Tuesday, 31 May 2016
So now we're down to some of the business end of this European Union referendum campaign. To be perfectly honest, amidst all the claim and counter-claim, we would much rather be hitting the beach right now. In just a few weeks, we're all going to break up and head for our holidays. Can't wait. But for now, there's some serious - indeed generation-defining - questions to be asked. This week's is very simple: if you vote for the 'Leave' side in this plebiscite, how much poorer do you think you're going to get, and how much punishment are you willing to take?
We've already put three cases before you, urging you if you are a United Kingdom voter to cast a vote for 'Remain' on 23 June. The first is that Britain's trade deal with the EU is likely to be worse than the full access to the Single Market that we enjoy now, something that the tortuous history of our 1960s and 1970s negotiations to try to get in bears out more than any theorising now. The second argument that persuades us, at least, is the absolute nonsense pumped out by the 'Leave' camp, now parading around like a government-in-waiting, from their £350m-a-week claim to the idea that leaving would 'save the National Health Service'. Then, last week, we thirdly followed this up with a foreign policy question: do you really want to vote 'Leave', and do exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing, urging you to do, all the better to let him lay down terms to Europe's East and South-East? Well, excuse us if we don't grasp eagerly at a rubbish trade deal, a new load of not-so-honest rulers and more Russian influence in London, the Baltics and Syria. It doesn't really sound very appetising when you put it like that, does it?
This week we're going to focus on you: to the threat Brexit poses to your own personal bank balance and your own standard of living. Leave seem to be making progress at the moment, in pretty much the most favourable circumstances they could ever hope for - as stories grow of an absurdly over-hyped migrant 'crisis' in the Channel, and migrant data is published which makes the Government's efforts to limit numbers look not only doomed to failure, but shifty and manipulative. Leave is definitely having some success with the simple case that 'public services need more money, we give money to the EU, let's keep it and use it here'.
This is almost entirely disingenuous nonsense, as almost every reputable economist in the country could tell you. Experienced politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove know that the economy will almost certainly shrink on a British exit from the European Union. They know the tax base will be smaller, and there will therefore be less money for public services, not more money. Austerity will go on longer, and the NHS and our housing and transport systems will be longer and harder squeezed than they would be on present presumptions. They are engaged in nothing more than a cynical smash-and-grab raid on older Labour voters, alienated from their 'own' party of many years standing by its trek away from their values and ideas, and an attempt to tell them that Brexit is in their interests. It isn't.
The British economy has enormous strengths, as this blog has noted again and again. Aerospace. Financial services. Computing. Film and television. Education. Tourism. Gaming. All of them are live, active areas of innovation, employment and foreign earnings. In the end, whatever happens, we will be okay - barring enormous shocks inside the Chinese economy, or American banking system, that we probably can't do much about. After 2020 (or thereabouts), the UK's growth path may be back on trend. But it's that 'after 2020' that, in the end, is classic wish-fulfillment for people who can afford an economic shock, and can just lie low for the rest of the Parliament until growth comes again. Many voters sense this, and get annoyed at Brexiteers' insouciance when it comes to any recession that we've brought on ourselves - one of the reasons why 'Remain' is still the favourite in this contest (for now). Anyone who hasn't got enough leeway to get through the next few years? Well, that's the price of 'freedom' - a national 'freedom' that never has existed, does not exist now, and will certainly never exist in the regionalist, interconnected, networked world of overlapping trade blocs, jurisdictions and authorities.
Start with this: a British 'Leave' will be a severe blow to confidence. Foreign Direct Investment will fall. Sterling will plunge, at least initially. Domestic spending will dry up. There is very little doubt of this. There is pretty much no modelling that suggests that this isn't true. Then we will be on to a protracted and very difficult set of negotiations, which (let's be frank about it) we doubt that Whitehall and Westminster have the institutional memory and intellectual power even to conduct, let alone to bring to a successful conclusion. It will be a total car crash. There will be two years between the moment we pull the trigger on telling the EU that we're leaving, and the actual moment of exit: there may be many more before we get to anything like a trade settlement worthy of the name. It took tiny Greenland, by the way, three years to leave - when all the negotiations were focused on the fishing industry alone. The UK, a country more than a hundred times bigger, will need to tear itself away from the economic mooring it has made itself for more than forty years, and start all over again from scratch - as the World Trade Organisation has recently made clear - even in terms of its trade with the rest of the world. If you think that growth will carry on unimpeded during all that, you need a lie down in a darkened room and some iced water.
