Archive for August, 2018


NEW PB / Polling Matters podcast: Silly season. What conspiracy theories do Brits believe? Plus Boris makes tea and “wreath-gate”

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

On this week’s PB / Polling Matters show Keiran Pedley and Leo Barasi take a different approach to the podcast and look at public opinion on conspiracy theories using some exclusive polling from Opinium.

How many Brits think the earth is flat? Is Elvis alive? Were the mood landings faked? Is Paul dead? Is Nessie real? Our podcasters find out the answers, plus which conspiracy theory has less than half thinking it is false…you can listen to the conspiracy theory segment 20 minutes into the podcast

Also on the show, Keiran and Leo discuss how Corbyn’s latest troubles might impact the polls and what the public think about Boris Johnson’s recent comments on the Burka.

Follow this week’s podcast guests:


Comedy Central’s answer to the Vote Leave Brexit bus

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The worry for leavers is if this meme catches on

A key part in Leave’s narrow victory at the referendum was its success in portraying negative comments about leaving the EU as “Project Fear”. That was two and a quarter years ago and now the Brexit date of March 29 2019 is not that far off.

Nobody appears to know what is going to happen and many are fearful of uncertainty. The political situation at Westminster, how the EU might respond and the worries about jobs might just be the right context for the Comedy Central piece to resonate.

Describing and powerful illustrating Brexit as being like the Titanic could touch some raw nerves. It will certainly annoy the hardliners like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

These days, of course, you don’t have to rely so much on the mainstream media. Social media will get this a lot of views.

Will it make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not.

I still think that TMay’s BINO will be what happens but who knows.

Mike Smithson


PB Video Analysis: Five Things That Will Surprise You

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

We’re all routinely wrong. Mostly that’s because we’re simply don’t know any better. But increasingly it’s the result of us reading things on Facebook, Twitter, and the like that push persuasive narratives. The stories make sense, so we believe them.

But all too often, the data and stories don’t match. And when they don’t… well, our first instinct is to discard the data, looking for reasons why it’s not true.

So this video looks at five things where reality and perception are misaligned. I’m talking Chinese trade, Spanish unemployment, British food, Western fertility, and illegal immigrants from Mexico.

And I’m talking really fast…

Robert Smithson

Robert tweets as ‘@MarketWarbles’


That YouGov CON 4% lead poll looks very much out of line

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

An outlier or the a sign of the trend?

One of the problems with polling analysis is that the outliers tend to get much more publicity and attention than those that are broadly in line with everybody else. We saw that with the latest YouGov poll showeding Labour down at its lowest level since the general election four Points behind the Conservatives.

So I thought it a good idea to try to put it into context by reproducing the latest Wikipedia list of recent UK voting polls.

The two main parties are broadly neck and neck within the margin of error between them. Both Labour and the Conservatives are in the 30s which is somewhat down on where they were just three or four months ago. UKIP the greens and the Lib Dems are up the latter now getting double figures in the majority of surveys.

In terms of translating the current position in the seats Labour needs a margin of at least 2% in order to be sure of winning most seats. A big issue that could affect the outcome of the next election will come in the autumn when the boundary commission finish the report and this gets put to the House of Commons.

Will TMay push this to the vote? It gives her party an extra boost beyond its already favourable position.

Mike Smithson


Numerology. The next Conservative leader

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Let me let you in on a dirty secret.  An awful lot of lawyers are terrified of maths.  They can make words sit up and beg, but put them in front of a formula and they quiver.  When the rate of VAT rose to 20%, many lawyers were privately delighted because the calculation was so much easier to do.  Nevertheless, I have maths ahead.  You have been warned.

The Conservative party leadership race is conducted under unusual rules.  The Parliamentary party conducts an exhaustive ballot – a game of musical chairs where another seat is taken away each round – until only two candidates are left (the losers hope for party bags later).  The last two candidates then face off in a head to head with an entirely different electorate: the Conservative party membership.

In reality this election process is two different contests.  Since the final arbiters are the Conservative party members, they may or may not view things similarly to the Parliamentary Conservative party.  The Labour party experience in 2015 is instructive, where a candidate who only scrambled to make the cut with the Parliamentary party stormed to victory with the membership.

