Monday, 30 May 2016

EU Referendum: Young Voices Are Being Sidelined in this Campaign

Young voices are being sidelined in this referendum campaign - often quite literally. The first television event held last Thursday was a debate for 18-29 year olds. Its panel featured Alan Johnson (66), Alex Salmond (61), Diane James (56), and Liam Fox (54).

Beyond this piece of crude symbolism, polling data courtesy of Hope not Hate & Bite the Ballot/YouGov shows voters under the age of 30 generally feel detached.

When asked on their views on the referendum, 45% of 18-30 year olds saw it as 'two groups of old men shouting at each other' which, by-and-large, is true. The most prominent figures ranked by share of television appearances are Boris Johnson (9.2%), David Cameron (7.9%), Ian Duncan Smith (3.3%), and George Osborne (2.1%), followed by Nigel Farage (2.1%) and Michael Gove (2.1%).

Meanwhile, 46% of young people said they did not know who to believe in this debate, compared with 29% who did. Of groups young people were most likely to trust, a teacher/academic came first (net +59), followed by a young person like yourself (net +19). Unsurprisingly, politicians - who have made it their business to be at the forefront of both campaigns - are the least trusted group (net -66).


One such politician is George Osborne, whose recent Treasury report outlined a few of the short-term economic risks of Brexit, among which a warning that house prices would face an 18% hit over two years.

The chancellor cannot be accused of holding young people in contempt as to do would be to acknowledge that they exist. By dangling such an incentive for this generally pro-EU cohort to switch, betrays a brazen indifference to the priorities of this constituency.

George Osborne has probably calculated there is more to gain in spooking wealthy home-owning swing voters by the prospect of a loss in the value of their asset(s), and he would be correct, as recent polls have suggested older voters may be switching to Remain.

It is an absolute truth that a large swathe of people between 18-29 do not vote. The message this sort of tactic sends is that they do not count.


Nevertheless, there are those who are, at least, trying to engage young voters. But these types of outreach efforts are rarely successful.

From charming gimmicks like Vote Leave's condoms 'encouraging students to pull out', to the #Votin monstrosity concocted by premillennial thirtysomethings in the Remain camp, these methods all have one thing in common; they underestimate the intelligence of their target market.

Albeit rare to see, bringing in younger voters arguably now has an established blueprint. Concrete instances where politicians have connected, Bernie Sanders in the United States or Jeremy Corbyn closer to home, usually involve presenting big ideas, addressing anxieties directly, and making bold arguments.

Yet these successes are instinctively dismissed as 'populist' or 'idealistic' without further discussion, usually by the same sort of person who subsequently opts for bright colours, flashing lights and bad grammar in their own doomed-to-fail attempt to rally youth support.

It is clear that neither campaign has convincingly inspired young people to turn out to vote in this referendum, which is ironic, seeing as young people will have to endure the consequences of this decision the longest out of anyone.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

EU Referendum: Sadly, We Can't Be Trusted to Make This 'Once in a Lifetime' Decision

A few days ago I made the point that instead of re-energising our democracy, as the Independence Referendum did for Scotland, the EU referendum has had the opposite effect.

This is what I wrote:
In 2014, 84.6% of the electorate took part in the Scottish referendum to cap off months of enriching debate centred on sovereignty and national identity. But, when it comes to the EU, something in our discourse has gone seriously wrong.
A significant poll conducted by ComRes for the Independent/Sunday Mirror last weekend asked respondents to answer specific questions on the EU's role in our lives.

I would be personally better off if Britain:
Left the EU - 29%
Remained in the EU - 33%
Don't know - 38%

The British government could control Britain's borders if it:
Left the EU - 57%
Remained in the EU - 27%
Don't know - 16%

Britain's national security would be stronger if Britain:
Left the EU - 42%
Remained in the EU - 38%
Don't know - 19%

I argued that a large share of don't knows, on top of consistently high numbers of undecided voters showing up in the main poll (In/Out), an average of 14.7% since September 2015, pointed to an EU debate that has failed to engage with voters.

But I'd yet go one step further to say that - as things stand - we can't be trusted as an electorate to make the right decision, whatever that may be.

The ComRes poll I cited above asked respondents to label several statements about the European Union as either 'True' or 'False'. This is what happened.

Another way of structuring these answers are as follows.

The EU has an official army.
14% of people are wrong.

The EU is responsible for setting taxes in Britain.
20% of people are wrong.

The UK pays more into the EU budget than it gets back.
22% of people are wrong.

