales and Northern Ireland, witnessing yet more constitutional preferential treatment given to Scotland, but perhaps most of all, in England. Made famous by then MP Tam Dalyell, arguing in opposition to the devolution legislation under consideration in 1977 (which eventually went on to be referenda in both Scotland and Wales in 1979), perhaps the most stinging critique of the current implantation of devolution in the UK is known as the “West Lothian Question”, which identifies the bizarre situation: MPs representing Scottish constituencies get to vote on legislation that impacts England, while MPs representing England (as well as those MPs representing Scotland for that matter) can not vote on a range of devolved areas of policy.  This perhaps was most stark in 2004 when tuition for English and Welsh universities was raised to £3000 per year (from something around £1500 if I recall correctly, and I likely do not). Education, including higher education, is a devolved matter in Scotland and thus under the remit of the Scottish Parliament. Even to this day, Scottish universities are free for residents of Scotland. Yet, in the 2004 debate,  while Labour had a strong majority, the legislation passed by only five votes. Remove the Scottish Labour MPs from voting, the Act would have failed. Hence, Scottish MPs voted on legislation affecting only English universities (hence, students) while those same MPs can not act in that policy area for Scotland (nor can English MPs, for that matter).

With the promise of expanded devolution should No prevail, this asymmetry will only become more apparent, and English resentment is emerging:

Support in England for Scottish devolution has fallen from 57% in 1999 to 43% now; on the one hand a quarter now think Scotland should leave the Union, while on the other almost as many feel that Scotland should not have any kind of Scottish Parliament at all.  Meanwhile, although it remains the case that only a minority feel that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, the proportion that do feel that way has more than doubled from 21% in 2000 to 44% now.

That was written a year ago. The current edition of The Economist has several articles on this subject (unsurprisingly), and brings more current public opinion data to bear. In one case, a poll in April suggests that by a four to one margin, the English believe that Scotland should receive a smaller share of public expenditure. This isn’t surprising, where north of the border universities are free (as mentioned above) and so too are prescriptions. As it stands, under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives a larger share of public expenditure per capita than England. Additionally, as reported in The Economist, the Future of England Survey identifies a growing desire for Scottish MPs to not be eligible to vote on England-only issues, from 18% in 2000 to 55% in 2012.

None of the proposed methods to circumnavigate the West Lothian Question are perfect, so long as the existing unitary parliamentary structure is retained. For example, if Labour were to win in 2015, but with a majority dependent on Scottish MPs, and England-only rules were in force such that English (or English and Welsh) MPs could vote on matters not impacting Scotland, the Government’s majority suddenly becomes a minority, and the Government can’t pass legislation meant to affect the largest nation in the UK. Assuming a No victory tonight, and the implantation of Devolution Max with the beginning of the next government following the May 2015 election, calls for some sort of representational fairness will grow louder in England, and to me it seems logistically only a true federal response will ensure equitable representation combined with a workable parliamentary system.

A Yes result brings up many issues of its own, of course. The Yes campaign assumes that the admittance of an independent Scotland into the European Union will be a mere formality.  However, it might not be that easy:

First it was claimed that Scotland would automatically remain in the EU, inheriting its UK membership. Highly unlikely. Then it was asserted that Scotland would be put on a fast-track to membership under a different article in the Lisbon treaty from the one dealing with accession and the only process that has been used so far to admit new members. This is also extremely improbable.

While admitting an independent Scotland to the EU would be a smoother process than, say, Turkey, it’s not going to be automatic. Furthermore, there are several countries with regional separatist problems (smile for the camera, Spain) which would not want to set this particular precedent. It’s not difficult to imagine Spain blocking Scotland’s admittance, or at least make it extremely cumbersome. Cyrpus as well. To a lesser extent, Italy, France, Belgium, and even Germany would not want to see a precent of automatic entry to the EU for break-away nations. Remember, every one of the 28 member states has to agree on membership. While the right to self-determination should result in virtually unanimous recognition of Scotland as an independent state, admitting it to the European Union is a different issue altogether.

This neatly segues into what currency Scotland would use upon independence. The Yes campaign insists it will be the Pound Sterling in a formal currency agreement with the remaining United Kingdom. There are only two problems with this. First, all three major party leaders in Westminster reject this idea, and the governor of the Bank of England (which would remain the central bank of a “Sterling zone”) recently stated that this would be “incompatible with sovereignty”. The rUK has no interest in a formal currency union with an independent Scotland while having no control over fiscal policy; the Eurozone crisis has taught them that much. The Scottish government has since threatened to not pay any share of the accrued public debt of the United Kingdom if it is not allowed a currency union, which is, well, bonkers.

