Category: politics

The Election in Data and Software

Nick Timothy so on Conservative Home:

Ironically, the Prime Minister is the one political leader who understands this division, and who has been working to address it since she became Prime Minister last July. The Conservative election campaign, however, failed to get this and Theresa’s positive plan for the future across. It also failed to notice the surge in Labour support, because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour.

Do modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters? Or is it more that the technology makes it possible, and given the hammer, the world fills up with nails? The advertising trade has a fundamental concept of a trade-off between reach – the number of people you can show a message to – and richness – the quality or elaboration of the message you deliver. Usually, the more elaborate the message, the harder it is to deliver. Imagine a spectrum from cinema advertising on one end to e-mail spam on the other. The era of high TV was also the era of high advertising, if you will, for good reason – TV ads could have both near-cinematic richness and an enormous mass audience, to some extent bucking the trade-off.

Richness is also a form of targeting. The more sophistication you build in, the more people you turn off. This is often deliberate – the iconic Tango Man ads of the 90s, for example, were designed to get much of their effect from baffling your parents and trolling moralising authority figures into getting outraged. Also, richness and targeting both serve the same purpose. It is hoped that a higher degree of engagement and a resulting higher response rate will more than compensate for the reduction in reach. This is crucial, because targeting by definition means sacrificing reach. Delivering ads to targeted individuals means not delivering them to non-targeted individuals.

So how did that work out for you? WhoTargetsMe built a browser extension to instrument what Facebook ads were being served to who.

Geographically, then, Labour’s Facebook campaign was achieving 2.2x the reach of the Tories’. British parliamentary constituencies are designed to be of roughly similar population, so this should be a reasonable proxy for reach.

On Election Day itself, Buzzfeed ran this highly significant story using their own FB instrumentation. They concluded that the most shared stories on Facebook in the immediate run-in were overwhelmingly pro-Labour.

Facebook advertising basically gives you two things – targeted delivery to a big audience, and the potential for viral spread. It’s worth understanding here that the key development in its history as an ads company, which took it from being a loss-maker to being the cash machine it is now, was when it started serving fewer ads. This decision to ration ad space was taken in order to make the app more mobile-friendly and also to rebalance the mixture of content (i.e. what you come for) and ads (i.e. what they come for). Doing so implied an increased emphasis on targeting and richness, because fewer ad slots were now available. It also permitted Facebook to charge more for advertising and to increase its profit margin, because the changes did not increase its costs (if anything, they reduced them).

This creates a complicated relationship between the two poles. Sure, you can drop exquisitely targeted ads and you can load them with HD video or even interactive gaming. But this comes at a price – a price in terms of cash, as you pay through the nose, and a price in terms of opportunity, as there will always be many fewer available ad slots than there are posts that could potentially be filled by shared messages. The optimal solution would be a targeted drop that then goes viral, but this begs the question. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it. Another strategy, as a reader suggested to me, would be to run a lot of different targeted campaigns; but this has the problem that they might compete with each other.

The Tories designed a campaign around “strong and stable” and Brexit, and planned to execute it as a succession of targeted national ad drops and events, managed from the fourth floor of Central Office where a tiny command group consisting of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill plus hired guns Mark Textor, Jim Messina, and Lynton Crosby held sway and controlled the keys to the ad-buying account. This was air-war politics par excellence. The central message would be delivered to people who voted UKIP in 2015 or the EU referendum, preferentially in Labour seats in the North and Midlands.

In the event, though, this didn’t work. For a start, the Tories failed to win the ex-kippers by the margin they hoped for. In many seats they broke 50-50. It was only in seats with very high Leave % where the Tory strategy worked. The problem may have been that ‘kippers in these seats were more likely to be ex-Tories, while elsewhere they were more likely to be generic protest voters. Labour canvassers reported significant numbers of people who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, UKIP in 2015/2016, and Labour in 2017 (“S10, U15, L17“. This may be a case of being fooled by data – the data in question being Chris Hanretty’s celebrated mapping of Leave/Remain votes to parliamentary constituencies, which made the assumption that Leave votes were UKIP votes. The Tories added a corollary to this assumption – UKIP is a right-wing party, so are we, therefore Leave voters are Tories struggling to get out.

Secondly, the Tory strategy created a highly unfavourable electoral map. Much of the Tory effort was targeted on relatively safe Labour seats in the North and had the effect of shaving the big majorities there, while the Labour effort was targeted on marginal Tory seats they could flip. Interestingly, the parties’ strategies remained fixed through the campaign, but Labour’s turned out to be designed for a national swing quite close to the one that actually happened. Jeremy Corbyn campaigned in seats that Labour would flip on a swing of 1 to 5 per cent, and also campaigned in relatively safe Labour seats to work up the turnout and generate buzz in the regional media.#

The BBC’s Chris Cook doesn’t believe this was deliberate, but I wonder. The Tory strategy sounds very much like an effort to replicate Donald Trump’s campaign out of a can – a deployable package of tactics, techniques, and procedures that could be launched from anywhere with a Facebook ad-buyer account and a (platinum) credit card. Yet Trump’s campaign benefited hugely from earned media and virality. Famously, he didn’t even bother buying TV ads until very late in the day. Which brings me to this story.

two pieces of obscure software developed by Labour HQ are widely acknowledged to have played a significant role.

