Archive for May, 2009


Wouldn’t a delay be wiser?

Sunday, May 31st, 2009


Would it be foolish to topple Brown now?

I’ve had a number of conversations about the pending Fall of Brown with a wide variety of political types over the last week or two, and so from the outset I’d like to acknowledge that some of the genesis of this article belongs to them as much as to my own musing.*

David Herdson’s excellent article last week asked whether the election ‘campaign’ for Speaker might be just enough to deter the Labour Party from seeking to run a parallel election for Leader (assuming they harbour the desire to topple Gordon Brown in the wake of disastrous European and Local election results). I think there is much sense to that idea, but I am concerned that sense is not the dominant force in the tumult of overthrowing a sitting Prime Minister.

Mike has written that the Labour Party is polling somewhat better than Gordon Brown personally. It will be interesting to see (should it occur) how the Labour Party would fare (in this Parliament) if they chose to face Cameron with a different Leader. Certainly every Conservative I speak to thinks that loss of the current PM would be a set-back to their plans for the General Election. In line with the old chessplayers’ maxim that you should always do what your opponent least wants you to do, it would seem that there is some sense to using the June 2009 election results as a means to replace Brown.

But I’m not sure that such a revolution in the PLP would be optimal for their chances of holding onto power. Any new Labour leader would instantly be under pressure to call a General Election, and refusing to do so would likely deflate the ‘honeymoon’ that most political leaders get to enjoy in their first month or two in role. To avoid this problem, there are only two options.

Firstly, a new leader could simply assent to a snap General Election, knowing that unless they got extremely lucky, they would within weeks make history as the PM with the shortest term in history. Whilst it would be nice to be remembered for something, I suspect that actively assenting to calling an optional election within weeks of moving into Number 10 would prove a little beyond the strength of all but the least ambitious candidate.

So what is the other option? I think it is to accede to the office of Prime Minister, but without the pressure of having to make that decision at all. If Brown was toppled in, say, February or March of next year then the calls for a snap election would not be as intense, given that the media, the public, and the Opposition would recognise that Parliament was almost at its end anyhow.

A new Prime Minister would be able to put the matter to rest by immediately saying that the election was scheduled for May as planned, and would have the chance to make new policy without the pressure of making the decision that Brown flunked in October 2007. With that freedom, and the chance of a reasonable honeymoon, a Labour PM would have the best chance possible of preventing a Conservative overall majority.

So should Labour overthrow Brown after the June 2009 election results are confirmed? I would suggest not. A drawn out contest (perhaps running up to Party Conference in September) would not do the party too much good, and a new leader would have to sustain a long honeymoon to make it to the Spring. By leaving Brown in post until February or March 2010, I’d suggest a new leader would prove much more successful in the subsequent General Election.


*If those concerned would like credit, they can contact me, but as several conversations were held under Chatham House Rules, I have taken the path of anonymous credit in the first instance. I would have waited to contact them, but it seems that if Alan Johnson or David Milliband have their wicked way, this might be the last weekend to write this article, so the idea must be released forthwith.


What do we think of the morning’s telly?

Sunday, May 31st, 2009


What does my screen-shot say about Gord?

What a day but I suppose it’s only to be expected given how close we are to Thursday’s elections.

Everybody seems to have been on the telly this morning – the biggest of them all, I suppose, being Gordon Brown with Andrew Marr.

So what do we make of it all? Has anybody helped their case – has anybody done the opposite.

For what it’s worth I thought Marr did well against Brown and Adam Boulton was good against Cameron.

Mike Smithson


Could Dave’s plan guarantee Labour’s future?

Sunday, May 31st, 2009


Will Primaries be how the big parties strike back?

In and amongst the big political stories of the week one potentially very significant event has received scant attention. This was the speech given by David Cameron at the Open University which set-out a series of ideas and policies that would bring about one of the biggest changes to political life this country has seen for decades.
The scope of the proposed changes is vast: they run across the whole gamut of the relationship between the individual and the state, from reform of parliament to an end to the use of local government as an agent of Whitehall, from reform of the ‘human rights’ agenda to elected police chiefs, from consideration of fixed-term parliaments to public-initiated referenda.

However, one procedure which has already been trialled on a small number of occasions may be in for much greater use: open primaries in parliamentary. So far, these have been relatively small-scale events, essentially no more than the traditional party selection open to party members within the constituency, except that those who could attend wasn’t restricted.

