The process of a hung parliament

The Cabinet Secretary prepared a paper earlier in the year on the transition periods between governments, including the process for a hung parliament – it’s been published here.

The key quote is: “Where an election does not result in a clear majority for a single party, the incumbent Government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his and the Government’s resignation to the Monarch. … As long as there is significant doubt whether the Government has the confidence of the House of Commons, it would be prudent for it to observe discretion about taking significant decisions, as per the preelection period. The normal and essential business of government at all levels, however, will need to be carried out.”

In other words: whatever happens, short of a clear majority, Brown remains in power until the dust settles.

As to just how the dust settles, this summary points out an interesting wrinkle: the Lib Dems have a system in place to control how a coalition is decided upon. Clegg would need the explicit support of three-quarters of the MPs and of the party executive; failing that, he could appeal to a special conference, and need a two-thirds majority there; failing that, he could take it to a ballot of all party members. I can’t see it ever dragging on that long, but it is interesting to know that it’s not simply a matter of the party heads making a decision and then moving swiftly on to government.

Turnout figures

Liberal Conspiracy, I’ve noticed, are quoting the YouGov polling figures in full – not just the headline percentages, but some of the subsidiary questions. (14/4; 18/4).

The one that interests me is the “likelihood to vote” question. Last week, 65% of those polled said they were “absolutely certain” to vote; this week, 68%. Now, these percentages are probably overoptomistic – people do like sounding politically involved and keen when asked questions, and there are of course no shortage of people who intend to vote, but get stuck in traffic coming home from work, or come down with the flu, or simply forget.

If we assume everyone overestimates their willingness to vote by ~10%, then we’re looking at an expected turnout of 75-78%. (If we assume they overestimate by ~20%, then we’re looking at an expected turnout of 66-68% – less remarkable, but still better than recent standards)

I wonder if we have the polling likelihood question from previous years, to compare the actual result and see what our modifier should be…

(Also: it’s interesting to see the likelihood of voting ticking up along with the recent swing to the Lib Dems. Cause or effect?)

Quality versus age of Wikipedia’s Featured Articles

There’s been a brief flurry of interest on Wikipedia in this article, published last week:

Evaluating quality control of Wikipedia’s feature articles – David Lindsey.

…Out of the Wikipedia articles assessed, only 12 of 22 were found to pass Wikipedia’s own featured article criteria, indicating that Wikipedia’s process is ineffective. This finding suggests both that Wikipedia must take steps to improve its featured article process and that scholars interested in studying Wikipedia should be careful not to naively believe its assertions of quality.

A recurrent objection to this has been that Lindsey didn’t take account of the age of articles – partly because article quality can degrade over time, since the average contribution is likely to be below the quality of the remainder of the article if it began at a high level, and partly because the relative stringency of what constitutes “featured” has changed over time.

The interesting thing is, this partly holds and partly doesn’t. The article helpfully “scored” the 22 articles reviewed on a reasonably arbitrary ten-point scale; the average was seven, which I’ve taken as the cut-off point for acceptability. If we graph quality against time – time being defined as the last time an article passed through the “featuring” process, either for the first time or as a review – then we get an interesting graph:

Here, I’ve divided them into two groups; blue dots are those with a rating greater than 7, and thus acceptable; red dots are those with a rating lower than 7, and so insufficient. It’s very apparent that these two cluster separately; if an article is good enough, then there is no relation between the current status and the time since it was featured. If, however, it is not good enough, then there is a very clear linear relationship between quality and time. The trendlines aren’t really needed to point this out, but I’ve included them anyway; note that they share a fairly similar origin point.

Two hypotheses could explain this. Firstly, the quality when first featured varies sharply over time, but most older articles have been brought up to “modern standards”. Secondly, the quality when first featured is broadly consistent over time, and most articles remain that level, but some decay, and that decay is time-linked.

I am inclined towards the second. If it was the first, we would expect to see some older articles which were “partially saved” – say, one passed when the average scoring was three, and then “caught up” when the average scoring was five. This would skew the linearity of the red group, and make it more erratic – but, no, no sign of that. We also see that the low-quality group has no members older than about three years (1100 days); this is consistent with a sweeper review process which steadily goes through old articles looking for bad ones, and weeding out or improving the worst.

(The moral of the story? Always graph things. It is amazing what you spot by putting things on a graph.)

