Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

what hits?

My favourite election moments, in no particular order: Posters go viral. Donal Blaney gets disavowed. David Vance decides to test the ripcord on his suicide vest before going on the mission. Tory candidate quotes TheyWorkForYou on his leaflet; DemocracyClub volunteer gets tasked to document local campaign; uploads leaflet to TheStraightChoice; rejoicing and LotsOfInterCapping on MySociety DevelopersPublicMailingList.


A quick lesson in political plane-spotting: we observe, about 2.25pm today, a small business jet type, with minimal wing sweep and a tail about half-way up the fin, in an approach profile heading northwest over North London. Conclusions? It’s an RAF Hawker 125 heading into Northolt, and Gordon Brown is probably back in London.

This article, meanwhile, is one of the most factual I’ve read so far.

Something I think is worth pointing out: Labour plus the Liberals, plus the sister parties who take the whip automatically, only need three seats to reach the 322 mark (don’t forget the Sinn Feiners). Plaid Cymru would do. And it’s not a question of forming a three- or four-party coalition. You can have a coalition with the Liberals and a toleration agreement with Plaid (or the SNP, or whoever). Arguably there are constitutional issues with Scottish, Welsh, or NI parties having ministerial posts with UK-wide responsibility – I’m on record as saying that no-one has ever been killed as a result of the West Lothian question, but it’s a point.

Also, Labour has leverage on the Scots and Welsh parties; Labour did well in Scotland, and could only do better campaigning against an SNP that put Tories in national office. The Tories did unexpectedly well in Wales, and a similar effect might be expected for Plaid Cymru.

Another point is that the bargaining payoffs are quite interesting (I finally get to use my International Relations MSc!) – the Tories must get Liberal support to get Labour out, so they have an incentive to bid high. Labour can stay in office to the wire, and then dare the Liberals to vote in a Tory government – because of the King-Byng Thing and the Senex letter, there is no requirement for a second election in the event that the government is voted out on the Queen’s Speech, so this would make Nick Clegg into a suicide bomber. Therefore, they have an interest in starting the bidding low (although not so low as to risk insulting the Liberals).

On the other hand, the Tories probably think they are still winning, so they have an incentive to cheat, making a high offer to the Liberals without any intention of carrying it out, rather than calling an election at the first opportunity. As significant numbers of Tories are potential rebels against electoral reform, the Tories’ bid incentives are high offer but low credibility. Labour’s are lower offer but higher credibility.

In classical IR theory, we’d be looking at this point for a costly signal, as described so well in Diego Gambetta’s classic book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. The reason why the Tories and Labour can try to obfuscate their credibility is that talk is cheap. For a signal to be credible, it has to cost the signaller something. This could be either general or specific; whatever the cost is, the fact it exists lends greater credibility to the signal, but signals can also be “cost-discriminating”, when it costs someone who is telling the truth less than it would a liar.

Labour has apparently already hoisted a costly signal – offering the Liberals a referendum on strong proportional representation and several cabinet seats. The cost here is that Labour might lose out from PR, and that offering cabinet seats to Liberals means sacking existing cabinet ministers.

But the Tories’ offer is startlingly puny. Offering a Speaker’s conference real-soon-now pretty much defines the concept of a cost-free and therefore worthless signal. Perhaps they are trying to signal that they don’t think they need the Liberals, so as to bargain us down? If so, they’re very close to the point of making an insultingly pathetic offer. Of course, there’s no reason to assume the Tories are competent, or that they have an accurate assessment of their own capabilities – the Dunning-Kruger effect will be playing a major role here, especially as no Tories have ever operated in coalition since the time of Winston Churchill. The “Tory coup” strategy, which is the Tories’ bargaining threat, seems to be going the way of the Schlieffen plan – once it starts losing time, it’s doomed.

And von Schlieffen famously wanted to keep the right wing strong; Tory unity is far from given.

What’s the Liberal position in signalling terms? Obviously, the more Labour thinks it can count on Liberal votes, the less it’s going to offer – if they are certain we won’t vote with the Tories, their optimal strategy is to sign up Plaid or the SNP, form a minority government, and take it to the Queen’s Speech. The Tory position is similar, but marginally less so – they don’t have the option of simply digging in on the high ground.

