Wednesday 29 April 2009

Same polls, different opinion

Hopi's been thinking about opinion polls; what they actually mean and, crucially, what sort of decision you should use them to make. I don't disagree with his conclusions, but I'm not convinced by his initial reading of the trends:

Hopi's take on this is that, "Looking at that graph, there appear to be two periods where an informed observer could see a settled will of the people emerging. In both cases, a disruptive event transformed the political situation. The emerging trends became irrelevant as peoples views of the parties changed." I think he's kidding himself , or at least confusing "settled will of the people" with "support for Labour". There's a pretty clear settled will of the people in that graph, and it's a trend that is going to stay relevant.

Shock political news: people are fundamentally bored with Labour. I don't mean angry, or upset, or disappointed. They're just bored. That's the story of the first half of this graph, up to the Brown bounce. Labour weren't less popular than the Tories because they'd screwed up. The Tories were up because they were fresh - shiny new leader, new team, old guard safely back in the coffin - while Labour were looking increasingly stale. Cash for honours and sordid tales of Prescott's love life added to a view of a party that had nothing more to offer, and was too damn comfortable in office.

As if to prove that people's main problem was boredom rather than fundamental disagreement with Labour, along comes the Brown bounce. This wasn't a time of dramatic policy shifts or repudiations of past ideologies; it was a fresh lick of paint and a chance to start talking about the future, not the past. It didn't hurt that various crises allowed Brown to demonstrate gravitas and statesmanship, but the main point is that people had a fresh look at Labour and realised that actually, yes, they did trust these guys to run the country. Note that Blair announced his resignation almost a year in advance, and that the world and his wife knew Brown would succeed. Why then should there have been any kind of Brown bounce, if people were genuinely, fundamentally unhappy with Labour?

However, the underlying boredom with Labour didn't go away. Changing the leader gave the party a chance to redefine itself for the future, and show the electorate that it knew how to keep delivering what they wanted. But they needed to keep looking very good indeed. The inept handling of the snap election issue, coupled with the Northern Rock crisis, suggested to people that this wasn't a new era of high-minded competence, but more of the same aimless time-serving. (Of course, Brown's close identification with anything to do with the economy didn't help.)

If people were looking for change, innovation or vision from Brown, they weren't finding it. Political novelty was on offer elsewhere; as the failing economy pushed Brown onto the back foot, the Tories took the opportunity to a) shatter the bedrock of his political reputation and b) present themselves as the people with the new and exciting ideas. Various Ministers, MPs, journalists and bloggers took it upon themselves to critique these ideas, point out their inconsistencies or show that the sums didn't add up. However accurate and barbed these criticsims, they were beside the point. On one hand, a government mired in a deteriorating economy; on the other, an energetic opposition with a scheme, initiative or taskforce for every occasion.

At the end of 2008, Labour's fortunes were rising again. People had begun to feel better about the economy, and Brown was positioning himself as the man with the experience to handle a global crisis. But it didn't last. Internal and international disagreements about fiscal stimulus, a sandbagging by Mervyn King, rising unemployment... truth is, it didn't take a huge amount to reverse that trend. Labour no longer have the benefit of the doubt. As a rule of thumb, I'd guess it takes 3 positive news cycles to win a polling point for Labour, and only 1 to lose one.

The boredom factor is Labour's biggest problem now. It means that they to get everything right first time, every time. Even a small slip just encourages people to give up on them. Incumbent parties win elections with three messages:
  1. Look at all the great stuff we've already done;
  2. Here's all the great stuff we're going to do;
  3. Those guys will screw it all up if you let them.
But now no-one's listening to 1), no-one believes 2) and they're willing to take a gamble on 3) just to see what will happen.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Cheap shot

Derek Draper is not only a gifted political strategist and interblog whizzkid, he's also a psychotherapist. In this guise, he pens a monthly column for Psychologies magazine*, offering wisdom gleaned from sessions with clients. There is much to learn from May's effort, which as his byline notes, is written by a man who "has returned to politics after taking a break":

"In my work with clients, after we have analysed the root causes of their issues and worked on tools to help them change their behaviour, they still seem stuck. At that point, even though it is a cliché, I find myself wanting to point out, "You are your own worst enemy...

There comes a time in everyone's therapeutic journey when...we need to take that vital last step of doing things differently."

But it would be simplistic to think that some people just can't help themselves. Through counselling and self-examination, we find that:

"Whenever we think someone is the wilful architect of their own destruction, the real explanation is that, without knowing it, they are following someone else's rules."

*Would you believe a dentist's waiting room story? Thought not.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Finger on the pulse

When you wish to convince the British public that your expenses reforms will usher in a new era of probity, austerity and transparency, it is absolutely vital to emphasise that this is the way they do it in Brussells. The British public, and particularly the right-wing media who have been hounding you on this issue, have nothing but respect for European institutions and frequently praise them as evidence of good governance.

It's that deft populist touch we all admire.

Monday 20 April 2009

The difference between opinion and thought

This opinion piece by Melanie Reid is staggering in its wilful embrace of ignorance. From start to finish it contains no thought, no facts, no argument, no sense; it does offer denial, knee-jerk prejudice, mindless populism and slavish, empty-headed traditionalism.