The first helped turn a swollen base of activists into proper campaigners. Called Chatter, it allowed Labour’s growing base of activists to have proper text exchanges with people they canvassed, rather than dispatching them blunt, campaigning messages. “It armed campaigners with the ability to actually make people feel like they were being listened to on a local level,” said a senior Labour figure.

The second was the closest thing Labour had to a secret weapon. Over the last year the party developed a tool called Promote. Its effect was to unleash the power of Facebook advertising to local parties across every constituency. The tool combined Facebook information with Labour’s voter data, but allowed senior activists and candidates to use it to send locally based messages to the right sections of their electorates. Labour is said to have spent heavily through the tool.

“People were seeing stories about their school and hospital, not just national messaging like the Tories were doing”

This might explain why the Facebook strategy worked so well for Labour and so poorly for the Tories. Promote offered decentralised control of the Facebook campaign, letting local candidates release their own messaging. This is also a way of getting the best effect from the rationed pool of ad space – you’re more likely to respond to something that’s actually relevant, so this both makes for virality, and avoids the problem of multiple targeted campaigns cannibalising each other.

Meanwhile, a critically important use of data is to inform your own expectations. Somehow, Labour went into the campaign knowing what kind of swing might be achievable and that it was possible to drive up turnout. This might be the consequence of Chatter, and of the huge activist base.

Note on a future populism post

An interesting post about populists. I think this point can be extended.

Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys…if you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits

OK. Conservatism: there are always victims and culprits, and that’s OK. God and the King say so. Classical Liberalism: whatever God or the King may say, you can avoid being a victim by your own hard work as long as no bastard interferes. Marxism: some people are victims because they are workers and must sell labour to survive. As a result, the culprits can always exploit them because the workers are forced sellers. That’s why the culprits get rich. All post-Marxist movements: we assert that the same insight applies to us.

The common feature here is that there’s a determinate standard of victimhood. The rich man is in his castle and the poor man at his gate because He made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate. (Yes, we sang it in 1980s Yorkshire.) The working class is exploited because they’re workers, and further, they’re poor. Women are exploited because they’re women. So on and so forth.

The populist genius is to deny this stricture. Access to justified indignation is fully democratised. No matter how petty your grievance, you have it on an equality with everyone else. Swimming the Med away from your rapists? OK, but the bins here are only collected every other week, and my GP is Polish. Who cares? This is the populist moment – standing over the temporarily uncollected rubbish, you rage as if you had a real problem. The Germans have the useful word Wutbürger, which means an angry citizen or maybe an angry bourgeois. A valid but wrong translation, though, might be a citizen of anger, clutching a puce passport issued by the ungovernable state of rage. Other political movements tell you to wind your neck in and concentrate. Populism enrols your risible whining in its wider crusade towards wherever.

Endlessly expandable victimhood has an important consequence. The set of culprits can – must – expand to include all the grievances anyone could possibly have. In practice, this means that the culprit can be either left vague, or else selected as the moment demands, left to the performer’s unique interpretation.

You can’t opt out of negative campaigning

There’s a common argument around that claims something like this: If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate, he’d have faced a terrible monstering from the press, and would therefore have lost the election. I think it is seriously misleading.

Let’s unpack the argument a bit. The point about the terrible monstering from the press should really be expanded to say he’d have faced it for being Bernie Sanders, and that someone lacking in irreducible Sandersness wouldn’t have had to deal with the monstering. Someone like Hillary Clinton. As a general principle, it’s an assertion that only unrespectable candidates get monstered and monstering can be avoided by only choosing respectable ones.

The problem here is first of all that the Democrats chose Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, and the situation developed in a manner not necessarily to their advantage. Not only did she lose the election, she collected a pretty comprehensive media monstering on the way, from e-mails to secretly controlling the world’s paedophiles through pizza. The second problem, which is much more important, is that the argument assumes that only bad people get monstered. People who use the argument often say that the Republicans managed to smear John Kerry over his war record, and therefore you can’t take any chances. But if they can smear John Kerry over his war record and Hillary Clinton over pizza, what is there that you can either do, or abstain from doing, in order to avoid being smeared? I imagine Milly Dowler’s mum probably thought there was no way the News of the World could do anything horrible to her, and look how that turned out.

Part of the problem here is the distinction between the truth, lies, and bullshit. Famously, lies have a necessary relation to the truth but bullshit does not. If you’re worried about what the truth about your candidate might be, or what lies the other lot might tell about them, it makes sense to try to pick someone dull enough to deny them an attack surface. But bullshitters don’t care; you can bullshit about anyone and anything, and all you need is front. In the classic setting of bullshit, the playground or the pub, the constraint that keeps it down to levels society can cope with isn’t that someone will point out it’s not true – it’s that someone will punch the bullshitter in the face, shout them down, or else say something funny enough that the audience turns to them instead for their entertainment.

