Clapping, as a cure for impotence

Perhaps the key defining feature of the general election was that almost nothing happened as we had expected. Even in Scotland, where the result was broadly what had been predicted by the polls (though as Andrew Marr wrote, ‘anybody who stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and bought a latte would have picked that up’), the consequences were different. The SNP thought that they were going to hold the balance of power at Westminster. They were going to lock out David Cameron and the Conservatives, and demand constant concessions Ed Miliband. Instead, they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of a small, but workable, Conservative majority. Ahead there are five years of heckling the steamroller.

Of course, they will do all the things that opposition parties can do to try to constrain the government, and they might occasionally score hits. Between 2005 and 2010, the Lib Dem group of MPs was slightly larger than the SNP group is today, and they had their moments – the Ghurkhas being the most obvious one – but it was hardly a record of massive political influence. Even with this smaller majority, to defeat the government you need issues which can unite the SNP and Labour and Tory rebels, and they’ll be harder to find than you think. Yes, they’ll sit on committees, but even where they chair them they will have to work with other parties to achieve anything, and anyway, the government will have a majority there too. They’ll do all the worthy constituency work – which will take up a much larger proportion of their time than they realise. (I suspect some of the ostentatious sitting in the chamber seen so far will soon go out of the window once the postbags start to build up). Like all MPs, some will do that well, some less well but (like all MPs) it’ll take up a lot of their time, and they won’t get much thanks for it. And yes, they’ll get two questions a week at PMQs, but ask Nick Clegg or Ming Campbell how easy it is to make a mark there.

This isn’t to say that the SNP contingent won’t achieve anything, just that, bluntly, they probably won’t achieve much in policy terms. And that is not how they need their time at Westminster to be seen.

This helps explain many of the recent antics – the clapping in the chamber, the row over seats, and so on. True, the SNP don’t want to be seen as wreckers and irresponsible. They want to be taken seriously, with an eye on next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. So it can’t all be about seating and clapping. But seating and clapping is a good start, and an easy way of demonstrating making a difference. There is an obvious risk that it gets presented negatively: a bit petty, childish, trivial. But it is easy enough to present all of these acts rather as ‘shaking up Westminster’, ‘doing politics differently’, ‘challenging the establishment’.

They’re helped in this by the fact that in Scottish political discourse Westminster has ceased to be a geographic location. It is where ‘they’ are, where everything is wrong, broken, and in need of change. And they’re helped by the current status of Scottish politics – where even if Nicola Sturgeon was filmed drowning kittens, there would be people claiming that the kittens were in the employ of MI5, and anyway, drowning kittens was actually a progressive thing to do. Anyone who doubts how this sort of stuff plays to SNP supporters should look at #the56 on Twitter.

There’s also a second benefit to all of this, too easily overlooked. The expansion of the SNP from six Westminster MPs to 56 in one election is the largest sudden growth of any party since the emergence of the Home Rule League in 1874. (They went from zero to 60, as a result of the introduction of the secret ballot). The SNP party managers have taken a group of extremely inexperienced MPs, 50 49 of whom are new to Westminster, and have already inculcated in them a sense of esprit de corps. Even before the Queen’s speech, they had something to do, helping to build up a bit of them-and-us mentality, a bit of no-one-likes-us, we-don’t-care attitude, which will do no harm. It would be easy to get sucked into Westminster, and to achieve only marginally more than nothing. Less than a month into the parliament, they have already made their mark. I described this recently as ‘gestures’, and got complaints that I was being negative. But it wasn’t meant to be negative: gestures can be important.

Philip Cowley

UPDATE: In a piece of top-grade pedantry, John Shand pointed out that ‘only’ 49 of the MPs are new to the Commons – since included in the 50 is the retread Member for Gordon. So have amended.

Election pictures wanted!

Dennis Kavanagh and I are rushing to complete The British General Election of 2015, to be published by Palgrave in October. It’s the latest in a series of books dating back to 1945, the longest-running national election series in the world. Based on the material we have, it’s going to be a cracker!

