Ahead of the general election there will be lots of people making claims about polls. I asked Chris Hanretty, Reader in politics at the University of East Anglia, and one-third of the team that puts together Election Forecast UK, some polling questions I was curious about. I’ve edited his answers lightly for clarity and house style, and then pasted them below. You can read more of his analysis here.
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The independence referendum is still being fought in Scotland, but this time the nationalists are winning. This is one implication from 16 constituency polls commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft and released on Wednesday.

They support what has been increasingly obvious ever since Scots voted No on September 18: there is a new landscape in Scottish politics. The Scottish Nationalist party is projected to replace Labour as the dominant force north of the border.

Here are the headline results of Lord Ashcroft’s polls (click to expand):

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On Tuesday, Members of Parliament will cast a free vote in the House of Commons on whether to allow the licensing of a procedure known variously as “mitochondrial donation”, “mitochondrial replacement therapy” (MRT) and “three-person IVF”.

A yes vote could lead to hundreds of babies born every year who would otherwise suffer from mitochondrial diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy. Mitochondria, often referred to as the “power stations” of our cells, contain maternal DNA which is passed from mother to child. When faulty mitochondria are passed on they can cause premature muscle wasting, brain damage and other ailments which sometimes only become apparent in later life. However, techniques developed at Newcastle university can remove healthy nuclei (from the embryo or the mother’s egg) from cells with defective mitochondria and place them in cells with healthy mitochondria.  Read more

The universities reforms of 2012 did not shift the cost from taxpayers to graduates, as some of the rhetoric around them suggested, but amounted to an increase in the subsidy for universities that will be paid for via higher fees for graduates while the taxpayer costs stays roughly the same. Hence, perhaps, the letter from vice-chancellors about Labour’s supposed policy.

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“[P]erhaps the biggest polling movement in recent UK history that almost no-one has heard of”, is how Professor Roger Scully, a leading authority on Welsh politics, describes the decline since 2012 in support for the Labour party in Wales.

I can’t speak for others’ knowledge of Welsh politics, but Prof Scully might be right:

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Last year, the United Kingdom Independence party won more votes than any other party in Britain’s European elections. It bested the Liberal Democrats in the local elections that took place the same day. But Nigel Farage’s outfit performed poorly in England’s big cities. It won no council seats, for example, in inner London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Ukip’s urban tally was a sign of an increasingly important divide between cities and the rest of England.

That urban and rural areas have different politics isn’t of course a new observation. Tory-Whig parliamentary battles were often proxies for conflicting views between landed gentry and city dwellers. More recently, Labour has dominated northern cities and the Conservatives have won the rural south with similarly huge margins.

What is new is how big cities – especially their cores – are once again expanding and, in doing so, taking on a clearer liberal identity. Cities is where Britain’s open and cosmopolitan outlook is most apparent. But politics has so far failed to catch up. Read more

It is often the little things that, in the final instance, make people visit food banks. Earlier in the year, at two food banks in London, I spoke to several people who explained why they had sought help. Mohamed’s electricity had been cut off, meaning that he couldn’t charge his phone, leaving him unable to receive messages from the job centre, which docked him four weeks of jobseeker’s allowance for missing his appointment. Jack, a driver, had taken a small loan to renew his car tax, but when tax credits weren’t paid as planned, he missed a debt payment and his liabilities rose. Natalie had found a part-time job but there was a three-week gap between some of her benefits stopping and her receiving that first pay cheque.

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The general election in May is one of the most difficult to predict in British history. The result will undermine old certitudes. An incumbent’s share of the vote typically dwindles from one election to the next. An opposition has never won with Milibandite ratings on both the economy and the strength of its leader. Two-party politics, injured in 2010, could be confirmed dead in 2015. Six parties could have a critical role in deciding the allocation of seats. The 650 constituency races each have their own dynamic; it doesn’t make much sense to think of this as a single election.

Scotland is a case in point. Since the independence referendum on September 18, the Scottish National party has taken a big opinion poll lead over the Labour party:

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In the excitement of the 650 people shouting about probably inaccurate economic forecasts that passes for a major state event, it can be easy to miss the big picture.

This big picture has three aspects.

First, we are only in the fifth year of what the government says is a decade of “fiscal consolidation”. By the time this process is complete, someone born on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed will be attending secondary school.

Second, there will be further spending cuts. These could see the size of the UK state as a share of the economy return to levels last seen when Neville Chamberlain was prime minister, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Third, the government’s economic plans don’t really add up. In the next parliament, taxes will have to rise, fiscal targets will have to missed, or spending will to have to be cut in a way that is even more brutal than currently expected. Read more

This is why the stamp duty land tax was in desperate need for reform:

The chart above, via Neal Hudson, shows the distortions of the “slab system”, where taxes are levied on the whole value of houses above the stamp duty thresholds, as opposed to only the amount above that threshold. The biggest spike was just below £250,000; stamp duty was levied at 3 per cent on properties over £250,000 but only 1 per cent between those between £125,000 and £250,000. This was inefficient. Read more

George Packer has written a fascinating profile of Angela Merkel. As well as revealing the German chancellor’s views on Vladimir Putin, and explaining her cool decision-making process, the New Yorker writer includes this quote from Stefan Reinecke of the left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung about Ms Merkel’s views on welfare:

“Half an hour into every speech she gives, when everyone has fallen asleep, she says three things. She says Europe has just seven per cent of the world’s people, twenty-five per cent of the economic output, but fifty per cent of the social welfare—and we have to change this.”

