Category: politics

Convincing versus mobilising

Here’s a really excellent post from Lord Ashcroft of all people.

Something I occasionally bang on about is that public opinion has more dimensions than just agree/disagree. Pollsters very often ask about how important issues are, as well as which party you agree with on them. The difference between which issues respondents rate as important for themselves, personally, and for the nation as an abstract idea, is often very big.

Consumers of polling, like politicians and journalists, rarely put the two measures together. Obviously, it’s better to have a lead on something that is more important to the public than something that is less important. If Issue X is 10 times more important, subjectively, than Issue Y, a 1 percentage point lead on X might be worth as much as a 10 point lead on Y.

Some politicians get this wrong. Eurosceptics, for example, look at the number that says the public seems to agree with them, and miss the one that says that the public doesn’t care very much. It’s natural to overestimate how important the issues you think are important are to others. It’s also natural to overestimate how important issues you think you can win are to others. It becomes a problem if you do it with everything. Everybody’s met Uncle UKIP and Auntie Palestine, who collect political obsessions to go with the ones they already had, like crockery.

Ashcroft has a really nice chart based on his polls, which always ask about this. Although it’s not that pretty, it’s a great example of data visualisation – it shows both the relationship between two lots of data and also the change over time, and it uses a classic consultant’s trick to tell a story, cutting it into quadrants by setting the axes at the average values. Here’s one I made earlier with some mobile phone companies.

snippy1

You can see that a lot are average, some are worse and getting worse, and there’s a group who are doing really well. There’s a key factor that links them, but if you want to know that you can buy the report. So it is with Ashcroft, although I took more time over the graphics.

Ashcroft-Chart

So, the left half of the chart shows issues that Labour has a lead on, the right, the Tories. Higher on the chart is more important, so you can think of the two upper quadrants as being the two big parties’ target areas. Because the data points are plotted one after the other, you can also see change over time.

First point: Labour has a lot of issues in its half of the chart. Second point: some of them are important. Third point: the Tories have only a small group of issues on their side, and they are relatively unimportant.

Fourth, and really importantly, Tory issues move together.

As a first guess, I would discount a lot of the movement on this chart as noise. A lot of the issues dance to the music of sampling error, or just follow the national voting intention poll. But look at the curves for “Cameron vs Miliband” and “Tory economic team vs Labour”. They have changed a lot and they have done it in the same way.

While all the Milibashing has convinced some people – it’s moved right – it’s also sickened a lot of people, because it’s moved down, a lot. When you campaign, you’re trying to do two things: convince, and mobilise. You need to win the argument, but you also need to make people think it was worth having the argument. The Tories are paying for the success of pouring abuse on Miliband with the people turned away by the undignified bully yelling. This goes, quite clearly, for the personalisation strategy in general.

Then, look at the other Tory issues, like “Welfare”, “Immigration”, and “Europe”. They are also moving, and moving together, but they are moving in the opposite direction. They are being driven up the agenda, gaining importance, but at the same time, they are moving left. Milibashing convinces but demobilises; playing ‘kipper mobilises but does not convince. It’s been pointed out before that since the prime minister took up Euroscepticism as a theme, the European Union has become more popular.

There’s a good reason for this, which serves as an example. There are about 2.5 million other Europeans in the UK and as many Britons in the rest of the EU, for a total of 5 million people who use the open border as directly as possible. There are about 60 million people here. If you reckon about 10 close family and friends each (the median number of names in a mobile phone calls list is between 7 and 10), very roughly, there are four chances in five that you love someone who would be affected by exit. It shouldn’t be surprising that if leaving the EU is put on the agenda, as a real thing rather than an abstract idea, a lot of people would think again.

Of course, the distribution won’t be that even, but then, this doesn’t count anyone who needs to trade with Europe, who owns property there, who wants to take on public sector contracts there, who draws farm subsidy, etc. Either way, that’s a hell of a lot of people. Pleasing the smallish group of people who care intensely about hating the EU comes at the cost of alienating them.

The Crosby strategy is very obvious from the chart – look how tightly the Tory issues are grouped together. But it’s like a marksman boasting of the tight grouping he got on the wrong target. They’re doing it with everything. Perfection would be getting your issues towards the top corners of the chart, both convincing and mobilising.