Scotland could continue to use the Pound regardless, as several minor countries use the Euro or the US Dollar as their de facto currency, but this would leave Scotland at the mercy of the Bank of England’s monetary policy, which would not be responsible for Scotland. Furthermore, financial services in Scotland, which is a significant share of the Scottish economy (12.5% of Scottish GDP according to the Economist, 7.1% of Gross Value Added according to the BBC) would flee to London.

The second problem takes us back to the European Union. As it’s likely accession negotiations with an independent Scotland would be treated like any other new member application, Scotland would be required to adopt the Euro eventually as a condition of membership.

Finally, Scottish independence would also have far-reaching ramifications in the rUK. On Tuesday I suggested that an independent Scotland would make a Labour government in the rUK less likely, and if it does happen, more fragile. This would seem to, eventually at least, give the Conservatives an opportunity to form an outright majority. The Conservatives are on record as promising a referendum on continued EU membership in 2017 for the United Kingdom. Without Scotland, the rUK becomes even more Eurosceptic, thus increasing the probability of a “British” exit from the EU.  Again, The Guardian:

If Salmond wins his vote and Cameron wins his for a second term next year, the bizarre situation may arise where a new country called Scotland is clamouring to be let in to the EU after having forfeited 41 years of membership at the same time as a shrunken UK is heading for the EU door marked Brexit.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum II: The Polls

[ 13 ] September 17, 2014 |

As I indicated yesterday, polling on the Scottish independence referendum has tightened significantly in the past couple of weeks, perhaps best illustrated here. Not surprisingly, I’ve been asked to do a bit of local media on this issue over the past few weeks, and yesterday on air I was asked the inevitable “who will win?” question. I suggested that the current polling is overstating the estimate of the yes support, and that in the end I’m expecting at least a four point (i.e. 52% No, 48% Yes) victory for the unionists. While interpreting the accuracy of polling data in this context is atypically difficult (which could be interpreted as a shifty, thinly veiled move to hedge my bets), we do have some theoretical and empirical guidance.

There are at least three variables to consider when evaluating the accuracy of these polling data. First is the effect of turnout on the accuracy of the likely voter models employed by the various polling houses. As discussed here at UK Polling Report, estimates of likely voters based on previous elections are of less help in this referendum than for a typical election., and additionally, turnout is expected to be impressive:

A stunning 97% of the electorate has registered to vote in the referendum, meaning turnout is expected to be very high, which could also delay the vote. There will be a lot of ballots to count. Turnout in Scotland at the 2010 general election was 64%.

To add some empirical lustre to this anecdotal extrapolation (again, from UK Polling Report):

Polls aren’t very good at predicting an actual percentage for turnout – people overestimate their likelihood to vote, and the actual turnout figures they are compared to are a bit ropey because of inaccuracy and incompleteness of electoral registers – that aside, they are pretty good at predicting relative turnout, and the referendum looks set to have a much higher turnout than any recent election.

If turnout is impressively high, the negative effect of variations in the reliability of likely voter models is somewhat attenuated. Likewise, expectations that we ordinarily would have based on variance in turnout, such as a lower turnout would mean a disproportionately older and wealthier electorate, are of lesser significance. Furthermore, as I discussed yesterday, the eligible voter pool for the referendum is, well, strange:

First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland.  Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.

This is not an ordinary Westminster or Holyrood electorate, so extant likely voter models have to take this into account, yet there’s limited empirical experience to draw upon. This is not to say that we’re flying blind, because we’re not, but I expect polling data to be less reliable than it is for a Westminster, US Presidential, or US Congressional election.  Yet, as support for independence is stronger among the young, any decline in turnout from these super high predictions will asymmetrically reduce the Yes vote, as the young will stay at home at a higher rate than older cohorts.

