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Tag: "UK politics"

Daddy, Do You Hate Me?

[ 81 ] June 2, 2017 |

If you were facing a loathsome Tory such as Theresa May and you had the great leftist filmmaker Ken Loach at your disposal, wouldn’t you use him? This is amazing.

I’m a huge Loach fan, even though his career is super inconsistent. As someone who loves agitprop in a completely non-ironic way, films like Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song are very enjoyable to me. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is epic. And probably his best films are his depictions of the down and out late 20th century British working class, most notably Sweet Sixteen. His later films have been pretty schmaltzly, but whatever. Looking for Eric was pretty OK.

Anyway, talk about an ad that pulls no punches.


Polling in the 2017 UK General Election, and Other Notes

[ 49 ] June 2, 2017 |

This election has caught everybody off guard, including the pollsters.  The polling houses hadn’t yet decided on a common approach in response to the wreckage of the 2015 General Election. A side benefit of this for social scientists is the natural experiment playing out in the heat of the campaign.

Before we get into that, it’s useful to remember why 2015 failed so miserably (and it was miserable for those of us who worked GOTV all day on polling day from 0530 until 2200, changed our clothes and dressed up smart, affixed the red rosette, and arrived at the Guildhall for the count only to see the exit polls coming in suggesting a Conservative majority, who then went on to witness our losing of one Labour seat here in Plymouth combined with losing what we were fairly confident of a Labour pickup by only 523 votes). It wasn’t because of the “shy tory” effect that plagued British pollsters in the 1992 election (which far too many people still believe was the fault in 2015). Rather, it was a sampling / likely voter model failure:

In looking at what’s changed it’s probably best to start with what actually went wrong and what problem the pollsters are trying to solve. As all readers will know, the polls in 2015 wrongly overstated Labour support and understated the Conservatives. The BPC/MRS inquiry under Pat Sturgis concluded this was down to unrepresentative samples.

Specially, it looked as if polls had too many younger people who were too engaged and too interested in politics. The effect of this was that while in reality there was a big difference between the high turnout among old people and the low turnout among young people, among the sort of people who took part in polls this gap was too small. In short, the sort of young people who took part in polls went out and voted Labour; the sort of young people who weren’t interested and stayed at home didn’t take part in polls either.

UK Polling Report has a useful explanation of who is doing what methodologically for 2017 (the above quote is excepted from this post). This is especially critical in being able to interpret any given poll from a reasonably educated perspective, as within the last week alone we have seen the range of estimate Conservative leads from a high of 14% to a low of 3%. As I wrote on Wednesday, while the individual estimates are all over the shop floor at the moment, one thing that is solid is the shrinking Conservative lead.

At least two sources are now publishing predictive models at the constituency level. We briefly discussed the methodology of the YouGov model in the comments of Wednesday’s post (shout out to commenter Gregor Sansa for correctly predicting their use of multilevel regression and poststratification, or which I call in an old school sense hierarchical linear modelling). YouGov’s seat-level probabilities can be found here, and it’s updated daily.  Using a different methodology (the several paragraph explanation thereof isn’t geeky / detailed enough to pass judgment on the relative merits) the Britain Elects model can be found here. The two models suggest quite different results. At time of writing (0630 BST 2 June) YouGov is estimating 317 seats for the Tories (with an error band of 285 to 353 seats), while Britain Elects is going with 362 (330 to 394). Both models also have significant, indeed wildly different predictions for the specific constituency where I campaign. Of course, the quality of the predictive model is limited by the quality of the data fed into it; those of us who blithely predicted in the media last November that Clinton would win the Electoral College were undermined by the data coming out of WI, MI, and PA. Hence, while the YouGov model makes it appear that all our hard work in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport is finally paying off, in reality the YouGov model is a captive of the underlying YouGov data. Labourites need to understand that since the 2015 GE, Labour has only been even or ahead (by one point) in three out of well over 250 polls now, and all three were YouGov.  Britain Elects takes a broader view by using data from Ipsos Mori, YouGov, TNS, Panelbase, GfK, ICM, Survation, ComRes, Opinium, ORB, BMG and Lord Ashcroft, combined with data from the British Election Study. Ashcroft also has a probabilistic model here, but it’s already a week old.

Is one better than the other? We won’t know until the 9th of June.

One other, more personal / rant note about polling and the Labour Party. There is a wing of the party that harbours deep suspicion of all polling, especially (ironically) YouGov because they have / had connections with the Conservative Party. Before this election was called, in this community polls were relegated to the status of Tory Conspiracy to demonstrate how unelectable Jeremy Corbyn is thus brainwashing the mindless sheep of the electorate from the one true path. It’s entertaining to witness all the new converts to polling data when YouGov has shown our deficit narrow to 5%, then 3%. Kids (writing to the Labour Party, not the sophisticated and discerning readers of LGM of course), this instinctive rejection of, and newfound love for YouGov is called confirmation bias, and don’t do that.

