Recent Posts:

Truth In Elections || The Strange Maths of Mandates || How political is Eurovision voting really? || Political Chickens ||

The Strange Maths of Mandates

Jun 25, 2012

Election 2010 Day 9 - Nick Clegg & Vince Cable Launch the 2010 Liberal Democrat ManifestoIn the Lords report on the Lords Reform Bill there's some interesting discussion of if a referendum is required or desirable before reform can proceed.

Alongside the standard argument that major constitutional change should require a referendum is the idea that as all three major parties entered into the last election with a manifesto commitment to Lords reform, no party has a mandate to implement Lords reform. This is on the face of it, puzzling - if a policy is so popular that all parties feel it advantageous to put in their manifesto how can whatever government results not have a mandate as a result? Here's what was said (or summarized at the end if you want to skip):

  1. ...The Government's view is that:

"because all three parties were in favour of this, we did not think that a referendum was justified. When the House of Lords Constitution Committee looked at referendums, it said that it thought that abolition of the House of Lords would be a subject on which you would automatically want to have a referendum, but it did not say that changing the composition of the House of Lords would be such a proposition. So, no, we do not think that a referendum is necessary, and that is why we did not propose it in our draft Bill or White Paper".[438]

373. Despite the constitutional importance of the subject, the lack of a clear party division on the issue means that any opposition to the proposed reform cannot readily be tested at any future election by voting for one or other candidates seeking election to the House of Commons. If the Government has its way, the draft Bill will have become an Act before the next general election, at which the first tranche of elected Members of a reformed House of Lords would be seeking election. There is thus no opportunity for the electorate to provide a mandate for these proposals.[439]

374. Mr Christopher Hartigan, who described himself as "a member of the public with an interest in constitutional matters and Lords Reform in particular" put it:

The fact that elections were mentioned in the three manifestoes does not mean it is the settled view of a party, it is not, or the majority of members of a party agree with it or that the electorate want it either. It can be said that the fact that it was in three manifestos makes it clear that the people had no choice. It should also be remembered all three parties LOST the election. ... If the government believe this is the will of the people then it should proceed on a free vote of their representatives or hold a constitutional referendum before such important changes are made.

377. Professor Vernon Bogdanor told us in oral evidence that a referendum would be the right way forward because all three parties proposed an elected Lords in their election manifestos in 2010, so there was no way for the voter to indicate his or her opinion: "I think it would be right to hold a referendum on this issue, which I think is a greater change than the alternative vote system that has been rejected".

The substantial argument here is that politically popular is not the same as popularly popular, the policy could in fact be a stitch-up among the political class to deny choice on a certain issue while the truly popular policy goes unexpressed. The point about mandates is that they result from the public having made a set of choices of Party A over Party B, if there was no differentiation, there was no choice to be made, thus no mandate.

This makes the maths of mandates somewhat counter-intuitive. If we imagine rival parties A and B and the mandate for policy X, we end up with this strange table:

Party A Party B Mandate
X Y A has mandate for X
Y Y No party has mandate for X
X X No party has mandate for X

If no party is in support, there is no mandate for X, if every party is in support, there is no mandate for X. If we take the idea of mandates seriously for a minute this means if the other side steals your good idea, then suddenly they've taken away your mandate to implement it. Does that mean that policy X should be put to a referendum to gain its mandate? Or if arguing that that's reserved for constitutional issues (which X may not be), does it mean the Salisbury doctrine (if it still exists) shouldn't apply because X doesn't really have a mandate from the nation?

Added to that is a question of how different policies X and Y need to be before the public can be said to have offered sufficient choice. While all three manifestos pledged to reform the House of Lords, Labour differed in requiring a referendum, the Conservatives only committed to a 'mainly-elected' chamber - are those differentiation enough that voters had a choice? Labour wanted open-list PR, if the Lib Dems had put their preference for STV into the manifesto would that have been making a choice?

In this case the argument is limited to saying that an issue that would otherwise require a referendum can go without if the election was fought out on a very specific set of circumstances, but the general principle is worth thinking about as there are any number of areas where overlap between the parties is large.  The argument is that certain manifesto combinations shouldn't be given practical significance, but the fiddlyness of the situation that results seems to argue pretty well that manifesto commitments shouldn't have practical significance full stop.