Second is the social desirability factor, or to put it in British parlance, a variation on the “shy Tory” voter, what they also call “differential response”. Briefly, on average people prefer to offer what they perceive to be a socially desirable response to a polling question. The guess, given the enthusiasm and emotional appeal to nationalism and patriotism displayed by the Yes campaign, is that should social desirability have an effect in these polls, it would be a “shy No” supporter. In other words, the perception by any given respondent would be that the desirable response is pro independence, so the suspicion is that there’s a marginal, but significant, percentage of the pro Independence estimate that in reality will vote no on the day. I think this might be overstated a bit, however. The effect of social desirability is directly related to the form of the polling methodology. Not surprisingly, face-to-face interviews have the strongest impact on social desirability, as when one is confronted with a real live human being right in front of you, the desire to give the acceptable response is considerably stronger than in other polling settings. As the majority of the polls in the field are internet based, where the respondent is speaking neither to a physical presence nor a human voice at the end of a telephone line, this effect should be mitigated to a certain extent. Intriguingly, yesterday’s piece in UK Polling Report suggests a slightly different take on this phenomenon:

I think there’s more risk from the other side of the same coin – “enthusiastic yesses”. It is very clear from activity online and reported campaigning activity that YES supporters are more enthusiastic, what if that is also reflected in responses to opinion polls? What if the yes supporter, full of zeal and keen to share their view, happily agrees to do the phone interview while the less enthused No supporter doen’t want to interupt their tea? Eagerly clicks on the email when the No voter doesn’t bother?

Ultimately, while I think that social desirability could be overstated in this context, if it does have a role to play at the margins, it will be to over-estimate pro-independence support.

Additionally, while we’re in somewhat uncharted territory with the unique composition of this electorate and the difficulty in constructing likely voter models, we do have some historical precedence to draw upon, as discussed on Monday by Stephen Fisher here, with the takeaway:

So overall the evidence is mixed, but not balanced. It seems more likely that the headline poll figures are over- rather than under-estimating the vote for Scottish independence – and that this might be especially true of the final polls published between now and polling day.

Finally, Fisher highlights something that has been downplayed in both the media and in polling aggregators: the interpretation of the don’t knows:

The tendency for final polls to differ from the actual result does not necessarily mean that referendum polls are biased towards Yes responses. It might be that the Don’t Knows split disproportionately towards No, that those in favour of the proposition tend to be less likely to turnout to vote, while late swing is also a possibility. Whatever the reason, the experience of referendum polls in the UK and internationally suggests that the findings of final polls (from which the Don’t Knows have been removed) are typically flattering for the Yes camp.

We do have empirical evidence to make some reasoned, if imprecise, estimates regarding the don’t knows. As the ICM poll released yesterday still reports 14% Don’t Knows, this remains a significant chunk of the potential electorate. The literature on direct democracy, specifically referenda and initiatives in the United States (the literature about which I’m most familiar), suggests that in a yes / no dichotomous decision, the No option has some of the advantages of incumbency. I strongly suspect that of the DKs that do turn out to vote, they will break significantly to No. This makes sense. Given this is the most important and far reaching election in Scotland in a lifetime, if a voter has yet to make up their mind 48 to 96 hours before the election, the odds of them sticking with the safety of the status quo rather than the riskier unknown of independence is compelling. People tend to attempt a minimisation of maximum regret. Information about the status quo, even with the promises of “devolution max”, is readily available. Information about how an independent Scotland will operate, including basics such as the currency, the status within the European Union, the armed forces, and uncertainty of the disposition of companies currently based in Scotland is, at best, murky as hell. Hence, it’s safe to assume that those DKs that do vote will significantly favor the No side.

Considering the weight of the above, it’s safe to suggest that the extant polling data is overestimating support for Scottish independence.

 

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum I: Electoral Ramifications

[ 78 ] September 16, 2014 |

On Thursday, the Scots go to the polls to decide whether or not Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country. This issue has been dominating British politics for the past few weeks, especially following the unexpected and rather dramatic tightening of the polls, following months of a seemingly unassailable No lead. This post briefly examines the future electoral ramifications for the remaining United Kingdom should Scotland vote for independence (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).  I’m also writing a follow-on post that considers what we should expect on Thursday, the constitutional ramifications of both a Yes and No outcome, as well as the political and international ramifications of Scottish independence.

First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland.  Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.

