Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Devonwall back on the agenda in September?

The Boundary Commission for England has set out its timetable for the review of constituency boundaries in the run up to the next general election. The first draft will be published in September this year, with a second draft in October 2017 and the final proposals will be laid before Parliament in September 2018. The general election is due in May 2020.

Total Politics have the whole story here.

The key bit of news is that the commission has indicated that it will be more willing to split wards in order to seek equal constituency sizes. Hopefully this will overcome the quirk of the last set of proposals which saw constituencies made up of disparate parts of different council areas in order to keep individual wards whole.

Assuming the timetable can be stuck to, the new boundaries are likely to be in place for the next general election. It is proposed that there will be a boundary review during every parliament. In some cases, this will mean that voters will find themselves in a new constituency at every election - hardly ideal.

Last time, the Boundary Commission proposed a 'Devonwall' constituency combining parts of North Cornwall with bits of Torridge District after the Conservatives refused to give Cornwall the same protection as the islands of Scotland, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight.

The numbers this time are more finely balanced. In theory, the strict limitations on constituency size should require a cross-border seat once again. Allowing wards splitting will help a bit, but Cornish wards are small enough already that this won't be a huge help. But it is possible that the Boundary Commission will agree to bend the rules fractionally to Keep Cornwall Whole.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Tony Blair's ad man "wants him to get Alzheimer's"

Peter Souter is an ad man. He is chairman of the agency TBWA and worked for Tony Blair and the Labour Party in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He is used to crafting his words to have the best possible effect. So you would think he would understand that saying that the best thing to happen to someone is that they get Alzheimer's is hugely offensive.

Here is a link to a recording.

I help to care for a relative who has Alzheimer's. I can tell you that it is not a joking matter. She is someone who was always full of boundless enthusiasm and huge talent. She brought up two children single handed and carved a great reputation as an artist. For as long as I knew her before she developed her condition, she was caring and understanding and encouraging. Then all that got taken away from her and she is a shadow of the person she was.

But Peter Souter thinks that it is ok to make jokes about this condition.

I don't think this sort of thing can be excused by the context, but here it is anyway. Mr Souter was speaking at a Fabian Society event about Mr Blair. Mr Souter appears to be trying to say that he wishes he could preserve Blair's reputation simply as someone who won three elections. He compares Blair to Margaret Thatcher who became ill and could not speak about politics any more. He says that this is the state he wishes Blair was in and he specifically suggests that it would be good if Blair got early onset Alzheimer's.

However much I disagreed with what Blair did in office, just as I disagreed with Thatcher before him, I could never wish ill health on them or any political opponent. And in particular I could not wish them to live with a condition so debilitating as Alzheimer's.

I hope that Mr Souter realises his mistake and apologises. It might be a good idea if he recognises the work being done by Alzheimer's Research UK to find treatments and a cure for the condition.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Beware a wounded chancellor

It hasn’t been a good week for George Osborne. His budget started to come apart at the seams faster than any since 2012 and the Iain Duncan Smith affair seems likely to prove fatal to his leadership ambitions. But that doesn’t mean that the chancellor is no longer a force to be reckoned with.

The problem with the budget isn’t that it had holes. Nor that the projections showed that austerity was being extended by yet another year with even more government spending on tick. Both of these have been hallmarks of Osborne’s workings for all six of his years in office. What made this different was the lack of political nous. He is either missing a trusted confidante to check his workings (Danny Alexander perhaps?) or his mind was on other things. But something went very wrong.

The row with Iain Duncan Smith over welfare changes (or over Europe, depending on your point of view) is another example of the Tory party at war with itself. And there is no doubt that they do internal ructions better than anyone. IDS may be trying to portray himself as a social reformer who was frustrated time and again in his attempts to stick up for the poor, but far too few believe him. To my mind there are enough signs that his conversion is genuine to believe that it is probably true. The trouble is that after six years of failing to resign, IDS is perhaps coming out as a social reformer far too late.

But the row itself is deeply damaging. Perhaps for the Tory party as a whole, but most definitely for the Chancellor. Previously untouchable, he is perhaps being saved from more on his own side calling for his departure by having Jeremy Corbyn doing so. Perhaps for the Labour leader a lesson in recognising when to keep quiet might be in order.

The real reason Osborne is not yet in danger of having to go is the network of supporters he has in government. More than half of all ministers can be classed as friends of the chancellor and while some of them may abandon a leaking ship, enough will stay loyal - at least at the moment - to give him a chance to recover. The task for his opponents is to work out how to strip away enough of his remaining support to see him gone. The challenge for the Prime Minister is to work out when his most prominent colleague and best friend in politics has become too much of a liability to keep around. For Osborne himself, the question is what does he do next?

It’s likely that his leadership ambitions are holed below the waterline. So who does he now back? His position as kingmaker is, for the time being at least, still secure and he has any number of possible runners from within his own stable. The Tory Party rules state that each possible candidate needs to be nominated from among their MP colleagues. The parliamentary party will then vote to narrow the field to two before the entire membership has the final say.

Logic dictates that the final two will be Boris against the chancellor’s favoured candidate. But Osborne knows that his choice will have a tough time up against the Mayor of London and so he will be holding a series of private primaries of his own to test the relative strengths of the potential challengers. He can only afford to have one candidate actually take part in the MP’s vote or risk dividing his forces and failing to make the top two at all. At the same time, he will be looking for means of weakening the favourite. Osborne is enough of a pragmatist that, if it comes to a situation where none of his own stable look likely to win, he can switch his support to Theresa May.

Osborne is wounded enough (and yet not too much) that he is now likely to have to stay as Chancellor for the remainder of Cameron’s premiership. At this time last year, when he was favoured to be next leader by 50% of those polled, it seemed that Osborne would step into another role - presumably Foreign Secretary - for a couple of years before the leadership contest. This would broaden his political experience and allow him a certain amount of deniability over any economic woes that might befall the country. His replacement at Number 11, of course, would be a person of his own choosing.

Now that scenario is gone. Any move away from the Treasury would most certainly be a demotion and Osborne’s replacement would be likely to be chosen from among the ranks of the neutrals rather than his friends. People who would have no trouble blaming their predecessor for past mistakes.

Much of that is for the future. For the present, the Chancellor is a wounded beast. He is very angry and capable of taking down almost anyone his mind sets against. The PM will be seeking to get his mind back in the game - focusing on repairing the hole in his budget. How much he succeeds in this will be crucial for the remainder of this Parliament.


Wednesday, 16 March 2016

George Osborne announces three mayors for Bristol and King Guthrum the Third

More devolution is on the way to some pretty strangely drawn lines on the map following the budget today. And some of the existing devolution deals - including that to Cornwall - have been strengthened.

The Chancellor has always been a fan of devolution on his own terms. His great scheme is the 'Northern Powerhouse' and this got a further boost today. We also heard of money for London's 'Crossrail 2' - but not enough to actually make the scheme feasible yet. And there was money for the Marine Enterprise Zone in Cornwall and for the Hall for Cornwall - both very welcome.

But it will be the new devolution deals which provoke most reaction. There is one for Lincolnshire, one for the West of England and one for East Anglia.

The West of England deal will be a snub to those people (some 80% of voters) who rejected a directly elected mayor for the Bath and North East Somerset area as recently as last Thursday. Now, as part of their acceptance of new powers in a region covering the Bristol and Bath areas they will be forced to take on a directly elected 'mayor'.

So people in Bristol will have three mayors:

- A Lord Mayor (who does the ceremonial stuff)
- A Directly Elected Mayor of Bristol
- A Directly Elected Mayor of the devolved region.

It could get confusing.

In comparison, the devolution deal agreed with Cornwall saw no requirement for a new directly elected mayor. I know which I think is is the better deal.

There will also be confusion over the devolution package for East Anglia. There is no agreement from the City of Cambridge to participate and so there is a hole in the map. The participation of Cambridgeshire County Council is also in some doubt as the Tories (who back the idea) are in a minority on the authority.

