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Category: Dave Brockington

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

[ 104 ] September 12, 2015 |

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Clowns to Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

[ 40 ] August 21, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Labour Party and Paranoia

[ 80 ] August 14, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Leadership Contest for the Labour Party

[ 64 ] July 20, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

Shameless Self Promotion, UK “Emergency” Budget Edition

[ 2 ] July 11, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

The Most Disproportionate Result in British Election History

[ 100 ] June 2, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

An alternative scenario is illustrated in the figure below:


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

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

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

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


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

[ 219 ] May 26, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle for the Soul of the Labour Party

[ 55 ] May 25, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 |


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.


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