This ultimately comes down to the old question of what exactly happens in an election - are we empowering people to decide or people to deliver? At various times manifestos were certainly viewed as binding - Stanley Baldwin claimed the 1923 election was held solely to reverse a manifesto commitment of his predecessor[1. Dennis Kavangh, 'The Politics of Manifestos', Parliamentary Affairs, 34(1),1981 ,p.8] - but Kavanagh argues that this becomes increasingly untenable in the modern age:

Instead of the mandate referring to a major issue, governments now use the term to justify a battery of items in the manifesto, however picayune they may be. As pledges are fulfilled, so the government spokesman claims that he has kept faith with the electorate, regardless of the popularity of the measure. But it is the sheer number of proposals in modern manifestos which weakens the notion of the mandate as the conscious support of each manifesto proposal by a person who votes for the party. It is because voters for a party simply cannot be expected to be aware of all of the proposals, let alone agree with them, that Finer makes the charge of "manifesto moonshine " [2. Ibid. p. 9]

This raises the obvious complaint about the idea of mandates: when voters enter the voting booth are they really endorsing the entirety of that party's manifesto? Might their decision perhaps be influenced by other considerations? Can a party really claim a mandate from the nation for a vague commitment hidden in a footnote on page five underneath the 'beware of the leopard' sign?

I think it'd be fair to say that today (ignoring fiddly issues such as the position of coalition agreements) while 'mandate' is thrown around as a useful bit of language, the predominate mindset is that governments can do anything they can practically achieve and that manifestos only have practical, as opposed to political, significant in odd (and probably doomed) cases like the Salisbury doctrine - on the basis of the above it's hard to say there's much wrong with this.

I remain a bit unsure if the cancelling maths of mandates is something that should be taken seriously but given both accepting it and rejecting it stress the idea of manifesto mandates to breaking point it does illustrate the underlying concept is a bit fragile and shouldn't be too heavily relied on. For Lords reform, this means that if a referendum is needed (and I think would be the last chance for groups like Unlock Democracy to establish an alternative principle), a referendum is needed - and that in general we should shy away from arrangements that give much practical importance to manifesto promises (while of course being free to politically punish parties for breaking them).

How political is Eurovision voting really?

Jun 21, 2012

Morning Experiment: Can I find a good way of testing the 'politicalness' of Eurovision voting before lunch?

To keep it simple I assumed that most 'political' voting was related to cultural factors. These in turn would map onto geographical proximity and so the testable question became 'Do countries give higher points to countries closer to them than those further away'?

Using a dataset of all results from 1998-2009 and the results from the Wikipedia pages for 2010, 2011 and 2012, I created a single dataset of all votes cast since 1998.

I then made a list for each Eurovision country of all other Eurovision countries they shared a border with. For countries bordering seas, I counted all countries with reasonable straight lines across the water (erring on the side of being over generous).

From this I created a new variable representing the degrees of separation between the source and destination of all votes (where 1 means they share a border, 2 means there’s one country in the middle and so on). This dataset is here.

A robust regression shows that there is a statistically significant relationship at the 1% level. Being closer to another country gets you more points- for every degree of separation removed between A and B it increases the number of points transferred from A to B by 0.39(±0.068). The exact coefficient varies year on year and the relationship drops from significance in 1998 and 2001.

As the first few ‘hops’ are likely to be the most important (it’s doubtful the hop from four to five degrees of separation is a serious consideration for anyone), it’s worth re-running the regression looking only at if countries share a border or not. From this we get another significant relationship where a country will give around 1.9 (±0.245) more points to countries it shares a border with than those it won’t. This explains more of the overall vote transfer as well - 4.6% as opposed to 2.6% for the degrees of separation approach.

But this is still a relatively small amount of the big picture - and so raises questions about the validity of the approach - would the effect be larger or smaller if I was less generous with borders over seas? Should we be looking at ‘regions’, countries that share a language? This analysis used all votes cast, but not all countries are regular players - the relationship might be different if it was cut down to those who vote every time.

At this point rather than plough on, I decided to look up if anyone had ever done any proper work on Eurovision and found that a) of course they have, and b) a great common thread in these is some kind of justification for having bothered to study something like Eurovision in the first place. Yair argues Eurovision can be used to create a cultural structural analysis of the post iron-curtain Europe and Fenn et al instead try to claim that "Eurovision network is analogous to a range of other complex dynamic networks involving the exchange of goods and opinions". Now these are clearly just excuses, but obviously I'm in no position to judge.

Fenn, Suleman, Efstathiou and Johnson (2006) looked at Eurovision as a network in terms of how in sync countries are with each other i.e. how similarly are their votes distributed when you ignore their votes towards each other. They found that the UK was actually the most 'in sync' with Europe in general between 1992 and 2003 and while there were patterns that vindicated my geographical links such Estonia being associated with the Nordic countries, others raise serious problems with it such as Spain being absent from the group that includes France and Portugal.