The last leader of 'East Anglia' was King Guthrum II in 918. So are we about to see Guthrum III?

The sugar tax has more holes than a fizzy drink addict's teeth - UPDATED

The Chancellor's traditional Budget rabbit-out-of-the-hat is a sugar tax.
  • Except it isn't a tax on all high sugar foods, but just on drinks. 
  • Except it isn't a tax on all high sugar drinks, as milk and fruit juice based drinks are exempt. 
  • Except it isn't even a tax on all those as drinks produced by small manufacturers are also exempt. 
The world will divide into those who think that a 'nanny state' tax such as a sugar tax is a good thing or not. Should we trust people to make their own mind up about what is healthy and what isn't or should we use taxes to put the price up on the unhealthy stuff to try to stop people buying it?

To be fair, there is already a tax on cigarettes and on alcohol in an effort to reduce consumption of harmful products. So why not sugar?

Irn Bru's maker AG Barr share price fall

But regardless of your views on that aspect, why all the caveats and get out clauses? Why should Irn Bru be subject to this new tax when Frijj will not be - despite having even higher sugar content? And why should small scale producers be let off this tax when they are not let off alcohol taxes for example?

The answer seems pretty simple. The chancellor is an astute politician. He knows that this is a debate that is easy enough to frame and so will dominate the airwaves for the next few days. And he has got telegenic TV chef Jamie Oliver on board to fight his case for him. Various people have pointed out that Mr Oliver's high sugar recipes for kids won't be affected by the tax. It means that the big holes in his budget (including a massive £3.5bn cut in public spending in two years time) won't be looked at with the same rigour. And he hopes that the general public won't realise that he has played fast and loose with the numbers, pushing and pulling them in all directions to make his sums add up.

Yet again George Osborne has borrowed from the future in order to make his sums add up in the present. But at some point the future will be now and Osborne will have to explain why there is a massive debt and no money to pay it.

UPDATE - Thanks to Sky's Sophy Ridge for pointing out that the Frappuchinos and other heavily sweetened drinks produced by Starbucks and other coffee companies will be exempt as they are milk based. 


Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Trump gets burned

Finally - a way to beat Donald Trump.

Apparently he likes his steaks well done. A trait shared by just 8% of his fellow countrymen and women. The Donald might get some cross-over love from those who prefer their beef cooked medium-well (seriously!?!), but that us still just one in four beef eating Americans.

I look forward to the attack ads based on this news.


Hat-tip to fivethirtyeight.com


Labour guarantee the Tories a free ride on Snooper's Charter

Tonight the Labour Party gave the Conservatives a free ride on the Investigatory Powers Bill, otherwise known as the Snooper's Charter. Together with the SNP, they sat on their hands and abstained when it came to the vote, thus guaranteeing another erosion of our civil liberties.

So if anyone thought that Labour might have changed under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, they haven't. They are still the party that tried to force through ID cards.

What makes it worse is that the Tories were down by 49 MPs today. Had Labour and the SNP voted against the Bill then the government would have been forced to go away and think again.

During the last parliament, the Conservatives wanted to bring forward this affront to civil liberties but were forced to back down by the Lib Dems in the coalition. Yet another example of what the Lib Dems managed to achieve in government.

Here's former Director of Public Prosecutions (and now Labour MP) Keir Starmer writing in the Guardian that the Bill is not fit for purpose.

He abstained.

And here is SNP MP Joanna Cherry arguing that the Bill would set a bad example to the world.

She abstained too.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Even Labour’s handpicked economists think Corbyn is a loser

Back in  September 2015, newly elected Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn announced a team of economists to advise him and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell. McDonnell’s stated ambition - “to develop a radical but pragmatic and deliverable economic policy for our country”.

Member of the new Committee, Professor Thomas Piketty, said: “There is now a brilliant opportunity for the Labour party to construct a fresh and new political economy which will expose austerity for the failure it has been in the UK and Europe.”

Which all sounds very good. The trouble is that at least two of the seven members of this band of economists don’t believe that Corbyn can actually win the next election and deliver his new policies. I know because they have told me this in such terms.

It is not the anti-austerity policies that will lose Labour the election, they say, but Corbyn and McDonnell themselves. The expert view - that Labour’s top team just haven’t got it.

One of the two members of the Corbyn team who spoke to me was Ann Pettiffor. When asked if Team Corbyn could win the next election she said:
“I don't believe that Mr Corbyn will win the next election. But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to give him advice and present the alternative to austerity. My belief is that the public, once they have a better understanding of how the economy works, will vote differently. But they won't do so until they have that better understanding.”
(Ms Pettiffor was speaking at a public event hosted by St Catherine’s College, Cambridge)

The second member of Labour’s team to speak to me did so off the record, so I am not going to name them or quote them directly. But they were much more candid about the problems the party is facing and equally adamant that another electoral defeat was looming. They told me that they thought Jeremy Corbyn himself had improved a lot and ‘got’ what they were proposing. However they were hugely disparaging of John McDonnell who they said would speak but not listen to the opinions of others. Could Labour win the next general election - No.

If Corbyn and McDonnell’s own team of advisors don’t think the party can win, what hope is there for Labour?

Friday, 11 March 2016

A ‘Progressive Alliance’ is an oxymoron

Much as I have a great respect for former St Ives MP Andrew George, I think that the efforts he and others are putting in to creating a form of progressive alliance to take on the Tories are doomed to failure.

The plan is to unite Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and others - either the whole party or people from them - to make sure that the Conservatives do not win again in 2020.

There are many people in the country who would like to do whatever they can to stop another Conservative victory. But is this the right way to go about it? I think there are three good reasons why it is not.

 

The parties are not that much alike


This blog post is great. It sets out what the voters for each of the potential ‘progressive’ parties think of their party and of the others. As you can see, most Labour and Green supporters do not think they are really that close to the Lib Dems. (Although Lib Dem voters tend to think that they are.)

It’s hardly progressive if what brings you together is a common enemy, rather than a positive shared purpose. Of course, there will be some things that members of all parties will agree on. They are likely to back some form of electoral reform and an easing (if not more) of George Osborne’s austerity programme. But what about nuclear power, ID cards and defence spending. There are sharp differences there.

When it comes down to it, Labour is a statist party. They believe (especially under their current leader) that change should be directed from the top. Unlike the Lib Dems who believe that change should start from the bottom. I’ve put it inelegantly, but this is the reason why a merger between the two parties would never work. You may well have key figures in each who have more in common (Ashdown and Blair got on famously well), but the fundamental differences between the parties are acute. And once you add in the Greens you get a third dimension. Throw in the SNP and you have chaos.

 

We don’t live in an ideal world


There are undoubtedly elements within each of the other parties that can be admired, even by a committed party activist. But we do not live in an ideal world. We cannot form a progressive alliance with a 1995 era Labour Party. We would get a leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and all their cronies. However unpopular the Lib Dems have become, I cannot imagine having Ken Livingstone as a leading figure in ‘our’ movement would make things better.

 

It’s not really enough for a majority


Labour plus Lib Dems in 2015 would not have been a majority of votes, let alone seats. Realigning the opposition is not enough. We have to win back the very many electors who voted Conservative or even UKIP in 2015 but voted Lib Dem before that. That is the reason that the Lib Dems lost so many good MPs. Of course we want to win support from people who currently see themselves as Labour, Green or nationalist. But the answer is not to drive further to the left for its own sake. The answer is to present an avowedly liberal vision to the country and grow our base of support. Joining with Labour or the Greens would be setting us on a course away from liberalism, not towards it.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Why the government's new housing bill could be disastrous for struggling communities, And older people. And people with disabilities.

Passing through the House of Lords at the moment is a housing bill which will have huge ramifications for social housing across the country. And it could spell the end of struggling rural communities in places like Cornwall.

The Bill does two key things. First, it gives Housing Association tenants the right to buy. I disagree with this, but I accept that it was put forward in the Conservative manifesto, so let's move on.

