Archive for December, 2011

Here’s a question for you. Obviously it’s too much to ask that national newspapers provide a critical view of polling methodology. And there are obvious problems in criticising a poll your own paper paid for on the front page. So bloggers will probably just have to do it. But here goes. To what extent is the quality of “being prime ministerial” caused by being prime minister?

The polls haven’t been great for Labour over the turkey gap, and we know this is probably a thing because it wasn’t just one poll or one pollster’s polls that showed it. Fair enough. The problem is, of course, that given this information, everyone immediately starts trying to impose stories on it. Some of this is pure wind, but at least some of it tries to be based on data.

The Guardian is very exercised by one of the down-ticket questions in their own ICM poll, which apparently shows that more people think David Cameron is “good in a crisis” than Ed Miliband. The problem with basing any conclusions on this is that it’s quite possible that being Prime Minister gives you lots of crises to be good in, and plenty of resources to help you be good in them, like the advice of expert civil servants and the wiles of some of the world’s most accomplished bullshitters. Further, as crises in our political system naturally migrate towards No.10 Downing Street, there is a permanent media stage on which you can perform prime ministership.

Obviously, crisis management is a desirable skill in a prime minister, but the job of Leader of the Opposition is not one that gives you lots of opportunities to display it. In fact, as the opposition isn’t in charge, it has no excuse for getting into crises in the first place. A Leader of the Opposition who is having crises can only be having them because their party is being disloyal, because a shadow cabinet member is in trouble, or because they are themselves in trouble personally. The Prime Minister gets crises delivered every morning by the civil service in a red box, like an unappetising catered breakfast. It is hard to think of a situation where an opposition leader can demonstrate the ability to deal with crises that is not, per se, very bad news for the opposition.

In fact, the only one I can think of is the situation where a member of the shadow cabinet is being disloyal and has to be sacked to put a stop to the fitna, as it were. And, well, that already happened. To be honest, how many people actually care, though?

So what I would like to see is the following analysis – let’s pull some of those so-called soft questions (“good in a crisis” would be a start) and compare the ratings for various politicians before and after becoming Prime Minister (and for extra credit, before and after joining the Cabinet). (Anthony Wells, dear heart, do you happen to possess such a data series?) My hypothesis is that there will be a statistically significant uplift for all of them, and that therefore much of this comment is content-free.

Wellsy does have a consistent series for the “best Prime Minister” question, here, which shows that Cameron’s score rose 10 points from early May to September 2010. Gordon Brown went from 30 to 44 between the end of May 2007 and mid-August. The only other comparison in the series is the 2005 general election, in which Tony Blair went in as prime minister and came out as prime minister. I pulled the data for all three PMs over roughly the same periods of time, covering the changes of PM in 2007 and 2010 and the 2005 election, and excitingly, Blair’s rating didn’t show any significant change, which is what you’d expect if I was right. The move was 2.8 and 2.5 standard deviations respectively for Cameron and Brown and 0.67 for Blair, and the series is roughly normally distributed, so this result is statistically significant at the 99% confidence level for people becoming PM and insignificant for the no-change case.

You could argue that David Cameron became prime minister because people thought he would be better, but of course this wouldn’t be true of Gordon Brown as there was no election in 2007, and we get the same result. I did wonder if there might be a seasonal effect (he’s like a pound-shop Chris Dillow!), but Brown’s ratings didn’t do anything interesting over the summer of 2006 and neither did Blair’s in 2005.

Update: I originally didn’t want to publish this because I didn’t think it was good enough, but I hit the wrong button. Anyway, Alistair Morgan read it and thinks one of the premises of the whole thing is wrong. Namely, the weapons were going in the same direction as the drugs, not the other way around. Well, at least the story moved on a bit, but this renders mostly useless a whole additional post I put together from reading a lot of crazy-but-interesting stuff out of the bottom of the Internet. Also, despite the Jessie J reference there’s better music at the bottom if you get that far.

So, Alistair Morgan’s twitter feed frequently hints at “cocaine, weapons, and Ireland” as well as police corruption as being factors involved in the case of his brother, Daniel Morgan, the private detective murdered in 1987, probably by people who were since employed by News International. It’s often been said that Morgan was on the point of publishing some sort of huge revelation when he was killed, but nobody knows what it was beyond his brother’s hints based on what the police told him at the time.

Since the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal, a number of sidelights have come up which linked the News of the World, its cadre of ex-police gumshoes, and its contacts inside the police force. Notably, it seems to have spied on the former Army intelligence agent-handler, Ian Hurst, on an NGO, British-Irish Rights Watch (because documents of theirs were on Hurst’s computer when they hacked it), and perhaps on the chief of police, Sir Philip Orde. It would have been hard for people working for the press not to have covered at least one Northern Irish story in the last 20-odd years simply because it was such a news staple, but it’s worth noting their interest.

