Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A just war

The BBC has a web page which summarises what a just war is. It is so concise and simple that it's hard not to quote the whole thing, although it does leave quite a few questions unanswered - what is a "just cause"? What are "good intentions"?

The UK government is debating launching air strikes against Syria. To me, if this is to be considered engagement in war, I strongly suspect that it fails to meet the fifth criterion given on the BBC page:
  • There must be a reasonable chance of success
How do you measure "a reasonable chance of success"? What even are the success criteria?

Two of the other criteria are also matters for debate:
  • The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.
  • All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
 And two of the remaining three require proper articulation:
  • The war must be for a just cause.
  • The intention behind the war must be good.
Even assuming that the idea of a just cause is not ambiguous, what is the cause for which we would be fighting? And what is the intention, and can we at least agree that it is a good one?

Let's assume that these matters can all be addressed. We then have to look at the conduct of the war. Can we be confident that "innocent people and non-combatants" will not be harmed, if our chosen way of conducting it is by bombing? If not, then the war ceases to be just.

People have said, "what should we do, then?" Personally, I think the cause is just - namely, to attempt to protect the people who are there. But the means of fighting is wrong. If it is agreed that the cause is just, then it is hard to argue with the logic that says we actually ought to be fighting there. This cause is less ambiguous than seeking regime change in another sovereign state, regardless of how much you have come to dislike it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Who is a "first-time buyer"?

The government, in its spending review, is promising amongst other things:
  • £2.3bn paid directly to developers to build so-called "starter homes", aimed at first-time buyers, who will get a 20% discount on prices up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 elsewhere
 I want to talk briefly about those "first-time buyers", who will be benefiting from the government opening its purse strings. The phrase is a loaded one - in the same way that when you think of a pensioner, you think of this:

rather than this:
What you probably think of is a young couple, maybe starting a family, one in a worthy job - maybe a nurse or teacher or policeman a year or two into their career.

That's all wrong.

Take that £450,000 maximum pricetag for London. The 20% discount reduces this to £360,000. To afford to buy a property, these first time buyers need cash of around £40,000 for deposit and fees, and an income of around £90,000. So, let's assume this is a couple. Both are close to the higher tax threshold, which means they definitely aren't classroom teachers (unless several years into leadership) or policeman (unless close to inspector level) or nurses (below band 8).

A couple of things follow from this.

  • If this is where you need to be professionally to be a first time buyer, then something is wrong with the system.
  • Are these really the most needy in society, the people who the government should be directing billions of pounds to helping out? 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Expo 2015

There's still time to go.

It's in Milan, and runs till October 31. The theme is "Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life". We spent a couple of days there in July, and here are some reflections on it.

I went to my first Expo in Vancouver in 1986, travelling on my own. Then I took my family to Hannover in 2000, and then went back there for another short day later on in the summer. I've been wanting to get back to an Expo ever since. Milan seemed like a good opportunity, and it was just a matter of finding a block of days when we could get there.

It's hard to describe what it actually is. I think it has its roots in such things as the Great Exhibition. It is dominated by international pavilions - we think around 120 countries were represented there. These vary from 5x5 metre rooms with posters and (usually) a few products to buy to sophisticated walk-through multimedia attractions, with restaurants and arts venues. There are also commercial pavilions, parades and entertainments both lowbrow and highbrow. I think the name of Epcot in Disneyworld is no coincidence; it is a kind of theme-park, "Disney" version of Expo.

It has grown! In 2000, we pretty much broke the back of Expo in one day - with two children who weren't fluent walkers. We spent two pretty long days there this time, and only got around it by skipping most commercial pavilions and ones with queues, so I think a fifth had gone unseen. I suppose, given that the theme was Feeding the Planet, it is not surprising that many of the pavilions should showcase food and drink. We ate in Azerbaijan, Brazil and Chile, and bought a drink in Laos.

I was apprehensive about the heat of Milan in July, especially as Expo involves a lot of walking. As it turned out, it was me who came closest to succumbing to the heat, needing a fairly long mid-afternoon break on the second day, despite drinking plenty. The organisers have given consideration to the impact of heat. The heart of Expo is a covered boulevard around 1500 metres long. But you can't really avoid a lot of walking.