The consequence of this is that the order in which the last two candidates finish in the penultimate round doesn’t matter all that much.  Getting into the last two is all that matters.  In 2001 Iain Duncan Smith got into the last two by one vote.  He then beat Kenneth Clarke decisively among the members. A candidate doesn’t need to worry about winning the majority of his fellow MPs’ support.  He or she just needs enough Parliamentary support to be able to display his or her charms to the membership.

What this means is that any aspiring party leader wants to get into the last two against an opponent who the membership can be expected to like less.  Most candidates will be focussing on the first half of that sentence: getting into the last two.  The frontrunner might well be focussing on the second half: engineering an opponent who they can expect to beat when the members have their say. 

Let’s put a name on this problem: Boris Johnson.  The external evidence suggests that many of his fellow MPs would rather gargle glass than see him become party leader.  How many MPs need to be in this group to stop him?

The Conservative party has 316 MPs.  A candidate in the last three can guarantee making the final two by getting the support of more than a third of the MPs.  So the support of 106 MPs in the final round would get any candidate into the last two. 

In practice, fewer MPs will probably suffice unless there’s some finessing.  If the leading candidate gets the support of 150 MPs, you will make the last two with the backing of 84 MPs.  If the leading candidate gets the support of 175 MPs, you will make the last two with the backing of just 71 MPs.  Theresa May picked up the support of 200 MPs in the last round in 2016.  An equally dominant candidate would make second place achievable on just 59 MPs.

So it doesn’t matter if there are over 200 Conservative MPs who cordially loathe Boris Johnson (and there might well be).  What matters is how many either like him or see him as the best of a bad bunch if it comes to the last three.  If he gets through that test, he is going to be considered very seriously by the membership.

Can he be stopped?  Imagine for a moment that at the time of the leadership election you are the Home Secretary.  You have managed to present yourself as a fresh start in a difficult role, offering policy observations on a wide range of public topics.  You have managed to straddle the Leave/Remain divide among MPs, making you hope for some very senior endorsements and confident that you can get into the last two.  If it were down to the MPs, you might well consider yourself home and hosed.

But it isn’t.  The members will have their say and there are plenty of indications that the membership are not looking for nuance or straddling Leave/Remain divides.  They might well prefer a St George to slay Remainian dragons or, failing a knight on a white charger, a mop on a publicity-loving journalist.  The majority of Conservative MPs might have definitively decided that Boris Johnson is not fit to be leader of the Conservative party.  But if he makes the last two, they might find him foisted on them.  You need not one but two stop-Boris candidates. 

How could our putative Home Secretary avoid this personal and party disaster?  If he has enough support at his disposal, he might seek to lend some of it to a more beatable opponent.  If there were a leading Leaver who is not telegenic, widely disliked by the public and now deeply distrusted by the more intense members of the Leave community who nevertheless had a fair support base in the parliamentary party, he might feel confident that the membership would prefer him to such a candidate.

How feasible is this strategy?  Lending support to other candidates is an obviously dangerous game.  No candidate will want to risk missing out completely and so any candidate contemplating such a tactic will want to build in a margin for safety.  Also, any such tactic would almost certainly leak.  That would be unlikely to impress a membership if it thought it was being deprived by jiggery-pokery of a choice that it wanted to make.

For myself, I wouldn’t want to risk going below 130 MPs if I were in pole position, and then only if I really feared one possible opponent.  That would mean that the next candidate would need 94 MPs.  In a last three of Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, my guess is that Boris Johnson number is likely to get closer to 100 MPs’ support than 50 and that he might well make the last two whatever gaming of the system his opponents try to work out between them. 

There is another way.  To be in the last three, a candidate first needs to get through earlier rounds.  If a steadier hardline Leaver can be persuaded to stand (Andrea Leadsom maybe?), Boris Johnson might fall at an earlier hurdle if he had insufficient first preferences.  Better yet, get three or four to stand and the chances of the most dangerous opponent falling out early are much improved.  It’s not enough to be acceptable to a sufficiently large constituency of Conservative MPs, you have to be actively wanted by enough to get through the early stages. 

