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Friday, 8 May 2015

2 things to keep in perspective post election

The electoral system for MPs is not the biggest affront to democracy in the UK

Whilst retaining first past the post (FPTP) voting seems pretty ridiculous, we do at least get a chance to elect our MPs - which isn't true for the Lords, or the head of state.

Any party wanting to include an electoral reform agenda in their next manifesto should perhaps focus first and foremost on bringing democracy to the Lords before attempting to fix a broken electoral system for the Commons.

Whilst FPTP is probably, on paper at least, the worst system imaginable; the concept of having a single elected representative for each constituency is not as balmy as it might seem to Proportional Representation (PR) zealots.

It certainly offers the strongest level of personal accountability to the electorate, which is something I feel is lost in systems with multi-candidate proportional representation.

It is also something our whole political process has evolved to cope with.

Yes it's bonkers that the DUP get 8 seats for 184,200 votes whilst the Lib Dems get 8 for 2.4 million and UKIP get 1 for their 3.8 million.

But seats in Parliament is only one route to getting an agenda noticed. In fact, adversarial models like the UK political system often make it harder for an opposition MP to get legislation onto the government agenda than a non-governmental body like a campaign group or think tank.

The British Parliamentary system has evolved to cope with the polarisation.

Personally I support Alternative Vote (AV) as a step forward that will offer smaller parties a better chance than the current system which dissuades voters from supporting minnows because a vote for anyone who doesn't stand a chance of winning is, effectively, wasted.

AV at least returns a more accurate representation of views from within a constituency that isn't polluted by tactical voting - voting based on who you least want to get elected.

AV provides some improvement without risking upsetting a Parliamentary system that has provided reasonably stable governments for the UK through wars and other challenging times.

David Cameron's outright majority of 12 is too thin to be bold, and that has to be a good thing

The outpouring of woe and grief on Twitter could easily make the most ardent optimist upend their half-full glass and give up on life.

Whatever your political view the result isn't good enough. Moderate Tories fear their agenda will be held to ransom by unruly backbenchers, after all it takes just a handful of rebels to undo a government majority.

The left is concerned that the Conservatives minus the Lib Dems will embark on an austerity agenda causing untold lasting damage to the country. Scottish Nationalists fear their 56 seats will mean nothing as the options open to those MPs pretty much stop at making noise. 

Liberals fear an end to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and a swift return to the stalled surveillance agenda of previous Labour and Conservative governments. And UKIPpers are just disillusioned with the whole stitch-up.

Personally I see things very differently. Any bold move, such as leaving the ECHR, can be blocked by less than a dozen concerned Tories. And yes, I believe the numbers just aren't there for scrapping the Human Rights Act and leaving the ECHR.

Austerity will be tougher than Labour supporters want, but that's against a backdrop of 36.9% of the electorate supporting the Conservative agenda, versus 30.4 supporting Labour. The people voted for it, so who am I to argue.

Pretty much every fear I've seen voiced on Twitter today seems overblown. Will Theresa May's mass internet surveillance plans return? Well it is true that both Labour and the Conservatives have historically been aligned in the need for more surveillance powers. But to say the Lib Dems alone blocked this in the last parliament is naive.

Labour could have supported the plans then, they didn't; so why would they now? Especially as Labour wakes up to the fact it needs to listen to voters to get back into power just as fears over mass surveillance starts to become a more mainstream concern.

With a wafer-thin majority any controversial bill will in all likelihood suffer defeat. In fact the most rational fear I've seen today is that the next government will be paralysed, unable to gain support in the Commons for the agenda it would like to adopt.

This itself can't be good for the UK, can it?

Well, looking at the raft of half-baked legislation enacted in the last quarter of a century I am starting to think that a period of paralysis where only the most pressing bills get passed can't actually be a bad thing for the country right now.

Why the opinion pollsters got it wrong

In the run-up to the 2015 UK election there must have been in the order of 100 opinion polls. Few if any put the gap in the share of the popular vote at over 6%. Nearly all relied mostly on data acquired from sampling voters' opinion over the telephone or the internet.

This morning we know that nearly all national opinion polls conducted recently were way off the mark.

And whilst many will put the discrepancy down to voters lying (no-one admits to voting Tory, right?!) or changing their minds at the last minute (it's a lovely sunny spring day, there's nothing much wrong with the current government!), I put the blame firmly on the pollsters for perpetuating a myth that a hastily polled sample of a thousand or so voters can be corrected to be truly reflective of national opinion.

Today's relentless drive for "content" - online publications dragging out news where there is none, competing for website visitor numbers from a readership with the combined attention span of Katie Hopkins on junk - drove the demand for poll after poll after poll.

Consequently opinion polls were pulled together as cheaply as possible in order to meet the demand from publishers.

But there's one huge problem with cheaply-produced surveys - they rely on the lowest-cost methods of gathering data; which today is over the internet or the telephone.

And these methods simply cannot provide a representative picture of voting intent because there is a large demographic who simply can't be reached by one or the other of these methods.

Yes I have a telephone, but I no longer answer it if I don't recognise the number.

The rise in cold calling from marketeers has made it pretty much impossible to contact anyone over the telephone who doesn't want to spend half their life listening to how they could be owed thousands from mis-sold PPI or get a new boiler for pretty much nothing due to some government scheme or other.

As for online surveys, well they typically reach the clued-up generation; the active participants in an interactive medium willing to lodge their closely-held political beliefs with any computer programme that cares to ask.

My point is that neither of the lower-cost sampling methods is particularly representative.

Additionally I don't believe the two most-popular methods, telephone and internet surveys, complement each other particularly well either - that is if you add a telephone poll to an internet poll there is still a sizeable subset of voters whose views are not represented.

Any truly representative survey would need to employ an appropriate mix of polling methods, from doorstep questions to street surveys together with telephone and internet polls.

This itself isn't controversial, but the opinion polling organisations counter this with their mythical Model.  

"Oh, it doesn't matter that our sample isn't representative because we have the data to correct it for all the classes of people our survey didn't reach.  We just plug the data into our Model and we are statistically accurate to within a percent, two at the most."

But building the model involves in-depth sampling and is consequently costly to build.

Costly in an era where publishers are commissioning opinion polls on a shoe string, forcing polling organisations to focus most of their efforts on turning around cheap polls rather than maintaining the model.

We all know that political opinion shifts, but what I believe pollsters have built in their models is a weighting system that can't keep up with the drift and fluctuation in voting intentions.

They end up plugging today's non-representative data into yesterday's weighting model and selling the result as a true reflection of the public mood.

Models based on voter behaviour up to five years ago can never correct for a shift in opinion.

Maybe one year someone will commission one representative survey instead of 2 dozen throw-away polls; only then will we be able to answer the question of whether the weighting model approach is flawed, or maybe the electorate simply can't be relied on to answer a political question honestly?!