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LAB and the LDs must be hoping to move up the BBC National vote share projection next week – with the Tories edging down

April 24th, 2018

Drawing national conclusions from the local battles

We are only 8 days away from the May local elections which at the moment looks as though will be the most significant UK electoral test that we will have during 2018.

One of the problems with looking for national trends from the locals is that very different ranges of seats come up each year and we cannot simply use the party vote or seat totals for comparison. Over a four year cycle in England different types of councils have elections. Thus with the London boroughs, a Labour stronghold, dominating this year an annual assessment on just the aggregate vote would be distorting in the same way in years when the shire counties dominate.

To get round this each year the BBC team, which includes John Curtice, seek to make a projection for the entire country based on the results that they have available. There’s another team as well making a similar calculation – professors Rawlings and Thrasher. The latter do it in a different way and I must admit that I have never comprehended the methodological difference between theirs and the BBC numbers.

If this election is similar to previous ones the chances are that the BBC figure will be published first most likely on the night during their election results coverage.

The chart above show the BBC projected national vote share at every set of local elections since 2000. UKIP only came into the equation in 2013 which explains the shortness of the plot.

Last year things were rather distorted by the fact that the general election was called during the local election campaign and on the day before polling day Mrs May made her highly publicised drive to The Palace followed by a speech in Downing Street – something that completely dominated the headlines and the TV coverage.

Unless she’s got something special up her sleeve this time I’m not expecting that such a boost will be possible.

Mike Smithson





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Fake news and how to deal with it

April 24th, 2018

DNA is perplexingly long. Almost 98% of the human genome is non-coding: that is, it does not make protein in the cell. Some of that definitely does have some practical aspect but at present large parts of human DNA has no known function. Scientists are still trying to work out why. It is sometimes disparagingly known as junk DNA.

The internet, like DNA, is a mechanism for passing on information. Like DNA, large parts of the internet have no outwardly-obvious function. Perhaps there are scientists earnestly scrutinising cat videos trying to work out why they are there (perhaps junk DNA encodes cat videos).

In each case, the really dangerous part isn’t the junk, it’s the corruption of the important information. The nature of lying online has changed the way in which untruths have affected public debate. It’s well past time that we took stock.

Lying wasn’t invented on the internet. In the past, however, the ability to tell a narrative-changing lie was severely restricted. In the early part of the twentieth century, mass communication was in the hands of those who owned newspapers. The barriers to entry were high and newspaper audiences were large. The influence of the owners was enormous. Not for nothing were they called press barons.

We should have no false nostalgia for the age of the fourth estate. At least one British election was hugely influenced by press lies – the Zinoviev letter remains notorious. Journalism was seen as a byword for venality and unfairness. Moreover, much information that was of huge public interest was kept from the masses because the political classes could effectively control the small group responsible for public information. Edward VIII’s assignations with Wallis Simpson were not publicly known in Britain for many months (though covered in detail in other countries).

The internet destroyed the barriers to setting up information provision. Suddenly anyone with a computer and an internet connection, a readable writing style and with some information to offer could open for business.

Initially, this seemed like an unqualified positive. Want to know about opposition politics in Hong Kong? Developments in bee-keeping? The technical changes to Formula 1 constructor requirements? The internet could fulfil your needs more quickly and more comprehensively than any newspaper or magazine could ever hope to.

Some of this has been truly transformative. There are now more than 5.5 million articles on the English version of Wikipedia, a single repository of knowledge unlike anything ever previously seen in any previous encyclopaedia.

The worm in the apple took some time to break cover. It had long since been appreciated that online information that had not been peer-reviewed might be wrong or misleading through inadvertence or might present a highly tendentious view of the truth from the writer’s personal viewpoint. Readers were well-aware that some might present deliberate lies defensively. All of these problems were familiar from past experience with the media.

The idea of someone presenting deliberately untrue information as an active policy was something new. It had not previously been practical because of the gatekeepers at the top of the media who could bar access to the public. With that control gone, the way was open for anyone who wanted to launch a campaign of misinformation.

It started relatively innocently, with mischief-makers on Wikipedia tinkering for kicks. Some saw the business opportunity in heart-warming clickbait, whether or not the inspirational story was in fact true (see Daisy the Dog for more details).

Then the political implications began to sink in. “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”, Winston Churchill advised. It is apparent that many fighting wars online feel exactly that way.

Why are internet lies so successful? First, people want to believe stories that are congenial to their worldview. Corbynites, Leavers and those on the Trump train are obvious examples of this phenomenon, but those on the opposing side of each of these groups can be just as guilty of wishful thinking. Why scrutinise carefully a story that confirms your prejudices?

Secondly, debunking a lie takes time as the facts are established. Previously, journalists would have done the job. But the media’s response to the pressure on costs that the internet has driven was to cut those costs. Among the most expensive costs were the salaries of the journalists who did the fact-finding. So the people who used to do this just aren’t doing this job any more.