In the meantime, all the Government's energies will be bent in that direction. Want energy market reform? New power capacity? Labour market re-equipment and a new, bolder apprenticeship system? Bigger infrastructure projects? Regional innovation, city lending, novel forms of local public-private innovation? You'll get none of it. You'll just get Boris Johnson saving around bits of paper as he huffs and puffs his way between London, Brussels and Strasbourg, fiddling with bits of lint in his pockets. He won't worry: he's made a fortune from 'book' sales and journalism. He'll still be rich. You'll be poorer. He'll drink champagne. You'll feel like drinking hemlock.
Look: it's this simple. If you have savings, if you have property, if you have a house which is your main source of savings value and security, if you have any exposure to a falling pound, if your job relies on trade with the other EU states, than 'Leave' probably will make you poorer. Don't want to listen to the International Monetary Fund, the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England, the Trades Union Congress, the President of the United States, the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand? Try something a bit closer to home. Although a bit annoyed at the way his words have been pressed into use by the 'Remain' camp, Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com fame, will 'probably' vote to say in the EU 'on the balance of probabilities' - hardly a glowing endorsement, but from the most trusted personal finance expert in the country, something of a coup for 'Remain'.
It's your choice. It really is. But let us add our puny voice to the din: a vote for 'Leave' means that you will - for a while - be quite likely to be wreaking economic damage on your own country, and on yourself. You may well get poorer. Potentially, a lot poorer.
It's possible that the overwhelming balance of economists' views is wrong (they were more divided on the Euro, but a majority still favoured Britain joining). They are - sometimes - subject to groupthink. The precision of the Remain camp's warnings probably are overdone, as the prominent Remainer (and ex-Trade Secretary) Vince Cable accepts. You could gamble on all that. You could defy all these many, many warnings. You could leap in the dark. It might be that the pound's falls on bad news for 'Remain', and rises on good tidings, for 'Leave', won't be replicated in the early hours of 24 June if the Outers do win the day. It could always be the case that there won't be a large house price adjustment as confidence and certainty flood out of the UK (and into just about nowhere else). But not, we would advise on each and every one of these counts, very likely.
Ask yourself this: for yourself, for your family, for your children, why would you take the risk?
Monday, 23 May 2016
Long ago, in the early 1960s, President John Kennedy worked with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to try to shepherd the United Kingdom into what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). They failed, on that occasion, to force the French and President de Gaulle to allow the British 'into Europe', only to succeed more than a decade, and two more great diplomatic heaves, later.
Why did the Americans do that? Why had they tried to push the Labour government of Clement Attlee into the EEC's forerunner, the Coal and Steel Community? In part all this was a natural desire to build up the economy of Western Europe so that the Americans had a viable trading partner. But much, much more important was the idea that Europe might serve as a diplomatic pillar, and a means of projecting the force of ideas and ideals, to set against the military North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: that an idea of Europe might fire citizens' imaginations, to come together against Soviet Communism and the so-called socialist regimes then consolidating their own power in Eastern Europe.
In many ways, not much has changed since then. There was a similar motivation in the background when President Obama made his now-famous intervention into our present UK debate about whether to stay in what has now become the European Union (EU). Mr Obama worries (rightly) that there will be a recession on any disorderly British retreat from the EU; but he worries much more about what will fill the void if and when that does happen. The answer is right-wing populism and craven no-principles bread and circuses - on offer in slightly ridiculous and clown-like form from the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson here in Britain of course, but also in far nastier hues by the French National Front, Greece's Golden Dawn, the Austrian Far Right and Eastern Europe's new breed of pseudo-'democratic' autocrats.
All of whom - all of whom - Russian President Vladimir Putin (above) thinks he will be able to manipulate and impress more than the present holders of those offices. In which suspicion he is almost certainly right.