For the rest of Britain, an independence vote has the potential for a significant electoral ramification. For the past two years, aggregate polling has suggested that the Westminster election in May 2015 will result in a clear Labour majority. Today, assuming a uniform swing (which isn’t a safe assumption), Labour stands to enjoy an outright 44 seat majority, based on polling numbers of 32% Conservative, 36% Labour, 8% Liberal Democrat, 15% UKIP, and 5% Green. Note, the swingometer UK Polling Report uses is crude, and lumps in the UKIP support with “others” (including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Respect, et al.) hence might underestimate UKIP’s seat share resulting from the election. Furthermore, I suspect that the resulting majority will be smaller than 44 seats, more along the lines of 20-30 (which is where it has been estimated for most of 2014). Nevertheless, those numbers are available, so let’s use them: out of 650 MPs, the Tories would win 256, Labour 347, LibDems 21, Others, 8, and Northern Ireland distribute their 18 seats across four or five parties.  Eliminating Scotland’s 59 MPs, and extrapolating using the 2010 seat distribution north of the border, a resulting House of Commons would have 255 Tories, 306 Labour, with 10, 2, and 18 remaining for the other three categories. Given a majority in a 591 seat Commons would require 296 MPs, Labour would still retain a thin, yet outright, majority.

Since 1974, Scotland has only marginally swung an election three times, but the feeling amongst Labour Party members is that independence would be a significant impediment to a working majority following the 2015 election.  The table blow lists the Labour governing majority (if one existed), the seats in Scotland and their percentage of the House of Commons, the number of Scottish seats that went Labour and the number that went Conservative.  The only elections where eliminating the Scottish seats would have changed the outcome were both 1974 elections, and  2010. In the first 1974 election, the Labour government that formed was a minority government (indeed, while the Conservatives “won” the popular vote, they had four seats more than the Conservatives. Take away Scotland’s 71 seats, of which 40 were Labour, the Conservatives end up not with an outright majority (only seven seats short) but with 15 more seats than Labour. Encouraged by strong polling numbers later in 1974, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called a snap election, which resulted in an outright Labour majority of three entire seats. Again, remove Scotland from the equation, Labour have 278 seats to the Conservative’s 261, which would have resulted in a minority Labour government. Finally, the results of the 2010 election, minus Scotland, would have resulted in an outright Conservative majority: the Tories only lose the one seat, while Labour loses 41 and the Liberal Democrats 11, resulting in 306 Tories, 217 Labour, and 46 LibDems. This would have saved both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the ignominy of serving together in a coalition.


Election Labour Maj. Scotland Seats / PCT Labour Scot Tory Scot
2010 -39** 59 / 9.1% 41 1 (+11 LD)
2005 67 59 / 9.1% 41 1
2001 167 59 / 9.1% 56 1
1997 179 72 / 10.9% 56 0
1992 -21 72 / 11.1% 49 11
1987 -102 72 / 11.1% 50 10
1983 -144 72 / 11.1% 41 21
1979 -44 72 / 11.1% 44 22
1974oct 3 71 / 11.3% 41 16
1974feb -17* 71 / 11.3% 40 21

 

While Scottish influence on Westminster elections since 1974 have been marginal (February 1974 would have resulted in a minority Tory rather than minority Labour government, October 1974 results in a minority rather than slim majority Labour government, and 2010 becomes an outright Conservative rather than Con-Lib coalition government) Labour are justifiably concerned. Losing Scotland and the safe 40-odd seats there comprises roughly 13% of the MPs that Labour require to form a majority in the Commons. That’s roughly equivalent to the blow the Republican Party would face should Texas finally secede from the Union: the 38 Electoral College votes that Texas faithfully delivers to the GOP represents 14% of the 270 that they need for a presidential victory.

Eliminating Scotland from the future House of Commons electoral calculous might result in a marginal effect on the size and stability of any resulting Labour government. Should Labour only win 2015 with a 20 seat majority, once the elected Scottish MPs become unemployed and pack their bags to go live in their newly independent country, the extant Labour government becomes based on a fragile minority which can’t be expected to long survive a vote of confidence.

Brazil 2014 Predictions Redux: Reviewing the Ugly

[ 89 ] June 29, 2014 |

I intended to post this on Friday, but the time I had carved out on Friday for this unexpectedly became unavailable, and this past weekend (like most in England) was consumed by my lovely daughter.

This post is separated into two parts. First, a review of the predictions that I made on the 10th of June for the group stage.  If you’re busy and don’t have the time for this entire post, the executive summary is pretty simple: I sucked.  I only predicted 11 of the 16 qualifiers, and only three of the groups I forecast perfectly. There was one minor miscue that I’m pleased as hell to have got wrong (the USA), and one that’s just plain embarrassing (England). In the positive column, I predicted six of eight group winners (and six of eight group losers), and in going out on a limb to suggest that Italy would finish third in retrospect appears to be brilliant insight. Only if you’re drunk, because I did choose England to win that group.

