Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Time to fight back against the Europhobes...

"For almost forty years, we Brits have complained about Europe."
Douglas Carswell. 

Well you have Douglas and your fellow travellers that's for sure. But not this Brit nor anyone else who can see about the parapet of their own prejudice. Let’s look for a moment at what you are proposing. Basically it’s back to the pre War era before Europeans didn’t just say “Never again” but created the institutions to put it into effect. You see that first half of the 20th century when Nations stood apart and Nationalism reigned wasn’t really very good was it? A little local difficulty in Italy, Spain, Germany… The odd battle or two. And where were we the standalone Brits? Clutching on to our British Empire and special relationship. And yes both did come to our rescue. But then, post war, both crumbled as inevitably they were going to.

Take a look at the map Douglas. See that little group of islands off the west coast of the European land mass? That’s us. And that’s all we have. History, traditions and a decent-sized economy of course and hard-working and decent people as well. But to stand alone, like we did once or twice before? No thanks.

Fortunately the call for European cooperation made in the ruins of Europe was heeded. And gradually, from small beginnings, man’s greatest ever achievement in transnational political and economic cooperation was created. A Union of 28 nations with a common purpose and a basis of unity. And Britain has played its proud part in creating it. “There Is No Alternative”, as someone once said in another context. The “Anglosphere” beloved of the Europhobic Right? Don’t make me laugh. If it was a good idea don’t you think just one of the prospective members of it might say so? Dream on. It ain’t going to happen. Fantasy politics.

For twenty or more years our politics has been blighted by those who obsessively want to retreat from Europe. John Major’s “men in white coats” didn’t, sadly, take them away and lock them up. These are the people who at their most venal get elected to the European Parliament and then turn their fat arses towards it. They are the people who peddle simplistic lies about sovereignty and governance – as if the British Parliament had conceded all to Brussels. Not true. Unlike in Britain the EU is committed to subsidiarity and processes are continually underway to encourage decision-making not at the highest level, but at the lowest practicable.

I think that a referendum is a lousy idea but I suppose if we have to have one we might as well get it out of the way as soon as possible. I doubt that it will solve anything. If we stay in the EU will that stop the Douglas Carswells of this world from ranting on? Of course not. Like the mad people with megaphones who are always with us telling us we are doomed they’ll carry on. And if the antis win? Well we really will become second rate as a nation and a people. And that is not going to happen. The one good thing about the referendum is that it will galvanise those of us who see our future as a full, and effective member of the European Union to come out fighting. The gloves need to be off. We need to expose the dangerous bigots like Douglas Carswell for what they are. A grave threat to our nation – lets be gone with them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tendentious nonsense about an EU referendum on the front page of the "Sunday Times"

Front page of "The Sunday Times" today. Tendentious nonsense - purporting to be news reporting but actually it should be in the "comment" section. The key phrase is this:

"Ed Miliband crashed to defeat refusing to give the public a say on the EU"

1. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that Labour's position on an in/out referendum  contributed to their defeat. The issue was on the margins throughout the campaign.

2. Labour's highly credible position was that if there were to be significant changes to the EU and Britain's membership of it (e.g. A Treaty change)  that would be put to the people in a referendum.

3. There was no "refusal to give the public a say" - how could there be? As with any other issue the public has every right, in a democracy! to engage in a debate on the subject.

4. The public has a "say" through the democratic process of parliamentary democracy. We elect representatives called MPs to debate and vote in Parliament. That is the right way, tested over centuries, and to play the referendum card in these circumstances is contrary to our traditions and our history, and playing with politics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The LibDems are dead in the water and there is no way back for them

I have argued here that there are four distinct streams in English politics (the Scots and the Welsh and the Irish are different!) and that the Liberal Democrats are not one of them. Whilst I do not believe that the lack of a coherent political offer was the main reason for the debacle of the LibDems performance in the recent General Election I think that it was a contributory factor and that it is the main reason why there will be no comeback for them – ever.

The LibDems were always a strange construct merging as they did two rather different political philosophies. The Liberal Party became redundant in the post war years hanging on to a few seats for nostalgic reasons, but little more. Labour had replaced the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives in the first half of the twentieth century and the Liberals were reduced to a largely irrelevant rump in Parliament. They won only six seats in each of the General Elections in the 1950s. Then a “Liberal revival” of sorts happened and they went to 12 seats in 1966, only to fall back to 6 again in 1970. But under the charismatic Jeremy Thorpe they gained 14 seats and 6m votes in the February 1974 election – the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system denied them anything like fair representation.  This “revival” was arguably not because they had an attractive alternative political pitch to the Conservatives or Labour but because they (and Thorpe) were the “neither of the above” alternative to Heath and Wilson.

