The 2017 local by-election season opens with a LAB defence in Sunderland and a CON one in Herts

January 12th, 2017

Sandhill on Sunderland caused by the resignation of the sitting Labour councillor for non attendance
Result of council at last election (2016): Labour 67, Conservatives 6, Liberal Democrat 1, Independent 1 (Labour majority of 59)
Result of ward at last election (2015): Labour 2,121 (55%), UKIP 1,003 (26%), Conservative 607 (16%), Liberal Democrat 135 (4%)
EU Referendum Result (2016): REMAIN 51,930 (39%) LEAVE 82,394 (61%) on a turnout of 65%
Candidates duly nominated: Bryan Foster (UKIP), Helmut Izaks (Green), Stephen O’Brien (Lib Dem), Gary Waller (Lab), Gavin Wilson (Con)
Weather at the close of poll: Cloudy but dry, 1°C
Estimate: Lab HOLD

Gade Valley on Three Rivers caused by the death of the sitting Conservative councillor
Result of council at last election (2016): Liberal Democrats 19, Conservative 17, Labour 3 (No Overall Control, Liberal Democrats short by 1)
Result of ward at last election (2015): Conservative 1,420 (42%), Liberal Democrat 1,249 (37%), Labour 718 (21%)
EU Referendum Result (2016): REMAIN 25,751 (49%) LEAVE 27,097 (51%) on a turnout of 79%
Candidates duly nominated: David Bennett (UKIP), Roberta Curran (Green), Alex Michaels (Lib Dem), Bruce Prochnik (Lab), Dee Ward (Con)
Weather at the close of poll: Dry, 1°C
Estimate: Lib Dem GAIN from Con

For 2017, I am including two new pieces of information. The weather at the close of polls, following discussions about winter turnouts and my estimate of the result based on the analysis I made of the local by-elections since the referendum on the EU. Please comment on whether you would like these to continue or if not, what other points of information you think might be of interest

Compiled by Harry Hayfield


Professor Anthony King, one of Britain’s leading psephologists, dies at the age of 82

January 12th, 2017

Prof Anthony King being awarded, alongside Prof Ivor Crewe, the 2014 Practical Politics Book of the Year award

Professor Anthony King, one of Britain’s leading political scientists, has died at the age of 82. He’s perhaps best known for his appearances on election results programmes and his lucid analysis. From 1983 – 2005, he was BBC TV analyst on General Election nights. Also, every month for many years, he was the main commentator on political opinion polls for The Daily Telegraph.

He wrote many books on politics and was co-editor of the Britain at the Polls series of essays and, in 2008, The British Constitution.

King was co-author with David Butler of the Nuffield College election studies for the 1964 and 1966 and wrote Britain Says Yes: the 1975 Referendum on the Common Market.

Many of his later works were co-authored with his then University of Essex colleague, Prof Ivor Crewe.

I met him once at an Oxford dinner shortly after I had founded PB in 2004 and we talked about the creation of the site. He was a great communicator with a wonderful ability to make politics relevant to audiences other than political geeks.

He’ll be missed.

Mike Smithson


Matthew Shaddick: Why the betting markets are over-rating Marine Le Pen’s chances

January 12th, 2017

Shadsy of Ladbrokes on how punters are viewing the French Presidential race

Ladbrokes are currently building up a very big liability on a Marine Le Pen victory in May’s French Presidential election. I’d be very surprised if that isn’t also the case with all of the other fixed-odds bookmakers offering odds.

I’m happy with that, as I can see some very good reasons why the betting markets are over-rating her chances.

1. It’s possible that a lot of people betting on her are not all that familiar with the electoral system. Plenty of media reports will refer to her as leading in the polls, and it’s true she is ahead in some of the first round voting intentions.But, in the second round match ups, it’s not even close; she’s typically polling 30pts behind the other likely runners. Trump and Brexit were never remotely that far behind in the run-up to those votes.

For various regulatory reasons, French voters are mostly going to find it very hard to place a bet on the election, so the people who really do know the system are minor players in this market

2. The Brexit/Trump winners are playing up their winnings.. Plenty of people have done very nicely out of betting on politics over the last couple of years. A Tory majority, the referendum and Trump all lined the pockets of the casual political punter who was prepared to ignore the “experts”, the polls and the markets. I can see that a lot of those are continuing to ride that wave with Le Pen. Maybe they will be right again, but more likely this factor will lead to her being over-bet.

