My column for ConHome: You think only Lib Dems / Ukip are protest votes? Here’s why you’re wrong, and what that means for the Scottish and EU referendums

by Stephen Tall on April 24, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. This week I look at protest voting, loss aversion and why that matters to this year’s referendum on Scottish independence and any future EU in/out referendum. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

I once asked one of my brothers whether he’d be voting Lib Dem. “Probably,” he said. “But the moment I think you’ve got any chance of getting into power I’ll stop.”

For years the Lib Dems were dismissed as merely the repository of ‘none of the above’ voters. It was something of an unfair jibe – the party has long attracted voters with a core set of coherent liberal values – but not wholly unfounded. And that USP, of being the only one of the three main parties not to have dirtied our hands in government, was obliterated the moment we formed the Coalition.

We lost more voters than just my brother that day in May 2010. Of the 6.8 million people who voted Lib Dem then, just 1.8 million (23% of them) say they would vote for the party today, according to YouGov’s research. Some 500,000 of those ‘lost’ Lib Dem voters have swung behind Ukip: their protest vote has found a new home. (I haven’t dared check with my brother yet.)

But, then, what exactly is a protest vote? I’ve had plenty of canvassing sessions which have gone something like this…

Me: “Can I ask which way you’re planning to vote in the election on Thursday?”
Voter: “Labour – anything to keep the bloody Tories out.”

Or its alternative…

Me: “Can I ask which way you’re planning to vote in the election on Thursday?”
Voter: “Conservative – anything to keep bloody Labour out.”

In the past, the Conservatives were the most effective protest vote against Labour; and Labour the most effective protest vote against the Conservatives. Neither liked it much when first the Lib Dems, and latterly Ukip, came along to disrupt this established pattern. So the Big Two decided to label any voter who didn’t like either the Conservatives or Labour, and who voted accordingly, a protest voter.

The truth is that the public more often votes against something they don’t like rather than in favour of something they do like. Economists have a term for this behaviour, ‘loss aversion’: people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

We see loss aversion’s political equivalent beyond the crucible of party politics. Let’s look at the referendums held this parliament.

Most notably, there was the decisive rejection of changing from first-past-the-post in 2011, with just 10 UK areas out of 440 voting in favour of the Alternative Vote. A year later, 11 cities in England voted on whether or not they wanted their local authorities to be run by an elected mayor – 10 chose to maintain their status quo.

Only once did the hopey-changey thing work out, when, in March 2011, Wales voted to extend the law-making powers of its national assembly — but this simply added to existing Welsh assembly powers and was in any case supported by all four of its established parties.

Indeed, if you trawl through the full list of our UK experiences of referendums since 1973 (as I once did here) it’s hard to escape two conclusions:

1. The public normally votes for the status quo when asked its view in a referendum – opting for the safety of avoiding loss, rejecting the risk of possible gain.
2. The exceptions to this rule are when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by the Government of the day and other major parties – that safety-in-numbers appears to reassure voters they’re not really taking a risk.

These rules-of-thumb will be put to the test later this year, when Scotland votes in September whether to become an independent country.  However, the waters are muddied in this referendum. True, it’s a high-stakes decision for the voters, which would suggest they’d opt for the safety first of staying in the union. But the Scottish Government, albeit alone among the major parties, is pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote.

To date, the ‘Better Together’ No campaign has hammered home a negative message. Scotland, it says, faces an uncertain future on its own. Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Robertson has gone further, much further, warning a vote for independence would be “cataclysmic in geo-political terms”. The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has urged a more positive vision of Scotland staying in the UK: a “sunshine strategy”, he calls it.

I like the idea, but I doubt it will be as effective. Just ask the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign team – the moment that ’No’ poster appeared (“She needs a maternity unit, not an Alternative Voting system”) they knew the game was up. That’s how you up the Anti: vote no, or the baby gets it. If we’re going to trade clichés, then ‘Better Together’ needs to focus less on ‘sunshine strategy’ and more, much more, on ‘bread and butter’ issues that matter to voters’ everyday lives.

There is, of course, another referendum potentially in the offing: an in/out vote on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The voters last had their say in 1975: they opted then for the status quo of staying in (see rule number 1, above). And I find it very hard to imagine the electorate voting to say ‘No’ to the EU if the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems are all campaigning for the UK to stay in (see also rule number 2, above).