There are ethical issues raised by Expo. There were riots when it opened; it feels like an expression of globalisation. And it's very much the case that the countries and corporations present themselves as they wish to be seen. But on the other hand, there aren't many places in the world where you can get a glimpse of so many nations on their own terms at one go (North Korea, Sudan, Yemen, Laos, Ethiopia, Brunei...), and the subject matter does invite the countries to consider what they are doing about food security and sustainability, and the visitors to critically engage with these questions. I'd like to get back there and see more - failing that, the next Universal Expo is in Dubai in 2020 (though there's a smaller, specialised Expo in Astana in 2017 - just 100 countries represented ...)

Thursday, July 02, 2015

My blog list

There is no rhyme or reason to the blogs I've got links to. Just whatever catches my eye. Don't feel the need to reciprocate - you ain't gonna get much link traffic from me anyway. Conversely, you probably will have to comment somewhere on here if you'd rather I wasn't linking to you.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Management consultancy report

This is the best-value management consultancy report ever - it's free, and it only takes five minutes to read. Not only does it encapsulate the key points of every management consultancy report ever written in Part A, but in Part B there is some really useful stuff - way more useful than you will usually find in such a report. 

Part A – Generic insights that sound profound but are actually really obvious
  • Some of your employees are happy. Some of them aren't. For the most part, if you pretend to be listening to them, they will keep quiet.
  • Costs, costs, costs!
  • If you've not been making money, you need to keep the pressure on costs.
  • If you've been making money, that's good, but you need to keep the pressure on costs because the competition is getting better.
  • Errrr ….
  • That's it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I did my English Literature O-level in 1984, and almost inevitably we ended up studying George Orwell's book. It portrays a totalitarian, controlling society, echoing and developing what Orwell saw taking place in Soviet Russia at the time he wrote it (1948).

For much of the thirty years since, I've been under the influence of Postman, who in Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that Aldous Huxley's near contemporary vision of the future, Brave New World, was more characteristic of our world. In Huxley's world, nobody burns books - because nobody reads them anyway. Incidentally, I'm interested to see that Steven Spielberg is working on a TV series adaptation of Huxley's book.

However, in the last few months, the thought has been growing that I ought to read Orwell's book again. Too many things that I've noticed about our culture have echoes of Airstrip One - and, more disturbingly, the shifts in culture are ones that society has blithely accepted, not ones that have been imposed.

The idea that the government should have the right to listen into everyone's phone conversations, read everyone's emails, know everything about their web browsing behaviour, is the latest and most relevant example. This private information should simply not be the domain of government - but not only is the party of government intent on doing this (it was reported as though Theresa May was almost gleeful that the Conservatives now had an overall majority - I have to say she reminds me strongly of Dolores Umbridge ...) but there are plenty of people who think that this has to be done for the sake of security.

More than the simple Big Brother aspect, there's also the thought control side of it, and here the risk to freedom comes from the side of liberalism. If we trace the path of marriage equality, what it has involved is a newspeak-style redefinition of words, followed by the assertion that people not only have to accept this, but participate in it - a business is not permitted to exercise freedom of conscience in running how it wishes to, but may be discriminating if it refuses to do something on grounds of conscience. The law insists: "You have to publicly agree with me, no public space is permitted for dissent." The common argument voiced is: this is analogous to a company discriminating on grounds of race, and therefore wrong. To which there are several responses. The first is to ask whether this is a fair analogy (I'd argue not, the bakers were not refusing to serve them, and would have made and decorated a cake for them). The second is to ask that regardless of whether it is right, doesn't the owner of the business have the freedom to choose how to run his business? If society regards his views as offensive, they will stop buying from him.

What is most scary to me about all this is that people have simply handed over their freedoms, apparently completely unaware of what they are giving up. A business not free to run as it chooses. People prepared to allow the government to supervise all their electronic communication. Yep, that's okay.

Francis Schaeffer saw it coming, of course. He argues, in How Should We Then Live? 