Yet people still do. I was ranted at, defriended, and blocked (I nailed the trifecta!) by a local Labour Party member (and a parliamentary candidate in the 2015GE no less) on fb yesterday because I had the temerity to point out in response to the suggestion that “we all know” polling drives public opinion that the evidence does not support that assertion (and yes, I might have pulled rank in a sense by pointing out that I used to teach survey research here, but I do have an understanding of the subject better than the average bear given that I’ve published on it). In a Labour forum on fb yesterday, it was asserted that the polling houses are under strict orders by Conservative High Command to make it appear close to scare Tories into voting given the latest YouGov poll has us only 3% behind. Apparently, when the polls show a huge Conservative lead, the fix is in to demonstrate that the LP is unelectable, when it’s close the fix is in to mobilise Conservative voters, and when the sun rises in the East the fix is in to show that the Tories are, indeed, the masters of the universe.

Conspiracy theories: for the love of God and all that is good and pure, don’t do that.

In response to some of the comments from Wednesday’s post (usually I have the time to read the comments to my posts, but lately I haven’t had the time to read the front page of LGM, let alone the comments to my own, rare, posts):

When British pollsters have failed spectacularly in a general election (e.g. 1992, 2015), it’s generally been in overestimating Labour support and underestimating Conservative support, but for different reasons (response bias / social desirability in 1992, sampling / likely voter models in 2015).

I’m not going to get into a discussion on the merits of the current Labour Party leadership at this point.  For five more days of campaigning, and a day of GOTV on polling day, we have an election to fight. I’m under no illusions that the Labour Party will be full of peace, love, and understanding form the 9th of June, but until then, at least in Plymouth, we’re doing a commendable job at party unity. While both data and anecdotal evidence suggests that around the country the post-2015 intake of members (which is a large majority of the LP’s membership, it should be stated) are proportionately less likely to do the grunt work of politics and more likely to be clicktivists, here in Plymouth we have seen a large number of new faces all working towards electing our decidedly un-Corbynista candidates to Parliament. We’ll see where we stand on the 9th of June.

jben writes: “I mean, I agree that even Corbyn and co. are the lesser evil compared to the malicious jerks who are running the country now. (I assume David also agrees, or he wouldn’t be campaigning for Labour.)”

I voted for Corbyn in 2015, and wrote about it here at LGM. The TL;DR version of that post is “not due to any sense of ideological purity, but because I think he has the best chance to lead Labour to victory in 2020”. Needless to say, that choice has been tested since, and I did not vote for him last summer. That said, I do not consider Corbyn the lesser of two evils.  I have reservations about the man, in terms of his political nous, the choices he makes in advisors, and on some bits of foreign policy, but given the binomial choice environment, I do not have one ounce of reservation that a Labour Government, a Corbyn-led Labour Government, is infinitely preferable to a Conservative government. But, given I’m active in the Plymouth Labour Party, my loyalties are also, if not predominantly, local. Local councillors, activists, and our parliamentary candidate for my constituency are also friends of mine. Over the past several elections, local and general, I’ve canvassed, plotted, attended counts, and drank with these people. I’d be doing what I’m doing regardless of the name of the party leader. I’m loyal to the party, not the leader du jour.

Ronan writes “As a matter of seats available, considering they’ve lost Scotland, what do Labour need to do to get a majority”. During the 2014 independence referendum, I wrote a series of posts, including one that explored the impact on the Labour Party if Scotland were to go its separate way. At the time, Labour held 40 or 41 seats in Scotland (this is from memory). It turns out that the Labour Party only required its Scottish bulwark once to form a government.  However, obviously, we’d take 30 or 40 seats in Scotland, as well as the political talent offered by a strong Scottish Labour Party (John Smith, Gordon Brown, to name just two).  Given we’re likely to only win one seat in Scotland (again), for Labour to get to 326 we’d have to run the table in the urban constituencies, hold if not expand in Wales, do better than predicted in the Midlands, as well as pick up seats in the South East of England. Even the optimistic (for Labour) YouGov model predicts a top estimate of 285 seats, an extra net 40 Scottish seats would get us to the precipice of an outright majority. However, that 285 represents the absolute top end of the most Labour-friendly of the various predictive models.

Finally, let’s return to the first line of this post, about how this election has caught everybody off guard. This is the first snap election in the UK since October 1974, so it’s a rare treat for anybody, let alone a politically active American political scientist, to be right in the middle of this campaign. Aside from the very occasional recall election in the US at the state or local level, there is no comparison in American politics (for better or for worse).

UPDATE: I meant to add in a completely unrelated note that two years ago today, I was at what I believe was the last ever Replacements gig at the Roundhouse in London.

Random Notes from the Campaign

[ 43 ] May 31, 2017 |


(Drake Ward canvass team, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport constituency, 30 May 2017. Selfie credit: Cllr. Chaz Singh)

Theresa May demonstrated a trademark lack of consideration in the timing of the snap election, as it’s corresponded with the busiest time of the academic year. I’ve also somehow rather accidentally found myself as a ward leader for this election.  On top of all this, it’s currently half-term, and I’m sole parenting my daughter (not that I’m complaining, at all).  Indeed, it’s been very cool to watch my daughter get involved, with confidence:

(My daughter advising Luke Pollard, our candidate for Parliament in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, Plymouth Labour Party Hall.  Photo credit: Cllr. Jonny Morris).

She’s been desperate to go canvassing, and this week, she’ll be on six.  However, I’ve been terribly remiss at contributing observations to LGM about the British election. The following are some links and observations on the state of the election here in the UK. I promise neither narrative arc nor coherent thought.