3. Le Pen is the story as far as the media are concerned, certainly in the UK. No report on the election could possibly leave her out, but frequently nobody mentions Macron who, in my opinion, has a much better chance of becoming President. With some UK bookies, Macron is over twice the price.

If you want a better estimate of Le Pen’s chances, I’d look at the markets at Hypermind. Normally, evidence shows that prediction markets where cash is at stake provide better estimates but, in this case, I’m not so sure.

Hypermind is a French based “SuperForecaster” effort, which is one big plus. If you’d been following it earlier in the campaign you might be sitting on some very nice bets on Fillon, as their forecasting saw his chances improve much before the betting markets. You could have got 33/1 a couple of weeks before the Republican primary. He’s now odds-on.

Currently, Hypermind gives Le Pen a 12% chance of winning, which equates to about 7/1. Macron is showing as about a 24% chance – almost 3/1. He’s still a good bet at the bookies.

Matthew Shaddick (Shadsy) is Head of Political Odds at Ladbrokes


Trump goes on the offensive against the media – a sign of the next four years?

January 11th, 2017

At least it’s going to be interesting

With just nine days to go till his inauguration Donald Trump has held a major press conference dealing with how his business interests will operate while he’s in the White House, the Mexican wall and who’ll pay for it, and, of course. the revelations in the past 24 hours about his alleged relationship with Russia and what is said to have gone on in that hotel room.

The clip above shows how he was in a fiery aggressive mode and he was particularly scathing about the US’s security services which will soon have him as a new overall boss.

It is very hard to say where this is going to go. The Trump worry is if something more substantive comes out about the things he has emphatically denied.

No doubt the coverage be all over our TV screens for the next day or so.

Mike Smithson


Experto credite, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

January 11th, 2017

Graphic credit: Twitter

Economists have had their Michael Fish moment, so said Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England speaking at the Institute of Government last week.  Having predicted a post-Brexit referendum crash that failed to happen, he believes the profession of economics is to some degree in crisis.  But it raises a wider question: what weight should we put in the judgements of experts?  Have we had enough of experts?

This is a question of much recent discussion, thanks to Michael Gove.  But the question is not a new one.  More than 100 years ago, Winston Churchill wrote that “nothing would be more fatal than for the government of states to get in the hands of experts. Expert knowledge is limited knowledge, and the unlimited ignorance of the plain man is a safer guide than any rigorous direction of a specialised character.”

(Sir Winston, not having gone to university, is perhaps entirely typical of modern day expert-sceptics.  The recipient of his letter, HG Wells, was perhaps less typical of modern day expert-philes given that the letter was prompted by Wells’s advocacy of a very aggressive form of eugenics.)

Sir Winston’s later career offers mixed evidence.  As First Lord to the Admiralty he championed the invasion of Gallipoli, only to be let down both by the experts charged with implementing it and his own inability to see in time that an imaginative idea was not in practice going to work.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he approved the decision to go back onto the Gold Standard on the basis of the prevailing expert advice and overcoming his own non-expert reservations based on the minority expert opinion of Keynes.  This is generally viewed to have been an awful mistake.  Set against that, D Day was a triumph of expert planning.

Winston Churchill was far more anti-expert in his early views than Michael Gove, who is destined to become one of those politicians associated with something that he didn’t actually say.  Michael Gove’s full sentence was: “The people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms, saying that they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong.”  This is very different in meaning from the usually-reported truncated version.

Michael Gove, however, has done little to dispel the myth, allowing himself to be associated with the shorter and much more provocative formulation.  Either he is stoical about being traduced or he figures that the anti-expert mood has some way to run.

If the latter, he is almost certainly right.  His subordinate-cum-guru Dominic Cummings in an epic (in every sense of the word) blogpost took a lot of time to deride fake expertise.  His central proposition on the point is as follows:

“Fields dominated by real expertise are distinguished by two features: 1) there is enough informational structure in the environment such that reliable predictions are possible despite complexity and 2) there is effective feedback so learning is possible.”