Now, what about Labour? The big changes on our side are the economy, which has moved Torywards and gained a bit of salience. £55bn in cuts ought to do something there. “Cost of living” is really salient, and has come in a bit. More action against the privatised utilities and landlords is the obvious recommendation. But the really interesting one is “Equal opportunity”, which has gone way up in importance. Both are even higher than the NHS or education.

A bad sign

There’s a lot that could be said about this weekend’s political entertainment, but the bit that stays with me is that I fear we’re losing the best thing about Ed Miliband, which was calm, sitzfleisch, and the ability to wait out stupid media bullshit. This really is something you want in a leader, and we had an example of it not so long ago in applying the Gina Ford strategy to his critics.

Rafael Behr described the position as being like the chess concept of zugzwang, where you don’t have any good moves but you’ve got to make one. But one of the ways politics isn’t like chess is that there is no timer. (Knowing him, he probably got the ten-buck word out of something by Martin Amis.) Doing nothing is usually an option, and it’s quite often a good one.

Similarly, filtering out the noise and focusing on the essential is a skill you want in a leader. It’s as good as nailed on that the whole period from here to election day will be nothing but stupid media bullshit pseudo-events; we can’t afford more pilot-induced oscillation.

Pilot-induced oscillations, as defined by MIL-HDBK-1797A,[1] are sustained or uncontrollable oscillations resulting from efforts of the pilot to control the aircraft and occurs when the pilot of an aircraft inadvertently commands an often increasing series of corrections in opposite directions, each an attempt to cover the aircraft’s reaction to the previous input with an overcorrection in the opposite direction. An aircraft in such a condition can appear to be “porpoising” switching between upward and downward directions. As such it is a coupling of the frequency of the pilot’s inputs and the aircraft’s own frequency

Thinking about that, I reckon what the Labour Party could do with is a nice big phase damper to ballast it. Like so.

(Also, did anyone else notice that the Sun literally put Dan Ware on its front page as a cover-mount freebie? They placed his face and the trail for the story in a box over the strapline that also contained a giveaway offer. Perhaps, if you renew your Sky Sports subscription before the end of the month, they’ll send you a free dickhead. Which reminds me that someone on twitter said, very wisely, that the best argument that Emily Thornberry did anything wrong is that she exposed an ordinary civilian to the newspapers, a horrible and exploitative process that ought to be reserved for the professionals.)

Still the Omnishambles government

Con trick. £30bn extra cuts. That lower immigration thing is no longer operative. Voting on the European Arrest Warrant or maybe not. They get precisely nothing from their “renegotiation” and then the courts take the whole point away.

Miliband goes to the CBI and the members hiss a journalist for talking leadership crisis. The Libyan recruits in Bassingbourn turn out to be so bad the only good news is that here we keep the rifles locked up, so they can’t set up checkpoints on the roads like they did in Jordan. Even so, the army sends half a battalion of Royal Highland Fusiliers to keep them in line until they can get rid of them.

The government announces a revival of their awful national roaming scheme because of Crimson Dave’s dropped calls, but then they launch the consultation on the next lot of spectrum without a coverage requirement.

Can anyone smell omnishambles?

Never give up.

A bit more Guardian journamalism. Here’s Nicholas Watt having at “Ed Miliband’s supporters”. You might not notice that he managed to report one of the two “plotters” backing out of the plot, but buried the lede right down to the very last par.

The internal critics agreed. But they took issue with the leadership’s response to criticism…..Another MP [i.e. one of the internal critics] said: “People are concerned about Labour’s standing in the polls and are worried about Ed’s ability to persuade people. But there is no organised coup or plot because there are no alternative candidates.”

From 20 frontbenchers to this.

Anyway, Miliband’s response to it reminded me of something Daniel Davies blogged years ago, to the effect that he thought Gina Ford’s parenting advice could be usefully adapted to politics. Rather than The Contented Little Baby, we could aim at The Contented Little Politician. In fact, it wasn’t Daniel Davies but Jenny Colgan, although I think Dsquared added something original to it. In this case, the insight was controlled crying. Rather than striking down on the rebels with great vengeance, he let them moan until it bored them.