In summary: a Dutch study has recently shown that for pregnancies without complications, home births are no riskier than having the baby in hospital. Reid's response, in favour of hospital births, encompasses the following arguments points bald assertions.
  • Women who choose home births are weird. And principled. But mainly weird;
  • Home births are currently rare;
  • Therefore, they are wrong;
  • Yes, the Dutch study shows that they're just as safe;
  • The Dutch are in the minority, therefore they too are wrong;
  • In fact, Holland is not in the real world;
  • It doesn't matter that home births are safe;
  • Hospitals are the bestest of all best places, and anyone not using one is delusional and hates women.
Had she merely stuck to writing these assertions out one after another and then pretending she'd formulated an argument, Reid would merely have come across as regrettably stupid. Happily, however, she chose to try and buttress her opinion with some reference to facts; in this case the complications attached to birth. This is where it would have helped enormously to do a minimum of research. Presented as evidence on her side is the history of deaths from puerperal fever. As you can see, even the most cursory research would have given Reid the following information:

  • The single most important risk factor for puerperal fever nowadays is Caesarean section;
  • Puerperal fever was, at its lethal peak, spread by doctors working in the new lying-in hospitals of the day;
  • Conversely, puerperal fever was rarer in home births than it was in hospitals.

It's one thing to write an opinion piece without ever formulating an argument; standard practice, almost. But getting such facts as you present so completely arse about face is just wallowing in ignorance for it's own sake, and reflects the fundamental weakness in paying columnists by the word instead of by the thought.

    Tuesday 14 April 2009

    A rotten bit of luck

    The thing that genuinely depresses me about Smeargate or whatever the hell we're supposed to be calling it is the suspicion that somewhere in McBride's and Draper's minds, and possibly a few other people's, a small voice is saying, "But it was such a clever plan. All this mess is just bad luck."

    What's happened inside your head, when you think that is how you get people to vote for you? My guess is a loss of conviction. If Draper and McBride had any genuine belief that Labour should/could win the next election because it has the right policies for the country, they'd have wanted to talk about those policies, and the Labour party. But they didn't - they wanted to attack opposition personalities. Setting aside the moral dimension of destabilising a political opponent by slurring his wife's mental health, the sheer narrowness of the tactic demonstrates the bankruptcy of ideas.

    Various bloggers will talk about what Labour really needs to do to get a good showing in 2010. I don't presume to know. But substance, strategy and vision would be a start, and they seem to be sadly lacking.

    Thursday 9 April 2009

    Help, Police

    The video seems fairly damning. A man, walking away from the police, is struck with a baton and then shoved to the ground, shortly before he dies of a heart attack. It seems massively unlikely that this is a coincidence, although I understand that courts work to a slightly higher standard when they're determining causality.

    The policeman in question looks to be facing a criminal trial: possibly for assault, possibly for manslaughter. This is something that will be determined by the courts, one way or another. Meanwhile, the police, as a whole, are facing a crisis of public confidence. This will be determined, in large part, by what the police do next. There are two separate concerns: one is the police response to public order, and the proportionate use of force. The second, more serious issue is the ability of the police to confront their own failings.

    Regarding the first, there does seem to be a culture that embraces the use of force to corral and control protesters. The comments on The Policeman's Blog give some insight into the insider's view, although clearly it's hardly a representative sample. Various (presumably) police attitudes include:
    • Protesters are dirty tax-dodging hippies;
    • If you go to a demo and get shoved about by the cops, it's no more than you should expect;
    • "Kettling" works: compare May Day 2001 with 2000 - much less violence, property damage etc. precisely because police did actively and forcefully control the crowd;
    • Crowd dynamics and control are not precise sciences; treating people as a herd rather than individuals is therefore necessary;
    • Public order is not community policing: it is all about using force to achieve your ends;
    • The officer who struck Tomlinson is damned unlucky - this happens all the time and it's only a problem because he had a heart attack;
    • The officer who struck Tomlinson was acting completely out of order and should be disciplined.

    A mixed bag, but coupled with the comments about the police being "up for it" beforehand and you're left with the distinct impression that, to say the least, the police and general public have somewhat differing perspectives on the use of force at protests. (That is, depending on who the force is being used against.) For me, one of the most worrying aspects of the video is that the assaulting policeman has covered his face with a balaclava that (presumably) is part of standard gear. I have no doubt that this helps immensely in a) making riot police look more intimidating and b) giving those police confidence. But the decision to project that image reveals quite a lot about the relationship the police have or want to have with demonstrators.

    There is an important question of public policy here: as pointed out by a commentator at the Policeman's Blog, once you've established that attending a demo carries a strong risk of being detained, corraled or even assaulted then you've had a more or less chilling effect on political protest. The overall attitude is not that the protest will happen, and the police need to keep an eye on troublemakers: the protest is trouble, and the police need to control it and minimise it.