Politics, he argues, does not lend itself to expertise in this sense because it doesn’t have these features, so newspaper pundits are of very doubtful value.

Economics certainly has the second feature.  That’s why Andy Haldane was so crestfallen.  Whether it has the first feature is more debatable.  Economists, including Andy Haldane, would argue that it has.  Even being charitable, one would have to accept that it is a work in progress.  Yet economists clearly have their merits as the table of predictions from the beginning of 2016 at the top of page, compiled by David Smith, Economics Editor of the Sunday Times, shows.

The newspapers made hay with Andy Haldane’s comments.  Worshippers of the cult of ignorance cavorted with glee (not realising that they will be the human sacrifices if the experts are not completely wrong).  Their suspicions about experts have all been validated and reconfirmed with a vengeance.  Andy Haldane is just the latest public figure to find out that words sometimes really matter.

Yet Andy Haldane had two serious points to make with his comparison with Michael Fish’s missed hurricane.  First, the 1987 storm showed that weather forecasting was working off inadequate models and the solution was not to abandon weather forecasting but to improve the models.  Weather forecasting today is far superior to that offered 30 years ago.  Similarly, a crisis in economic forecasting requires improvements to be made, not the abandonment of the whole idea.

And secondly, Andy Haldane was not backtracking from his general view.  While economic weather forecasting might remain erratic, he remains confident that he understands the economic climate: “This is more a question of timing than of a fundamental reassessment of the fortunes of the economy,” he said.  “There has been more resilience among consumers and in the housing market than we had expected. Has that led us to fundamentally change our view on the fortunes of the economy looking forward over the next several years? Not really”.

If he is right, the storm may well have been only delayed.  But if by that time the insights of experts have been devalued still further in a continuing uprising against expertise we will be still worse placed to weather it.

Alastair Meeks



The PB/Polling Matters Podcast: Labour’s re-brand & why 2017 won’t be all plain sailing for Mrs. May

January 11th, 2017

On the first PB/Polling Matters podcast of 2017 Keiran discusses the future of the Labour Party with the General Secretary of the Fabian Society Andrew Harrop. They discuss Corbyn’s recent rebrand as a left-wing populist and Labour’s mounting problems including Scotland, Brexit and the daunting electoral math faced in Westminster ahead of the presumed General Election in 2020 (and what to do about it). Keiran also takes us through some recent polling and explains why he thinks 2017 will be a tough year for Theresa May, regardless of the Labour Party.

Follow Keiran on twitter at @keiranpedley

You can read the Fabians report referenced in today’s podcast here 


Corbyn and his party’s biggest challenge is making headway amongst his own age group – the oldies

January 10th, 2017

With the youngsters LAB’s just fine: pity they’re less likely to vote

Watching the TV news it’s clear that Corbyn Mark 2 hasn’t quite had the impact that his team would have liked. There’s a terrible lack of consistency and no real clear plan about what the message was going to be.

A problem is that the audience for TV news bulletins tend to be the very people that Corbyn and LAB are most struggling with – the oldies. Today’s less than impactful events are just going to reinforce attitudes rather than change the narrative.

The ICM data above shows the huge age split in views of Labour with very good numbers coming from the young.

I’ve long regarded one quality as being the most important one in resonating with voters and that is the appearance of competence. Corbyn and team have yet to exude that.

Mike Smithson


Lucian Fletcher on the implications of the dramatic events in Northern Ireland politics

January 10th, 2017

The resignation of Martin McGuinness means that there is no longer any leadership in the Executive Office of Northern Ireland. The jointly-held nature of the position of First Minister/Deputy First Minister means that with Martin’s resignation, Arlene Foster has effectively been dragged kicking and screaming from office.

For those (most people, I expect) who don’t pay attention to Stormont politics as long as there’s no violence, this is all very odd. The government of Northern Ireland has effectively been brought down by a row over a minor scheme designed to encourage people to swap their boilers that burned fossil-fuels for those burning wood pellets. Seriously.

The scandal turns on the projected overspend of the scheme, which is between £400m and £600m. This stems largely from the removal of clauses that tiered and limited the amount which could be paid out when the scheme was copied from that in place in Great Britain. Why these clauses were removed is unclear and would be one of the key parts to any inquiry.

