Election notebook #15: Debate debased; Amber warning; polls apart; The Libconomist

by Stephen Tall on June 1, 2017

I watched the BBC’s seven-strong leaders’ debate last night, along with 3.5 million other people; half the audience Britain’s Got Talent attracted on ITV at the same time; and only 500k more than Channel 4 / Sky’s May v Corbyn head-to-head attracted on Monday.

Theresa May’s decision to stay away attracted a lot of negative publicity, further damaging her brand as a strong leader. Though, to be honest, it’s hard to say she made the wrong decision given the ensuing pile-up. The continuing squabbling, as each tried to shout over the others, gave her stand-in home secretary, Amber Rudd, an easy line: the showdown was the “chaos of coalition in action”. Fair-minded viewers, who didn’t include the whooping Corbynistas cheering his every utterance, would have concluded she had a point.

No-one really lost. No-one really won. No-one really learned anything. The problem is the format. For a start, a basic qualification for appearing on a national leaders’ debate should be that you are fighting enough seats to mean you could technically form a government. That doesn’t apply to either the SNP or Plaid. Remove them (and give them their own national leaders’ debates in Scotland and Wales) and a five-way contest would be far more manageable — as well as realistic of the choice most voters will face on polling day.

I’m still not a big fan of these set-pieces, though. The leaders all respond to questions with pre-prepared snippets from their stump speeches (I’m not blaming them; I would, too) with no chance for any probing follow-up. Leaders’ interviews and Question Time-style interaction with the public are far more effective tests of their mettle.

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The most maddening part of the debate was the reaction to the news that Amber Rudd’s father died earlier this week. Cue a lot of people, including many who should know a lot better, accusing Theresa May of callous cruelty for forcing Ms Rudd to carry on regardless. The assumption that Ms Rudd has no agency of her own, that she couldn’t have made her own decision to appear, is the kind of sexist nonsense that would be rightly decried if levelled against anyone on the left. But Mrs May and Ms Rudd are Tories, so it’s fair game, it seems, to cast them respectively as a heartless witch and hapless victim.

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Everyone’s getting polls-obsessed again, in spite of all their promises to kick the habit after 2015’s failure. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Here are some thoughts from a Cleggmania 2010 survivor…

My starting point is some (unoriginal) priors:

Campaigns matter at the margins, not n the fundamentals. Excitement is inverse to reality. Journalists/pundits always say “this time might be different”. Not yet, it hasn’t been.

Leadership and economic competence rule. If you’re behind on those, forget it. Labour still is.

“Look at the shares, not the gap”: the Tories are still in the mid-40%s and have a solid lock on the key 65+ age demographic.

Polling flux is a measure of propensity to vote far more than it is of switching between parties. The Tories were buoyant at the start of the campaign. Labour is now. The poll moves have reflected that.

All of which leads me to be highly sceptical of prediction models dependent on polls taken during campaigns.

What I want to see is a Nate Silver-esque model which imputes and weights a range of variables — including pre-campaign polls, ratings of who’d be best PM and is most trusted on the economy ratings, local election results, etc. — and then assigns probabilities to outcomes.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that we’ve gone from a 99% chance of a Tory majority in mid-April to to a 90% chance now. That means a hung parliament is possible; but highly unlikely. I would also estimate that the chances of a Tory landslide (100+ majority) has ticked down from say 85% to 60%. That is, I still think it more likely than not.

We’re still a long way from this kind of data journalism though. We know why: it’s a risk and expensive to do well. How do you monetise it? Lord Ashcroft is probably the only person with deep enough pockets and interest to do it (his Ashcroft Model is a step in the right direction).

Until then, the best we get is polls of polls, which aren’t much use when there’s such variance between polling companies, as they just split the difference. Oh, and endless articles with extensive caveats about potential errors which lead people to dismiss the utility of polling at all. I’d like to think we could do better than this.

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I endorse The Economist’s (luewarm) endorsement of the Lib Dems at this election. It’s conclusion expresses perfectly my own feelings about this depressingly illiberal contest:

Backing the open, free-market centre is not just directed towards this election. We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere. But the whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party—just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a down-payment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.

It’s a slim hope. But frankly that’s all the last few weeks has left me with.