History indicates that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is obviously even greater when the two main values so many people have are personal peace and affluence.
 In other words, the desire to have the feeling of getting richer and remaining secure are the two drivers - people will give up any freedoms to maintain those two things. It's pretty disturbing for those of us who thought that the end of the Soviets would see the end of the push towards the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A quick quiz

1. How many votes does it take to elect an MP? 
a) 26,000
b) 299,000
c) 4,000,000
2. What percentage of voters had their vote effectively ignored in the general election?
a) 32%
b) 49.9999%
c) 63%
3. What percentage of MPs would have been different if a PR system had been used?
a) 4%
b) 14%
c) 24%
Ultimately, it would be incorrect to say the system is undemocratic. But it is certainly not representative. Answers below ...

Saturday, May 09, 2015

What was wrong with polling methodology?

A lot of effort goes into market research, and attempting to ensure that opinion polls are balanced and representative. That being so, let's compare the BBC "Poll of Polls"(which gathers together the results of a basket of opinion polls) with the final percentages who voted:

PartyPoll of polls/%Actually polled/%Difference (nearest 0.5)/%
Labour 33 30.4 -1.5
UKIP 14 12.6 -1.5
LibDem 8 7.9 0
Green 6 3.8 -2

An interesting phenomenon was that the BBC exit poll was very, very close to being dead on - certainly it picked up the fact that the Liberals were going to be hammered, SNP were going to sweep the board in Scotland and the Conservatives would have roughly an overall majority, whereas modelling on the basis of the Poll of Polls pretty consistently came back with a hung parliament and the LibDems not doing so badly. It's hard to overstate the sense of shock and disbelief that the exit poll created, but as a reminder ... Paddy Ashdown said he'd eat his hat.

The difference between the advance opinion polls and the actual outcome was enough to totally change the shape of the parliament. So how come this big discrepancy?

It may be that people's statement of intentions in opinion polls was not reliable. Or it may be that the undecideds didn't distribute their votes evenly when it actually came to casting a vote. My hunch, however, is that there is a social phenomenon involved as well.

Let's hypothesise that there is a block of voters that the opinion polls don't reach, and that the voting intentions of this block of voters aren't congruent with those of the opinion polls. Is it possible to come up with a size for this block and a distribution of their voting intentions which, when you include these voters in with those people reached by the opinion polls, gives you a final distribution of votes that matches what was seen? The answer to that is, yes. Suppose that the opinion polls are actually only able to reach 5/8 of voters, and the other 3/8 for whatever reason are invisible to the opinion pollsters. Then supposing that the distribution of the votes in this group is completely different from that of the 5/8...

PoP Actual share in election Share of invisible votes  ... results in this share 
Conservative 34 36.9 42 37.0
Labour 33 30.4 26 30.4
LibDem 8 7.9 8 8.0
UKIP 14 12.6 10 12.5
Green 6 3.8 0 3.8
Other 5 8.4 14 8.4
100 100 100 100.0
Invisible votes/%

This is a pretty contrived option, obviously - the idea that opinion pollsters are failing to reach 60% or more of the population is pretty implausible. But the principle is solid. To get to an invisible share of 60%, I worked on the biggest proportional drop - the Poll of Polls figure of 6% for Greens and the actual vote of 3.8%. Suppose instead that change of voting intentions on the day means that of the 6% of people who said reported in the PoP that they would vote for the Greens, only 5% actually did, the other 1% switching to "Other". We now only need a block of invisible voters that is half the size:

Poll of Polls Actual share in election Share of invisible votes ... results in this share
Con 34 36.9 47 37.0
Lab 33 30.4 21 30.2
Lib 8 7.9 8 8.0
UKIP 14 12.6 8 12.6
Green 5 3.8 0 3.8
other 6 8.4 16 8.3
100 100 100 100.0
Invisible votes/%
What becomes apparent is that the smaller the group of invisible voters is, the larger the proportion of them that vote for the Conservatives. And this does have a correspondence with an aspect of the real world. The more "conservative" - self-sufficient, independent and autonomous - someone is, the less likely they are to be involved in the rest of society. Their phone number is not accessible as they use the telephone preference service. They get their groceries and so on delivered, rather than going into town to get them. The choices of the Conservative consumer are more likely to result in them being invisible to any of the means that opinion pollsters have available at their disposal to ask for their opinion. Possibly they are also more private and reticent about sharing their views as well.