Housing Associations, being private businesses, cannot be forced to give a discount on right to buy without some form of compensation. So the government has decided to encourage local authorities to sell 'high value council houses'. Part of the income from these sales will be given to the government in the form of a charge and then passed on to the Housing Associations as compensation. The remainder will be used to reinvest in council housing stock.

A mooted plan to force (rather than encourage) the sale of high value properties has now been backed away from and councils have the option of keeping them but finding the money for the charge from other resources. It is unrealistic to expect councils to divert money away from caring for the most vulnerable to pay this charge, so the encouragement is compulsion in reality.

To be Cornwall specific - the bulk of council housing is not high value. But those council houses in the village communities around the coast which have been blighted by second homes most definitely are high value. Their value - compared to the regional average for that number of bedrooms - is much greater.

So Cornwall will be forced to sell off the council houses in St Mawes, Port Isaac and Polperro - all of which are communities which need those families to stay in order to survive. They will be sold on the open market and be lost as social housing. The council can reinvest in building new homes - in fact it will be a requirement that they do so, but if they do so in St Mawes, Port Isaac or Polperro then those homes will immediately become high value council homes and have to be sold off. So the only option is to build these new homes in Bodmin, Redruth and other towns along the A30 where they will not be at immediate risk.

The other categories of high value council houses are bungalows and specially adapted properties provided for older people. These tend to be worth far more than the average price for bog standard flats and houses with similar numbers of bedrooms. So they are at risk of having to be sold off. Despite the fact that there is an increasing need for them within the social rented sector. If they have to be sold then councils will have to spend lots more adapting and equipping other council houses and housing association properties. And adapting properties takes time so older people and people with disabilities are going to have to wait for the help that they need in order to live properly.

So that's the problem. Some of Cornwall's communities are struggling and this particular measure will put them further at risk.

I’ve talked to a friend who works in the sector who says that this whole bill is like nailing jelly to a wall. The government is refusing to give vital details of how the scheme will work until after Royal Assent has been granted (something confirmed by Lib Dem peer Olly Grender today). The details will then come in the form of regulation and ministerial pronouncement without the chance for full scrutiny. So what is a high value council house? I’ve made a guess based on the limited information given by ministers, but it could all change.

For councils like Cornwall this matters hugely. The authority is looking to invest in new council housing. That’s a great thing to be doing. But it could be a colossal waste of time if the properties it builds just have to be sold off again.

UPDATE - Lib Dem peer Cathy Bakewell has set out what the party is seeking to change in the Bill here.

David Lammy fined £5000 for mayoral robo-calls

While the Electoral Commission and police appear to be paying pass the buck with regard to excessive campaign spending by the Conservatives, the Information Commissioner is busy enforcing another area of electoral law. David Lammy MP has been fined £5000 for robo-calls made on behalf of his effort to become Labour's candidate for London mayor.

Mr Lammy's campaign made 35,629 automated calls to Labour Party members in August last year based on membership data passed to him by the party. However, he failed to make sure that the recipients were happy to receive automated calls.

The law is clear that if you provide your contact details to an organisation such as a political party then you are deemed to be be happy to receive calls unless you opt out - and the organisation needs to give you easy opportunities to do so. Hence the 'tick here if you do not want to receive...' box on most sign up forms.

But robo-calls are a different matter. To receive these you have to opt in. The Labour Party did not seek such permission and so Lammy was in breach of the law when he set up the automated contact.

Political parties are no special case in this regard. If you receive an automated call offering you PPI or accident claim services then it is almost certainly illegal. However, as these tend to originate from overseas, there is nothing that the Information Commissioner can do about them. 

Robo-calls are commonplace in US politics. They aren't that effective, but they are cheap and easy to do. They also annoy the heck out of a lot of recipients. Hence the welcome result today.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

I feel dirty

I feel a bit dirty. I have to accept it, but it is not comfortable, nonetheless.

You see, I agree with George Osborne. And (believe me this is worse), I agree with Brandon Lewis too. I don't think extending Sunday shop opening hours is a bad thing.

Today's defeat for the Government - and by quite a sizeable majority - is disappointing. It's even more disappointing that some parties seem to have voted against for political reasons rather than the principle of the matter.

I don't want to force shop workers to go to work when they don't want to and I don't want to deny them their family time. But the truth is that every shop can currently open for six hours on a Sunday and small shops can open for as long as they want. Most shop workers already have a pretty disrupted Sunday and larger shops are only likely to open for an extra three hours if this goes ahead.

But what the current law does do is restricts the right of workers to sell their labour as they might wish. It restricts the right of business owners to make the most of their premises and it restricts the right of consumers to be able to shop when we want to. (I'd probably say those reasons run from most to least important.)

I respect those who say, for religious reasons, that they disagree with any Sunday trading. But for that argument to stand up, it has to be all or nothing. They should be making the case for a return to the 1980's situation of no shops open at all on a Sunday (there were caveats, but forgive me if I can't remember them). I don't agree with that view, but it seems to make a heck of a lot more sense than the Labour Party position which doesn't recognise that Sunday trading takes place at all. Or the SNP hypocrisy of refusing to extend opening hours in England and Wales to match the existing situation north of the border.

And no, I don't know why the Lib Dems voted against the Government on this. (UPDATE - Four Lib Dem MPs - Farron, Mulholland, Pugh and Williams - voted against the government. Three - Clegg, Brake and Lamb - voted against. Alistain Carmichael did not vote)

Why Marco Rubio is like the Liberal Democrats

Nate Silver has written a very interesting comment on the problems faced by American Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio on the FiveThirtyEight site. It made me think about the similarities between the senator and the Lib Dems. I’m not talking about policies, but in terms of his positioning and campaign trajectory, Rubio shares a lot with the Liberal Democrats. I’ve blatantly ripped off some of Silver’s lines - for which apologies and thanks are due. 

Everybody's second choice


Rubio went through the first batch of primaries and caucuses seemingly coming second everywhere and never managing to win anything. Now things have moved on slightly and he has slipped back in general but is managing to eke out wins in the far flung corners of Minnesota and Puerto Rico. No one seemed to have anything bad to say about Rubio, but no one was overly enthused by him either. 

No strong base


This led to similarity number two. He has a very low base, but potentially huge possibilities. There are tons of people who say they might vote for Rubio, but very few who are ten out of ten die-hard supporters. It is perhaps the opposite to Donald Trump (who looks like UKIP in this respect) who has a very high floor but very low ceiling.

Remember this Lib Dem election poster?

It proved impossible to turn into reality (even with Clegg-mania) because being prepared to consider voting for a party is not the same as doing so.

In the past, it was the moan of the Liberal Democrats that the party never really had any safe seats. At every election we had to fight like crazy everywhere we wanted to win rather than being able to focus on marginals. In 2015, in the face of terrible polling numbers nationally, the message went out from LDHQ that the party was doing ok in held seats. I don’t know the truth of what was actually happening with internal polls, but the results showed that we weren’t doing ok. It would appear that, for whatever reason, we had not established the secure base which would allow us to hold on to a core number of seats.

And just as public affection can be quite fickle, so too can establishment support. Marco Rubio suddenly became the object of GOP affection when Jeb(!) Bush withdrew from the contest. But what the establishment giveth, so they can take away too. In the UK we have seen the Lib Dems win some backing from the media and suchlike only to see that support disappear pretty quickly too. That matters because it means a lot of wasted time and money if you are trying to play to the establishment rather than the voters. 

Media expectations 

 

 Third, as a relative unknown, Rubio rose and fell on the basis of his appearance in the media. The public didn’t know much about the freshman senator from Florida and was largely impressed by his energy and enthusiasm. But when he failed to live up to (artificially) high expectations in a later debate, his stock crashed back to earth. That’s similar to what happened to Nick Clegg in 2010 (albeit I think this is unfair on Clegg who had unreasonably high expectations put on him in the third debate). But it is also the problem the party faced in every general election as broadcast rules meant that the party was introduced to voters in a way they had perhaps not seen before. Poll ratings rose only to plateau and then fall as decision time came nearer. 

An image problem? 


