The Trials of British Psephology

The 2015 UK Election wasn’t just a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats and Labour, it was also a disaster for British psephologists. In the closing weeks of the election, all the major pollsters repeatedly predicted a hung parliament, with the Tories and Labour netting approximately the same number of seats. In the wake of Conservatives’ stunning victory, pollsters have been defending their methods and trying to determine how they got the election outcome so wrong.

My initial reaction to the pollsters was sympathetic. 2015 was an usual year: There were more parties than ever with a credible shot of winning seats, the rise of Scottish nationalism was a novel and powerful force, and the number of homes still using ye olde telephone landline was at an unprecedented low. But then I found the video below, showing that in a much simpler election landscape the pollsters muffed the catch in eerily similar fashion in 1992, again failing to predict the Conservative majority that the voters delivered.

I don’t claim to know the full explanation for these polling errors, but this candid admission by Damien Lyons Lowe, head of Survation, suggests that rational herding is part of the problem. This is his description of the poll Survation completed on the eve of the election:

Survation Telephone, Ballot Paper Prompt:
CON 37%
LAB 31%
LD 10
Others (including the SNP) 6%

Which would have been very close to the final result.

We had flagged that we were conducting this poll to the Daily Mirror as something we might share as an interesting check on our online vs our telephone methodology, but the results seemed so “out of line” with all the polling conducted by ourselves and our peers – what poll commentators would term an “outlier” – that I “chickened out” of publishing the figures – something I’m sure I’ll always regret.

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

On Social Media, There is No One to Whom to Apologize

After his sexist, unfunny comments went viral and provoked a social media firestorm, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his honorary professorship and been kicked off the European Research Council. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, likewise a distinguished scientist, has also been personally and professionally battered:

their house was doorstepped by reporters, says Collins. “One of them said that his paper had found my ex-husband.

He said it was all very juicy and I needed to get a response in. I didn’t, but I still had a sleepless night. In fact, it wasn’t that juicy. It was a story of a woman, me, who divorced one man and then married another, Tim. But it was still horrible.”

In addition, bodies such as the Royal Society – of which Hunt is a fellow – were pressing for him to make a fuller apology for his remarks in Korea. Within two days, the pressure had become desperate for both scientists. “Tim sat on the sofa and started crying,” says Collins. “Then I started crying. We just held on to each other.”

In watching another one of these social media condemnation cycles, it occurred to me that once these get going there really isn’t any way to stop them. When there were three television networks, you could do an interview with Cronkite and say that yes, you behaved terribly and you were sorry. The finite, definable, public figures and organizations who were criticizing you could then accept the apology and call off the dogs (particularly if you took the trouble to meet with them personally and apologize again). Your reputation would be deservedly dented, but at least your career and family weren’t destroyed.

Today, because thousands of people (maybe tens of thousands) are independently condemning the target of social media firestorms, there really isn’t any way to stanch the flames by owning up to your mistake. If you went on a TV show and apologized, most of the people who were gunning for you would probably never see it, and it would be practically impossible for you to craft individual apologies to every angry email writer and Twitter critic. All you can really do is wait for the storm to move on to the next target.

Remembering Charles Kennedy

A remarkable political talent, Charles Kennedy, has passed away suddenly at the age of 55. He led the UK Liberal Democrats to their greatest heights. Because Nick Clegg did well in the television debates in the 2010 election and ultimately became Deputy Prime Minister, many people inaccurately reconstruct the LibDem peak as 2010. But remember, it lost seats in that election, and indeed other than a tiny gain a few months after Clegg became leader in 2007, the LibDems started losing local elections well before the 2010 national election, and has lost every one of them since. This was topped off with the 2015 slaughter, which also deprived Kennedy of his seat.

Because of what I do for a living, I always take particular note of how people with addictions manage their lives and careers. Kennedy sadly was brought low by his drink problem, and apparently never got into stable recovery (He was drunk on Question Time this March). Whether his drinking and the immolation of the Liberal Democrats hastened his death we cannot know, but in any event it’s hard not to wonder how much more he might have achieved with different flaps of the butterfly’s wings.

Templeton Prize for an Advocate for People with Disabilities

At a joyful and moving ceremony last night at St Martin-in-the-fields, the extraordinary Jean Vanier accepted The Templeton Prize. I have heard a number of people say that after meeting him they wanted to become a better person. I now understand why.

Over a half century ago, he visited a horrid psychiatric institution in France, and a resident with intellectual disabilities asked him “Will you be my friend?”.

What would you have done in this situation? I think I would have engaged in an awkward interaction and then moved on. Vanier in contrast invited two residents to come live with him, initiating a movement that now includes 147 communities in 35 countries. In L’Arche communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. Perhaps the most striking — indeed radical — aspect of the Vanier’s vision was his expectation that those without intellectual disabilities would benefit as much as those with them. It’s a complete departure from the typical medical model in which designated experts apply clinical techniques to designated helpees.

At 86, Vanier remains a marvelously eloquent, funny and inspiring speaker. This is his answer to the eternal question: What does it mean to be fully human?

The Lesson of Scotland: Give the People Something to Vote For

Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon, happy warrior

The scale of the electoral slaughter in Scotland yesterday was truly astonishing. The Scottish National Party (SNP) didn’t just take almost every single Labour seat, they took them by swings that have no precedent in electoral history. Turnout was over 80% in some constituencies! Even a 20-year old SNP candidate was enough to sweep aside a seasoned Labour politician. Forgive me for quoting myself regarding what things were like on the ground:

I ran into a Scottish friend recently, a diehard Socialist and Nationalist, who was not in the least discouraged by the recent negative vote on independence. “It was like the old days” he told me, with excitement in his voice “People standing on street corners talking about politics, complete strangers debating each other in the pub about the future of Scotland, the whole country came alive!”. Thinking about the default cynicism and political disengagement in most of the developed world, I had to admit that it sounded vivifying.