Yair(1995 - so an older study of a very different Eurovision) similarly look at network effects breaks down Eurovision countries into "five meaningful cliques", which are further combined into Western, Northern and Mediterranean blocs (where the last feels like a 'and the rest' bloc) and that the then supremacy of countries in the Western Bloc was a result of three of the most strongly knit cliques are located within it.

Ginsburgh and Noury(2004) is the closest to a more developed version of my attempt, looking at the effect of cultural and linguistic proximity (which geographic proximity would at best be acting as a proxy for) on points and finding that a) these are important factors that far exceed the effects of logrolling(quid pro quo exchanges of votes) and b) that the 'quality' of the song tends to have quite a large effect on the results.

So in a most boring answer, Eurovision turns out to be actually about the music. But isn't it nice to have numbers to prove that?

Political Chickens

Feb 03, 2012

Last week, this video emerged on the Internet of Boris Johnson being chased outside City Hall by a man in a chicken suit:

As it turns out this chicken isn't even chasing the actual Boris, giving us a man wearing a chicken suit chasing a man dressed a man with a fake blonde wig, being filmed with a shaky camera for authenticity. It's a strange world we live in, but stranger still is that following politicians while wearing chicken-suits has a long and proud history.  As far as I can tell, it started in America when Gerald Ford addressed the chicken mascot of a local radio station while on campaign - a New York Times reporter then promptly bought the costume off the station and showed up to a press event in it as a prank (video here).

image0

The chicken then went dormant for a while, reappearing in 1992 working for Clinton (great illustration in that article) as 'Chicken George', but this time around the chicken had a political objective. The job of this chicken was hound George H. W. Bush for stonewalling debate negotiations and this has been a recurring use of chicken suits since. This version of the chicken I'm assuming is the inspiration for events in season six of the West Wing where Josh Lyman similarly deploys volunteers in chicken suits to hound opponents who wouldn't debate his candidate.

The Chicken crossed the Atlantic for the 1997 election, giving us the 'Tory Chicken', who followed Tony Blair to highlight that he had declined to debate John Major. For some reason this triggered a previously unknown British capacity for animal-suit politics, spawning a fox to chase the chicken off and a rhinoceros opposed to the idea of animal suits entirely:

The chicken was to follow the Labour leader, who was campaigning in the marginal Tory seat held by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary. However, his efforts to henpeck Mr Blair were hampered by a man from the Scottish Daily Mirror dressed as Freddy the Fox, who blocked his path during a 15-minute walkabout.

As Mr Blair approached, the chicken was seen to stumble and was pushed to the back of the crowd surrounding the Labour leader, where it waved a placard before skulking off. A jubilant Freddy observed: "I had him for dinner. I stopped him getting anywhere near Tony. Tony shook my hand and thanked me for it."

However, Mr Blair's guardian refused to identify himself, saying: "The whole thing is embarrassing enough as it is." The incident came at the end of a traumatic day for the Tory chicken. Earlier, he got into a nasty fight with a rival chicken with a detachable head, sent by the Mirror newspaper, as he strutted across College Green in Westminster. He was also pursued across London by another fox, two teddy bears and a plastic rhinoceros.

That whole article is worth a read if only for the full description of the Chicken's fight with the Mirror Chicken (the Mirror would go on to send another chicken after CameronClegg and probably others in the 2010 election). Daniel Finkelstein has a good story about having to keep the Chicken motivated during the campaign, but it's sadly now lost behind the Times paywall. In happier news, here's the story of its visit to Edinburgh.

Chickens have also popped up in Canadian provincial elections so there's a fair chance I've missed several chicken sightings but the idea of using chickens to draw attention to lack of debates (and assign blame) seem to be a recurring thing here. Given this back story, what do we make of this latest chicken?  That the real Boris doesn't even appear in Ken's chicken's videos so far (and that it's not explained in video why there's a chicken) is interesting as the chicken usually tries to muscle in on it's target's event and steal the focus. Is chasing fake Boris a sign of laziness or a sign that the media landscape is changing and our use of chicken suits with it?  Do we now understanding a chicken suit as short-hand for dodging debates? Or does the lack of context of the clip reflect the changing face of media, that it's now better to get a short and intriguing video on the internet and draw people to your site than to try and worm in at your opponent's own media events?

For entirely unrelated reasons, you can't vote in a chicken-suit in Nevada.