The War Economy of Northern Ireland

So, what might link Morgan, cocaine, weapons, Ireland, and policemen? There are some fairly well-known stylised facts or stereotypes about the economy of the Troubles. The IRA mostly funded itself from money collected in the United States, from bank robberies, and from unofficial taxes it collected in the North. It also got contributions from friendly countries, specifically Libya. The Loyalists didn’t have a reliable source of their own money abroad like NorAid, and so specialised in protection and drugs. Both sides also got involved in smuggling across the border as a commercial exercise.

That’s a glib summary ‘graf; obviously, I collect a revolutionary tax for the struggle, you impose fines on drug dealers and dishonestly stick to some of the money, and they are merely thugs operating a protection racket. Traditionally, both Sinn Fein and the British tended to stereotype the Loyalists as basically criminal and the IRA as proper insurgents – there may be some truth in there, but the distinction is one of emphasis and degree and also of propaganda rather than of kind.

Having obtained money, they both needed to convert some of it into arms. The IRA got a famous delivery in the 80s from Libya in its role as Secret Santa, and also often bought guns in the US over the counter and smuggled them back. I don’t know how well characterised the sources of Loyalist arms are, which of course gives me license to speculate.

Permanently Operating Factors

Now for the cocaine, which has often been known to land in bulk quantities on the wilder, less populated bits of the Atlantic coast that also offer good harbours. This is a rare combination, as people live near ports. Two of the best bits on that score are northwest Spain and southwest Ireland. Having landed, you can move it on anywhere in the UK-Ireland common travel area without much more trouble. Since the creation of the Schengen area, Galicia is even better for this because there is such a choice of markets you can reach without a customs inspection. But in 1987 this was an un-fact, so you might as well go to Ireland.

This transit trade had important consequences – notably the rise of Martin “The General” Cahill, the assassination of Veronica Guerin, and probably a substantial chunk of the Irish property bubble via the laundering of profits and also by the boost to those ol’ animal spirits the drug provides.

Imagine, then, that an important criminal actor supplying the London market with cocaine also had access to a reliable surplus of weapons. There is the potential for trade here.

However, it’s not that simple – the famous Libyan shipment would have fit in a couple of shipping containers, and it kept the IRA going up until peace was signed, with a fair bit left over to be buried in concrete by the international commissioners on decommissioning. It is very unlikely that any plausible flow of arms to Northern Ireland would have paid for the flow of cocaine into the South-East.

We Don’t Need Your Money, Money, Money, We Just Wanna Make The World Dance…

There’s something else going on – Diego Gambetta would have already pointed out that you need to understand the trade in protection. To sell protection, you need weapons, which are the capital equipment of the business of private protection. In so far as the buyers in the UK were paying in guns as well as cash, they were arguably expressing a protector-protectee relationship. While on our territory, we protect you, and license you to provide protection. This was also reciprocated. In accepting them, were the sellers of the cocaine undertaking to protect it in transit on their own territory?

Another way of looking at this, which Gambetta would also approve of, would be in terms of costly signalling. Being both a supplier and a protector is a powerful position, but it might be worth letting the other side have it as a guarantee or hostage, to signal that you didn’t intend to break the agreement and deal with some other supplier. This makes even more sense given that you still have a regular supply of guns you could cut off or use against them, and therefore both parties have something to lose.

Now, Gambetta’s work mostly deals with Sicily, where a very important protection supplier has often been irrelevant. London is a very different society from this point of view. Whatever you think of the police, you can’t just ignore them as a factor. In some other societies, the police might be protection consumers, but here, police corruption usually takes the form of policemen selling protection. (In a sense, the more effective the police, the more tempting this will be. Nothing sells like the good stuff.)

So, gazing down on this complex, neo-medieval exchange of cash, credit, and protection, there is a sort of Sun King whose permission is required for any protection contract to be signed. It’s like a feudal society. My liege lord is only so, because he is the King’s subject, and the King at least theoretically owes duties to the Emperor, or later, directly to God. Our buyer is in a position to offer protection for his end of the business because he enjoys protection supplied by the police.

Who were the recipients, the sellers? They might have been drug dealers who needed to buy protection from one or other paramilitary group. They might have been drug dealers who wanted to build up enough arms that they could stop buying protection, or rather, change protector. Or they might have been paramilitaries who sold protection to the drugs trade. The distinction is surprisingly unimportant.

So, to put the pieces together, there was some group of South-East London villains importing cocaine from transit providers in Ireland, who were also exporting weapons in the opposite direction as part of an exchange of protection for their common business. This required buying protection from the police. Where did the weapons come from? And why is News International involved?

Well, here’s a contribution to the debate over the riots. The Thin Blue Trots’…sorry…Police Federation report has been leaked.

Among the failings highlighted by the federation, which represents 136,000 officers, were chronic problems, particularly in London with the hi-tech digital Airwave radio network. Its failings were one reason why officers were “always approximately half an hour behind the rioters”. This partly explained, it said, why officers kept arriving at areas from where the disorder had moved on.

The Airwave network was supposed to improve the way emergency services in London responded to a crisis after damning criticism for communication failures following the 7 July bombings in 2005.

