Friday, 17 June 2011

Ed "Roseberry" Milliband?

Archibald Primrose (almost equally unknown to most people as the 5th Earl of Roseberry) was one of those glossed over Prime Ministers who fill in the gaps, in this case the transition between the end of the Victorian age and into the early 20th century (a time of a fair amount of political upheaval alongside the switch of centuries). Wittier men than me have commented that his greatest achievement in his ~12 months as PM was having his horses win the derby twice. Damned with faint praise indeed.

He had the misfortune of having to follow Gladstone, when the Grand Old Man finished his last term in Number 10, no easy task to begin with. What made his task all the harder was that there was no leadership election to choose him, nor was Gladstone or leading lights of the Liberal party asked for their opinion.

Put simply, the Queen liked him better than the rest of the possible candidates, both personally and for his policies (he was a Liberal Imperialist against social reform and as foreign secretary opposed to Irish Home rule, both backward steps for the Liberal party at a time when Gladstone's returning reign had already held the party's policies to the lines of a previous age, possibly to the party's long term detriment. See the fast move forward in the early 20th Century when these restraints had been removed).

Now obviously this was all within the rules of the time, the Queen could select someone in she felt could command confidence in Parliament and Roseberry could, albeit not for very long and despite the disapproval of his colleagues who nevertheless weren't going to bring down the government over the appointment. Maybe a better man could have made a go of it. But the nature of his appointment always hung over him and was always a stick to beat him with.

Which brings me to Edward Miliband as I'm told we should call him now. Obviously he has far greater legitimacy in that he was in fact elected leader. But the nature of his victory hangs over him, whether from the close nature of it, the union's influence or the creative campaigning envelopes.

It's not something that in itself is a cause of harm to him, certainly not to the public who (and observe the first rule here) mostly don't know about it, or at best it plays in to a wider narrative of him as a Trade Union man. But it is a stick to beat him with for those who want to undermine him, both within and without the Labour party. If he was doing well and in a strong leadership position I don't believe it would be mentioned much, his legitimacy would be proved by his performances. That it hangs over him (of course a purely personal opinion) is in part evidence of his struggles as leader.

It'd be wrong of me not to mention the Nick Clegg comparison, since in that election (and I voted for him in it) there was a fair number of votes disqualified for being late, which might have swung the contest to Chris Huhne. Of course in the event Huhne took the party view and declared Clegg the winner said he had no problems with the result and importantly stayed part of the team and inside the tent. He wasn't hovering around in the background avoiding any flak and acting as a lightning rod for alternative possibilities or hypotheticals (although in fairness David has now tried to defuse some of that).

But in addition to that I'd argue that Clegg's leadership following his election was generally of a high standard, and also well perceived. By his performances he established legitimacy to the point where the election was a non-issue and is now effectively buried beyond mention. Ancient history.

Edward needs to up his game to bury the election, which he will if he's good enough for long enough, and hope to prove himself rather better than Roseberry (in politics if not horseracing).

Monday, 13 June 2011

The importance of context

An awful lot of 'voodoo' polls get thrown around by people seeking to make points. Notably about traits and attributes of the party leaders and what this might be said to mean. It makes for good newspaper copy, but if you want to understand polls then the first thing is that context is crucial.

If for example we'd taken polls of one US congress we might find great significance in low approval ratings and speculate accordingly about re-election prospects, because we have polls of many of them we find that low approval ratings are normal.

The lesson is simple, for any poll it is meaningless without context and a baseline, instead of thinking about high or low think of better or worse than. No matter how good a poll looks, don't put too much faith in it unless you have repeat results to compare with.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The first rule

The first thing you learn (or should learn) in politics is that people don't care. Or if they care they don't pay much attention. If you want a demonstration of that fact you can either wade through the libraries of political science literature examining this phenomenon or spend a day asking random people about politics.

If you are reading this (then thank you firstly) or any other political blog you are far far far more interested in following politics than the average person. But because people who follow politics tend to group together, whether on blogs, journos, party members, the Westminster bubble or whatever we forget this sometimes. To our cost frankly.

Most people never hear about the day to day things we obsess over, drops in a lake, at best people feel slight ripples and it with other similar stories builds up to a slight change, but that is really all. To switch up the metaphors you're trying to understand shifting sand dunes by examining each gust of breeze. On their own they only move a small number of grains of sand. Sometimes you'll get a major story/gale that'll cross over into the wider public consciousness and make a big move, but they're rare.

If you want so see any effect don't score leaders on PMQs, score leaders on the segments of PMQs that get shown on the 10 o'clock news. Or how the other media says that they are doing (often at best tangentially related to how you believe they're performing). Then apply this same methodology to all political stories. If you want to predict how people will act and react in the future to politics, you must first be realistic about what they perceive and what they're reacting to.