We’d like to include some pictures of the election as it actually was for those doing the grunt work of the ground campaign: knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, holding street stalls, public meetings and so on.  Anyone who has such pictures and would like their work immortalised in the book, please just drop me a line, at philip.cowley@nottingham.ac.uk

Alas, we can’t pay – academic books just don’t have the budget – but in return for any we use, I’ll send a free copy of the book.  Plus, your efforts will live on forever in print.

Philip Cowley

Politics and the moon landings (and other subjects)

One of the standard bits of advice to young academics is to specialise: find a niche, and make it yours. That way you get known for being the expert in something. Only an idiot publishes like a scattergun, across a range of subjects.

I have obviously not followed this strategy myself during the last few months, in the short campaign and just before, by publishing short articles on:

The parliamentary constituencies that football grounds are located in

How we think people are more unattractive if they are involved in politics

The first election forecasting competition – of 1924

How people see the trade-off between wanting coherent policy and just wanting to send a signal when they vote

The most rebellious parliament of the post-war era

How it’s the numbers that will determine who gets into Number 10

How many Brits believe the moon landings were faked

Four things you need to know about post-election scenarios

Why the election is different

The origins of Thatcherism – and of the term Thatcherism

And how Pathe covered elections in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s

 Philip Cowley

One small step

When did humans first land on the moon? 1969.

Unless, of course, it was all faked, as part of a conspiracy to protect American pride and money.

Around 7% of Americans think that the moon landings were faked; another 13% say they are not sure.  That 7% figure is lower than the 13% who think Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ (another 13% aren’t sure about that one).

There is a growing literature in the US examining conspiracy theories and their relationship with partisanship and voting, with (contested) claims that a growing divide is opening up between the parties over their supporters’ propensity to believe in conspiracy theories. What about here in the UK?

I asked You Gov to run a simple question testing whether Britons believe the moon landings occurred or not.  I deliberately chose a conspiracy theory that wasn’t focussed on Britain – Tony Blair is actually a lizard in human form or MI5 was involved in fixing the Scottish referendum – to get at a wider sense of belief in conspiracies, rather than anything which might be obviously partisan. The question wording was:

Some people believe that humans first landed on the moon in 1969; other people believe that the landings were faked as part of a conspiracy to protect the pride of the USA. What is your view?

As well as a don’t know option, respondents had four options: ‘Humans definitely landed on the moon in 1969’; ‘Humans probably landed on the moon in 1969, but there is a chance it was faked’; ‘The US probably faked the moon landings in 1969, but there is a chance it happened’; ‘The US definitely faked the moon landings in 1969’. The fieldwork for the poll was 19-20 April, with a total sample of 2078 adults, asked online, and with all findings subject to the company’s standard weighting.

If we take the last two categories together, we get 9% of Brits who think that the moon landings were probably or definitely faked (3% say definitely faked, 6% say probably), along with 14% of don’t knows. This is a very similar figure to the American example, albeit with slightly different question wording.

On the other hand, 55% of Brits think the moon landings definitely happened, along with 22% who think they probably happened but that there is a chance they were faked.

(If you added all the categories who think there is at least a chance the moon landings were faked or who don’t know, you get 45%).

Majorities of respondents of both sexes, both working class (C2DE) and middle class (ABC1), and in all regions/nations of Britain think the moon landings probably or definitely happened.  There are some slight differences: women are more likely to say they did not know (as so often in surveys), and more likely to say the landings might have been faked, ditto for working class respondents.  But none of these differences is especially large.

The majority of supporters of all four of the largest GB-parties believe that the moon landings happened.  (The sample of GB-wide, and therefore does not contain enough respondents to do analysis of Plaid or the SNP, and there are fewer than 100 Green respondents).

