UKIP: defeating the Conservatives?

Here’s a thought.

The Conservatives need 326 seats for a majority. They took 306; they get another eight from the support of the DUP, putting them on 314 and needing a mere twelve seats to govern. They almost certainly could have counted on the votes of any parties to the right of them which got elected – at least, not too far to the right – which, in practice, means UKIP. UKIP, of course, did not get any MPs.

But how many did they cost the Conservatives? In effect, had UKIP not run, the bulk of their voters could have returned to the Tories – would this have provided Cameron with any extra seats?

The answer, interestingly, is quite a few. There are 22 seats where the Labour MP’s majority is less than the number of votes polled by UKIP, and seven where the Lib Dem MP’s majority is less than the number of votes polled by UKIP. Of those, fifteen of the Labour and and six of the Lib Dem seats were marginals with the Conservatives – potentially, UKIP cost the Conservatives up to twenty-one seats, nine more than the critical number. and enough to govern (just) without needing the DUP.

Now, not all those voters would have returned to the fold. Some would have defected to the BNP – though it did not run in all those constituencies – and those primarily intent on casting an anti-establishment vote would have defected to the other minor parties or stayed at home. Let’s assume that half the UKIP voters defected and the other half cast a mixed ballot of minor parties or abstentions.

In this case, they would have taken three Lib Dem seats and nine Labour seats; enough to either put the Conservatives in power or in a minority position so near to it that a coalition to bring them down would be unworkable.

It’s a surprising result, I have to say – but if we end up with a Con-Lib coalition, a government of the Conservatives essentially tied down from doing anything too stupid by being dependent on a more moderate party for support… we might well have Nigel Farage and his friends to thank for the difference between this and a Conservative government ruling unhindered.

[See here for Part II]

General Election: everyone lost

It has been a hectic few days. But let’s quickly recap the results:

Labour: Well, they lost, and substantially more so than in the other close election, 1992. Net loss of ninety seats; fifty seats behind the Conservatives and a vote share of under 30%, the worst support from the population since the heyday of electoral suicide notes in 1983.

Conservatives: The Conservatives had a following wind from the media. They had a financial crisis and a corruption scandal denting the reliability of the governing party; they were up against a personally unpopular prime minister; they had a new, charismatic – well, by Tory standards charismatic – leader and a party that had had almost fifteen years to recharge itself in opposition. And they failed to get to a majority, partly because they were still recovering from the utter catastrophe of 1997 and partly because the party simply still isn’t trusted by the country.

Liberal Democrats: competing against two rather inept main parties, they improved vote share by a mere 1%, and actually lost a number of seats – something that hasn’t happened for a long time.

The minor parties had an at best mixed night:

UKIP: 3% vote share, but lost 457 (!) deposits. Failed to gain any MPs, and – let us not forget – came within a whisker of their leader dying on polling day.

BNP: Two percent of the vote, but losing 80% of their deposits, and nowhere near the results needed to get any seats. The absolute number of voters was half that in the 2009 election – suggesting the core of nutters is strongly outweighed by the protest-vote element.

Greens: on the one hand, an MP! On the other hand, they lost 98% of their deposits, and actually polled fewer votes than last year.

SNP: stalled. No improvement on seat numbers; despite the potential benefits of status coming from local incumbency and the (perhaps vindicated) argument they could be key in a hung parliament, they didn’t pick up significant numbers of votes.

Plaid: lost vote share, no gains. I admit I do not know enough about the Welsh background to say more than this – but they lost a substantial share of the vote in the close marginal of Ceredigion, and fell back in Ynys Mon, both seats they must surely have hoped to take.

The one party who unquestioningly did do well was the Alliance in Belfast. Against that, Sinn Fein and the SDLP both lost vote share; the DUP lost one of their strongholds (and their leader!), and the UUP lost their only seat because the incumbent split from the party and ran as an independent.

Signalling changes

From the Guardian, musing on the handy symbolism of coalition colours:

It’s maybe worth noting that, in the international nautical code, a striped blue-and-yellow flag means “I require a pilot”; two red and yellow triangles, “man overboard”.