The third problem is that sometimes bad people get monstered and it doesn’t do a damn thing. There was another guy in the 2016 presidential election, and if anyone collected a hammering from the papers, it was Donald J. Trump. In politics, you tend to believe that your side exposes the awful truth about the other lot and demands that journalists live up to their pretensions of fairness and inform the public, while the other lot egg the irresponsible and corrupt press barons on to defame your cat’s honour. This is what William James would have called an operationally true belief – we hold it to be true because it is useful, in that it helps us to keep scrapping. In reality, well, who are we trying to kid? Us. Trump’s defalcations, defamations, and depravity were widely reported and scorn was heaped on him. He deserved every drop. And he won.

The conclusion from this is surely that if you go up on the auction block of the presidency, a press monstering is the absolute least you should expect. It’s going to happen to you whoever you are and however pure your past. It is a permanently-operating factor as the Russians say, a feature of the political environment. Although. A few years ago it was fashionable for politicians to contrast the “air war” of TV and big media with the “ground war” of street campaigning, and perhaps this is better.

The air forces on both sides are enormously destructive and only roughly accurate, and from the candidate’s worm’s eye view, barely distinguishable. Suddenly, perhaps summoned by making the right 140-character incantation or perhaps just by chance, they break from the cloudbase. Huge media bombs erupt, leaving the countryside blitzed with sensationalism, stinking of bullshit, littered with inconsistencies waiting to go off, and subtly radiating dangerous levels of cynicism that sap your energy and damage your immunity to the infectious nonsense that suddenly seems to be everywhere. Who started it, or whose bomb it was, shrinks to utter irrelevance for the isolated candidates picking their way into the post-truth environment as they advance to contact.

The question, of course, is which of them can survive to fight in these extreme circumstances.

The turn to neo-Edwardian politics

OK, so an interesting point came up on twitter regarding former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, aka Europe’s Mr Brexit Except For The Other One. Isn’t one of the problems here that British politicians are socialised into a relatively simple kind of state? Basically unitary, usually with a strong executive government, powerful party whips, and unambiguous election results.

It strikes me that the simplicity of British politics was a product, or a project, of the 20th century. You can see it as an effort to abstract away complexity characteristic of the high modernist era. Starting in 1923-ish, with the Liberals being displaced by Labour and the Irish conflict swept under Stormont’s thick, luxurious carpets, everything resolves itself into two big political parties, represented pretty much everywhere, competing to form a government. The first-past-the-post system strongly favours single party government, and the way political practice develops also favours a strong prime ministership. Because the same political parties operate everywhere, regional and religious issues get dealt with through intra-party competition.

The big divide is simple: workers vs management. A few well-defined socio-economic variables are predictive. How much do you earn? How do you earn it? How do you educate your kids? How did your dad answer those questions? If the divide is expressed in a hundred subtle ways, like whether your rugby team has wing forwards or not, they are only epiphenomena of the great central drama. And because the core issues are economic, they work in much the same way everywhere. And of course, these facts affect how people practised politics. It was assumed that the other lot could be usually treated as a coherent bloc that you could negotiate with via the whips’ office. Access to this channel was controlled at each end by the chief whip, reporting directly to the prime minister or the leader of the opposition, further reinforcing the power of the prime ministership.

If you roll back a few years to the Edwardian era, though, the picture is one of baffling complexity, what Winston Churchill called the liquefaction of British politics. As well as the core divide between Conservatives and Liberals, there’s a cross-cutting division between imperialists and free traders, and another one between die-hards and home rulers, and they don’t map onto each other. Although that looks like a left-right divide, and some people in the Liberals want to define it as such, in fact both big parties are cross-class. There is a residual division between different kinds of Protestants that results in a special Celtic (but not Irish) version of Liberalism. There’s a special political party for Ireland and it’s big. There’s a rapidly growing Labour caucus, but it’s not a unitary political party yet, rather a diverse coalition of trade unionists, middle-class radical ex-Liberals, and revolutionary leftists only linked by the fact they obey the joint Labour whip….some of the time.

The complexity is almost as great as that of, say, Belgium. PMs were less swaggeringly powerful; it was possible to see the prime minister as a cipher surrounded by a team of genuinely important cabinet ministers. The PM wasn’t even necessarily in the Commons to take questions, and in any case, the institution of prime minister’s questions didn’t exist yet. Tellingly, it’s a product of the era of simplicity, and perhaps its steady decline into a continuation of football with the involvement of other means marks the resurgence of complexity.

