The Blog

This blog is a collection of Lewis’s writings on topical, interesting and thought-provoking issues. A lot of the content on the blog is original, although some posts will originally have been written for other sites.

Predicting the General Election in Scotland: a fragile landslide?

Posted by on February 14, 2015 in Articles, Blog, Psephology, Scotland | 10 comments

Predicting the General Election in Scotland: a fragile landslide?

‘Too many moving parts.’ This was the understandable complaint of a political scientist (oh, all right, it was Philip Cowley)  about the complexities of writing about the 2015 election. Back in the day, David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh could get a good deal of the story by trotting from one side of Smith Square to the other, but it has all got complicated now. The most unpredictable of these moving parts is Scotland. In my recent seat by seat analysis for Westbourne Communications, I found it pretty much impossible to speculate sensibly about most Scottish seats from my London vantage point, and just assumed that the SNP would take most of the Lib Dem seats and a fair chunk (10? 15?) from Labour, reflecting a swing back to Labour between now and the election. I have recently spent a few days in Scotland, talking to knowledgeable people from various points on the political spectrum and return, in the words of Reggie Maudling, none the wiser but considerably better informed. The truth about Scotland in the 2015 election is that nobody knows. We can be reasonably confident that most of the 11 Liberal Democrats will be swept away – only two (Alistair Carmichael and Charles Kennedy) are likely winners. West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine, and Michael Moore’s seat in the Borders, are Con/ Lib Dem/ SNP wild cards. We can also regard the sole Tory MP in Scotland, David Mundell, as a likely winner on a split vote in a strongly No voting area. But these are details – what about the other 54 seats where the winner is likely to be SNP or Labour? While the SNP won beyond its dreams in 2011, its more usual experience has been to swagger confidently into an election only to underperform when the votes are counted. The last rites were being read for Labour Glasgow in the run-up to the 2012 local elections, but Labour held on surprisingly well. Estimates of the number of SNP seats I heard ranged from 20-ish to over 40, and I still do not feel able to rule any of those numbers out. The error margins on Scottish electoral predictions are huge because: Scottish public opinion on the centre-left can be very volatile, even during campaigns – there was little sign of the impending SNP landslide in 2011 until late in the campaign, for instance. If the election can be seen as a choice of UK government, Labour has a chance of persuading at least some of its lost voters (and alienated Lib Dems) back into the fold, but if it is seen as standing up for Scotland against an unsympathetic bipartisan austerity regime in London, the SNP will walk it. The SNP has become a mass party. Its average membership per constituency is approaching 2,000 people, vastly in excess of any other party in Scotland. The SNP is bound to benefit in terms of doorstep activity and donations. But we do not know how much of a difference it will make yet. The referendum created a more active, politicised Scotland, and not just on the Yes side of the argument. Turnout seems likely to be higher, and – maybe – the voters more argumentative and political. A campaign developing in the moronic vein that we have seen in...

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From Parnell to Salmond: Nationalists at Westminster since 1874

Posted by on February 14, 2015 in Articles, Blog, Con Home | 0 comments

From Parnell to Salmond: Nationalists at Westminster since 1874

Imagine a situation where support for the parties of government in the United Kingdom suddenly collapses in part of the UK and is replaced by a single, dominant nationalist party that has no interest in forming part of an administration back in London and votes in Westminster in accordance solely with its perception of the national interest of its particular part of the country. In the light of Lord Ashcroft’s long awaited Scottish constituency polling  this may well be the shape of politics in the United Kingdom for the rest of the life of that particular political construct. That might be a matter of two to five years, or we might have a ‘new normal’ in which the SNP controls a block of 40-50 Scottish seats at Westminster for decades. How would the political system cope? Let us look at some of the precedents, incomplete and inexact as they are. The most recent case of the politics of a component of the UK going off at a tangent is the collapse of mainland politics in Northern Ireland in the February 1974 election with the victory of Unionists opposed to the Conservative government’s power-sharing agreement. Because Northern Ireland’s representation is so small, and it is divided between different parties, it is rarely pivotal in Westminster politics. For this to happen, a government has to be on the threshold of majority status anyway, as in 1974-79 or at some points in 1992-97. And, with the exception of Sinn Féin who do not take their Westminster seats, the Northern Ireland MPs pay less attention to their ultimate ends than to pragmatic deal-making. As Ken Clarke remarked in 2010, “In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman.” Enoch Powell, then sitting as a Unionist MP, mordantly observed that the Callaghan government could have won its confidence vote in 1979 for some material concessions to Ulster: “a whiff of gas or a ha’p’orth of tar.” But now let us jump back a century, to 1874 and the last time a big block of nationalist MPs was injected into Westminster. On the face of it, the 1874 outcome in Ireland was staggering. In the 1868 election the Liberals had won 66 seats out of 103, to 37 Conservatives. But in 1874 the Liberals sank from 66 to 10, with the Conservatives suffering only a small loss (from 37 to 31; two small borough seats were abolished in 1870 for having particularly corrupt elections). The winners were a loosely-organised party standing for Irish Home Rule, which swept 60 Irish seats. The stated causes of this sudden landslide seem curiously inadequate. The secret ballot made intimidations by landlords more difficult; rural Ireland was disappointed by the limited scope of land reforms; issues had moved away from those (like disestablishing the Church of Ireland) that united the Liberals and Irish interests. But the landslide itself was not what it seemed. The new party was a very broad one, and had been founded quickly so there were a lot of MPs elected who were essentially Liberals under a different label, some romantic Irish conservatives and one or two fellow travellers with the violent struggle of the Fenian movement. At first, the Irish impact was blunted by the inexperience, lack of cohesion and connection with existing...