Ukippers will, of course, dispute this. Yet there is something of a Nigel Farage paradox happening in the polls – just as Ukip’s popularity has increased recently, so too has approval of the UK’s continuing membership of the EU.

If David Cameron remains Prime Minister beyond the 2015 election – and assuming he is able to cut some kind of deal with his European partners that gives his re-negotiation strategy a fig-leaf of respectability – he will be the Prime Minister who safeguards the UK’s membership of the EU for the next generation. It may not be a boast he’d dare make to his own party, but it’s one for which the country may have cause to be grateful to him.

If David Cameron isn’t Prime Minister after 2015, then the next Conservative leader – almost certainly a Better Off Outer, or an opportunist, or both – will feel no compunction about joining forces with Ukip to campaign for a ‘No’ vote. In those circumstances, all bets are off about what the result would be. But, then, if Cameron isn’t Prime Minister there won’t be an EU referendum.

It’s a rum choice facing those on the right who want the UK out of the EU. Vote Conservative and see Cameron campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote. Vote Ukip and help put Ed Miliband in power so there’s no vote at all. Riddle me this: how do you vote to protest against that?

68% Lib Dem members say Clegg right to challenge Farage to debates on Europe (but, sorry Nick, more think he performed better)

by Stephen Tall on April 24, 2014

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum  to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Over 830 party members responded – thank you – and we’re publishing the full results.

Nigel farage nick clegg in out eu european union debateThe Lib Dems launch our European election campaign officially today – but it was unofficially kicked off in February when Nick Clegg laid down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage, challenging him to a debate on whether the UK should be in or out. We asked Lib Dem members what they thought of the duel – was Nick right to debate Nigel, and who you thought did best. Here’s what you told us…

Two-thirds say Nick right to challenge Nigel

Do you think it was good or a bad decision for Nick Clegg to challenge Nigel Farage to a debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union?

    Good decision = 68%
    Bad decision = 23%
    Neither = 6%
    Don’t know = 2%

It was a risky decision by Nick, that’s for sure, and many of the commentariat will say it didn’t pay off – after all a clear majority in the polls of those who watched said Nigel was the winner, and Lib Dem poll ratings have barely flickered. This survey was conducted a fortnight after both debates took place, so everyone will have seen the coverage. Lib Dem members are in no doubt it was the right decision regardless, with three times as many saying it was a good call. However, the end result is best summed up by a phrase that spontaneously recurred in members’ comments: “Good decision – badly executed.” Here’s a sample of some of your other comments…

  • It was the right thing to do, but it hasn’t paid off. Nothing ventured, nothing lost or gained.
  • Farage is a very populist debater. It is very difficult to defeat him with facts.
  • I am very pleased that Nick decided to campaign strongly on Europe.
  • An awful decision as it gave a platform to a populistic demagogue.
  • Good to open the debate but bad for us. You can’t change 30 years of relentless lies and pessimism about Europe overnight.
  • Just performed badly – massive questions about prep work
  • Even if Nick ‘lost’, it was a courageous decision and encouraged debate
  • The pro-Europe case needs every support available, but Nick showed too much irritation and insufficient gravitas
  • It has energised the party base. The outcome of the debates (and the media narrative/coverage both before and after) are a different matter entirely.
  • Never debate an idiot… They always drag you to their level and then beat you with experience.
  • He was right to “flush Farage out”. I didn’t agree with the polls and neither did 27% other people which wasn’t bad considering the LibDem poll rating is still in single figures.
  • 1-in-3 say Nigel won, 1-in-5 say Nick did – and one-third say it was a draw

    Leaving aside your own party preference, who do you think performed better overall in the Nick v Nigel debates?

      Nick Clegg better = 20%
      Nigel Farage better = 34%
      Both equally well = 18%
      Neither performed well = 16%
      Don’t know = 13%

    It’s less good news for Nick on who performed better in the debates – 1-in-3 Lib Dem members say Nigel Farage came off better, compared with 1-in-5 saying Nick did. You’ll notice we’ve added in two options that neither YouGov or ICM did: whether people thought the debates were a score-draw (both performed well) or a no-score-draw (neither performed well) – 1-in-3 members belonged to one of these two camps, and it would have been interesting to see what the viewing public thought. That seems to me to be only good practice, and it’s a shame professional pollsters follow the money of the media’s lust for forced choice questions which don’t necessarily represent what people actually think. Here’s a sample of your comments…