That’s all well and good but if the fixed-term parliaments proposal is acted upon, that opens up the opportunity for more structured primaries, similar to those in the United States because with the (at least much greater) certainty of knowing when the election will be, there’s much less chance that a snap election will interfere with the process.

Parking that thought for a moment, let’s return to a theme from last week’s article, and continuing through the polls this last week: the rise of minor parties. Despite Britain’s First Part the Post electoral system being highly stacked against minor parties, even ones with a fair degree of regional focus, such as the SNP, they’ve continued to win larger and larger shares of the vote. Why has this happened? There are no doubt many contributory factors but to me three stand out: negative campaigning, increased centralised control within parties and an increase in the relative importance of individual issues against general ‘movements’.

The Conservatives and Labour have spent decades arguing how rubbish each other was and is, sometimes to the exclusion of promoting themselves (see numerous ppb’s for evidence). It would hardly be surprising if a proportion of the population agreed with both sides and didn’t vote for either.

That negative campaigning, combined with an increased focus by the media on negative stories, has impelled parties to keep candidates and MP’s on message, to avoid discussion and especially dissent, lest it be seen as ‘splits within the party’ and to demand increased central control in order to achieve these ends. While that’s produced more professional outfits, it’s also tended towards homogeneity, allowing fringe parties to fill in the gaps.

At the same time, the social and ideological bases of the parties has eroded. Today’s big political parties have far fewer members than they did fifty years ago. People are still willing to get involved in politics but not so much via the medium of mass-membership parties. Single-issue campaigns are on the other hand popular and perhaps off the back of that, single-issue parties have found greater support. At one time, it’s quite probable that members of some of these parties would have joined the mainstream machines and carved their niche within them, but with the lack of tolerance for such niches both by the public and the parties, that’s less possible these days.

Where does this fit into proposals for primaries? In essence, they are incompatible with the trends to centralisation and likely to undermine some of the purpose of single-issue parties.

It seems impossible to have open competition between candidates for a party’s nomination without disagreement between them and will make the drawing up of binding manifestoes more difficult. Parties – already losing some of their ideological purpose – could tend even more towards machines to enable election, within which individuals with specific interests could again work. It gives them a better opportunity to get elected without the necessity to compromise unacceptably their integrity to centralised goals.

That is largely what the American parties have become but here’s a crucial point: the American parties have proved extremely resilient. While parties have come and gone in some countries with bewildering frequency – especially some which operate systems that don’t particularly punish splits, such as PR or multiple-round voting, but even in some FPTP countries – the big parties in America, uniquely able to deliver results, have maintained their duopoly.

Could that be the route for the long-term survival of the big parties in Britain? For all the challengers they face, the Conservatives and Labour remain the only parties with the organisations to win general election victories. If open primaries were extended in their operation (and if one party went down that line, others would surely have to follow), might potential candidates who would currently be inclined to UKIP or the Greens try their luck with the Conservatives or Labour?

Although the reforms would strip the parties of even more ideological coherence by increasing the independence of members and the value of their local mandate, they could reinforce the parties’ place in the system. Could it be that one outcome of Cameron’s proposals for reform is a guarantee for the long-term survival of Labour?

David Herdson


Lib Dems move into second place in new ICM poll?

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

CON 40(+1) LAB 22(-6) LD 25 (+5)

Desperate desperate figures for Brown as he faces June 4th

A sensational new ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph tonight has Labour down on 22% three points behind Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats who are at 25%.

This surely shows the affect that the MP expenses affair is having with Labour suffering much more than the other parties even though, during the fieldwork period, it was Tory miscreants who were dominating the headlines.

This is serious stuff for Brown as he faces what could be a disastrous Thursday with locals election in the English shire counties and, of course, the five yearly round of elections to the European parliament.

As I’ve argued here many times ICM has the most Lib Dem friendly methodology and the best record of all the firms in predicting the party’s eventual share from this far out. This is party down to its mathematics and party to its voting intention question which, uniquely, focuses on what will be going on in the respondents constituencies.

This, of course, comes after a high profile period for Nick Clegg and him being seen to have taken the lead over calling for Michael Martin to go.

There are Euro election numbers in the ICM poll which are markedly different to that which we saw from Populus last night.

CON 29 LAB 17 LD 20 UKIP 10 GRN 11 BNP 5

The marked differences are with UKIP and the Lib Dems. It’s hard coming up with an explanation until we have seen the detailed data.

