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Polling Observatory Scottish referendum special: who is ahead, and how close is it?

By Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

This is a Scottish independence special of our regular series of posts that reports on the state of support for the parties in Westminster as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in the polls are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the state of public opinion – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In recent weeks the debate over Scottish independence has reached fever-pitch, and debate over some of the polls has been just as fierce. Most notably a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, published on September 7th, caused shock waves both North of the border and in Westminster when it showed Yesmarginally ahead, the first lead for the “yes” campaign in many months.

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Lib Dem incumbent MP retirements could cost the party four seats in 2015 before any votes are cast.

Incumbency matters in elections. This is especially true for the Liberal Democrats whose ability to hold on against the national tide is well known. With poll ratings ranging from 8 to just 12%, this tendency to cling on could be more vital than it has been at any election since 1979 if the Liberal Democrats are to avoid disaster at the next election.

Research by this author and others has suggested that Liberal Democrat MPs have gained an incumbency advantage of around 5-8%, whilst Conservatives and Labour incumbents have enjoyed advantages of around 1-2% and 1.5%-2.5% respectively. This incumbency advantage is personal to the MP rather than incumbent party and it accrues almost entirely during the member’s first term in the House of Commons.

The effect of this is that when an incumbent MP stands down, their party in that constituency underperforms, relative to the results in other seats, as the retiring MP’s personal vote is lost. But the candidate of the same party manages to win the election and stands four or five years later, the party will then be expected to outperform, as this new MP, re-standing for the first time, builds up their own following in the constituency. In literature on the US House of Representatives, this is known as the retirement slump and the sophomore surge – or ‘slurge’.

For the Liberal Democrats a retirement slump of 5-8% of the vote is bad news indeed. At the 2010 election, out of the seven seats where a Liberal Democrat MP stood down, four were lost to the Conservatives. (These losses were actually larger than the party’s net loss of three seats at the election, as net of retirement effects the party managed to gain one seat).

As of July 2014, eight Liberal Democrat MPs have already announced that they are standing down. Unlike in 2010, it looks unlikely that there is going to be any swing towards the Liberal Democrats, which means retirement-related losses can be ill afforded. On the other hand, the good news for the Lib Dems is that ten of their MPs (not counting the by -lection in Eastleigh), are incumbents fighting for re-election for the first time and so could be expected to experience the so-called sophomore surge.

Using the incumbency values previously calculated, one can make estimates of what the effects that these retirements and first term surges will be. It is important to note that Liberal Democrat incumbency could decrease at the next election if voters choose to punish individual MPs for voting for unpopular measures such as tuition fees. Equally, however, it could increase if it turns out that voters wish to punish the Liberal Democrats as a party, but not take it out on a local MP they consider to have done a good job locally. For now, let’s just assume the incumbency bonus stays the same, using the average for the last three elections. For seats in Scotland and Wales, due to lower number of cases, and the four party system, the data is calculated using the average of all elections back to 1983.

The two scatter diagrams below show the 57 incumbent Lib Dem MPs’ majorities over their nearest rival at the 2010 election. The chart on the left plots the relative safety of each of the Liberal Democrat MPs in 2010. The vertical axis shows the majority over their nearest rival, whilst the horizontal axis shows the Lib Dem share of the vote. The colour of the marker shows the party in second place; and the further towards the top-right, the safer the incumbent. The majority of the Lib Dem incumbents find themselves up against Conservatives as the second place challengers. Just two incumbents face Nationalist candidates in second place. The markers show the seats from the extremely precarious Simon Wright on 29% of the vote (a majority of under 1% over Labour), on the far left, to the ultra-safe Alastair Carmichael in Orkney and Shetland on over 60% of the vote (a majority of over 50% ahead).

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The second chart shows what the results would be with a zero swing, but with the effects of the retirement slumps and first time surges built in. The bad news for the Lib Dems is clear: right away, three seats would be lost to the Conservatives: Berwick-upon-Tweed, Mid Dorset & Poole North and Somerton & Frome, whilst Brent Central would be lost to Labour. There is also some sorting within the constituencies. The retirement of Malcolm Bruce puts his Gordon constituency at risk with reducing the vote share to less than 30% and the SNP in a close second place. However, two seats narrowly won from Labour in 2010, Norwich South and Bradford East, move into safer territory, as their MPs would be expected to receive a first time surge.