I’ve already quoted Winston Churchill so I’d better quote Oscar Wilde as well: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. Truth is fractal – the more closely you look at it, the more qualifications you need to put on the assertion. This leaves plenty of scope for argument and the original claim can get lost in an argument over an essentially trivial point. Moreover, the truth is usually quite humdrum. But (this is my thirdly) a lie is subject to no such need for restraint. It needs no nuance and can be as exciting as its creator wishes it to be. And who doesn’t like lurid excitement?

Fourthly, it’s human to want to lead the pack. Once CNN exhorted us to “Be the first to know”. Now we want to be the first to tell. Why check when you can be claiming kudos points?

So, in a news version of Gresham’s Law, bad information drives out good. We hoard the quality stuff and pass on the rubbish.

What can we do to combat this? In short, be sceptical. If you’re told something eyebrow-raising, look for a primary source to back it up. Try to get context.

Be especially sceptical of information that produces a strong emotional response from you. Ask yourself who wants to produce that response.

Don’t be part of the problem. If you are retweeting without first checking your information, you are a vector.

At the moment, fake news is achieving its proponents’ ends spectacularly. In the long run, it will subside as the internet public become more wary of their source material. For now, trust no one.

Alastair Meeks




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The LDs need a good day in next week’s locals just to show that they are still in the game

April 24th, 2018

Can they take councils and increase their council seats?

We are now three years on from the end of the Coalition and it is 8 years since tuition fees were a big issue. For the Lib Dems next week’s local elections are an opportunity to show that they are starting to recover at least at local level.

Because the elections up on May the 3rd include all the London boroughs there will be much greater mainstream media interest than is normal on the first Thursday in May. That in one way is fortunate for the yellow team because London is a region of the UK that really is separate and operates totally differently from the rest of the nation. It was also strongly for Remain in the referendum two years ago and surely, here, Cable’s party should be able to make some inroads.

There are three London boroughs in the southwest of the capital of where they have most hopes and this is reflected in the betting.

At Kingston which they used to control Ed Davey took back the main parliamentary seat at GE17 and when Ladbrokes opened its local elections markets last month it had the LDs at 1/10. That’s now edged out to 1/4 but that is still very tight. The Tories opened at 6/1 to hold on and are now 3/1 with no overall control moving from 16/1 to 8/1.

The neighbouring Borough of Richmond saw Vince Cable win back Twickenham in the General Election but the party lost their 2016 by-election gain of Richmond Park by a whisker. Ladbrokes now make it 10/11 on both the LDs and the Tories to win a Council majority.

When the market was opened the LDs were at 4/6 with the Tories at 11/10. No overall control has moved from 16/1 to 8/1.

The Tories had hopes of regaining the one London Borough that the LDs retained four years ago Sutton. When betting opened the Tories were 4/5 favourites. That’s now moved out to 3/1 with the LDs moving from 5/4 to 1/3.

Also up is one of the two elected mayoralties that the party has – Watford. Here the four times winner and now LD peer, Dorothy Thornhill, is stepping aside so the party won’t have a personal incumbency advantage. Ladbrokes make it 1/4 that it will remain in yellow hands

Nationally the Lib Dems need to see a big increase in the overall projected national vote share as well as seats.

Mike Smithson




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Punters still make next year the favourite for TMay to stand down

April 23rd, 2018


Betdata.io

In spite of all the talk about “leadership challenges” there’s been little change in the Betfair betting on when TMay will cease to be leader.

Next year remains the solid 37% favourite with 2018 a 25% shot.

A few weeks go I got 8/1 with a bookie that she’d be out this year which I regarded then as value. The latest prices don’t tempt me.

But there is little doubt that she has done remarkably well to survive for so long and the longer she stays, I’d suggest, the greater the chance of her making it though to the next election.

But we do live in interesting times and anything could happen. Harold Macmillan used to call it “Events dear boy”.

Mike Smithson




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Why the threat of a confidence vote on TMay has far less potency than it appears

April 23rd, 2018

Talk of letters to Graham Brady is probably just talk

It has been reported over the weekend that Mrs May could possibly face a challenge over the issue of whether Britain remains in a Customs Union after Brexit.

Hardline Brexiteers are absolutely resolute that this should not happen and have been making vibes that should Mrs May concede what seems to be the position of Brussels then she could face a confidence vote.

There are warnings about that in order to make the PM more resolved in her stance then letters are ready to go to Mr Graham Brady, pictured above, the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding an immediate vote of no confidence in her leadership.

Brady is required under the party’s rules to hold an immediate secret ballot of CON MPs should he receive 48 such letters.