I think it’s fair to say that the UK was always a complex polity in theory, but the era of two party mass politics made it simple in practice. We’re now, therefore, living through the re-emergence of its complexity. The third-biggest political party is now Scottish, and the most effective opposition to it is Scottish Conservatism, something really nobody would have predicted even two years ago. The Labour Party sometimes seems to be going back to its pre-WW1 roots as a loose coalition of voices for various definitions of socialism, mainly held together by the whips’ office. Regional and urban/rural divisions have reasserted themselves with unexpected intensity. Hugo Young, IIRC, said that what wasn’t then called the Remain/Leave divide had replaced the Free Trade/Imperialist divide; I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but it makes more sense to me now. It wasn’t necessarily an issue that spoke to any particular social class, but instead a culture-war divide that ran through and seasoned everything else, interacting in complicated ways with all the other divisions.

predictions for the #autumnstatement

It’s that time of year again! It seems quite odd that we’re actually having one, given the utterly unrecognisable swirling madness of 2016, but the public finances are one of those things that keeps going under the most unlikely of circumstances. So let’s pretend everything is normal. Here are my considered predictions for the 2016 Autumn Statement.

  1. 90% of the statement’s word count will cover 10% of its financial value.
  2. Whatever talk about “JAMs” we have to put up with in the meantime, the IFS distributional analysis will show a typical Osborne curve, with a massive hit to centiles 1 through 6, a small giveaway to 7 through 9, and a tiny cut to 10 to make it technically true to say that this wasn’t a giveaway to the super-rich. This has been true of the last six budgets.
  3. The OBR will forecast a huge government deficit going forwards on the basis of current policy, and insist on more of the current policy. Its terms of reference specifically forbid it to do anything else, so that’s what it will do. As literally nobody other than me will tell you, back in June 2010 it rolled over and changed its forecasts to please the then Chancellor and nobody resigned, so that’s the level of credibility and integrity you should expect from it.
  4. But that’s OK because the OBR will also forecast a return to pre-2007 trend growth Real Soon Now, in a couple of Friedman-units’ time. It has done this in every forecast since June, 2010 and rolled the delivery date forward each time.
  5. You can safely ignore the statement itself so long as you read the IFS briefing afterwards.
  6. If it’s “over X years”, “flat cash”, or it doesn’t come with a percentage of GDP, it’s probably a lie.
  7. Half the government’s policy agenda will be announced as part of the budget, because the chancellor wants to be prime minister.

On 1), I really think there should be a lower limit on the in-year value of anything included in a Budget or pre-budget statement. Chancellors like to throw in £50m to save the Caledonian Sleeper for two reasons – first, it’s an opportunity to hand out the pork, second, it’s a way to avoid scrutiny of genuinely important line items, either by distraction (shiny thing!) or just by clogging the wires with noise. Both are disgraceful. It also creates a temptation to fiddle with things that generally work, which is undesirable. At last, a reform we can all get behind.

Also, Osborne curve you say? Here you go:

Bradford: Populism And After

Turned down by Politico Europe for being too local

The populist threat is on everyone’s mind, whether from Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, or the AfD. In the UK, it’s been argued in a classic twitterstorm that Labour’s Northern heartlands are especially threatened, precisely because they’re “the heartlands” – ultra-safe parliamentary seats and city councils where it’s very difficult for anyone but a Labour candidate approved by the local Labour establishment to get elected. So why bother voting?

The people who don’t vote haven’t gone away. They are still out there, and the potential exists for them to be reintegrated into the political system by, say, the Scottish Nationalists, the Leave campaign, or George Galloway. And in fact we can see this in action. Out of the top five local authorities by net Leave votes, one of them is notoriously corrupt and generally dysfunctional Doncaster, another, Dudley, is the scene of these bizarre shenanigans at the last election, and yet a third is Rotherham, now sadly renowned for its child abuse scandal.

And then there’s my home town, Bradford. Since 2012, Bradford has gone from a classic safe-seat cartel, through a populist insurgency, and out the other side to a Labour revival tainted by allegations of anti-Semitism, which further led to Ken Livingstone’s bizarre public meltdown.

It is true that Bradford Council isn’t permanently Labour, but it has been either Labour or no-overall-control since 1980. When the council is hung, it usually has a Labour leader. As such, the least important Labour councillors are swapped for the most important Conservatives within a permanent ruling group.
This group’s key claim is that it’s presiding over the post-industrial regeneration of Bradford, which would be fair enough if they hadn’t been at it all my life without achieving much. As someone said, Bradford folk talk about failed regeneration projects like other people talk about the weather. This is a city where the main motorway access ended in a line of traffic cones for two decades, and where half the city centre was pulled down to build a giant shopping centre and left as a gaping hole for years.

Of course all of this cost money and somebody got paid, while basic measures of poverty like infant mortality remain atrocious, things burn down, and school funds disappear.

If regeneration was the key claim, the key strategy, bridging the gap between promises and performance, was working the family patronage network. How this developed, and how it helped to secure an enduring Labour establishment, is well described in this BBC Look North piece by Sabbiyah Pervez. Irna Qureshi describes the doorstep processes well here, and makes the interesting point that Labour came to rely on the easy wins it provided so much, they weren’t that good at it any more.

