Category: politics

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.

One good thing: a better electoral forecasting model

So it looks like the local elections didn’t go so badly. While we’re in the intermediate phase between Corbyn’s Labour doing something reasonably well, and them throwing it all away through some sort of terrible cake-and-arse juggle, I’d like to take note of something.

John Curtice reckoned we should expect a net-loss of about 170 seats. Jeremy Corbyn said very publicly that he didn’t believe Labour would lose any seats at all. I’m not sure whether he intended this as a prediction, or just felt he should put a brave face on things and cheer up the troops, but it amounts to predicting a net-loss of zero seats.

One thing pretty much everyone agrees on is that the bad polling had a profound, if subtle, effect on the 2015 election campaign. Right up until the last minute, it was possible to believe – even necessary, on the grounds that you should base beliefs on the best available evidence – that we were going to win.

People who worried about a coalition with the SNP were worried because the polls looked like that might happen. People who worried that Ed Miliband wasn’t keen enough on coalition with the SNP and decided to go Green or not bother voting did so because the polls looked like a Labour/SNP alliance would be necessary. I know at least some of these people existed because they used to shout at me on Twitter. Tories who thought the public was scared of the SNP acted as they did because the polls looked that way. Sizable chunks of the Tories’ policy agenda that just look weird in the post-2015 context only existed because the polls looked like another coalition was the only way they had a hope of getting back in. So much of the ambiguity and chaos of the 2015 election is down to the fact that politics is largely perceived through polling, and the polling was crap.

Blaming the pollsters is futile. For a remarkably policy- and data-oriented Labour team, Ed Miliband’s staff seem to have comprehensively failed to be intelligent consumers of polling. As a result, it wasn’t until final canvass returns from the West Midlands were analysed with two days to go that anyone realised the polls might be wrong, and the result was the Edstone. For those of us who weren’t privy to those data sets, we just had to wait for the epic punch in the guts that was the 10pm exit poll on the night.

If Corbyn meant it about not losing any seats, that forecast was off by 23 net seats out of 866 contested or 2.6%. That’s pretty good. I recently reviewed a market share forecast I prepared in 2012, and was more than pleased – in fact, ecstatic – to be within 4%. The nature of forecasting is that it’s very hard to tell quality (the technical term is skill) from good luck. The nature of forecasting is also that when I started drafting this post, the score was -2 out of 866 or 0.23%, and my point was stronger by a factor of 10 or thereabouts. Either way, it’s not 170.

But Labour would have been vastly better off in 2012-2015 had it been able to derive quality forecasts from polling or canvass data. If party HQ has a much better analytical capability, or the quality and coverage of canvassing is much better, this is an important fact about the practicalities of politics.

It’s just a pity we keep going on about Hitler. Also, the e-mail hasn’t been quite as bad as the leadership campaign, but as of yesterday 21 out of the first 50 messages in my inbox came from different bits of Labour. I’m having words with Tom Watson about it. Seriously:

Lancashire Labour PLUMMETS to miniscule 50% GROWTH

I usually like Jim Pickard’s work for the FT, so I was a bit disappointed by this piece. We certainly do need some data journalism on the surge of Labour Party membership, an underreported fact of British politics and one that has been going on for some time. This mobilisation predates Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign – my own CLP started growing dramatically during 2014 and kept going through the election, until the point where my ward has more Labour members than Conservative voters.

But I’m afraid this won’t do. The FT says:

Take Burnley, for example, which Labour seized back from the Lib Dems in May with a narrow majority. There the membership has risen from 319 to just 484 full members. Or the Rhondda, a deprived constituency in the Welsh valleys, where full membership has risen from 355 to 485.

To put it another way, Burnley CLP’s membership has grown by a puny 45% and Rhondda’s by a miniscule 36%.

Sure, it’s not as dramatic as Holborn & St Pancras, which tripled. But your local Tory membership secretary would fuck pigs for 45% more members…whoops, they do that for fun. I’d rather not think what they might do for 45% more members. The “average” Scottish CLP is up 26% – quite a lot less, but nonetheless it’s substantial growth, given how many of the potential pool of members have gone to the SNP.

A tell in the piece, by the way, is that there are no percentages, nor tables, nor charts, nor links to the data set they used. Another tell is that it quotes Simon Danczuk:

“We have probably had about 100 new members on a total of 600,” says Simon Danczuk, MP for Rochdale and a fierce critic of Mr Corbyn. “I wouldn’t say it’s a massive change.”

