Archive for September, 2008


Was Purnell’s speech too good for his own good?

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Is this the man the Gord Gang is most worried about?

Whenever party leaders are changed, it appears, the main selection criteria, it would appear, is for someone with the qualities that the outgoing person appears to lack. Look at Blair to Brown or Ming to Nick Clegg to get the general idea.

And of the limited array of talent on parade at the Labour conference last week the potential leader who appeared to do best with his speech was James Purnell – the 38 year old ex-public school boy who is now the Work and Pensions Secretary. He’s English, he’s young and he communicates well.

Maybe that’s the reason that, according to the Telegraph this morning, he is being viewed by the Number 10 as the one behind the whole botch-up of Ruth Kelly’s resignation announcement.

The report goes on quoting a Purnell supporter : ‘There have been poisonous briefings. James has been very successful in his job and for whatever reason there has been a concerted attempt to damage him and to slag him off. This has also happened to other people so it is no surprise.’ Some Labour MPs believe Mr Purnell, 38, is being targeted in an attempt to stop him emerging as the leading Blairite challenger to Mr Brown after David Miliband’s stock fell dramatically in Manchester last week.”

Several leading commentators this morning have biting attacks on how Gang Gord is operating at the moment and the real danger, surely, is that their activities could undermine the generally better coverage that the the prime minister is getting. Just read Nick Cohen in the Observer or John Rentoul in the Indy on Sunday.

The best Purnell price in the Next Labour Leader betting is 12/1. I think this is quite a good long-term bet whether Gord goes before the general election or after.

Mike Smithson


Can we have confidence in the Sunday Telegraph’s new pollster?

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Sunday Telegraph

    Has ICM been been dumped for an unregistered firm?

There’s a lot going on at the moment and the apparent decision of a major Sunday newspaper to switch pollsters might not seem that important – but today’s BPIX poll in the Sunday Telegraph raises serious issues for all who care about polling transparency.

For after using the respected ICM firm for years the Sunday Telegraph’s poll this morning is from a firm that is not part of the British Polling Council, doesn’t apparently respond to email requests for information, and has a web-site that has been “under construction” for getting on for four years.

    Polls play a huge part in shaping the political environment and pioneering firms like ICM have long recognised that public confidence in what they do requires transparency. We need to know how the polling numbers are produced and what the methodology is so we can take an informed view of what is said to be a reflection of public opinion.

Until now the main BPIX outlet has been the Mail on Sunday which has published the firm’s polls intermittently. If this is a permanent switch by the Sunday Telegraph – a paper that takes its political coverage seriously – it represents a major step backwards. I only hope that the editors put pressure on the firm to provide data like the rest of the major national pollsters.

Rant over. We do know that the fieldwork for BPIX is carried out by YouGov but without the standard data we have no idea how the headline figures were calculated. The findings themselves are showing the same sharp shift-back to Labour that we have seen in the recent YouGov and ICM surveys. Fieldwork started on Wednesday and continued until Friday.

Clearly the massive publicity of Labour’s party conference and the world financial crisis are having an impact on opinion and Gordon Brown is seeing the benefit. All this is going to make the Conservative Conference in Birmingham less of the breeze for Cameron and his team than many were predicting.

Facing a government that seems to have changed the media narrative is going to make the Tory challenge that more complex. There is now just an element of uncertainty about the next election and Cameron has to be ultra careful about expectation management and what his party says about the world crisis. His speech on Wednesday could be crucial.

Mike Smithson


Will this be our next US import?

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

    After spousal introductions at conference, could debates be next?

One of the novelties of this week in British politics was seeing the Prime Minister introduced at the Labour Party Conference by his wife, Sarah Brown. In a short introductory address, she was chosen to help her husband connect with voters and to put ‘a human face on government’. I think the consensus was that she did very well in an unfamiliar role, and her decision drew plaudits from across the political spectrum, not least on Thursday’s entertaining episode of Question Time.

Many were quick to highlight this as another American interloper into British political culture. US politics has long seen the First Lady as an important political figure, and in the Clinton Administration, the East Wing took as great an interest in some legislation as the West Wing. Similarly, Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama have been key public figureheads of their husbands’ campaigns, and are amongst the most sought-after speakers at events. Both gave high profile addresses at their respective Conventions (see my Denver Diary for an account of Michelle Obama’s address).

There is no question either that UK parties are seeking to emulate the Democrats and Republicans in building well-run grassroots organisations, and many of the web-based developments that are now so central to US campaigning are beginning to be seen over here – WebCameron, YouTube channels, fundraising and activist debate on specially-run websites. In his little-covered speech to the Labour Party Conference, Jack Dromey specifically attacked the American ‘arms race’ mentality of election spending, although the record-breaking $1 billion price-tag on the 2008 election amounts to only $3.25 per citizen once every four years, or less than the US spends on chewing gum – scarcely too high a price to pay for a vibrant democracy.

    With John McCain promising that, as President, he would introduce a form of scrutiny similar to Prime Minister’s Questions, the question that comes to mind is why in the UK we still avoid the sorts of Election Debates between party leaders that are such a mainstay of American politics, and indeed politics in almost every major democracy around the globe?