The populist challenge arrived in 2012, with Marsha Singh MP’s retirement and George Galloway’s candidacy. Galloway presented himself nationally as a challenge to the Bradford political system (try here) but on the streets, he relied on key actors in it to get out the vote. He actually recruited Marsha Singh’s election agent to do the same job for him. If anybody knew Mirpuri patronage politics, he did. Importantly, signing him up also denied him and his contact book to the Labour candidate, Imran Hussein.

It may be a common feature of populists, almost a defining one, that they present themselves as revolutionaries but exist to prevent real change. Galloway’s tenure as MP for Bradford West, which was paralleled by the election of a dozen councillors on his ticket, had all the problems of Bradford politics, just more so, louder, more dramatically, and on TV, rather than in the cloistered privacy of someone’s best room in Manningham.
His solution to the regeneration problem had a simplicity, and a style, worthy of Donald Trump. He would just do it.

His policies were quite simple: regenerate the Odeon. Sort out Westfield. Sort out education. He either succeeds, in which case, great. Or he fails, in which case, we’re not exactly losing out are we?

If pressed, he said he would make a deal. He knew people in the Middle East.

I have big plans for Bradford City FC. With my connections in the Arab world, I am actively speaking to and seeking out sovereign wealth funds and Middle Eastern princes to pump investment into the club. There is massive potential. I’m also tapping up sovereign wealth funds to invest in the Odeon building”

As well he might – the Odeon, abandoned for two decades, is indeed both huge, and classy. It goes without saying that not a penny of this supposed investment ever showed up.

Old-school Bradford pols have often been accused of being soft on anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism. George rarely missed an opportunity to sail close to that particular wind. They have often been accused of sexism; he really nailed that one. A certain patriarchal authoritarianism might also be a concern. George tried to put a brewery out of business because they dissed him on Twitter, and this farrago of thuggishness defies summary.

The Labour Party meanwhile did what it does best these days – have a vicious internal feud. The problem was, in a sense, whether Galloway was a manageable populist with Bradford characteristics, or whether real change was necessary.

The losing candidate from 2012, Imran Hussein, wanted to stand again, and as the Bradford West party chairman, he, his friends, and his family had the advantage of controlling the process. His candidacy would represent either “one more heave”, or else, waiting to see if a boundary review would get rid of Galloway. Alternatively, it would leave the power structure intact in case it was possible to integrate Galloway back into the party, as happened with Ken Livingstone.

A lot of people suspected he would just lose again and keep losing, and the populists wouldn’t be as easy to manage as all that. One of those was then Labour leader Ed Miliband, who eventually decided to invoke a party rule that permits the leadership to require an all-women shortlist. That ruled Hussein out, but also ruled out an insurgent candidate backed by the trade unions, ex-bus driver Mohammed Taj. Hussein’s allies settled on councillor Shakeela Lal, but she failed to make it through the hustings to get on the shortlist, leaving them with the awful prospect of losing control of the process. In this kind of politics, control of the selectorate is everything.

It seems they settled on the following strategy: throw their support to national Labour’s candidate, Amina Ali, knowing that her Somali background would do her no good in the general election, precisely because they would then pull their support and make sure it didn’t. This would stop Ali and warn off the Labour leadership, but more importantly it would keep women’s rights activist Naz Shah off the ticket. Enjoying enormous respect in Bradford, her personal popularity menaced their control of the process. That the unions’ man had already been disposed of was a happy accident.

Galloway getting a second term was a price worth paying, especially as a boundary review was coming, his own flakiness might cause a by-election at any time, and perhaps they might come to some arrangement. Amina Ali seems to have seen through this, and resigned, thus disrupting the whole neat scheme and leading the Labour national executive committee to take over.

It was a shambles, they said. Nobody would vote, they said. An undemocratic stitchup by those people on the NEC, they said. As it turned out, though, the warnings were so much hot air. Naz Shah took Bradford West back with a wet sail, flipping Galloway’s 10,140 majority to a Labour majority of 11,420. The campaign was brutally tough – and there is no mystery why. It was a front-on challenge to a really rather unpleasant entrenched elite. As Naz Shah put it in a BBC TV interview:

“It’s family loyalties, it’s clan loyalties, it goes back to a Pakistani model of doing things,” she said, explaining that this resulted in women blocked from political office. “The kind of misogyny that exists is quite shocking. It’s a culture of gatekeeping. It’s a culture of power politics for the sake of having power, and that power resides with men,” she said.

Bradford politics is still reeling from the shock. In a follow-up move, the NEC took control of candidate selection in six more council wards, while Imran Hussein’s assistant during the campaign has been suspended from the party. Naz Shah’s intervention in the case of Samia Shahid, apparently murdered by her family in Punjab, led to the arrest of both a suspect, and a cop.

The first lesson here is that it can be done. The populist threat can be beaten. The second lesson here is that in the face of the populist challenge, the local organisations that delivered majorities for the national politicians for years are often as much part of the problem as they are of the solution. The third lesson is that the only way to do it is to do it – a political party that claims to want renewal must be willing to look elsewhere for candidates and for ideas.

