Thursday, 29 November 2012

The sad truths behind the Research Excellence Framework

No-one who's inside British academia will have failed to notice that we're now just over a year away from the dreaded 'Research Excellence Framework' census date - the moment at which UK academics have all their work 'graded'. And yes, it's as silly as it sounds. 

The 'REF' is there to allocate so-called QR funding - money that is given out to institutions, rather than to specific projects, to build research capacity. The better you do, the more money you get. So what are the consequences? Er... Grey markets, game-playing, bureaucracy, absurdist demands, a lot of upset, and, hmm, that's it really.

But let's break things down slightly more theoretically.

The transfer market. What's the first thing that you would do if you were in a middling-to-good research unit and wanted to improve by the census date? Develop young talent? Support your own staff? Yes, that's right, because the Premier League is so good at doing that in the football world, isn't it. Nope. You'd buy in big guns, promise them a lot of stuff - low teaching loads, research assistance, great labs - and then let them do their best (or worst). The whole system discourages in-house development: a situation that's getting worse and worse as funders (and the REF itself) focus on 'internationally-leading' research rather than work that would be appropriate to an academic's career stage. So a transfer market has developed, in which some 'feeder' universities do all the investment (think: Norwich and Reading in the Premiership), and then have the fruits of their labour cherry-picked by everyone else (think: Arsenal and Chelsea). Way to go, policymakers.

Workplace bullying. It's probably the case that not-so-much cash is going to be allocated by this particular round of the 'game'. The Government's strapped for cash, and lopping some REF money off will be a quiet and easy way to find some. But research managers don't necessarily respond to those incentives. They're playing a prestige game - in which the outside world will say 'ah, you got this grade - great' or 'that was a rubbish grade you got'. The university (and the individual) will be made to look bad, both to their peers (academics hate looking foolish vis-a-vis their frenemies) and to prospective undegraduates. Research managers' careers will be built or crushed. In increasing desperation, some turn to the worst forms of workplace bullying - including harrassment and suspension - to secure compliance. There's even a whole blog dedicated to the phenomenon. Really. It happens spottily and episodically - it's by no means the whole story. But it's there, and everybody knows it.

Over-management. Everyone needs managers. Someone has to do the spreadsheets. Someone has to make decisions - unalterable facts that make (for instance) populist objections to 'NHS managers' a bit hard to take. Academics aren't always very good at this sort of thing, and someone has to step in. But the extent to which managerial numbers have ballooned is extraordinary - by far outstripping any increase in the numbers of actual lecturers. Part of this is assembling the increasingly-meaningless 'statements', 'profiles', 'records' and 'databanks' that centralised research assessment requires. It's now got out of hand. It's time to call a halt and re-consider the entire field before the whole system collapses under the top-heavy weight of its own contradictions.

In short? The old Research Assessment Exercise was increasingly laughed at behind academics' hands. Now the laugher is in the open. This REF-as-emperor has no clothes, and after this time around should be consigned to history. Answers on a postcard as to what should replace it (we'll be coming back to in subsequent posts), but this parrot is a dead one.

It's yet another example of those systems I've labelled 'perestroika Britain' - neither state nor market, but an over-audited, over-jargonised, over-managed simulacrum of both, with the weaknesses of both and the strengths of neither.

Time to lay it to rest.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Happy 'Beveridge Day'!

So Sunday marks the publication of the most important social policy document of the twentieth century, bar none - Social Insurance and Allied Services, mostly written by that great Liberal reformer, Sir William Beveridge (above). Radio Four have dedicated a morning's programming to the anniversary today.

In the aftermath of the British (and Indian) Army's first real victory of the war over the Germans (at El Alamein), a more hopeful idea started to steal over the British people after years of defeat and retreat: that they might come through the war after all, and that they might build a more hopeful world after the conflict's close. It was a seismic moment of national change - and created the welfare state that we still, just about, know today.

But that welfare state's come to seem threadbare - discredited in the public mind, whether that's right or wrong, by an association with 'scrounging', with the workshy as well as fraud, and with a sense of entitlement and anger about a bloated and unheeding state bureaucracy.

A lot of that's exaggerated - the baleful fruit of press exaggeration and, frankly, lying.

But it's real, nonetheless. And it's rooted in some reality. A combination of means testing, very high private rents and prolonged structural unemployment in some of the UK's regions has meant that the system has been bent completely out of the shape Beveridge originally intended.

