GE2015 minus 01: bits and bobs, flotsam and jetsam

Posted: 6 May 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

Oh, I had so many things to write about…

When I started this daily election blog countdown with GE2015 minus 50: voting, and elections… and me, I wondered how I’d fill 50 entries’ worth with my views on the election. Now fair enough, I took a week out in the middle of it for family reasons, and there’ve been a couple of non-politics entries, and even a couple of stories for you to… enjoy, but on the whole, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s all gone. 

Well, I was, until I started this entry and realised, not for the first time in the past twenty-four hours, that this is it; this is the last entry before the election. 

I already know what tomorrow’s entry is going to be; I’ve known for some time. And I suspect, when I post it, no-one wil be overly surprised as to its contents. Moreover, as the last week has passed, I was at first tempted, then seriously tempted, then finally resolved to continue posting something daily for at least another couple of weeks, merely amending the title so it’ll be “GE2015 plus…” So you’ve got that to look forward to.

But what to write today? There are so many options, I’d find it difficult to narrow down to six, let alone one. So, in keeping with the shambolic nature of this blog, let’s do just that: narrow it down to six, and write a little something on each, an anthology post if you will.

the dog that didn’t bark

It’s difficult to identify the single subject about which the political pundits have been proved most wrong; there are a lot to choose. There were those who believed that one or other of the main two political parties would unquestionably pull ahead of the other during the campaign. Suggestions that the campaign would break Miliband, and Labour would fall prey to bitter infighting during the election campaign. Some, like John Rentoul, were utterly convinced that UKIP’s anti-immigration views would thoroughly infect the campaigns of all the parties. (To give him full credit, John’s freely admitted that he was wrong on that.) But if I had to choose one thing about which so very many were wrong, it was the suggestion that character would play a large part in the campaign. 

It hasn’t. I mean, sure, it’s been there, hovering around backstage, waiting to be called into the spotlight, but to a large extent, that’s where it’s remained. There’s been the odd attempt (some very off indeed) to attack the characters of the main players, but none of them have stuck. The right have attacked Labour (and the SNP) for their policies more than who’s been promulgating them. The attacks on the two Eds – Miliband and Balls – have in the main been about what they did or didn’t do while in office, and what they’ll likely do when given the chance again. The only attack on Miliband that’s had any wider resonance is the occasional nasty reference to him being part of a “North London metropolitan elite”, i.e. he’s Jewish. But even that card has been played sparingly, or at least a lot more sparingly than even I thought it would be. Cameron, Osborne et al have been attacked for their policies while in government and what it’s assumed they’ll be if returned to power. There are only two party leaders who’ve been attacked again and again because of character rather than policy. Nick Clegg hasn’t lived down the tuition fees fiasco, but even then, the attacks have not been upon what he’ll joyfully throw away in negotiations, but on whether the Lib Dems will matter after Thursday. I hop they do, though not necessarily with Clegg as their Leader. I’m quite prepared to believe the party’s pitch as a moderating influence, and I support it in principle.

The other leader personally attacked has been Natalie Bennet. Now, I’m not saying that other politicians haven’t had their gaffes exposed, etc., but Bennet’s ‘brain freeze’ was emblematic of a party that’s not ready for prime time, as our colonial cousins put it. It was difficult to attack many of the green’s policies, so Bennet became the focus of dissatisfaction with politicians who crumble under pressure. I’d be astonished if she’s still leader in six months; she blew it.    

missing in action

After the 2010 election, a common complaint from politicians was that the debates ‘sucked the life’ out of the campaigns; that the parties’ policies didn’t receive enough details examination because everyone was concentrating on the debates themselves, rather than what the debates were supposed to be about. Well, they’ve not got that excuse this time, yet I’d argue that the policies of the parties have been even worse served than in 2010. A half dozen policies from each is probably about all anyone could mention. Sure, the manifestos have been out for a while – and yes, I downloaded them all and read them all – but if you relied solely on the media reporting of then, you’d be forgiven for believing they could each fit on a single side of A4 paper, with room for a signature at the bottom.