First, the polls are all over the map, though the narrowing of the race since the manifestos were launched is real, and is likely partially due to the shambles of a Conservative manifesto combined with the (surprisingly) rigorous costing of ours. Going into this election, I honestly doubted our national leadership’s ability to quickly frame, and win, an issue as they have with the dementia tax. Practical politics seemed dirty to the leadership, and messaging a concept from a foreign land, all subsumed by the purity of thought that only ideological faith can bring. Yet, we won that argument.

However, we shouldn’t get too excited about a recent YouGov poll that put us only five points behind. The followup has us down seven, and if one reads below the top line figures, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn are significantly behind on critical items (e.g. who would make the better Prime Minister, who is more trusted on security and terrorism, etc.).  This is what caught many out in 2015: while the national polls predicted a hung parliament with a good chance of Labour being the largest single party in the Commons, the cross tabs under the top line suggested that David Cameron had significantly more support as PM over Ed Miliband and the Conservatives were more trusted on the economy). Worse, ICM has us down 12 points as of yesterday. Further fuelling the flames of mis-placed optimism, a YouGov constituency-level estimate released last night has the Conservatives losing 20 seats and an overall majority, with Labour picking up 28. If accurate, this should have us win both Plymouth seats, as we’re ranked 8th and 14th on Labour’s target seat list.  I’ve yet to locate the source data for this, but it’s based on an N of 50,000.  Assuming that’s divided equally across the 650 parliamentary constituencies (which is a crap assumption, but lacking source data, it’s all I have to go by), it’s an N of 77 per seat. In other words, flimsy.

Some final notes. In Labour, we’ve seen more new volunteers than we had in 2015, and they’ve been coming from further afield (Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, to name just three counties). That we’ve been able to scratch together a well run campaign in a matter of days has been impressive to observe, especially when contrasted with 2015 when we had years to prepare, safe in the assumption that the election would be held on a specific date.

I enjoyed Scott’s piece on the Labour Party manifesto, but there’s one minor point I’ll make in clarification: he writes “while too many Blarities are failing to back the leader of the party . . .”. The Blairite influence in the party (both in the Parliamentary Labour Party specifically and the pre-2015GE membership more generally) is overstated, (not only on the other side of the Atlantic, but here as well).  A good measure for this is the 2015 Labour Party leadership election, with four candidates standing. The only true Blairite standing was Liz Kendall, who secured a monumental 4.46% of the vote. The vote of no confidence in Corbyn as party leader by the PLP in the fallout of the EU referendum last summer, was 172-40. Blairites do not constitute 81% of the PLP; concern over the direction of the party’s leadership was far broader in parliament than the remaining Blairite rump.

Corbyn and Co. have run a much better campaign than many of us expected, but then we were 20-22% down when the election was called over a month ago.

There’s been breathless discussion about the utility of tactical voting for a progressive alliance. It won’t work.

Finally, a shout out to the Greens. The Green Party candidate for the constituency in the north of Plymouth formally endorsed Labour yesterday. In 2015, the Greens captured 1023 votes in the Plymouth Moor View constituency, and the Conservative candidate won by 1026. Of course, had he done so several weeks previously, his name wouldn’t be on the ballot at all; that his name will be on the ballot paper renders this endorsement hollow. Labour and the Greens came within one vote (according to my sources) of the local Green Party not standing at all in either constituency. In 2015, we lost Plymouth Sutton & Devonport by only 523 votes. The Green Party candidate received 3401 votes.

You do the math.

UPDATE . . . sort of.  Here are two links I had left open in my office for when I got around to making a post on the campaign:

Labour are leading overwhelmingly among the young (e.g. 54% to 25% among the 18-24 cohort according to yesterday’s Survation poll) but losing badly among the not-so-young (24% to 44% among the 65+ set).  Unfortunately, as we all know, the young vote at a lower rate than the rest; the 18-24 has been at the bottom of the table in every UK general election since 1964. In 2015, the 18-24s had an estimated turnout of 43%, to 78% for over 65s).  If the youngest cohort voted at the same rate as the over 65s, would it swing the election?  Computer says no.

A week ago or so, Professor Harry Bennett and I did a video interview with the local paper. In all, I think we recorded 45 minutes of chat; the first instalment went up a few days ago about the effect of the Manchester bombing on the campaign.


I Wouldn’t Have Been Surprised . . . Until I Was

[ 116 ] April 19, 2017 |


You’re Theresa May, vaguely accidental Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  You’ve inherited a flimsy majority in the House of Commons, currently at just 17 seats.  You’re about to enter into a series of negotiations with the European Union, which will define the UK’s economic framework for at least a generation.  The party opposite is going through a spot of bother (that many claim to be existential).  While you had consistently rejected doing so since June, you finally make the logical choice, and call for a snap election.  A snap election that will lead to the shortest period between elections since October 1974, and also the first General Election to not be held simultaneous with local elections since 1992.

Whenever this question came up in my various media appearances since May took over this past July, I argued, consistently, that a snap election makes perfect sense, electorally. In addition to negotiating with the EU, pushing through “boundary review” (i.e. redistricting) with a reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 has been on the cards since the David Cameron-led coalition government of 2010-15. So why was this a surprise?