In other words, even before there is any swing against the party, they are four seats down, purely due to retirements.

The effect of having ten first term incumbents is that some of the party’s seats will become easier to defend.  The distribution is also important since seven of the ten seats are in constituencies with majorities under 5% of the vote over the nearest opposition party.  This will mean that if there is a swing against the party, the number of seats beyond those already expected to go due to retirement effects might well be lower than would otherwise have been expected.  The adjusted majority of the 20th safest seat the Lib Dems have on paper is 7.34%. Taking incumbency into account the 20th safest (including the 4 that would be lost) would be larger at 8.28%.  Therefore with a theoretical swing of approximately 4% against them, the Liberal Democrats end up having more seats once incumbency is taken into account than they would on paper.

Liberal Democrat MPs have much larger incumbency advantages than those of other parties and this is likely to have important effects at the next election. The balance of the effects improves the worse the party does: a tiny swing towards the Liberal Democrats might see them losing seats, all other things being equal, whilst a large swing against them might be partially mitigated by having so many first term incumbents.

Those looking to target the most marginal seats – political parties, academics and journalists – might well choose the wrong targets if they fail to take incumbency changes into account. Wells, for example, may appear to be an extremely attractive target for the Conservatives, but should Tessa Munt experience a sophomore surge similar to those achieved by first term incumbents in the previous three elections, the seat could be a very much tougher nut to crack. The other implication is that with eight retirements already, the party might do well to persuade as many of the rest of its incumbents to continue.

Tim Smith is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

The Chinese ‘War on Terror’

 

In Western media reports, the Western province of Xinjiang is always prefaced with the world “restive”. The region is roughly the same size as Western Europe, with a population of 22 million inhabitants, nine million of whom are members of the Turkic speaking Uighur ethnicity. Xinjiang literally translates as “new borders” and briefly achieved partial independence as a sovereign East Turkestan state between 1943-1949, before being reclaimed by CCP forces. In the subsequent decades heavily state encouraged migration of Han Chinese has made the native Uighur population a minority in their own land.

It is this tension, between the incoming Han who are seen as reaping vast economic rewards from plundering Xinjiang’s abundant resources, and the stagnating fortunes of the Uighurs themselves, that has precipitated the violence that has characterized the region for the past two decades. These issues have been compounded by long-standing impediments to religious freedom, a particularly abrasive policy for the predominately Muslim Uighur population. There has consequently been persistent underlying violence; attacks on government buildings, police stations, and the occasional murders of Han workers. There have also been much larger-scale incidents, such as the 2009 riots, the most violent in China since the Cultural Revolution, which saw hundreds dead.

This type of violence has since 9/11 been classed as terrorism by the Chinese government. Using the broadest possible definition they have securitized the issue in such a way as to lend credence to their harsh response. What is unique of the current surge in Uighur violence is that for the first time in modern Chinese history the attacks have been aimed at non-combatant targets with a purpose to spread fear and gain notoriety for a separatist cause. What this means is that for the first time China has an objective problem with terrorism.

The reasons why Uighur’s have switched tactics and have begun targeting civilians are as yet unclear. The Chinese government has been careful to not release any information on the motives of the terrorists, and no group has claimed responsibility. It is thus unclear whether the recent spate of violence at train stations and recently at a market in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, have been coordinated by a central hierarchy, or whether they are networked terrorism. It is likely that the violence has been socialized; i.e. undertaken by a dispersed set of groups feeding from the successes of others.

Amongst the many reasons put forth, the most compelling is the rise of the Chinese Internet, of micro blogs such as Weibo and Weixin, which while censored are still porous and allow information to spread quickly. In a world in which the medium is the message, terrorism only functions to the extent that the “propaganda of the deed” is allowed airtime. In years past, when the CCP was in full control of the narrative, this was not possible. Today, while the CCP can shape the flow of information it cannot dam the torrent.

