British political debate is rubbish

by Stephen Tall on March 26, 2015

Today has been my first day back at work after a fortnight’s paternity leave.

By and large, I’ve gone politics ‘cold turkey’, instead focusing on the intricacies of feeding times, nappy changes, and working out how you manoeuvre flailing limbs through babygrows (kit them out in clothes that are too big for them is my current pro-tip).

However, the news – broadcast, print, online — has been constantly in my peripheral vision. It’s been a monotonous blur of trivialities… Debate about the televised debates (the media loves nothing better than the excuse to obsess about itself), possible post-7th May deals (with the parties standing in a circle unsure whether to attempt a jerk or adopt a Mexican stand-off), party funding scandals (the paradox of the public hating state funding of parties and also hating parties fundraising remains utterly unresolved), and David Cameron’s ‘gaffe’ in saying he won’t serve more than 10 years as Prime Minister (pundits are unanimous that we’re unable to handle the truth, and they may be right).

True, there was the budget, when the media does scrutinise policies, albeit entirely through the lens of whether a couple-and-two-children family with a mortgage and one car who drink moderately will be £1.85 a week (or whatever) better off. But that is a one-off.

I was struck by Alastair Campbell’s account yesterday of former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer’s comments on the state of British political debate:

… he was acutely analytical – and even more scathing – about the nature of our political debate. He said – and I suspect many Brits would agree with him – that he cannot understand how issues like bacon sandwiches and kitchens can get so much coverage, yet issues that really need serious debate do not. From hacks to headline writers, columnists to editors, the trivial always seems to win out.

We agreed that most countries have seen a change in the way politics is done, debated and covered. But we also agreed that Britain is out on its own in the way the debate is trivialised. ‘My impression is that you don’t really have big debates here,’ he said. ‘At least not as reflected through the media.’

We agreed on something else – that when people like him have noticed the change, and when a media as loud and voracious as ours fails genuinely to ventilate issues of public concern in a way that holds the public’s attention – it damages us.

And we agreed also that it is always too easy just to blame media and politicians. The public have to accept responsibility too. For not wanting to engage in debate. For finding it easier to say ‘they’re all the same,’ (of course they’re not) ‘nothing ever changes’ (the world is changing faster than ever) or ‘my vote won’t make a difference’ (so how come seats and councils and governments change hands all the time?)

This is, of course, a familiar bug-bear of Alastair Campbell’s (who reckons the media gave scant credit to the Blair government for its reforms, but endlessly indulged criticisms of its foibles) but it is no less true for that repetition.

He’s right too to join the dots and make the implicit point that the voters get the politicians (and the media) they deserve.

That’s what I was thinking on my way to work this morning. But then the Coalition, in the guise of William Hague and Michael Gove, attempted underhandedly to no-con the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, provoking a backbench revolt and a rare government defeat.

I still tend to the view that MPs are more sinned against than sinning. But silly parliamentary games-playing like that indulged today by two cabinet ministers who should know better offer the cynics an easy target.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 29

by Stephen Tall on March 21, 2015

Congratulations to George Murray, whose Marauding Fullbacks have established a firm grip at the top of the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 29. Not too far behind are the chasing trio of Jon Featonby, Mark Widdop and Sam Bowman.

But let’s also hear it for three players outside the top 10: Austin Rathe’s 1878 Forever had the best week’s performance, with 84 points. Honourable mentions go to Henry Compson and Philip Jones, with 74 and 71 points respectively.


There are 161 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

Blogging will be light for the next few weeks. Here’s why…

by Stephen Tall on March 13, 2015

His name’s Milo, born 12 March. Couldn’t be happier…



My must-reads this week March 13, 2015

by Stephen Tall on March 13, 2015

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

Lib Dem private polling v Lord Ashcroft’s polling (PLUS the sting in the tail for the party)

by Stephen Tall on March 10, 2015

times red boxI have a piece on today’s Times Red Box blog looking at Lib Dem prospects for this May’s election: Ignore the Liberal Democrats at your peril – and don’t write them off.

Here’s its premise:

There is a new fear which stalks the Liberal Democrat leadership. Forget unpopularity: we’ve grown used to that. For five years the party has suffered the slings and arrows of its outrageous fortune, thrust into a coalition government in the midst of the biggest financial crisis in a century. What worries party strategists now is something different, worse: being ignored.

And it is that, being ignored, which the party feels is unjust — in particular because its own private polling shows the Lib Dems doing much better in its target seats.

Now, a lot of commentators will see the words ‘private polling’ and raise an arch eyebrow before snarking that Mandy Rice Davis applies (“well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”). Fair enough. Take what follows with as much of a pinch of salt as you like.