So those first few rounds of musical chairs play a purpose too.  It might be rather easier and more effective for a frontrunner discreetly to loan support to an unfeared rival at an early stage to get rid of that inconvenient Mr Johnson.  From the viewpoint of the Conservative establishment, there might well be more than one way to skin a cat.

Alastair Meeks


On Betfair punters make it a 20% chance that Corbyn won’t last the year

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Corbyn’s constant changes of his story have made matters worse

One betting market which we’ve never reported on has been the Betfair’s year of Corbyn’s departure. This isn’t so surprising for following his reelection by a whopping margin 2 years ago the Labour leader has looked totally secure. This of course has been helped by the overwhelming support he appears to have from the membership and there has been virtually nothing his detractors can do to shift him.

That might be changing because of the manner that he and his team have dealt with the Daily Mail revelations about what he did in the Tunis Cemetery 4 years ago.

The current explosion in news coverage on this should have come as no surprise to Corbyn and his team. This has been known about ever since he wrote in the Morning Star about his visit in 2014 when he was not Labour leader and probably never even had any thought that stage that such a position would be possible.

During the GE2017 campaign the Tory attack dog and then cabinet minister, Michael Fallon, sought to highlight what top Corbyn and done during his Tunis visit but the story did not seem to have legs. That, however, you should have been a warning to Labour’s press team and Corbyn himself that it could blow up again. For that Morning Star column made clear that he was doing more in the cemetery than just honouring those who had been killed in the Israeli air raid.

So why oh why was the first reaction from the party that the visit had been confined to the air raid victims?

What’s giving this legs this time has been the photographs from 2014 which have been available on the internet all this time. It becomes very difficult stating that you don’t think you laid a wreath when there is a picture of you doing it. So the story changed to the now ridiculed quote on the Metro front page above.

My guess is that he’ll still be there at the end of the year but the chances of him not making it have risen. I’m on at 7.4 on Betfair. This is currently 5.

Mike Smithson


Corbyn got through GE2017 without his back-story becoming an issue – 14 months on things are different

Monday, August 13th, 2018

Where the danger to Corbyn really lies

Ever since his surprise victory in the 2015 leadership contest Corbyn’s detractors have consistently argued that his backstory and some of the relationships and things he has done over the past 30 years would be a major encumbrances in an election campaign.

In spite of considerable efforts by the Tories and part of the national media somehow this didn’t resonate fourteen months ago but a direct consequence of the anti-semitism role within the party is that he is now being looked at a lot differently and that could be very dangerous.

    He’s simply not been able to shake off the antisemitism charge something that hasn’t been helped by the party’s controversial attempt to narrow the definition of what antisemitism is.

The latest Tunis story is a case in point. This has been reported on and looked into quite considerably in the past and somehow it never seemed to resonate. But that has changed.

Corbyn’s approach to this is becoming very familiar. He always admits that he has been in the presence of what can be seen as difficult situations but has always been able to convince that he personally was not directly involved.

But although anti-semitism might seem to be at the heart of his problems at the moment the underlying issue is that he is pursuing a policy on Brexit which is very much alien to large parts of Labour supporter base. Will he survive? On the face of it he’s in a strong position because the party members are said to be totally on side and it is hard to see him losing a contest.

My view is that the danger to him could come from some of the major trade union leaders and the shadow chancellor John McDonnell. If they decided that his past was becoming too much of an embarrassment for the party then you can see them putting heavy pressure on him to go.

Mike Smithson


Men of Honour?

Monday, August 13th, 2018

In Peter Hennessey’s Reflections radio series, Margaret Beckett was asked why she abandoned the Catholic faith of her childhood.  The event which crystallised her disenchantment was John Freeman asking Cardinal Heenan what one word summed up the Church.  Margaret waited, expecting something like “charity”or “love”. The Cardinal’s answer was “Authority”.

Perhaps not a surprising answer for an institution long steeped in hierarchy and an acute sense of its own magisterium.  But in light of the revelations over recent years of the criminal, un-Christian activities of too many of its priests and nuns, most recently in this story (which has received surprisingly little attention) the Cardinal’s answer was revealing about what really mattered to its leaders.