Mr Putin is an opportunist. He watches and he waits. He sees Europe's weakness. He detects the splits between the Germans and the southern Mediterranean nations. He knows that the UK Labour Party (or at least its leader's office) has now been taken over by people who sympathise with him far more than they would ever side with Washington. He sees the damage that he can do to the European project by pushing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Turkey. He is happy to offer money to Greece and Cyprus, if they want to reject Germany's draconian economic terms. He understands the way in which his media blitz, expertly marshalled by his propaganda station Russia Today and programmes such as the English-language Sputnik, are dissolving Western Europe's morale and backbone. He knows that large swathes of the European Left are in thrall to ideas that he can easily distort and sell back to them: that 'America' must always be bad; that the USA and NATO, and not Russia, caused the crisis in Ukraine; that Europe's elites are economically corrupt and politically hollow; that Israel is behind everything that passes in the Middle East; that US-backed regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot and will not succeed.
So he floods the Twitterverse and Facebook with utter nonsense, much of which - it just so happens - helps to undermine the EU's legitimacy and popular support. What a coincidence. You see the influences of this non-news and non-comment all the time on social media, as the same people fire off posts about the dangers of water fluoridation, nuclear power, the 'Zionists' and the bankers: the idea that there is something irretrievably rotten about the modern democratic state, which could all be solved if only the Americans and their allies had a bit more order, a little more statism, and a dose of puritanical moral structure... If only, in short, they looked a lot more like Russia.
For Brexit offers Mr Putin more than just a great diplomatic success that shows up his critics as a rag-bag of small powers in disarray. It will show that his philosophy and his outlook - involving state controls, censorship, autarky, aid-as-power, the lightning use of small-scale military force as a key element of diplomacy - are winning. Liberal international co-operation on the basis of a democratic Parliament and votes in an open Council of Ministers? The free movement of peoples? Free trade and the attack on monopolies? Pan-Europeanism, in contradistinction to narrow racial and religious identities? All anathema to the Kremlin. All upheld by the EU, which is why Sputnik and RT lay into it all the time. They long to see Brexit, because that will roll the dice.
In some ways shuffling the cards like this might be a bit more benign than it looks. Some Russian politicians apparently think that, upon Brexit, they would be able to link up more with London, as in 1908-17 and 1941-45, negotiating with another 'peripheral' European power and upping their clout in that manner. Certainly the influence of Russian money and investors would be even more notable in this scenario than it is already. But it won't be all 'great game' chess pieces on a board. There are real-world consequences to this type of messing about. Maybe some Russian analysts hope that an exit from the EU will lead to the break-up of the UK - Moscow having used its state-run news agencies to cast doubt on the fairness of the last vote on Scottish independence, held in 2014. They'd love to see Britain's Trident nuclear forces kicked out of Scotland, making them even more expensive and of dubious operational utility than they already are. Perhaps they dream of Brexit because that might mean that the whole EU unravels, forcing German Chancellor Angela Merkel to resign, pushing the Baltic States back into Russia's orbit and leaving the Ukraine and Georgia in their shadow. And so on.
It's important to be clear about what we mean here. There's no need to engage in some sort of Dr Strangelove-style ranting, or summon up some new Cold War that we needn't and musn't have, to see clearly where the pressure points are in the international system. We are dealing with an opponent, not an enemy. Common cause can and must be made to - for instance - bring stability and then peace to Syria. Full-scale Western military intervention there now, with the Russians in the mix as well, would probably only add to the chaos. And there's no point posturing over the Crimea when it's so deeply in Moscow's orbit now. Russia is a great standing fact and power in Europe. That's as it should be. The Russian state has interests. It tries to give effect to them. That's how the world works.
But no-one should be in any doubt: Mr Putin is willing you to get into that polling booth on June 23 and put a great big 'X' next to the 'Leave' box. He wants us to start the dominoes falling, so that he can further expand his influence and his power. He wants us to negotiate, chaotically and raggedly, for the next four or five years - all the better for him to tell everyone on his borders, and ours, what to do.
Vladimir Putin wants you to vote 'Leave'. So vote 'Remain' instead.
Tuesday, 17 May 2016
Britain's 'Super Thursday' of elections behind us, it's now time to turn to the main course: the UK's momentous decision on whether to stay in the European Union. We'll now dedicate the next five weeks to detailing why we should decide to remain in the EU, sifting out the statistical wheat from the data chaff, and attempting - however imperfectly - to take you through the reasons why we believe that a remain vote is the safest, most rational, least risky, most sensible option.