That’s an increase of 16%, if you believe Danczuk’s suspiciously round numbers. (Also, what does “probably” mean – doesn’t Rochdale CLP count them?) The interesting bit here, though, is that we can compare two very similar Lancashire mill town constituencies, Burnley and Rochdale. It’s a natural experiment. Burnley CLP has grown by 45%, Rochdale by 16%. One of these numbers is big. The other is small. Also, Burnley is much more marginal than Rochdale, with a Labour majority of 3,244 compared to 12,442. One of these numbers is small. The other is big.

Maybe Burnley’s become a hipster ghetto, a Kreuzberg of the north-west since I was last there…or perhaps it’s just that Simon Danczuk is nobody’s idea of an inspiring leader.

Also, there’s this quote from Hugh Pemberton of Bristol University:

Scottish constituencies were already withering. “It was dire in Scotland; it was clear they had a major problem back then,” said Mr Pemberton.

OK, so the collapse in membership in Scotland was predictive of the election disasters and the rise of the SNP. It follows that increasing membership is probably good, especially in places like Burnley. Right? But somehow that’s not the conclusion. Apparently there aren’t any new members in marginal seats, but the only marginal actually quoted is Burnley, and as we have seen, it’s up by 45%.

Call me a cynic, but I wonder if there actually was a link to the data in an earlier version, but it got spiked? After all, there’s this quote:

The FT has collated data from eight Labour seats that are among the richest 50 constituencies in the country, and eight Labour seats in the poorest 50.

But where are they? The comparison, like the data set, is missing. In the end, the impression I get is that there are two articles here that have been edited into one.

The first one was an honest effort to quantify the mobilisation of Labour members, probably written by Jim Pickard. It concluded that there has been a surge of membership across the board, which was strongest by far in London, but very substantial in Burnley or the Rhondda and far from negligible in Scotland. The second was a hit piece briefed out to Michael Lindsay by one of the “senior party sources” mentioned or possibly Simon Danczuk himself, aiming to deny that there are any new members.

In theory, you line up thesis and antithesis, and get synthesis. In journalism, you line up thesis and antithesis, and get fired.

Why so many Republicans are still running for president

People occasionally wonder why there are still so many Republicans running for president. We can make a simple model of the situation to understand this.

Any candidate who decides to drop out of the race will probably drop out in favour of some other candidate, throwing their support to that candidate. They can expect some kind of reward from that candidate in the event of success. A candidate X will decide to drop out if the expected value of staying in the race falls below the best offer they could get from another candidate.

The value of staying in the race is interesting; it consists of a fairly predictable, risk- or debt-like term which represents their chance of winning based on the current polls, plus an uncertainty or equity-like term which represents the residual value of just being in the race.

While X stays in the race, it’s possible that some other candidate will drop out in X’s favour. It’s also possible that some event will knock out a major candidate and transform the others’ fortunes. This being America, the classic example is a wild-eyed loser sneaking into a Trump rally with a pink AR-15. Public opinion drives the first term, while the other one is basically exogenous, with the important proviso that its value declines as we approach polling day – there is less and less time available for our wild-eyed loser to intervene. This implies that the chance of dropout is asymptotically increasing with elapsed time. It also, interestingly, implies that greater generalised uncertainty – more wild-eyed losers – predicts more candidates, and I think you can actually see this effect in world politics (compare, say, Italian and British political parties).

The potential offer is also interesting. Candidates with less support will be willing to bid higher, because they need additional votes more intensely. We would therefore expect to get the highest offer from the next candidate ahead of us in the race. This would suggest that we’d see a cascade of exits, as the weakest candidates exited first, until only Donald Trump and one non-Donald are left, providing only that non-Donalds all prefer non-Donald candidates to the Donald, and that they can make credible promises of reward.

This last point is where it gets complicated. The offer consists of two components – the reward candidate Y offers candidate X, and the probability that Y will deliver. This itself consists of two components, the probability that Y will be President and therefore in a position to make X Ambassador to the Netherlands or whatever, and the probability that Y will betray X.

It’s possible that social trust is different between the parties, even probable, but this risks letting prejudice cloud our thinking, so let’s assume that political cynicism is evenly distributed for the moment. Therefore, the second component is a constant representing the average level of political deceit.

Now, the risk-adjusted value of the reward will be higher the more likely Y is to be elected President. The face value of the reward will be higher the less likely Y is to become the candidate. If the gap between the leading non-Donald and the rest is large, the credibility effect will dominate; if it is small, the reward effect will dominate. But in the aggregate, the value of any reward offered will be greater the more likely the Party of X & Y is to win the general election, because the winning candidate is more likely to be in a position to deliver.