If we create a net figure – the percentage who think the landings occurred minus those who think they did not – we find that Conservative and Lib Dem supporters are the most certain (+77), with Labour coming third (+66).  Supporters of UKIP scored +59. Some 5% of UKIP supporters think the moon landings were definitely faked, and 9% that they were probably faked, both figures are higher than any other party (indeed, the 14% figure is higher than for any other sub-group in the data – by sex, class, region, or age), along with 13% who say they don’t know (also higher than any other party).   Even this difference isn’t especially large, though, and a full 73% of UKIP supporters think the landings either definitely (50%) or probably (23%) happened.

There does not therefore appear to be the partisan difference in conspiracy theories that some studies claim is opening up in the US.

Or maybe I’ve been paid by MI5 to say that?

Philip Cowley

Going down to the wire…

Perhaps the only thing more exciting than the general election is the battle for promotion out of the Vanarama conference. Like the election, this is going down to the wire. With two games left to go, there is just one point between the top two teams fighting it out for the only automatic promotion place, followed by a chasing pack either in, or just outside, the play off zone.

As it happens, the top five clubs are also an interesting guide to the sort of electoral competition we’ll see on 7 May.

We start with Barnet, currently top of the Conference, by just one point. Barnet’s ground is located in Harrow East, which is a Conservative seat. But it is a Conservative seat taken from Labour at the last election, and where the Conservative MP has a majority of 7%, and is the sort of seat Labour need to take back if they are to win the election. (Underhill stadium, where Barnet played from 1907 to 2013, is in the nearby constituency of Chipping Barnet, which is also a Conservative seat, but much more safe).

Currently second in the Conference is Bristol Rovers. The Memorial Ground is in Bristol West (albeit right on the border with Bristol North West). Bristol West is a Lib Dem-held seat, but as well as being a target for Labour (who held it until 2005) it is also one of the Greens’ key target seats. It therefore looks like being a very interesting three-way contest. Bristol North West, where I suspect more Bristol Rovers fans actually live, is a Conservative-held seat, but as with Harrow East, one that Labour lost in 2010 and which they are challenging to retake this time.

In third place, and only recently out of the race for the top spot, we have Grimsby. Just to confuse us Grimsby Town FC’s ground isn’t in the constituency of Great Grimsby – but is in Cleethorpes. Cleethorpes is yet another seat taken by the Conservatives in 2010, and which Labour are looking to win back.  Grimsby itself is even more interesting, because it’s one of the seats where Labour are facing a serious challenge from UKIP. A former safe Labour seat, the latest poll by Lord Ashcroft put UKIP just one point behind Labour.

Eastleigh FC, currently fourth in the conference, also isn’t in the most obvious constituency (Eastleigh), but is in Romsey and Southampton North.  This was a marginal seat at the last election, held by the Lib Dems between 2001 and 2010, but now looks like a fairly safe Conservative seat. Eastleigh itself (where, presumably, most Eastleigh fans actually live?) has been held by the Lib Dems since a by-election in 1994. They even held it at a by-election in 2013, despite their poll ratings falling nationally after going into government in 2010. The by-election in 2013 was caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne, en route to prison for perverting the course of justice.  The Lib Dems initially gained the seat in 1994 at another by-election, after the Conservative MP died as a result of euto-erotic asphyxiation. You can’t say that of many constituencies.

And in fifth place comes Forest Green Rovers, whose ground is in the constituency of Stroud. This is an ultra-marginal seat, with a Conservative majority of just 1299 votes, another seat lost by Labour in 2010 and which they are hoping to get back. The contest in Stroud is complicated by the fact that the previous Labour MP, David Drew, is fighting the seat again. Drew is a Vice-Chairman of Forest Green Rovers,

Given that more than half of constituencies in Britain are basically safe, and are not going to change hands, this is a much more interesting bunch than a representative sample. Apart from Chipping Barnet (where the odds on the Conservatives winning are 1/200) not one can be considered really safe. The safest of the others is Romsey and Southampton North, but even that changed hands at the last election. Of the others, we have several Con-Lab close fights, of the sort that will determine the election, a three-way marginal involving the Greens, and a seat where UKIP are serious contenders.