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The Conservative story of support for election reform

Posted by on January 9, 2015 in Articles, Blog, Con Home | 0 comments

The Conservative story of support for election reform

If one assumes that anything regarded as a timeless British tradition was invented at some point during the reign of Queen Victoria, one would not go far wrong. And so it is with our electoral system. It was invented in 1885 in a ruthless piece of practical politics by which the front benches of the Conservative and Liberal parties colluded on a ‘reform’ to cement a two party system in place. Before 1885, most constituencies in Britain (70 per cent) had two MPs and a handful had three – but an1885 Act sliced most of them up into single-member districts, creating subdivisions of boroughs for the first time. After 1885, multi-member constituencies were a rare breed (returning only eight per cent of MPs), and they finally became extinct in 1950. The option not taken then was to retain multi-member seats and build on a limited experiment that had started with Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867 of providing for minority representation within them – this time on a better thought-out basis through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR). Many of the earlier advocates of PR were Conservatives; the desire for minority representation accorded with Lord Salisbury’s scepticism about majoritarian rule. But the party professionals, then at the height of their power in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, preferred single member seats because they were easier to manage and control, while multi-member seats would make MPs less dependent on the party organisation and more inclined – the horror – to disagree with and compete with MPs in the same party. In 1882, Gilbert and Sullivan proclaimed, in Iolanthe: “That Nature always does contrive/ That every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!” But two-party politics was artificial rather than natural, and even in the high days of the Victorian two party system there were challenges and ambiguities. Gilbert’s Law (a much stronger version of Duverger’s Law, whose illustrious author died last month aged 97) certainly did not apply in Ireland, where Home Rule supporters had swept a majority of seats since 1874 and formed an influential nationalist parliamentary bloc that, when the parliamentary arithmetic permitted in 1885-86, could make the larger parties dance to their tune. Then there was Labour. The Liberals had, more or less, caged the Labour Party before 1914: several by-elections had demonstrated that causing three-way contests was a recipe for Labour candidates coming third and often throwing the seat to the Conservatives (see my July piece on this site here). The possibility that Labour might escape the uncomfortable embrace of the Liberal Party led to the consideration of an electoral reform within the single-member system, the Alternative Vote (AV), to minimise the impact of vote splits. While AV might well have been good for the Liberals in the short term, some in the party feared that it would remove constraints to Labour standing candidates and store up trouble for the future. The Liberals, haplessly, managed to get the worst of both worlds in 1918. Most people had assumed that AV was on the way, and Labour acted on this assumption by selecting hundreds of candidates. By the time it became clear that the election would be under FPTP, it...

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Carry on polling: can George Osborne keep it up until May?

Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Articles, Blog, Progress | 0 comments

Carry on polling: can George Osborne keep it up until May?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Before Christmas, I wrote a piece for Conservative Home about the polling landscape six months out from the general election and what one can tell about the situation from historical precedents. The findings were not entirely encouraging for Labour: Labour oppositions tend to poll worse in the election than they do in the polls at this stage. Steve Fisher does similar things in a somewhat more rigorous fashion and his last look at the charts in December suggested that the likeliest single outcome is for Labour to be the largest single party in a hung parliament, which is more or less what most of the prognosticating classes seem to expect. Despite frequent warnings about how unpredictable it all is, there is a strong convergence in forecasts of the overall results. Where things get complicated is at the level of individual seats, where we can expect some peculiar variations in behaviour among seats based on region, demographics and relative susceptibility to the appeals of Liberal Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence party, the Green party and the Scottish National party. To strain a scientific metaphor, while all sorts of weirdness might happen at micro level, the macro level national picture will probably not be that far away from the Newtonian world of uniform swing. In this piece, I shall look in more detail at one piece of the national picture – economic optimism. Conventional wisdom is that the ‘feelgood factor’ helps governments win elections, but I am not quite so sure either that it works that way, or the causation is in that direction. Economic optimism is not independent of the political environment. A curious pattern in polling history is the strong link between elections and spikes in economic optimism. Past Conservative governments have seemed able to manufacture big bounces in economic optimism just in time for an election. The only Labour government to have managed this was Tony Blair’s in 2001 – perhaps significantly, the election at which Labour enjoyed its highest support from the press and at which Alastair Campbell was at the height of his powers. Even dead-in-the-water Tory governments like John Major’s in 1997 can manage it. The Conservatives are trying this trick again, but one may note that in the much-mocked new ‘road ahead’ poster, the gap in the dark hills on the horizon was produced by the wonders of Photoshop, not the actual landscape. The optimal time for the Conservatives to have held an election might have been autumn 2013; the change in economic optimism from net -30 in March to net +23 in September was a very rapid turnaround. Usually, the British public usually settles into its habitual state of mild pessimism and grumpiness. The longest previously recorded period in which the balance was positive was between March 1987 and July 1988. The current period has endured since July 2013, an astonishing stretch of optimism given the lack of actual economic sunshine experienced by most people. It may be coming to an end if the trend at the end of 2014 is sustained. The longest recorded period of net economic pessimism was, astonishingly, between January 2000 and June 2009, most of which we now think of as being the good old days. We are in the realm...

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Is it worth campaigning in the Summer?

Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Articles, Blog, Progress | 0 comments

Is it worth campaigning in the Summer?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. The ‘dog days’ or ‘silly season’ are nearly upon us. The prime minister has had his reshuffle, restoring the sensible pattern of John Major’s premiership that new ministers should be given the summer to read themselves into the new job and know what they are talking about by the time full-scale politics resumes, and that the team presented at conference is the one that will be in office afterwards. The Commons broke up on 23 July, and the Lords did so yesterday. The political year ends with public opinion looking rather like it has done for months on end – Labour consistently but rather narrowly ahead of the Conservatives, Ukip doing very well and the Liberal Democrats embarrassingly badly. The government is modestly unpopular, and people think Labour’s heart is in the right place, but the Conservatives still have their strengths in key issue areas like leadership and the economy. What can we expect to happen to public opinion during the summer lull? The conventional wisdom is that governments tend to improve their opinion poll ratings during the summer. Warm weather and holidays are supposed to make people feel better about life in general, and the government’s performance benefits from a more indulgent and rosy perspective. More concretely and cynically, politics is often about mishaps and it is easier to look competent when there is nothing much going on and the usual scrutiny mechanisms are disarmed, with parliament in recess and much of the media class camped out in Tuscany along with the politicians. While plausible in theory, there is no decent evidence that governments actually do improve their fortunes during the summer. Your correspondent, with the invaluable assistance of Mark Pack’s spreadsheet of opinion poll results, has trawled through 50 years of voting intention polls to prove this point. The table shows the net swing to the main government party from the main opposition party over the summer, based on the differences between their mean voting intention measured in July and September (i.e. approximately covering the mid July to mid September lull). The mean pro-government swing between the average poll in July and the average poll in September is a measly 0.2 per cent, which given that polling figures are imprecise anyway effectively means that there is no summer effect whatsoever. Looking only at poll figures from the first 15 years of this series (1964-79) it looks as if there might once have been something in the theory, possibly, but the most recent years show small movements with no consistent pattern. Summers, as anyone of my generation will recall, were more idyllic back then, anyway. The apparent end of the pattern might represent change, or it may be that the larger numbers of polls conducted in recent years and more sophisticated methodology, both smooth out sampling variations that caused spurious patterns in earlier years. Recent significant movements are mostly explicable with reference to political events that took place in mid-September, rather than over the summer itself – Black Wednesday (1992) and the fuel crisis (2000) caused downward movements in government party fortunes in the second half of September, while the Lehman collapse accounts for the bulk of the Labour recovery in 2008. There have been a handful of summers which have...

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