Not a Disaster

Given the fundamentals, this midterm was a triumph for the Democrats.

It wasn’t my preferred triumph. My preferred triumph included the Senate or at least not losing ground in the Senate and in spite of some damn fine performances (cf O’Rourke) we didn’t do that.

Republicans have insulated themselves from the majority and continued to avoid total defeat in spite of their evil policies and grotesque ineptitude at governance. This isn’t good.

On the other hand, the ACA was and remains a genuine triumph that continues to do good. So improvement is still possible.

But it grieves me that so many fellow citizens vote in support of fascism, authoritarians, and grotesquerie of all sorts.

Advertisements

We Voted

Zoe had some adventures since she was in town so had to cancel her absentee. Voting is made far too difficult in the US.

This is the fourth major election since we became dual citizens. Two were god awful (Brexit and Trump). The UK General was not the horror show I feared but didn’t solve anything.

It’d be great to wake up to a Democratic Senate as well as House but I’ll settle for a Democratic House.

Here’s to hoping for better times.

Voting Matters!

As I recover from hand surgery, here’s another blast from the Monkeyfist Past. Alas, PA got rid of the big mechanicals.

My taste for irony sometimes finds a bit of unexpected sweetness in bitter experience or a dash of salt in singularly bland events. So it was today as I voted for the first time in Maryland in our pathetic midterm elections. I could discern no Greens on my ballot, so I voted mechanically for Democrats and those with female looking names. I don’t think my vote made any difference, much less a difference I even marginally care about. [Ed note: current me grew up and is very happy voting straight Democrat.]

It’s not clear that I even got that smidgin of personal satisfaction stemming from my childhood training in “civil virtue” — Yay, I’m a good citizen! I’m part of the process! The founders did not fight and die in vain! — On the other hand, while I don’t think I would have felt guilt at failing that taught duty, I probably would have felt odd at not feeling guilt. I guess I feel a gray satisfaction in acting in conformance with my old internalized standards, even if the motive forces have shifted. This is part of aging, I suspect; I will try to look forward to the next erosion of character.

One thing that used to perk me up for voting was playing with the voting machines. In Pennsylvania, we had voting machines as nature intended: big, hulking, industrial slabs of iron with big, heavy mechanical levers and an institutional green curtain wrapping around round like a hospital privacy screen. These things were big enough — as anyone who’s fairly adventurous or who’s seen Pecker knows — to have sex in. When you voted in one of these booths you knew you were in the rust belt and that US democracy was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution.

In North Carolina I used little forms and felt pens: somewhat like the SAT, except with no ability to erase and no chance of a decent grade. We voters would fill out our ballots at little fold-out stands with mini-drapes — stands clearly meant to be folded up and stacked in the back of a station wagon or SUV. The ballots then got fed into a cooler-sized box which would slurp and flash a red LCD tally of slurps. I don’t know if scanning occured in these boxes, and I really didn’t care. Even more than the general character of North Carolina politics, this procedure made voting a bit hard to take seriously.

So now I live in Maryland, working in a Semantic Web research lab. As befits my post-industrial, information-age work, Maryland has touch-screen, computer-based voting machines. Though they, like North Carolina, have the little fold up stands; you’d think that the proximity to DC would inspire people to be a bit inspiring, what with all the monuments. The ‘puter-based machines did perk me up a little, as I still have a few habits left from my techno-toy influenced youth. The machines ran ugly Windows apps but seemed otherwise reasonable until the very last screen. It presented a scrolling window with an overview of my selection, a big blue button on the left for revisiting my choices, and a big green button smack dab underneath the down arrow on the scroll bar reading “CAST BALLOT”.

To add to the moment, there was a faint, pastel, small line of text along the top, which said something like “Be careful when scrolling down not to accidentally cast your ballot”.

Windows programming in embedded systems must be even harder than I thought if they couldn’t have switched the buttons or simply moved the button to the center of the screen where there was plenty of space, or put a confirmation screen between the review screen and the act of casting your ballot.

Americans Land in Plymouth

Dave Brockington breaks his long LGM drought with the first post of a series about the successful city council campaign he ran over the past 9 months. Poli sci prof as campaign manager! Ivory tower my ass!

Zoe and I met Dave in person during the last week of the campaign. We joined the Labour Party this year but haven’t really gotten involved. Yet!

An Electoral Cause for Jubilation

Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion. We might see legislation permitting this basic human right by the end of the year.

So many women’s lives will be improved or saved! It’s making me jump for joy. And it was a society wide endorsement of women’s rights: ~60+% for repeal on 64% turnout (which is huge for Ireland).