How therefore should the government respond? Retrenching on freedoms should never be an option. It is a cliché that those who trade security for freedom deserve neither, but only because it holds so starkly true. The CCP is terrified of alternative concentration of power within its system, which is why it so vehemently clamps down on religious freedoms, deeply censors the Internet, and bans any non-sanctioned political organizations. The problem in Xinjiang, with a strong Islamic community that looks to Central Asia for inspiration, is that these policies are not working.  Subjugating a moderate Islamic population only serves to radicalise them, not to bring them closer to Beijing.

As the saying goes, “when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything”. The CCP cannot closet Islam and enact a War on Terror that will affect an entire community, just for the sake of a tiny minority of fringe extremists. In doing so they will not cause people to forget their God and believe in the CCP. Rather, they will merely push the more moderate Uighur community towards the extremist fringes, and they risk creating an existential threat where none existed before. Terrorist’s fight the war of the flea – it is by provoking an overreaction that they win. If China scratches hard enough it risks breaking the skin and causing an infection which could prove fatal.  

 

Barclay Bram Shoemaker is a postgraduate student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

 

 

 

I’ll go wherever you May Gove

 

Michael Gove and Theresa May are not the best of friends at the moment, according to a recent piece in The Guardian. Their falling out over the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ row about alleged extremism in Birmingham schools apparently dates back to disagreements over the (then Labour) government’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ strategy launched in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. Gove favours so-called ‘draining the swamp’ tactics with regards to Islamic extremism – tackle the pernicious ideology directly, and prevent the radicalisation process that apparently stands behind it. As such, he seemingly dislikes the Home Office approach of building community partnerships and outreach programmes, and of even funding certain controversial groups.

 

Heaven knows I’m not one to willingly offer anyone relationship guidance, but in this case the disagreement seems fundamentally misguided: they’re both wrong. In fact, they’re both wrong for very similar reasons, and the realisation of this should, at least, give them grounds for some solidarity or reconciliation. Whilst Gove presents a hard-line approach to dealing with Islamist radicalism and Theresa May’s Home Office treads a more tolerant path of building linkages with (and within) the Islamic community to undermine the radicalisation process, they both share two vital assumptions that place them at two points on a continuum, rather than in different paradigms. These two assumptions are: First, that it is the religious ideas, beliefs, or ideologies themselves that are the grounds for radicalisation, and that countering this message with better (read: more moderate) ideas is the answer. Second, that government is best placed to conduct such attacks on radical ideologies. Both assumptions are false.

 

Prevent is one element of the government’s wider CONTEST strategy for combating violent extremism of all stripes, and was launched shortly after the 7th July bombings in the UK. CONTEST contains a number of aspects aimed at detecting violent plots, capturing would-be perpetrators, emergency plans, and the like – many of which we would consider traditional counter-terrorism policies, and the kinds of things the security services no doubt ought to be doing. But, Prevent was something different. Prevent sought explicitly to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of (predominantly) young, male Muslims who might be drawn to radical versions of their faith, and from there to acts of violence. Prevent has attempted to provide a counter-message to the radical Islamist doctrine; a message more moderate, more conducive to British society. The Home Office (and others) have funded various outreach programmes, and serenaded various religious and community groups in order to find partners to develop and push this message. If only they could turn away the vulnerable, impressionable youth from these crazy doctrines and ideas; make them see sense, and provide an alternative path.

 

There is a lot of intuitive appeal in such a tactic. It seems like common sense. After all, who in their right mind would join radical religious groups? We asked the same back in the 70s. Who would join the Hare Krishnas, or be married in a football stadium along with thousands of other Moonie couples, or die in a compound in Waco? It’s tempting in such cases to think that individuals who join radical groups – and here I mean groups that stand in some tension with their surrounding societies in terms of beliefs, mores, practices, and not necessarily violent groups – must be easily led, or vulnerable in some way to economic or cerebral sway, and that education and more moderate options are the antidote. This is what I have called elsewhere the Dumb-and-Malleable thesis.