The unmistakable difference between Labour Party and SNP supporters this year is how many more of the latter were voting positively. When I asked my friends who supported Labour why they did so, they could almost never speak even two sentences without attacking the Tories. Some couldn’t even get two words out without mentioning them,

Q: “What do you like about Labour?”

A: “The damn Tories…”.

Q: “I know you don’t like them, but what would your party do if it won?”

A: “We’d kick out the damn Tories!”

In contrast, my SNP supporting friends rarely mentioned either of the major parties in explaining their votes. Instead, they talked about what they dreamed a Scottish nation could become under SNP rule, almost always with a smile on their face and hope in their voice.

Parties can certainly win elections entirely by saying what they don’t stand for, who they are against, and how they are not as bad as their opponents. But if all you have going for you is such negative voting motivations, you are completely ill-equipped to handle an opponent whose support comes not from what they aren’t, but from what they are. The positive vision of the SNP drew a huge number of people into the political process who had previously been disengaged and energized long-time voters who were used to pulling the lever while holding their nose with the other hand.

In the U.S., we all bemoan the level of political alienation in the electorate and the negative tone of our politics. The SNP experience shows that there is a possible solution: Candidates and parties that give people something to vote for rather than merely vote against.

The Presidentification of U.K. Politics

A small but irritating sentence from the FT:

On most projections Mr Cameron is expected to win more seats than Mr Miliband, although the race is tight.

In fact, any sensible projection would have Cameron and Miliband winning the same number of seats: One each.

In the U.S. System, the nation does indeed vote on one individual versus another for the top job. But in the Westminster system you vote for a party. Unless you happen to live in his/her constituency, you do not vote for or against a prime minister at all. Further, the party you voted for can throw its PM out of office at any time and go right on governing, and even if they keep their leader, s/he has (unlike a president) little independent power apart from the party. But between the UK’s wrongheaded adoption of our tiresome televised candidate debates and the relentless focus of the press on the party leaders’ personalities, families and lifestyles (even, their eating habits), you’d think the British public are about to vote for the next President of the United Kingdom.

How Oxford University Became Such an Argumentative Place


The following anecdote from Oxford University has been recycled many times in debates about campus PC speech codes, most recently by Judith Shulevitz:

At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors (a “censor” being more or less the Oxford equivalent of an undergraduate dean) canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union, who had pressed for the cancellation. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

Andrew Sullivan was one of many other people who also picked this story up and decried how close-minded Oxford “kids these days” have become.

Knowing the history of British Universities (I have been a professor at two of them) I can affirm that this sort of thing never would have happened at Oxford 200 years ago!

Because Oxford didn’t admit women then. Or Jews for that matter. Or Blacks. Or poor people. Or, well, you get the idea.

Of course those of us who spend our days on campus should try to be civil to each other, listen to each other and learn from each other, and it’s a public service to point out when we fail to meet those standards. But the idea that universities today are shutting down debate to an unprecedented extent is risible. For centuries after it was founded, Oxford stifled debate on campus by only admitting a narrow, like-thinking subset of society. When the university quite rightly opened its gates to more a diverse range of students, huge disagreements that were always present in society at last became visible on campus too.

Labour’s Scottish Message vs. Ramsay MacDonald

With Britain’s two main parties running neck and neck in a race in which neither is expected to get an outright majority of seats, each is trying to persuade minor party voters to “come home”. For example, to help stanch Labour’s Scottish losses to the Scottish National Party, Labour advocate Jim Murphy is arguing that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories:

It is a simple fact that the single biggest party gets to form the next government.

I couldn’t square this claim with my recollection of UK political history (more on that in a moment), so I consulted Southampton University Professor Will Jennings, who blogs at the excellent site Politics Upside Down. I asked Will what David Cameron could do if the Tories didn’t get a majority, but eked a few more seats than Labour (say 290 vs. 286) because the SNP managed to grab a number of seats (say 40) that otherwise would have gone to Labour. If Labour and SNP wanted to form a majority coalition of 326 seats, could Cameron stay on anyway on the basis of his being the single biggest party?:

the incumbent government has the right to attempt to form a government. However, the government would still need to command a majority in a vote of no confidence, and that would depend on the arithmetic of the opposition parties. So if the Conservatives won with the seat permutation you suggest, it would quickly become apparent they would lose a vote of confidence, and would have to step aside for an alternative government.

Ramsey MacdonaldI was grateful to Will for confirming my suspicions, which funnily enough come straight from my recollection of the founding of the Labour Party by Scottish politicians, most notably Ramsay MacDonald. Having read up a bit over the weekend, I can now relate the intriguing story.

The MacDonald-led Labour party secured 191 seats in the 1923 election, well behind the Conservatives’ tally of 258. Under “Murphy’s Law”, this would have ensured a Tory government with Stanley Baldwin as PM. But H.H. Asquith of the third place Liberal Party threw his 158 seats behind Labour, which meant that Baldwin couldn’t possibly win a confidence vote in the Commons. Thus, despite coming in a distant second in seats, MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister.

A vote for the SNP in Scotland is thus..a vote for the SNP in Scotland.