This week: defeating the Brexiteers will be a victory for good governance and perhaps, just distantly, for reason itself. Why? Because some of them - not all of them - have pushed the boundaries of public debate and argument way beyond acceptable spin and nuance, and just started making stuff up. They know it. You know it. And it's got to stop. It reminds us most forcefully of all those US Republicans who all said that they just knew Mitt Romney was going to be elected President in 2012 because of all those skewed polls and differential turnout on the day (he wasn't); or Labour members who insist on saying that they'll win the 2020 election under Jeremy Corbyn (this is extremely unlikely). Brexiteers now resemble nothing more than a cult or faith, determined to create their own reality bubble - inside which they will then live, win or lose, for the rest of political time. Or until the next referendum. Whichever comes soonest, perhaps.
Now, everyone argues. All campaigns fit reality to their needs and demands. There's nothing particularly wrong with that. The In campaign, for instance, probably exaggerates the economic damage that a Brexit would do to the UK in the long term. There would undoubtedly be three, four, five or more years of acute pain if we leave, and probably a recession, albeit one of shallow depth and uncertain duration. But, in the end, most economic models assert that a sustained growth path would be re-asserted at some point in the 2020s - if only because the trend rate of growth can't be suppressed for all that long. Britain's a huge, dynamic, well-equipped, attractive and growing economy. In the end, that won't change, and Britain in Europe's attempts to add up all the GDP hit we'd take in the next few years and then divide that number by the number of families in the UK is an understandable but misleading piece of propaganda.
The problem with the Leavers is that they've pushed things much, much further than this. They're trying to bend and reshape public discourse over numbers so much that they're making the data snap under the weight of their untruths and misrepresentations. Let's take a look at just five claims that the Out camp make, and show you something of what we mean.
Britain sends £350m a week to the EU. No. No it does not. It does not. This is a deliberate, total, ridiculous, pernicious little untruth, a fact which people like Boris Johnson (currently bundling around Britain bellowing about Hitler and the Loch Ness Monster) must know, but cover up in the service of what they tell themselves is the greater good. Actually, less than half of this amount of cash ever leaves the country from the Government and goes to the EU - a fact which the Statistics Authority has warned the Brexit camp about in an admonition they seem to have totally ignored. The figure's a bit higher if we factor in all private and public sector contributions to the EU, it's true, but it's nowhere near £350m. The country's head of stats tells you that something is untrue. You put it up in massive letters on the side of your battlebus. You brazen things out. This means that (a) you are a fantasist and narcissist; and/ or (b) you are a deeply cynical and nasty piece of work. This is but the latest evidence that Mr Johnson is utterly unsuited to any post, anywhere in Whitehall and Westminster, let alone the premiership which he so patently and ludicrously aspires to. Making these sorts of claims wouldn't allow you to graduate from a university with any sort of degree, any time, anywhere - except perhaps in Mr Johnson's bullying, over-heated and increasingly fevered imagination.
75 per cent of our laws are made in Brussels. Rubbish. The United Kingdom Independence Party say this over and over again, until (well) they're purple in the face in fact, but it's another whopper. The Commissioner on whose words they rely in support of this claim was talking about the proportion of European laws made in concert between the European Council and Parliament, not the amount of actual law in each member state that comes from the EU level. Now you do have to be careful here, as the actual level of lawmaking that emanates from Europe is a bit slippery. It all depends on what you mean by 'laws' - and we're not trying to be evasive here, so bear with this one. Probably between 10 per cent and 14 per cent of British Acts of Parliament contain some element of EU law or rules, a figure that therefore probably exaggerates their influence as a small part of some legislation. A similar level of British regulations or Statutory Instruments, which Ministers use to bring bureaucratic rules into effect, contain some element of European influence (opens as PDF). On the other hand, maybe about half of the more detailed regulations contained and brought into effect via Statutory Instruments emanate first from the EU. Most of these relate to the Single Market, and therefore pertain to trade, production, standards and the like - but that's a large slice of government giving voice to a number of supra-national votes and compromises. You might not like that. It's to taste, really. It's a kind of a 'how long is a piece of string?' question. But Outers would do well to focus their attention on this reality, rather than some bloated claims about the vast reach of some 'Brussels bureaucracy' that is hardly as monstrous as the 75% figure makes it sound.