And just outside of the top five, we have Macclesfield, still in with a chance of making it into the play offs. This is a safe Tory seat, with the incumbent having a majority of almost 12000 votes. Even safe Macclesfield is interesting, though, as it was a seat where in 2010, the Lib Dems came second, but which has probably now reverted to being a Labour-Conservative fight. There will be a lot of seats like Macclesfield in May.

This isn’t quite every type of contest going – the lack of Scottish or Welsh seats is an obvious omission, as is the lack of a safe Labour seat – but it’s not far off.

For those who like gambling and politics and football and gambling (who doesn’t), there are some options here. If you’re a Labour-supporting Barnet fan, you can get combined odds of 2.6 on Labour to win Harrow East and Barnet to win the Conference. A Conservative-supporting Barnet fan can get odds of 3.0 for both of their ships to come in.

The combined odds are even better for Bristol Rovers fans. The Lib Dems to win Bristol West and Bristol Rovers to top the Conference gives you odds of 4.8. Labour to win Bristol West and Bristol Rovers to win the conference gives you 7.5. If you’re a Green-voting Bristol Rovers fan, there are odds of 10.0 for both to come in for you in Bristol West.  If you’re a UKIP-voting Barnet fan there are odds of 76.5 for you in Harrow East – although in this case I’d probably advise you to save your money.

Philip Cowley

 

EAW rebellions benchmarks

No issue has divided the Coalition’s backbenchers – or, more accurately, the backbenchers of one part of the Coalition – quite like Europe.  Whilst not responsible for the largest rebellion of the parliament – that record goes to the House of Lords Bill – the subject has triggered more rebellions than any other issue. Moreover, those rebellions are larger on average than backbench revolts on other issues: roughly twice as large.

Today’s vote on the European Arrest Warrant would need to be a whopper to break records for this parliament.  The largest European rebellion to date has been the 81 Conservative MPs (and one Lib Dem) who on 24 October 2011 voted for a referendum on the EU, along with around 14-19 who abstained. Not only was this the largest rebellion on the subject during this parliament, it was the largest rebellion against the whip on the subject ever.  We are not expecting a rebellion that large today.

More possible is that the revolt will top the second largest European revolt of the parliament: the 53 Conservative MPs who voted in favour of a reduction in the EU budget (on 31 October 2012).

The last session saw more than 110 Conservative MPs vote for an amendment to the Queen’s speech regretting the absence of a referendum bill, but this was – under pressure – made a free vote for backbenchers, and so shouldn’t be compared to today’s whipped vote. The largest EU-rebellions in the last session against the whip consisted of 33 Conservative MPs.

More on MPs’ names…

The second wave of the British Election Study has just been released. With almost 27,000 respondents who answered both the first and second waves and with hundreds of questions, it’s a thing of beauty. The second wave went into the field in May and June this year, and they re-asked the same question about the name of your MP they asked first time. And they get almost identical answers.

Of respondents who responded to both waves of the survey, some 62% got the name of their MP right in both waves;22% admitted they didn’t know both times.

The next biggest category were the 6% of respondents who admitted they didn’t know first time round, but now got it right; and they are partially offset by 4% who got it right last time and now say they know don’t know.

The remaining six percent or so plumped for a variety of the fake names they BES offers or went for don’t know, but in each case this was less than 1% of the sample.

You have to be slightly sceptical about knowledge questions in panel surveys (they are perhaps more likely to get it right second time round – as indeed, marginally, they were), but still this is a much higher figure than the figures usually quoted for knowledge of MPs.

Almost 70% of people know the name of their MP, according to the British Election Study…

What percentage of people know the name of their MP? One recent survey by the Hansard society found the figure was down as low as 22%. That was the lowest figure in the ten years Hansard’s Audit of Political Engagement surveys had been asked. But even at its highest, the figure had only been 44%.

As someone who is absolutely hopeless at remembering names, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the validity of the question.

As part of a paper I’m writing with Rosie Campbell, we’ve looked at the first wave of the current British Election Study, where a similar question is asked – but in a different way.  The BES asked their respondents: ‘which of the following people is the MP in your parliamentary constituency’?  They presented respondents with five fake names (‘Mary Davies’, ‘Susan Stewart’, etc) along with the correct MP for that respondent . All six names were presented in a randomised order. Plus, there was also a Don’t Know and an Other option.