Why stop there? There’s a whole alphabet of symbolism:

  • A large blue centre with yellow lurking around the edges: “Keep clear of me; I am manoeuvering with difficulty”.
  • Equal blue and red (!): “I am altering my course to starboard”.
  • Equal yellow and blue: “I wish to communicate with you.”
  • Red cross on yellow: “The way is off my ship” – I am not moving and you may pass safely.
  • Red and yellow stripes, closely mingled: “I am dragging my anchor.”

The jokes write themselves, really – especially the first and last ones.

It doesn’t just work for coalitions, either: solid red with a swallowtail indicates “I am taking in, or discharging, or carrying dangerous goods”. There is no solid blue flag – presumably it doesn’t show up well at sea – but the various blue-and-white permutations are rather unfortunate. A blue square on a white field indicates “I am moving backwards”, whilst a white stripe over blue is “I am leaking dangerous cargo” or, indeed, “I am on fire”. White and blue checked is simply “negative”, and a blue cross on white is, appropriately, “Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals”. Red surrounded by blue is, fittingly, “I require medical assistance”.

The Lib Dems come out perhaps the best of a bad bunch – solid yellow indicates that “my vessel is free of disease and I request permission to enter harbour”.

Of course, combinations of flags could mean things as well. A Lab-Lib coalition might reasonably be represented by BO or BR – red dominant over yellow – representing, respectively, “We are going to jump by parachute” and “I require a helicopter urgently”. Maybe it’s a fairer coalition – OR, a bit more evenly split, means “I have struck a mine”… and reversed, it’s “My propeller shaft is broken”.

Perhaps, on the whole, this is something that does not bear looking into too closely.

On Philippa Stroud

From the Guardian:

Last weekend The Observer revealed that Philippa Stroud, the head of a thinktank set up by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith (the Centre for Social Justice), and the Conservative candidate for Sutton and Cheam, has been trying to drive demons out of lesbians, gay men and transsexuals. (…)

Question one: Why hasn’t Cameron asked for Stroud to be deselected and distanced himself from her thinktank?

Last week, the Tory leader said that he decided to suspend Philip Lardner, the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arra, “within minutes” for writing on his website that he thought homosexuality was “not normal”. Lardner also opined that “most people” consider homosexuality to be “somewhere between unfortunate and simply wrong”. A hate-soaked, erroneous diatribe, but compared to Stroud he looks like Peter Tatchell. Why the discrepancy? How can abusing young people with extremist religious practices be less incriminating than words?

I fear the answer to that one is cynically pragmatic: the Conservative candidate in Sutton and Cheam needs a mere 3,000 votes to take the seat from the Lib Dems. (Electoral Calculus give her about a one in three chance)

Meanwhile, the erstwhile Conservative candidate in Ayrshire North would have needed to take about 11,000 votes from Labour – and not lose any to the SNP, who were neck and neck with him. (Electoral Calculus gives him about a one percent chance)

Far be it from me, of course, to say that whether or not David Cameron gets distressed by bigotry has anything at all to do with whether it’s likely to cost him an extra seat…

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.

The Treasury, unexpectedly, turns a profit

Here’s an interesting note, buried deep in all the Budget reporting today – a report from UK Financial Investments, one of the world’s odder holding companies.

Shares in the two part-state-owned banks, RBS and Lloyds, closed at 44.49p and 64.2p respectively today, rising after the Budget failed to demonstrate we were ALL GOING TO DIE (etc). This is a substantial improvement on this time last year, though far from the highest they’ve been in the interim.

What it also means is that… well, the Treasury poured money into these banks like water in 2009 to stabilise them, taking share capital in return. They got an 84% stake in RBS – 90.6 billion shares – in return for £45.5 billion in funding, and a 41% stake in Lloyds – 27.6 billion shares – in return for £20.3 billion. The maths are simple – 45.5/90.6 = 50.22p per RBS share, 20.3/27.6 = 73.55p per Lloyds share.

But between them, these two banks – mostly Lloyds – have paid back just under £3.2 billion of that initial funding, in cash. If we subtract this from the total investment, we find the cost to the Treasury of those shares is… 49.89p per RBS share, 63.16p per Lloyds share.

Which means that UK Financial Instruments is currently sitting on a paper loss of around £5 billion in RBS shares, but a paper gain of around £280 million in Lloyds shares.