The European Union wants to ban bendy bananas and coffee machines. This is a load of old tosh as well. The British tabloids have always been full of this sort of story. You know the sort of thing. No more green mushy peas. Subsidised bullfighting. Pigs given toys (not that that sounds like such a bad idea). Most of it is utter nonsense. An end to bendy bananas? That's because the industry and member states wanted to make sure green bananas for crating could be counted on to contain similar amounts in each box. An end to green mushy peas? Some types of regulated colourings got bumped off the list: three perfectly adequate types of green remain, if you like your peas mushy (we do). And there's been a lot of fuss about kettles and toasters recently. You know what? No decisions have been taken, no action is likely for a while, it rests in the hands of member governments and elected Members of the European Parliament, and for a couple of years now the Commission has been operating a 'no action while there are alternatives rule' on such evidence-based questions. No doubt most Britons want to make sure that carbon emissions fall, so that their coasts don't get washed away. They probably think we should act together with our partners to ensure that happens, all the while guaranteeing that our own manufacturers don't have their high standards undercut. This is how you do that. Sorry, but them's the breaks.
European Union accounts haven't been signed off for twenty years. Sorry, but they have. You hear this one all the time - it's entered that mythic sphere of discourse where the Express and the Daily Mail want it to reside, a kind of fictive-factual earworm that you can't quite shake off even when you know it's just a load of nonsense. In fact, the European Court of Auditors has given the Commission's accounts a clean bill of health for every year since 2007, and - although some of the accounts have been criticised - this is just one of those little bits of popular 'knowledge' that is totally fake. It's true that the auditors are critical of the 'error rate' in the accounts, which can vary between about two per and seven per cent, but most of these originate at member state level, and have certainly fallen since new systems were put in place in the mid-2000s. So there's a good argument to be had here. Is there too much government at European level, which the Commission and Parliament then find it hard to monitor? Quite likely. So you can say that. What you can't say is that the accounts haven't been 'signed off'. Because they have.
We don't control our borders. Another big, big misrepresentation, this one - and one repeated so endlessly, so constantly that it's become another drumbeat of the Brexiteers. One of the reasons they might win is that they repeat and repeat untruths like this so long, so loudly and so confidently that they think that we can't see the holes in their arguments. We can. It's important again to be clear here. Citizens from other European countries have the right to work and live in the UK - so long as they obey all the laws, that is. But that does not mean, and it has never meant, that Britain is not in control of its borders. Britain is not part, and is never likely to be part, of the Schengen free movement area. Nor can it be forced to be so. So there are border checks everywhere - massively understaffed and invasive, if the queues at Heathrow are anything to go by - and to say that there are 'no border controls' is just pish. The Home Secretary can exclude you on any number of public policy or safety grounds (opens as PDF). You don't have the right to come and stay whatever you do or whoever you are. Why, otherwise, do you think that refugees are stuck at Calais on the Channel Coast? Yes, that's right - because of all those borders that we supposedly don't have. Nor are high immigration numbers 'proof' of open borders. Most immigrants into the UK are not and never have been EU citizens, and the Government could squeeze the numbers of immigrants way down tomorrow if it wanted to, while remaining in the EU. The reason it doesn't? Because Britain's job market both needs, and depends on, large numbers of immigrants. Ministers know that, which is why they will never (and will never truly try to) meet their immigration targets. They won't tell you that, outright, for fear of enraging Conservative Party activists. But it's true. And don't get us started, by the way, on all that rubbish about the gap between National Insurance claims and the numbers of 'recorded' passenger survey entrants that have been so whipped up by the tabloid press. That's (for the most part) another load of old codswallop.
Five claims. Five outrageous and egregious misrepresentations. Five cries which are the opposite of the truth. Let this little whisper follow you to the ballot box on 23 June: if you go along with these people, they will be running your country by the autumn, and you will have given them a license to say just about anything they want, about anything they want. Mr Johnson will be Prime Minister, Michael Gove will be Chancellor, and Priti Patel will be Work and Pensions Secretary. The Brexiteers will be in charge. They'll be laughing at you. Don't let them.