UK citizens need a passport to get into another EU country.
29% of people are wrong.

The EU has an official anthem.
30% of people are wrong.

The European Parliament meets 12 times a year in Strasbourg and the rest of the year in Brussels.
34% of people are wrong.

The Treasury estimates that if Britain leaves the EU it would cost the average household £4,300 a year by 2030.
40% of people are wrong.

Most British laws have to be approved by the European Parliament.
61% of people are wrong.

There are 29 countries in the European Union.
73% of people are wrong.

The fact alone that nearly three-quarters of us incorrectly believe there are 29 countries in the EU (there are, in fact, 28 - I had to Google this) does not fill me with confidence - both in myself and others.

This sort of decision will likely carry the most extreme and unpredictable political, social and economic consequences (for better or worse) that we have ever seen in modern times. To me, this data suggests that we have not been given the information we need to make the right call.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

EU Referendum: Neither Side in this Scrappy Debate is Cutting Through

The intensity of the Scottish referendum debate was celebrated for reinvigorating Scottish politics - and we're beginning to see some of the lasting effects.

According to this weekend's ComRes for the Independent/Sunday Mirror, Scottish voters are far more certain to vote than those from any other region.

Respondents were asked how likely they were to vote in a general election on a scale from 0 - 10. Those who answered 10 (absolutely certain to vote) were as follows: England 64%, Scotland 76%, England & Wales 64%, North 66%, Midlands 62%, South 66%. 

Data from late April's Opinium/Observer poll showed similar results, but the question was in reference to the referendum: England 65%, Scotland 70%, Wales 65%.

The EU referendum debate, on the other hand, has so far been a mess - one that has culminated in both sides invoking hyperbolic wartime sentiments; David Cameron by suggesting a Leave vote would lead to World War III, and Boris Johnson by suggesting the European Union is carrying out the aims and objectives of Adolf Hitler, albeit in a less genocidal fashion.

This desperation may be explained by polling data which shows neither side is cutting through, despite the fact this campaign has been running officially for four weeks, unofficially for 12 weeks, and on Question Time for three years.

While polling is neck-and-neck (Remain holds a small lead), a large swathe of the electorate is yet undecided.


This is the share of undecided voters over time, based the FT's polling tracker:

The average share of undecided voters from all polls over this period is 14.7%, and the median is 17%. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be any major sign of voters breaking either way.

Although polling from the Scottish referendum reflected similar levels of undecided voters at this late stage of the campaign, the share of don't knows expands when respondents are asked specific questions on the EU's role in our lives; i.e. what both sides' arguments are based on.

The following questions were asked by the ComRes poll I cited earlier.

I would be personally better off if Britain:
Left the EU - 29%
Remained in the EU - 33%
Don't know - 38%

The British government could control Britain's borders if it:
Left the EU - 57%
Remained in the EU - 27%
Don't know - 16%

Britain's national security would be stronger if Britain:
Left the EU - 42%
Remained in the EU - 38%
Don't know - 19%


As each week goes by, voters face a fresh bombardment of expert opinions, economic analyses, financial projections, migration studies, security warnings, scare stories and conspiracy theories. This isn't to mention the in-fighting within both camps, and the temporary truces forged between unlikely allies.

In the midst of this haze they may, in the end, ignore the arguments and go with whomever they trust the most. This is what YouGov had in mind when it asked voters for their opinion on the key players in this debate (and for some reason Bill Clinton).

That the politician British voters trust the most on the EU isn't even British speaks volumes. Overall, Leave figurehead Boris Johnson (- 19) is the most trusted, followed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (- 25). David Cameron, who has inserted himself into the heart of the Remain campaign, is the least trusted (- 47). With few exceptions, leading figures from both campaigns have a major trust issue.

Now back again to that ComRes poll, on the question of trust.

Which campaign is "more likely to tell the truth"?
Leave: 39%
Remain: 24%
Don't know: 38%

How these facts plays out over the next few weeks is anyone's guess, although betting markets have consistently given Remain a 60 - 70% chance of winning. Meanwhile, YouGov's 'Lessons from the Scottish Referendum' noted Project Fear only started to hit home in the final two weeks of the campaign, as undecided voters broke towards the status quo.

As things stand, voters don't fully understand the message, and they don't fully trust the messengers. This may not swing voting intention, but I think it may have a dangerous effect on turnout, which in turn could swing the result.

In 2014, 84.6% of the electorate took part in the Scottish referendum to cap off months of enriching debate centred on sovereignty and national identity. But, when it comes to the EU, something in our discourse has gone seriously wrong.