The RHI scheme was set up during Arlene Foster’s lengthy tenure at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. With much of that work outsources to Invest NI, she probably had the cushiest number in Northern Ireland. She just had to open stuff and announce new jobs. But she clearly took her eye off the ball in terms of policy detail.

Who knew what, when, is something for an inquiry to discover but in Sept 2015 someone finally realised the scheme was badly flawed and they planned to make changes to mitigate the losses. At that stage there was a huge spike in applications for the scheme ahead of any changes being made by the end of the year. Again, why this spike came and who these applicants were are questions that people in Northern Ireland want answered.

Opposition parties want a full independent public inquiry into the RHI scandal. Sinn Fein have proposed something short of this. But all parties (other than the DUP) agreed that Arlene Foster should stand aside during at least the initial stage of an inquiry as it is her actions and those of her officials that are being investigated. Sinn Fein suggested a four-week period, the UUP wanted her to resign completely.

But Arlene Foster sees herself as the Margaret Thatcher of Northern Ireland. She was not for turning. In an extraordinary interview with Sky News she played Arlene buzzword bingo, describing awful events in her childhood, her ‘strong’ leadership of Unionism and, to much incredulity, made claims of misogyny of those attacking her.

The fact that she seemed to turn her, ahem, fire on Sinn Fein suggested to me that she was laying the ground for an election campaign. They were still, at that point, in a joint Executive but I couldn’t really see how Sinn Fein would be able to fail to respond strongly to her while keeping their electorate and, in particular, their membership on side. And so it has come to pass.

Gerry Adams issued a warning at the weekend that Sinn Fein would not allow the situation to go on much longer and it appears Arlene Foster failed to respond. Having dug her trench, it was unlikely she’d climb out of it. The resignation of McGuinness means there is a seven-day period during which Sinn Fein can appoint a Deputy First Minister and keep the show on the road. However, his resignation letter is fairly clear in that they will not be doing that.

In which case, James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, will have to call for an Assembly election. And here’s where it gets really messy. The Assembly is being reduced at the next election, which isn’t really due until 2020, by one seat per Westminster constituency. Under present boundaries, this means a reduction from 108 to 90. Theorectically, everyone is going to lose. To be honest, that prospect is almost certainly the reason parties have taken a month or so to get into election mode.

Martin McGuinness’ statement yesterday made it very clear that Sinn Fein will only return to the Executive on its own terms. I believe that neither the DUP nor UUP will be able to meet those terms fully. The SDLP should make clear to the electorate that a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for a long period of Stormont stasis. The UUP will seek to make the Unionist election (elections in NI are largely twin event) about DUP incompetence and arrogance. But even in the unlikely event that the Unionist electorate returns to the UUP and puts Mike Nesbitt into the position of leading that bloc, I struggle to see how he could form an Executive Office with anyone other than Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader. Eastwood, in turn, surely couldn’t go into office with Arlene Foster.

For completeness, Alliance leader Naomi Long has made a very favourable impression over the previous weeks and I would expect Alliance to hold all of their existing seats. This will by nature of a smaller Assembly make them a stronger partner for either Executive or Opposition in any reconvened Assembly. But the Assembly will not stand or fall on Alliance votes. That’s their inherent problem.

Having read all this, you can probably see the conclusion I am going to make is that an election is highly unlikely to resolve the issue. If (as is highly likely) the DUP and Sinn Fein are sent back to Stormont as the largest parties, the whole circular arguments will begin again and all we will have done is lost a few weeks’ worth more money in all these overly-lucrative boilers. A five-week delay, for instance, would be another £3million of public money in the air. Indeed, the only people an election suits is those who want to delay the inquiry which is needed into RHI. And we won’t really know who those people are until we get the inquiry.

For betting purposes, and I know that this is the point of this site, I cannot see how Arlene Foster becomes First Minister again. I can’t find any markets at the moment but I will be happy to provide any insights I can once they appear, as I’m sure they will once an election comes.

Lucian Fletcher

Lucian Fletcher is a long standing contributor to PB who lives in Northern Ireland.