 

Decades of research have, however, not just cast doubt on the DaM thesis, they have blown it apart. If the experience of 7/7 taught us anything, it is that even the most extreme do not fit the pattern of ill-educated, poor, juvenile loners looking for spiritual reward. Simply put, most adherents of religious groups make a simple cost-benefit analysis about membership. They weigh what they will give up against their expected benefits, and then choose a product that suits the trade-off they’re willing to make. Nothing has changed since the days of the Moonies. Despite tales of brainwashing, mass conversions, and the like, the Moonies were incredibly poor recruiters. So much for brainwashing. The Prevent strategy has bought into the 1970s tactic of trying to ‘de-programme’ susceptible individuals from their crazy ideas; a tactic that didn’t work then, and won’t work now.

 

Even if it is the ideology of Islamism that attracts individuals, we should be very wary about concluding that government involvement is in any way the appropriate mechanism for combating religious radicalism. Prevent aims to support local communities, organisations, and institutions to challenge the message of extremism, and to help provide that more moderate version of Islam as the most attractive or correct. Yet, such a tactic suffers from two problems; one obvious, one not so obvious but highly pernicious. First (the obvious): government pronouncements on the ‘correct’ version of a religious faith are likely to strike even moderate adherents of that faith as disingenuous, at best, or just downright insulting. Second, when the state funds or supports a religious view it actually provides a negative incentive for those groups to be active and influence and recruit adherents.  In the absence of state funding, religious groups are reliant, like high street businesses, on the contributions of their members (customers). They need to provide a service that their customers are willing to pay for. This incentivises groups to recruit in order to survive and compete with rivals. The providers of a government-sponsored religion, however, are shielded from the pressures of competition and the desires and preferences of the pool of potential and actual members. Given a fixed remuneration, funded groups will tend to make suboptimal effort and provide a suboptimal range of services, whilst investing significant resources chasing government money and the monopolistic position it brings with it. This is the phenomenon known as ‘rent seeking’, and is familiar from other areas of government services.

 

Of course, radical niches – and violent ones – still remain. The former, at least, are an inevitable part of any religious environment. Some people just prefer their religion that way and are happy to bear the costs; and someone will always provide the goods they desire. But, their numbers will be smaller where non-interference is the norm, and state interference only increases the number.

 

Both May and Gove would do better to abandon the Prevent policy as it stands, and to concentrate efforts elsewhere, rather than to haggle over the ‘correct’ way for government to tackle religious radicalism. The battle for hearts and minds is the wrong battle, and government errs when it sets itself that task. This does not, of course, mean government should do nothing. Other aspects of counter-terrorism are more plausible avenues: detection, deterrence, capture, prosecution, and the like. Similarly, government can avail itself of other laws such as those against religious hatred, discrimination, and the like to deal with instances of outrageous behaviour by those who utter messages of hatred or incite to violence, or against those who would turn public institutions, such as schools, into places that fail to respect equality of opportunity, that violate the rights of pupils and staff, or that fail to teach the National Curriculum in an appropriate manner. Moreover, if we are looking for sources of dissatisfaction that are the drivers of violent extremism, we might look elsewhere than just at religious ideas. If Theresa May and Michael Gove want to have a proper argument, then one of them should jump off the Prevent ship, and then they’d really have something of substance to argue about.

 

 

Dr David Stevens in a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

What if … John Smith had lived?

At 8.05am on 12 May 1994 – exactly 20 years ago – John Smith died during an early morning bath in his Barbican flat. He had suffered a second, massive heart attack. Smith’s death aged only 55 robbed the Labour party and the country of a likely Prime Minister. The outpouring of public grief in the week after his death was both genuine and highly unusual from a British electorate that rarely holds its politicians in high esteem.

 

The tragic circumstances of Smith’s death inevitably make us ponder how the course of political history would have differed had he lived.

 

A Smith-led Labour party would surely have won the 1997 General Election, but probably not by the landslide margin that Tony Blair achieved.