Forget letters from 20 MPs. Remember Scotland

Here’s an astonishing piece of journalism from last weekend’s Labour mini-crisis. Daniel Boffy, The Obscurer‘s policy editor tells us:

Even more significantly, this newspaper has learned that 20 Labour frontbenchers have indicated they are “actively considering Ed Miliband’s future”. The information came from a senior Labour MP who last week canvassed the parliamentary Labour party for support for a coup. “There isn’t a letter. But there could be one very quickly,” the Labour MP said.

Boffy was re-using a quote from Nicholas Watt at the Guardian earlier in the week. So much for the Observer being a totally different paper to the Guardian.

But why would anybody care if there was a “letter” or if 20 MPs, not a penny more, not a penny less, signed it? In the Conservative Party, 20 MPs can write to the 1922 Committee chair in order to start the leadership election process. This is, though, something that exists in the Tory charter and nowhere else. The process to elect a Labour leader is as different as it could be and the number 20 is not significant. Neither are MPs as such.

Actually, the number is 15% these days although I think it used to be either 20% or 20. See Nick Barlow’s comment below

The rule book states that the leader is re-elected by the party conference, annually, and that’s it. (Where were these guys at conference, then?) In between times, the only mechanism I can see to initiate a leadership election would be if the National Executive Committee were to call a special conference, with the Conference Arrangements Committee putting the matter on the agenda.

This is a pretty high bar as the plotters would need a majority of both committees as well as among the MPs, the union members, and the activists. When the party is in government, the bar is set higher still, as a simple majority of conference is required on a card vote to have an election at all. Where the Tory charter gives a great deal of power to backbench MPs to overthrow the leader, the Labour one gives them very little and involves the membership early on. In the Tory system, the MP makes the party; in the Labour one, the party or rather the movement makes the MP.

You’d think being familiar with the main political parties’ constitutions, at least as they apply to something as fundamental as sacking the party leader, would be a basic skill for a political journalist. But apparently not. After all, Alan Watkins maintained a reputation as a sage for many years by pointing out that you need a hands-up vote at conference to sack a Labour prime minister, and therefore this week’s ration of Blair/Brown drama was going nowhere. They never learned, though.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that if you’re a national political journo, there is no story that is more exciting or more suited to your contacts book than a party leadership crisis. Because the Tories have more of them, everyone in the business has learned all the drills for a Tory crisis. Are there 20 MPs? Is there a letter? (Note that there are only 24 frontbenchers, so they were either bullshitting or counting has-beens.) You’ll notice that no coverage at all last weekend even mentioned the NEC or any of its members.

In this light it’s unlikely indeed we’ll get any meaningful reporting from Scotland. Scotland? Yes. Look at this chart. I was arguing with various people on Twitter about this, and I pointed out that if you want to argue that the Labour poll lead is collapsing it helps to trim the X-axis so you only get the exciting bit. Trust me – I used to be a Lib Dem, so I know all about dodgy charts. Here’s a plot of poll leads since the 15th September.

Screenshot from 2014-11-16 20:04:53

First point: Wow, there’s a lot of noise in there. Second point: I’ve marked the Labour conference between 21-24 September on the chart – that’s the first grey box. The Tories were the week after. Didn’t we do well? If there’s been a “melting” of the lead, it sure as hell didn’t happen at conference and in fact it happened in mid-October, which leads us to the second grey box. That’s the week Johann Lamont resigned as Labour leader in Scotland.

If you look at the Ipsos-MORI poll (the green triangle on the chart), about 11 per cent of the weighted total sample is Scottish. Therefore, the 39 percentage point uplift in the SNP share of vote they picked up in the November political monitor translates to 4.3 percentage points of national voting intention.

So it’s just a pity it’s practically an official secret that the Tories have given up on English-votes-for-English-laws. Labour said “no deal”; William Hague made a fuss; and Ed Miliband got his way.

representatives from all parties agreed on Wednesday that enhanced devolution should “not be conditional on the conclusion of other political negotiations elsewhere in the UK”.

This is what I predicted would happen. But EVEL as a scare seems to have worked up to a point, by sticking a rocket under what seems to be the SNP’s “whatever it takes to get revenge on Labour” strategy. I do think, though, that Scottish Labour politics at the moment has become very important and nobody seems to care.

stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

Moazzam Begg, always in the paper, rarely reported.