So, we need to signal Labour that they have to make us a real offer. We also have to make an opposite signal to the Tories that a centre-left coalition is a serious prospect. And the signalling has to be costly to be credible, although obviously the least costly signal is to be preferred. The simplest way of doing the first of these is to let the Tories keep talking. It keeps the press hanging on, but it doesn’t involve any actual policy commitment. And, if they act rationally, the longer they wait, the higher they’ll go. It pisses off most of the party, which would appear to be the cost of the signal.

So I suppose I agree with Nick. That leaves a question; what should the corresponding signal to Labour be?

I’m actually quite pleased with our little demo. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic when we assembled in Trafalgar Square, where various speeches were made of which not one word was audible (note to the various orgs involved: I’d happily spring for some batteries for the loud hailer. I mean, my student union would have got that right, to say nothing of the SWP…). And Morrismen kept invading our space.

I originally thought this was some regrettable, Lucky Jim example of sandal-socks liberalism. Actually no; I’m informed by Tom from Boriswatch that this is actually our mayor’s idea of culture, and actual taxpayers’ money is being paid out to them. Perhaps it’s a sort of defensible-space gambit to make it harder to protest there.

Eventually, Billy Bragg – for it is he! – suggested from the platform that we march to Smith Square and picket the Local Government Association building, where the Lib Dem MPs were meeting. This basically turned the demo around, and at least it stopped him singing; off we went down Whitehall, snarling up the traffic, calling on the recently expanded camp around Brian Haw’s pad, hurling abuse at the Sky News media-slum in College Green, flanked by policemen radioing each other to work out where we were heading.

Smith Square is not roomy; this is why those TV pictures of Tories celebrating outside Central Office always looked like more of a party than they probably were. So the crowd looked bigger and the shouting was louder. And, well, we stuck around yelling until Nick Clegg came out to speak. Again, I couldn’t hear a word, and we actually found out what he said via Twitter on Tom’s BlackBerry. Which made sense, as a major aim of the demo was to get onto the TV streams and RSS feeds the MPs would no doubt be obsessively monitoring.

It wasn’t a big demo, but it was targeted – the LGA building was already staked out by a huge media presence, with the steps of the church opposite festooned with camera crews, reporters buzzing around like flies round shit, and a big ambush of photographers and more TV cams on the LGA’s steps.

This was crucial – as we were arriving during the meeting, there would be nothing for them to report on or film other than the outside of a decentish Queen Anne block, which is better architecture than it is telly. All it took was for the camera gang on the steps to swivel through 180 degrees to get a perfect angry-mob shot, while the ones on the church had a reverse angle view of a crowd apparently besieging the building. Cropping in to emphasise the speakers would tend to compress the scene, giving the impression of a more dramatic confrontation.

The results? Well, we got far more news than I expected; and we seem to have traumatised Kay Burley.

The expression on her face at the beginning is priceless. How dare they! This wasn’t on the autocue! There’s more here; later in the day, I was with Boriswatch and his charming son, Alfie, who seems to be training as a Dickensian pickpocket (he relieved his father of a £10 note with positively Sicilian panache), in the Westminster Arms, which offers its customers two TV screens, one locked on Sky News and the other to BBC News-24. With a bit of neck-craning, you could just about watch both simultaneously in a sort of split brain media experiment – what was telling was that there was more Shannon-information in the BBC feed, far less repetition, the BBC didn’t deliberately misquote Nick Clegg in all its on-screen graphics, and the BBC didn’t insist on informing me every three minutes that Mohamed Al-Fayed had sold a rather unfashionable department store.

Seriously – yesterday of all days, Al-Fayed’s sale of Harrods was in the top three stories on Sky News for at least two hours. And, as a hint, Nick Clegg didn’t say the Tories had a “right to govern”, which they repeatedly asserted as a direct quote; he said that the largest party had the right to be consulted about a coalition first, which is far from the same thing.

