Politics

I watched as much of the televised/streamed debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling as possible given the STV Player’s own independence struggles.

Here are some impressions I took from the evening:

1. The format of the debate did not serve to enlighten the public. Candidates were allowed to “cross-examine” each other but as Mr Darling, a lawywer, would have been well aware, this is impossible to do forensically in such a short time. He shouted a bit, which looked bad, while Mr Salmond asked about aliens, which was odd. It reminded me at times of a fervent night in an Edinburgh pub. The questions from the audience were smart (see below) but there were too many of them. The candidates were not able to answer them in full, through no fault of their own. Read more

On Tuesday morning George Osborne was asked by the BBC’s Evan Davis whether he’d rather fund Crossrail 2 or trans-Pennine rail, assuming that both projects had a positive benefit to cost ratio. Politicians tend to shun hypothetical questions but the Chancellor of the Exchequer used this one to make the following argument:

‘I hope we don’t have to make a choice between the two. I think the real choice in our country is actually spending money on this big economic infrastructure, transpennine rail links, Crossrail 2 in London and the like, and spending money on, for example, welfare payments which are not generating either a real economic return and at the same time, are trapping people in poverty.’

Whenever someone mentions what the “real” this or that is, be careful. There are many choices involved in how the British state should spends its tax revenues and indeed what size the state should be in the first place. To reduce them to one “real” choice representing a fraction of overall spend is like saying that the real choice I face is between a Heart of Midlothian season ticket and feeding myself. (Essentials, both.)  Read more

In the comments to an earlier post on whether the Yes vote in the independence referendum is being exaggerated, JeanJacques writes:

“Everyone of these ‘institutional’ polling agencies predicted a Labour victory in Holyrood 2011. They have zero credibility.”

This is a notion whose ubiquity is inversely related to its accuracy. It is not true.

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Another thing one hears from Scottish opinion poll watchers is that there may be a version of the Shy Tory effect happening ahead of the independence referendum. This is another reason they give for why the Yes vote may lower than polls suggest.

Behind these results lies a theory: the “spiral of silence”. This is where an individual is reluctant to give his opinion because of what he perceives to be the views of a vocal majority, and where this reticence has a knock-on effect on others’ silence. (Hence the spiral.)

One paper on the subject lists three criteria for the spiral: (1) The issue must have a moral component to it; (2) There is a time factor or dynamic aspect of public opinion; (3) There is ubiquitous and consonant mass media coverage

Sound like any referendum you have heard about? Read more

“Why do opinion polls in Scotland vary so much?” asks Peter Kellner. It is an important question. An answer would give us a clue as to what will happen in the independence referendum. The president of YouGov is puzzled by the results from his and other polling companies. He produces this table by way of argument:

Mr Kellner has taken the past five or six polls from five of the main pollsters and calculated the average for the Yes vote. Next to that column he shows the range in the Yes vote across the five or six polls. Aside from ICM, these ranges are narrow.

He wants us to take two things from this table. First, that there has been very little movement in any of the individual polls since Christmas 2013. Second, that there is a curious difference between the results of YouGov and TNS, which place the Yes vote between 39-42, and Panelbase and Survation, which report higher totals. Read more

Earlier this month, I was chatting about immigration with a supporter of the United Kingdom Independence party. He wanted less of it. I was much more sanguine. In response, he said, in a nicer way than it seems in writing: “You just don’t get it, do you?”. He explained why he felt the way he did – his perception that immigrants were responsible for rising crime in his home city of Lincoln and his worry that immigrants would hinder him from getting a job – and suggested that it was only natural that I would feel differently, since I came from London and had a nice job.

I mention this conversation in light of data released on Tuesday by the annual British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by NatCen. In a chapter on immigration, Robert Ford and Anthony Heath disaggregate public opinion. The authors show the extent to which there is a stark divide between the average views of those with degrees, in professional jobs and/or live in London, and the rest of the country. “Elite” opinion is markedly different. This has important political implications.


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David Cameron is “a sphinx without a riddle”, who “bumbles from one shambles to another with no sense of purpose”. Nick Clegg is “a goner”. Ed Llewellyn, the prime minister’s chief of staff, is “a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court”. Tell us what you really think, Dominic.

In an interview with the Times, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s former special adviser provides piquant descriptions of people in and around No. 10, whom he says are blocking or slowing his ex-boss’s radical reforms to the English school system.

Mr Cummings is an intriguing character who wears his learning about as lightly as Cristiano Ronaldo wears Nike. But his views should be given a hearing and not only because he remains a vital influence on Mr Gove. Last year he published “Some Thoughts on Educational and Political Priorities”, a manifesto for what he calls an “Odyssean” education system. After a bumpy ride through cognitive science, complexity theory, genetics, mathematics and military strategy, and a detour into dystopian predictions, he arrives at something close to a conclusion: England’s schools must become much better if its children are to compete in the modern world. He says that this requires a savage attitude towards the structural bulwarks to reform.  Read more

So much for the death of the Tea Party. Last night House Majority leader Eric Cantor defied the predictions of data whizzes and old school pundits alike by losing his Republican primary to Donald Bart by 28,898 votes to 36,100. Mr Cantor, who few people would describe as a moderate, spent a lot of money in a political cycle where other Tea Party candidates have struggled to match the movement’s 2010 successes. The question analysts of US politics are asking this morning is: how did this happen?

Not being present yesterday evening in the heady summer heat of Virginia’s 7th congressional district, I can only speculate how Mr Bart might have pulled it off.

But here are three suggestions: Read more

With the honourable exception of the pupils who have to take their GCSEs in a climate of ill-informed hysteria, there is something for everyone in the Birmingham schools story. It is evidence of too much and too little central control. Religious schools are part of the problem and part of the solution. Responses by politicians tell us something (or nothing) about the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and Labour.

On Monday, Ofsted published details of its inspections of 21 schools in and around Birmingham. The schools inspector found five of the schools to be “inadequate”, its lowest of four possible overall ratings. Deploying various euphemisms about a lack of “safeguarding” and failures in “governance”, Ofsted alleges that it discovered evidence that pupils were being exposed to extreme Islamic views, or at the very least, that they were not being encouraged to be tolerant. In some cases it received evidence from teachers who said that incompetent school governors with radical views were playing increasingly influential roles in the running of the school. Read more

Meh, basically.

The table below shows the latest results from NatCen’s semi-regular polling of English attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed. Only about one in five say Scotland should be independent. I suspect this is more likely to reflect indifference more than a passionate belief in the union. Either way, the results don’t suggest that the coverage of the referendum has led to an increase in sympathy for the Nationalist cause among those living south of the border.

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