Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Öpik History Wars

For many one of the biggest shock results in last year's general election was Conservative Glyn Davies's gain of Montgomeryshire from Lembit Öpik. But for some it wasn't a surprise at all and had been predicted for years.

Now that is standing to be his party's candidate for Mayor of London, there has been a lot of talk about why he lost so dramatically - the biggest anti-Lib Dem swing in a held seat, the most distant Conservative gain and the Lib Dems losing a seat that was supposedly "Liberal forever (so long as they remember to campaign)". And there's some fierce fighting over recent political history.

Suddenly even more appropriate...It's become such an issue that even Öpik's nomination manifesto (warning that's a very BIG file) feels the need to address it, saying the following:

Lembit lost his seat in 2010
The failure of the party to retain both the parliamentary and Welsh Assembly seat in 2010 and 2011 in Montgomeryshire is linked to the drunken altercation between Assembly Member Mick Bates and a paramedic which led to his prosecution and to him leaving the party. Many were aware of Lembit's celebrity profile and assumed that this was the cause of the loss. Regrettably the party did worse in 2011 even indicating a common factor for both poor results.

This just does not convince. And it's unsurprising that it's provoked blog post responses from both the Lib Dem Welsh Assembly Member Peter Black (Lembit Öpik and the rewriting of history) and Conservative MP Glyn Davies (Lembit - take it on the chin like a man.).

I've commented myself on the matter - see for instance my comments at Dave Hill's London Blog: London Lib Dems will choose their mayoral candidate from field of four for my trading the statistics - and so for now I'll just confine myself to showing that the defeat was being predicted long before Mick Bates hit the paramedic, even if not everyone picked up on it.

First from a Usenet post I wrote two years ago:

Montgomeryshire isn't quite the "Liberal forever (except when they're too busy planning centenary celebrations to actually campaign to retain it)" bastion of legend but in several ways is very much a personalist constituency. Now sure I have my personal biases but much of what I've heard from there (including from my sister, who until recently lived and worked in Machynlleth at the very west of the seat and is somewhat to the left of me), Lembit Opik's popularity is shrinking faster than an asteroid burning up in the atmosphere because of his clowning around, high profile personal life and lack of any serious political track record.

By contrast the Conservative candidate is Glyn Davies is widely respected across the political spectrum - I've heard many Plaid members openly say a lot of good things about him (and even that they'd vote for him) - and if anything has increased his appeal by losing his list seat in the last Assembly elections only because the Conservatives gained two constituencies. Whilst the Assembly list results aren't a 100% guide to what will happen in a Westminster election, it's notable the Conservatives topped the poll there.

Furthermore with the Liberal Democrats under pressure in the neighbouring seats of Brecon & Radnorshire and Ceredigion they simply can't target all their energy in Mid & West Wales on Montgomeryshire even if they wanted to - and from comments by Lib Dem activists I get the feeling that many would not want to anyway and are certainly not going to haul themselves great distances to allow Lembit to carry on as Mr Celebrity.
(Message from discussion Opinion poll in Wales on uk.politics.electoral at Jun 16 2009, 11:08 am

Next there's UK Polling Report's specific discussion on Montgomeryshire. Many amateur (and not so amateur) psephologists comment there and unrealistic predictions are easily shot down. People were predicting the Lib Dems were in Öpik-specific difficulties as early as February 2007, with the earliest outright prediction of a loss in July 2008.

Finally there's the Vote UK discussion thread on Montgomeryshire. The earliest outright defeat prediction was in September 2007.

One other point has emerged - Öpik neither wrote his own manifesto nor checked it before it was submitted - see his comments in WalesOnline: Peter Black launches furious attack on 'self-obsessive' Lib Dem colleague Lembit Opik. If he's not even in control of his own campaign, how could he ever hope to be in control of London?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Know thine enemy "partners" - the Liberal Democrat MPs

I've recently been doing some statistics compilation about the electoral record of the Liberal Democrat MPs to help some others answer various questions about how much the traditional image of the party is still true. The findings are surprising and I thought I'd share them here.

Of the current 57 Lib Dem MPs, only one has had a break in their Commons service. Mike Hancock was first elected in a 1984 by-election, lost in 1987 & again in 1992, but returned in 1997. (For all these statistics bar continuous ones I use Hancock's 1984 election.)

Just five first entered Parliament at a by-election - and only two since the merger, one in a Lib Dem held seat.

The traditional image of Lib Dem MPs gaining their seat after multiple attempts now covers only the minority of the parliamentary party. No less than thirty-two of the fifty-seven MPs won their seat on their first attempt there. Eighteen had not stood for Parliament at all before, eleven had stood once before in other seats and just three had had two previous unsuccessful candidacies.

Out of the twenty-five who first won their seat after multiple attempts, fifteen had only stood in that seat. Eighteen won their seat on the second attempt, four on the third attempt, two on the fourth attempt and one on the fifth attempt.

On average then a Lib Dem MP has won their seat after 1.63 attempts in that seat and 2.19 attempts overall.

Only fifteen MPs were first elected in an already Lib Dem held seat; the other forty-two gained theirs from other parties. The Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers disproportionately represent the "inheritees", with Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Michael Moore all having inherited their seats. (So too did David Laws, whom Moore net replaced.)

The inheritees are very much at the newer end of the parliamentary party. The longest serving was first elected in 1997, the rest were all in the last decade - 6 in 2001, 5 in 2005 (including one in a by-election), 3 in 2010.