In addition to England, I obviously blew Spain, having predicted them to be finalists (but not winners at least). I missed Holland, picking them third, Costa Rica, picking them fourth, and Algeria, whom I predicted fourth but qualified as second.

Group A

Prediction: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

Result: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

A good one for me, though I don’t think Brazil played as well as they should have done to be legitimate title contenders.

Group B (aka ‘sucks to be Australia’)

Prediction: 1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Australia

Result: 1. Netherlands 2. Chile 3. Spain 4. Australia

I watched the Spain v Netherlands match in the Green Dragon in Portland, Oregon as part of the celebrations surrounding my wife’s graduation from nursing school.  The Green Dragon isn’t known as a soccer bar, but it’s most definitely an excellent beer bar (and it hosted our wedding reception three years ago). If you’re in PDX, check it out. The Spain goal was a very soft penalty, and then the Dutch came on strong and haven’t looked back since that penalty. I was pulling for the Dutch of course. I adopted Oranje as my second national side while living in the Netherlands for three years at the beginning of the last decade (and this through their disastrous qualification campaign for Korea Japan 2002), and was thrilled to see them destroy that bracket of mine.

Group C

Prediction: 1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Greece 4. Japan

Result: 1. Colombia 2. Greece 3. Ivory Coast 4. Japan

I downplayed Greece, and had more faith in Ivory Coast. I did call the key match as Greece v Ivory Coast, which went 2-1 to Greece. Even a draw would have sent Ivory Coast through, so I was only one stinking goal from getting this group perfect. Of course, that doesn’t make up for the bucket of goals away from getting Group B perfect.

Group D

Prediction: 1. England 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. Costa Rica

Result: 1. Costa Rica 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. England

Nothing to see here.  Move along, folks.

Group E

Prediction: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras
Result: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras

Nailed it.  France were 17th according to FIFA’s flawed rankings system, and Switzerland 6th.  France beat Switzerland 5-2.  In my write up a couple weeks ago, I did say that I originally had the Swiss winning the group, but upon further reflection, had to go with the French.  I also implied it would be close.  The table says that France edged out Switzerland by a lone point.  The reality is that the Swiss came three goals short.

Group F

Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran
Result: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran

Nailed it. Argentina did take all nine points as I predicted, but it wasn’t as easy for them as a perfect haul suggests. B&H were stronger than I thought they would be, and were only a goal away from qualification.

Group G

Prediction: 1. Germany 2. Portugal 3. USA 4. Ghana
Result: 1. Germany 2. USA 3. Portugal 4. Ghana

Well, cool.  I was one goal from getting this one right, and it was close in the end.  It shouldn’t have been close in the end, of course, had the US not allowed that stoppage time equaliser from Portugal to get in. When Altidore went down early in the Ghana match, I thought, that’s it, any chance we had just went out the window. This is what I wrote two weeks ago:

Well, shit. I’d have taken Donovan, as a sub, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Germany win this tough group, and if things break just right, the US can come out of it. It would take another 2002-style surprise against Portugal, however, and I don’t think that will happen. Progressing out of this group would be to me more impressive than the 2002 run or the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the positive, the three warm up friendlies went OK, including beating both Turkey and Nigeria. If Portugal suffers an injury, if the US finally beats Ghana, and remember that Portugal had a mediocre qualifying campaign. There’s a chance.  Maybe a one in three chance that the US makes it out of the group.

Key Match: for the USMNT, all of them. We need all three off of Ghana, and all three off of Portugal, to ensure progression. If a strong Ghana side emerges to take points off of Portugal and possibly Germany, four points could get us through. I don’t see us taking a point off of Germany.  Or scoring a goal.  I don’t see Ghana being strong enough to help us, either. At least I think we’ll finally beat Ghana, who did us in the Group in Germany and the knock out round in South Africa.

On balance, that was more right than wrong.

Group H

Prediction: 1. Belgium 2. Russia 3. South Korea 4. Algeria.
Result: 1. Belgium 2. Algeria 3. Russia 4. South Korea.

This one I whiffed on a bit badly. Not only did I have Algeria finishing fourth, I also said “Russia might win it, but the distance between those two and South Korea and Algeria is pretty severe.” Where I got it wrong is that I should have included Russia in the pool of mediocrity with South Korea and Algeria, instead of placing them closer to Belgium in terms of capability.

Now, for part two. Two weeks ago, this is what I said:

In order to clean up after the wreckage that reality will mete out to my predictions above, I’m going to revisit the following after the group stages are complete. For now, it’s just for fun.