My hunch is that the size of this block of "invisible votes" is actually quite a lot smaller than 30%, but that there is a growing section of the community who behaves in this way, and who opinion poll organisations are failing to reach. This is just one of the factors on top of others which resulted in the discrepancy between opinion polls and the final outcome of the election. But I think that there may be a significant methodological issue here for opinion polling.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Our reward for last night - five more years of Conservatism

I have little to add to what I wrote prior to the last round of local elections.
It goes without saying that the Liberal Democrats are going to be wiped out in this election, and probably in the general election next year. That's a depressing thought. There's a saying attributed to G.K.Chesterton: "The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." This still applies to Christianity - but it also applies to the Liberals. I'm not a Liberal; however, my values come closer to those of the Liberal party than they do of anybody else I would be likely to vote for. So here are my reasons for sticking with them.

  • They have demonstrated themselves to be competent, pragmatic and practical at all levels of government for many years. This is why I won't vote for the Greens - the one council they have run has turned into a shambles.
  • They aren't in the pocket of vested interests - either unions, businesses, or buddies they went to private school with. This is the reason that I continue not to vote for Labour or the Conservative Party.
  • They aren't systemically corrupt, hypocritical, xenophobic, misogynistic, lazy, exploitative, self-serving and opportunistic. These are a few of the reasons that I will not vote for UKIP.
What about their track record in government? They are described as having made a power grab; of getting into bed with the devil; of compromising their principles. Is this the case? I genuinely don't believe so. Let's talk about some details.
  • Tuition fees - the big one. They were forced, in coalition, to go against their manifesto promise. That was, undoubtedly bad. But how bad is the tuition fee settlement? Money Saving Expert does not present the new settlement as a disaster. Nothing is repayable until you earn over £21,000 per year (national average wage). What this means is, for the low paid, university access is, in effect free. The new student fee structure has actually improved access to higher education for the low paid. And it means that the higher paid will repay an amount which more closely corresponds to the cost of their education. Is that a bad outcome?
  • By being a part of the government, the Liberals have had the effect of seriously diluting many of the Conservative policies. Is that a bad thing?
  • They have also managed to introduce many of their own policies - for example, major increases in tax allowances. Make no mistake, these are not Conservative policies. And yet, they are government policies.
  • They managed to secure a referendum on a form of proportional representation. The fact that they lost was due to the opposing camp having the support of large groups who had most to gain from the existing system being preserved, despite it not being suitable for a system with more than two parties.
But should they have gone into the coalition at all? Well, what were the alternatives? 
  • The Conservatives could have formed a minority government. This would have given the Liberals less influence - would they have been less compromised? Arguably. Would they have had as much influence in the direction of the country? Almost definitely not. So more Conservative policies - would that have been better? I don't think so.
  • The Liberals could have formed a coalition with Labour. But Labour did not have a mandate to form a government. And furthermore, although there's a degree of revisionism now, I continue to be very disillusioned with the years of Labour government, and simply don't want them in power.
For many years, I protested at elections by submitting a spoilt ballot paper. I am still very frustrated by a political system which (on a national level) blatantly favours two large parties neither of which has the support of close to half of the population. For the first time in this government in my memory, we saw a government that represented the votes of a majority of the electorate. And although it didn't do everything right, it did actually work. I find it profoundly bleak that this one successful experiment with coalition government is likely to result in a return to a government which represents a minority of the electorate, introducing policies that have little to do with the will of the populus.
I don't think that a more Conservative government will be an improvement. I don't think locking SNP into the opposition (by hitting Labour and the Liberals in Scotland) will actually serve the interests of the Scots people.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Mock elections

Like many other schools, my children's school ran an election today, to encourage political engagement. There were candidates, votes cast and various election officials, and it's all very good and worthy.

It struck me that if we want to get young people engaged with politics, maybe what we ought to do is run a different sort of mock election. We could have a mock election in which only one party was permitted to stand. Or one where anybody representing any parties except the ruling one are arrested or beaten up. Or one where the non-ruling parties are prevented from presenting their opinions to the electorate. Or one where one of the parties forges and fills in loads of extra ballot papers. Or one where a party bribes or intimidates part of the electorate to secure their votes ....

