Two weeks to go – and the choice is still ours

It’s just over two weeks until the nation goes to polls, and my prediction from the very start of this blog has been borne out – this will be the most uncertain and unpredictable election for a generation, most probably since the snap election of February 1974. I will admit however that two things have not gone as I expected – I did not expect the SNP to so comprehensively out-manoeuvre Labour in Scotland, and I expected that there would be a small swing from Labour to Conservative, and a larger swing from UKIP to Conservative. Instead of which, the major feature of this campaign is that the polls have largely stood still.

We should take one great encouragement at the very start – in such an unpredictable environment, the choice is truly ours. Very small shifts in the vote in individual seats all across Britain can have a profound impact on final seat numbers in the House of Commons, and in determining whether we have a hung Parliament (as all the pollsters are predicting) and whether it will be David Cameron or Ed Miliband who is able to pull together enough votes to ensure they can form a government – the BBC have actually got a very interesting game that aptly illustrates just how much the type of coalitions possible can vary according to very small changes in the numbers of seats held by a party.

I now want to contest one of the great assumptions doing the rounds at the moment – that a hung parliament is a certainty. I grant you that is what the opinion polls are currently telling us, but as one pollster in particular continually observes, opinion polls are snapshots of current intentions, not predictions of future outcomes! There are lots of uncertain variables – not least of which is that the election is decided constituency by constituency, and not in terms of the overall national vote. That could mean that the SNP for example, have a massive swing to them overall in Scotland, but finish second in many seats due to tactical voting by Unionists for the strongest non-SNP party. There is no accounting for how well the Liberal Democrats have ‘dug in’ to seats they already hold, or where their vote will go in the seats that they do not. And it could mean that the Conservatives (or, though I think it unlikely, Labour) do enough in 326 seats to win those seats, even if they suffer elsewhere.

I also think it is highly probable that this election will be very similar to the 1992 election on two fronts. Firstly, the conduct of the left-leaning minority parties (ie. the SNP, Greens, and Plaid Cymru) participating in the Leaders’ Debates very much had the tone of parties that assumed the election was going to fall into their lap, and that they could turn up to coalition negotiations with an extensive shopping list. There was more than a strong resemblance to Labour’s celebratory rally in the 1992 election when Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet were presented as though certain they would be the next government. The British electorate take a dim view of such self glorification, and may think twice about their desire to hand the balance of power to these parties.

Secondly, the tone by these parties (and to a certain extent the media) has been thoroughly anti-Conservative. I will be the first to admit the Conservatives have not got everything right, and I can think of several policy areas where I wish the Government had said more. It was nothing short of ridiculous however to see the left-leaning party leaders lining up to take pot-shots on ‘austerity’ while not making a coherent argument for a credible alternative. My distinct impression is that the prospect of a hung parliament was generating a certain triumphalism by the left, which one imagines makes it more difficult for moderate voters to admit that they approve of the government’s record on the economy. But the government, while not eliminating the deficit completely as I would wish, has performed an economy recovery that has been described as ‘textbook; by the IMF. Unemployment has decreased, real wages are rising, and the deficit is being reduced, with a concrete plan to eliminate it completely – and the left leaning parties have not set out a credible alternative. Similar to 1992, I think a lot of voters will not find it easy to admit publicly that they approve of the Conservative plan with so much public anti-Tory sentiment – but in the calm space of the voting booth they will not be prepared to trust any party that won’t take the public finances seriously.

I also want to challenge the assumption that somehow voting for a left-leaning alliance of parties will somehow ensure our economic recovery will be ‘fairer.’ It is not fair to borrow for our lavish lifestyle today and leave the cost to our children, grand-children – or potentially even our great-grandchildren. It is not fair to raise taxes so high that wealth is driven away from the UK so that the burden of taxation falls on those not able to so easily move their wealth, and who also can least afford to carry that burden. And it is certainly not fair to inflict five years of economic mismanagement on the nation by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, who still refuse to admit that they spent and borrowed too much while they were in government under Gordon Brown.

Which is why I make an unashamed appeal for how you should use your choice.  It is clear that either David Cameron or Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister – no other party will command a large enough number of seats. I am not only voting Conservative – I am actively campaigning in Oxford for our local candidates to be elected, because they are the only party with a credible and coherent plan to ensure the economic recovery continues, and to eliminate our spending deficit – and the only way to get that security is by voting for your local Conservative candidate.


Striving for the NHS we want, not the NHS we have

At the age of 11 I was exactly one sticker away from completing Merlin’s 1997 Premier League sticker album – a very important accolade for any self respecting primary school boy back then! In the past two seasons I had been forced in shame to order the last stickers from Merlin – this time I was determined to finish the album myself, but try what may, I could not find a chap called Alf Inge Haaland who played for Nottingham Forest.