Last night’s debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was not thrilling political theatre, but perhaps that is to be expected. Whilst the poorly-read questions at PMQ’s are a personal bugbear of mine when compared to the rhetorical standards expected of a Congressman or District Attorney in the US, I actually think that an adversarial form of public speaking is something that is far more natural to British politicians than their American counterparts of similar rank. Whilst Cabinet ministers, party leaders and front benchers are expected to go on Question Time or face Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Candidates in the US are so sought-after by the media that interviews are an act of extreme magnanimity towards a fawning Fourth Estate, leading to the sort of soft-focus interrogations that would make John Humphreys blush. Similarly, the deference accorded to the likes of Cabinet Secretaries and Senators by television journalists is scant preparation for the Debates that have become a mainstay of the American electoral process.

I think that we are overdue this particular American import, and think it would provide a fascinating opportunity for vast swathes of the country to see the main party leaders spell out their vision for the country in prime time. We are lucky to have the great spectacle of PMQs once a week, but midday on Wednesdays is scarcely the optimal time for the public to become aware of policy positions or public character. By seeing this session reduced to barely 15 seconds of footage on the evening news, we are cheating millions of voters of the right to see their political leadership challenged on their policies and on their records.

Historically, it seems that such an idea has always been blocked by sitting Prime Ministers – a refusal to elevate the Opposition party leaders to their level. I would be tempted to suggest that, if the polls are still showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives in the first months of 2010, Gordon Brown actually has very little to lose by making his case directly to the public. A bounce such as was seen after his conference speech could make all the difference, and although he has been bested more often than not at the Dispatch Box, a formal debate is a different animal for Cameron and Clegg to tame.

If the three party leaders were brave enough to submit to the challenge, I think we would see a fascinating event. And if they ask nicely, I’m sure Our Genial Host Mike Smithson would agree to moderate it – with readers working the dials, of course!



So how did we score the first debate?

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

    Which candidate will be happier with their performance?

Given the spectacle presented for our delectation only a couple of hours ago, I cannot have been alone in wishing Senators McCain and Obama had resolved to stay in Washington, rather than attend the first Presidential debate at Ole Miss. In retrospect, I would actually have preferred that the negotiations over the Congressional bailout had been televised instead. The clear consensus on was that this was a boring affair, peppered with occasional interludes of dullness, and garnished with stale soundbites and soporific delivery.

    Neither candidate could afford to lose badly, even after a hard fortnight of expectations-management by the campaigns, and so both played as though they were seeking to avoid defeat, rather than aim for a clear victory. Negative jibes were rare, attacks of any vigour completely absent – this was debating-by-numbers, with all the jokes and cliches that have ever received a favourable press recycled in the vain hope of inducing a wan smile.

McCain is a better debater than he is a public speaker, whereas Obama struggles to leave his academic podium for the cut-and-thrust of the debating hall. He did avoid appearing aloof, but also lacked energy. McCain was workmanlike, and avoided eye contact with Obama, or direct reference to his opponent by his forename. The recurring phrase he was seeking to introduce was ‘Senator Obama doesn’t understand…’; an opportunity afforded him largely due to the (apparent) foreign policy focus of the debate.

The CNN dials were worth a watch – Republicans, Democrats and Independents would dial ‘up’ if they liked what a candidate was saying, and ‘down’ if they didn’t. More than one person noted that the Independent ticker stayed closer to the Democratic line than the Republican one. It seemed that the Republican line was more likely to remain net favourable for the Democratic candidate than vice versa. None of the movements were strong enough to suggest that a fundamental shift in the polls should be expected, though one or two people suggested that we were seeing a hardening in Democratic Party support. The other notable feature of the dials was how badly Independents responded to negative attacks by either candidate on their opponent, or even explicitly on the other party.

    Most who watched the debate called it a no-score draw, though perhaps the better allegory would be a boxing match scarcely won on points (by split decision). These were two, weary heavyweight fighters, lumbering about the ring, spending more time locked in a defensive embrace than throwing actual punches. McCain had more to lose, after his suggestion that he wanted the debate to be postponed, and he acquitted himself admirably, and with fortitude. Obama was not on home turf, even with the subject of the $700bn Congressional bailout on loan to the discipline of International Relations, but similarly survived a tough contest comparitively unscathed.

I don’t think this debate will see any violent changes in polling numbers. For those who were saying that McCain needs another ‘Palin episode’ to recover a polling lead, and that the debates offered that opportunity, some concern might not be misplaced. If he needed more than a draw from last night, then Obama should be the happier candidate this morning. Conversely, Obama supporters may feel a little concerned that he still does not seem relaxed in the debating arena – a weakness that may either be ameliorated or fatally exposed at the next event: a joint Town Hall.

So, on balance, a fairly neutral result from a fairly bland contest. We are a day closer to November 4th, and there is one fewer debate to upturn the tables. Whether you think that benefits one candidate more than the other will likely depend on your own allegiances.