  • I agreed with Clegg all the way and appreciated his call to reason and facts, but Farage’s rhetoric and anecdotes was always going to win.
  • It depends almost entirely what you want; facts, arguments, debate or tub-thumping rabble-rousing playing on ignorance, prejudice and lies.
  • Farage better debater, Clegg the better answers.
  • He had the evidence on his side, but did not always find the snappy put down. Forty years of media indifference and tabloid lies is hard to overcome in two hours.
  • In the first debate it was Nick and the second Farage
  • Farage did better from a neutral perspective, Clegg did better from a telling the truth perspective.
  • Performed for who? Farage won the debates with the mass audience but Nick placed the Lib Dems as the only party with the guts to stand up for what we believe in – we won it with our own activists and anyone who believes we should stay in the EU. So Nick achieved his aim – and very well too
  • Depends how you define better. Farage was always going to be able outshout Nick. But Nick should have reached the audience at which he was aiming
  • Clegg came across as just another grey, soundbite-spouting, stuffed-shirt establishment politician. Ironic, given that his success in the 2010 debates was precisely because he wasn’t seen as one.
  • Nick neither coherently stated the core case for the roles of the EU that are indispensable to the UK’s welfare, nor did he provide appealing illustrations of those roles, nor of priority areas for EU reform, and he demolished patheically little of Farage’s farrago of anti-EU nonsense.
  • Clegg did better in that his arguments were right and good. Farage did better because he “won”.
  • Farage offered a positive alternative (which I personally loathe) which resonates with voters. Clegg had no vision to offer
  • Objectively, Nick performed better, with actual facts. He didn’t win the public appeal battle though.
  • Farage was a pub bore Nick far too patronising.
  • No question that Nick was better on substance and the superior statesman. Voters looking for those qualities will have been impressed (until they saw the poll, perhaps…)
  • 45% Lib Dem members want more EU integration; 46% happy with status quo or want less integration

    Thinking about Britain’s relationship with Europe, which would you most like to see?

      Britain remaining in the European Union, integrating more closely with our European neighbours = 45%
      Britain remaining in the European Union as it is = 36%
      Britain remaining in the European Union, but with a repatriation of powers that means membership is on the basis of a free trade agreement and no more = 10%
      Britain leaving the European Union completely = 1%
      None of these = 7%
      Don’t know = 0%

    Away from the debates themselves, we asked members their first preference for Britain’s relationship with Europe – the findings are remarkably consistent with what we found over a year ago when we asked the same question: Lib Dem members are strongly pro-European, but split between those who want more integration (45%), those who want the EU to stay as it is (36%), and those who want less integration (11%). Those 7% who answered ‘none of these’ primarily advocated specific reforms to the EU as it is now, including some mix of further integration in some areas and repatriation of powers in others.

  • 1,500 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 745 responded in full – and a further 87 in part – to the latest survey, which was conducted between 16th and 22nd April.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However, LibDemVoice.org’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past offered accurate guides to what party members think.
  • For further information on the reliability/credibility of our surveys, please refer to FAQs: Are the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members accurate? and polling expert Anthony Wells’ verdict, On that poll of Lib Dem members.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
  • * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Easter Politics Quiz: my second starter for 10

    by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2014

    I asked the following questions via Twitter on Friday – they’re all taken from the now-deceased Punch magazine’s Election 1992 political board game, Landslide. Yes, I have kept it for 21 years in the hope that it would come in useful for a blog-post on a quiet holiday week-end: I’m that far-sighted.

    You can tackle the first set of questions here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here (disputed here and here, almost certainly correctly).

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here. (Disputed here, clarified here/here.)

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    My recommended reading for today April 20, 2014

    by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2014

    Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

    Easter Politics Quiz: my starter for 10

    by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2014

    I asked the following questions via Twitter yesterday – they’re all taken from the now-deceased Punch magazine’s Election 1992 political board game, Landslide. Yes, I have kept it for 21 years in the hope that it would come in useful for a blog-post on a quiet holiday week-end: I’m that far-sighted.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here (disputed here).

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    Answer here.

    The second set of questions appear tomorrow, Easter Sunday…

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Linda Jack to announce Lib Dem party president campaign

    by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2014

    Linda JackLib Dem activist Linda Jack will shortly announce that she will be a candidate for the post of Party President in the all-member election that will take place this autumn.

    To date, two candidates have declared their intention to run: Baroness (Sal) Brinton and Pauline Pearce. I understand Linda will officially throw her hat into the ring after May’s local and European elections.