Namely, because the Brits like to hold their General Elections simultaneous to whatever local elections might be on offer.  There’s a logic to this: turnout increases for the local elections, and money is saved by only administering one election.  Such elections are scheduled for May 4, 2017.  Given the statutory requirements for the “short campaign”, combined with the vagaries introduced by the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act, the time to have called for a snap election would have been no later than the second week of March.

What has changed in the past month or so?  Labour’s polling disadvantage has not depreciated significantly; according to UK Polling Report, Labour was 14.8% down on average, whereas now Labour trails the Conservatives by 16.8% (by my unsophisticated calculations; for the current average I aggregated all polls back to the beginning of March; for the average of one month ago, I averaged from the beginning of February to March 15.)  While Nate Silver suggests that the snap election is not as slammy a slam dunk as most might assume (h/t friend of LGM Bijan Parsia for bringing this to my attention), I doubt that a further two point lead in the polls is what convinced May to call the snap election now when she couldn’t a month ago.

I’ve speculated in the media here that this is about internal Parliamentary Conservative Party politics regarding the negotiations with the European Union about the shape of Brexit. The transformation of the previously tepid Remainer Theresa May into staunch Hard Brexiteer Prime Minister is due in part to the leverage the latter currently have within the House of Commons. With current polling data suggesting nothing less than the Conservatives significantly increasing their working majority, one important (if not the important) side benefit of this is that suddenly May will have freedom of movement (in domestic politics terms) in EU negotiations.

But even this would have still been true a month ago.

It’s a safe bet that the Conservative Party will increase its majority in the 2017 election.  Labour famously lost the Copeland By-Election in February.  Copeland had been a Labour seat since 1935, and this was the first time the opposition party has lost a seat to the governing party in a by-election in 35 years. In addition to the anaemic performance of the party during parliamentary by-elections, Labour’s performance for local by-elections have been even less suggestive of a strong showing in a general election. Since the beginning of 2016, the Conservatives have suffered a net loss of 33 seats in local by-elections, which is to be expected. Governing parties typically struggle in such elections. However, Labour have lost a net nine seats in these elections over the same time frame, which is not typical of a strongly positioned opposition party. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand have experienced a net gain of 36 such seats (data can be compiled from various summaries posted here). The Green Party has been losing vote share to a certain degree, while since the EU referendum in June 2016, UKIP has struggled in by-elections of all types.

Naturally, word went out yesterday that Jeremy Corbyn desired that each Constituency Labour Party have the right to re-select their MP candidates (including sitting MPs). This has been a preference of a segment of the Corbyn supporters on the left of the party, as a means to purify the party for the new, post-Blairite world. When you only have 230 out of 650 members of parliament, and you’re anywhere between 15% and 18,000% behind in the opinion polls, that’s obviously an astonishingly ludicrous idea, even if we had a normal run-in to the general election. It doesn’t help to invoke a leftier-than-thou sentimentality in general, and in particular why volunteer to give away whatever advantage of incumbency that you possess?  Given the election is seven short weeks away, wasting half of that time determining the names of the candidates in the first place takes that ludicrousness to new levels of electoral suicide. Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed, and by my understanding of the rules, all existing MPs have the right to stand again, while previous candidates (of the non-winning variety) likewise have first right of refusal to stand as candidates in the constituencies they stood at the last general election (although the national executive committee has some significant sway here).

The big question, of course, is what would Jeremy Corbyn choose to do should Labour lose the snap election by some of the more pessimistic projections (e.g. a Conservative working majority of 100 seats, perhaps?) There is nothing in the rule book that would force him to stand down as leader. Given he’s already ignored a tacit norm of British politics by failing to stand down when overwhelmingly losing a vote of confidence 172-40 among his own MPs, there’s no reason to automatically expect that he would do so in the face of an electoral disaster similar to the 1983 General Election.

That may or may not be something to dwell on by the second week of June. Until then, the 8th and 14th target seats for the Labour Party are in Plymouth, where I live. We lost these by only 523 and 1026 votes two years ago. While things might not look rosy on a national level, Labour did win the (aggregated) vote in both constituencies during the city council elections in 2016, so there’s a solid chance down here for two Labour victories.

2016 – Year of Complacency

[ 162 ] January 5, 2017 |

[Thanks so much to Erik for his kind intro and the rest of you for your welcome messages. For the record: anti-ketchup, all the way. Don’t get me started on mayonnaise.]

This we know: 2016 was awful. But now that the year has turned, it’s time to start figuring out what exactly made it so awful.

My first attempt at an explanation: 2016 was a year of complacency.

Just after the longest night of 2016, Steven Pinker tried to convince us that things actually weren’t as bad as they seemed. Some of what he said is worth considering (not just because he wrote before Carrie Fisher died, which clearly brought the year down considerably further):

Look at history and data, not headlines. The world continues to improve in just about every way. Extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are at historic lows; vaccinations, basic education, including girls, and democracy are at all-time highs.

War deaths have risen since 2011 because of the Syrian civil war, but are a fraction of the levels of the 1950s through the early 1990s, when megadeath wars and genocides raged all over the world. Colombia’s peace deal marks the end of the last war in the Western Hemisphere, and the last remnant of the Cold War. Homicide rates in the world are falling, and the rate in United States is lower than at any time between 1966 and 2009. Outside of war zones, terrorist deaths are far lower than they were in the heyday of the Weathermen, IRA, and Red Brigades.