The final similarity is that the image the public has of Rubio is perhaps not what he actually is. In a race with so many bampot fundamentalists, Rubio was seen as one of those in the establishment lane. As Nate Silver points out, his best results have come in heavily Democratic areas and Rubio became the favourite of the GOP establishment for a time. But is that where is really is politically? He came up through the Tea Party and his policies are all pretty conservative. He isn’t as right wing as Ted Cruz, but virtually no one is (Cruz is really scarily right wing). And so Rubio got pegged as a moderate. In the case of the Lib Dems, the party has been seen by the public as centre-right, based on supporting a Conservative minority as part of the coalition from 2010 to 2015 (for all that there was no other real option). And yet, if you believe such labels, the heart of the party is probably to the left of centre. 

All things to all people?


Once a candidate or party accepts that the public sees you as something other than what you really are, the danger is that you become happy to try to be all things to all people. Just as Rubio has pivoted to both left and right in his primary campaign, the Lib Dems are often afraid to disagree with people, leading to seemingly contradictory positions in different areas.

Rubio is pinning all his hopes on his home state of Florida which votes next Tuesday. Losing would be curtains for him. The Lib Dems pinned all their hopes on holding Eastleigh in the by election following the resignation of Chris Huhne. Losing would have been disastrous, but they won. The problem for Rubio after a Florida victory is the same as for the Lib Dems after Eastleigh. Now what?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Bloomberg won't run for President

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced that he will not be running for the Presidency as an Independent. He seems to have seen through the numerous consultants and others who were persuading him that he could win.

Talk of a third party candidacy had been rife as it is known that Bloomberg (elected in New York as a Republican) has hated the extremes to which candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have reached. Indeed, in his blog, Bloomberg goes into detail on why he thinks both the GOP front runners are wrong.

But the former mayor also sets out (albeit in much less detail) his complaints against the Democrats. He says they have abandoned the desire to build from the centre as Bill Clinton did.

Bloomberg does manage to convince himself that he could have won a plurality of the electoral college but notes that without an overall majority, the decision would have been put in the hands of congress and this would most likely see either President Trump or President Cruz. FiveThirtyEight have more details about the possible scenarios.

Is there any wiggle room for Bloomberg to run as a Republican should the convention be balanced? He says not, but 'never say never in politics'.

Keeping your local campaign going during the EU referendum debate

This post on the US Campaigns and Elections blog highlights the plight of Lib Dems (and other parties) campaigning in the run up to the May elections.

For the Presidential primaries in the original post, read the EU referendum. It is the big beast dominating the media, around which local campaigns are struggling to find any daylight for their own campaigns.

There are elections in May for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, police and crime commissioners in most English forces, Greater London Assembly and local councils in (most of) England. Fortunately for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and London, they have their own dedicated and very good media streams which will help to get around the EU problem to some extent. And when it comes to PCC elections, no one really cared last time and I suspect no one will particularly care this time either. Sorry.

But what about local council elections? How does a candidate campaign and be noticed. There are two options. Follow the herd and talk about EU issues (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) or talk about local issues and recognise that you may have to work a lot harder than usual to be noticed.

For Lib Dems campaigning in local elections, I think it has to be option number two. Campaigning in favour of Remain is not going to surprise anyone. And, although potential Lib Dem voters align fairly well with the party’s own views on the EU, it is not as if the party is the only group campaigning for In. Most of the Labour Party, almost half of Conservatives and most minor parties are there too. The danger is that the Lib Dems strive to be the most Europhile in an effort to differentiate and that is when we start to leave our own voters behind.

Sadly, at least for Lib Dems, it seems that the media is currently swallowing the Conservative party whole when it comes to EU coverage. On the one hand you have the Prime Minister and the majority of the cabinet and on the other you have Boris and the group John Major referred to as the bastards. Why should the media want to reach out further - even as far as Labour, the Lib Dems or UKIP - when they have plenty of Tories willing to pile into each other? If the media want a non-Conservative they are more likely to look to a non-party business-type than someone from the opposition benches.

In the long run, this may well do the Lib Dems (and even Labour) good. If the Tories rip into themselves enough over the EU then they will appear divided to voters and lose support. But that doesn’t help much if your seat is up in May.

Campaigning on local issues may be harder, but it is going to be all the more important. With the air war being dominated by the EU, it will be vital to have a winning ground game. For this election, perhaps running counter to the general tide of elections over recent years, it will be important for Lib Dems to go back to what they are best at - lots of leaflets and knocking on doors. Over the past few weeks there have been some very good by-election results for Lib Dems in local government. Those have been achieved in the teeth of the early referendum coverage.

I have heard some campaigners claim that they have to talk about the EU because it is all the voters are interested in. To which I would suggest that this is only because you fail to offer any alternative. My sense is that people are already becoming bored by the referendum debate. They may well tell pollsters that they don’t think they know enough. But I struggle to believe that this will lead to a low turnout. I think the initial skirmishes have taken place and people will get back on board with the big picture in the final month of that campaign. In the meantime, they want to get on with their lives. And that means streetlights, pavements, housing and sports centres.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Did Conservatives Facebook spending break the law?

So here’s a thing. During the 2015 general election, the Conservatives spent more than a million pounds on Facebook advertising. This spending was targeted incredibly carefully at the people the Tories wanted to most reach - the people who had been identified as swing voters in marginal constituencies. Was this spending legal and did it put individual constituency campaigns over the expenses limit? Sadly, we can never know. But it is a question which ought to be asked and if the Conservatives did not break the law in 2015, you can be sure that the way is now open for parties or individual candidates to do so in the future.

The overall spending on Facebook advertising was declared by the Conservatives as part of their national return. If this spending was all made on a generic “Vote Conservative” message then it would be perfectly legal (their declared national spending was about £3.5 million below the limit). But we know that this was not the case.

The whole point of Facebook’s advertising model is that they are able to target users very specifically. Their sales pitch is that you are paying to reach the people you want to. Their algorithms know who Facebook users are, what they are interested in and what their political preferences might be based on their use of the site. Moreover, they know the age and family circumstances and many other aspects of users’ lives. That's gold dust to political campaigns aiming to send a very specific message to very specific voters.

So if a political party comes along and tells Facebook which constituencies they are interested in and what demographics they want to target then the tech giant can make sure their message hits that particular band with better than 95% accuracy.

The Conservatives spent an average of £114,000 per month on Facebook advertising in the run up to last year’s general election. We know that from the expense returns filed with the Electoral Commission. We don’t know precisely how much was spent during the short campaign - the period of five weeks or so between the close of nominations and polling day itself when constituency spending is most tightly regulated to an average of about £16,000 per seat. But it is highly unlikely that the spending would have fallen during this most crucial period.

And no one outside Conservative Central Office knows precisely how many seats they spent their Facebook money on. But news reports before the election talked about a 40-40 target strategy - concentrating all their efforts on defending the 40 most marginal Tory held seats and gaining the 40 most marginal seats held by other parties. Things might have changed during the election with a few more seats becoming viewed as winnable, but this is likely to have been balanced by some held seats becoming viewed as safe. There is no point for the Conservatives of spending Facebook money to win the votes of users in safe Labour seats like Barnsley. Nor would they spend money seeking to add to a majority of more than 10,000 in seats like Surrey Heath.

If the total Conservative Facebook spend was divided between these 80 target seats (which is a reasonable supposition), then this would average around £15,000 per seat over the year before the election.

If we assume that the amount spent per month did not drop over the final period (and logic dictates it is only likely to have risen) then the average spent in each of the 80 seats during the short campaign would have been at least £1425. How many Conservative candidates declared spending of anything like this amount on Facebook advertising in their expense returns? None.

We know from the spending on by-elections like Newark in the run up to the election that the Conservatives did spend money on very specific, constituency and candidate oriented Facebook advertising. In that campaign a receipt was submitted for £3000. (Spending limits on by-elections are much higher at £100,000.) Are we really to believe that the Conservatives abandoned their candidate and seat specific advertising which served them so well at Newark for the general election?