(Y could also drop out in their turn, and transfer the promise to X along with their vote to some candidate Z, but we can deal with this by pointing out that such promises are only likely to be weakly transitive, and further by thinking about the party’s chances rather than Y or Z’s.)

Compare the Democrats. Most people expect Hillary Clinton to be the candidate and to win. Not surprisingly, all the other potential candidates skipped, accepting either an implicit or explicit offer of office or support in the knowledge Clinton is likely to be able to deliver on it. (Bernie Sanders chose to run in order to make a point, rather like John McDonnell in 2007 or Jeremy Corbyn this year.)

Upshot: the less likely your party is to win, the more candidates will stay in the race to be the candidate, and more generalised chaos tends to cause more candidates. Paradoxical! Further, if there is differential social trust between parties, the more trustful party will tend to have fewer candidates in their race.

Polar Behr wanders the frozen North

This Rafael Behr piece about the Oldham by-election has been getting the bird, not surprisingly given the central prediction was hopelessly wrong. The really interesting bit, in my view, is that if we take a maximally charitable view and assume that there is nothing outside the text, so everyone he spoke to in Oldham who expressed an opinion is mentioned and is quoted accurately…well, he had all the information he needed to call it correctly.

We hear from “Rob”, who apparently voted UKIP at the general election but is going to “lend” Labour his vote this time. That is to say, he’s going to vote Labour. “Jo” is also going to vote Labour. We also hear from “Warren”, described as a “UKIP supporter”. We don’t actually hear whether he intends to vote or not, so we can’t weight him by likelihood to vote, but let’s be conservative and score him a strong K-for-Kipper. We also speak to someone who describes Jeremy Corbyn as “just another liar” and refuses to vote, and a ‘kipper who says he’s not going to vote.

Someone else says Jeremy Corbyn is an idiot and needs to get his act together, but doesn’t say which way they might vote or if they will vote. You might say it probably won’t be Labour on the strength of their remarks, but if you asked me I’d say much the same, and I would have voted Labour.

Either way, we’ve got 2 Labour votes with a full turnout weighting, 1 UKIP vote with a full turnout weighting, two people who aren’t going to vote and whose opinions are therefore zero-weighted, and someone who might do pretty much anything. On the night, 2.69 Labour votes were cast for each UKIP vote, so this micro-poll was actually pretty good. Apparently, Rafael Behr is a fairly effective device for generating randomised population samples!

Or maybe not, as none of his respondents has a name implying South Asian ancestry. But that in itself is interesting; it tells us that the UKIP fantasies of vast numbers of fake postal votes from Those People are just that, fantasies, or rather, excuses. If the white population broke 2.x to 1 against UKIP, they were always on a hiding to nothing, because they just didn’t have the votes, and too many of their supporters were popping off general crankiness rather than seriously proposing to do anything.

This would have been a great story, of course. But such was the power of Behr’s preconceptions, the mere fact that he met twice as many people who actually intended to vote Labour as he did ‘kippers doesn’t seem to have passed through his mind en route from memory to keyboard.

Daniel Davies has formed the opinion that Behr is the worst opinion former currently practicing in the UK. I’m not so sure. This piece on Tories taking an interest in Ed Miliband’s ideas about the economy is not only good, it also appeared in the paper on the morning of George Osborne’s autumn statement, seriously prefiguring the Ozzer’s U-turn so big it was more a Gefechtskehrtwendung. Either that was a very good prediction, or else Behr has a high-quality Treasury source.

the problem with a dead cat strategy is that you end up being that guy with the dead cat

So I was saying to Dan Hardie that every couple of days, I feel relatively optimistic about Labour. Thousands more members sign up. And then either Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell does something incredibly strange. Actually, I was literally interrupted at this moment by a notification on my phone, because Ken Livingstone had just done something incredibly strange, by repeatedly insulting Kevan Jones while referring to him as “Jeremy” and futilely trying to outprole the ex-coal miner.

And then we won the tax credits row…until…

Yes, I know he was trying to make a point about wanting to privatise everything by selling it to some other nation’s nationalised industries. But as they say, if you’re explaining you’re losing. And if you’re explaining why you chucked a copy of the thoughts of Mao Zedong across the despatch box…well. I mean, it’s the sort of thing I’d do.

On this occasion, thanks to @simonk133’s Twitter feed, I was able to time the bipolar cycle from victory, to doing something incredibly strange, at exactly 23 minutes. We’ve managed to get this from 24 hours or so in October, down to the same time in minutes. A 60x improvement. It’s like Toyota production, for pratfalls.