And therein lies the problem: peace and prosperity have made us complacent (“us” here being a Western and predominantly white elite). 2016 brought some resounding rejections of things whose importance we couldn’t be bothered to remember.

For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about Europe in the twentieth century, Brexit (and other anti-EU movements in Greece, France, etc.) was baffling. The European Union has its faults, to be sure. But no matter how annoyed you are about the disappearance of incandescent light bulbs (or real issues, like a flawed asylum system), you have to admit that none of those compare to the horrors of the Second World War.

The EU was brought into being because over thirty-two million people died in Europe in WWII. Thirty-two. Million. Sure, it’s great to travel from Paris to Brussels without showing a passport or changing money, but the real benefits of the EU should still be measured in human lives. We can—and should—change imperfect systems (slow and ugly as that process can be). But blithely trashing the thing that finally broke an entire continent’s regular cycle of bloodshed makes no sense—unless we recognize that the Brexiters had forgotten too much. Genocide, atrocity, and the deep deprivations of the home front are hard to remember—harder still after decades of domestic peace.

Similar arguments can be made about other 2016 decisions. Nationalist retrenchment and anti-trade-ism take root in the comfort of taking technology for granted—of forgetting the role that globalization played in creating the smart phone from which you launch your Twitter rants. Anti-migration policies and xenophobia thrive when we lose sight of how and why people traveled in the first place (we asked them to come—sometimes we forced them). Nuclear disarmament looks like weakness only as long as you’ve forgotten the visceral fear of mutually assured destruction.

We’ve spent a lot of time post-Brexit, post-Trump victory, talking about those who have been left behind—those who haven’t shared in the benefits of the past few decades. But there aren’t enough of the left-behinds to explain the national votes in the UK and the US. Without ignoring the real pain, fear, and anger that exist, we also have to recognize that there are swathes of folks who decided that better wasn’t good enough, that turning back the clocks was the easy answer, and that unmaking the past-half-century could come without cost.

So, let’s make 2017 a year of remembering. Let’s pause, look back, and try to recall just how bad things have been. Let’s learn from the struggles and the costs of social, economic, and political progress. Let’s refuse to be complacent and realize what got us here.

In that spirit: what exactly should we keep in mind? What are the moments (or movements) we should reflect on as we face the world in the new year? What do we need to remember?

Leave your suggestions (for topics, for sources, for analyses) below.

Battling for the soul of my party

[ 173 ] July 16, 2016 |

So, in my inimitable way, I went out last night and got happily drunk.  Said drunk excursion commenced with chatting with several of my MA students. It turns out that one is a member of the Labour Party, and voted for Jeremy Corbyn last summer.  He’s not now. Nor am I, even though I voted for him with some questionable eloquence last summer.

Over the course of the evening, which involved a lot of music and alcohol, and a free ride home courtesy of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, I spoke to five members of the party, none of whom I knew were members before chatting with them (hence they’re not very active in said party). In this non scientific sample, they all will not vote for Jeremy. Their reasons vary. Two didn’t in the first place, yet three did.  Ultimately it came down to rationality.  As the (second, I was there for the shift change) bartender at my local said, “I joined the party so we could win and make a difference. We can’t win with this guy.”

Yesterday morning, the results of the council by-elections were filtering down, and the Corbyn faithful focussed on one result in particular:


One of the comments read “There were other wonderful results too.”

To which I replied on social media
“Imagine if the result had gone the other way, the kind of analysis we would see” . . . well, the result overall *did* go the other way, pal, and it’s a bloody good thing this isn’t in the news. There were ten by-elections on Thursday. Of those, the Lib Dems gained four, and the Tories gained one (at our expense). Of the seven where there was a Labour candidate in the previous election, we lost share in five elections (-11.3, -7.4, -5.0, -4.4, -4.1) and only gained in two (+10.6, +8.9). The winners on the night were the Liberals by far. We didn’t do so well, outside of the election in Bradford and the one in Islington, and if we can’t win in those two we have much larger problems than a leadership struggle.
Anecdotally, and now, vaguely empirically, Jeremy is not the way forward.

Boris Johnson, Diplomat

[ 117 ] July 14, 2016 |


I’ve been trying to make some sort of rational sense of this all morning. There are two rough theories which work together.  First, given the tone of her speech last night, it’s clear she’s trying to position domestic policy towards the currently unoccupied huge gaping hole in the center of British politics. This also squares with her sacking of George Osborne, which has been interpreted as an implicit rejection of austerity. Even Ed Miliband liked her speech last night:


To move to the middle ground, she needs to have her right flank secure. The right of the Conservative party in post-Referendum Britain is the Leave camp. Hence, the new job of Secretary of State for Exiting the EU goes to Leaver David Davis, the new job of Secretary of State for International Trade to fellow Leaver Liam Fox(!), and then the Foreign Secretary goes to noted diplomat Boris Johnson. It makes some rational sense to give the Leavers these jobs, almost a win-win: Brexiters in the party and electorate are placated, and as there’s no good way through Brexit, when things go south they’re lined up to take the blame for the resulting failure:



This is a high risk strategy, however, as ultimately it is May’s judgment to elevate these fall guys; she’s banking that the blame won’t rebound on her. If she pulls this all off, and the odds are on her side considering the level of attentiveness that the opposition is paying to the government at the moment, it’s easy to grow despondent about the near and mid-term chances of the Labour Party. Several events would need to occur for Labour to have a decent chance at winning an election by 2020. Labour will have to get its shit together, the economic fallout from Brexit will have to be significantly dire, and the sitting government will have to be perceived as responsible for the disaster. This is where all the Leavers at the wheel makes the May government vulnerable: the connection is easier to make. It’s also a bad plan, as all but the most cynical of us on the left sincerely hope that we somehow manage to get through the coming storm relatively unscathed in economic terms.

