GE 2017 #10: Predictions & Opinion Polls: a Hung Parliament, Why Not?

Well, I suppose I can always delete this post at 10pm tonight when the result of the exit poll is published!

There are no good reasons for assuming that the Tory’s will win with a comfortable majority.  Opinion polls are a better guide to the likely outcome of the election than feelings and “anecdotal evidence”.  Of course, opinion polls may be wrong (and given that they are producing very different projections), a lot of them will be wrong.  But just because Joe Bloggs down the pub guesses right (and the opinion pollster gets it wrong) does not mean that we should have relied on Joe Bloggs all along.

Insofar as criticisms of the polls are based on a sense of what’s going on in the country or on how we would expect people to react to Corbyn’s chequered past or to Mrs May’s facile campaigning, those criticisms should be discounted. Such feelings or such “analysis” is wholly speculative.

Polls/projections are based on something tangible, people’s stated opinions, and use defensible methods of arriving at headline figures from those actual experimental results.  If they’ve got their models right, then, all those factors that seem significant  to us should already be factored in (and factored in to the appropriate extent).

As far as I can tell, betting markets and the prevailing wisdom (a comfortable Tory majority, albeit not a landslide), are based on a “sense” of what is happening rather than a wholly objective view of the most objective data.

The truth is that the pollsters are simply not sure, and are not agreed, about the correct methodology they should use this time and this explains the divergence in polls.  [They are hearing broadly the same things from voters;  they are just not sure of the best way to process the raw data.]  And certain things cannot be reliably known in advance.  Will today’s bad weather reduce turnout differentially?  Will Conservative voters stay at home after all because of Mrs May’s uninspiring campaign?  Will young people turn out in unusually high numbers because, perhaps, Labour has promised to abolish tuition fees in England?

So, we really cannot tell whether the Tory lead will be 1% [well and truly a hung parliament] or 12% [something approaching a Tory landslide] or somewhere in between.  There remains a not insignificant chance that we are heading for a hung parliament.

Trump #3: Why It’s No Joking Matter

What should we make of the private exchange last summer, now made public, between Rep Kevin McCarthy, Republican House Majority Leader, and other legislators including Paul Ryan in which Mr McCarthy opined that “There’s two people I think Putin pays:  [Congresswoman] Rohrabacher and Trump”?  When this elicited laughter, McCarthy continued “Swear to God”.  McCarthy now asserts that this was a joke, albeit a bad one.

Well, of course, no one is suggesting that this represents evidence that Trump was on the take.  And we need to be careful to make allowance for irony, sarcasm, innuendo and joking when we interpret the spoken word.  Only the most crass of interpreters imagines that all statements are to be understood literally.  But that does not mean that ironic, sarcastic and joking statements don’t carry meaning.  Of course, they do.  They wouldn’t be ironic or sarcastic or jokes (good or bad) unless they communicated something.  The fact that Rep McCarthy elicited laughter indicates that his hearers understood him to be communicating something funny.  [Strictly speaking his listeners might have been laughing at him rather than sharing the joke, but even then that would probably be because he had said something, albeit something silly.  Of course, they might just have been laughing at him because of his silly grin or embarrassing tie.]

So while McCarthy wasn’t asserting that he had definitive evidence that Trump was in the pay of Putin, he was almost certainly saying something about Trump.  Let’s take Mr McCarthy at face value and assume that his statement was a joke.  Indeed, his listeners seemed to have taken it was such.  But McCarthy’s statement is only funny, it is only a joke, if the idea of Putin paying Trump is arresting in some way.  If Mr McCarthy had said that his neighbour in California was in the pay of Putin, there would not even have been a snigger.  In reality, the statement was only likely to be funny because either what was asserted was utterly preposterous, like saying that Putin pays the Pope, or because it developed an idea – Trump regularly speaking as an apologist for Putin – in an exaggerated way.  And here we have it, McCarthy’s statement was only a joke because he and his listeners had a shared understanding that Trump support for Putin was very strange and inconguous.

And then we have Kevin McCarthy’s rejoinder: “swear to God”.  Again, words carry meaning.  And these words carried meaning.  A quite possible meaning is:  “No.  I know you thought I was making a joke but I really meant it.”  Another possible meaning and, probably, the more likely:  “Yes.  I see you get the joke.  But let me emphasise:  Trump’s defence of Putin really is so bizarre that the idea that Putin is paying him is not quite as ridiculous as it first sounds.”  Of course, we can’t climb into Mr McCarthy’s skull.  He may have meant to communicate something completely different and chosen his words peculiarly badly.  But the most careful analysis of Mr McCarthy’s comments indicates this:  Trump’s support for Putin was odd and lacking in a clear explanation and that was obvious even to those who were supporting his candidacy.  And that provides further justification (if any were needed) for a full and proper investigation into the links between the Trump campaign  and Putin’s Russia.