This is an important election for all sorts of reasons; if you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that. But there are going to be a lot, a hell of a lot, of people voting who don’t actually know – or in may cases care, what they’re actually voting for. There are lots of reasons for this: 

  • the inconvenient truth that the manifestos are no longer a list of things a party would do in government; they’re a list of things which will form the basis for negotiation with another party, either in a formal coalition or a less formal ‘arrangement’
  • the amount of tactical voting that’s about to take place; as long as who they’re voting for is to the left of the Tories, or to the right of SNP (depending on personal preference) that’s fine
  • the parties themselves have had their pledge cards and their front pages of manifestos and their weekly plans; I never thought I’d miss the daily press conferences the parties held, when every day was planned to concentrate on another policy statement. But no, now it’s week by week, and as a result, only the dedicated politics junkie knows more than ten of each parties’ policies
  • the lack of transparency in the campaigns; as the ISF pointed out in a scathing review of the parties’ election promises, people voting for Labour have no idea how much they’ll have to borrow to fund their promises, and people voting Tory have no idea where the welfare cuts will fall. And that’s not all; the the added complication of potential official deals or unofficial arrangements means that even if you think you know either of the two numbers above, you don’t.
  • the cherry-picking of statistics and lack of agreement; one thing that’s been incredibly noticeable this time around is the extraordinary amount of cherrypicking of statistics and analyses. Both Labour and the Conservatives have proudly brandished IFS and other reports when they attack the other party and hold the IFS up as a paragon of independent virtue… and then go on to say, with no apologies, that the IFS are flat wrong when it comes to analysing their own party. No explanation of this ludicrous position, just a flat statement: “The IFS are always right when they attack the other lot and are never right when they attack our lot.”

it’s suited everyone to ignore some things; the Tories really don’t want to have a conversation about welfare cuts, about as little in fact as Labour wants to have a conversation about borrowing. Moreover, if the parties limit the  subjects under discussion, it’s easier for them to ‘control’ the conversation. Furthermore, there are some policies no-one standing for election wants to have a chat about in the public arena. TTIP springs to mind, as does VATMOSS

    sorry, how many?

    One thing I was curious about once the deadline for registering as a candidate passed was “just how many prospective parliamentary candidates can there be in a constituency?” Obviously, there’s no actual limit, but once you get more than 20 candidates, someone is guaranteed to lose their deposit. You have to deposit £500 when you hand in your nomination papers, and you lose it if you don’t get at least 5% of the valid votes cast. Now, obviously, when you get parties getting 30%, 40% or more, then the chances you as a non-main party candidate are going to lose your deposit skyrocket. But it’s always interesting to see who loses their deposit, if for nothing else to discover which ‘main’ party has fallen so far in the constituency’s judgement that… well, they might as well have not bothered.

    But back to the number of candidates. Highest number of candidates for any constituency in this election goes to… Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which has 13 candidates, but to be fair to the constituency, the only one standing as a prospective parliamentary candidate anyone’s paying attention to is one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, current Mayor of London. Delightfully, among his fellow PPCs, are candidates for The Eccentric Party of Great Britain, The Realists Party and of course, someone from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, which raises the question “is there an UNofficial Monster Raving Loony Party?”

    As for the constituency with the fewest candidates, well, that’s the constituency of Buckingham, the constituency of Speaker John Bercow who, in accordance with parliamentary convention, does not stand under any party banner, but instead as “The Speaker seeking re-election”. Although it sometimes seems like it’s more honoured in the breach than in the observance, the tradition is that no main party stands against The Speaker. And indeed, tomorrow, the only two other candidates standing against Bercow are someone from The Green Party and someone from UKIP. So, this year at least, the tradition that no main party stands against The Speaker is maintained.

    politican maths

    I’m obliged to BBC Radio 4’s More or Less and The Economist‘s Tim Harford for introducing me to this term. Much like the glorious “Politician Speak (with translations for the hard of believing)” piece by Alistair Beaton, ‘politican maths’ is not so much a solution, but an identification tool, assisting you to understand when politicans are playing fast and loose with statistics in a way that is not exactly ‘lying’, but wilfully misleading nonetheless. 