Back to the purported topic of the post: it does not make any sense to place Boris Johnson in that particular position. It’s something right out of the Onion. Furthermore, Gove was sacked outright. Perhaps it’s the one vaguely Brexit-related role where Boris can cause the least damage. Perhaps May’s staff were all on acid.

The State Department’s Press Secretary mostly keeps his cool, while Angela Eagle (note, right as she’s speaking about Boris) doesn’t (I have to admit to having watched that clip about six times this morning).  Following are several lists, none claiming to be comprehensive (which is likely an impossible goal), outlining the litany of countries and foreign politicians that Boris has insulted in his personal path-of-destruction: Slate, which includes this somewhat relevant gem:

During Hillary Clinton’s first run for the White House, in 2007, Johnson referred to her as “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital,” criticizing her for embodying “purse-lipped political correctness,” and reviving a long-discredited conspiracy theory that claims she and then-President Bill Clinton conspired to murder Vince Foster, a close friend and White House aide who committed suicide in 1993.

This, which opens with the truth:

At a time when America is in a full-blown national discussion over race, our closest ally, Great Britain, has appointed a new foreign secretary (aka secretary of state), Boris Johnson, with a troubling history of racism.

The Guardian, limiting itself to only eight examples from only the past decade, and BuzzFeed doing what BuzzFeed does. This is only a sampling of the links I’ve come across this morning.

I’m left with just this: just what the hell was Theresa May thinking?





An Organised Opposition, Ready to Govern

[ 172 ] July 13, 2016 |


Hah.  Who am I kidding?

The Labour Party National Executive Committee, a relative obscure body to most until yesterday, voted 18-14 following a six hour meeting last night to allow Jeremy Corbyn to be listed on the leadership ballot without having to clear a threshold of nominations by MPs and MEPs (currently 51). Considering the politics involved, this was the correct decision. That said, the NEC had an out; while focusing solely on the relevant clause in the rule book makes a strong case for the incumbent’s automatic inclusion, the rules taken in their entirety grant the NEC the power to basically make shit up as they go:

I don’t think Labour’s existing rules framework can reasonably be read so as to exclude Jeremy Corbyn from the coming leadership ballot of members. I agree with Mark Henderson. There is a real danger that trying to do so based on the existing rules framework set out in Chapter 4 clause II could be successfully challenged in court.

But the rule book gives the NEC power to vary that rules framework, and it would in my view be reasonable for it to do so in this unforeseen, unprovided for and disputed situation. If it does vary the rules to require the no-confidence incumbent to reach the same nomination threshold as his challengers, I doubt the courts would intervene.

Ultimately, like SCOTUS, the NEC is a political body rendering a political decision, and in this case from a pure (perhaps short term) political perspective, they made the right call.  However, late in the meeting (some have argued that Corbyn dropped the ball; I had a link late last night but I’ve misplaced it) the NEC established different eligibility requirements for the upcoming leadership election. The £3 supporter is out, and a six-month freeze date is set for membership eligibility. While the BBC were reporting the cutoff date as 12 January last night, it’s still unclear (but it won’t be far off 12 January). New members of the party who joined after the freeze date are still eligible, but for a £25 surcharge (this being the Labour Party, clarity is a dangerous concept, so there are additional routes to the franchise discussed below). Some Corbyn supporters are, of course, outraged (!!!) at the eligibility requirements. For example (EDIT, to remove ambiguity, Peston is a journalist):


I don’t know exactly how it went down at the meeting, but however it did, it was a clever move to constrict the electorate. That said, the membership surge since Corbyn was named leader in September until Brexit was almost certainly motivated solely by Corbyn, but we don’t know how these 100,000 post-Brexit members would break in a leadership contest. Furthermore, this is not a new thing in the Labour Party. Eligibility to vote at the CLP and branch levels of the party (e.g. to vote on selection for parliamentary and council candidates) has long required a minimum six-month membership. Last summer, many were bemused that the barriers to voting for the leader of the entire party were virtually non-existent (£3) whereas a minimal six-month membership was (and remains) required before voting on selection for candidates to the local council.

There are also backdoors to voting for leader, which is being spread widely in Corbyn-supporting social media circles:


There are many things fascinating about this ongoing storm, but one that I’ve consistently found the most bemusing is the ratio of energy expended in some circles in the Labour Party at perceived internal “enemies” to the energy expended against the Conservative Party. My feed is full of 38Degrees petitions about how Labour should scrap the outrageous franchise requirements for the leadership election, but barely a mention that, umm, hey? we’re getting a new Prime Minister later today who was elected by 199 votes out of an entire electorate of 329. Instead of focusing his energy on the real opposition, the shadow chancellor instead pointed out that a significant number of his fellow Labour MPs are “fucking useless” as plotters.