So what would this hypothesis tell us? Assuming our 22 are a reasonable sample – which can be disputed, but let’s grant it – the data is entirely consistent with all of them being of approximately the same quality when they first become featured; so we can forget about it being a flaw in the review process, it’s likely to be a flaw in the maintenance process.

Taking our dataset, the population of featured articles falls into two classes.

  • Type A – quality is consistent over time, even up to four years (!), and they comply with the standards we aim for when they’re first passed.
  • Type B – quality decays steadily with time, leaving the article well below FA status before even a year has passed.

For some reason, we are doing a bad job of maintaining the quality of about a third of our featured articles; why, and what distinguishes Type B from Type A? My first guess was user activity, but no – of those seven, in only one case has the user who nominated it effectively retired from the project.

Could it be contentiousness? Perhaps. I can see why Belarus and Alzheimer’s Disease may be contentious and fought-over articles – but why Tōru Takemitsu, a well-regarded Japanese composer? We have a decent-quality article on global warming, and you don’t get more contentious than that.

It could be timeliness – an article on a changing topic can be up-to-date in 2006 and horribly dated in 2009 – which would explain the problem with Alzheimer’s, but it doesn’t explain why some low-quality articles are on relatively timeless topics – Takemitsu or the California Gold Rush – and some high-quality ones are on up-to-date material such as climate change or the Indian economy.

There must be something linking this set, but I have to admit I don’t know what it is.

We would be well-served, I think, to take this article as having pointed up a serious problem of decay, and start looking at how we can address that, and how we can help maintain the quality of all these articles. Whilst the process for actually identifying a featured article at a specific point in time seems vindicated – I am actually surprised we’re not seeing more evidence of lower standards in the past – we’re definitely doing our readers a disservice if the articles rapidly drop below the standards we advertise them as holding.

Spot the problem

From the Conservative manifesto:


I understand that it’s traditional in political maps to remove adjacent countries so as not to confuse people (and that it’s traditional in English maps to forget about anything north of Caithness) but… replacing France and Ireland with the sea was perhaps not the most tactful idea.

On the other hand, perhaps hinting at a policy of submerging all the foreigners was deliberate – it is the Conservative manifesto, after all…

Edited to add: there’s a second map. This one is marginally less ludicrous – there’s no attempt at sea, so removing Ireland looks reasonable. The Western Isles have appeared – though still no Orkney and Shetland – but, somewhat strangely, so has the Isle of Man.


So, the geopolitical lessons we can take away from the manifesto? France and Ireland: submerged. Offshore parts of Scotland: may or may not exist. Isle of Man: apparently now annexed into the UK. Disappointingly, neither of the other major parties includes maps in their manifestoes.

York constituencies, continued

In the comments on the previous post, cim notes:

It’s interesting that most ways of splitting the local authority into two seats by drawing an approximate straight line along ward boundaries give either LD+LD or LD+Con (the latter being the D’Hondt allocation), whereas this particular method gives Lab+LD or Lab+Con.

It’s better than what goes on in US redistricting, but it still highlights the need for PR over 5-6 seat constituencies so that the exact boundary lines make less difference.

So, let’s see what happens using the full set of eight North Yorks seats.

2005: Five Conservative, one LD, two Labour. Of those, only Scarborough (Con 2.5% over Lab) & Selby (Lab 1% over Con) could really be called a marginal. Total four solid and one marginal Conservative, one solid LD, one solid and one marginal Labour.

Notional 2005 after changes: York Central Labour, York Outer LD by a tiny margin (.4%) over Con. Selby & Scarborough remain marginals, but Selby is now marginal Con with Labour second (4.5%). Otherwise comfortably blue; so three solid and two marginal Conservative, one solid Labour, one solid and one intensely marginal LD.

What would PR give us?

Total votes cast in the region, 379,135, of which 165,550 (43.7%) Conservative, 105,858 Labour (27.9%), 93,828 Liberal Democrat (24.75%), 13,899 everyone else (3.7%). Eight seats, so… probably four Conservative, two Labour, two Liberal Democrat.