    Linda Jack has twice been a parliamentary candidate for the party: in Luton North in 2005, and in Mid-Bedfordshire (up against Nadine Dorries) in 2010. She also served as a a councillor on Bedford Borough Council for five years. She famously brandished a set of pink fluffy handcuffs to warn against the Lib Dems going into Coalition with the Conservatives in May 2010, and is Chair of Liberal Left. She was elected to the party’s Federal Policy Committee in 2006, serving on it until 2012. A former analyst in special intelligence (H.M. Forces), teacher and youth worker, Linda was most recently Youth Policy Adviser at the Money Advice Service. She blogs at Lindylooz Muse.

    All three candidates who’ve declared so far – and any others who come forward – will require 200 nominations from conference representatives of at least 20 local parties to be eligible to have their name on the ballot. Given the dominance of white men in the party leadership – our leader, deputy leader, party president and all cabinet ministers – I’d be surprised if Lib Dem members didn’t choose a party president who breaks that pattern.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    On Sarah Wollaston’s naming and shaming in The Times of “very aggressive male bloggers”

    by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2014

    sarah wollastonBlogging is back in the headlines again today. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the feistily independent Conservative MP for Totnes, has hit back at those online critics who denounced her role in the trial of her fellow Tory, Nigel Evans, acquitted this week on all charges of sexual assault and one of rape.

    In an interview with The Times, Dr Wollaston was keen to stress that she was in no way challenging the verdict in the case, adding that she empathised with Mr Evans and his ordeal. She confessed, however, that the fallout from the case had been “very difficult”, particularly in the online sphere. She singled out The Daily Telegraph writer Dan Hodges, the libertarian blog Guido Fawkes, and the Tory publisher and writer Iain Dale, saying that she had been reading their “really quite aggressive attacks” about her handling of the allegations.

    So far as I can make out, Dr Wollaston did absolutely the right thing throughout the case. According to her own account, she heard allegations of a sexual assault, took them seriously, attempted to address them without involving the police (at the specific request of the individuals who approached her) and, only when that option had been closed off, did she then pass to the two men who contacted her the names of police officers so they could contact them to make formal complaints if they chose to do so.

    That strikes me as impeccable due process, the kind you’d expect from a former GP with experience of sexual assault cases. She has nothing to reproach herself for.

    But reproach herself she does because of what has been said about her by those she terms “very aggressive male bloggers”. Here Dr Wollaston loses me a bit. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of “very aggressive male bloggers” – there are, as there are in lots of other areas of online activity. But, raw as I’m sure the past week has been for her, I’m not sure the case here stacks up.

    The piece on the Guido Fawkes website – EXCLUSIVE: Evans Accuser Denies Witch-Hunt – is by the standards of that site a straight piece of reporting. On Dr Wollaston’s involvement, it notes that Nigel Evans “has expressed considerable anger” with her and quotes one of his accusers backing up her account (“At no time did Sarah put me under any pressure whatsoever”) and dismissing the suggestion she had an ‘ulterior motive’ (“I reject that idea entirely”). Yes, it concludes a bit snarkily that “Many of Wollaston’s colleagues disagree…”, but that’s quite tame and, however unfair, probably quite true.

    As for Iain Dale, his ConservativeHome diary asserted that she needed to ask herself “some very searching questions”: “She no doubt felt she was exercising a duty of care towards the man who cried rape. She clearly believed his story, but today she must also be asking herself if she acted properly throughout this sorry saga.” This is the traditional columnist get-out clause – if there’s nothing specific you can think of that an individual did wrong, just say that it raises questions about their judgement. A week later Iain’s suggestion of what Dr Wollaston should have done instead was weak beyond belief: “I would have gone to the Chief Whip and trusted him to sort it.” Because obviously the Chief Whip is the best-qualified person to deal properly with allegations of sexual assault and rape against one of their colleagues. But, however ill-advised, it’s not a mean-spirited personal attack.

    Dr Wollaston’s on stronger ground with Dan Hodgesblog-post in the Telegraph, ‘Nigel Evans has had his career ruined. That’s why you’re being criticised, Sarah Wollaston’. He concludes by saying she should extend the offer she made to the accusers – to resign as an MP if they felt she pressured them into going to the police – to Nigel Evans: “it’s his life that’s been ruined. Not theirs, Dr Wollaston. And certainly not yours.” Dan is a professional contrarian, but normally his brutal articles are fuelled by a searching logic. Not this one: it’s a cuttings smear, impure and simple.