Moving on, in skimming the rest of the comments from yesterday, I do want to make one point of clarification. I don’t necessarily believe that the PLP should have supremacy over the membership writ large. However, I do think that the two should be structurally required to work together and agree. In short, a vote of no confidence in the party leader should require the leader to resign (and disallowed from standing in the subsequent election). I also believe that the PLP should somehow have an equal say to that of the membership in electing the leader. Giving the Parliamentary MPs an equal weight in this process is really the only way that parliamentary government (or opposition) can work. Hypothetically, if a snap election were to be held by the Autumn, Labour either wins or attains a plurality of MPs, yet an overwhelming majority of those MPs neither support nor can work with the party leader, who becomes the Prime Minister? Nicola Sturgeon?  Balanced against this is that the membership should not have to accept just anybody as leader that the PLP forces upon them. How to do this effectively (and in a manner acceptable to all parties) is an open question. But, given current conditions (a leader who has strong support amongst the members, is happy to ignore tacit norms, yet has at best the support of only 20% of the PLP and of those, few are considered heavyweights or really acceptable to the broader electorate as a government in waiting) an infinite loop of dysfunction is likely.

To make things more lively, Owen Smith announced that he’s likewise challenging Jeremy Corbyn, although he still needs to gather the 51 endorsements of MPs/MEPs. Obviously, the coup against Corbyn didn’t have much of a plan beyond an elegantly timed cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet. It was assumed that he would conform to the tacit norm by resigning, so why bother planning for the unexpected. He didn’t resign, so here we are.

If I’m Theresa May, my first order of business is a snap election. The opposition are the very definition of disarray, and this has the side benefit of pushing Article 50 back several more months. I’m sure there are risks to the Conservatives of an election (the potential for a greater UKIP presence in Parliament at the expense of Labour, or that she could lose . . . ) but it seems to me that the benefits outweigh the risk, especially when her own majority remains just as small as David Cameron’s.


Rules and Labourshambles

[ 284 ] July 12, 2016 |


Javier Sajuria posted this over at the UCL Constitution Unit last week while I was busy finding new and efficient ways to haemorrhage cash in Geneva.  It’s worth a read, and applies some political sciency-type stuff to the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in.  Rules matter, they aren’t neutral (implied), and the Labour Party failed on two levels: codifying this set of rules in the first place in 2014, and then the PLP failed in their role as gatekeeper by allowing Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot at the last minute. The Conservatives, in contrast, made it more difficult for their MPs to fail in this regard by forcing a winnowing of the field presented to the membership to only two candidates.

The final two paragraphs capture the problem Labour faces:

Finally, under the current rules, the leader of the Labour Party is not accountable to the PLP. This might seem obvious given that those voting for the leader are the members and supporters, not the MPs. However, the current situation shows how important it is that the leader is able to bring together all groups within the party. As we have seen earlier this week, not even a vote of no-confidence with over 80 per cent support can force Corbyn to resign, nor stop him from putting his name forward in the event of a challenge of his leadership. Under the current situation, is difficult to see how the Labour Party can provide a strong opposition to the government, if any at all.

The main take home point from this exercise is that the Labour crisis is not (only) ideological. Preference heterogeneity within parties is a well-documented phenomenon and the internal mechanisms should be able to cope with it. This is exactly what has been failing in the case of Labour. MPs were not able to understand their role as gatekeepers and guardians of party unity, but also the rules do not give them enough power to fix the problem. It seems that in this case, the leader of the party is willing to test how much he can steer the party to the left before breaking it.

Back in August I discussed (neither as pointedly nor as eloquently) a problem the party might face with its electoral system:

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.

In re-reading that post, it’s apparent how the PLP worked out just a bit too late that they failed in forwarding candidate(s) that would not negatively effect party unity. Assuming that the NEC allows Corbyn on the leadership ballot automatically (and he will, of course, fight the NEC if they do not), he will probably win. His support within the party membership is down, but not enough to make it close in my estimation. He’s ahead of Angela Eagle 50% – 40% in a leadership contest, though this is against the backdrop of his net favourability (among party members) falling from +45% to +3% between May and (very) early July; in May 60% of members wanted him to lead the party into a general election, while now it’s 41%. These figures do not include the three-quid supporters, and this (astonishingly misguided) facility will again be in place:

What about the £3 supporters?

People who signed up to vote last year under the £3 supporter scheme will not automatically receive a ballot this time around – so they will need to part with another £3 and register again. This scheme will re-open once the NEC has confirmed the timetable for the election.

It’s not ludicrous to suggest that the £3 supporters will break for Corbyn in a leadership election.

The Labour Party is faced with a leader (under the current rules, this could be any leader) who is not accountable to the PLP. In a parliamentary system, this is dangerous, as we’re witnessing. It hard codes in an increased probability of dysfunction, and given that we delight in dysfunction when we’re at peak organisation, we don’t need the help from the rule book. If there’s a snap election, and Labour lose by a margin worse than 2015, what prevents Corbyn from hanging on as leader? Nothing. Sure, there’d be a leadership challenge, but the current rules combined with the cult-of-personality that the hard left have for Corbyn, it’s possible that this continues in perpetuity. The rules as currently constructed would not prevent this, even following a crushing electoral debacle.