So how did I spend the election night? As it happens, I decided to go to bed about 1am, noting that I was beginning to get as drunk as most of the people on the BBC obviously were and there was still a while to go before any really substantive data came through. Did anyone else notice this, by the way? I’ve never seen so many important people visibly pissed before. The ruling class drinks in psychic defence, as Mr. Pop would say. And the inhabitants of the best election night thread ever.

And I am amazed that my wave of doom from yesterday has passed. I’m also delighted by the virality. Horrified by our fantastic electoral system – 800,000 more LD votes than last time, and a smaller parliamentary party? Guilty for not going to campaign for Susan Kramer. Informed that actually, “the markets” don’t care about us and there is plenty of other stuff happening in the world. Delighted by BNPFAIL and Charles Clarke and David Heathcote-Amory and Nancy Mogg and Jacqui Smith and Peter Robinson joining us all in obscurity.

I do have a serious point in this post, which is credibility. Tories on the Today programme this morning were talking about offering electoral reform for the Lords and local elections; this is not a meaningful offer, as a proportional Lords wouldn’t be much different from the current one (which has been fixed to be roughly even). For the Tories, it’s cost-free, and therefore meaningless in terms of signalling theory.

More seriously, what credibility does David Cameron have to offer anything?

To make any realistic offer from the Conservatives to the Liberals credible, they have to prove that they’re willing to pass PR for the Commons with Liberal votes against their own backbenchers.

One thing we do know about this parliament is that it’s going to super-empower everyone’s backbenches and the odds-and-sods – this is what happened in the Major years, and he had a (bare) majority. And the last-ditch Tories hate PR – hell, some of them probably aren’t fully reconciled to the Reform Act of 1832. They have nothing to lose but their safe seats; they would have every incentive to hold the government hostage at every opportunity, and they’d be roared on by the extra-parliamentary Tory right.

We simply can’t accept promises from Cameron, because there is no credible assurance he can deliver on them. And it is simply unacceptable for the outcome of an election in which 51% of the public voted for either Labour or the Liberals, and no overall majority emerged, to be that a party with 36% of the vote forms a minority government. Demonstrate tomorrow. 2pm Trafalgar Square. If you’re not in London, why not put the show on right here?

(I just noticed that the BBC results page now puts Lib-Lab ahead of Tories-DUP-Lady Sylvia if they somehow manage to bribe her round. And you’ve got to count in the 4 NI MPs who take the Labour whip.)

According to the boy Band, “London lost it for Cameron”. So meanwhile, here is some music.

What have they done to Kenneth Clarke?

So here’s the plan; it looks like Bush vs Gore 2.0. Bullshit, bluster, and fake it ’til you make it. This is actually incredibly outrageous – we’re in the middle of a contested election and one party doesn’t feel itself bound by what is, effectively, the constitution. And the original version of the Grauniad story in the print edition was considerably worse; it included quotes from a “Tory frontbencher” being actionable about the Cabinet Secretary on the grounds that he worked in the Treasury, was in fact Treasury Permanent Secretary, at the same time as Gordon Brown. Among other things, it is terrifying that the “frontbencher” is so ignorant about the Civil Service that they didn’t know that it’s entirely normal – even expected – for the top man to be a Treasury civil servant.

This seems relevant, not to mention this; I’ve been slipping into a deep sense of fear and loathing all week, rather as you might slip into a silk nightgown.

So I’m going to launch my own counter-narrative now. The answer to “we won we won we won” is “resist the stitch up”. And, as soon as the polls close, I want to get this out as much as possible. As soon as you read this, kindly go and use the phrase.

Update: Sunder Katwala; there’s already a Twitter hashtag and a provisional date for a demo – 2pm Saturday, Trafalgar Square.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has issued a report on the correlates of BNP membership and support (pdf).

Fascinatingly, they reckon that there is very little or no correlation between BNP support and key socio-economic indicators like GVA per capita, growth, unemployment, immigration, etc. It’s as if a typical BNP supporter was, well, a case of free-floating extremism. (A dedicated swallower of fascism; an accident waiting to happen.)

Oddly enough, this replicates an earlier result.

The Nottingham University Politics blog has a more nuanced response, but I’m quite impressed by the fact that two analyses based on two different metrics of BNP support – votes in the IPPR study, membership in mine – converged on the same result.

