Going nuclear

May 13th, 2018

When Peter the Great died in 1725, the Russian empire covered an extent unimagined when he came to power.  From his deathbed, he commanded his successors to follow his example.  His will provided:

“My successors will make [Russia] a great sea destined to fertilise impoverished Europe, and if my descendants know how to direct the waters, her waves will break through any opposing banks.  It is just for these reasons that I leave the following instructions, and I recommend them to the attention and constant observation of my descendants… IX To approach as near as possible to Constantinople and India.  Whoever governs there will be the true sovereign of the world.  Consequently excite continual wars, not only in Turkey, but in Persia… And in the decadence of Persia, penetrate as far as the Persian Gulf.”

For most of the period since, it was Persia’s fate to be contended over by great powers, a proxy for other battles, picked over for its spoils.  It was a pawn in the nineteenth century great game between Britain and Russia.  By 1907 it was formally partitioned into zones of influence, an arrangement that was superseded only after the Communists took over in Moscow. 

Russia (and then the USSR) invaded Persia/Iran four times in the twentieth century.  On the fourth occasion, in 1941, the USSR and Britain acted in concert occupying Iran as one of the anti-German manoeuvres in the Second World War, the USSR holding the north and the British taking the oilfields in the southwest (a revival of those zones of influence).  The Russians needed some intense pressure from the USA before they were winkled out of northwest Iran after the end of the Second World War: the USA then stepped into the void.  In 1953, the CIA sponsored a coup after the Iranian government nationalised British oil interests, and replaced it with a friendlier one.

In 1979, Iran had a revolution in more than one way.  A secular shah was replaced with an Islamic republic and Iran, for so long a pawn, decisively broke with all foreign would-be patrons, becoming a regional power.  This was made possible by the vastly increased oil revenues Iran benefited from in the wake of the oil shock of the early 1970s.

This unhappy history explains why Iran is now so determined to secure its independence of action.   Its nuclear programme was a part of that.  Ironically, given subsequent events, Iran’s nuclear programme was started with American help in the 1950s and 1960s.

Which brings onto the US interest in Iran.  This historically has twofold: first, the oil itself.  And secondly, the stability of the wider region, which historically has been very important to the US partly because of oil, partly, historically, because it could help check Russian ambitions in the region and partly because of Israel.

So when Iran seemed to be upping its nuclear ambitions in the last decade, the USA (along with much of the rest of international opinion) became seriously worried.  On the one hand, it did not want another nuclear power, especially one as hostile and so heavily driven by an ideology with a worrying emphasis on the merits of the afterlife. 

On the other hand, it had an interest in keeping oil supplies as undisrupted as possible (and oil prices as low as possible), which the sanctions regime against Iran worked strongly against.  This meant that it was keen to reach a deal with Iran, even an imperfect deal.  And so, eventually, it did: after a decade of tightening sanctions, the P5+1 (the permanent security council members and Germany) reached a deal with Iran in 2015 over its nuclear programme.

This deal was always controversial with the US right and was never ratified in the USA.  Donald Trump made it a campaign pledge that he was going to walk away from the deal, a pledge he made good on last week.

Was this Donald Trump being crazy, belligerent and short-sighted?  Belligerent, yes.  But not particularly crazy or short-sighted, at least not from a US perspective.  Look at the chart at the top of this piece.  When UN sanctions began in 2006, the USA was just about at its peak of net petroleum imports.  Any rises in oil prices or disruption to supplies really hurt it.

Now, the position is transformed.  The USA is heading fast for needing no net petroleum imports.  Moreover, this is in part a function of high oil prices: US producers need high oil prices to be economic.  This trend has accelerated sharply even since 2015.

So the USA simply does not have the same pressing need to reach an imperfect deal.  Its strategic interest in the Middle East is becoming, for the while at least, much less about oil and much more about supporting Israel. 

The calculation has changed.  The USA can therefore seek a much more favourable deal or consider using force to curb Iran’s ambitions, if it thinks the existing deal is inadequate, without particular fear of economic blowback.  That is what it has done.

The same considerations do not apply to the EU.  It is a heavy net petroleum importer (Britain is now a net importer too).  Rises in prices or disruption to supply are far more worrying for European countries.  So it is unsurprising to see EU countries, including Britain, working hard to salvage the deal.  Everyone is acting in accordance with their rational interests.