The anticipated legislation isn’t perfect—12 weeks on demand with a 3 day cooling off period—but not remotely terrible. I was surprised that in the UK you need two doctors to approve (which is insulting and absurd!) but on demand goes to 24 weeks.

If abortion is funded and readily available during that initial period, these limits are probably ok (as long as health of woman and fetus are legit reasons afterwards). A big thing that pushes women into later abortions is lack of availability. Earlier is easier and medically preferred as well.

All and all, a tremendous victory that put a spring in my step. Good job, Ireland!

Quick GE2017 Lessons

Some thoughts on larger lessons to be drawn from the surprise result of the UK 2017 general election.

Brexit

Brexit is, thankfully, at risk. Hard Brexit is probably off the table and the difference between most soft Brexit’s and staying in is that we’re worse off. A Norway style deal means most of the obligations (including budget contributions) but no say.

But hard Brexit is worse than all these. The best deal for the UK (indeed, a wildly unfair deal) would be to stay on the old terms. This is unlikely.

Was it a Brexit election? Did the Remainers fail to get their revenge? The LibDems campaigned on a second referendum and lost! vote share (while gaining a few seats). Does this mean Remain is dead?

We can’t quite use the LidDem failure to say Remain is dead. I’m a hard core Remainer and I voted Labour. I may still vote against Corbyn in a leadership election on Remain grounds. I’d guess that most Remainers are not single issue and a lot of Remainers are anti-Conservative/hope to avoid hard Brexit types. Clegg probably lost in spite of his excellent Remoaning, not because of it.

Furthermore, LibDems are a third party. In a two party consolidation election they are likely to do poorly. And this is roughly what we see from the Ashcroft post election survey. Consider the party shift graph:

q2-party-by-2015-vote

What’s striking is that both Labour and the Conservatives held onto around 80% of their 2015 voters. There wasn’t a lot of coming home of 2015-Conservative-voting 2010-Labour voters. UKIP collapsed mostly into the Conservatives (but they feel more like a generally spent party). LibDems held on to only 50% with a contingent hitting Labour. SNP had main party level retention, but few gains.

Compare with the party split of Referendum voters:

q2-vote-by-eu-result

Labour is the party of Remain while the Conservatives are the party of Leave. But in neither case was it dominant. It seems that Labour is underperforming (compared to the Conservatives) for Remain voters who seem to defect to the LibDems (seems!).

The depressing chart is the “feeling toward Brexit” (enthused, accepting, resistent):q6-brexit-enthusiast-1024x923

The “all” line is the problem…only 28% are resistant. The Conservatives are definitely the party of Brexit, but Labour has a mixed bag.

Events may change things, but non-Brexit is a long shot given these results.

Bernie woulda won

I don’t go so far as Scott in saying that all “x woulda won arguments are useless”. Counterfactual reasoning is tough and the more divergent the counterfactual from the real would the weaker the possible evidentiary constraints. Analogical evidence from across different elections and election systems is also weak. Combine them and you are in speculation land.

Many of these arguments (pro and con) that I’ve seen are facile: “Corbyn did better than expected so Bernie would have done better than expected and won”. “Corbyn lost so Bernie woulda lost”. None of these are great. Trump was a much better campaginer than May. Republicans were structurally favored (a bit) whereas I think the Conservatives were structurally disadvantaged.

The interesting analogical argument (and I don’t have a source ready to hand, so perhaps I’m making it up) would be of the following form:

  1. Corbyn started from a ≈20 point hole.
  2. Corbyn ran a Bernie style campaign with a Bernie style manifesto and youth enthusiasm.
  3. Corbyn made up a big chunk of that 20 point hole.
  4. So Bernie would have seen a similar gain and won a landslide.

Of course, the problem, in general, is that in polarised two party systems, each marginal gain gets more difficult and acceleratingly so as you get to the rough party parity mark (50% in the US, 40-45% in the UK). Roughly, making up large amounts of ground from a low mark can be much easier than gaining a lead from near parity.

People looking at Bernie’s approval numbers (compared to, say, Clinton’s) might take as a cautionary note how May’s absurdly (we now know) approval numbers didn’t save her. One lesson is that approval (or disapproval) may be more tricky and less sticky than we thought.

My modest conclusion remains: Being Bernie/Corbyn left on policy, rhetoric, and perception just isn’t electoral poison in either the US or the UK and we should stop thinking that it is. Trump made lefty (if lying) noises! It doesn’t mean that left policy alone means victory…as we have direct evidence thereof. It just means that arguments about policy shouldn’t be dominated by a “if left, then unelectable”.