Monday, 9 May 2016
One of the most refreshing and exciting things about academic life is that you don't always have to pretend that you're right all the time. Well, you work or pose as an 'expert', but in reality the legs are firing away under the water, working on whatever you're worried about right now - over and under, over and under.
That's because the academic method itself is designed to help you understand where you got it wrong, firstly so as to get things more accurate next time, and secondly to reveal the moving parts of history, economics, sociology or whatever in a way that isolates the 'wrong' or inaccurate bit of your data, reasoning or imagination. That's a fascinating reveal in its own right, because by exposing the 'wrongness' you might get closer - though not perfectly close - to 'rightness'.
Anyway, enough of the pompous preface: how did we do last week, when we ventured out to make predictions about the UK's 'Super Thursday' of local, city and devolved elections? Where were we wrong, where did we get it right, how inaccurate were we, and what does that tell us about British politics? Here's a list of predictions, along with some ratings - and a grade. Marking your own work can be cathartic, and we hope you think we've been fair - or even harsh - since only from such judgements can better forecasting spring and grow.
Scotland. Well, this was a right blowout. Sorry, but we just messed this up. We thought that the Scottish National Party would continue to govern as a majority at the Holyrood Parliament. They didn't make it. We said that Labour would just make it to second place. They fell well short and, in truth, they got absolutely hammered by a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party that has now eclipsed them to become Scotland's official Opposition. What a pain. The main lines of interpretation were right - the big picture is that SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can go on governing - but the details were all wrong, wrong, wrong. The lesson? We should have listened to the anxious voices from within the SNP - so reminiscent of intelligence from within UK Labour in the run-up to last year's UK General Election - and we should have taken even more note of the relative popularity of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives' combative and likeable leader in an age where charismatic and even edgy leadership seems more and more important. Head over to Matt Singh's Number Cruncher Politics if you want to see someone call this one much more accurately, by the way.
Mark: C (55%).
Wales. Here we did much better. Not only did we correctly see from the polls that the United Kingdom Independence Party would gain six or seven Members of the Welsh Assembly (in the end, they got seven), but we said that Labour would secure '27 or 28' AMs. They got 29, partly because they got very, very, very lucky in some of their marginal seats and on the regional list even at the same time as their vote share plunged downwards. YouGov, along with most other pollsters, emerged as one of the heroes of the campaign: their numbers were very close to the final result, and they managed to eliminate the overestimate of Labour's likely vote share that had been so clear in previous campaigns. Well done to them. So: not bad, though what we can take from these results is that very fine margins can make for very large results. Had Labour only managed 26 AMs, as they might well have done given their much lower popularity this time, they would now be sweating about how to govern. As it is, they can pretty much breeze on as before - with the proviso that they are on probation from an electoral system that just pulled their irons out of a very hot fire.
Mark: B+ (67%).
English local government. This one was even better. We picked up accurately that Labour might not get quite the hammering that many social science models were predicting from the opinion polls, and from local by-election results. Something about the result in last year's Oldham West by-election gave us pause, and the Conservatives' rapidly falling polling since their badly-received Budget told us to be cautious, before we piled in behind everyone else. This was proved an entirely accurate instinct: there's an interesting phenomenon taking hold, in which Labour voters complain vociferously about the party's leader and splits on the doorstep, and deride both in focus groups, but just about cling to prior loyalties in the polling booth. That might not last, but it's holding for now. Labour had a very, very, very bad night by historical standards - one of the worst nights for an Opposition in living memory - but they did not quite fall into the black hole that many of their ridiculous and absurdist Westminster contortions might have led you to expect. Again, they got lucky - if you can call almost-certain Opposition until at least 2025 any measure of luck - as their very low vote share did not quite translate into the loss of councillors. We also thought that the Liberal Democrats would move forward just a bit (they did), and that UKIP would do quite well (they slightly under-performed on their own hopes in England, slipping back again in the projected National Share of the Vote). Apart from that UKIP glitch, bringing to mind the lesson that most big talk polling and polling will rather overstate UKIP support, this was a bullseye. It gets a top mark (thanks very much).
Mark: A (76%).