Maybe that would help young people to see why our elections matter.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

How to get around a problem of conscience, by Douglas Adams

The problem of the five hundred and seventy-eight thousand million Lintilla clones is very simple to explain, rather harder to solve. Cloning machines have, of course, been around for a long time and have proved very useful in reproducing particularly talented or attractive or - in response to pressure from the Sirius Cybernetics marketing lobby - particularly gullible people and this was all very fine and splendid and only occasionally terribly confusing. And then one particular cloning machine got badly out of sync with itself. Asked to produce six copies of a wonderfully talented and attractive girl called “Lintilla” ... the machine went to work. Unfortunately, it malfunctioned in such a way that it got halfway through creating each new Lintilla before the previous one was actually completed. Which meant, quite simply, that it was impossible ever to turn it off - without committing murder. This problem taxed the minds, first of the cloning engineers, then of the priests, then of the letters page of ’The Sidereal Record Straigtener’, and finally of the lawyers, who experimented vainly with ways of redefining murder, re-evaluating it, and in the end, even respelling it, in the hope that no one would notice. A solution has now been found, but since it is not a particularly pleasant one, it will only be revealed if it becomes absolutely necessary. (Source)
This scenario featured in the second radio series of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", and a significant part of the drama hangs upon it, so in case this has been absent from your backstory, I won't go into it. Whilst totally tongue in cheek, it does whimsically raise the issue of how to deal with a law that can't acceptably respond to a situation in the real world. In this case, stopping the cloning machine would in effect involve murder. Having failed to wrestle with the moral implications of this, the lawyers resort to trying to redefine, re-evaluate and in the end even respell murder in an attempt to get around the problems of conscience that it raises ... before giving that approach up as a bad job.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Election prediction using my model

The BBC's "Poll of Polls" currently looks like this:

Con: 34%
Lab: 33%
UKIP: 14%
LibDem: 8%
Green: 6%
Other: 5%

I fiddled around a little with my model, and came up with the following:

Defection Con-UKIP - 0.16

Defection Lab-UKIP - 0.11

Loss of votes for Lib when not incumbent - 0.75

Loss of votes for Lib when incumbent - 0.3

Lib transfer votes to green - 0.25

Lib transfer votes to UKIP - 0.1

Lib transfer votes to Labour - 0.3

Lib transfer votes to nationalist - 0.25

BNP transfer votes to UKIP - 0.8

Lib transfer to nationalist that go to labour - 0.5
if no nationalist candidate

Swing Lab/Con/Lib-SNP - 0.35

Swing Lab/Con/Lib-PC - 0.1

Greens standing in 90% - assume all
Defection Lab-Green for new candidate - 0.06

This resulted in the following outcome in terms of percentages and seats:

Con Lab LibDem SNP PC Green BNP UKIP
Percentage of vote 33.4% 33.7% 7.7% 4.6% 1.3% 6.2% 0.4% 12.7%
No of seats obtained 274 270 21 59 7 1 0 0
There are flaws in the model, I've spotted errors in the calculations. However, the numbers are satisfyingly close to the percentages that the opinion polls are returning with. I would like to redo the model more accurately, as I said before, but this is an interesting estimate to go with for now.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Personal copies and the law

The law was recently changed to officially permit what had already been happening since time immemorial. The Copyright and Rights in Performances (Personal Copies for Private Use) Regulations 2014 says that
The making of a copy of a work, other than a computer program, by an individual does not infringe copyright in the work...
There are restrictions - it must be for the personal use of the person making the copy, who can't gain commercially from it, and they must own the original from which the copy was made. But making back-up copies and copies in different formats are all legitimate now.
This means that you can legally convert CDs to MP3 files for your own collection, or put them on iTunes or Google Play. Converting your own LPs into MP3 files or burning them to a CD is also now officially legitimate. You can make your own compilations to listen to in the car. In principle, if you wish to make an electronic version of a book to study on a computer, this is also okay.
However, the law doesn't permit the giving or receiving of mix tapes or mix CDs - a copy would be going to a person who doesn't own the original.
An interesting question
There's a section that follows the regulations, with the heading:

Remedy where restrictive measures prevent or restrict personal copying

As far as I can tell, this argues that, if a copyright owner has in place a mechanism to prevent someone from making personal copies, this person can complain to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State can then intervene if he or she decides that the person is being prevented from making a personal copy, the right to which is provided by this regulation.
This has little bearing on listening to music; most obvious forms of personal copying are achievable. However, one of the areas where I suspect this has interesting implications relates to video cassettes. Commercial video cassettes have copy protection schemes, and  VHS/DVD combination recorders won't bypass them, meaning that people have not been able to transfer the content of commercial VHS video cassettes to DVDs. The implication of these regulations seems to be that this is likely to face a legal challenge, and copyright holders of copy protected videos could, in theory, be forced by the government to provide a means whereby owners can obtain personal copies without restriction.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An election model - part 4 - some evaluation

In my previous posts, I explained about the model I had constructed from the 2010 election results, and the headline output I obtained from it with one set of input data. I say "headline" as this is very much just the summary - the actual output includes details of every seat that changed hands (both Wolverhampton South West and Worcester were Labour gains from Conservative, for example, in this run of the model), plus votes for every candidate in each of the main parties. Clearly, the closer you look at results, the less likely it is that there is a correspondence with what actually happens.

We are here very much drifting towards the realm of psychohistory - the fictional academic discipline which is the basis for Asimov's Foundation series of books. It is possible to describe the behaviour of people in large scale, and this is what opinion polling seeks to do anyway. The reason for wanting to model the outcome of the election rather than simply making reference to opinion poll percentages is that reducing election results to total votes cast for each party (which is in effect what an opinion poll invites you to do) has actually offered very little insight into the number of MPs who end up sitting in parliament - see the table at the start of my post linked to above, to compare the percentage votes per party and the number of seats obtained. It is commonly thought that this effect will be even more pronounced after the next election - at the moment, UKIP and the Greens are likely to collect over 20% of the votes and are quite likely to have less than 5 MPs (out of 632) between them. (With a bit of luck, the proportion of people who believe in PR will take another bump upwards after the next election.)

The trouble is that, as with psychohistory, the model can't deal with details and individuals - for example, a very charismatic candidate in one constituency; an issue that polarises local populations. In effect, I make the assumption that on a national level the impact of such things is likely to be small over a five year period. There will be local variations, but as far as the model is concerned, they can be ignored, as what I am trying to get out of the model is not so much a forecast for each individual constituency but an estimate of how large-scale changes in political opinion might impact the size of parties in the House of Commons.

One of the things that I find quite pleasing about the approach I have taken is that, rather than the values obtained from an opinion poll being used as inputs ("What would 34% of the electorate supporting both Labour and Conservative mean?") it actually becomes one of the outputs - in effect, a correspondence between the opinion poll results and the total votes cast per party in the model provides a validation of the assumptions that I have made about how the votes have been redistributed. The downside is that it gives a misleading sense of confidence. A reminder of the results that came out of the model run above:

PartyVotes 2015% votes 2015SeatsPoll standing 16/4/15

The problem is that, even assuming that I get close to being right about the number of votes, the number of ways of arranging those votes is indefinitely large. The opinion poll output is very low in information: the size of parties in parliament much higher. Is it possible to determine how reasonable any specific arrangement is?

Incidentally, I have no doubt that there's nothing terribly unusual about this model - political parties and media organisations almost certainly do the same thing. I was just interested in the fact that it could be put together in about an evening using nothing more than spreadsheet software.