There’s clearly still a long way to go before it would be economically or politically viable to sell these shares, but it does look to be on the right track – it seems distinctly possible we’ll see the Treasury actually turning a profit on these over the next few years, even accounting for the cost of the borrowing to pay for it (at, what, 4%?).

(On a semi-unrelated note… I was quite unimpressed by the Conservative response to the Budget. All it seemed to involve was hammering on about how large the deficit was, without ever touching on… well, what else they’d have done. A missed opportunity to actually discuss economic policy, there.)

In defence of constituencies

Following on from the previous post, some more notes on a somewhat odd article on FiveThirtyEight.

The bulk of the article seems to be criticising the system for drawing parliamentary boundaries on four points:

  1. …the census data used is quite elderly
  2. …the boundaries take account of things other than population distribution, such as council areas
  3. …some geographical oddities like islands are dealt with as special cases
  4. …Wales, Scotland and NI are required to have fixed seat numbers

The main objection here – barring the first point, which I broadly agree with, but which is hard to improve on in most cases – seems to be with the use of non-demographic boundaries in drawing the lines, and I’m just not sure why that is a problem. When electing a representative, the key point is that they be able to represent a constituency; that it be practical for them to find (and be found by) their constituents, that they can identify a distinct section of the population, etc.

Taking the Isle of Wight as an example, it’s big, but how would we split it? We could split it in two – but these would be unusually small constituencies. We could carve off a third and put it in with a Hampshire constituency – but this would disadvantage that third, who would find it more difficult to be in contact with their MP than those who remained insular. In the north of Scotland, you could easily add Caithness to Orkney and Shetland – total population thus “correct” at around 60,000 – but would this have any effect save to further marginalise voters in Lerwick, already pretty distant from the seat of power, and make it vastly less likely they’d ever see an MP?

Political boundaries matter in the same way as geographical ones; if you have existing subnational boundaries like counties or local authorities, then matching the constituencies to these where possible saves a lot of work. People know, much more easily, who their MP and their constituency are; the MP is much more able to focus on issues relevant to a given city or county rather than two or three. In a more practical sense, constituencies have names not numbers; if you’re going to have constituencies with a fixed name, it cries out for a certain degree of geographical coherence.

This is, of course, saying that the absolute “each vote should count equally” principle doesn’t work, that constituencies shouldn’t be made an absolute size and that some people have a theoretically “more powerful” vote than others. This is true – but it’s endemic in the system anyway. If we were going to carefully sculpt constituencies so as to be identically-sized, and demographically balanced, then we may as well drop the constituency idea altogether and go to proportional representation, as in the Netherlands – an ideal case of a balanced constituency.

All this may seem like a bit of overemphasis on some pretty trivial points, but I think those points are telling. FiveThirtyEight ran excellent, intelligent, detailed and basically interesting studies of the last US election; plenty of people outside the US read it avidly for this, myself included. We had to take a lot of its basic assumptions on trust, though; we didn’t have the underlying understanding of the system to do a quick sanity-check and know whether they sounded right or not.

So, come this election, they write about here, and the problems start becoming apparent. To pick a quote from a subsequent article:

Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, while not ordinarily inclined to vote Tory, may do so to push through proportional representation.

This is the sort of thing that… well, hands up, who’s ever met many committed Lib Dems who say, hey, I might just vote Tory to stop those evil Labour people getting in? Um.

Yes, there will be swing voters from LD to Conservative – though not as many as sometimes thought – but those will be classic swing voters; they’ll swing based on the economy, or other overall political issues, or simply because they no longer see the Tories as… quite as messy as they used to be. They won’t be core LD voters, devoutly wedded to PR, who are trying to produce a hung parliament in the hope that this will somehow extort PR from the resulting trainwreck.

In a comment on the last post, cim points out another delight from the same author:

And then there was this one from the EU elections where they decided that it was meaningful to group Plaid with the BNP as “nationalists”. I conclude that they don’t actually know anything about UK politics, and look forward to more amusement as their election coverage continues.

I think that last comment says all I was tempted to, really.

The oppressed Scottish Conservatives (both of them)

There’s a slightly odd post on FiveThirtyEight which I noticed: Breaking News: U.S. and U.K. Redistricting Processes Equally Boneheaded. I wonder if this is what we Brits sound like when we pontificate on US politics.