[Betting news: The chart above shows the changes in the Betfair price on John McCain over a 24 hour period until 5am this morning. The odds are expressed as an implied probability – Mike Smithson]

Latest Live White House Betting.



The White House Debate thread

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Could this be the make or break moment?

Well it seems as though the first presidential debate is going ahead after all and a huge TV audience is expected for the Obama-McCain clash from Oxford, Mississippi.

It’s due to start at 0200 UK time and will last for ninety minutes.

Live White House Race betting odds

Mike Smithson


Labour’s ICM deficit down to 9%

Friday, September 26th, 2008

The Guardian’s monthly ICM poll is just out and produces vote shares very much in the same ball-park as the YouGov poll earlier in the week. Fieldwork for the latter was taken on Tuesday and Wednesday while the former was carried out on Wednesday and Thursday.

Labour will feel encouraged and the Tories will still be pleased to be above the 40% mark even though they have been almost totally out of the headlines for weeks.

The timing of the poll means that there is no conference bounce for the Lib Dems.

I was hoping that the Guardian would have followed its usual pattern and agreed that the fieldwork would have started on the Friday and carried over to the Saturday and Sunday. Quite why it has been brought forward is strange because, as was noted with the earlier YouGov poll, surveys bang in the middle of the conference season have a history of producing odds outcomes.

The reason things can get distorted at this time is that the broadcasters are committed to carry extended coverage which has the effect of blanking out the other parties.

But there we are. All we can do is wait until the effect of the conference system has shaken itself out of the system and we can then get a real sense of the major political battle.

If Labour manage to keep the deficit under 10% then they have a real chance of stopping a Tory overall majority. I don’t think they will do and there will be sharp swings back to the Tories once they have had massive media exposure from their conference.

Tonight’s presidential debate.
A new thread is set to be published at midnight and Morus will be covering tomorrow.

Mike Smithson


Will both be there for tonight’s debate?

Friday, September 26th, 2008

What if McCain just doesn’t show?

With the first of the presidential debates due to start at 2am UK time there’s still a lot of confusion over whether or not the GOP nominee, John McCain will actually show up. The Irish bookmakers, Intrade, have been running a market on whether or not this will happen.

The venue is in Oxford Mississippi where something like $5m has been spent on organising the event and everything looked fine until McCain’s call on Wednesday for it to be postponed because of the bailout plan discussions.

Obama has said he will be there – so if the GOP man doesn’t show then there will be an empty place on the podium.

According to the Christian Science Monitor about an hour ago: “Senator McCain now says he’s “hopeful” he will make it to Oxford. But unless an emergency bill is ready for a vote before then, he may still skip it. If that happens, it would the first time in recent history that a major party candidate left a podium empty during a formal presidential debate.”

This is a high risk strategy by McCain and all adds to the impression that he’s a gambler to the core. Just like his Palin pick McCain can pull things out of the hat which can be highly risky.

My guess is that he will be there – it would just too big a deal for him not to show up.

One thing he’s going to have to deal with if the bail-out plan fails to happen is getting the blame. Everything was going to plan, it is being said, until he upped the ante with the yesterday’s big meeting.

So a big night ahead.

In the White House Race betting the McCain price has moved out to 1.8/1. Just over a week ago he was heading towards evens.

Mike Smithson


    Con 41 (-3)

    Lab 32 (+3)

    Lib Dem 18 (-1)

Double Carpet


Is Riddell right about Dave “sealing the deal”?

Friday, September 26th, 2008

    Aren’t Votes are votes whatever the motivation?

In the Times today Peter Riddell is arguing that the latest Populus poll suggests that the prospective Conservative vote at the next general election is “soft” because a large proportion say it’s because they are anti-Labour rather than being pro-Tory.

The figures show that of the Tory voters in the poll just 56% said they would do so because they are pro-Tory while 44% are just anti-Labour This compares with Labour supporters where the split is 81% – 19%.

    But does this matter for on polling day all votes count the same whatever the reason for each voter’s personal choice?

The poll findings do not surprise me because my sense is that the mood of the electorate is broadly that it wants the Labour government out rather than being convinced that it wants the Tories back. But isn’t this just like 1997 where the mood was in the other direction – the electorate wanted the Tories out rather than there being an overwhelming desire for Labour.

What Tony Blair achieved on that historical day was to have so assuaged the negatives about Labour that former Tory supporters in their droves were ready to support him and his party. Just remember the campaign that Blair fought – the main emphasis was on getting rid of the Tories. In 2001 and 2005 the theme continued with – “don’t let the Tories back in” being the essence of the party’s proposition.

    Hasn’t Cameron just followed the Blair model – deal with the negatives so that his party is no longer perceived as being the “nasty party”?

Riddell’s conclusion that this means that the Tory vote is soft only applies, surely, if there is a prospect that Labour could so re-invent itself in the next 20 months so that people don’t feel so negative about it any longer. I can’t see that happening under Brown – but with another leader then maybe there is just a chance.

Doesn’t this all support the old adage that governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them?

Mike Smithson