London. Bang on here too in predicting Labour's win in the capital, though this was easier since the polls had put the Conservatives way behind Labour's Sadiq Khan for many weeks, and the Conservatives had accepted for quite a while that they had lost. In the event, the polls got this one almost exactly right as well, so although we thought differential turnout might make Mr Khan's victory slightly smaller than it looked, there was only really a very small difference between opinion surveys and the contents of London's ballot boxes. Labour didn't really move forward much in elections for the London Assembly, standing still on 2015 as elsewhere, and Mr Khan didn't push Labour's vote up much even in the Mayoral contest; but he did manage to make his main opponent, Zac Goldsmith, look ridiculous simply by virtue of keeping his head and looking calm while Mr Goldsmith raged about Mr Khan's supposed (and exaggerated) links to Islamic extremists. There's a tutorial in that, all on its own. Had Mr Goldsmith remained truer to himself, like the redoubtable Ms Davidson, he would probably have won more votes - and more friends.
Mark: A- (72%).
So the final mark? That's basically running at an average of 67%, or a B+. It's better than the B- we'd probably award ourselves for thinking that last year's General Election would end in a Labour defeat, but not a Conservative majority. We'll take that, as a B+ level of accuracy is probably at the limits of the controllable and the forecastable in any case. There's yet another lesson, right there.
Tuesday, 3 May 2016
This Thursday's an electoral rarity for the United Kingdom: a moment when, mid-Parliament, absolutely everyone is going to have a vote. Perhaps more than one. We've tried to popularise the idea that this is a truly 'MegaThursday', but for some reason that doesn't seem to have caught on, so we'll limit ourselves to just talking about a truly Super Thursday - the biggest test of public opinion, and the parties' relative strength, between now and May 2020. Forgive us if we don't delve into the electoral politics of Northern Ireland, or the Police and Crime Commissioner elections (where many Independents make things livelier than they might otherwise be), because - fascinating as those contests are - we're interested here in the Great Britain parties' relative prospects.
We've looked before at the benchmarks by which to judge Labour's performance, but how might the night as a whole shape up? Let's look at the contests in turn, in no particular order.
Scotland. Here the Scottish National Party is almost certainly going to form another majority government. We take that so much for granted these days, accepting the yellow tide across Scotland's electoral map without a thought or a comment, that it's worth pausing for a moment and considering just how astonishing that is. The SNP can now scoop up (just about) half the vote. Their priorities and questions dominate Scotland's political and even cultural landscape. They are able to reach the majority finishing line at Holyrood (above) without breaking much of a sweat - in a proportional system deliberately and explicitly designed to prevent that outcome. That won't always be the case, of course (the eventual electoral fate and crisis of the Parti Québécois in Canada shows that clearly enough) - but for now, and probably for some years to come, there's little point in the other parties shouting at them. They're just locked in a fight for the crumbs from the SNP's table. Here the only question is: can the Conservatives come second? The popularity of their tough and impressive leader, Ruth Davidson, as well as unionist voters' antipathy to a Labour leadership that seems a little ambivalent about the independence question, says yes: cultural antipathy to the Conservatives, and the stigma of actually voting for them, says no. We expect Labour to scrape into second: if they do not, the Conservatives will be able to point to a modest and gradual, but real, recovery in Scotland, while Scottish Labour will have had another of their miserable, miserable nights. There are probably many more to come.
Our call: An SNP majority of about the same size as now; Labour to come second, but lose all, or almost all, of their constituency seats. An SNP majority government in Edinburgh.