    So, of the three identified “very aggressive male bloggers”, one (the Guido Fawkes site) was neutral, one (Iain Dale) was silly, and one (Dan Hodges) fits the bill. That’s not much of a pattern. Actually the ‘blogosphere’ (how very 2009 that word seems) has been pretty fair-minded, not least because Dr Wollaston’s article in the Telegraph defending the integrity of her actions was so persuasive.

    Her intervention has, though, prompted a Times editorial on blogging, praising sites such as LDV – “ConservativeHome, LabourList and LibDemVoice represent grassroots party members in powerful new ways” – before noting the downsides:

    On the web, because there is little or no face-to-face accountability, anonymous individuals are often completely uncivilised. Some blog editors make no attempt to moderate the conversations that they host. Too often comment threads resemble argumentative sewers. One of the explanations for the worst examples of internet-based debate is said to be the dominance of men. Few of Britain’s main political bloggers are women. As traditional male only clubs close all over the country, the bloggers’ club remains unattractive to women, if not formally closed to them.

    These are generally fair observations, but permit me to interject a couple of words in praise of LibDemVoice here.

    We were one of the first mainstream political blogs to adopt an active comment moderation policy, way back in January 2010. Indeed, our volunteer editorial team goes to lengths I often regard as verging on the absurd to individually moderate comments, trying where possible to write to those who’ve over-stepped the mark and explain (once again) our very simple policy: be polite, be on-topic, be who you say you are.

    Secondly, though being a 100% volunteer-run site often means our efforts are a bit more home-spun than those of our well-funded and professionally-staffed ‘rivals’, we benefit in other ways, not least the diversity of our team. Four of our 10 volunteer team are women, including my co-editor Caron Lindsay. And, as independent research showed last year, LibDemVoice is one of the least London-centric blogs around.

    So my thanks to them – and to you, our readers and commenters – for showing that political blogs don’t have to be angry and don’t have to be male and don’t have to be part of the Westminster bubble to succeed. Happy Easter weekend!

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    My recommended reading for today April 18, 2014

    by Stephen Tall on April 18, 2014

    Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

    6 British Pathé video clips of ex-Liberal leaders from 1931 to 1967

    by Stephen Tall on April 17, 2014

    Sir John Simon speaks to the Nation. “Let us give to the Prime Minister a firm mandate in the name of the whole nation” (1931)

    General Election Aka Pathe Election Forum: “It was to make Britons free that the Liberal Party came into being” (Sir Archibald Sinclair, 1945)

    Election Address – Liberal Party: “The people want a party that serves all classes” (Sir Archibald Sinclair, 1946)

    The Liberal Message: “As long as there is breath in my body I will fight for freedom and for liberalism” (Clement Davies, 1951)

    Liberal Leader Jo Grimond Votes AKA Jo Grimond Votes (MUTE, 1964)

    Jeremy Thorpe New Liberal Leader: “Good luck to him in his new job!” (1967)

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    New LDV members’ survey now live: your views on Scotland, drugs, Nick v Nigel, the economy, the Coalition, and much more!

    by Stephen Tall on April 16, 2014

    The new LDV members’ survey is now live. So if you are one of the c.1,500 registered members of the Liberal Democrat Voice forum — and any paid-up party member is welcome to join — then you now have the opportunity to make your views known.

    Questions we’re asking this month include:

    • do you support or oppose Scotland becoming independent?
    • should we decriminalise/legalise ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs?
    • hot-topics such as Heathrow expansion, opt-in organ donation, e-cigarettes, 50p top-rate of tax, pension annuities, and Nick v Nigel
    • your views on Nick Clegg’s leadership and of leading figures within the Lib Dems;
    • and what you think of the Coalition’s performance to date.

    It should take no longer than 10 minutes minutes to fill in. All registered members of the Forum should have today been e-mailed with a unique link to take you to the survey. If you haven’t received yours, or if you are signing up to the Forum now, please drop Ryan Cullen a line at ryan@libdemvoice.org. Please do check your spam folder first, though, in case it’s ended up there!

    We’ll publish the results in a few days’ time. You can access the results from our previous LDV members surveys by clicking here — and you can access a Google spreadsheet of our ‘Coalition tracker’ and ‘leading Lib Dems’ ratings here.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.



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