In the early 1980s it was not mainly the Liberals who made progress as a moderate alternative to Thatcher or Foot but the “Social Democratic Party” (SDP) of the Gang of Four led by Roy Jenkins.

A pragmatic electoral Alliance between the Liberals and the SDP happened but again, despite gaining 8m votes in the 1983 General Election (only 2% behind Labour) the FPTP system gave them only 23 seats. They slipped back a little in 1987 and then the two parties merged to form the Liberal Democrats.

Over its twenty-seven years as a distinct party the LibDems made steady progress up to and including the 2010 Election when they polled nearly 7m votes – the highest for a third party since 1983. Hard work on the ground at constituency level had given them a high of 62 seats in 2005 which reduced to 57 in 2010. Then Armageddon !

The essential thing about The Liberals, the Alliance and the LibDems was that they were an alternative to the Conservatives. True they were an alternative to Labour as well, but nearly all the seats that were won were where they managed to drive the Tories into second place. This brought with it a tactical voting benefit  - left-leaning voters who might have voted Labour instead voted LibDem where they had a better chance of keeping the Tories out. In the West Country and in South West London particularly you were often either a Conservative or you were LibDem.

When the LibDems went into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 there was a reasonably credible case for them to do this in the “national interest” – but for millions of LibDem voters it was a betrayal. If we had wanted a Conservative Government we would have voted Conservative! From that moment on the LibDems goose was well and truly cooked. They slipped to almost nowhere in the opinion polls over the course of the Parliament. Many of us felt that despite this they would hold on to 20-30 seats in the General Election but in fact they fell to a derisory eight. In the seats where the Tories were second the Tories mostly won, and in Scotland they, like the other parties, were all but wiped out by the SNP.

So what now? Why do I say that there is no way back. Well take Richmond Park, a seat that the LibDems won with a majority of nearly 5,000 as recently as 2001. This year the Conservatives had a majority of 23,000. And although other losses were not as drastic as this (Richmond had actually already been narrowly lost in 2010) there is no way that that Constituency is going to come back. And nor will any of the others.

Nick Clegg’s disastrous decision to go into Coalition has destroyed his Party. In England the third Party is now UKIP not the LibDems and whilst a few seats have been held – which broadly takes the Party back to the 1950s - the electoral map has been re-written, and they have been written out. Rural England is almost completely Conservative. Urban England is mostly Labour. Scotland is almost completely SNP. In terms of seats we have a two-party system again in England for the first time for decades – and a one party system in Scotland.

Finally to return to the substantive point. The LibDems are not the “neither of the above” Party any more. UKIP, the Greens are now that (whether this will give them any more seats under FPTP is entirely dependent on whether they select a few seats to work on as the Liberals once did and as the Greens succeeded in doing in Brighton). UKIP and the Greens do have a distinctive offer and most people could describe what it is. The LibDems do not and they will fade away fast.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

As the pollsters gave us the numbers my guess is that the Tories were drilling down to the "Why" of voter attitudes - and that's why they won the Election.

I did Market Research as a special subject in my degree Finals and practised it from time to time in my long Shell career - I was the "client" briefing the research agencies. One huge project I managed involved quantitative and qualitative research in twelve countries around the world. I mention this, I suppose, to give a bit of "been there, done that" credibility to what I want to say about Opinion Polls.

The Opinion Polls in the run up to the General Election were a long-running and important news story. There were a lot of them - seven or eight companies - and they reported very regularly. Hardly a day passed without one or two new polls being published. The most notable characteristics of the polls were their consistency one with another and how little they varied over time.  Over the course of this year, in the four months or so up to May 7th, the trend line showed the two main parties neck and neck with few polls deviating from this trend. This meant that if a poll did show one or the other with a (say) three point lead it tended to be dismissed as an "outlier" - and there weren't many of these. 

The polling companies who translated vote share numbers into seats all pointed to a hung Parliament - neither the Conservatives nor Labour would come close to the around 323 seats needed for a Majority in the House of Commons. The numbers were finessed to take account of the exceptional situation in Scotland where it began to be clear that the Scottish National Party was going to come close to a clean sweep of seats. And there was also a common view (which, for the record, I shared) that the Liberal Democrats would hold onto far more seats than their woeful national poll numbers suggested. Around 30 "holds" was a common view.

In the table above we see seat "forecasts" the day before Election Day (and just before) based on the latest polls. We also see the "Exit" poll and the final result. If we take "The Guardian" as an example (and the other polls were only marginally different) on 7th May, Election Day, they forecast an equal number of seats for Labour and the Conservatives and 27 for the LibDems. In fact the Tories got 99 seats more than Labour and the LibDems only 8. It was an almost unbelievable and unprecedented polling failure.