He thought that benefits should be paid at a flat rate, as of right, to all - not on a sliding scale moving up and up the income ladder. That would avoid the trap of dependency - and the anger of people with neighbours who were earning very similar (low) 'wages' to them while not working. Beveridge knew that rents were a problem, and added a 'housing allowance' to his intended payments. But he knew that wasn't a real solution, and large-scale housebuilding to make housing cheaper became the post-war answer to the dilemma of paying more and more money to private landlords rather than freeing people from the poverty that the landlords profited from. And unemployment? Well, Beveridge intended that Keynesian solutions would conquer that evil, meaning that the new system wouldn't have to pour money down the drain of ongoing joblesseness and that 'labour exchanges' would be able to instill a culture of responsibilities accepted for rights granted. As I say: it was an age of hope.

So what would be the answer to widespread villification of claimants really be? Well, these conclusions mean that they're counterintuitive. We should actually spend more: on higher welfare benefits for all, to get rid of a lot of means testing, on much more council housing and housing association building, and on tackling the deep-seated problems of long-term unemployment.

You won't read that from the cheerleaders for the Government's new benefits cap, now will you?

Friday, 23 November 2012

Fear and loathing in the UK

It's hard to write about recent child abuse scandals surrounding (for instance) the DJ and TV 'personality' Jimmy Savile without a sense of revulsion.

Young girls shipped in from residential institutions to Top of the Tops? A widespread culture of abuse? Powerful older men given places to sleep (and sets of ward keys) in top hospitals? What a disgusting litany of failure. It's hard to know where to begin.

But it's important to face these issues square on: and to say, for instance, that anyone who knows their history knows that all sorts of awful scandals riddled the NHS (and most of our other institutions) throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They were never free of them: at Ely Hospital near Cardiff, for instance, where mentally ill patients were treated appallingly. A culture of fear and of authority reigned: to question 'high ups', whether lay people or doctors, was much more difficult than today. The white-coated, technocratic expertise of the welfare state could be a cloak for abuse as well as a spur to reform. We need to be able to talk about these issues, to debate them, to analyse what went on - all of which is hampered by our present sensationalism.

To be honest, things have undoubtedly got better since the apparently dark days of the 1970s. Our culture has changed. We can talk about these issues: and children's complaints or cries for help are less often ignored. New institutions - such as the Children's Commissioners - now look out for (and speak out on behalf of) young people. Complaints mechanisms inside the NHS are now much more accessible and much more powerful.

So why the panic now, rather than when this nasty little archipelago of fear was at its height?

Well, it's partly because we need something to be frightened of. Something for the media to seize on - for Newsnight to try and redeem itself over the Savile case (disastrously, in the case of its allegations about a senior Conservative Party figure). When an experienced broadcaster like Phillip Schofield loses his head and tries to hand the Prime Minister a list of alleged paedophiles on air, you know there's a run on the bank named 'panic'.

I've written about this heightened sense of fevered hysteria before. It's not new. We used to be frightened about 'Reds under the bed' - a sudden communist takeover. Or we lay awake at night worried about a military coup that would see Mr Wilson or Mr Callaghan carted off to the Tower. Or we thought that nuclear war would obliterte our lives with only three or four minutes of warning - witness the absolutely horrifying, and deeply disturbing, TV dramas The War Game (above) or Threads.

Now, when most of those political and nuclear dangers have receded, the 'papers have got to us at our most vulnerable spot - our kids. So we'll cart them around in our big carbon-spewing car-buses, from school gate to party, and from party to home, pretty much ensuring that much higher risks (obesity, diabetes and heart disease) do get them in the end. If climate change doesn't first.

But less immediate, less hysterical, more hidden, and not-at-all stirred up by the Daily Mail, we tend to forget about those much higher risks in favour of a new set of difficult-to-face terrors.

What a pity.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

In defence of political parties

Last week's mayoralty and Police Commissioner elections across England and Wales were, above all, a kick in the teeth for political parties. Voters turned out in part to stop Labour winning the Labour mayoralty, and elected an Independent Mayor; elsewhere, political parties who thought that PCC posts were theirs for the taking got fingers poked in their eyes. The Conservatives managed to lose in Surrey, for instance.

Voters aren't happy with the established political parties. That's the bottom line.

But they might regret taking the plunge for the alternative, if they dare. What was it that Benjamin Disraeli (above), that great nineteenth-century Conservative Prime Minister, said about political parties? Ah yes, this is it: 'Things must be done by parties, not by persons using parties as tools'.