Both constituency systems favour the Conservatives over this. The 2005 system leaves them with a good chance at five (1% up) or six (3%) and safe on four even if losing five points; the 2010 system makes it even easier to grab the sixth seat, just needing a fraction of a point, but a loss of five points would reduce them to three, with three Labour and two LD. The net result is more favourable to the Conservatives than it deserves, but also more volatile and sensitive to the shifting electorate, which is quite interesting. I suppose part of the point is to have fewer safe seats.

The least valuable thing imaginable

Clearing out a drawer of papers today, we discovered two old banknotes, probably a gift from a far-flung relative many many years ago.


The astute reader will notice “Reserve Bank of Rhodesia” at the top of these; they were the banknotes hastily printed after UDI in 1966.

The Rhodesian pound became the Rhodesian dollar, which became the Zimbabwean dollar – which, famously, then was redenominated three times before effectively ceasing to exist last April, at a ratio of about 250 to the US dollar.

If we follow through each of the redenominations, taking the fiction it remains a functioning unit of currency, then… £1 10s Rhodesian turns into $3 Rhodesian, then $3 Zimbabwean, then – it rapidly becomes silly – $0.03 Zimbabwean (2006), $3×10-13 Zimbabwean (2008), and finally $3×10-25 Zimbabwean (2009); on 12th April 2009, the last day of it remaining in existence, it would thus be worth 1.2×10-27 US dollars, or just under 8×10-28 British pounds.

It’s hard to give the context for just how small that is. If you could somehow find an Indian ten-paise coin, probably among the lowest value currency units still circulating in any number, it’d be worth ~$0.0025; two trillion trillion times more than the nominal value of the two banknotes. (For comparison, the entire world economy is worth a mere thirty million trillion times the ten-paise coin…) The famous German post-WWI hyperinflation over three years only devalued the currency by 1012; this is quite literally a million million times worse. The only currency which collapsed further seems to be the Hungarian pengő, which over five years during and after WWII devalued by 1029.

Odd constituencies

Things I did not know until two minutes ago: the newly created York Outer constituency is circular, entirely surrounding the York Central seat:

([source]. There’s a more detailed map here, for those wondering how the ward boundaries work out)

Intriguing. The net result is one safe Labour seat and one probable Liberal-Tory marginal; I wonder what would have happened with an east-west or north-south split.

Election timetables

This is an interesting little document.

If the election is called tomorrow morning for 6 May – which, finally, it looks like it will be – then this lays out the notional timetable of significant events during the next month.

  • 20 April – last day to register to vote or request a postal vote; also, the last day to nominate yourself as a candidate.
  • 27 April – last day to apply for a proxy vote
  • …unless you get knocked down walking to the polling station in the morning; you can apply for an emergency proxy vote for medical reasons as late as 5pm on polling day

For the local elections, the deadlines are the same; 20 April to get on the register or get a postal vote, 27 April for proxy requests, and polling on 6 May.

Go forth and register!

The Spring (Arrangements) Bill

Photographs from the trip to follow (when I’ve sorted them out). For now… well, it’s raining, but it was a beautiful sunny spring morning when I got up. Time for an old piece of seasonal humour.

A quick recap of the context. Through what can best be described as Insistently Being An Annoying Bugger in the mid-1930s, the author A. P. Herbert found himself campaiging on a number of politically small causes, but ones dear to the heart of many. My personal favourite was his proposal for reforming the licensing laws; the proposed Refreshment Bill had exactly one section, which proposed that “the laws of England regarding [the sale of alcohol] … shall be made, mutatis mutandis, the same as those of France”. This, like his attempt to force reform of the same legislation by causing criminal charges to be brought against the House of Commons – it reached the High Court, and just contemplate the majestic beauty of that for a second – was unsurprisingly unsuccessful. (Within a year, he would be sitting as the Member of Parliament for Oxford University; within two, he would single-handedly have pushed through a far-reaching reform of the English divorce law as an independent backbencher. Never let it be said that a quixotic campaign carried out by a non-politician has no chance…) As a part of this, he found himself drafting a vast number of proposed Bills.