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This month, in a plebiscite on Catalan independence, four out of five voters opted to secede from Spain. The vote was symbolic: Madrid does not recognise Catalans’ sovereignty or their legal right to leave the Spanish state. Artur Mas, the Catalan president, is under criminal investigation for holding the poll. The Spanish government says his plan for independence in 2016 is “a road to nowhere”.

We do things differently in Britain. We have real referendums on independence, where even the defeated parties end up as winners. On September 18, 55 per cent of Scots voted against seceding from the UK in a referendum whose question, timing and franchise were shaped by the Scottish government. By then, dizzied by the yeasty nationalists, the leaders of the main UK parties had vowed that a No vote would still lead to devolution of “extensive new powers” to Edinburgh. This week, a cross-party group tasked with turning that vague promise into reality issued its recommendations. The conclusion of the commission led by Lord Smith of Kelvin means that Scotland should soon become one of the most powerful devolved nations in the world. Read more

Since Scots voted against independence on September 18 the Scottish National party has surged in opinion polls and appointed a new, popular leader; pro-independence journalists have launched a newspaper, The National; and the Scottish government is preparing to wield more power than any other devolved parliament in Europe.

“No” voters could be forgiven for considering theirs a pyrrhic victory. After all, 55 per cent of Scottish voters opted against independence. Nevertheless, this was not a vote for the status quo. A majority of Scots want more devolution. The leaders of three biggest (for now) UK political parties belatedly then rashly promised as much on the eve of the independence referendum. On Thursday, the Smith Commission, charged with working out the details of further devolution, will issue its recommendations.

Although the comparison is imperfect, the recommendations will mark the point when Scotland becomes, in fiscal terms, the Basque Country of the United Kingdom.


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It often seems that there are only two types of voices in the debate on immigration. One rails against all immigrants and how they hurt the economy and the British way of life, whatever that may be. The other, in effect, mansplains, by persistently and condescendingly asserting facts about the benefits of immigration to the UK.

This leaves a large moderate majority of the country without a voice, according to an important new research report by British Future, a think tank dedicated to better understand of how immigration affects the country. Sixty-one per cent of people it polled have a mixed, moderate view of immigration; only about a third of Britons are absolutists. (The remaining share presumably say they don’t have an opinion.) Read more

If opinion polls prove accurate, on Thursday the UK Independence party will win its second-ever by-election – and its second in two months. Victory in Rochester and Strood – whose demographics are less amenable to a Ukip win than Clacton, which the party won in October – would be its latest hefty thwack to Britain’s mainstream political parties. It would lead Labour and Conservative members of parliament to call for their parties to change position on immigration, based on the assumption that Ukip’s policies are behind its success in the polls.

This is a superficial reading of why Ukip and other populist parties are gaining support across Europe. Contrary to what they or Jeremy Clarkson may say, party leaders have been talking a lot about immigration. They have changed their policies. And yet Ukip marches on. Something more profound is happening in politics in the UK. For a deep and prophetic analysis of what is going on, turn to Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist who died in 2011. Ruling The Void, his last and latest book, is a terse and cogent explanation of “the hollowing of western democracy”. Read more

The question raised by Labour’s intervention – and the various Conservative announcements, past, present and future – is ‘where does this end?’ Curbing migrants’ access to condiments, the Paddington Bear movie, Cafe Nero loyalty cards? Contrary to what politicians seem to think, there is no reluctance among Britons to talk about immigration – quite the opposite. The Labour and Conservative parties have talked a lot about migration. They’ve incrementally become tougher on EU migrants’ access to benefits. And has it curbed the rise of Ukip? It doesn’t seem so.  Read more

And doesn’t he have lovely moustache:

The image is produced by YouGov, a polling and market research company. Using its database of opinion surveys, it has built a nifty new marketing tool that shows the quintessential characteristics of the people who like a certain brand. This brand could be a newspaper, a supermarket, a music group – or even a political party Read more

Welfare, migration and Britain’s membership of the EU – three areas of policy that are unlikely to prompt cool thinking. Throw them together, as in the question of which benefits EU migrants should be entitled to, and you have a recipe for opacity.

On Tuesday, a European Court of Justice ruling cleared a few things up. It could – could – make for more comprehensible policy in an area that has been full of confusion, empty rhetoric, and public anger. It will also encourage the prime minister to think he can go further in restricting access to some benefits for some EU nationals, a move he is reportedly considering. This is not because the ruling changed EU law but because it clarified the law, implying that, broadly, the approach successive UK governments have taken is legal.

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Digital technology is changing the labour market, from the supermarket check-out to the trading floor. A lot has been written how automation will mean robots doing jobs otherwise done by humans, and how artificial intelligence means that professions are no longer immune from the change brought by machines. Many of these predictions cite research by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford university suggesting that 47 per cent of jobs in the US are at “high risk” of replacement in the next 20 years.

In a report published on Monday, Frey and Osborne apply their model – discussed in more detail in this post – to London. The chart below summarises their results, depicting the distribution of jobs in the city that are at low, medium and high risk of replacement in the next 20 years. Thirty per cent of jobs are classed as “high risk” – many of them in sales jobs or in office and administrative support work.

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“Social mobility” is a leitmotif in British politics. Successive governments have launched strategies to improve “equality of opportunity”. Alan Milburn, a Labour MP, publishes an annual report listing “indicators” of its progress. There is common agreement that social mobility has stalled: that the UK is in an uniquely immobile spot. The truth is far more nuanced but it is nevertheless a depressing picture.

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