Interpreting the 2017 UK General Election

We had yet another election that was yet again rather a surprise, though in a good way this time. The Conservative government intended and were expected to extend their majority in Parliament, perhaps by quite a bit (400 seats seemed possible). They would have 5 years with a commanding majority to execute Brexit and ride out some of the aftermath. The humiliating defeat of a Corbyn-led Labour party would reify his unelectability and might lead to his replacement with someone more electable…probably from a somewhat more center part of the party. This would, of course, depend on Corbyn stepping down and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) not having enough Corbynites to renominate them.

Well THAT didn’t happen. Instead, the Conservatives lost their majority. Labour is back up to around 2010 levels in number of seats. Third parties either lost (SNP) or had only minor gains (Liberal Democrats…big relative, small compared to their 2010 levels). May will try to form a government, but it’ll be tricky. The Conservatives are damaged. Mayesqe Brexit is damaged. (Yay to both.) We have a second own goal/absurd folly by a Conservative PM in as many years.

Excitement! In 2015, the pollsters said, “hung parliament” and we got a Conservative majority. In 2017, the pollsters (mostly) said “Conservative majority” and we got a “hung parliament”. Whatever else, this shows the dangers of mixing polling with time travel.

Corbynites claim vindication! Some Sanders supporters do too! Grouchy people say, “Well, Labour didn’t win!” The anti-Corbynites and Corbyn skeptics in the PLP are making friendly noises! Lefty folks are talking about how the party is Blairite no more!! YOUNG PEOPLE!!!

Here’s my 1.5th take. My 0.5-0.7th takes can be found on various LGM threads.

Caveats

We don’t yet know what happened. The data hasn’t been synthesized or in some cases gathered. So there’s a lot of speculation. This post is mostly speculative or “frameworky”, that is, I’ll try to articulate ways of thinking about the election rather than make specific claims about what happened.

Analyses are emerging and quickly. I started to try to sort through them but they are coming a bit too quickly and voluminously.

I’m pretty left tempered with serious commitments to harm mitigation or reduction. Thus, I am generally against heighten the contradictions strategies or attempting for (unlikely) maximal results. I therefore tend to be a two partier side taker (Labour in the UK and Democratic in the US). In the pre Bush area I experimented with third party politics but that’s largely done (esp. in the US).

I have technocratic inclinations…I care a ton about policy. I have a strong antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn because of his pro-Brexitness and esp his horrible campaigning unto sabotage for Remain. (That is likely the most consequential act he’ll ever do and it’s for a lot of harm.) That being said, the Conservatives are so much worse on everything, I will reliably support (and vote for) Labour. I formally joined the Labour Party a couple of days before the election (when I thought that the  best likely result was “only” a 30-70 seat gain for May).

I don’t have a big hate for the “Blairite” wing of the party, to the degree there is one, even though I disagree with so much of what Blair did (even things that weren’t as harmful as supporting Bush in Gulf War II). I think Brown did some great things including keeping us out of the Euro (I’m super pro-EU, but the Euro has severe problems; cf Krugman) but also a more stimulus based response to the Great Recession (both of these things are what kept Cameron’s contractionary policy from screwing us).

Final caveat: that’s a lot of caveats!

What Happened?

Short answer:

  • Labour didn’t win, but it wasn’t destroyed. The pre election bet was Labour would be hurt through destroyed. We exceeded expectations by a lot.
  • The Conservatives lost their majority but remained the largest party by seat (by a lot) and vote share (by a little). They fell short of expectations by a lot.
  • May is seriously damaged, having lost a majority in a snap election she called.
  • Third parties are on the decline even though the LibDems made some gains. Scottish Tories did very well.
  • We are not in a stable situation. A Conservative minority government with DUP support is unlikely to last 5 years.

Even with my loathing of Brexit loving Corbyn and McDonnell, I’ll take this result over a Labour crash that dislodged them (and definitely over a Labour crash that did).

What Grounded Expectations?

There are two points-in-time to consider:

  1. Pre-calling the election (i.e., before April 2017).
  2. During the election esp. close to the date.

1 is relevant because it grounded May’s decision to call the election. There were two key poll numbers that made calling an election with an expectation of strengthening her majority reasonable:

  1. Overall opinion polls which showed the conservative with around a 20 point lead and gaining.

    UK opinion polling leading up to the 2017 election. The top blue line is the Conservatives and Labour is the red line. Note the vertical line is the moment the election was called. (From Wikipedia.)

  2. Corbyn, specifically, had poor polls esp as a possible Prime Minister, wheres May had really good polls on those.

Traditionally, the opposition party has high polls between elections which narrows when the election is called. Approval of a party leader as possible Prime Minister generally is seen to have a substantial effect (or at least be predictive of) final seat total.

(Remember, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. The only way to vote against someone as PM is to vote against your local MP.)