So, that election. I should be out delivering leaflets; but my leaflets haven’t turned up. Such is life in the sinister Lib-Dem election machine.

More interestingly, it’s been a week of truth. We kicked off with David Yelland‘s and Michael Wolff‘s pieces about the likely panic in the Murdoch world about the Lib Dem surge and, more broadly, the possibility of their pet candidate, complete with Andy Coulson as personal representative, failing to win. That was interesting, but you could have been forgiven for a certain scepticism.

Then, however, the Murdoch world decided to throw a live demonstration (in more ways than one, thinking about their visit to the Indy). Kicking off, the Tories announced “a new Get Clegg strategy”. Rather, it might have been truer to say that they “announced” it; at the time, the news reporting was merely that it had been announced. What was really meant by this became obvious on the morning of the second debate, with the synchronised wave of abuse from the right-wing press.

By lunchtime on the next day, however, they had been called on the issue, by name:

“George Osborne needs to come clean as to whether he himself was personally responsible for this negative media smear campaign, which is now backfiring spectacularly with voters.”….

Osborne met some political editors on Monday and discussed the party’s response to the Lib Dem surge.

In one paper, a strategist was reported as expressing the hope that the media would do the Tory party’s dirty work. There is no evidence that Osborne made this remark or that Conservative headquarters fed any story to any paper.

The direct quote is from the Liberal election coordinator, Danny Alexander; the rest is the Guardian‘s. You have to love the impressively yellow bit about “there is no evidence that Conservative HQ…” after the direct statement that, yes, Gideon personally made the rounds and handed out the talking points.

Because, of course, the Lib Dem surge has at least achieved one thing – it’s provided an opportunity to observe the media-political complex working in real time. We can’t tell what transpired between Osborne and the pet editors, but we do know that an unexpected third-party surge happened at the beginning of the week, the Tories promised smears, and that certain newspapers all delivered them on the due day. Input-output analysis.

At least we now know, for a fact, that there are newspapers in the UK that accept direct orders from politicians, and we also know which ones. Not that the list is a surprise. It’s also interesting that the Murdochs still think the Times has to observe slightly different standards; it sat out the story. Clearly, self-delusion does actually act as a real check on some people’s behaviour. The Times kids itself it’s still a newspaper, and therefore is somewhat more like one.

Another thing; since Osborne got caught, the Tories have adjusted the fire somewhat. Ken Clarke told the Telegraph that they might consider going into coalition with the Liberals; the Observer, in its Obscurer mode, headlined the same thing over an interview with David Cameron, in which he didn’t really say that – but presumably his PR team must have accepted it. The whole thing has had a strangely communist feel; a Power Struggle in the Inner Party, which the people follow through odd snippets of certainly misleading news-like data.

The good news: ignorance is no longer excusable. The even better news is: there’s an app for that, or rather a Greasemonkey script.

You bet. (More here, and here, among others.

In an environment characterised by uncertainty, the best predictions are often the ones based on humour and caricature; they get past the shared illusions and get right to the irrational core.

This Crooked Timber points to a column in the Economist about interns on the Bush campaign carefully hand-writing a range of fake homemade signs, confiscating the ones their positively vetted audience had brought along, and issuing them to the crowd for the media to wow over their rural authenticity. Well, not surprising. And the Economist guy was clearly so shocked he almost said something.

At the moment, however, I can’t help but think of this touching scene in terms of signalling and secret communication. The problem is Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How criminals communicate, which recently attracted attention because of its section on the vital importance of mediocrity to some Italian academics. I’ll do a formal review of it later, either here or at AFOE, but before we do that, let’s try putting it in practice.

He argues that much behaviour among criminals is driven by the problems of communicating things like group membership, reputation, and availability of goods or services in an environment where it is both easy to fake it and impossible to signal openly. Therefore, members of the Mafia never use the word “mafia” or indeed any specific term to refer to the organisation – what could be harder than trying to convince your mark that you are part of a mighty criminal society whose name you don’t know? – and they operate a sort of web of trust, in which two mafiosi who don’t know each other can only meet if one who knows them both mutually vouches for their identity.