I'd like next to spend some time refining the model. I think that a more general matrix for transfer of allegiance can be constructed, though I'm not sure how much it would add. I would like to get closer to the actual poll standings - though this is quite scary, I hammered the Lib-Dem vote even to get it down to 11%, and I still have some votes to lose from Conservative and Labour. And maybe I should be trying to look at "Other" or something, more usefully than BNP. And would it be possible to determine which constituencies actually have a Green candidate standing in them? And then, just how varied could the size of parties in the House of Commons be and still return the headline poll figure? And is the poll figure representative of people's voting intentions? All for future posts ...!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

An election model - part 3 - inputs

Having settled on a methodology for modelling the 2015 election (see last post) it was time to see whether the model would produce anything that looked interesting. First, a reminder of the 2010 "baseline":

PartyVotes 2010% votes 2010SeatsPoll standing 16/4/15

Source for 2010 data


  • This was not the same source as the one I obtained the figures for my model for.
  • Although I have excluded the Northern Ireland parties and "others", this covers 97.2% of the votes and 632 seats. Thus, this is a substantially complete and comprehensive model of the parliamentary election for Great Britain
  • Percentages for SNP and PC aren't specified, and in any case as they only relate to a small number of seats, are not meaningful. The BNP will not be a factor at a national level in this election. "Others" at that date was 4%.

My model permits me to apply changes to voting patterns across the country. I can use this to determine what proportion of the vote each party would get as a result, and what that would mean in terms of seats obtained. It suggests the political party of the MP returned

Next, what changes to votes would be applied? One change that has been anticipated pretty much since the Lib-Dems became part of the coalition with the Conservative party has been that their support would fall drastically. However, on the basis that incumbent MPs might be better regarded by their constituents, I applied a different and significantly smaller correction to those constituencies which had an incumbent Lib-Dem MP. I then assumed that these 2010 Lib-Dem voters would divide their votes between other parties - Labour, Green, UKIP and the nationalist parties.

There seems also to have been a strengthening of nationalist opinion, particularly in Scotland. So I assumed that a proportion of all Con/Lab/Lib votes would transfer to nationalist votes. This would have a most significant effect on Labour.

I assumed that a proportion of the Conservative vote would be lost to UKIP, but also that a smaller proportion of the Labour vote would be lost to them as well. I assumed that half the BNP votes would be transferred to UKIP. This was before I had realised just how much weaker BNP had become in this election. And finally, as the Green party is now standing in 90% of constituencies, I assumed that in any constituency in which they didn't have a candidate in 2010, they would pick up a percentage of Labour votes in addition to the Liberal defection.

Here, then, is what I came up with after a little fiddling around with the proportions:

Defection Con-UKIP - 0.17
Defection Lab-UKIP - 0.08
Loss of votes for Lib when not incumbent - 0.7
Loss of votes for Lib when incumbent - 0.2
Lib transfer votes to UKIP - 0.1
Lib transfer votes to Labour - 0.35
Lib transfer votes to nationalist - 0.15
BNP transfer votes to UKIP - 0.8
Lib transfer to nationalist that go to labour if no nationalist candidate - 0.5
Swing Lab/Con/Lib-SNP - 0.25
Swing Lab/Con/Lib-PC - 0.1
Greens standing in 90% - assume all. Defection Lab-Green for new candidate - 0.06

PartyVotes 2015% votes 2015SeatsPoll standing 16/4/15

I will discuss these results in the next post.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An election model - part 2 - how?

In the previous post, I talked about why I was interested in attempting to model the outcome of the election. The starting point would be a spreadsheet containing the results of the 2010 election - not just the winner of each constituency, but the number of votes cast for each candidate - at least for those candidates who represented parties at a national level. I found a suitable dataset here.

In actual fact, it was more than suitable:
The data-set includes the British constituency results with the 2005 and 2010 share of the vote for each party, the candidates for each party (sex and race), the vote swing, seat changes, and constituency census data.
So I trimmed it down so that it only had the data I needed - basically, the votes for the main candidates in 2010. More specifically, it was the votes cast for the candidates of:

  • Conservative
  • Labour
  • LibDem
  • Scottish National Party
  • Plaid Cymru
  • Green Party
  • British National Party
  • UKIP
in all of the constituencies in Great Britain - that is, England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland constituencies weren't included in the table. With the exception of BNP, these conveniently represented all the parties which took part in the televised leaders' debate in March. I also ignored the Speaker's constituency.