Rather than producing a correct figure down in the 20s or even 40s, some 68% of respondents now got the answer right.

Of course, with multiple choice questions like this, there will be some guessing going on – but the relatively low numbers plumping for each of the wrong options suggests this was not a major problem. Each of the five fake answers attracted fewer than 1% of respondents each, along with 2% who wrote in what they thought was the right answer, and a nice solid 27% who just admitted they did not know.

And, of course, multiple choice questions are easier to work out (as all TV quiz programmes show). But still, they are only easier to work out if you have some basic knowledge to begin with.

A potentially more serious problem is that this question, like the rest of the survey, was asked online – and so people could have cheated, by looking up the correct option.  Astonishingly, this does go on…

But still, even allowing for some guessing and some cheating, I suspect this shows that background knowledge of MPs is higher than the ‘standard’ question reveals. There are a sizeable chunk of people who do know the right answer, but are just rubbish at remembering names.

Teaching about parliament increases trust in parliament

The Westminster Parliament has recently invested considerable resource in developing a series of ‘Parliamentary Studies’ modules throughout British universities. But what difference does the teaching of Parliament make to students’ understanding of the institution? In this study, just published in Politics (sub required, sadly), the results of a series of questions about the institution (both factual and attitudinal) which are asked at the beginning of the module are compared with the results of the same questions asked towards the end of teaching.

We’ve been teaching a final-year module on Parliament since 2002, and have always seen it as a warts and all analysis of the institution. While obviously not free from our own biases, we’ve never had any intention of proselytising or cheerleading for the institution. Indeed, we did wonder whether we would discover that by teaching people about parliament we were in fact helping to undermine faith in the institution. Instead, we discovered increases in both knowledge and support amongst students.

Increases in knowledge are perhaps not surprising (I mean, if we didn’t find them, we’d be a bit worried). But we also showed increases in students deeper understanding – in their understanding of the way the party whips work, for example, as well as increases, slight in some cases, more dramatic in others, in political satisfaction and trust. Students who took our module became more positive about parliament and parliamentarians.

As the article notes, this was one study of one module in one university taught in one way (by one set of tutors), and we’re wary of reading too much into it. The next step is to attempt to repeat the exercise across all 13 institutions currently delivering parliamentary Studies.

Margaret, Margaret, everywhere

You may have noticed that today marks the anniversary of the start of the First World War. It’s been mentioned in passing occasionally in the media. It also marks the anniversary of the birth of the first woman to become a Liberal MP, Margaret Wintringham (b. 4 August, 1879).

There have been 12 British women MPs called Margaret, but they seem to have done everything. Everyone knows that the first (and thus far only) woman Prime Minister – and first (and only) woman leader of the Conservative Party – was called Margaret. But so was the first woman Leader of the Labour Party, Margaret Beckett, during the interregnum between Smith and Blair. The same Margaret went on to be the first (and thus far only) female Foreign Secretary. A different Margaret, Bondfield, was also first female Cabinet Minister.

When I pointed this out on Twitter, others came in thick and fast. The first woman General Secretary of the Labour Party was Margaret (now Baroness) McDonagh (although Sara Barker held the post on an acting basis in 1968). The first woman Treasurer of the Labour Party was Margaret (now Baroness) Prosser. The first female Leader of the Labour Peers was Margaret (now Baroness) Jay. The first woman Chair of the Local Government Association was Margaret (now Baroness) Eaton.  The first (and thus far only) woman chair of the Public Accounts Committee is Margaret Hodge.

You can add to that list the first (and thus far only) female Leaders of Sinn Fein (Margaret Buckley) and the SDLP (Margaret Ritchie).

Margaret was (apparently) the most popular girls name from the 1920s until the 1950s (and the second most popular from 1914), which explains some (most?) of the success, although I have my own reasons for being particularly interested in the name…