Knockout Stage: Brazil > Chile; Uruguay > Colombia; France > Nigeria; Germany > Russia; Spain > Mexico; England > Ivory Coast; Argentina > Switzerland; Portugal > Belgium.

Quarters: Brazil > Uruguay; Germany > France; Spain > England; Argentina > Portugal.

Semis: Brazil > Germany;  Spain > Argentina

Final: Brazil > Spain

I’m going to limit myself to cursory notes here given we’re already 30 minutes into Holland v Mexico, but I’ll include how I would have honestly predicted the two that were played yesterday.

Brazil v Chile.  This one will be closer than originally anticipated, as Chile are stronger than I thought (or, perhaps, they benefitted from an unexpectedly bad Spain) and Brazil less consistent. I still see Brazil winning this by a goal. Of course, it went to pens . . .

Colombia v Uruguay. Easy, Colombia. Uruguay without Suarez isn’t the same.  And it wasn’t.

Netherlands v Mexico.  Oranje. I have to hand it to Mexico, and CONCACAF more generally: our association qualified three of four.

Costa Rica v Greece. I’m not going to underestimate Ticos again this tournament. On paper, they played in a more difficult group, only dropping points int he final match against England, when England were already eliminated and Costa Rica only required a draw to guarantee topping the group. Greece were somewhat fortunate to make it out of Group C, and did so with only four points and a goal differential of -2.

France v Nigeria. France were simply more impressive. Nigeria’s best match was the 2-3 defeat to Argentina, and they could only draw against Iran.  France dominated Ecuador, and swept a theoretically strong Switzerland aside, only dropping point in the final match, when their position in the group had been all but settled.

Germany v Algeria.  No contest.

Argentina v Switzerland.  I’m liking Argentina more for the title than I was at the beginning.  The Swiss won’t pose a serious challenge.

Belgium v USA. Shit.  Belgium by a goal, but this US side has played better than I thought they would, and Klinsmann has proven in this tournament to be better at preparing the side for the given competition, and better at making tactical adjustments on the fly. He’s still not perfect, but I feel better with him going against Belgium than Bradley.

Quarters: Brazil > Colombia, Germany > France, Netherlands > Costa Rica, Argentina > Belgium.

Semis: Germany > Brazil, Netherlands > Argentina

Final: Germany > Netherlands

Yes, a replay of 1974, with the same bothersome result.

Ill-Advised Brazil 2014 Predictions

[ 115 ] June 10, 2014 |

The World Cup begins on Thursday, and runs until the 13th of July.  I’ll be in England for most of it, but tomorrow I fly to the US for a week, then back to England, then back to the US a few days before the final is played, so I’m going to miss the odd significant chunk here and there. Like the final, where I agreed to a camping trip in Oregon with my wife, stupidly without having consulted the World Cup calendar in advance, so that one’s on me pretty much entirely.

As I did for 2010, I’m offering up some predictions, with an eye towards generating discussion. Note, the 2010 predictions were before we migrated from where we were to where we are now, so formatting and comments were lost. Presciently, towards the end of the group stages I revisited those original predictions (and while I missed a few, I didn’t do too bad).

So, for 2014, with some limited commentary:

Group A

1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

Brazil suffer in the FIFA rankings (currently third, behind Spain and Germany) as they really haven’t had to play too many non-friendlies, having the automatic berth as hosts. They did have a stellar Confederations Cup campaign, but then remember in the 2009 Confed Cup that the USA finished runner up to Brazil (that after going 2-0 up), and beating Spain along the way. How did that work out for both Brazil and the USA in 2010?  The US lost to Ghana in the first knockout round, and Brazil lost to eventual runners-up Holland in the quarters. Mexico is magnificently fortunate to even be here of course, but El Tri have somewhat stabilised after a disastrous qualifying campaign. Only somewhat, however, and they benefit from being in one of the easier groups and should make the knockout round.

Key Match: 23 June, Croatia v Mexico

Group B (aka ‘sucks to be Australia’)

1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Australia

This is a tough group to peg. It’s easy to go either way with Chile and Holland. As much as it pains me (the Oranje are my backup national side after the USMNT on account of my stint in Holland for three years before moving to England), the injury to Roma’s Kevin Strootman, and the subsequent last minute switch to an un-Total Football 5-3-2 formation don’t help the Dutch, while Chile is playing very well, and on its home continent. Of course, Chile, too, has experienced some injury problems, so this one really could go either way.