So this development is bad news for the EU, including Britain.  It is also bad news for the Middle East.  If the USA no longer has a particular interest in maintaining the peace on a compromise basis and those in power in the USA are no longer compromisers by temperament, we can expect to see more conflict.  Brace yourselves.

Alastair Meeks


Brexit exit date punters get nervous following the Electoral Commission ruling on Leave campaign funding

May 12th, 2018

Mar 29 ’19 still favourite but not as strong as it was

Yesterday’s ruling about Vote EU’s referendum expenses has inevitably led to those betting that the March 29th date will be achieved reviewing their positions. In recent weeks the market had been moving strongly towards it happening on time and it is still odds on.

But as the Betdata chart, based on actual Betfair trades shows there has been movement. It simply adds to the uncertainty and allows some of the Remain camp to shout “foul”.

Still being considered by the Commission is the spending of the official Vote Leave organisation and if that goes against then you could expect the betting to change even more

This is not a market I have played. I still think the March 29th date will be met but there is a lot of politics going on with anti-Brexiteers looking for any opening to impede Britain’s exit. Seeking to discredit the result because of campaign finance failures leading to the issue being referred to the police is to them manna from heaven.

Mike Smithson


Be wary of YouGov’s finding that Britain’s voting intentions is classless

May 12th, 2018

It isn’t new, and it isn’t really backed up by other pollsters or elections

Class is supposed to define British politics. Perhaps that explains the flurry of surprise yesterday when YouGov’s latest poll gave the Conservatives a 3% lead among the C2DE group (43-40-7 among the main parties), and showed Labour doing worse with them than with the ABC1s (43-37-11).

We shouldn’t be overly surprised. For one thing, the sub-groups aren’t statistically balanced and the figures are close enough that it’s quite possible that Labour is actually ahead with the C2DEs; for another, YouGov consistently produce results more favourable to the Tories than, say Survation – which reported a 1-point overall Con lead yesterday, against YouGov’s 5-point margin; but also, and most importantly, that finding is nothing particularly new.

Before going there, a big word of caution: not all pollsters are finding the same thing. ICM’s last poll gave Labour a lead of about 5% with the C2DE group, despite an overall 3-point Con lead. Survation, though they don’t use the standard social group definitions, found a more traditional – and marked – split among income groups, and a very even set of results when voters are grouped by educational level. Mori, which does use the usual groups, reported even more distinct findings: a 6% Con lead among the middle-class and no less than a 17% lead among C2DEs (though the weighting changed a 4-point Labour lead into a 1% Con one overall, so we should perhaps apply a blue shift to those subsamples too). The same is true of ComRes. YouGov seems to be very much the exception.

All the same, while the company might be the exception, its poll isn’t. Go back before the last general election, to when the Tories were racking up big double-digit leads and again, they were clearly ahead with both middle and working-class voters. To take one example, the first poll YouGov conducted in 2017, which produced overall figures of 39-26 to Con (plus UKIP 14, LD 10), had an ABC1 split of 41-26 and a C2DE one of 37-27. Those findings are not unusual for the time.

This is where the assertion, made in the light of YouGov’s poll yesterday (and without reference to other pollsters), that “Corbyn is losing the working class” is a bit of a fallacy. He has already, within three years, lost it, regained it, and lost part of it again. Even if we accept YouGov’s subsamples, the 37% share they give Labour among the working class is still well above what it was in the first four months of last year.

In fact, whether or not the gap between how the classes vote has closed (or even reversed), what is clear is that it has been reducing for a long time. This tweet helpfully summarises Labour’s lead among the working class over the last 40 years. What’s notable is how that lead has shrunk when measured against the overall figures.

In 1992, Labour did 18% better with the working class than they did overall. Blair’s landslide changed nothing in that respect: it was still 18% in 1997. Come 2005 and it had dropped to 12%, in 2010 it was just 8%, in 2015 it was back up to 13% but in 2017 it fell right down to 4%.

We can explain the spike in 2015 as a consequence of working-class Tory voters defecting to UKIP; a phenomenon which lasted just one election. So while Labour certainly has a problem in retaining its traditional vote under Corbyn, that problem started well before him. (It is of course true that the reverse also holds: Labour might be losing working-class votes but it’s picking up middle-class ones to compensate).