And the fourth lesson is that it’s risky. First, there was that offensive Facebook meme and its astonishing cascade of consequences. That, by the way, happened immediately after Naz Shah outed a fairly important local Conservative for giving anti-Semitic speeches in Urdu. There’s a problem here, and it’s precisely one that grew in the long political stagnation, in the absence of competition, scrutiny, or self-criticism. The only way forward, though, is to confront it openly.

Meanwhile, a recent vote to replace the mayor saw someone in the council’s Labour group vote three times. To defeat the populists, Bradford Labour may have become more like them: coarser, more strident, and authentic for both good and ill.

Alternatively, this story can be seen as the process by which a whole population either excluded from politics, taken for granted by politics, or simply never addressed by politics, was integrated back into democracy, stumbling and finding its feet. For clues, try some of the blogs I’ve used as sources for this post.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, in 2016

There are some books I re-read regularly. Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is one; I read it every time there’s a presidential election on.

In 2008, the first time around, it was a ghastly memento mori for the failure of a great movement campaign, and also a reassuring reminder of the consummate competence of the Obama campaign. In 2012, as the Obama campaign purred along to the win, it formed a sort of demented counterpoint of bad craziness, this time mirroring the weirdness of the Republicans.

This time? I got a gaggle of insights into how a great insurgent campaign fails. If the 2008 reading was about Obama, the current one is about Sanders, Trump, and Jeremy Corbyn. Obviously, Trump is perfect for Thompson’s style, but that’s not my point.

Thompson mentions, in the postmortem interviews near the end of the book, that McGovern did startlingly badly with black voters. This is telling because HST doesn’t talk much about that for the rest of the book. He talks about individuals, but he doesn’t talk about how McGovern tried to address blacks or didn’t, which is weird because one of the best things in the book is Thompson’s coverage of the practicalities of politics.

An obvious conclusion is that he didn’t write about it because it wasn’t there. The same has been said about Bernie Sanders in this classic blog post, and we probably need to talk about the Corbyn offering the two black ladies each others’ jobs.

Thompson also discusses how he thought McGovern was successfully addressing the working class during the primaries, but failing to do so during the general election. Again, he doesn’t want to talk about his own besetting case of the great hippie sin, massive condescension to workers and to the unions that represented them.

The rallies were great. The volunteers were all bright and young and handsome. The campaign did nothing better than campaigning to its own volunteers.

What Thompson didn’t and couldn’t know is that both the collegiate sneering and the Boss Tweed swagger would be swept away by the macroeconomic revolution of Reagan and Paul Volcker soon enough, of course. Thompson missed that this civil war in the Democrats would destroy both combatants, which is weird seeing as he classically diagnosed it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps he couldn’t accept his own role in it.

With regard to the Corbyn, it’s more the other way around. He addresses the RMT tolerably well. The problem is everyone else. If we’re lucky and Duncan Weldon is right, the macro shift that finishes him might be a swing to reflation across the G-7. If we’re lucky.

And, of course, what HST wanted was a campaign that specifically would destabilise and maybe finish the Democratic Party. He repeatedly says as much. Oddly enough, he didn’t much like the results. But that’s what happens if you decide to piss your side’s institutions up the wall because the rallies are great.

The specific failure mode is that if you don’t care about that stuff, you end up not caring about the skills and operational practices that underlie it. Everyone but HST thought the killer was competence; lacking it, the campaign never got close enough to put Nixon under pressure.

This year, the book is a painful story of a movement campaign that never escaped from its deeply hippyish and middle-class roots and that as a result risked losing the whole party.

Please stop looking for Labour voters in the Fens. They never existed

Chuka Umunna is apparently off to Boston, Lincolnshire to understand Brexit. He should save himself the journey. You can understand Boston really well from the simple fact that it has elected a Labour MP – indeed anything other than a Conservative – precisely once in history, immediately after the First World War. It’s really conservative. This should be simple. If any political party should worry about it, it’s the Tories. It’s their seat!

But there’s a weird kind of tourist industry in going there to look for the Very Real Concerns. John Harris seems to be there every other week. I suspect it may be something to do with the fact it’s really conservative big-farm country, and hence it’s easy to find copy-generating racists, and that it’s not actually that far from King’s Cross station, and therefore a reporting trip there is both practical and cheap.

Also, if you were to ask my dad the ex-immigration officer, you’d learn that immigrants certainly didn’t start showing up there one day in 2004; for many years before that, there was a specific carve-out of the rules for seasonal farm workers going there. Immigration there isn’t new; it’s probably as old as the engineering interventions that made it farm-able just after the civil war. A 70s Cambridge Marxist might have made something of that, but nobody imagines UKIP voters in Boston spend their spare time reading Christopher Hill.