Over the course of the election campaign the opinion polls dominated political commentary and the media. It is almost impossible to find anyone who expected anything but a hung parliament. So the commentaries were dictated by this. Possible coalitions, arrangements etc. were explored ad nauseam. And this played back into the party campaigns - not least with the Conservatives warning of a possible Labour/SNP deal. 

With the benefit of hindsight we can now see that much of the debate, predicated as it was on a hung parliament, was specious nonsense. The polls were believed - and that was the starting point for everything. 

The polling companies have started to analyse and explain what went wrong. Maybe there was a "late swing"  (unlikely). Maybe some Conservative voters were "shy" to admit that they were going to vote Conservative (unconvincing). Maybe there was a differential turnout with Labour potential voters staying at home more than the Tory ones (some evidence for this). And maybe quantitative polls no longer really work on their own - which is my view.

A poll is not a forecast it is a snapshot. On the day it comes down to the floating voter deciding whether or not to vote and then, if he does go to the polling station, pausing with his pencil over the ballot paper before making his choice. The factors influencing that choice are many and varied. But those factors can be explored, and that is where qualitative research comes in. There was little or no analysis and/or presentation of focus group results during this election - or of any other qualitative research. Maybe this was because all the "Qual" research was private and not intended for public consumption.

My theory is this. The outcome of the election was heavily influenced by Conservative focus group (etc.) research in the final month or so and its translation into communications messages. With the Conservatives having sympathetic newspaper proprietors on their side (The Times, the Telegraph, The Sun, the Mail...) the qualitative research based messages could be widely communicated. So when on the day before the election the Sun had on its front page a large photograph of Ed Miliband eating a sandwich awkwardly there was no randomness to this at all. It was carefully calculated. My guess is that Conservative focus groups showed that some voters found Miliband "weird" and that his "sarnie" struggle was illustrative of this. Daft, offensive, dim-witted - yes. Effective? Probably.

The anti Miliband position had been created successfully over months and years. The "Red Ed" sobriquet was all part of this. Again I'm guessing here but I think the Conservative campaign against Miliband was firmly based on research telling them that he was a weak link for Labour. In fact Miliband ran a good campaign in the main and raised his profile. But probably not enough among the crucial floating voters. So, like it or not, Ed with his Sarnie may well have lost Labour the election. (I'm being metaphorical here,mod course, but the sarnie is a symbol of discomfort felt by sufficient voters enough to tip the balance).

Back to the pollsters. Asking respondents HOW  they would vote at any moment in time is still important - but asking WHY they made that choice more so. There has been too much reliance on the How this year and insufficient on the Why. Except, it's my guess, in the Conservative campaign headquarters. Don't confuse voters with too much detail - give them a small number of reasons to prefer you and a couple of powerful reasons not to choose your opponent. Reduce that to a slogan or two - "Red Ed" , for example. Provide a powerful visual image to back it up and get your friends in the media to give it prominence. All is fair in love, war - and politics!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Time for the pro Union Scots to fight back–with a new Party?

With a faint tinge of symbolism, perhaps, the vote for the SNP in the General Election in Scotland was exactly 50%. That means then that the country is equally divided between those (the SNP) who want independence and those that don’t. The latter half must, however, be content to have their position represented by just three MPs in Westminster (One each for Labour, the Conservatives and the LibDems) to the SNP’s 56! That's the “First Past the Post” (FPTP) voting system for you in stark relief.

So what do the 55% (The Independence Referendum) or 50% (General Election) of Scots opposed to Scottish Independence do? Their voice in Westminster will be almost silent. Here’s a radical suggestion. In Northern Ireland the UK-wide political parties have no representatives at either Stormont or Westminster. The 18 MPs are all from local parties. Scotland has rejected all the UK-wide parties almost completely and chosen also to have 56 0f the 59 MPs from a local party – the SNP. Having failed abysmally is it not now time for the Labour, LibDems and Conservatives to withdraw completely from Scotland? And, if so, what should replace them…?

The issue of Independence is by far the most important and divisive issue in Scotland and, as we have seen, the country is almost evenly split on the issue. Is it time for a new “Scottish Unionist Party” (SUP) to be formed. It’s pro Union stance would be at its core and politically if it was Centrist then it would be a counter to the very Left Wing SNP. A moderate pro-Union party could command significant support across the country and even under FPTP it should win a good number of seats both at Westminster and at Holyrood. There is already a small Party with the SUP name (that’s their emblem above) so some finessing might be necessary!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

For the Left the Election was bad, but all is not lost !