    Police self-policing has long been acknowledged as a bit of a paradox; it takes a very rigorous adherence to principle for a body devoted to law and order to treat its own members as potential criminals. But it already looks like the various lessons that could have been learned from the Menezes shooting have been given a miss: the police already stand accused of giving out misinformation, attempting to control the media reporting and being very reluctant to consider that they might be at fault. The IPCC also seems to have been slow to decide that this needed independent investigation. Trust in the police is crucial to the whole concept of policing by consent; it's built on knowing that the police can and will self-correct when they get it wrong.

    Tuesday 7 April 2009

    In Labourspace, no one can hear you pontificate

    Web 2.0 is all shiny just now, and ostensibly dominated by the Conservatives (or at least, the minuscule portion that can claim to be political is.) Therefore, Labour are beefing up their online operations in order to a) engage with the ordinary voter and b) fight for the tactical high ground. At first blush, this seems reasonable enough, but somebody, somewhere, should really have asked a couple of pertinent questions:

    a) Is a strong pro-Labour online presence really something we can will into being?
    b) Do the Conservatives actually gain any electoral advantage simply because literally dozens of middle-aged males are exchanging Harriet Harperson jokes or hosting the same Dan Hannan video?

    Whatever the answers may be, the fact is that Labour are making a concerted effort. Hence LabourList, and now Labourspace. LabourList was a place for discussion, debate and deliberation; Labourspace is the place for action.

    The concept is simple: one logs on, sets up a campaign and then, er, campaigns for it. On Labourspace itself, on facebook and twitter, on blogs and in the media. Get the most supporters and you win. Again though, there are a few questions that might have been asked first:

    What's a campaign? Currently on the site we have proposals for everything from an international open borders policy to ending NHS parking charges, from re-introducing wolves to Scotland to re-nationalising the railways. Some people have specific goals, others just feel bad about stuff. Some people are trying to re-write national policy, others are looking for a grant. Charities, not surprisingly, are using this to raise awareness. There are differences between campaigning, lobbying the government and drafting policy, but whoever's behind this hasn't actually thought about what they're asking people to do. If they want campaign ideas, it's up to them to provide the policy framework for people to campaign in. If they want to listen to the voice of the people, they should only ask questions if they're prepared to use the answers. If they want a general policy forum, they need to weed out contrarians, spoilers and idiots. This site does none of these things. A more focused approach (say, helping local councillors co-ordinate approaches to, for example, fuel poverty) might have produced some valuable ideas that could actually be used. What we've got is too broad and ill-defined to produce results.

    What's this got to do with Labour? Seriously. Any government could run a site like this. In fact, this one already did - the National Petition nonsense. There's no requirement that any of the campaigns have any connection whatsoever with existing Labour policy, or traditional left-wing principles, or New Labour values or anything else with even a vague connection to the Labour party. Ed Milliband makes a point of commenting on as many campaigns as possible; his two longest responses are to clarion calls for a) re-nationalising railways and b) an English parliament. Without looking, see if you can guess whether he's for or against. Which brings us to...

    What do you win? This is, at bottom, a popularity contest. Plugged-in social networkers who get the most supporters for their campaign get their "ideas bought to the attention of senior Labour politicians". Really? If you were capable of running a popular nationwide campaign, it would already be bought to their attention. That's what campaigning is. But in any case, let's say you are successful. Either your idea flies in the face of government policy, in which case it gets ignored, or it's more or less acceptable, in which case... what? You get a photo-op with a relevant junior minister? The manifesto gets re-written? A law gets passed? How can this help the Labour party? Support the winning campaign, and they're being craven populists, taking direction from a handful of bloggers. Ignore it, and they're denying the will of the people.

    There's no point in asking a question unless you know what you're going to do with the answer. Labourspace, even if successful, won't do anything for Labour but create a new problem.

    Thursday 2 April 2009

    What do you want, and when do you want it?

    Sam Leith and Don Paskini speak sooth about protest marches.

    From Sam:

    Face paint and world music and "giving the power back to the people" is not going to have any effect on the world whatsoever. Left to themselves, "the people" will sit in fields practising their polyphonic singing and scratching their furry parts. If they want to get anything done on a scale large enough to be effective, they get together and elect leaders. For want of a better word, I propose calling those leaders "politicians".

    Imagine, for a minute, that you are the leader of a G20 country - Canada, say, or South Korea. Imagine further that you have taken a couple of minutes out of your swollen schedule of dialogues, photo-ops and dinners to watch the protest - either on camera or in person. Hordes, or at least myriads, of marchers have taken to the streets, banners high. Clearly, they have something on their mind. Maybe, just maybe, they're saying something you should hear. They are, after all, the people. What is their message? Is it:

    a) Hang The Bankers
    b) Abolish Money
    c) No Third Runway
    d) End World Hunger
    e) Free Palestine
    f) Troops Out of Afghanistan
    g) Nationalise The Banks
    h) Stop Climate Chaos
    i) All of the above
    j) All of the above and more

    What do you do? What can you do? Shrug your shoulders, turn on your heal and go back into your meeting with the angry Frenchman. He may be a stubborn pain in the arse, but at least you've got a basis for negotiation.