I have a less snarky point, though. Boston voted for Brexit by the highest percentage in the country. This has a lot to do with the fact not many people live there. The Economist is very pleased with the insight that although it doesn’t have that many immigrants, the percentage increase is large. This has a lot to do with the fact that not many people live there and not that many immigrants choose to live there.

Consider the following chart. I’ve plotted the population change due to immigration against the Leave lead in votes. Referendums aren’t population weighted – it profits you not to win Skye by 90% but lose Haringey by 1%, in much the same way that piling up votes in safe seats doesn’t help you win a parliamentary election. Also, I’ve started the clock in 2004, the year VRC fans reckon it all went wrong.


Note that when you take into account how many votes they actually delivered, the Fenland outliers just vanish. They’re just not very important. Think about it; who ever won a general election fighting hyper-safe Tory seats in the Fens?

On the other hand, look at Dudley, which delivered 61,666 net Leave votes all on its alone-io, more than anywhere else in the country. Dudley has about four times the population of Boston, and delivered about three times the net Leave vote. We could look at Doncaster, or Wakefield, or Sandwell. Wakefield has the same level of immigration in that timeframe as Wandsworth, but it was about a third more Brexity. Lambeth had four times as many immigrants as Wandsworth, but it was just as Remainy.

Sandwell! That’s next door to Dudley. From a Labour point of view, we seriously failed in the West Midlands in 2015 and that was probably why we didn’t win. It looks like that’s why we failed to prevent Brexit. Whatever the man who wants “Decent funky house and no trash” – don’t we all – is up to, his time would be better used in Birmingham.

Referendums, like elections, are won where the net votes are. Labour isn’t going to take Boston or Wokingham, we probably shouldn’t care about that, and we shouldn’t trade winnable seats for forlorn hopes.

The public rejects racism, but sadly you can’t say the same for bullshit

One thing the referendum campaign has cheered me up about, paradoxically, is the social acceptability of outright racism. One thing it’s profoundly depressed me about is the social acceptability of outright bullshit.

Consider the Leavers’ arguments about immigration.

If you’re not going to make some essentialist argument that foreigners are just bad – i.e. to come right out as a racist – you’re going to make some argument about population. There are too many people, pressure on public services, etc. But the UK population is growing quite strongly even without the contribution from net migration. Logically, if you believe net migration is a problem because population you should believe population growth is. Nobody on that side wants less population, nor do they have any plan to spend more on public services, develop cities outside London, or whatever.

So it’s only a problem if they’re foreigners? Isn’t that…a bit racist? Well, now we get the argument that we could have just as many immigrants, but from the Commonwealth rather than the European Union. First of all, if you believe this, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Secondly, this makes so little sense. If you’re worried about too many people, or foreigners taking our jobs, why would Nigerians be any better than Italians?

The next dodge is the famous points system. The problem here is that once you set up a system where you get into the country if you have X points, you’ve implicitly committed to accepting anyone who makes the cut. If you believe that an Englishman has won first prize in the lottery of life, yadda yadda, you should also believe that it would be worth doing almost anything to rack up the points. All countries that have had a points system have done so in order to get more immigrants. Also, if you really are worried about immigrants from Europe, who are the two iconic figures of European immigration? The Polish plumber and the French engineer, both of whom would ace the shit out of any conceivable points system.

The appeal to points is interesting in its Michael Young, Rise of the Meritocracy quality. We’re going to get rid of the immigrants by setting them an exam! Because, as Young pointed out, privilege that is expressed by credentials you get by passing an exam is seen as justified, not least by the people who pass. Ironically, as the thing about exams is that you can pass them if you practise a lot, this promises to subvert the whole thing. And of course no generation was ever as trusting in exams as the people who want to leave the EU, who were also precisely the people Michael Young was worrying about. It’s as if the baby boomers want to check out with one final, epic act of credentialism, a giant collective A-level. Perhaps Young’s predictions finally came to pass, just with regard to nationality rather than class?

Anyway, what gets me about the whole rhetorical circus is that the people behind Vote Leave really, really believe at some level that Britain has a racist majority (note that John Mann MP, a big fan of unpopular-populism, has suddenly discovered Euroscepticism), but at the same time, they realise that everyone who has ever tried this has lost, horribly, and there’s probably a reason for that. That’s why they have to include the unlikely promise of lots more Pakistani immigrants, pretend to care about schools whose budget they slashed as education secretary, or outsource their prejudices to an exam paper.

Something has to fill the gap between the two beliefs, and that something is bullshit in the full Harry Frankfurter sense of the word – speech divorced from reality, to which it makes as much sense to say “truth” or “lies” as it does to say “green” or “capacitive”. The prejudice against that still needs work.

How to win a general election

The Monkey Cage has an interesting post on how British political parties spent their money in the 2015 general election.

Specifically, they plotted spending as a percentage of the short campaign limit against how marginal each seat was. The more marginal a seat is, the greater chance you have of picking it up – or losing it, depending on whether you’re the incumbent. Therefore, a rational campaigner would commit their resources to seats proportionately to how marginal they are.