The trouble is that we have no way of knowing for sure. Whilst leaflets and emails can be preserved for later examination, Facebook advertising is ephemeral. Unless a recipient has the presence of mind to screenshot it, we will never know what it said. And the whole point of the targeting algorithm is that the Conservatives will not have sent their Facebook adverts to people who are most likely to have recorded it in this way - their opponents.

What is absolutely clear though, is that this is a massive loophole in election expense law which would be easy to exploit in the future - even if it has not been until now. From everything that came out of the Conservative hierarchy, we know that they viewed their Facebook spending as worthwhile. They will do the same (or more) next time and the other parties will be playing catch-up.

For the record: I am not suggesting that Facebook have done anything wrong. They are a private company which has obtained all this data legally and with the consent of their users. They have the right to monetise their product and that is what they have done by selling advertising. Nor do I think that it is wrong for political candidates or parties to buy such advertising during elections. My concern is transparency. If the law states that parties can only spend up to a certain amount during the campaign in an individual constituency then we should expect there to be a mechanism to ensure that this is the case and that spending can be policed.



Trump has a bad night - but not nearly as bad as Rubio

Four states voted in yesterday's Republican presidential stakes. Two backed Ted Cruz and two went for Donald Trump, but it was a very bad night for Trump - and an even worse one for Marco Rubio.

The two states that backed Trump were Louisiana and Kentucky. Both were closed events - ie only open to registered Republicans - an audience that Trump has struggled with in the past. And, despite being called by the US TV networks very early, it almost became squeaky bum time for Trump (and the TV experts) as his lead narrowed in Louisiana as more and more results came in. Once again it appears that early voters backed Trump convincingly, but those who decided later in the run up to the vote (and therefore who, by definition, vote on the day) were less in favour. As it was, Trump just held on in both contests.

......

Shock of the day was in Maine. Very few polls had been done there, but those that were suggested Trump would win easily from John Kasich in second. But Cruz won at a canter and also took Kansas by 25%.

Had Trump won three or four contests then he could have legitimately claimed a good night. As it was, he only just won two. It was a bad night.

......

All of which was good for Cruz and really bad for Marco Rubio who had three third places and a fourth place in Maine. In both Maine and Louisiana he failed to win enough support to cross the delegate threshold. So by the end of the night Trump was calling on him to quit so he could go one on one with Cruz. Such a call was probably more motivated by hatred of the GOP establishment who had backed Rubio than anything else.

......

John Kasich had a so-so night. He remains in the race hoping for a win in his home state of Ohio. Where that gets him is unclear. Even in a contested convention it is hard to picture him being the compromise choice. Clues to Ohio came from the Kentucky votes. The states are next to each other and share some TV markets. Kasich did ell in these border areas, but so too did Cruz. It looks like Ohio could be a three way race at the moment.

......

Also worth noting - none of the Republican contests have yet seen a candidate win more than 50% of the vote. Admittedly, there is a multi-choice field, but it is telling that the party seems unable to make up its mind on a clear favourite or challenger in any state.

......

On the Dem side, Bernie Sanders won two out of the three contests last night but lost the third by such a margin that he still went backwards in his contest with Hillary Clinton. I suspect this is how it will play out until the end of the primary process. Sanders will win about a third of the contests but never come within reach of the former First Lady.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Trump-eting the size of your, er, hands

If you thought the Republican debates couldn't sink any lower than five men screaming at each other in front of a baying mob, they did last night.

There were only four of them (Ben Carson presumably values his hearing enough that he has dropped out of the race) but there was still a lot of screaming.

And then Donald Trump decided to make claims about the size of his penis.

If you want a more homegrown story that sounds like it comes from The Thick Of It, read Ben Rathe's tale of how he took Nick Clegg to a dogging site.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Hillary's VP - the runners and riders

So Hillary Clinton has survived a bit of a Sanders scare and is pretty set to be the Democratic Presidential nominee. So the next question is who she picks to be her running mate.

Traditionally, a Vice Presidential choice was used to balance out the ticket in terms of age, geography and ideology (think Kennedy/Johnson). Nowadays, thankfully, we are in an age when simply picking from a stream of middle-aged white straight men isn’t the only choice. So factoring in ethnicity, gender and other considerations is also important.

But even more so is the state that the VP candidate comes from. Is it a swing state that s/he can bring into your column at the election? There is little to gain in this respect from picking a VP from a safe state or one which you have no chance of winning. (There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. The first President Clinton picked Al Gore from the next door state of Tennessee as his running mate.)

So Hillary is a New York, experienced, female, moderate, white candidate. If she is looking for balance, she will probably be looking for someone from the South, Mid West or Far West. She can afford to have a fresh face, although the younger the candidate, the more the party will be looking at the choice as being their automatic Presidential pick in eight years time. Few worried about that with Joe Biden. There is a huge amount to be gained by having an African American on the ticket - although she is doing hugely well with this demographic in the primaries, she needs to secure turnout in the general election. But there is much less to be gained with a Hispanic American VP. There is only one swing state where Hispanic votes will make a difference - Florida - and this has very particular circumstances where the only Hispanic voice that matters is a Cuban American voice.

So, what does this mean in terms of names?

The bookies favourite at the moment is Julian Castro, currently Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio in Texas. He was an early endorser of Clinton and has been campaigning for her. The trouble is that Texas is not really in play at this election, so he fails on that score and his Mexican heritage doesn’t win votes in Florida. His work with HUD is important as this is a key ministry for African American issues, particularly in the North East and Mid-West. But he is far too short a price (9/4 Ladbrokes) to be considered any sort of value.

Elizabeth Warren (8/1 Ladbrokes) would be a fabulous choice for VP for all those of us on the liberal wing of politics. But it just isn’t going to happen.

Martin O’Malley (10/1 Ladbrokes) was an early casualty of the Democratic Presidential race. He never really caught on with the voters and, being from Maryland, adds little to the ticket.

Former Indiana Governor and Senator Evan Bayh (20/1 Ladbrokes) ticks the swing state box, but has been out of elected office since 2011 so there will be doubts about whether he has the organisation to bring his state with him.

I’m a big fan of Cory Booker (20/1 Ladbrokes), the hugely energetic Senator from New Jersey. He too was an early supporter of Clinton’s. But if Trump picks Chris Christie as his VP then it would mean two Presidential candidates from New York with New Jersey running mates. I’m going to say not this time for Booker, but he clearly has huge things ahead of him.

Sherrod Brown (20/1 Ladbrokes), the Senator from Ohio, is an interesting option as he represents one of the key swing states. He is pegged as one of the most liberal members of the Senate, which would help Clinton with Sanders supporters in the general election. But he is said to be very, very uninterested in the job. Even more of a problem is that his successor as senator would be appointed by Republican Governor John Kasich.

I’m going to narrow it down to two candidates from Colorado and two from Virginia. Both states are key to the election - albeit with relatively few voters in Colorado’s case, a bit too close to Washington in the case of Virginia.

From out west we get Senator Michael Bennet (25/1 Paddy Power) - son of a diplomat, a lawyer and business fixer. He’s a key supporter of Obamacare, immigration reform and the stimulus package, pegging him very much in the ‘continuing Obama’s legacy’ camp. But... Bennet is up for re-election this year and having him as VP candidate would mean running a huge risk of losing his senate seat. Control of the Senate is important to Clinton because of the likelihood that the supreme court nomination fight will be held over until after the election. Bennet could, technically, run in both races at the same time, but more likely would be a replacement senate candidate and the only one that controls the risk of handing the seat to the GOP by coming in at this late stage is...

Governor John Hickenlooper (20/1 Ladbrokes) - who would be great value for his name alone. He’s a former businessman, geologist and Mayor of Denver. If he does get the nod for VP then expect to see the GOP raising the issue of cannabis legalisation. Colorado was the first state to liberalise the law in this regard and, although he made statements opposing the change, Gov. Hickenlooper has nonetheless had to sign such provisions into law.