The part I couldn’t help laughing at.

In the UK by contrast, the net effect of these aspects of the mapping system is one-sided against the Conservatives. The Conservatives have little presence in Scotland (where they hold 1 out of 59 seats) or Wales …

…and a nice large illustration of Scotland to show how terribly the constituency boundaries oppress all those hordes of Tories. Um.

This is a problem of first-past-the-post, first and foremost; there are arguably ancillary problems with the system being marginally skewed pro-Labour due to urban voting concentrations etc etc, but they just don’t come into play at this level. Why?

The reason the Conservatives don’t have many seats in Scotland is – let us be sadly honest – that the average Conservative parliamentary candidate is about as popular on a Scottish doorstep as the rent collector. In 2005, they were fourth, with one seat and 15.8% of the votes; in 2001, the same, with 15.6%. In 1997, they took a staggering no seats on 17.5% of the vote – whilst the SNP, on 22%, took a mere six out of 72.

Coming fourth with ~16% of the vote in an overall campaign, without a great deal of concentration of your voters in specific regions, is almost guaranteed to be a damp squib in a first-past-the-post system. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Conservative Party or the Labour Party; any marginal systemic biases the system may have are vastly wiped out by the sheer scale of the problem.

We can see this using a (very non-Tory) example – look at the Liberal Democrats in 1992, across the whole UK. They took 18% of the vote, but only twenty seats – 3%. In 1987, the Alliance took 22.5% of the votes, but still only ~3.5% of the seats; in 1983, 25% of the vote… and still only 3.5% of the seats.

Would it be better under a non-FPTP system? Well, we actually have a perfect laboratory system here – Scotland. Let’s look at the 2007 Scottish elections – the Conservatives took 16.6% of the “constituency” vote and secured 5.5% of the seats, but 14% of the “list” vote – and 23% of the seats. This puts them on an average share of 15.3%, with 13.2% of the seats – not particularly unrepresentative number-wise, but definitely polling around the same as they did for Westminster elections.

In 2003, the same pattern – 16% of the overall vote, 14% of the overall seats – and again in 1999 – 15.5% of the votes and 14% of the overall seats. In both cases, they took the lion’s share from the proportional-representation list votes; indeed, in 1999, they didn’t get a single constituency seat.

So, yes, if there were not a FPTP system the Conservatives would do better; there is one, and they get hammered. But to use the situation of Scotland – where the Conservatives manage to be a third-place party if they do well – as though it is indicative of the rest of the UK is either disingenuous or just confused; the political realities of Scotland just aren’t the same as the nation as a whole. We cannot logically leap from “the FPTP system is wildly biased against a local minor party”, when we know that FPTP is already biased against minor parties, to “the FPTP system is therefore wildly biased against that party when they compete nationally as a major player”.

The fifteen, twenty, thirty-year rules

The government has published its response (PDF) to the review of the 30-year rule.

The rule itself is a bit of a historical oddity – a blanket rule saying that government records should be opened after thirty years is a hangover from before the “on-demand” FOI Act, where you can apply for material regardless of its age. However, it survives in Part VI of the legislation; any record is deemed a “historic record” at thirty years after creation, and as such loses a lot of its ability to be exempt from disclosure. A document which was originally kept secret because of commercial confidentiality, for example, loses this exemption after thirty years.

The review recommended reducing this to fifteen years; the government response has advised twenty. In Scotland, which is subject to a similar but not quite identical piece of devolved legislation, the time limit has recently been dropped directly to fifteen years, in three tranches, with full release being completed by later this year.

The counterproposals are, on the whole, sensible. Other than the fifteen/twenty year change…

  • The thirty-year rule will remain for a set of material: anything commercially confidential, anything sensitive touching on the devolved administrations, and the “effective conduct of public affairs” clause. It’s a little vaguely worded, and this worries me that in the eventual legislation we may find a much more flexible (ie, long) term for some material. How long is the average PFI contract for, for example?
  • The new system will be phased in a year at a time – so, for example, we would release records from 1981 and 1982 in 2011, then 1983 and 1984 in 2012, letting the threshold creep steadily down to 20 years. This is in contrast to Scotland, which tried to clear the backlog in a couple of years – but then, it’s a bigger problem.
  • There is to be a presumption in favour of anonymity for civil servants; names in records released as historical documents will be redacted unless decided otherwise or they’re very prominent.
  • The legal position of communications with the monarch is to be clarified; records will be absolutely exempt for twenty years, or five years after their death, whichever is the longer. This also applies to the heir and the second-in-line to the throne, but all other members of the Royal Family have a qualified exemption – they’re presumed closed, but can be released under request.