If you think of marginality in terms of positive for your marginals, negative for theirs, you’d expect to get a plot with a peak in the middle of the marginality distribution. An incumbent party would choose to peak just on their side of zero, a challenger just on the other side. The Cage’s plots look like this.



A couple of things stand out. It struck me that the targeting process seems to be less ruthless than we tend to imagine – both parties have a lot of fairly safe seats that get a lot of resources. Also, the curves are asymmetric.

Winning a seat that you wouldn’t otherwise have won is worth, obviously enough, one additional seat. But holding a seat you would otherwise have lost is worth exactly as much – one additional seat. You shouldn’t put more effort into your 70th percentile seat than you do into their 70th percentile seat, but evidently they do. There might be an opportunity to do better by shifting resources from safe seats, and pushing more marginals up to the 100% mark.

This could be an example of psychological loss-aversion, a constraint resulting from intra-party politics (for example, if the safe seat MPs are too important in the party to starve of funds), or an artefact of the hard legal limit on spending. If you’ve reached 100 per cent of the limit in all your target seats and you have money left over, why not use it? However, so few seats hit 100% that we can probably rule that one out. Another possibility is that seats don’t necessarily stay safe, and parties want to maintain their infrastructure in case of a sudden SNP, Green, or UKIP insurgency.

Another thing that struck me is that I found the charts difficult to compare by eye. What I wanted to know was which party’s targeting was closest to an optimal strategy. So I redid the whole thing. I started off with the Electoral Commission dataset and wasted a lot of time trying to match a share-of-vote dataset to it that had nonstandard constituency names. Then I found the British Election Survey’s data, which has the same constituency UIDs as the Electoral Commission. I defined marginality as the percentile rank of the winning party’s vote less the second placed party’s vote as a percentage of the total vote cast, so my charts have an absolute rather than party-relative scale.

The slope of the trend lines should tell us how aggressively the party in question targeted their spending on marginal seats. Their level, meanwhile, should tell us how well-funded the party is overall. So here goes. First, the numbers for the short campaign.


Interestingly enough, Labour was the closest to an optimal allocation, although as you can see from the chart nobody was very close. The slope is given by the second term in the equation, in this case -0.67x, which compares to -0.55x for the Tories, or in other terms, a targeting advantage of 18%. The overall level of funding is represented by the constant, which tells us that the Tories were about 4% better-funded across the board. If it was just a question of getting enough munn into the marginals, we ought to have been OK.

I was sceptical of the Cage’s conclusion that Labour probably couldn’t get much better at targeting, but it looks like they might be right. However, their calculation is based on the impact on the average constituency, and of course it’s not the average constituency but the average marginal that counts.

The best-funded party in the UK, though, turns out to be the SNP, in black on the chart. They were about 9% richer than Labour and about 5% richer than the Tories. Interestingly, neither the SNP nor the Lib Dems bothered with targeting their spending in 2015. I interpret this to mean that they are well aware what their targets are – the subset of seats where they are competitive at all. The SNP had easily enough cash to blanket the whole of Scotland, and it looks like responding to this drove Labour to spend a lot of money in supposedly safe seats in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems had relatively few MPs and no choice but to fight for each one. In fact, it looks like the equivalent of the big parties’ “target the top 100 marginals” strategy for a small party is “pick a subset and target them all”.

This is even clearer looking at the long campaign.


Tory long-term spending was about 18% higher than Labour’s, and Labour compensated about half of that through better targeting. Meanwhile, neither the Liberals nor the SNP really bothered with the long campaign, choosing to keep their powder dry. Interestingly, the Tories spent significantly more in the long campaign than Labour did.

Now, here’s a question for you. This is all very well but it assumes that the parties told the truth to the Electoral Commission. The Tory national campaign return contains no less than £4.7 million in spending on “market research/canvassing”, or as Tim Fenton points out, £47,800 each for the top 100 marginals – including £46,787 they accounted for as going to the Wirral Area Conservative Association itself, very close to a top 100 allocation. So what if we replotted that including this money?

The next chart shows the total spending, short and long, as a percentage of the total limit, and plots both what the Tories declared as local spending – in sky blue – and what that would look like allocating the missing millions evenly to the top 100 marginals, in dark blue. Or as we might also call it: the truth.


Not only are the Tories’ local campaigns vastly better funded on this basis, the targeting coefficient has absolutely exploded, by a factor of 49. So much so that the series is now logarithmic. The Monkey Cage reckons the Tories could expect about 4 percentage points of additional vote share by getting a typical constituency to the spending limit. Their median top-100 marginal spent 61%, without the dark money, and 156% with it. Very roughly, then, we might estimate an uplift in their share of vote of 8 to 10 points. So, that’s how you get to be prime minister if you fuck pigs. (Also, I note that the Lib Dems’ colourful Majid Nawaz doesn’t seem to have filled in their return from ultra-marginal Hampstead and Kilburn – both long and short spending is given as zero, and there’s no way that’s right.)

You can get the spreadsheet here.