My guess is that unlike Populus ICM did not prompt with the minor party names.

Mike Smithson


Is the EU election closing in on GB?

Saturday, May 30th, 2009


Another June 4th poll has gloomy figures for Labour

There’s a new ICM poll in the Sunday Telegraph tomorrow – but alas we’ll have to wait for the detailed data. All we know is this quote from the columnist Matthew D’Ancona:

..As for the European elections, today’s ICM poll in The Sunday Telegraph suggests that Labour could finish third, on less than 20 per cent…

This, of course, follows last night’s Populus survey which had Labour on 16% – three points behind UKIP.

This post will be updated as more information become available.

Mike Smithson


Will voter anger underpin turnout?

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

polling poster windy.JPG

Why I’m revising my betting profile

I’ve been getting reports on postal voting in several parts of England where there are concurrent local elections taking place on Thursday and the pattern is that the turnout is higher than normal at this stage.

This seems to suggest that my earlier forecast might not be on target after all and that if it is less than 30% it will be in the high 20s. As I set out I was betting heavily on a sub-30% figure but was covering the punts with bets on William Hill markets with wagers on the 30 – 34.9% segment at prices from 11/4 to 5/2. I’ve now stepped up my positions on the latter bet.

Maybe the heavy focus on political news in the past three weeks and the high levels of voter anger could see more rather than less of them at the polling stations on Thursday?

There are two very different segments amongst Thursday’s voters. Those who have concurrent local elections and those that do not. Where there’s the former there’s usually a much higher degree of on the ground campaigning as incumbent councillors try to hold on to their positions and allowances while their opponents try to take their seats. With the latter the regions are usually so vast that there isn’t much of a linkage between those standing on party lists and the voter.

My turnout call was based on the fact that there are far fewer voters in the latter category than there were in 2004 and there is no all-postal voting which boosted turnout in four of the mega-English regions then.

If we can extrapolate the postal turnout data that is coming in then it does suggest that where there are concurrent elections then the numbers are holding up – hence the reason for my betting adjustment.

Is the information that I’ve got consistent with what other PBers are seeing?

Populus poll methodology
I've been in touch with the boss of the firm, Andrew Cooper, the way the Euro voting intention question was put - which is different that what they've done in the past.
He responded: "The European vote intention question was: 'which party will you vote for at the European Parliament elections next week - will it be (rotate order) Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, SNP (Scotland only), Plaid Cymru (Wales only), Green, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the British National Party (BNP) or another party?' If respondent says 'another party' there is second short prompt list including Libertas, no-2-eu and one or two others, and then 'or another party - or are you undecided which party you'll vote for?'
The party rotation is in two parts - first the three main parties in rotated order, then the others in rotated order.
We asked European voting intention at the very end of the 10 minute interview and Westminster voting intention at the very beginning.

Mike Smithson


What do we think of VoteMatch?

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Communicating manifesti to the masses?

A couple of weeks ago I attended the launch of VoteMatch at the Apple Store on Regent’s Street. A glitzy affair, the evening was compered by Steven Fry (replete in Black Tie) and Simon Hoggart of the Guardian, with Iain Dale giving a demonstration of the tool.

VoteMatch is an online application (accessable as an iPhone app) which asks you thirty questions, and directs you to which party most closely matches your responses. It has been (re)launched with a view to educating the public about where the parties stand in the run-up to the European election. It doesn’t seek to tell people how to vote, but rather seeks to allow for greater awareness and understanding of the parties’ positions, and to encourage people to learn more about the EU. Launched by Unlock Democracy Its motives are, I think, honourable and the idea is a Good Thing.

That said, I have some personal quibbles. The decision was made to focus entirely on European politics – ie What the EU should and should do/be. Whilst that is perhaps theoretically sensible, it means some disconnect between what people will actually vote upon in the European elections (including national issues or areas of competance not yet under the direction of the EU) and how their score matches that of the parties. I also retain a slight suspicion that those not weighting the issues they care about will get a very close result between several parties – perhaps reflective of how little difference there is between many parties on EU affairs. However, this is perhaps understandable, and I have no doubt that the General Election widget to follow will allow for results that are closer to how people will actually vote, rather than simply being educative of where the parties stand.