GE 2017 #9: Conservative Competence?

The NHS cyber-attack does not speak well of Conservative competence.  It should be borne in mind that this was not an ingenious attack by Russian cyber-terrorists.  This was a fairly basic piece of malware that only infected computers with out-of-date operating systems that were not upgraded or properly maintained.  It appears that the NHS’s computer system was not upgraded and properly maintained because (i) back in 2010, the Conservative-led government chose not to renew a national contract with Microsoft and (ii) since then NHS trusts have concluded that they could not afford to up-date their Windows operating systems in the face of other pressing financial demands.

Yes, NHS trusts may be to blame but the Department of Health has overall responsibility for the NHS computer system and should have been alert to this risk.  Since, Microsoft ceased to maintain and up-date Windows XP in 2014 the risk has been clear.

The NHS system holds vast amounts of highly personal information.  It is also clear that medical treatment is contingent upon the proper operation of the computer system.  Proper computer security has become a key part of the functioning of the NHS.  This is a matter of the utmost importance.  And in this context, we need to know if there was a failure by ministers to address properly the risks to the NHS’s IT system.  Should more have been done to police NHS Trusts’ apparently deficient IT policies and practice?  Where, after all, does the buck stop?

An Aside: Trump #1: Excuses for Firing the FBI Director

A vast amount has already been posted on-line and written in the press about Donald Trump’s essentially unprecedented firing of the FBI Director, James Comey.  I simply want to comment on one rejoinder put forward by Donald Trump and his supporters:  you (Democrats) didn’t like Comey;  you thought he had behaved inappropriately when investigating Hilary Clinton:  you thought he cost Clinton the election;  how hypocritical then to criticise Donald Trump for doing what you, at least implicitly, were arguing should be done:  sacking Mr Comey.  Mmm.  Superficially it sounds as if Donald Trump may have a point.  On closer inspection the response displays the usual mendacity typical of just about everything that man says and does.

The rejoinder conflates and muddles (wilfully no doubt) three distinct questions:  (i) what did people want done about Mr Comey?  (ii) what should have been done about Mr Comey? and (iii) what were Donald Trump’s reasons for doing what he did about Mr Comey?

Even if Democrats (and Republicans) had wanted to see the back of Mr Comey, that does not mean that the firing was justified and appropriate.  Ends do not justify means.  There are laws and established ways of doing things.  There is such a thing as due process.  There are wider considerations which a president should take into account.  [And, of course, who in their right mind would believe that Donald Trump ever does anything to please his opponents?  Opponents are to be sneered at, insulted and undermined.]

Critically, Trump’s reasons for firing Mr Comey are a distinct issue, a proper matter of inquiry and a proper matter for criticism if they were inappropriate.  The incoherent and inconsistent explanations given by the White House leave little doubt that Mr Comey was fired because he had upset Trump by saying things Trump did not like and/or because Mr Comey was vigourously pursuing an investigation into links between the Trump campaign for the presidency and Russia.  Either reason is scandalous.

GE 2017 #8: Who’s Financially Irresponsible?

The Conservatives will seek to portray Labour as financially irresponsible with uncosted manifesto spending commitments.  That may or many not be so [see the helpful FT article at https://www.ft.com/content/dfe26fea-300b-11e7-9555-23ef563ecf9a].  But critically these things are relative.  The significant question is not whether Labour is financially irresponsible but whether Labour is more financially irresponsible than the Conservatives.  And that’s doubtful.  What could be more financially irresponsible than a Hard, car-crash, Brexit which will undermine British business and British jobs?

GE 2017 #7: The Scottish Conservatives’ Shameless Campaign

The Scottish Conservatives have made their pitch to voters that they will oppose an IndyRef#2 and fight for the Union. That’s pretty jaw-dropping given that it is the Conservatives who have been (and who, with their Hard Brexit, probably still are) the greatest threat to the Union.

Alex Salmond had said that IndyRef#1 would settle the issue of independence for a generation. And so it might well have done, had the political settlement in the UK not have changed out of all recognition as a result of Brexit. Now the SNP can credibly argue that the Scottish people are facing a future significantly different from the possible futures they reasonably had in mind at the time of IndyRef#1. Further, the SNP makes the unanswerable point that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU contrary to the wishes of the majority of (voting) Scots. Once more the question of independence dominates Scottish politics (and should dominate UK politics). Again, the Union is seriously threatened.