But the letters are not the end of the matter. If there was such a ballot Mrs May would have to be defeated and that would open the way for a new Conservative leadership election which could take weeks or even months to complete.

    But would Mrs May be defeated? Isn’t it likely that loyalists who fear an alternative leader or the turmoil of a prolonged contest might garner round the incumbent to ensure that she stays in power?

In that situation a victory by Mrs May would enhance her position and make it stronger. The party rules make it clear that she would then have a year’s immunity from a further challenge and that would take her through to Brexit and beyond.

It should be noted that the rules of the party have changed since 1990 when Mrs Thatcher faced a direct leadership challenge. Now to get rid of a leader a confidence vote, like that which happened with IDS in 2003, has to be taken first. The loser of a confidence vote is barred from competing in the following leadership contest.

A failed coup against the PM would create stability and underpin Mrs May’s position. This is, of course, why the hardliners cannot risk it.

Mike Smithson




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Early voting from the Arizona 8th special election suggests this won’t be another Alabama or Pennsylvania

April 22nd, 2018

Maybe not a third Democratic special election victory on the trot?

After the sensational Democratic party wins in the recent Alabama and Pennsylvania special elections there’s a lot of focus on Arizona 8th Congressional District where voting takes place next Tuesday. The earlier two elections saw victories for the Democratic Party which were particularly striking because because they were in places Trump had done so well at WH2016.

There’s been a bit of excitement on this latest “special” election because an Emerson poll found both parties neck and neck with the Republican just a point ahead.

Before you have a punt check out this from ABC News on early voting:

“..Indications from early vote data show that Republicans still maintain a strong advantage in the district.

As of Friday, 151,532 early votes have been cast in the district. According to data from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office nearly half of the early votes cast have come from Republicans, and over half of early votes have been cast by voters over the age of 65. In the February primary election, a total of 116,732 ballots were cast according to the official canvas results from the Secretary of State’s office, indicating a slight uptick in turnout in a race where the large majority of votes will be cast early.”

I’d reinvested a small part of my Alabama and Pennsylvania winnings at 9/2 on the Democratic candidate but that was before I’d read the ABC report.

Mike Smithson




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Exactly a year ago this weekend ComRes had TMay’s Tories 25% ahead

April 22nd, 2018

How things have changed since

It is just a year since Theresa May made her fateful and what will be her career defining announcement about calling a general election to secure a bigger majority.

On the weekend after the news we had the initial round of voting intention polls of the campaign and those are shown in the chart above.

As can be seen the one that stands out is ComRes, which had been the most accurate pollster two years earlier at GE2015. This had the biggest Conservative lead – a whopping margin of 25 points over LAB.

    Although the final lead on election day was just 2.5% it is too easy to conclude that those late April polls were wrong.

Only a couple of weeks after the general election announcement there were the local elections where the Tories made big gains doing substantially better than had been predicted.

It was those real elections that seemed to validate the polling and reinforce the view that Mrs May’s gamble was going to pay off. The big question was not whether there would be a Tory overall majority but would it be a landslide.

My guess is that it might well have done so but for the length of the general election campaign and for the over-confidence it engendered in the Tory camp that led to the manifesto debacle and Mrs May believing that she didn’t have to face Corbyn in a leaders’ TV debate.

In total there were seven weeks between the initial call and parliamentary vote to authorise it and the June 8 election.

So we cannot conclude that the polls weren’t wrong in late April last year. What they do show is that there was a dramatic change in views of the incumbent Conservative government and particularly the Prime Minister as a result of the campaign itself.

It is very hard to envisage the circumstances in which there will be the next Conservative 25% lead.

Mike Smithson




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Fewer than 3 in 5 of GE2017 LAB voters prefer Corbyn as “next PM”. Maybe the magic of last June is evaporating

April 21st, 2018

YouGov VI: CON: 43% (+3) LAB: 38% (-2) LD: 8% (-1)

There is a new YouGov poll for the Times which has the Tories moving to a 5% lead compared with the level pegging that they had a week ago.

The fieldwork took place at the start of the week and before the Windrush issue really caught hold as a big media story.

A finding that should concern LAB is that of those who voted for the party on June 8th last year fewer than three in five (58%) say they prefer Mr Corbyn as PM.

This has been declining steadily since the general election when it was in the 80s but to drop below 60% is really quite striking. Generally most people respond to this in polling question in line with their party choice.

No doubt Corbyn’s enthusiastic backers will try to attack the pollster and the poll but there can be no doubting the trend. After the election 80%+ of GE2017 LAB voters chose Corbyn with YouGov.

My main caveat over the polling is that the fieldwork took place early in the week before the Windrush affair was dominating the media narrative. There’s no doubt that that was bad news for Mrs May but we haven’t seen any numbers to support it.

It is a Saturday and we could see some other polls in the Sunday papers.

Mike Smithson