    Now this isn’t just using a single statistic and misleading by ommission. For an example of that, we can do no better than remember a couple of months ago, when the ‘in’ thing was to accuse the government of planning to reduce government spending to a number not seen since the 1930s, implying that – at 35% – it’d be shockingly, horrifyingly low. After all, the 1930s predates the NHS, and if that comes out of the 35% what the hell is left for anything else? Now, the figure was accurate… as far as it goes, which as it turns out isn’t very far. Y’see, there’s one hell of an error of omission going on. The strong implication is that 35% was the average government spend in the 1930s. But it wasn’t. It was nowhere near that figure. The year Labour chose to compare spending to was 1938… when the UK was preparing for a little thing called World War II. So, government spending sky-rocketed. The actual average government spend in the 1930s, excluding 1938 and 1939, was… about ten percentage points lower, at roughly 25%. But I guess “taking spending back to a level not seen since the 1930s… and then adding 40%” wasn’t as catchy.

    But I’m not even talking about that, crappy use of statistics that it is. No, this is equally bad, but in an entirely differently misleading way. The Tories, a fortnight or so ago, said that if Labour get in, one of their policies alone would cost working families about £3,500 each! True or False? Well, true, but only if you play with the numbers, stand on one leg, squint slightly and spin three times withershins. Ah, but it’s true then! If, and only if, you understand how the number was arrived at. 

    The Tories took Labour’s statement that they’d fund half the £30bn they want to borrow with tax increases. OK, so we’re at £15bn. Then you divide that by the number of adults in the UK, right? Noooooo. If you do that, the resulting number is far too small. I know, divide it by the number of working adults? Resulting answer still not big enough. Hmm, Ah, divide by the number of families! Closer but no cigar. Ah… go it. Divide the £15bn by the number of families with at least one person working. That’s about 17m. So, £15bn/17m = £882.35 Hmm. not very big, is it? OK, so multiply that by 4 to get four years’ worth: £3,529. And that’s how the Tories came up with the number of roughly £3,500 for each working family. As Tim Harford said, that’s like advertising for a secretary, saying “I’ll pay you £100,000” and then after the interview, saying “that’s over a four year period, obviously…”

    “politician maths”; use it at your peril.

    scold the front page!

    To complain that the front pages of British tabloid newspapers are awful is a bit like complaining that clowns wear make-up or that fiction is made-up; it’s kind of the point. British tabloids have a long and egregious history of carefully considering what’s in the best possible taste, and then ensuring that any such good taste is jettisoned with a speed that fairly breaks the sound barrier. While pictures of dead dictators garner complaints left right and centre, the papers have free reign to produce eve of election front pages that are jaw-dropping in their awfulness. 

    If such tabloid front pages can be compared to a large mountain of faeces – and I think they can – then the Daily Mail’s cover this morning is the biggest shit on the summit:

     

    (That’s of course even ignoring the fact, pointed out by many, that the top and bottom half of the front page are at war with each other; the bottom half admitting, proclaiming, that the Conservative government have fucked up the NHS.)  I’ve really nothing more to say about this than to say that if Paul Dacre (the editor of the Mail) is that scared, there are two obvious conclusions: (1) the guy he’s scared of is a good egg, and (2) this is nothing, nothing to what’s coming our way if Miliband ends up as Prime Minister.

    thinking about voting

    As I write this, polling stations open in a little under twelve hours’ time. Whoever’s reading this, if you’re able to vote tomorrow, a plea: I’m not pleading with you to vote – if you already haven’t decided you’re going to vote by now, I sincerely doubt that anything I write here could or would change your mind. But if you’re going to vote, think carefully about who you’re going to vote for. Don’t, please, vote for the [insert party] candidate just because your dad voted for the same party; don’t vote for a candidate just because you can’t stand the other candidate. At least make sure the candidate you’re voting for is someone you could stand having as your member of parliament. Read the manifesto if you’re not sure. For all my well-aired issues with manifestos, they’re still the closest and only guide we’ve got to what a political party stands for. Basically, what I’m saying is: you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror afterwards: make sure you’re not going to have to see yourself wincing too hard, eh?

    Manifestos
    Conservative Party
    Labour Party
    Liberal Democrats
    Green Party
    Scottish National Party
    Plaid Cymru
    Trades Union and Socialist Coalition

    (Yeah, I’m not linking to UKIP’s manifesto. You want that one, go and find it yourself.)

    And on that note, I bid you good luck, fare well, and vote tomorrow, you fuckers: VOTE. (OK, I said it; sue me.)

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    Comments
    1. Enlight_bystand says:

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2281610.stm Explanation of the ‘Official’ here

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