Then news went around the playground – Dee Chivers had the sticker! Two minutes later Alfie Haaland was mine, but I had lost something in the region of 20 stickers to get him, including several of the rarer ‘shiny’ club bages. Two weeks beforehand I probably would have traded him one for one. The reason for the sudden escalation in value is evident – it was obvious that I wanted the sticker badly enough that I would pay whatever it took to get my grubby pre-teenage mitts on it, and so Dee had absolutely no incentive to give me a fair price for it (The fact that 18 years on I still remember his name shows how much the injustice rankles!) I was so wedded to one outcome, it never occured to me that it would be less expensive to simply order the sticker by post, or not have revealed the need in the first place!

This anecdote, aside of revealing a rather sorry side to my character, neatly demonstrates a problem in our present politics – attaching such significance to an issue that you lose all sight of the cost, and potentially end up worse off as a result. Since the discovery of ‘issue-based politics’ by social scientists, there is one issue that without fail has a high valence with the elecorate – the National Heath Service. Any politician who dares impugne the honour of NHS or (heaven forbid) express the desire to abolish it, can profitably google ‘P45’ to discover what the electorate would be serving them up in May. Every politician upon becoming leader of their party falls head over heels to proclaim their love for the NHS, and their credentials as the best person to protect a national institution so cherished, that we boasted about it to the world during the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012. So emotionally charged is it, that the allegation Ed Miliband wanted to ‘weaponise’ the NHS made headline news.

The reason for this high regard is evident – we are all impacted by matters of health. Most of us are born in NHS hospitals; by extension, many of us will become parents for the first time in NHS hospitals.The NHS is the theatre for some incredibly emotional moments in life: relief when a diagnosis is positive, and shock when the prognosis bodes ill. Tears of joy when an operation succeeds, and tears of grief when you are told the worst. And over all of this – deep thankfulness, because most of the time the NHS does succeed in treating the sick, and all of us appreciate the difference it makes. With such emotional attachment, it is no wonder even those of us blessed with generally good health are righteously indignant that anyone should call the NHS into question.

And yet I am not sure that such devotion actually leads to good outcomes for our health service. When politicians get into a bidding war to top each other on health spending, nobody stops to ask themselves what incentives there are for wider healthcare providers to reduce their costs – they know that the NHS budget is never going to be reduced. Nor am I persuaded that politicians of any political creed decrying that their opponents will ‘wreck the health service’ produces the kind of thoughtful democratic accountability we ought to have for such a large publicly funded institution – the unfortunate example of the Staffordshire Health Trust is perhaps the most prominent recent example where this has gone badly wrong. The problem is, playing the NHS card is very sound politics –  you connect the remark your opponent has made about the NHS and connect it directly to the voters’ emotive experience of the NHS – “What evil types these political opponents are, asking awful questions about our cherished national treasure!”

I was once asked what my stance as a Tory was on the health service – the assumption being that I’d be pro-privatisation! My response was: “The maximum number of people obtaining the greatest amount of care at a sustainable cost.” Yes, it is a politician’s answer insomuch as it does not spell out precise policies – but I think it captures what all of us mean when we refer to the NHS. We don’t want to mortgage our children’s futures for today’s health costs, but we want to ensure the money we spend today goes as far as possible to improve the health of as many people as possible. For me that actually means one very practical policy – don’t let any politician conflate their point of view to make it synonymous with the NHS, and potentially hold us back from improvements that could benefit the nation. They would, as with my schoolboy example, be so doggedly devoted to an ideal that they have failed to grasp whether doing so actually benefits the nation or not. And where it is done purely for politican gain, that person should hang their head in shame for putting politics before service to the nation.

A general rule of aspiration is that we want to leave a world that is better than the one we lived in to the next generation. It because of this hope that my focus is on the NHS we want to have, not the NHS we’ve currently got.

Do you trust the opinion polls?

Yesterday there was something of a minor earthquake in political circles when the figures were released for the latest opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft – which showed a quite incredible six point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. To date most polls had showed either a narrow Labour lead, or the two parties running neck-and-neck, so the figures were a quite literal bolt from the blue. But as Mike Smithson on Political Betting pointed out, the figures were also highly confusing, as an opinion poll by Populus showed a five point lead for Labour. They were conducted at the same time – so surely they can’t both be right, can they?

Opinion polls have taken a bit of stick over the years – not least since they predicted a Labour win in 1992 and completely missed the evidence of a fourth Conservative victory. But as Lord Ashcroft himself points out – polls are snapshots, not predictions, and they are only intended to give an indication of the general view of the public. So for those readers who don’t follow the polls, I wanted to share a few remarks to help you untangle this often heavily misused political device.

First of all, let’s clear up the Margin of Error. Politicians often bandy this about to dismiss polls that they disagree with, but it misses the point. The margin of error stresses accuracy – you only need to sample 1,000 respondents (provided the sample is balanced) to get a result that is accurate to within 3% either way – which isn’t bad at all (for those who wonder, you need a sample size more than double to reduce the accuracy to within 2%, and therefore pollsters decide it isn’t worth the expense). Taking the Ashcroft poll for example – the figures show the Tories on 34% and Labour on 28% – but it may well be both parties on 31%, or indeed the Tories on 37% and Labour on 25%. The margin of error simply means that it is not a perfectly accurate measure – but you can’t simply dismiss the figures out of hand.