Am I right in thinking that Moazzam Begg’s political role is getting more complicated, more important, and more impressive? Here’s a story. It kicks off with:

British jihadi fighters desperate to return home from Syria and Iraq are being issued with death threats by the leadership of Islamic State (Isis), the Observer has learned.

A source with extensive contacts among Syrian rebel groups said senior Isis figures were threatening Britons who were attempting to travel home. He said: “There are Britons who upon wanting to leave have been threatened with death, either directly or indirectly.”

The source is apparently the Observer‘s home affairs editor’s source, rather than a foreign correspondent’s source, so you might well wonder what kind of anonymous source is based in London, has contacts in Syrian rebel groups, and is very, very keen to get the message out that ISIS might kill international volunteers, specifically British ones, who want to leave.

Begg now appears in the story. It’s impossible to know whether there is any logical link between the source and Begg, or whether the Observer writer juxtaposed them to make it look like they support each other, an old hack’s trick. But if you want to reach potential jihadi volunteers with the message that they can’t trust ISIS, an ex-Guantanamo detainee would be a more convincing representative than almost anyone else. He would be a classic “surprising validator”.

Reading down, it seems he certainly knows that some wannabe jihadis have been held against their will in Syria, but any association with the “source” is either the Observer‘s gloss on it, or else that of someone who briefed them.

Begg seems to be moving from a campaign for the release of Guantanamo prisoners, to a campaign both for forgiveness towards volunteers in Syria and to prevent them going in the first place. Both are necessary. But I really wonder about the complex politics emerging around him.

He is the face of the dissident campaign demanding an end to the extralegal punishment that defines the War on Terror. He is also something like a spokesman for people who would like to leave the jihadi movement. These two are mutually consistent. But he is also increasingly a voice for de-radicalisation and prevention as a strategy.

This makes sense as an alternative policy proposal, but it also involves him in the underreported bureaucratic fight between the community-policing (in every sense) people sponsored by DCLG since Hazel Blears’ time, and the traditional intelligence services. One side is focused on prevention, policing by the community (of people who are described as a community), and works with the police and social services. The other is focused on technical surveillance and agent-running. With less money about, the two have been fighting like cats in a sack since 2010.

Mark Townsend’s piece seems to be using quotes from him to further a briefing campaign against ISIS recruiting, and also to back the DCLG-Contest-Prevent people in government versus the hard security lobby.

Then, I also wonder about the mission to Syria that landed him back in jail in 2013. When he set out on that mission, we were still supporting Syrian rebels and especially the FSA, rather than flying close air support for the FSA and the regime at the same time. More than a few testimonies from returned British jihadis mention that they believed the Syrian adventure had some sort of official Western blessing.

So, we have Begg, ex-prisoner and cause célébre. We have Begg, peace activist. We have Begg, de-radicaliser. We have Begg, continuing Islamic aid worker. We have Begg, still a target of police surveillance. Do we have any other roles? I imagine they make sense as a wider whole to the man himself.

I can see every reason to run the best possible propaganda campaign to stop people signing up with ISIS. (I’m not quite as cynical as John Dolan, whose piece is pretty good even if he thinks Luton is in Yorkshire.) But this is complicated, risky, and ambiguous stuff and wants more scrutiny than it gets.

Begg has grown into a bigger and more interesting political role than just that of wannabe jihadi or Rumsfeld victim, the Islamic adventurer the lads wish they were, but at the same time, the wise old head and voice of reason, a figure of the debatable lands. If he doesn’t get killed, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see him as an enduring national figure of some sort. But where is he going with it, and how far does he control it?

Gaming out devolution

What’s the central fact of the debate about how to renegotiate the union after #indyref? Here it comes: there is a hard deadline in May 2015, when there must be a general election.

This is important because it changes all the actors’ bargaining positions.

The situation

Usually, in British parliamentary politics, a majority can do pretty much anything, but the minority can stall for time up to about a year, when the Parliament Act kicks in. But this changes when an election is coming; everything that was left on the agenda automatically falls when Parliament is prorogued.

It’s possible to pass leftover legislation through the so-called washup. Basically this means that if all parties agree on a text, it can be passed. That’s another way of saying that when there is less than a year left to ago before an election, the minority’s power to delay is effectively upgraded to a power to spike. If everyone has to agree to something, everyone has a veto.

If you have a very big majority you can hurry things up, although the House of Lords can still cause trouble. If you have time, you can force it. But at the moment, nobody has a big majority, and the election is in May.