Key Match: 23 June, Netherlands v Chile

Group C

1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Greece 4. Japan

Seriously, this is a World Cup Finals group?  Colombia takes this one with relative ease, if not all nine points, then seven, and the following three can be interchanged at random. I know Greece has a high FIFA ranking at present (12th), and they’ve established a reputation for defensive solidity since Euro 2004, but Ivory Coast should be able to break that down. And hell, Japan are always underestimated at the tournament, though this is one of the weakest Japan sides in the past dozen years.

Key Match: 24 June, Greece v Ivory Coast

Group D

1. England 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. Costa Rica

Go ahead, laugh. Yes, I have Italy not making it out of the group. Even more cringe-worthy, I have England winning the group. From my vantage point in England, England are the most consistently over-rated team in any sport anywhere ever and always. That said, I think part of the key to England this tournament is that, for perhaps the first time in the history of the game (and definitely in the over ten years I’ve lived on this island), England and its supporters are being cautiously guarded, even realistic, about their chances. There’s no pressure. While I would have taken Jermain Defoe, the squad as selected is young and playing for the future. The weight of expectation surrounding the golden generation has finally been lifted (because, let’s face it, they weren’t that golden). I hate the obvious cliche, but England’s chances depend on the Wayne Rooney that shows up. If picking England ahead of Uruguay is risky, picking Italy to not make it out of the group is downright foolish. That said, they’re winless in their last seven, their defense is problematic, they seem to lack the ‘fox in the box’ on the attack, and they didn’t have a stellar qualifying campaign against a weak group.

I’ll get at least one of those two quite wrong, of course. Just watch, it will be Italy Uruguay England Costa Rica in the end.

Key Match: 14 June, England v Italy

Group E

1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras

Like Mexico, France are fortunate to so much as be here. Also like Mexico, they’re fortunate to be in an easy group. They’re playing better now than they did throughout qualification, but the late loss of Ribery is a blow. Not a fashionable choice to top this group, I originally had Switzerland down to win it, but then had a better look at the France squad, and Ribery’s replacement (Antoine Griezmann, Real Sociedad), so cooler heads have prevailed. That said, FIFA have the Swiss ranked 6th while France is 17th. To hedge the bets, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ecuador snuck out of the group somehow.

Key Match: 20 June, Switzerland v France

Group F

1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran

Argentina take all nine points. Nigeria and Bosnia could flip. Don’t underestimate Iran. Does it show that I’m in thrall of Group F?

Key Match: 21 June, Nigeria v Bosnia

Group G

1. Germany 2. Portugal 3. USA 4. Ghana

Well, shit. I’d have taken Donovan, as a sub, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Germany win this tough group, and if things break just right, the US can come out of it. It would take another 2002-style surprise against Portugal, however, and I don’t think that will happen. Progressing out of this group would be to me more impressive than the 2002 run or the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the positive, the three warm up friendlies went OK, including beating both Turkey and Nigeria. If Portugal suffers an injury, if the US finally beats Ghana, and remember that Portugal had a mediocre qualifying campaign. There’s a chance.  Maybe a one in three chance that the US makes it out of the group.

Key Match: for the USMNT, all of them. We need all three off of Ghana, and all three off of Portugal, to ensure progression. If a strong Ghana side emerges to take points off of Portugal and possibly Germany, four points could get us through. I don’t see us taking a point off of Germany.  Or scoring a goal.  I don’t see Ghana being strong enough to help us, either. At least I think we’ll finally beat Ghana, who did us in the Group in Germany and the knock out round in South Africa.

Group H

1. Belgium 2. Russia 3. South Korea 4. Algeria.

Belgium are being touted by some as a dark horse for this tournament. I don’t think they’re that good, but they’re good enough to win this group. Russia might win it, but the distance between those two and South Korea and Algeria is pretty severe.

Key Match: 22 June, Belgium v Russia.

In order to clean up after the wreckage that reality will mete out to my predictions above, I’m going to revisit the following after the group stages are complete. For now, it’s just for fun.

Knockout Stage: Brazil > Chile; Uruguay > Colombia; France > Nigeria; Germany > Russia; Spain > Mexico; England > Ivory Coast; Argentina > Switzerland; Portugal > Belgium.

Quarters: Brazil > Uruguay; Germany > France; Spain > England; Argentina > Portugal.