Such an electoral tsunami is several years off, as odds are against a snap election. Theresa May should call one, for both electoral advantage and democratic legitimisation. Since the referendum, the Conservative lead over Labour has increased by four points in the ICM poll, but this is not due to an erosion of support for Labour but by what appears to be the Tories gaining support at the expense of UKIP; either way the Tories have an 8 point lead according to ICM. However, past experience suggests an election will not be called. The last three times there has been an internal leadership change that resulted in a new Prime Minister (Wilson to Callaghan in 1976, Thatcher to Major in 1990, Blair to Brown in 2007) there was not a resulting snap election. All three heirs saw out the statutory limit of the extant parliament before calling an election.

It appears that the only chance that the Labour Party have of shaking Jeremy Corbyn is to get obliterated in an election (and even then the outcome is not guaranteed). Of course, no sane person in the party would ever go into an election hoping for a devastating defeat (or a defeat of any variety). I’m not confident that some Corbynistas would likewise go into a general election behind Angela Eagle hoping for victory, however.

Theresa May to be Next UK PM

[ 278 ] July 11, 2016 |

theresa may

As Andrea Leadsom has just withdrawn from the race to be Conservative Party leader:

Andrea Leadsom says her backing from MPs is not “sufficient support to lead a strong and stable government” if she were to win the leadership election.

Additionally, a not-too-subtle dig at the opposition party.

This opens up several questions, most namely the on-again, off-again snap election.  Given that May will only have faced her fellow Conservative MPs in deciding the PM, and not the much broader electorate (and highly representative of the general UK population!) of Conservative Party members, combined with the somewhat disorganised state of the Labour Party, it’s in her interests to call an election as soon as possible. I’m willing to bet that we can find record of her and a good chunk of the Conservative front bench criticising Gordon Brown’s lack of calling a snap election in 2007 when he assumed leadership of the Labour Party uncontested.

While May was Remain, she was even more puke-warm than Corbyn. She’s on record today making it clear that there’s not going to be any back-door attempt to remain in the EU.

I’m on the radio in half an hour or so about political predictions for the remainder of 2016, and one of the points I was going to make was not to rule Leadsom out, even though the only poll we’ve seen had May ahead 63% – 31% among the Conservative Party membership. While not an explicit prediction, its veracity is consistent with any prediction I’ve made of late.

Today in British Understatement

[ 125 ] July 6, 2016 |

Chilcot says there was no need to go to war in March 2003.”

And . . .

“Blair “overestimated his ability” to influence US decisions on Iraq.”

“the inquiry does not accept Blair’s claim that it was impossible to predict post-invasion problems”.

“Blair presented the intelligence about Iraq’s WMD “with a certainty that was not justified”.”

Who would have thunk it?

Brexit: The Continuing Fallout

[ 168 ] July 2, 2016 |


When the NYT runs a series of stories about the cross between East Enders and Game of Thrones that British politics has become, it’s somewhat serious.

As part of the expert-sourced fear mongering in the run in to the referendum vote, one concern was that the financial services industry in London would haemorrhage jobs to some alternative location in the European Union. The response from the Leave Campaign was, of course, all rainbows and unicorns and lovely, sweet magical fairy dust. Well, turns out that a critical component of an already shaky economic foundation in Britain will lose jobs:

I spoke this week to several high-ranking executives at major financial institutions that collectively employ tens of thousands in London. While none of them have any immediate plans to move their European headquarters from Britain’s capital, all agreed they would eventually shift a significant number of highly paid employees to cities that remain in the European Union.

One executive in charge of relocation (who like the others, spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue) said the percentage of employees in his firm who might be required to move ranged from 10 percent to 40 percent. “Multiply that throughout the industry and it’s tens of thousands of people and their families,” he said. “And bear in mind that most of these people are millionaires.”

Helpfully, the NYT has graded the contenders for the next London here. Surprisingly, Amsterdam comes out on top, narrowly edging out Frankfort.

The NYT also has an at-times funny treatment on Boris here.

Labour are still engaged in a potentially fatal game of chicken. Tis is probably not an optimal strategy for establishing your bonafides as a government in waiting. And John McDonnell is making about as much coherent sense as the dreamiest of the Leave campaigners:

Amid the confusion, McDonnell used his speech to try and present a coherent Labour plan for a post-Brexit future, calling for the UK to remain in the EU single market and for the financial services industry to keep its privileged “passported” trading status.

However, the shadow chancellor appeared to dismiss the idea of the party seeking to block departure from the EU, saying: “The people have spoken and their decision must be respected.”

He also predicted that Brexit would end unrestricted travel and employment for EU nationals in the UK. “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue,” McDonnell said. “If Britain leaves the European Union, the free movement of people, of labour, will then come to an end.”

Sorry, mate, you’re not going to get to cherry-pick the best bits of EU membership without having the bits you don’t like.

Theresa May is going to be Britain’s next PM. She was beating the crap out of Boris a couple days ago, and now is well ahead of Mr. Charisma.  At least until things change.

In the week since the vote, hate crimes have overwhelmingly increased. It’s ugly out there. I’ve heard anecdotal stories from people I know as well that range from low-level abuse and harassment to worse.

But, it’s not all bad news. The march of Wales inexplicably continues, having defeated Belgium 3-1 last night.


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