Secondly, polls are snapshots of opinions. The question respondents are usually ask is “How would you vote if there were a General Election tomorrow?” – but there isn’t a general election tomorrow! If you look at historic polling (I recommend the UK Polling Report website for this – it is very user friendly!) you will observe that incumbent governments do very badly while in government but then recover as the election draws nearer. That is because voters don’t often like what governments do, but when forced to choose at the ballot box, prefer the government to the opposition!

All of these mean that the most important thing is not a specific poll but the overall trend. Politicians are very prone to take an isolated poll and shout about it from the rooftops when it suits them, and then turn around and dismiss another poll when the figures do not suit them. The truth is that polls can be useful for indicating whether a party’s message is sticking or having any impact – if their numbers are generally going up for example, even if the poll is not accurately guessing what percentage they will get in the end, the poll is demonstrating the party is becoming more popular. Based on that, the party that should have the most to worry about is Labour. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there is a swing heading back towards the government, and the Labour lead in the polls has been falling month on month. Phrased another way – their lead is nowhere near big enough for a party looking to win an election in less than five months.

A final word of warning is this – polls predict a national share of the vote, but elections are decided locally at each constituency, and do not account for variations in vote change – while the Lib Dem vote is likely to collapse from 23% to 10% (or worse) their vote isn’t necessarily going to collapse in every constituency – especially where they have sitting MPs. You should not be surprised if there are huge swings to Labour in some of their heartlands for example, but much smaller swings in the marginal seats. So we have to treat opinion polls with care, yes – but they can also be a useful barometer into just how well a party is resonating with the electorate. And at the moment, the barometer is not showing the kind of support that makes me think we will wake up to a Labour majority in May.

The Christian heritage of voting

2015 has been marked red in my diary for the last four years with one clear message: ELECTION YEAR.

With the election only 124 days away, I am opening this crucial year with a feature on one of the very first articles I read for my course on Voting Theory, which acknowledged a rather surprising contributor to development of electoral democracy – the adoption by the medieval Church of the conclave to elect a new Pope. Now, with my reformed Protestant theology I was not expecting that I would be very warm towards the article, but the explanation of how the Conclave came about was a fascinating insight into how the historic church used a form of democracy to achieve unity – while of course acknowledging that when the church was to divide in the reformation, one of the issues at stake was Papal Primacy! If one sets aside the religious aspect however, the problem faced by the medieval church was rather similar to what all modern democracies face – making a choice.

If you will forgive a brief history lesson – the Conclave was introduced in the first instance because the Church had to reconcile the fact (notionally at least) that God had appointed one person to the role of Pope, but that the Cardinals held sincerely different beliefs whom that man should be. A democratic vote was judged the means of acknowledging there was a division, and achieving a united result. In actual fact, the subsequent development of the distinct features of the Conclave vote, namely the necessity of a two-thirds majority, a secret ballot, and the Cardinals being locked away until a decision is reached, were all intended to achieve a final result that would be clear, achieved quickly, and would not be challenged afterwards.

The church may have been authoritarian in nature, and the era described many centuries previous to us, but there are some good lessons to learn from the choice by the medieval church to adopt a voting mechanism to choose their leader:

1. Division is to be expected
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united as to bicker.” There is a worrying trend in modern politics to criticise opponents for daring to have a contrarian view – which in my view is both an attack of freedom of expression, and also what Sir Humphrey would refer to in Yes Prime Minister as ‘playing the man, not the ball.’ Let’s not be disheartened that division occurs, but rather be glad that we can enjoy earnest debate, reassured that every government will be challenged and held accountable for the decisions it has taken, and embrace the opportunity each of us has to assess the personal performance of our local MPs.

2. Elections are meant to ultimately unite
The intention of the Papal Conclave was (and still is) to unite the church in support of the man elected as the Pope, regardless of whom the man might be. The General Election of May 2015 will be exactly the same – it will tell us whom the country has chosen to entrust to the task of governance for the next five years, whether they should govern alone or in some form of coalition; and potentially even whom the principal opposition should be, or with whom the largest party should form a coalition. At the moment we can only guess, but by the morning of Friday 8th May 2015 we will know.

3. The choice is ours
With that in mind, we should remember what a great privilege it is that we have the opportunity to choose who represents us in Parliament, and therefore to determine indirectly whom will form the next government. The obvious flaw of conclave was the limitation of the franchise to certain Cardinals – whereas the vast majority of us enjoy the right to vote for our MP. We’re going to be divided in our sincerely held beliefs, but we’re also going to achieve a clear outcome by the end.

I would not be so arrogant as to attribute sole success of democracy to this part of the Church’s history – but when we ask what Christians have done for us, we can certainly learn from this aspect of their history, and take to heart the lessons for today.