Herbert was, at the time, best known for his light verse. It was, perhaps, inevitable that these two streams should coincide, in…

The Spring (Arrangements) Bill

    WHEREAS in every lawn and bed the plucky crocus lifts his head, and to and fro sweet song-birds go, the names of which we do not know:
    Whereas the woods no more are dumb, the Boat Race and the Budget come, the Briton swells his manly chest, his mate, as eager, scrubs the nest, and Spring, with light but lavish hand, is spreading madness o’er the land:
    It is expedient—but in rhyme—to legislate for such a time:
    Be it enacted, therefore, by our King with Lords and Commons in a fairy ring assembled joyously at Westminister (or any other place that they prefer):

Provision for Season called Spring

    1. – (i) It shall be lawful everywhere for citizens to walk on air, to hang their hats upon the trees and wander hatless, if they please: and notwithstanding any cracked provision in a previous Act to give a constable a kiss is not felonious after this.
    (ii) All citizens who choose to ride on taxi-tops and not inside: and those who do not use their votes because they’re busy painting boats: and any miscreant who hums, instead of doing dismal sums: whoever does a silly thing need only answer “‘Tis the Spring”: and this shall be a good defence in any court with any sense:
    Provided that, in late July, this Act, of course, does not apply.

Financial Provisions

    2. – If any person feels he must get out of London now or bust, because the Spring is in his bones, but he must work for Mr. Jones, it shall be lawful for the same to give the Treasury his name, and say “Upon sufficient grounds I want about a hundred pounds”: and there shall not be any fuss concerning sums expended thus.

Repeal of Redundant Statutes

    3. – Subsection (i) of Section Four of any Act that seems a bore, and all the Acts concerning beer, and every Act that is not clear (always excepting Schedule A), shall be repealed and thrown away.

House of Commons—Reform of Procedure—Music, etc.

    4. – (i) There shall be banks of maidenhair arranged about the Speaker’s Chair: and roses white and roses red shall hang above the Speaker’s head: like some tremendous window-box, the Galleries be gay with phlox: and goldfish, lovely but aloof, shall swim above the glassy roof.
    (ii) From now until the First of June all speeches shall be sung (in tune). The Speaker shall determine what hon. Members are in tune, or not.
    (iii) When in Committee of Supply the House may hum (but not too high). The Clerk-Assistant-at-the-Table shall choose the key (if he is able).
    (iv) A band shall nearly always play (not on the first Allotted Day) behind the Speaker’s Chair at three and on the Terrace after tea.

Saving for Committees

    5. – On any day in May or June Committees shall adjourn quite soon:
    Provided, if the cuckoo call, Committees shall not sit at all.

Sittings of the Upper House

    6. – The House of Lords shall never sit on sunny days till after Whit: and they shall rise, if they have met, when it is foggy, fine or wet.

Termination of Official Report

    7. – (i) Except as hereinafter hinted, Hansard shall not again be printed, and save as in this Act is learned, all previous Hansards shall be burned.
    (ii) It is a pity, history teaches, to make reports of people’s speeches, and afterwards to be unkind, simply because they change their mind. It is a most disgusting thing to make such comments in the Spring: so, as from when this Act is passed, that day’s Report shall be the last.
    (iii) And as regards exceptions, see Subheading (a) of Schedule B.

Powers and Duties of Departments

    8. – (i) The secretary of State for Home Affairs shall now proceed to Rome, to Moscow, Washington, Cathay, or anywhere that’s far away, and not return to English skies until the Speaker certifies that Spring has ceased to be a fact under the Moss (Collection) Act.
    (ii) Meanwhile o’er all his grim domain a lovely golden girl shall reign: and this delicious creature shall give golden parties in the Mall (paying the bills, if she is dunned, from the Consolidated Fund). The Civil Service, hand in hand, shall dance in masses down the Strand: and all the Cabinet shall wear wild dandelions in their hair.
    (iii) It shall be deemed that every one has come into the world for fun. This shall be printed on the wall of every office in Whitehall.

Penalties for Certain Expressions

    9. – (i) No kind of crisis shall excuse a man exploring avenues: no lesser doom does he deserve when he is straining every nerve: and special punishment is earned by those who leave no stone unturned.
    (ii) The penalty for each offence shall be elastic but immense.
    (iii) A pension shall reward the man who modestly does all he can.


    10. – (i) The greatest care has been employed to make this measure null and void: not one expression in this Act means anything it means in fact.
    (ii) Examples we decline to give: the lawyers, after all, must live.


    11. – This Act applies and shall be good where anybody thinks it should:
    Provided that, if strong objection should be expressed to any Section, that Section shall not have effect except for those who don’t object.


    Any speech, motion, question, amendment or interruption by