From Virginia we have Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Warner (20/1 Ladbrokes) is a former governor of the state and head of the Forward Together PAC - the leading Third Way organisation in the US. He was touted as having presidential ambitions in 2008 and then considered for the VP gig until opting for the senate seat. For all that he represents a state in the South (just), I think he is too ideologically similar to Clinton to get the nod.

Senator Tim Kaine (12/1 Paddy Power) is a lawyer and former Mayor of Richmond who replaced Mark Warner as Governor of the state (the position is limited to one term). He was very high on Obama’s list of potential VP candidates. His downside comes with conflicted positions on moral issues. As a Roman Catholic he opposes abortion, but says he would not want to see the current position weakened. He is personally opposed to the death penalty but oversaw eleven executions as governor. I think that would make for a tortuous VP debate.

Clearly there is no single candidate who ticks all the boxes. So while Julian Castro has a lot going for him, his price is way too short to be attractive. I’m going to tip Michael Bennet. But I'm going to put a caveat out there. This article in the New York Times suggests that Clinton should be concerned about the lack of turnout in African American and Hispanic communities. I think the premise of this article has its flaws - turnout may well have fallen because Clinton is seen as a shoo-in - but there still may be the view that turning out a key demographic matters more than any individual swing state. Which makes Cory Booker - the only realistic black candidate for VP - still a real contender.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Super Tuesday Results - Good for Trump, Better for Hillary

Yesterday's Super Tuesday results are in and they are good news for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Ted Cruz and John Kasich did ok but Bernie Sanders (despite four state wins) and Marco Rubio (despite his first) did badly.

......

Trump won seven states including Virginia where he managed to hold off Marco Rubio in what was being described as a key test for the Florida senator.

Ted Cruz won in Texas (his home state, but by far the biggest on the night) and Oklahoma.

Marco Rubio won in Minnesota. That was his first state win of the primary season and blunts Ted Cruz's attack on him.

John Kasich was never really in the game today except in Vermont where he came second. He's all in for his home state of Ohio in two weeks time.

......

The key for the republican race (as with the Democrats) is that the early states all award their delegates proportionately. So winning by one point might get you one more delegate but it is a TV victory rather than one which will be particularly telling come the convention. Later on in the primary season the contests start getting winner-takes-all.

But - and it is a biggie - in most states last night, if a candidate fails to get over 20% then they get no delegates at all. So Rubio fell short in Texas, Alabama, Vermont and Massachusetts and will get no delegates from any of those. Where Rubio did better - Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma - the threshold is actually 15%. Overall, Rubio picked up fewer than half the delegate numbers that Cruz won last night (and only around a third of Trump's gain).

Ben Carson is still in the race. I don't know why either.

......

Over on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders won (as largely expected) in Vermont, Colorado, Minnesota and Oklahoma. He failed by just a percentage point to win in Massachusetts. Again, being a proportional allocation, this loss is more about TV coverage than delegate numbers.

But where Sanders lost, he lost big. Clinton's predicted lead among black voters became a rout and she swept the board in the southern states and never broke sweat in Arkansas where some polls had predicted a close result. So in terms of delegate numbers Clinton won massively last night.

......

Paddy Power have issued a press release saying they have paid out on Donald Trump being the Republican nominee. He is by far the favourite but I don't think this race is quite done yet. The Republican establishment are so anti-Trump that they will have at least one more go at defeating him. Whether that means aiming for a balanced convention, who knows. Maybe it will be 'Draft Bloomberg'.


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Super Tuesday is here (slightly more super if you are a Democrat)

Welcome to day 253 of the Donald Trump show. Today is that day in which he could all but seal up the nomination.

Well actually he can't. There have been four contests to date and he has won three of them. A further 11 vote today, which means that there are still 35 states and various territories to come, including most of the biggest states by population (of the big states, only Texas votes today).

But. If Trump wins handsomely in most of today's votes then he will be crowned by the media as the republican nominee and he will carry an almost unstoppable momentum through the rest of the contest. The GOP establishment will have to start trying to figure out how they can work with Trump as their nominee rather than against him.

Today's contests range from Massachusetts to Alabama and Trump is favoured to win both of those. How a single candidate can win such wildly divergent states and still be regarded as a fringe candidate is quite amazing.

......

In other Trump news, he got quite a pasting for failing to condemn the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, when Duke gave him his support for the presidency. Trump later claimed that he had not heard the question and blamed the 'lousy earpiece CNN made me wear'.

Yeah right.

Which led to the revelation that Trump's father had been arrested in 1927 for participating in a fight between KKK activists and the police. Daddy Trump was not an officer of the law.

......

On the Democratic side there are 12 votes today, making Super Tuesday ever so slightly more super for the more left leaning party. Among them are American Samoa which had a record turnout in 2008 when 285 people voted in the caucus. Clinton won by the way.

Although Clinton will probably win the majority of contests by a long way, there are set to be close fights in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Colorado. If she fails to win Arkansas then the whole contest might be back open again. But I doubt it.

......

It is officially Spring in the USA as baseball begins its pre-season warm-up games, known as Spring Training. Expect lots more ordinary Americans to find their way to Arizona and Florida where the 30 MLB teams make their spring homes in order to avoid the election.

New election expenses allegations. Does anyone actually understand the rules?

Did the Conservatives massively overspend in three key by-elections in the run up to the 2015 General Election? Michael Crick has undertaken some detailed investigations for Channel 4 News which claim they did.

And did twenty Conservative MPs (including North Cornwall’s Scott Mann) fail to declare the cost of local campaigning by a national battle bus full of volunteers in their seat? The Daily Mirror suggests they did.

The rules about what should and what should not be declared in election expense returns have never been more unclear. Every so often Parliament or, since its establishment, the Electoral Commission seeks to provide clarity. But every new batch of rules provides an opportunity for parties to seek loopholes and any clarity that was established soon disappears.

At the heart of the current problem is the concept of national versus local campaigning. Each party has a strict limit for local campaign spending based on the number of voters in the seat. The figure is roughly £16,000 and applies for the period of the short campaign - in 2015 this was from 30th March to polling day. (There was a slightly greater figure that could be spent during the ‘long campaign’ - the period from mid December 2014 until Parliament’s dissolution.) Nationally, parties are limited but those limits are sky high, to the extent that not even the Conservatives came that close to breaching them last year. If a party contested all 650 seats then it would have a limit of £19.5 million for the year running up to the general election and £30,000 less for each seat they did not stand a candidate in. So parties will do what they can to push spending onto the national, rather than local, bill.

The situations for by-elections are a bit more complicated. Here the local limit is much higher - £100,000 - and there is no national limit. But a party continues to exist and campaign across the UK between general elections, so there will be spending on campaigning that they will claim is not directly for the seat where the by-election is happening. Clear? Thought not.