In 2015, Corbyn started out with the worst initial approval rating of an opposition leader since such polling began (after WWII). He was at -8 net approval. Contrariwise, Ed Miliband started out in 2010 at +26. (Check out this opposition polling at midterms (whole article).)

Note, I’m not offering any explanation of why. Unfair press. PLP backstabbing (though that wouldn’t explain his initial approval per se). It wasn’t clear that it could be overcome. For example, the press wasn’t going to change absent an exogenous event.

Add in his lackluster performance in the referendum, and it wasn’t clear that Corbyn wasn’t electoral poison.

2017 showed that he wasn’t. But it was a surprise.

Why Did Expectations Get Overturned?

In US presidential elections, we have evidence that campaigns and candidates have, at most, marginal effects. Structural factors, esp. given strong polarization and party identity voting pattern, tend to dominate. I’m not sure that this is as true in the UK, but I think we can say that the UK is seeing some hardening of party idea (in the respective bases), but there’s also a lot of party migration/leader sensitivity going on (cf “traditional Labour voters” who voted Leave and speak heavily against Corbyn).

So, I don’t know, but I think looking at structural factors is a bad idea. Brexit is a big deal. The economy and recovery is a big deal. May was never elected as Prime Minister and the winning leader, Cameron, resigned after a wacky defeat. We’re into a second, eventful term.

Let’s look at the seat/vote spread from the last three elections (with some structural points):

Election Lab. Vote Lab. Seats Con. Vote Con. Seats Structural Factors
2010 29.0% 258 36.1% 306 Labour was 3 term govt and were in charge during the Great Recession
2015 30.4% 232 36.9% 330 Re-election campaign of a 1 term govt with a popular leader; Labour collapses in Scotland to the (very left) SNP because Scottish nationalism
2017 40.0% 262 42.4% 317 Snap election (3rd in 2 years) for replacement PM after popular PM suffered a epochal defeat; worst/most botched Conservative campaign in quite some time; UKIP collapses post-Brexit (and Scottish Conservatives do very well on anti-Scottish Nationalism)

If we look at the structural factors, the election looks less exciting. Indeed, if we had a generic Labour leader (with normal opposition Leader numbers in April) this could be seen as an expected or even weak result. But with a generic Labour leader with normal numbers, May would never have called this election. Some combination of polls and perhaps personal underestimation of Corbyn prompted May’s folly.

So Corbyn is Super Awesome, Right?

It’s still inconclusive.

What this election proved is that he’s not electoral poison. Given the right circumstances, he can perform at least as good as a generic Labour leader with normal numbers. Unlike lots of prior performances, almost everything after the first week or two of the campaign was very strong, from the manifesto to his personal campaigning. May refused to debate him, which may have been to his advantage (his PMQ sessions aren’t so wonderful). Hi campaign was strong while May’s was really bad.

There’s some thought that Corbyn mobilised the youth vote to turn out. If so, he didn’t do so on top of bringing back traditional Labour voters, as far as I could tell. That would have been victory, I’d guess. I’m waiting for numbers that show a substitutional effect…making up in increased youth turnout what we lose in traditional Labour voters.

Also, many MP candidates ran away from Corbyn. Or at least kept quiet.

So, it’s not conclusive. But we do know that 1) Corbyn wasn’t poison (that’s good), 2) there seems to be a chance for a hard left to centre intra-party unity, and everyone’s making the right moves (also good), and 3) Corbyn is a different figure than before the election. Success tends to breed success.

That being said, Corbyn still needs to show that he can be a functional parliamentary leader. The great PLP rebellion and leadership challenge was as much about his shambolic management and leadership as ideology and worries about electability. Some moves look good and maybe he’ll do better now. But we need to see.

So UK polls are worthless, then?

UK polls are definitely less accurate overall. Though YouGov was predicting a hung parliament. I suspect Corbyn will turn out to be an outlier.

Approval is odd. In a polarized setting it doesn’t necessarily tell us too much about voter intention. So who knows?

Conclusion

There’s lots more to say even before we get some more data. The short answer remains: Good news for Labour; very good news for Corbyn. May and the Conservative are seriously damaged. They situation is more dynamic than before the election. May screwed the pooch, however rational it may have seemed at the time. It shouldn’t have seemed a no brainer esp given that she had promise no election until the term was up. Breaking that promise “just because” adds an insane amount of uncertainty. The fact that it was structurally a bit unfavourable meant she was relying on Corbyn Numbers and Personal Contempt for Corbyn and didn’t bother to assemble a proper campaign. She knew it was coming but didn’t put one together!

May and Cameron…two of the worst Prime Ministers…ever.