Semis: Brazil > Germany;  Spain > Argentina

Final: Brazil > Spain

 

UKIP Demands Fairer House of Lords Representation

[ 35 ] June 8, 2014 |

bnb-petitionI’m still writing my quadrennial World Cup predictions post, and this weekend (as are most when I’m in England) is all about the daughter, but I saw this and as it’s 6:30am and she’s not yet awake, I had to share:

“UKIP will “absolutely insist” on being granted new peers in the House of Lords, leader Nigel Farage has told his party at a conference.”

Lord Pearson of Rannoch, one of three UKIP members (erm, “peers”) in the House of Lords, is quoted as saying “Our democracy requires that we have more than three peers in the House of Lords when we’re getting 27 per cent of the vote in the latest national election.”

Lord Pearson used the word “democracy” in the same breath as “House of Lords”.

Cue Butthead: Er, democracy sucks.  Uh huh huh huh.  Lets go like call somebody and stuff (uh huh huh huh huh).

Warming Up For the World Cup

[ 34 ] June 5, 2014 |

The group draws for Brazil 2014, which starts next week, are not quite balanced, and I’m writing my usual ill-advised predictions for the group stages. As I wrote in December, there was much whining in England, but the USMNT has by most quantitative measures the most difficult group in the tournament. Indeed, the strengths of the eight groups are so asymmetrically distributed, the crime here isn’t that there is a group of death (because there’s two), but that there’s at least one “group of life”: Group E by the linked account (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras):

Group E is an absolute joke. As mentioned with respect to parity, Group E provided teams like France and Honduras a chance to advance to the Knockout Round when few other groups would have allowed such an opportunity. Yes, it is the World Cup and anything is possible. But, can you honestly say it is fair and desirable to have nations working four years to be a top contender to find they may need to win 2 out of 3 just to reach the Knockouts? Additionally, should there really be groups with no one favored because no one is genuinely a World Cup Title contender?!

That breathless language overlooks the true contender for the group of life at this tournament: Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea). The 2014 World Cup includes one group with both finalists from 2010 (Spain and the Netherlands), one group where all four sides made the last 16 (Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA). Both outcomes would make sense if the quality of the teams or their qualitative relative rankings did vary that much in four years time, and that the group draws were based on a true competitive methodology.

But this is FIFA, so they’re not. Rather, as I pointed out in December:

If the goal of seeding teams is to ensure roughly equal competition across all the groups, there should not be appreciable qualitative distinctions in strength. FIFA does not operate that way, of course. The top eight were seeded, ensuring they’d be kept apart, but then the remaining “pots” were based on geography.

Or, to quote another voice:

The global parity has created group disparity. There is no reason why in a tournament field with such quality there are only 2 groups with an average ranking of less than 20. Additionally, with 2 groups having an average over 25 makes the tournament unbalanced. It warrants FIFA reconsidering the format of dividing pots by region. Why not simply rank the teams 1 to 32 and then divide them into 4 pots accordingly? Parity makes for better viewing pleasure and gives those countries that have deserved to be a top 8 nation more of an opportunity to progress.

In the NYT today, “A Fairer World Cup Draw” outlines a method proposed by a French mathematician named Julien Guyon. The abstract to his paper that the NYT piece draws on brings attention to a much underused term, potgate:

The recent ‘potgate’ which dominated the build-up to the final draw of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil attracted my attention both as a football fan and as a probabilist, and calls for a change of the rules. It is actually symptomatic of more fundamental flaws that are linked to the way FIFA enforces the geographic constraints that they put on the draw. In this paper I investigate these flaws and suggest three new possible sets of rules that produce fairly balanced and geographically diverse groups, and use a small number of bowls and balls, in the hope that for the next editions FIFA will adopt one of these fairer systems, as I believe that the biggest sporting event in the world deserves the utmost level of fairness.

Both the FIFA and Guyon method is simulated 10,000 times for each of the 32 teams in the tournament to explore how lucky (or unlucky) each national side was in its draw. What is plain by those distributions, in addition to the bit where the US was always likely to get screwed regardless, is that FIFA needs to adopt a better system for drawing the groups for Russia 2018 (in addition to a better system for drawing the host for Qatar 2022).  To quote Guyon directly from his conclusion:

In this article I investigated the flaws of the current rules of the FIFA World Cup final draw and I was able to suggest three new possible sets of rules that produce eight balanced and geographicaly diverse groups. The last two sets of rules are even totally fair, meaning that all the acceptable results of the draw are equally likely.

Oh, hang on, he just used the phrase “totally fair” and FIFA in the same paragraph.

Nevermind.

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