Lib Dem MPs have on average been in Parliament for nearly eleven years. The mid point for election falls at the end of the 2001 intake.

The intakes by general election break down as follows: 1983 - 2, 1987 - 1, 1992 - 2, 1997 - 13, 2001 - 8, 2005 - 17, 2010 - 10. The five by-election entrances were in 1973, 1983, 1984, 2003 & 2005. Only one MP remains from the pre-Alliance era, and only five more from the Alliance days (with two having come from the SDP).

A slightly different picture emerges when looking at how long the party has held each seat since. Lib Dems seats have on average been held continuously for fourteen and a half years. The mid point is within the cluster gained in 1997. The longest continuously held seat is Orkney & Shetland (since 1950).

The breakdowns by general election are as follows: 1950 - 1, 1955-1979 - none, 1983 - 4 (2 Lib, 2 SDP, only one of whom was the sitting MP), 1987 - 2 (both Lib), 1992 - 4, 1997 - 18, 2001 - 3, 2005 - 13, 2010 - 7. Five seats were gained in by-elections in 1965, 1973, 1983, 1994 & 2003.

Three MPs have had parliamentary careers elsewhere - John Thurso was in the Lords for four years before the hereditaries were expelled and both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne served in the European Parliament for 5 & 6 years respectively.

What all this shows is that overall the Lib Dems are slowly moving out of their traditional niche of local campaigners wining after repeat attempts or at by-elections, and towards a more standard party model and breed of politicians; with in particular MPs who make their name in the party nationally before selection and who can get picked in seats different to their locality on merits other than their local record. But it is a slow process, with many of the older style of Lib Dems still in the parliamentary party, and one that may be reversed if the Lib Dems' see a major collapse at the next general election. Nevertheless the party is changing and the old ways of reacting to it are becoming obsolete.

It's also striking how Nick Clegg is very much at the extreme in this shift. He is the first Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader to have entered the Commons in an inherited seat since Clement Davies (leader 1945-1956). He is also one of very few of his party's MPs to have arrived in the Commons with a established parliamentary record. Clegg's election to the European Parliament was entirely due to the party list system whilst he inherited a strong majority and he has not contested any other constituency meaning that at no stage in his career to date has he really had a tough electoral fight amongst the voters at large. This lack of a background in the traditional Lib Dem frontline of street level politics may also explain the growing sense of detachment between the Lib Dem leader and his party; a detachment that could grow to be the Coalition's biggest vulnerability.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The end of the News of the World and the beginning of...?

You turn away from the news for a while and the big one comes. The News of the World is to close, with this Sunday's edition as the last ever. Given all the ghastly revelations this week and the backlash, especially from advertisers, this move was probably inevitable.

I don't actually buy the News of the World (or indeed any Sunday paper) so I couldn't exactly boycott it myself. I won't miss it much. However I do feel sorry for innocent staff on the paper who have lost their jobs. Many journalists on other sections knew little to nothing about the phone hacking, to say nothing of other staff working on or for the paper - cleaners, layout arrangers, photographers, website managers and so forth. I hope that they will not suffer too greatly for others' sins.

But what does this all mean for the newspaper market? British newspapers are traditionally quite stable and the News of the World had been running since 1843, notably pre-dating the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855 and the paper duty in 1861 which led to a boom in cheap papers aimed at the working classes. Of the other national Sunday papers only The Observer (est. 1791) and the Sunday Times (est. 1822) are older, but few are that young - the youngest of the major Sunday papers is the Independent on Sunday and that's twenty-one this year. It's a market where a large portion of the readership is hereditary and the sudden disappearance of a paper with such a huge circulation could shake things up seriously.

Of course a new Sunday newspaper could be launched - a lot of people are predicting "The Sun on Sunday" - but just how much of the readership would successfully transfer to a new title? An alternative possibility could be if The Sun is bold enough to challenge the traditional split in newspapers and become a seven day paper. After all the Saturday editions of papers have grown into distinct entities without becoming separate titles, so why should the Sunday papers be different? But I suspect the market isn't yet ready for that even though this is the best opportunity in years.

And what will be the political impact? The News of the World, like the other News International titles, endorsed Labour in the Blair years but switched to the Conservatives in 2009. I've long felt the formal endorsements by newspapers in the last couple of weeks of the election don't actually swing many votes but rather the line their coverage takes in the preceding months and years is the key factor.

If the simple consequence of all this is that the News of the World is merely replaced by another such Sunday paper that picks up virtually all of its readership and maintains the same position on the political spectrum then very little will have changed. But if things are more shaken up then there could be some surprising consequences to come.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The longest pretender

Yesterday Otto von Habsburg died. He was the son and heir of the last Emperor of Austria and had been the pretender to the thrones of Austria and Hungary (and Croatia and Bohemia) since 1922. Previously he had been the heir since 1916,

It seems incredible that until yesterday a First World War heir was still alive. A reminder both that people are living longer and longer and that the war was more recently than many think.

His long tenure as pretender to the throne is, I think, the record. Pretenders "reigning" longer than actual monarchs is not so unusual - the Jacobite Old Pretender had a reign in pretence for over sixty-four years, even longer then Queen Victoria's reign.

Of course actually being on the throne for a long time is a very different thing from being the person who "should" be on the throne, if that throne is even still around.


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