In theory, this should mean that safe seats on both sides should be becoming less so, and indeed there is evidence of that, both from the general election and this recent round of local elections. We should, however, beware of being blinded by the exceptions. For all that Kensington or Canterbury were spectacular in the 2017 general election, or that London and the South East saw a relatively poor Tory performance while the Midlands and North generally saw a strong one for a party eight years in office, the great majority of seats did not change hands.

My gut feeling is that YouGov are out on this and the other pollsters are closer to being right (which also has to raise a question about YouGov’s top-line figures). However, while the trend it’s picking up on might be exaggerated, it is still there. That raises very interesting questions about all the parties’ strategies for the next election. It also implies that with both middle- and working-class voters leaving their traditional political homes, firewall seats won’t be anything like as safe as they once were – on all sides.

David Herdson


The pollster that got GE2017 most right now has CON in the lead

May 11th, 2018

Ever since the general election when Survation came closest to getting the final outcome right there has been a special regard for Survation amongst Labour supporters.

In the past 11 months since the general election it has continued to be the one firm which has broadly had the best figures for Corbyn’s party with leads of upto 7%.

Whenever I have Tweeted polls from other firms in recent months many Labour supporting followers have responded to say they will wait for Survation to see what it is showing.

There’s little doubt that the last few months have been more troubling for the Labour Party than perhaps anyone imagined. The anti-semitism row, which started a 2012 Facebook comment by Corbyn about a mural being publicised, continues to linger and has undoubtedly damaged the leadership. That was confirmed last week with the failure to take Barnet which became a CON gain instead of a LAB one.

Yet the government party, the Conservatives, are totally divided over Europe as the countdown to Brexit gets closer every day. The general theory is that divided parties get punished by voters . Well if that is the case we are not seeing that effect in the blue poll position.

Next month’s by-election in Lewisham East could prove to be interesting and Labour’s candidate choice could be critical. The LDs who came second there pre-Coalition, are choosing their candidate this weekend.

Mike Smithson


‘Peak Corbyn’ is a myth providing false reassurance to his opponents

May 11th, 2018

Last week’s local elections were underwhelming for Labour, writes Keiran Pedley but that does not mean Labour is heading for defeat.

As the dust settles on the 2018 local elections, it is clear that Labour did not hit the heights that they hoped to hit. A very strong showing in London offset somewhat by a frustrating lack of progress for the party in the rest of the country. The projected national vote share produced by the BBC suggested a tie, with a share of 35% each for Labour and the Conservatives (Rallings and Thrasher on the other hand gave the Tories a one point lead). A full recap of the results can be found on last weekend’s Polling Matters podcast at the end of this post.

Several leading elections analysts have shown why this result does not bode well for Labour’s hopes of winning the next General Election when it comes (see Matt Singh here and Steve Fisher here). The basic premise being that opposition parties producing the sort of performances that Labour produced last week do not go on to form governments.

History provides an ominous warning for Corbyn’s Labour party then. So how worried should they be?

Well, on the face of it, ‘very worried’ and there are signs that people within Labour are too. An internal Labour Party report, leaked to The Times today read “Overall these results are slightly worse than 2014 and nowhere near the level that oppositions have recorded before winning general elections.” The report goes on to say that, “Labour will need to improve significantly in the non-metropolitan marginals to have any realistic chance of a majority in a future election”. Public polling provides little solace for Labour either. A YouGov poll published on Thursday has the Tories 5 points ahead with May leading Corbyn on who would make the best PM by 14 points.

So all in all, not a lot of good news around for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. These numbers have prompted some commentators to ask the question of whether we have reached ‘Peak Corbyn’? The idea presumably being that 2017 represented something of a high watermark for the Labour Party under his leadership that is now receding. In short, denying the Tories a majority in 2017 is as far as it goes for Corbyn. He will never be PM.

This may yet to turn out to be true but I think people are getting ahead of themselves by asking this question now. We have a long way to go. I wonder whether a lot of journalists and politicians that never thought Corbyn could win, or cannot reconcile themselves with the prospect, are lulling themselves into a false sense of security based on only a partial analysis of the current political situation. Put simply, the numbers look bad for Labour now but there are reasons to believe they might change in the future.