Also in the news: Gordon Brown blustered into the Remain campaign last week, hoping for a repeat of his momentous impact in the Scottish referendum. Nobody really paid attention to what he had to say this time, though he did raise a few eyebrows when he challenged Boris Johnson to a one-on-one debate. Normally, that would have been that. But Boris, when quizzed by journalists with Exeter University's XTV, confirmed he'd be game. Surely it would eclipse the dizzying heights of Cameron vs Gove. Could the broadcasters get these teams together to arrange a date?

Friday, 13 May 2016

Where Have all the Tory Voters Gone?

While pundits last week were busy waiting for a Labour disaster that never came, they missed something that seemed to me quite clear - a moderate collapse in Conservative support.

This is how England's major parties did last week.

LABOUR    | 1326 councillors (-18) | 75 councils (n/c) | 31% PNS  

TORIES      | 842 councillors (-48)  | 38 councils (-1)   | 30% PNS

LIB DEMS | 328 councillors (+45) | 4 councils (+1)     | 15% PNS

UKIP          | 58 councillors (+28)   | 0 councils (n/c)    | 12% PNS

What was billed as a disastrous night for Labour turned out to be a fairly average night for everyone. All parties could claim victories in particular arenas, but would have to contend with losses in others. When it comes to vote share, however, the Conservatives may have some cause for concern. 

The BBC's in-house VR guru Jeremy Vine projected that a general election would yield a hung parliament based on these results. Journalists spent the next few days asking Labour MPs whether this was the sort of performance that would inspire confidence in winning a general election. The answer is certainly not

This is how the vote share has changed since the general election.

LABOUR    | 30% in May 2015 | 30% in September 2015 | 31% PNS in May 2016

TORIES     | 37% in May 2015 | 42% in September 2015 | 30% PNS in May 2016

Had these journalists bothered asking Conservative MPs the same question, the Tories would have been forced to concede they are in a much weaker position today than they were only last year, losing almost a fifth (18.9%) of their support. It's even worse when you consider their relative popularity as recently as September. 

So where has this support gone?

Labour's share has remained more or less exactly the same over the course of the last year. It's clear that party hasn't done enough to attract disaffected Conservative supporters, but if you take a look at how the share has changed for other two major parties, the picture becomes a little clearer. 

LIB DEMS | 8% in May 2015    | 7% in September 2015    | 15% PNS in May 2016

UKIP          | 13% in May 2015  | 13% in September 2015  | 12% PNS in May 2016

It seems that while UKIP, as with Labour, has also stagnated, the Lib Dems have more than doubled their vote share in a matter of months, seemingly soaking up the Tory disaffection. This is, of course, notwithstanding the wonderfully nuanced exchanges in support between these four major parties, and the others.

Some areas, especially the South West, are home to fierce Lib Dem/Tory battlegrounds. Could it be that a swathe of last year's Conservative voters have, with hindsight, begun to miss the stability of the coalition over what appears to be the volatility of a one-party government?

The Lib Dems had a good night last week, which makes for a refreshing change. They've had a long year in the wilderness. Perhaps it's time we took them a little more seriously going forwards.

You can see the full local election results on BBC News. The Britain Elects ward-by-ward results can be found here

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Disaster for Corbyn and the Art of Analytical Spin

We have seen it time and again, and in the midst of last week's local elections we saw it once more.

It was a disaster for Corbyn before anyone had voted on May 5, as the votes were being counted, and after results had been declared. There was, and still seems to be, little room for an alternative point of view in this suffocating narrative.

Initially, pollsters and pundits were predicting that Labour was set to lose 100-150 seats. 'Labour set for worst council defeat in opposition in 34 years' screamed the Telegraph headline. They also provided a helpful infographic so you could picture how much of a disaster it would be.

Based on a model by polling expert John Curtice, the infographic suggested:

  • If Labour was level in the polls the party would lose 120 council seats.
  • If Labour was two points behind the party would lose 170 council seats.
  • If Labour was four points behind the party would lose 220 council seats.

Well, a poll commissioned in late April showed that Labour was eight points behind. Yikes.

Then, Corbyn sputtered petrol onto the fire by claiming 'Labour won't lose any council seats'. Instead of managing expectations, he was beating the drum. The stage was set for a Labour meltdown.

Given this ongoing narrative most pundits used election night as an attractive opportunity to peer into an inevitable disaster - and who wouldn't?