So here are some scenarios about what might happen in a campaign - in fact what has happened in many parts of the UK.
  • In the run up to a general election, a party sends lots of letters to voters in a marginal seat. These letters don’t mention the candidates by name, nor do they refer to the constituency or how close it is. No bar charts in these letters! But the letters are only sent to voters in marginal seats and only to those perceived by the party to be swing voters (ie those who may change their mind or whose voting preference has not been identified). These letters count towards national expenditure rather than local. The lack of any reference to the local situation or candidates is the key. All they are doing is urging the elector to vote for Party X, after all.
  • In a by-election, a party sends an email to lots of its members and supporters up and down the country, urging them to come to help. The party promises to help find accommodation with local supporters but asks the members to pay their own travel costs. Traditionally, none of this would appear on the expenses return. There has been no money changing hands - and certainly none of it has come out of party coffers, either locally or nationally.
  • If you think that this is wrong and that the actual costs of every volunteer campaigning for the party should be attributed to the campaign then we enter very complex accounting territory. Do we really want to get to a situation where a party can be put over the limit because a volunteer was so enthused that they travelled the length of the country to help? The extension of this would be that nefarious members of other parties could turn up to deliver leaflets and claim to have flown in specially from New Zealand to help. Surely we do not want to get into this situation - or having to haul in for questioning any party supporter who turns up with a cake they have baked for the volunteers.
  • But what if the party can’t find enough beds for all the members who want to come to help? What if local hotels are pressed into action? If we assume that what I have said above is true, then it depends who pays. If it is the individual member who pays for their accommodation - and they never get any sort of reimbursement - then this would not have to be declared. But if the party or any third person supporting the party paid or made a contribution, then that would have to be included on the expenses return.
  • One of the arguments being put forward by the Conservatives for their spending on hotels in Thanet during the general election was that the staff based there were working on the national campaign, not the constituency seat. So they say the spending did not have to be declared in local returns. Others have pointed out that the Tories had no other target seat for miles around and this seems a little implausible. In which case, based on the current rules and their interpretation, it would be a matter for a judge to decide on.
  • What about battlebuses coming to visit a particular seat. No longer are we talking about members who make their own way at their own expense. Now it is a party organised event (although members might have been asked to make a contribution). Should the net proportionate costs of these be included in local returns?
  • Before you reach an answer on that question, consider another. What about visits by the leader of the party. They arrive in their own battlebus. Only this one is full of aides and journalists rather than campaign volunteers. Traditionally, the Leader is seen as being the embodiment of the national campaign and the costs of their visits - although exclusively to marginal seats - are seen as being wholly attributable to the national spending limit. Only when the leader is campaigning in his or her own seat do things start getting tricky.
  • So if the leader’s battlebus is a national spend, why is the bus full of campaign volunteers any different? And if it is different, where is the line that is crossed? What would happen if the Leader’s battlebus was half filled with journalists and half with members ready to knock on doors? And does it matter what the Leader does when he or she is visiting a marginal seat? Is there a difference between an hour spent visiting a factory and talking about the UK’s balance of payments as opposed to an hour spent knocking on doors and advocating a vote for local candidate Jo Bloggs?
What is, however, clear, is that none of the breaches (or claimed breaches) are going to see any action taken. The deadline for challenges to party expenses is just 28 days after they are published, although, in a fit of opacity, the government’s guidance suggests that a court may be willing to allow extra time in expenses cases. The Electoral Commission is saying that they do not have the powers to properly enforce anything and the Police have traditionally shown a reticence towards getting involved in party politics except for the most egregious breaches. So it would seem that anyone who has done anything wrong in the past will get away with it.

But what about the future? What about the next time there is a highly contested by-election with two parties going at it hammer and tongs? You can be sure that Mr Crick and others will be going over things with a fine-tooth comb. But will those responsible for recording expenses for the parties concerned actually know what the rules are?




Friday, 26 February 2016

Christie endorses Trump

Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and one of the candidates for president who has departed the Republican race, has endorsed Donald Trump for the job.

A lot of speculation going on that Christie wants to be considered for the Vice Presidency. And let's face it, he will be out of a job in 2017 (term limited), has pretty awful job approval numbers (about 29% give or take) and tanked in the nomination race, so the only way he is going to get another role is through patronage. If not Veep, he would take a cabinet position. Heck, he would probably take anything that was offered.

He has known and worked with Trump for a few years (Trump being from just across the water in New York) and Trump's politics, when they aren't completely 'out there for the shock value', are more in tune with Christie's Northeastern values than anything else.

Trump is now massive favourite to win the nomination and Christie hates Rubio and Cruz and has little chance of re-building bridges with them. So if you are going to endorse anyone, it may as well be Trump. And he gets extra points for being one of the first elected members of the GOP to actually endorse Trump.

Unintelligible Yelling

There was another Republican Presidential debate last night. Pretty much summed up in one image:

Donald Trump needed to be taken down and two of his four remaining rivals tried to do just that. Both Ted Cruz and (especially) Marco Rubio were determined to land a blow on the billionaire. They attacked his failure to publish his tax returns, his plans for healthcare, his alleged business failings and his use of illegal immigrant labour.

But most of the debate descended into shouting which will have done no candidate much good. Only John Kasich stayed determinedly above the squabbling. But the moral high ground has very low poll numbers.

The commentators seem to have split between awarding the win to Trump and Rubio. So maybe Rubio will pick up a few points ahead of the eleven state Super Tuesday next week. But with Trump now so far ahead, what Rubio really needs is for his rivals - particularly Ted Cruz - to drop out of the race and give him a clear run against Trump.

......

Meanwhile, there is a very important election going on today.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Bernie down. Bush out. Boris for Out.

Bernie Sanders lost the Nevada democratic caucuses by just over 5%. According to Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight.com, if Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been tied nationally, he would have expected Clinton to win Nevada by about 3%. So Sanders is down on that, but not by a huge amount.

In among the overall result, it is estimated that Sanders did better among hispanic Americans than predicted but even worse among black Americans than previous estimates.

......

Sorry for the prediction that Jeb! Bush would be the last establishment Republican standing. He won just 7% of the vote in South Carolina and came in a virtual tie with John Kasich and Ben Carson. He was miles behind Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who each managed around 22% and even further behind the winner Donald Trump. Before the dust was settled, Bush called it a day.

......

When a presidential candidate gives up, they suspend their campaign rather than formally ending it. This is because if they end it they have to pay back their donors, whereas if they suspend it then (at least in theory) they can come back. Semantics, but financially very important.

......

Boris has announced that he will be joining the Leave campaign in the EU referendum. The way that the media have reacted, you can be sure that the entire focus from now until June 23rd is going to be on Boris vs Dave. Non-Tories may as well take the next four months off for all the chance they will have of any media appearances.

I also think the chances of a decent debate featuring the leaders of each side (assuming they are Boris and Dave) are now virtually non-existent. The PM will put forward a surrogate and I fear Boris will wipe the floor with them.

Boris' decision indicates that he thinks Leave can win and that he wants to play the short game when it comes to leadership of his party.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Jeb! News

In years to come, someone will design a campaigning course based around the Jeb! Bush campaign. It will be how not to run for president.

Among the modules will be:
  • You can't make a really dull candidate more exciting simply by putting an exclamation mark after his name.
  • You really should buy up all the common URLs based on your candidate's name, otherwise someone will buy the .com version and point it to the website of your main opponent. Read more here.
  • If you tweet a picture of a handgun with your name inscribed on it and the word 'America', it would probably be best if that gun wasn't made by a Belgian company.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Good news for superannuated sports fans who still think their time might come...

News from the States where a local bank manager got drafted in to be reserve goalie in an NHL ice hockey game. Not only did he get the best seat in the house, he was paid $500 and was declared man of the match (and got to keep his jersey.)

Read the full story here.


US presidential update: In which Jeb! gets a gun

President Obama says that Donald Trump won't get into the White House because it is a serious job. But the Republic voters of South Carolina still seem set to make the New York property developer their top choice. The latest batch of polls, including some taken after Saturday's debate when he appeared to have something of a meltdown, give Trump a commanding lead.

PP Politics had:

Trump 35%
Rubio 18%
Cruz 18%
Kasich 10%
Carson 7%
Bush 7%

There is still time for movement before the vote on Saturday and Jeb! Bush is going after Second Amendment voters by tweeting a picture of a personalised hand gun - something that has outraged many.


The most interesting number in the PP poll is that Marco Rubio appears to have refound his form and could take second place. Whether he beats Ted Cruz or not, he seems well ahead of the rest of the establishment candidates. If that is the result that emerges from Saturday then my 'Buy Bushes' advice might have come a cropper.

......

In other news, the President has said he will be nominating a new Supreme Court Justice and that this person will be indisputably qualified for the seat. So my guess is that he will pick a comparative moderate and he will portray any Republican senator who tries to delay confirmation as simply playing politics.

Best quote on the issue comes from Senator Elizabeth Warren (herself mentioned as a possible nominee, but hardly in the moderate mould):
Article II Section 2 of the Constitution says the President of the United States nominates justices to the Supreme Court, with the advice and consent of the Senate. I can't find a clause that says "...except when there's a year left in the term of a Democratic President."