My bigger problem is with some of the questions. I have some experience of designing polling questions, and there are several that I though were (if not unanswerable) then perhaps not best designed to elucidate differences in political position given the Agree/Disagree/No Opinion format. Iain Dale picked up on one in particular: “In a recession, national governments should have the freedom to subsidise their own businesses.” – he thought national governments should have the freedom, but he is absolutely against subsidies.

I had more problem with two other questions: “Allowing workers to work more than 48 hours a week, even voluntarily, is open to abuse by employers” – of course it is ‘open’ to abuse, but I don’t think it would be widespread enough to justify the WTD over which Britain has just surrendered its opt-out. Similarly, “The President of the European Commission should be elected by the European Parliament.” seemed problematic – answering ‘Disagree’ could be either a belief in an unelected President of the Commission, or a belief in a directly-elected President (by the people). An ‘Agree’ answer could be a vote in favour of the European Parliament having that power, or an aspiration for directly-elected President and this as a first step.

The worst example of a mixed issue question was: “The EU should make it possible for any EU citizen go to any hospital in the EU and have the doctor treating them able to access their health records instantly.” – I am absolutely in favour of being able to visit any doctor in Europe and ready to press ‘Agree’ until the question becomes less about universal pan-European access to healthcare, and veers off into the merits (or lack thereof) of a pan-European health database, which I categorically oppose.

Combining issues might have allowed VoteMatch to keep down to 30 questions (a maximum that people will engage in answering apparently), but that’s no good if it renders the answers non-sensical.

After thirty questions, you indicate which issue matter a lot, and which you care less about, followed by a list of the parties you would consider supporting (default being all). The result (at least in my case) was very surprising, and indicated a party I would never consider voting for – perhaps reflective of my own confused political stance!

Personally, I think the questions need revision to ensure that each pertains to only a single-issue, and that the answers should allow for more than ‘Agree’ and ‘Disagree’, especially in questions which suggest such a contentious middle-ground (the election of the President of the Commission). For clarity of questions, I would recommend the famous Political Compass as a model. The survey could have included a Left-Right axis (ignoring Political Compass’ innovation) and superimposed a pro-EU/anti-EU axis – this I think would have given more meaningful results.

That said, anything that encourages people to learn more about their elections or about the political system is to be encouraged – if it should manage to re-engage the 70% of the electorate who are unlikely to vote on June 4th, then that would be a good thing too: unless you have money on the turnout markets.

UPDATE: Chris Took has posted another of these simulators on last night’s thread, called EUprofiler which can be found here. This answers a lot of the questions I raised in this article, though I still came out with the (unthinkable) result that I got from VoteMatch!

UPDATE: Peter Facey from Unlock Democracy, who created VoteMatch, has answered a question about where the parties’ positions were taken from (largely from questionnaires – some parties, like the BNP, refused to take part). His comment can be found at number 145. Thanks Peter.


NOTE: Over the next week, we’ll be announcing plans for the European Election Results night on Sunday 7th June 2009 – we’ll be covering all the results from across the Continent, with particular focus on the UK, and trying out some experimental tools and widgets.

If you are planning to reference the results (as a sub-agent at a count, or in some other capacity) on Twitter (I’m on @Morus1516) I’d recommend using the hashtag #eu09 (plus the #uk hashtag etc).


Is Labour heading for melt-down next Thursday?

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Populus reports a Euro vote slump to just 16%

A new Populus poll for the Times is out this evening and provides some comfort for the Tories but absolutely dreadful numbers for Labour in both Westminster and the Euro election voting intentions.

As has been suggested in recent posts on PB the big gainers for next Thursday EU election have been UKIP who look set to take second place. There are two sets of voting intention figures:

CON 41(+2) LAB 21(-6) LD 15 (-2)

CON 30 LAB 16 LD 12 UKIP 19 GRN 10 BNP 5

The Tories will take a lot of comfort from the Westminster 41% share and the fact that they are leading Labour by 20 points – almost double,

The Lib Dems will be a bit worred by the decline in both the Westminster and Euro numbers though a lot of that is probably down to the rise of the Greens.

But the real winners in this poll are UKIP. Their 19% EU election share is nothing short of sensational and could have a lasting effect on UK politics.

Whatever it’s going to be a long uncomfortable night at Number 10 a week on Sunday if the actual results are anything near these numbers. Could this be the trigger that ends Brown’s leadership? We shall see.

Betting. On William Hill political markets you can still get 11/8 on UKIP coming out with more European Parliament seats than Labour. Sounds good to me and I’ve put more on.

Mike Smithson