Well how bad was that ? Unless you are a Conservative it couldn't have been much worse. And if you are an opinion pollster you should hang your head in shame. The idea that the Tories could have a majority over Labour of 99 Seats was inconceivable. It wasn't just that over the many weeks of the campaign not one of the hundreds of polls suggested such an outcome. It was that not one of them picked up trends in voter attitudes that made it plausible. They were, in a short phrase, a complete waste of time. With one exception. Most of the polls did pick up what was underway in Scotland which perhaps helped make it happen. Certainly the SNP sailed with that particular wind and the voters followed them.

So what now? It is extraordinary that a campaign dominated by the idea that the UK has become a multi party democracy should deliver the opposite! In Scotland there is really only One party - and in England only two. The traditional third party has been destroyed and has been reduced to the statistical irrelevance they were back in the 1960s when they could last fit their contingent in a taxi. The First Past The Post voting system has been cruel to the LibDems, and catastrophic for the Greens and UKIP. To get 3.8m votes as the latter did and only one MP is scandalous - and I say that as someone who despises everything that UKIP stands for!

The minor parties can play a small part in Parliament, but the real action will be around the big two, and of course the SNP. Labour plus the Scottish Nationalists (their ideological cousins, Independence aside) have a total of 288 seats. Add in the eight LibDems, the Green and a few sympathisers from the "others" column and you could muster 300 or so in a vote. This means that if there is an issue on which just 15 or so Tories could be persuaded to vote against their Government it could be defeated. 

In the recent Parliament Tory revolts came mainly from their Right. The awkward squad of Eurosceptics and NeoCons. That may happen again, of course, but such a revolt would be easily defeated as it would gather no support from opposition party members. A much more likely, and intriguing, possibility would be a revolt for the Tory Left. They really could come into their own, and liberals of all parties will hope they do. Tory grandee Ken Clarke is back for, perhaps, a last hurrah. Free of the burdens of office he will, I guess, vote with his conscience and together with like-minded Conservatives such as Domininc Grieve he could stop illiberal policies such as the withdrawal of the UK from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). I doubt that pro EU Tories like Clarke would try and stop an EU Referendum Bill being passed, but the arithmetic might be there for them if they chose to do so. 

The Left was roundly defeated in the General Election (except in Scotland) and the Conservatives have a clear mandate to govern. But there are issues, such as ECHR, fox-hunting, the badger cull and social/fiscal policy (the Bedroom Tax) where David Cameron may struggle to get a majority in Parliament. Yes the election was bad, but all is not lost !

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Is this Dave and Nick's cunning plan to walk back into Number 10?

Do Dave and Nick have a cunning plan? The happenings in Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency suggest that they might have. In Sheffield there has apparently been a surge of support for Clegg from previous Conservative voters. Quite what the Tory candidate Ian Geoffrey Walker thinks about this I've no idea but to stop Labour (third last time) it would only take a few thousand Tory switchers despite the desertion of many previous LibDem to Labour. It could work.

Let's now explore what a new Con/LibDem "Kissy, Kissy" might lead to. And let's take YouGov's latest poll-based seat forecast as starters:

CON - 283
LAB - 261
SNP - 50
LIB DEM - 32

If you add the Tories 283 to the LibDems 32 you get 315. Short of the 323 that you need to govern, but not by much. Labour plus SNP gives you 311, add in a few other fellow travellers and you would probably have enough to succeed in a vote of no confidence against a new Conservative/LibDem Coalition. Probably!

Right, here's the cunning plan in the words of a joint Tory/LibDem (Coalition) statement after that confidence defeat:

"Following the defeat in the House yesterday the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have tendered their resignations to Her Majesty the Queen. Her Majesty, following consultations with the Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, has said that Mr Miliband has confirmed that there is no basis for a stable formal Coalition between Labour and other parties which would command support in the House. In the circumstances Her Majesty has confirmed the dissolution of Parliament and that a new General Election will take place in three weeks time.

The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats believe that it is essential that a stable Government be formed after the Election in the National interest. They have therefore agreed to the continuation of the current Coalition and also that the two parties will not campaign against one another at the Election. Accordingly the Conservatives  will not put forward candidates in LibDem held seats, and vice versa. Further in seats currently not held by either of the two Coalition parties the Party which finished ahead of the other will put forward a candidate, and the other will not contest the seat.

In these extraordinary times the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats call upon their supporters to vote for the continuance of the Coalition and we are confident not only that they will do so but that this electoral arrangement will deliver to the Coalition a workable majority for a full five year term of office"