Sunday, 14 February 2016

An excuse to re-watch the West Wing

Another Republican debate - something like the 524th of this primary campaign - but in order to liven things up a bit, the organisers brought in an audience from a WWE wrestling event. And this audience didn’t like Donald Trump one bit. To be fair, Trump decided now would be a good time to expand on all the policies he supports which are at odds with Republican mainstream. In particular, he lambasted George W Bush, blaming him (and by extension Jeb!) for the September 11th attacks, and the Iraq war. It’s worth remembering that W still has a 67% favourability rating among current republican voters and the decision to go to war is even more popular.

Trump also defended Planned Parenthood, the organisation which helps women in the USA to obtain abortions (among many other services). And he chose to raise his own policy on what is known in the USA as eminent domain - compulsory purchase here in the UK. The eminent domain debate is so esoteric and hard to fathom that in seven seasons even the West Wing never made it a story line. Although Ted Cruz did make it into an attack ad.



But apparently it matters to some Republican voters who don’t support Trump’s line. So Trump’s decision to raise the issue is either going to bore or alienate voters.

What is the outcome of all this Trumpery? He’s so far ahead in the polls in South Carolina that it is unlikely to stop him winning there. Perhaps it was just Trump being Trump?

......

The other big news is the death of the most Conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. This gives President Obama a chance to tilt the balance of the Supreme Court towards the liberal side for the first time in a while - crucial when there are likely to be cases on abortion coming up soon.

But with just under a year left in office, the question is whether Obama will be able to get his nomination through. In theory he should be ok. The longest period from nomination to confirmation is 180 days or so. But Obama will need to pick someone who can be confirmed, consult widely and vet the choice before they are put forward. If he cannot get the support of 60 or more senators (and that means at least 14 republicans) then he will be at the mercy of a filibuster as conservatives seek to hold the appointment over to the next president. So he won’t get to nominate another liberal inclined judge as he did with his first two appointments (which were to replace liberal justices in any case and so did not upset the balance of the court).

One interesting idea doing the rounds is that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency then she should appoint Obama to the court.

The West Wing did cover the issue of appointing a Supreme Court justice a couple of times, so I'm off to re-watch those episodes.


Friday, 12 February 2016

On to South Carolina for the Republican race

In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday there has been a bit of flux in the polls for the next state in the Republican contest - South Carolina. As expected, the candidate with the best outcome from NH - Ohio Governor John Kasich - has got a significant bounce from his second place there - an eight point jump, largely at the expense of the candidates who have left the contest.

The latest poll, by the Augusta Chronicle, sees Donald Trump still with a commanding lead. In second place is Ted Cruz, followed by Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Kasich. But Kasich has jumped to 9% from just 1% of voters who said they would back him in the last published poll by Marist for the Wall Street Journal and NBC. The only other candidate still in the contest, Ben Carson, trails in sixth.

The figures in full (all comparisons are with the Marist poll):

Trump 36 (no change)
Cruz 20 (no change)
Rubio 15 (+1)
Bush 11 (+2)
Kasich 9 (+8)
Carson 5 (-3)

So Donald Trump looks on course for another big win - confirming his status as the front runner - and Ted Cruz will cement his standing as the main challenger. But the race is tightening for third place between the three candidates vying for 'establishment' front runner status. My guess is that whoever ends up with third spot next Tuesday will be seen as secure in the contest for a few weeks to come.

But if Marco Rubio fails to get that third spot then he will come under huge pressure to withdraw. His campaign set out a 3-2-1 strategy a couple of weeks ago - aiming for 3rd in Iowa, 2nd in New Hampshire and a win in South Carolina. He failed by just a few thousand votes to get the second place he wanted in New Hampshire but has put a huge effort into South Carolina. More so than any of the others, if he fails to live up to expectations then he may be seen as a busted flush.

With his huge organisation and PAC money, Jeb Bush will survive anything but a cataclysmic performance in South Carolina. Kasich looks like he will do okay, but that is probably not good enough for a candidate short on money. Third place will keep him in the hunt. Fourth or lower might spell the end.

UPDATE - CBS South Carolina GOP race poll
 
Trump 42%
Cruz 20%
Rubio 15%
Kasich 9%
Bush 6%

So Trump has picked up 6 points, putting him even further ahead, almost exclusively at the expense of Jeb! Bush.

Funny but fair - how to generate political nicknames that work

As political attention spans get shorter, it becomes ever more important to be able to label a candidate or a cause with a nickname that resonates. Whether you are tagging your own side or your opponents, if you can find a reference that people will remember then you have made a major step forward.

The history of political nicknames is a pretty long one. They divide into four basic categories:
  • those which are basically affectionate endorsements of a character;
  • those which are dreamt up by newspapers
  • those created as put downs by people supposedly on your own side, and
  • those designed to label your opponents in a negative fashion.

So Charles Kennedy, before he became Leader of the Liberal Democrats, was Chat Show Charlie - thanks to his frequent appearances on TV in panel games. To those who believed politicians should be serious at every turn, the nickname was an insult. But Kennedy kept up the appearances both because he was comfortable in such situations and was making a connection with those who would never dream of watching Question Time. See also Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover.

UK newspapers, in particular the tabloids, are responsible for many of the best nicknames. Paddy Pantsdown stayed with the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats long after people had forgotten the details of his affair with a former staff member. John Prescott will always be known as Two Jags for his government car use. And referring to Norman Tebbit as the Chingford Skinhead accurately reflected his willingness to trade blows (albeit metaphorical) and I suspect was a nickname he didn’t particularly mind.

Labour seems to be a fertile breeding ground for epithets designed to denigrate one of your own. The party has given us Brains (David Miliband), St Ella (Stella Creasy), and the Streatham Obama (Chuka Umunna). None are intended to be particularly complimentary.

Some politicians will be lucky enough to be given nicknames from more than one source. So Ed Miliband was Red Ed to the right wing press and (when a Special Advisor in Downing Street) the Emissary from the Planet F*ck according to Alastair Campbell.

When it comes to generating a nickname for your opponents, it can be a tricky business. There is the danger of being seen to be over the top or, most dangerous of all, unfunny. You might even find your nickname is taken on board by the recipient. So when Labour’s Harriet Harman (herself nicknamed Harperson by opponents deriding political correctness) labelled Danny Alexander the Ginger Rodent, not only did this deflect from the far more dangerous (because it was funny) Beaker epithet, but also gave Alexander the chance to take the name as his own, to the extent that he sponsored a guest beer in a House of Commons bar named ‘The Ginger Rodent’. The joke was on Harman.

In the United States, the attacks on Barack Obama claiming he was secretly a muslim were recognised by mainstream republicans to be alienating to most voters. But whilst they did not find favour with the GOP presidential campaign, Obama was referred to in all internal campaign briefings as BHO - for Barack Hussein Obama (his full name). If the republicans could not claim that their opponent was a muslim, they could at least continually remind people that he had a muslim sounding middle name.

The run up to the EU referendum in the UK is looking like fertile ground for nicknames. Home Secretary Theresa May is seeing the revival of her Theresa Maybe label as she vacillates between support for In and Out camps. And the attempt by the Leave camp to tag their opponents as Remainians could be seen as a clever move, linking the the notion of Romanian migrants to an In vote.

In UK by-elections, the labels get somewhat more personal. The Conservative candidate in the 2006 Bromley and Chislehurst by election, Bob Neill, came close to losing a 13,342 majority (holding on by just 633 votes) after a targeted campaign by the second place Liberal Democrats who named him Three Jobs Bob in respect of his roles as a barrister, member of the GLA and health authority boss, a targeting that Neill reflected on angrily in his count speech.

In 1991, the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Hemsworth by-election, Val Megson was labelled by the media as ‘the candidate who hasn’t paid her poll tax’. True enough. But at a time when many thousands of less well off voters in the seat were also struggling to pay the charge, it might not have been the worst nickname to have - particularly when it deflected attention from a number of other alleged financial difficulties the candidate was facing. Although never in danger of winning that contest, she nevertheless leapfrogged the Conservatives to take second place.