A crucial element is the creative use of biological signalling theories, which revolve around the insight that an identifying signal needs to be cheap for a real user to produce, but expensive for a faker, or at least, that a signal needs to represent a real commitment of resources to be credible. In this sense, I think I can see the purpose of those signs – we know, after all, that the canned crowd were willing to be relieved of their own signs and have others thrust into their hands. Would you put up with this treatment?

I suspect if you’re reading this, you would probably find both the reality of the censorship, and the aesthetic horror of the fakery, quite offensive. But then, you’re also unlikely to want to be part of a canned crowd for George W. Bush….unless you were trying to fake it for some reason. Clearly, one of the effects of this procedure was a form of cost-discriminating signalling – the organisers demanded that their activists signal certain things that fakers would find difficult to mimic. You had to demonstrate that you were willing to abandon your stated opinions and wave ones they gave you instead.

As far as I can see, the qualities this process selected for would be obedience to authority and tolerance of ugly kitsch. Does anyone doubt that these would indeed qualify you to wave a sign behind the former president? This is an example of using costly signalling to communicate with people who score highly on the indices of social authoritarianism; as well as the political implications, it’s probably true that staging a preplanned media photocall with a crowd of people selected for their obedience to authority is just easier.

This is something which comes up occasionally in Gambetta; it’s possible for communication to evolve independently of intention. Even if our man the Bush ’04 intern was trying to stop the rent-a-mob turning up with 666 – TAKE A CLOSER LOOK!!! or OSAMA BIN KERRY signs, the way he did it had the secondary or unconscious effect of selecting the kind of person who would appreciate them most.

Over time, such effects could come to determine the culture of an entire political movement. Obviously, people who go to rallies are likely to be the same people who take part in all the other forms of campaigning, so if this (and other practices with similar effects) are common, it would likely tend to help boil down the base to its stinking, bitter, toxic, sticky residue.

O.K. Enough beating about the Bush. A practical example with David Cameron. The thing to grasp here is that whatever he’s apparently saying, or not saying, may be better understood as a way of identifying and communicating with like-minded people on a secure side-channel. Here, he’s saying that we don’t need to do anything, plus a whole lot of implied ideological justification. The obvious corrolary of not needing to do anything is to suggest that nothing is wrong. But what is the cost investment here?

It seems that Andrew Gilligan has been stung by the phrase “Bendy Jihad”. So much so that he has devoted a whole column to moaning about it, or rather to moaning about anyone having the cheek to disagree with him. It’s a pity, then, that he couldn’t see his way to attributing his attack correctly, quoting accurately, or refraining from beauties like these:

There’s a certain mad nobility in the way Boris’s opponents seem determined to strap themselves to the most unpopular causes going. You wonder what’s next a support group for double-glazing salesmen? A bid to rehabilitate that misunderstood feminist icon, demonised by the Right-wing media, Rose West?

Do stay classy, Andrew. Anyway, to get to the point: Tom Barry is not responsible for the phrase “Bendy Jihad”; it was me. I invented the phrase to express the bizarrely gratuitous nature of the campaign against these peaceable giants of the urban savannahs; is it really a top priority, after all, to replace some brand-new buses with other brand-new buses which have had some glassfibre curlicues added?

And it is gratuitous. We know now that they do not kill cyclists. Not one authenticated case of a Bendy attacking cyclists has been provided. No evidence for any of the other horrors they supposedly inflict on the public has been adduced whatsoever. But rather as so many Conservatives are indiscriminately in favour of killing small animals, the Bendy Jihad rolls on, despite the fact that the contracts between Transport for London and the bus operators mean that come what way, 50 bendies will still be in operation at the next mayoral election, despite the fact that some of the routes involved are impassable to double-deckers because they go through the Strand underpass, despite the fact Boris Johnson forgot all about paying for the extra drivers and conductors required for 24-hour operation…clearly, the role of the Bendy Jihad is not instrumental, but symbolic. Rather than fighting for a secular triumph in which the Caliphate of a better transport system is actually achieved, the Bendy Jihadis hope to prove themselves worthy of their place in paradise (also known as the House of Commons) by their sacrifice.