What I find encouraging is the approach the party has taken. First, they’ve invested heavily in seat-by-seat polling, far more so than ever before — more than 120 polls commissioned to date, including multiple polls in some seats. There’s no way the party would’ve spent the rumoured £350k+ simply as a comfort blanket, or to try and get a couple of positive press stories. It’s been done so the party knows where to focus its scarce resources (including switching them away from seats when necessary) and to know which policies persuade which voters.

Secondly, they’ve taken a smart approach in their choice of questions. In his constituency polls, Lord Ashcroft asks a two-stage question: ‘Who would you vote for if there was a general election tomorrow?’, then ‘Thinking specifically about your seat, who would you vote for?’ It has already been shown what a difference that makes in Lib Dem-held seats: the value of MP incumbency. However, the Lib Dems’ polling goes beyond that. The party’s two-stage questions first prompt about the seat in a similar way to Lord Ashcroft’s second question. But then at the second stage the party names the candidates who’ll be standing and who’ll appear on the ballot paper. What that reveals is the extent of the personal support most Lib Dem MPs attract.

Lynne Featherstone‘s seat of Hornsey and Wood Green, in London, is a good example. When Lord Ashcroft polled it last September, he found the Lib Dems 13% behind Labour. The latest Lib Dem poll, published on Mark Pack’s blog here, finds Lynne just 3% behind. (Of course, the two polls were conducted months apart so the difference could just be down to chance — but I suspect the big difference is accounted for by Lynne’s personal vote.) A similar pattern is repeated in many Lib Dem seats, including in the South-West of England and Scotland, both areas where many pundits are quick to dismiss the Lib Dems as an entirely spent force.

There is, though, a sting in the tail for the party. This reliance on its MPs’ personal votes to inoculate it from the worst of the national swing is an unavoidable tactic at this election. But it is not a sustainable strategy. The party’s private polling reveals the strength of its MPs’ local brand. But it also lays starkly bare the weakness of the Lib Dems’ national brand.

Election 2015: Neither Labour nor the Tories deserve to win. But the Lib Dems don’t deserve to lose.

by Stephen Tall on March 9, 2015

election2015This election’s a bit of a paradox.

If you’re an out-and-proud political geek, like me, it’s fascinating… Will there be another hung parliament? Can Cameron survive not winning two elections? Will Miliband prove his doubters wrong? Will the Lib Dems confound expectations? Will Ukip fade? Can the SNP surge be sustained? Will the Greens implode under scrutiny? Psephologist manqués like me are, though, a rare breed.

If you’re interested in who’s got the best policies to run the country most effectively, however, then the next two months are likely to be a depressing experience.

The broadcasters have already disappeared up their own schedules by obsessing about the televised leaders’ debates (apparently democracy didn’t exist until 2010) in a desperate effort to avoid having to bother filling their programmes with boring issue-based stuff. The newspapers will, mostly and as ever, dress to the right and slant their coverage accordingly.

As for the parties, the Conservatives are determined to party like it’s 2005. Lynton Crosby is back to run a ruthlessly focused “stick with nurse for fear of something worse” campaign. Lashings of Long-Term Economic Plan, mostly comprising tax-bribes for the well-off, with a side order of irrational hatred for immigrants and benefit claimants and any other Easy Target which the tabloids have got it in for.

As for Labour, it’s hard to avoid despair. Ed Miliband is supposed to be an intellectual policy-wonk, but his bandwagon pledges so far – freezing energy prices, cutting tuition fees – appear to have been ad libbed by a focus group onto the back of an envelope. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s a mood-board.

I’ve been plenty critical of my party these past five years. So’s everyone else. There have been ill-judged U-turns and necessary compromises: such is the stuff of coalition, yet the price of governing is likely to cost the Lib Dems an awful lot more than when practised by Labour or the Tories.

I realise that smoothing the edges off a Cameron- or Miliband-led government isn’t the kind of fiery rhetoric that impels people to get out and vote. And maybe it’s just my liberal gut instinct which requires me to stick up for the underdog.

But the thought that the Lib Dems might lose more than half our seats in May niggles me, the more so as the chief beneficiaries are likely to be the Tories and Labour. Neither deserve to win. But the Lib Dems don’t deserve to lose.

Which 9 Lord Ashcroft constituency polls are wrong?

by Stephen Tall on March 6, 2015

ashcroftSo far, Lord Ashcroft’s £million-plus polling spree has brought us 177 individual constituency polls.

Which leads me to my question: which 9 of them are wrong?

The reason why I ask that is simple. Reputable opinion polls like Ashcroft’s are accurate 95% of the time to within a margin of error of +/-3%.

The mirror of that is that 1 poll in every 20 will be outside the margin of error: to all intents and purposes it’s wrong. It may be wrong in a direction which makes the seat even safer for the party shown in the lead; or it might flip the result entirely.

So, out of those 177 Ashcroft polls, it’s likely that around 9 are giving a misleading snapshot of the state of the race.*

Now, in national polling, this doesn’t matter much — there are so many polls published the fact that 1-in-20 polls are ‘rogue’ is insignificant.