And, of course, it is the Conservatives that are to blame for all this. We needn’t have had an EU referendum; it was, after all, held by David Cameron for reasons of internal Conservative party management and for a perceived political advantage at the 2015 general election. Further, the threat to the Union might have been avoided by organising the EU referendum so that Brexit would only have proceeded if each country in the UK voted in favour. That idea was rejected by the David Cameron. And then there were bungled negotiations in Europe and an inept Remain campaign. The charges against the Conservatives are both grave and legion. It is a bitter irony that the Conservative and Unionist Party has brought the UK to the brink of disintegration.

There is something shameless and offensive in the Scottish Conservatives seeking to obtain political advantage from a parlous state of affairs that their party created. But I suppose we are where we are. The Conservatives may have put the Union at risk but conceivably the Conservatives might still be the best party to save the Union. Clearly, the only thing that would pretty much take independence and an IndyRef#2 off the agenda would be a decision to stay in the EU after all. That would probably require an EURef#2. The Liberal Democrats support a second referendum when the terms of departure from the EU become clear. The SNP’s position is unclear. Labour and Conservative currently reject the idea of a second EU Ref. There are strong arguments for a second referendum: no one has voted for any particular Brexit. Pressure for a further referendum may build as the demerits of Brexit become clear. Labour MPs might be swayed; but Conservatives probably won’t. More Conservative MPs will make EURef#2 less likely, will make Brexit all the more certain and independence more likely. Let’s assume, though, that Brexit will happen come what may. When it does, the important point is that the harder the Brexit, the stronger the SNP’s argument for IndyRef#2 and for independence. If the UK stayed in the single market and the customs union, the SNP’s case would be significantly weakened. The critical question then is will additional Scottish Conservative MPs make a Hard Brexit more or less likely. And here we hit a large number of imponderables. Where do possible winning Scottish Tory candidates stand on Brexit, the single market and the Hard/Soft Brexit continuum? Does it make any difference? Would a Conservative majority in Westminster swollen with Scottish Conservatives encourage Mrs May towards the most destructive of Brexits or would it strengthen her hand to rein in her Hard Brexit colleagues (if that’s what she wants to do)? What, indeed, is Mrs May’s preferred outcome? Does she want to compromise with the EU to achieve a softer Brexit or is she content that her apparently uncompromising attitude towards the EU will lead to a rock-hard, car-crash, Brexit?

The problem for Scottish voters (and for that matter other UK voters) is that we just don’t know the answers to these questions and we are highly unlikely to find out before 8 June. The PM’s idea of an election campaign seems to be to avoid voters, shut down meaningful political debate as far as possible and communicate in trite and vacuous sound-bites. On Brexit negotiations, she won’t tell us what her goals are; we are simply to trust her; that “Brexit means Brexit” ought to be enough for us ingrates.

What we do know is that the PM is unreliable. She was against a third runway at Heathrow and then she wasn’t. She said she would not call a general election before 2020 but she did. She was pro-Remain but since becoming leader of the Conservative Party has ostensibly embraced a Hard no-deal-is-better-than-a bad-deal Brexit. But the Scottish Conservatives do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We can’t be certain but more Scottish Conservative MPs probably increases the chances of a harder Brexit. The better bet for Unionists is to vote to try to maximise the number of non-Conservative Unionists, either Liberal Democrats or Labour. But what if you live in a SNP/Conservative marginal where a vote for Labour or Liberal would be a wasted vote? In those seats, it’s far from obvious that Unionists should vote for the Unionist candidate. On the one hand, the SNP will argue that each additional SNP MP strengthens the case for IndyRef#2 but, on the other, every non-Tory MP weakens Mrs May’s hand, strengthens parliamentary opposition against a Hard Brexit and makes a Hard Brexit less likely, undermining the case for reopening the independence question and for IndyRef#2.

But there is a further argument for voting for anyone other than the Conservatives. Political theorists often discuss the expressive value of a vote. Even if it make no difference to the outcome of an election (or, by extension, to wider outcomes in society), an election is an opportunity to express an opinion. In this election, the Conservative and Unionist Party deserves a collective raspberry from Unionists for having got us into the mess and for its casual disregard of the importance of the Union.

If you support the Union, the last party to vote for (and that includes the SNP in the available options!) is the Conservative Party.