However, their religion is actually considerably less advanced than Islam in anthropological terms. Rather than propitiating god by good works or asceticism, they are still at the stage of making sacrificial offerings of dead animals; in this case, these savages intend to stage a mass cull of defenceless bendies. Perhaps they will build a giant pyre and dance round it, or burn Peter Hendy in a wicker man atop City Hall. It’s potlatch politics; they’re doing it purely because they can. Politically, it’s an appeal to the primitive instincts; watch us smash their big, long, red totem!

I suspect the authors of the Bendy Jihad are well aware of this; it’s hard to remember this now, but it wasn’t that long ago that the main strategic problem facing the Conservative Party was how to win an election in a climate of prosperous housing-boom contentment, without risking any of their core ideological substance. The answer, of course, is to pick an aesthetic and push it as far as you can.

Now, Gilligan claims that “one tireless Johnson-basher, Tom Barry, explains how the Mayor’s opposition to bendy buses is actually part of a sinister, global neo-conservative conspiracy”. Unfortunately, he’s got this the wrong way round. The opposition to bendy buses is actually a conspiracy which consists of sinister global neo-conservatives.

For example, we have Policy Exchange’s founder Michael Gove, shadow Schools Secretary. Mr. Gove is on record as recommending the pseudonymous “Bat Ye’or”‘s book Eurabia, in which you can learn that the European Union is secretly controlled by Arabs. (There are pills you can take for that, I think.) We have its recent director Anthony Browne, the toast of US extreme-rightist group VDARE, who apparently thinks we are “on the edge of anarchy” because of the not-ricin not-plot, now Boris Johnson’s policy chief. We have the truly odd figure of Policy Exchange research director Dean Godson – advocate of “political warfare”, former special assistant to John Lehman as Secretary of the Navy (that’s the US Navy, and he’s now the head of John McCain’s transition team), and shaky-on-facts thinktanker. Why am I bothering with this obscure thinktank?

Because, of course, not only did Boris Johnson staff up from it, but it published a paper back in 2005 which specifically proposed the Bendy Jihad in the following terms:

One of the remarkable things about the debate over the Routemaster – London’s much loved hop-on, hop-off double deckers complete with conductor – is that it is about much more than just a bus. It is highly revealing about so many aspects of public policy in Britain today. The first is the rising tide of the group rights agenda (or at least a particularly extreme interpretation of it) which has overwhelmed key public utilities and those who do business with them.

That’s Godson. “The group rights agenda”, no less. Here’s some more:

The Routemaster’s crime, in short, is not that it is ineffective; it is that it is unfashionable. It does not fit with the modern, sleek, concrete-and-glass Euro-city that Mr Livingstone wants to create; never mind that this city exists only inside the Mayor’s head.

It’s always the EU in the end with these people, isn’t it? You’d think that Andrew Gilligan might have been aware of this document’s essentially partisan and political nature; after all, he wrote that last bit and Godson edited it.

What a bunch, and how bizarre that they all share a deep interest in buses despite having never been at all interested in transport policy before. I suppose their nonsense is explicable by the Dunning-Kruger effect – the principle, experimentally demonstrated, that incompetent people are not only unaware of their incompetence but convinced that others are even more incompetent than they.

Anyway, this is all very interesting, but it’s just a pity that Tom Barry didn’t actually say it, just like he didn’t invent the Bendy Jihad. The two halves of the quote, each side of the oh-so-convenient ellipsis, come from two distinct pieces of writing, welded together like the halves of a dodgy secondhand car and with much the same purpose. Tom Barry says in the first one that there is a curious overlap between the Bendy Jihad and a neo-conservative worldview, quoting me. I think we’ve amply demonstrated that. He says in the second that the Boris Johnson campaign was motivated by Tory hatred of Ken Livingstone for cosying-up to the “new economic superpowers”. That’s an opinion, on a whole range of stuff that has bugger-all to do with bendies.

Comment is free, facts are sacred. Remember? Much more of this and I might conclude Alistair Campbell was right. Which would be a considerable stretch for me. But then, they say you should never meet your heroes. Especially not when they get caught sockpuppeting.