On the whole, good things. I’m moderately concerned by the alterations to the commercial confidentiality clause – by the time this report turns into a statute, that looks like it may drift into actually making things worse than the current state of affairs – but it is, to mangle the old quote, currently moving in the direction of goodness. The anonymity proposals I am not sure about – there are good reasons for it, but there are also serious impracticalities, especially from a historical perspective. The amount of redaction appropriate at the twenty-year mark may well not be the same as the amount appropriate a hundred years on, but if we only have the one point of release, we’ll be stuck with whatever decisions were made at that point. Hmm.

Some details emerge from the report that reflect things which’re already happening. The government has formally clarified that “special advisors” are indeed legally civil servants, and subject to the provisions of the Act; they’re also grinding slowly forward with making a number of additional bodies, including UCAS and the legally ambivalent academy schools, subject to the Act.

So, twenty versus fifteen. This is an interesting debate.

A key part of the philosophy behind the thirty-year-rule is to avoid governmental records being turned into political ammunition, and relatedly to reassure the authors that they don’t have to keep material off the record for fear of it later being used against them. (It’s assumed that once you’re retired or dead you can live with the opprobrium.) The main example of this is ministerial papers, but from this standpoint, fifteen years is often just a little too short – it would have meant, for example, that papers relating to Callaghan as Chancellor (1964) got released when he was Prime Minister (1979), and in the event Brown wins the coming election, he’d have the same issue.

The current government will have lasted fourteen years, almost at that threshold, and the previous one eighteen – it’s true that no-one held senior office through the Conservative period, but it does demonstrate how prolonged a spell in power can be. If the modern trend is to parties holding power for long periods with occasional grand shifts, which it may well be, twenty years is a little safer; it also covers for the rare case of someone, like William Hague, whose ministerial career seems likely to bracket one of the prolonged spells of opposition.

There’s also a good case to be made that for politically touchy material like, say, Brown’s records from the early chancellorship, it wouldn’t be released regardless of the threshold, due to the section 36 exemption, likely to prejudice the conduct of public affairs. But a fifteen year rule would imply the time and expense of specially auditing an entire tranche worth of departmental and cabinet records to decide if they’re sufficiently sensitive to be restricted, then doing it again a couple of years later once the person in question is out of office in order to clear them for publication. The extra few years would, presumably, sharply cut down the number of such cases; is it a worthwhile payoff from an efficiency standpoint?

I am ambivalent on this one, I admit.

In the Scottish context, of course, this is currently academic. Holyrood is not overly concerned with the prospect of a former Scottish Secretary looking a little silly, and there won’t be any Scottish Executive (as was) records released until well into the coming decade. On current form, it seems likely that with the less monolithic nature of devolved politics we’ll have shorter ministerial tenures, as well, and thus less need for the extra few years.

We shall see. It’s an unfortunately timed announcement, coming as it does just before an election, but hopefully whoever gets in will pick up the ball and run with it. It’s not something either side would particularly benefit from more or less than the other, after all – they all have ticking skeletons in the closet waiting for the cabinet papers to be released.

Crime statistics

A couple of interesting blog posts on the BBC – part 1, part 2 – about a recent set of crime statistics publicised by the Conservatives.

The basic gist of the Conservative claim is that violent crime is vastly increased over the past decade; the basic problem is that the method of recording violent crime changed in the middle of the period, to a much more “permissive” approach, where police were obliged to record a complaint rather than dismissing it. Which, unsurprisingly, tends to lead to a lot more reported crime, without actually saying anything about the underlying crime rates.

I suppose in an ideal world Labour would be running a campaign of “Do you really want to be governed by people who can’t read printed warnings on graphs?”, but sadly all we’ll get is a bit of he-said-she-said over the next two weeks and a few more people will be left beliving that the country is a far scarier place now than it ever was.