 

Smith, who always held to the view that governments lost elections, rather than oppositions winning them, correctly sensed in his bones that the Conservatives were finished following ‘Black Wednesday’ on 16 September 1992, when John Major was forced, in effect, to devalue the pound. The Conservatives lost their long-standing lead on economic competence and never got it back.

 

Moreover, the Conservatives were bitterly divided over Europe, and had bled to death for nearly eighteen months while debating the Maastricht Treaty in the House of Commons.

 

And yet, Smith would not have won the 1997 election by as much as Tony Blair because his successor was able to tap into the aspirations of middle class voters south of the Watford Gap in a way that Smith, as a more old-fashioned Scottish Socialist, would not have done to the same extent.

 

The reason was Smith’s consistent belief that the better-off should pay proportionally more in income tax. Indeed, a Smith-led government rather than a Blair-Brown government would probably have set the top rate of income tax at 50p in the pound.  Blair, of course, categorically rejected the idea of a 50p rate, and reaped the electoral reward with Middle England.

 

Now, twenty years later, Ed Miliband seeks once more to reintroduce a higher rate of income tax. The lesson appears to be that Blair was right and Smith and Miliband are wrong: going into an election promising to increase taxes (as Smith did as Shadow Chancellor in 1992) may put off aspirant floating voters.

 

Another important effect of a narrower Smith victory in 1997 is that the Tories would have suffered a nasty defeat, but not a catastrophic one. Perhaps just over 200 Conservatives would have been spared, leaving the party with a sporting chance of winning the 2001 election. So, it is at least plausible to argue that a Smith victory in 1997 would not have destroyed the Tories for a generation in the way that Blair’s landslide did. In such circumstances Michael Portillo might have clung onto his Enfield Southgate constituency, and it is probable that in such circumstances he would have emerged as Tory leader. A Portillo-led Conservative party might have embarked on a very necessary modernisation of its policies and image at a much earlier stage, without going through three wasted leaders before they finally found a reformer in David Cameron.

 

It is also important to remember that John Smith wasn’t a saint. He had his fair share of failings. He wasn’t a modern politician in the sense of understanding that political messages need repeating over and over again if they are to hit home with an apathetic voting public. In fact, he often used to say to his advisers: ‘I given that speech once. Why do I need to do it again?’ The Scottish Advocate (barrister) in him was so used to returning case notes at the end of criminal trials in Edinburgh, that as a politician he always felt that he should move onto the next challenge.

 

Roy Hattersley used to joke that Smith never changed anything he ever believed in. This is true in the sense that he was so sure of his own progressive values, which had been passed down from on his father’s knee in the Highlands, that he didn’t see the need to articulate his message properly. Labour under Ed Miliband has the opposite problem: it is too defensive and unsure of its own values that it hasn’t yet articulated a narrative to voters about what Labour stands for.

 

Smith’s other main failing is that he tended to look down on the ‘dark arts’ of politics. Notably, Peter Mandelson – the arch proponent of ‘spin’ under both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair – was cast into the outer darkness under Smith. Since Smith’s death, we’ve all learned to love Peter, or at least the importance of having a professionally-minded person with the level of nous of Peter in charge of Labour’s political campaigning.

 

When good men die at a relatively young age, we all mourn their loss. There is an inevitable a sense of what might have been. The Labour movement is especially reverential towards its fallen leaders. (Witness the same outpouring of genuine grief when Hugh Gaitskell died in January 1963). Many socialists like to think that things would have better under a Smith-led Government, but would they? Would Labour have really governed for 13 continuous years as they did under Tony Blair? Or would the Labour party have succumbed early on to its usual failings of economic incompetence and political disunity as the Tories bounced back?

 

Smith’s death 20 years ago this week was tragic, but at least he never had to suffer the damage done to a politician’s political reputation of having to take the tough decisions of government. Instead, he rests peacefully on the holy island of Iona, alongside ancient Scottish kings, revered and largely forgotten in equal measure.

 

Mark Stuart is the biographer of John Smith. A Life (Politico’s, 2005).