Coverage was dominated by Labour's performance, and at the heart of this was the 'high bar' Miliband had set in the 2012 local elections. In what was referred to as Miliband's "best electoral performance" he won over 2000 seats and made hundreds of gains while scoring a projected national share (PNS) of 38% compared with the Tories' 31%. 

Indeed, Miliband hailed Labour's performance as a sign that Labour are "back throughout the country." 

LABOUR    | 2159 councillors (+823) | 75 councils (+32) | 38% PNS  

TORIES      | 1006 councillors (-405) | 42 councils (-12)  | 31% PNS

The media narrative at the time greatly favoured the Labour leader. It was seen as a bad night for the Tories, and according to the BBC report: "Conservative ministers shrugged off the results as typical for a mid-term government." 

While 2012 is a fair bar to set, as it was the last time these seats were contested, there are several clear flaws. First, as Steve Richards argued on last week's Sunday Politicsthe electoral map is more fractured than it was four years ago. Second, we are only one year into Corbyn's stint while in 2012 we were two years into Miliband's tenure.

Third, the two questions journalists asked throughout the night, and subsequently used to pass judgement on Corbyn once answered, are logically inconsistent. The two questions they asked were:

Q1) How did Corbyn do in 2016 compared with Miliband's 'peak' in 2012?
Q2) What does Corbyn's performance in 2016 tell us about Labour's chances in 2020?

If we are using local elections to project the outcome of a general election (Q2), then using Labour's 2012 'peak' as a bar against which to Judge Corbyn (Q1) is completely pointless, as Labour lost in 2015 anyway.

Nevertheless, of the seats being contested, the results were more or less exactly the same.

LABOUR    | 1326 councillors (-18) | 75 councils (n/c) | 31% PNS  

TORIES      | 842 councillors (-48)  | 38 councils (-1)   | 30% PNS

The meltdown never came.

Another way of judging Labour's performance is by comparing the PNS against the vote share in May 2015, and polling from when Jeremy Cobyn was elected leader in September.

LABOUR    | 30% in May 2015 | 30% in September 2015 | 31% PNS in May 2016

TORIES      | 37% in May 2015 | 42% in September 2015 | 30% PNS in May 2016

Labour's support has more or less remained the same over the last 12 months, while the Tories' support has wildly fluctuated; from a good high of 42% in September to 30% in these local elections.

Incidentally, I'm unsure how the official PNS is calculated (though I have no doubt it is accurate), but if you reverse engineer the John Curtice model the Telegraph so gleefully used to project hundreds of seat losses, Labour would be 4.08 points ahead nationally following these results.

Conventional wisdom may suggest Corbyn is in for a hammering in 2020, but I'm not so we can trust conventional wisdom at a time conventional wisdom also suggested Jeremy Corbyn was in for a hammering in the leadership contest.

Steve Fisher, election expert at Oxford University, was consulted for this article which asks what we can learn from these results, if anything. It strikes a balanced tone in a sea of hysteria. On whether you can use local election results to project a general election, Fisher says: "There is absolutely no discernible, sensible correlation." The article was written on May 1. 

Which is where I'd like to bring this back to analytical spin. If you commit to pushing a narrative based on particular assumptions, it's very easy to simply maintain that narrative by cherry-picking data, even after finding your initial assumptions were completely wrong.

Of course, it's possible to interpret these set of results to suit your pre-conceived political bias or pre-formed narrative, regardless of which measure you use, regardless of whether you're sitting in your bedroom in your pants, or in a television studio in your glistening suit.

For example, on vote share, Corbyn's critics can look to a reduction in the PNS in 2016 compared with 2012, 38% versus 31%. Corbyn's supporters, meanwhile, can look to a 12-point deficit in September being swung into a one point lead in May.


This is why, in my opinion, our political analysis can do with a little less of a reliance on constructing narratives. 

In focussing so obsessively on the  narrative of an inevitable Labour meltdown (which, by the way, never came), I feel they missed out on some interesting talking points:

  • Turnout is consistently dire, and in some areas was much lower than in 2012.
  • The Liberal Democrats are fighting back, with some success, having gained the most seats (+ 42) of any party.
  • Roughly as many people support the Lib Dems and Ukip combined (27%) as Labour (31%) and the Tories (30%).
You can see the full local election results on BBC News. Congrats to the Britain Elects Twitter account for its fantastic reporting. Their ward-by-ward results can be found here

Steve Richards, who I cited earlier, has written a great piece via Total Politics on the two figures who will determine the fate of Jeremy Corbyn.