The problem with the ‘peak Corbyn’ analysis is it places far too much weight on past precedent and nowhere near enough on the political context of the time. The Tories may cheer last week’s local election results and their lead in the polls but the future may not be so rosy. There are still some fundamental facts of political life that they have to contend with. Firstly, they are a minority government negotiating Brexit – the biggest issue of our generation – with no consensus on what they want to achieve and no idea if the E.U. will give it to them.

Secondly, the next General Election will likely be fought by someone other than Theresa May and it is not remotely clear how a Tory leadership contest plays out or if the eventual winner will be any more effective at holding the party together or more popular in the country than May. Finally, politics in Scotland continues to look volatile and it is not certain that Ruth Davidson can sustain her heroics north of the border that kept the Tories in power in 2017 – though of course she might. The point is that the Tories face several major political hurdles this parliament, all in the context that the smallest of swings against them next time will leave them unable to form a government.

None of this necessarily means that Labour will win next time either. Indeed, a Labour majority government looks as far away as ever and the current numbers should be a cause for concern in the party. Nevertheless, we saw how volatile public opinion can be less than a year ago when Corbyn’s Labour dragged a hung parliament out of the jaws of a landslide defeat. The political conditions of our time are unpredictable. For the Tories to get through Brexit negotiations and a leadership change in one piece will be some achievement. If they do not manage it, then public opinion could look very different in a couple of years to how it looks now. Therefore, the idea that we have reached ‘Peak Corbyn’ feels very premature with a fair amount of wishful thinking thrown in for good measure.

Keiran Pedley

Listen to the PB / Polling Matters local elections recap below.


If Bercow does stand down then Lindsay Hoyle, surely, will be his successor

May 10th, 2018

He’s a 66% chance on Betfair

With John Bercow attending the funeral of ex-speaker, Michael Martin, it was down to deputy, Lindsay Hoyle to handle yesterday’s PMQs and the above clip shows what a positive reception he got.

While part of this is down to how the incumbent is viewed by some MPs a lot of it was recognition that Hoyle is very good at handling the business of the House – something that’s recognised by all parties. Many observed that PMQs seem to run more smoothly.

Whether there will be a vacancy I don’t know. Bercow is certainly under some pressure but whether it will lead to an early exit time will tell.

In many ways Bercow has been a good speaker always ready to take the side of the House against the executive. Given the Tories are in power that of itself is enough to earn some opposition from the blue team.

Betfair and other bookies have a market up on his successor. At the moment I would not look beyond Hoyle.

Mike Smithson


New YouGov finds Corbyn’s best PM ratings amongst the young holding firm but overall a post GE2017 low point

May 10th, 2018

This is the first published polling since last week’s local and the findings also include the latest voting intention numbers from the firm – CON 43%+1, LAB 38=, LD 9+2.

My view is that non-voting intention numbers are probably a better way of measuring the political climate simply because those sampled are being asked for an opinion not a prediction how how they might or might not act in four years time.

The young-old split has dominated polling for the past couple of years and notice how the YouGov young segments go up to the age of 49.

Mike Smithson


Heidi Alexander: Could she be the LAB mayoral nominee in 2020 so Sadiq can return to the Commons to challenge Corbyn?

May 10th, 2018

There’s a fair bit of speculation doing the rounds about why ex-Lewisham E MP and former shadow health secretary, Heidi Alexander has quit her seat for a job with Sadiq Khan at City Hall.

One theory that has been put to me is that she is being lined up as Labour’s candidate for the next London Mayoral election in 2020. This would free up Sadiq and allow him to seek a return to the Commons. Alexander has never been a Corbyn fan while Khan has had many differences with his leader.

In London Khan has retained positive leader ratings for two years and is rated by London voters far more favourably than Corbyn is nationally.

On the face of it this sounds plausible which does not mean that it is right. The question for punters is could there be a betting opportunity at longish odds?

Two markets standout – the 2020 London Mayoral election and Corbyn’s successor. In the former I have not seen Alexander listed as an option from any bookie though that could change. Another bet could be to lay (bet that he won’t do it) Sadiq Khan on the Betfair exchange. He’s currently rated as the 67% favourite.

For next LAB leader you can get 25 to 30/1 on Betfair.

Mike Smithson