In using this as a model to generate results, I made further assumptions.
  • The number of votes cast in a constituency would remain the same in the 2015 election as the 2010 election - in other words, the model would aim to redistribute the votes, rather than assuming a substantial disaffection with voting, or conversely an upsurge in voting, or even a significant change in the electorate.
  • Local processes within a constituency would be irrelevant - or more accurately, would average out across the country as a whole. A constituency might have a particularly good candidate for one party, but this would be balanced by the same party having a ropy one elsewhere.
  • Changes in voting patterns would apply in the same way across the whole country. Note that this can nonetheless be fairly specific - I assumed that there would be greater disaffection with the Liberal party where they did not have an incumbent MP, for example; and changes to popular feelings about then nationalist parties (SNP, PC) would only be relevant in Scotland and Wales, where candidates were standing. I also ignored the Speaker constituency.
I then specified a number of political changes of sentiment, along with the fraction of voters for particular parties that they represented. These can be tailored by changing a coefficient (ie. a number) in the spreadsheet representing this fraction - eg. "Proportion of Conservative voters switching to UKIP", "Proportion of Lib-Dem voters switching away from Lib-Dem without incumbent MP". All these coefficients are applied to the votes from 2010, to redistribute them. Obviously, the party with the largest number of votes following this redistribution wins that seat. The number of seats obtained by each party can be added up, to determine the shape of the House of Commons after this modelled election, and additionally, the total number of votes can be added up, to determine the percentage of people voting for each party, which can then be compared with returns from opinion polls.

So my aim, then, in trying to use the model, would be to specify a set of changes to voting intentions that would result in an outcome of vote percentages that correspond to the results of opinion polls. It would then be possible to look at what impact these changes might have on the size of parties in the House of Commons. Furthermore, the set of changes that I specified should have some resemblance to what seems to be going on in the real world ....

An election model - part 1 - why?

Like any reasonably politically engaged person, I have an interest in the outcome of elections. I suspect, along with various other people, that the 2010 election may have represented a turning point in the nature of British democracy, as it seems hard to imagine how we can return to the situation of having one party with an overall majority. It's a little ironic that people having voted "no" to any introduction to proportional representation - to obviate creating "weak, coalition government" - they may now discover that it has become a feature of our first-past-the-post system.

But how can you get any idea of what the outcome might be? How can you move from the sort of percentage support figures that are published as the results of opinion polls to guessing at the shape of a future parliament? The era of the red/blue "swingometer" is long gone. It sounds like the sort of problem that would require a dedicated team of analysts, banks of computers and a round the clock operation to incorporate up-to-the-minute results from every constituency. And yet, a prediction of the actual shape of the parliament, in terms of the number of seats for each party and what that might mean in terms of the horse-trading required to build a government after the election, is far more interesting than trying to guess a relationship between percentages in opinion polls and numbers of seats.

Here is one small aspect of the complexity of the situation. Conventional wisdom says that the Lib-Dems are going to have a severe battering in the polls, and lose lots of seats. But another facet is that UKIP is likely to take votes off the Conservatives, and also Labour. Let's take a simple but imaginary seat, from the 2010 election:

Con - 35%
Lib - 30%
Lab - 20%
Green - 8%
UKIP - 7%

Conservatives have a margin of 15% over Labour, and Liberals are going to lose lots of votes. But suppose 10% of the electorate go from Liberal to Green, 5% go from Liberal to Labour, 10% go from Con to UKIP. None of those are really wild figures; none are really big red/blue political swings. But look at the impact this has on the result this time:

Con - 25%
Lib - 15%
Lab - 25%
Green - 18%
UKIP - 17%

All five of these parties end up with a significant share of the vote. The actual result I've put there is less important than the general principle that relatively small shifts have the potential to drastically alter the political landscape.

I wondered how feasible it would be to produce a model, and if feasible, whether it might generate outputs which would look anything like the real world. I was convinced that it was probably not possible to produce a model which examined what was going on in every constituency - that really would require complex analysis. But it occurred to me that if I had information from every constituency from 2010, and assumed that the same political processes applied to each one, then I could infer what effect that might have in each constituency in the 2015 election. And to verify whether my guess at the political process was reasonable, I could add up the votes for each party, and compare them with the results of current opinion polls ....