The model

All parties have committed to passing a Scotland bill, implementing more devolution. The Tories want a biscuit in exchange for this, something like “English votes for English laws”. Labour, for their part, would like regional devolution. And there is a deadline. Because of the deadline, the Tory-led government can’t just pass what it wants.

First of all, there may not be a majority in the Commons for EVEL, as I think I will call it, although there may be for evil. Labour hates it; the Scots, Welsh, and Irish hate it; several Lib Dem ministers, notably Danny Alexander, would have to resign immediately if it passed because they couldn’t vote or speak on their own ministerial business. The Tories are in favour but I’m not sure if they are unanimous about it. That doesn’t give you a majority.

Even if you somehow got one, though, there isn’t enough majority to pass it quickly, before the deadline. That needs either a big and stable majority, or the opposition agreeing to co-operate. So, pretty much everyone involved has a veto on passing anything substantial.

That means the question is “Deal, or no deal?”, or in political science jargon, “is this better than the Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement, BATNA?” The alternative for all parties is “go to the country with our proposal on the manifesto”.

The parameters

The Tory proposal is either EVEL or some sort of “English parliament”. If, like all other devolved administrations, it was elected on proportional representation, I can see this turning out quite shitty for the Tories, with Labour, Liberals, left-of-Labour, Greens, and ‘kippers all over the place. It might also ruin the game for Tory county councils, aka Tory MPs at an earlier stage in their careers. And it would be very difficult to defend something that parallels Westminster 90% of the time as a sensible use of public money. So I think they would go for EVEL rather than EP.

The Labour one looks like some sort of regional devolution, whether city regions or even a Northern entity. This would obviously be just great for Labour (and possibly also both left-of-Labour and ‘kippers). I don’t know about you but “a powerful voice for more regen and infrastructure money in your community” beats “we solved the West Lothian question” as a slogan in my opinion.

The Tories also have the problem of trying to appeal to pro-Union sentiment – which turns out to be a thing! – by taking Scots’ and Welshmen’s votes away.

Even if EVEL polls reasonably well, it may be rather like Euroscepticism in being an issue a lot of people agree with, vaguely, but don’t care about much. Tories seem to have a fatal attraction to those. I tentatively think EVEL would help in Tory-UKIP fights, although the ‘kippers might pick up EP as a counter-offer. They are a protest party and it’s a more strident protest, and if it happened they would probably have better chances of actual influence in it. On the other hand, regdev would help Labour mobilise pretty much everywhere there are substantial numbers of Labour voters.

The output

Well, that would suggest Labour’s BATNA is better than the Tories’, so the Tories would be advised to make a deal that gets something passed before the 2015 GE, rather than see them walk. Of course, there is a potential rogue actor in that some of the Tories might rebel. From a Labour point of view, that would just be gravy. Question the parameters if you like, but this does seem to be what Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband are doing.

See here, and here.

Voluntary neo-colonial

Simon Hattenstone interviews Gordon Brown and thank God turns off his faux-naif shtick for a once or so. Brown:

Going it alone, while still using the pound? “Instead of creating the levers of power for an independent Scotland, the SNP is suggesting a voluntary neo-colonial relationship with the rest of Britain. Scotland wouldn’t have any control of the pound.”

Right. The whole point of the SNP, as relaunched when Brown was writing the Red Paper on Scotland, was to get rid of the City-Treasury influence on monetary policy, concealed by the symbols of Ukania. I republish a post from December.

the token person who sits and smiles in the background

There’s something wrong with the Lib Dems isn’t there? I mean, apart from the whole “inflicting David Cameron on the country” thing.

Pearce said that she would remain in the party in a more modest role. “So at the moment, not knowing quite where I fit in the party, I have still decided to remain a Lib Dem because I believe in a lot of the Lib Dem values and policies, so I will stick with them right to the end. But I realise my place is not go for any high positions within the party. I’ll just stay and be the token person who sits and smiles in the background and do my community activism that I always do.”

I think comment is superfluous here. Just read it. The Tories have a horrible record of picking up black people, especially women, and dropping them (I did a case study back in 2010 for Stable & Principled and this story refers, and some of the free school people are going the same way) but I expected a bit better from the Liberals.

But of course there’s Rennard.