To its shame, the Church has yet to show that it really understands that the appalling conduct by some, and its cover up by others, is not, sadly, an exception but the almost inevitable consequence of it placing the maintenance of its authority above other values.

This is what is likely to happen when people in authority feel unchallenged and unchallengeable.  For an institution founded by a man who said, “Suffer little children to come unto me” it will be a long time before many will be able to look at a sentence with the words “church” and “children” without thinking of matters quite other than what Jesus intended.

When an institution becomes more concerned about its own reputation, even at the expense of covering up or condoning behaviour deeply at odds with its professed values, about preserving its brand, about protecting its leader or staff from criticism, however justified, then there seems to be nothing which cannot be justified to protect the institution’s honour, even as its conduct becomes more and more dishonourable.

The same responses to allegations of scandal have been seen in: the Anglican church (Bishop George Bell), charities; some parts of the Muslim community, understandably (on a human level) unwilling to countenance the possibility that their religion may have been used to justify atrocious crimes; the NHS (most lately, Gosport); the Labour party, parts of whom have been desperate to ignore any suggestion that their leader is anything other than perfect;

Trump and his supporters treating anything even remotely critical as “Fake News”; the Leave campaign refusing to engage with allegations about its funding; even banking where, contrary to Bob Diamond’s tin-eared and premature “The time for apologies is over” most people felt (and probably still feel) the time for apologies has yet to start.

Curious that, in an age of PR, branding and the “message”, it seems to come as a surprise to many that the only long-term effect of acting dishonourably while focusing on image, of a culture of denial and cover up is to stain an entity’s or person’s reputation, perhaps irretrievably. Worse: the longer the denial lasts, the longer it will take to recover one’s reputation.  Long after a clean-up has occurred the entity will still be dealing with the harm caused by events long before.

You would have thought that the Tory party would have understood this lesson.  Its description as the “nasty” party has a half-life almost as long as the material stored at Sellafield.  The flirtation of Johnson and Rees-Mogg with Bannon, their apparent desire to copy the Trump playbook risks tainting once again their party, whatever its short-term advantages. 

Even if they are careless of their own reputation, surely they should have a care for the party?  Labour too seems intent on repeating the same mistake.  Not just in failing to address its issues with anti-Semitism but in giving the impression that the current leader’s reputation is more important than that of the party he leads. 

Corbyn is echoing the hubris shown by May last year when her battle bus had her name prominently displayed rather than that of the party she led.  One day they will no longer be leaders but their parties will live on.  When leaders forget that they are not more important than the institution they serve, disaster is rarely far away.

In an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on 4 September 2004, shortly after the Beslan massacre, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed wrote this: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorist, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslim…….It would be easy to cure ourselves if we realise the seriousness of our sickness. Self-cure starts with self-realisation and confession. 

We should then run after our terrorist sons, in the full knowledge that they are the sour grapes of a deformed culture.”  Substitute “Catholics” and “child abusers” and “abusive priests” for “Muslims”, “terrorists” and “terrorist sons” in the above passage and this could – and should be – addressed to the church with which this header started.  There is profound pain and shame in these words but also an appeal to people’s better nature, to remember, and act on and according to, the real values which once motivated the entity’s creation.

What might the travails of religious groups teach those in public life?  The obvious one is that describing oneself as good does not makeone so.  But, ironically enough, one lesson is not to place so much emphasis on a star politician, a saviour who will lead the party to the promised land of huge majorities and electoral hegemony.  As is being clear that even the best politicians are flawed human beings, needing people and processes around them to limit their power.

But perhaps the most important one – and for voters, not just politicians – is to realise that, while  there is honour in public life, in seeking to speak up for unpopular groups or causes, in trying to make life better for the forgotten and vulnerable, in wishing to remove injustices, in seeking to improve our political arrangements, remembering the values which motivated you and acting honourably in trying to achieve your aims is the only, the best way of achieving anything worthwhile and lasting. 

There is a price to be paid for short-term victories achieved in a dishonourable manner.  Cynicism, disillusionment, worse: a perception that reprehensible means are a useful tactic.  Might we get better politicians were we to reward honourable behaviour?  Or, like Caliban, are we raging at our own face in the glass?