It is being relied upon to ensure that police officers will be able to communicate with each other from anywhere in Britain when the Olympics come to London next summer. The federation wants a review into why the multibillion-pound system collapsed, leaving officers to rely on their own phones.

“Officers on the ground and in command resorted, in the majority, to the use of personal mobile phones to co-ordinate a response,” says the report.

It sounds like BB Messenger over UMTS beats shouting into a TETRA voice radio, as it should being about 10 years more recent. Not *this* crap again!

There’s surely an interesting story about how the UK managed to fail to procure a decent tactical radio for either its army or its civilian emergency services in the 1990s and 2000s. Both the big projects – the civilian (mostly) one that ended up as Airwave and the military one that became BOWMAN – were hideously troubled, enormously overbudget, and very, very late. Neither product has been a great success in service. And it was a bad time for slow procurement as the rapid technological progress (from 9.6Kbps circuit-switched data on GSM in 1998 to 7.2Mbps HSPA in 2008, from Ericsson T61s in 2000 to iPhones in 2008) meant that a few years would leave you far behind the curve.

And it’s the UK, for fuck’s sake. We do radio. At the same time, Vodafone and a host of M4-corridor spin-offs were radio-planning the world. Logica’s telecoms division, now Acision, did its messaging centres. ARM and CSR and Cambridge Wireless were designing the chips. Vodafone itself, of course, was a spinoff from Racal, the company that sold army radios for export because the official ones were ones nobody would import in a fit. BBC Research’s experience in making sure odd places in Yorkshire got Match of the Day all right went into it more than you might think.

Presumably that says something about our social priorities in the Major/Blair era? That at least industrially, for once we were concentrating on peaceful purposes (but also having wars all over the place)? Or that we weren’t concentrating on anything much industrially, and instead exporting services and software? Or that something went catastrophically wrong with the civil service’s procurement capability in the 1990s?

It’s the kind of story Erik Lund would spin into something convincing.

Jamie Kenny says:

Come to think of it, the only papers which their readers would miss are the ones which have have managed to establish their names and the word ‘reader’ as a social type: which is to say the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Mail.

John Band argues that this is also true of the Sun:

Surely ‘Sun-reader’ and the Sun also fit alongside Guardian, Mail and Telegraph?

Certainly, people do use “Sun reader” as a social type. But the really interesting question is whether anyone considers themselves a Sun-reader, and I think this is what’s doing the work here. (As a very rough check, I compared the Google hits for “I am a [paper] reader” – Guardian most common, Sun a couple of thousand less, but quite a few of both were people either putting it on for argument’s sake or indignantly denying it. Obviously, the huge Guardian web presence will distort that.)

People who read the Guardian often do identify as Guardian-readers and other people also pin it on them. This is true, although I think more weakly, of Telegraph or Mail readers. But there is a gradient here – I think you’re slightly more likely to self-identify as a Telegraph or Spectator reader than you are to be labelled as one. For the Mail, that’s more like evens. (The reductio ad absurdum would be the Daily Sport, which would almost certainly be an insult.)

For the Sun? I’d put it at 80% labelling to 20% self-identification. Why is this important?

Well, you can define a following – Sun readers, Worcester Women, whatever – and use this to sell advertising or push your own influence. In the first case, what matters is that you can define your own readership well enough that advertisers think of you as a way of reaching them. In the second, it’s that politicians are willing to believe that Sun-readers are a thing. Note that this involves a willing suspension of disbelief. If you can count the C2s among your readers, your media sales team can throw this at advertisers. If you are ideologically congenial to politicians, so that they’re willing to believe in Sun readers, you can exercise power. In a limited sense, if you can render your audience legible as a group, you can turn this into money or influence.

But this only goes so far. The key distinction is what happens when you need them. People who identify themselves as Sun readers will turn out. People who are identified by marketers as Sun readers will read something else in their tea break. And there’s an odd recursive quality to this – if you really did consider yourself a Sun-reader, what on earth would you be doing identifying yourself as a newspaper reader? What could be less in keeping?

To put it another way, imagine someone who is acting, trying to pretend to be a Sun-reader. What could be more obviously fake than brandishing a copy? You would need to work on the rest of the act first, and only then have one casually lying around. If you wanted to pose as a Guardian reader, you’d want to be seen reading the damn paper.

News International spent a lot of time and effort trying to create an identity for NI-consumers (there being not much difference between the target demographics for the Sun, the NOTW, and Sky Sports, and a hell of a lot of cross-promotion). Of course, so do all media products, even Mobile Comms International and Elevator Week. Some would deny it (The Economist), some would boast of it (The Face). Some are more successful than others.

But I would argue that rather than observing what its customers wanted and marketing it back to them, or deciding what they ought to want and persuading them to want it, NI’s modus operandi was to observe what its customers did, and then market that to its other, upstream customer base – advertisers and politicians.

If the Sun called for a demonstration against the Leveson inquiry, would anyone go?





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