But in constituency polls, where Ashcroft’s is the single data point available, it does start to matter. Indeed it could become self-prophesying if the public is continually told that Party X is certain to win/lose.

None of this is intended as snark against Lord Ashcroft by the way. He has been exemplarily transparent in publishing his polls, and has always made clear they are snapshots, not predictions.

But the simple fact remains: 9 of them will have been wrong and we have no idea which 9 they are.


* I can’t rule out the possibility that all 177 have bucked the statistical trend and are completely accurate. Or, indeed, that a lot more are wrong.

My must-reads this week March 6, 2015

by Stephen Tall on March 6, 2015

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

The time Margaret Thatcher was empty chaired by the broadcasters

by Stephen Tall on March 5, 2015

Lord Ashdown told the BBC the PM’s decision to offer a one-debate ultimatum was “unbelievable” and said he couldn’t imagine Margaret Thatcher refusing to take part. (The Independent, 5th March 2015)

This is, of course, rubbish. Here’s The Lady herself in 1979, rejecting a debate with the Labour prime minister, James Callaghan:

“I believe that issues and policies decide elections, not personalities. We should stick to that approach. We are not electing a President, we are choosing a government.”

thatcher 1975And indeed when she was fighting for the Tory leadership in 1975 she refused to take part in a Panorama special, in which the other four candidates to succeed Edward Heath all participated. (You can watch it on the BBC here.)

Why did she risk being empty chaired? On the advice of her PR guru, Gordon Reece, as his Telegraph obituary notes:

Reece had been advising the Conservative Party on all aspects of broadcasting since 1967, but he came into his own when Mrs Thatcher challenged Edward Heath for the party leadership in 1975. He advised her as to the television programmes on which she should – and should not – appear during the contest. He approved her participation – with shots of her washing-up in a pinafore at home – in the Granada Television programme which preceded the first ballot, and then vetoed her appearance on Panorama before the next ballot. On her election as party leader he became Mrs Thatcher’s full-time adviser.

And, as we all know, Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to appear on that Panorama in 1975 effectively ended her career.

Lib Dem poll ratings – why I’m putting my trust in ICM

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2015

Occasionally, when I see the latest poll showing the Lib Dems’ poll rating dribbling along at 6-8%, I wonder if I was stupidly over-optimistic when I nailed my colours to the mast with my prediction in January that the party would win 12% and 32 seats in May’s general election.

Quite possibly so. But my house of straw/brick was at least built on some solid foundations, primarily my trust in ICM’s polling credentials.

ICM is rightly, in my view, regarded as the ‘gold standard’ pollster. Its final polls proved to be most accurate in each of the 1997, 2005 and 2010 elections (in 2001, NOP took the prize but ICM were still very close).

Its methodology is controversial because it adjusts its reported figures by re-allocating a proportion of those voters who say they are undecided back to the party they say they voted for at the last election. (Lord Ashcroft and Survation also do this, but no other pollsters.) This means ICM polls are part-snapshot of how people say they will vote now; and part-forecast of how people will actually vote in May.

As Anthony Wells has noted‘When ICM first pioneered it in the 1990s it helped the Tories (and was known as the “shy Tory adjustment”), these days it helps the Lib Dems, and goes a long way to explain why ICM tend to show the highest level of support for the Lib Dems.’

My hypothesis is this: the Lib Dem vote is notably non-tribal (Lib Dem voters are much more likely than Labour/Tory voters to say they may yet change their mind). The closer we get to an election, the more the Lib Dem vote tends to firm up. This is often then reported as a “Lib Dem surge” and attributed to the burst of publicity the party tends to get during an election campaign when broadcasters have no choice but to acknowledge the party’s existence. What ICM in effect does is anticipate that eventuality. That’s why, by the time we get to eve-of-poll, the different polling companies’ final polls have converged — but why, at this point in time, they haven’t.

The difference the methodologies make to forecasts of how the Lib Dems will do are illustrated by the graph below, comparing ICM and YouGov’s poll ratings for the Lib Dems over the past year:

icm v yougov

As you can see, over the last year the companies have diverged a lot. ICM consistently reports the Lib Dems at c.10-12%; YouGov consistently at c.6-8%. This makes a huge difference to the likelihood of the Lib Dems surviving the May election with at least 30 MPs.

What we don’t know, of course, is whether ICM’s methodology will work in the changed circumstances of Coalition politics. My bet is that it will, and that’s what my predictions are based on.

However, it’s only fair to note that ICM is an outlier among the polling companies, which means that even the ‘polls of polls’, which aggregate data in order to try and smooth out the random noise of day-to-day polling fluctuations, tend to show the Lib Dems at or around the figures shown by YouGov.

I reckon that, by polling day, YouGov (and the other pollsters) will have moved towards ICM’s current figure rather than the other way around. In 64 days, we’ll know.

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