Wales. Here things are even more uncertain. Labour seem pretty certain to lead the next government in Cardiff Bay, but everything else is a little, well... up in the air, especially as Labour seem at the same time quite likely to fall to their lowest ever share of the vote for these contests. Two trends in the fight for second, third and fourth are notable. During the campaign, recent years' relative improvement in Conservative fortunes in Wales seems to have stalled - little surprise, perhaps, given the Government's uncertain handling of the Tata steelworks imbroglio - while Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, do seem to have wrapped up the fight to come second and form the official Opposition. Behind them, a surge of support for the United Kingdom Independence Party exactly where you would expect to find it - among older, less educated and more excluded voters in South Wales - is on the way. UKIP seem poised to win seven or eight seats. That will change the electoral geography of Wales for the next few years, and perhaps make governing there much harder. It may force Labour, Plaid Cymru and any Liberal Democrats that remain in the Senedd closer together so as to meet this threat from the populist Right - though we wouldn't count on it. One other thing to note here: Welsh polls usually come from just one firm, which over-rated Labour's chances in the last Welsh election by about five points on the constituency vote, and seven points on the regional list. If that happens again, Labour will be in big, big trouble, and may even be struggling to cling to power at all. The company in question (YouGov) have done everything they can to change their polling methodology since the debacle of the last General Election, but have they done enough to factor in widespread Labour apathy and the attractions of a UKIP vote in South Wales - at a time when Labour have definitely gone backwards on the last time these seats were fought? If they haven't, Labour is set for a miserable night indeed.
Our call: Labour to do badly on vote share, but to hang on to most of their seats, returning 27-28 AMs; Plaid to come second, with the Conservatives perhaps disappointing on the night and UKIP securing 6-8 AMs. A Labour minority administration in Cardiff Bay.
English local government. Here things are even more complex, and you should ignore any temptation to tell big old stories just as soon as the polls are closed. It is true that Labour should be doing well here, six years into a not-particularly-popular government austerity government; on a historic basis, they should be winning hundreds of seats and growing their vote share. Anything below a high-30s finish in terms of National Equivalent Share of the vote is a very, very clear indicator that they are about to lose the next General Election (if you needed any other hints in that direction). Though this number may have come down a bit given the rise of UKIP, Labour finishing behind the Conservatives in vote share, as they are forecast to do, would be just one more signal that everything the polls and local by-elections are telling us is right: that Labour are utterly becalmed, perhaps even sinking a bit since last year. On the other hand, Labour did well in just these elections when they were last fought on a comparable basis, in 2012, and UKIP are doubling their candidate count: this seems likely to exaggerate any seat loss (or dramatically shrink any gain) that we would have been expecting. In places such as Thurrock and Harlow, in Essex - both Parliamentary seats Labour held very recently - UKIP's increased presence since 2012, when many still regarded as them as something of a fringe party, may have a very profound impact indeed. They will take seats themselves; but they may also hand seats to the Conservatives by eroding the traditional Labour vote in many wards. It'll be a confusing picture. Labour will probably do well in some urban areas, but perhaps poorly across the South of England. The electoral geography of all this is important: keep an eye out for where the parties actually do well, rather than just the raw seats total. Away from the Labour-UKIP dogfight, the Liberal Democrats will probably continue their relatively pleasing progress in local by-elections with a small push forward - they are thick on the ground where they have recently lost Parliamentary seats, and seem up for a fight. The Conservatives will probably have a very good night given their recent travails, splits and rows - an amazing achievement, really, when you keep in mind how bad things have seemed for them at times in recent weeks.
Our call: Labour may well lose seats, but perhaps not as many as our statistical models suggest; very little precision is possible here. Tribal loyalty and voters' desire to re-elect Labour councils trying to protect services may shelter the party from its constant tragi-comic blundering at national level. UKIP may seem to have a really great night, though that may have more to do with putting up more candidates than an increase in their vote share where they do contest council wards.
Our call: Sadiq Khan will almost certainly be the new Mayor, and he might win quite easily - not by the landslide you might expect from some polls, but at a canter nonetheless. If he doesn't, you can expect full-on hand-to-hand fighting within the Labour Party to start immediately. It's been lucky for them that Mr Goldsmith has fought such a poor campaign, though Labour would probably have won narrowly anyway.
So it's set to be a good night for UKIP, a so-so night for the Liberal Democrats, an unexpectedly not-as-bad-as-it-might-have been result for the Conservatives, and a disappointing (though not we think cataclysmic) result for Labour, who will at least be consoled by victory in London. Or, just maybe: none of the above. We'll soon know - and then we'll be able to test all those numbers we've been harvesting so far this Parliament, and tell you exactly why the actual results differed from these projections. Print these predictions out. Hold us to them. Some of these battles may look a bit esoteric or a little dry, but what they tell us about the British people and what they think certainly are not. At least one thing is clear, among the statistical fog: for the moment at least, British politics is never, never dull.