And why? They keep politics clean - because it's hard to effect a widespread takeover of a truly vibrant movement (not that our political parties are all that vibrant, but still). When Militant leftists tried to hijack the Labour Party in the early 1980s, they eventually got booted out - after a very bloddy battle. They have a record you can check up on, and that voters often hold dear - making sure they gave John Major's Conservatives a drubbing four and a half years after that Prime Minister's humiliating devaluation of sterling. They hold their leaders to programmes - most of the time. They connect council chambers and Cabinet rooms to the politics of the neighbourhood. They represent the great currents of opinion. Ask yourself: are British voters' choices really as cramped as they appear? From Respect on the left to UKIP and then the BNP on the right, via the Socialist Labour Party, the Greens, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and a slew of English, Welsh and Scottish Democrats, your correspondent can see plenty of choice.

The effects of this are not all that far to see. Britain is pretty well governed: quite clean; quite efficient; quite disinterested in parts. Certainly when compared to many other European countries. Voters real incomes soared between the 1950s and the 2000s, with a couple of breaks inbetween - though they have sunk and then stagnated since 2007 and the onset of the Great Recession. 

Political parties have been one key reason for this success and sense of continuity. From the Conservatives adapting to Free Trade in the 1840s, to a modern and democratic electrorate in the 1860s and under Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s, and to cultural modernisation since the 1960s, to Labour adapting to 'aspiration' and individualism in the 1990s, they may be protean, chameleon and capable of rapid change - but they carry over their earlier memories and values into those new settings.

'Independence'? I'm yet to be convinced.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Low voter turnout is not inevitable

Today's Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales have seen a pitifully low turnout - down at a ridiculous twelve to sixteen per cent in the cases that have reported so far. Bristol's mayoralty election did a little big better at just under thirty per cent, but not much.

Cue lots of hand-wringing. Parties don't represent anyone, we'll be told. They're in terminal decline - especially as Labour has just lost its bid to elect its own candidate for mayor in Bristol. People are switching off from politics based on class and geography, and they're looking for new solutions - single-issue protests, perhaps, such as that propelling the United Kingdom Independence Party up the polls in yesterday's Corby by-election.

Some of this is probably fair enough. But much of it is exaggerated. We used to be told that voters in the United States (here, as so often, thought of as the very acme of the future) were tuning out and turning off. Except that in every US Presidential election between 1996 and 2008, turnout actually rose (above) - by eight per cent in total by the end of that period. Even though turnout's fallen away again a little this time, all the votes haven't been counted yet, and the numbers certainly won't have gone back to early-1990s lows. Ask African-American, Hispanic, young, female and gay voters whether they're losing faith in the Democratic Party. They're not.

There were lots of other reasons why people didn't want to vote today. They thought of Police Commissioners as an unwelcome American import. They thought that the previous local committee system wasn't all that bad. It was dark. It was November. There were no other council or parliamentary elections pulling in the punters.

Most of all, the supplementary vote system may be easy to understand (once you're told about, which many voters think they weren't) and cheap to administer. But it is a poor way to elect anyone to anything - as voters instinctively understand. It's too tactical - you have to imagine who might come in the top two, and then reserve your second preference for one of them. It puts all your eggs in one basket. And it usually favours the 'big' candidates, who'll always attract one of those two votes if you want one to count. That will often be one of the two remaining big political parties in this country - though it wasn't today in Bristol, with the local popularity and profile of George Ferguson breaking through against unpopular local parties.

Political dealignment? Well, there's some. It's the worst-attended election of all time in the UK. But there are other issues. We need to attend to those first.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

What is conservatism, anyway?

As the US elections continue to reverberate (in my mind, at least), I offer you few apologies for turning to the fate and prospects of the Republican Party of the United States. Their recent candidate for President has now ignited the debate about why he lost - offensively blaming Presidential 'gifts' given out to young people and minorities, rather than his own shortcomings. This is not, needless to say, a great start to the party's outreach efforts. Nor does it offer an enormous sense of humility and grace. But there you are.

As President Obama continues to gallop away in the popular vote (three and a half million and nearly three per cent ahead, and still counting), Republicans should stop the fingerpointing. They should stand back from the immediate blame game, halt for a breather and take stock.

They should ask themselves this: what is conservatism anyway?

Is it conservative to intrude into people's bedrooms? Now, I don't know about you, but the true conservative would say that the state should stop at people's front doors. Disapprove of gay love? Not happy with the variegated shape of the modern family? Tough. It's got nothing to do with you anyway, pal. That's what most Americans think - and that's what small-state, small-government, anti-moralising, anti-condescending conservatives should think as well. As one Bush-era adviser put it yesterday: the next Republican candidate who talks about rape? They should have their tongues cut out before they can do their movement any more damage. In fact, while we're about it - and as British conservative Tim Montgomerie put it the other day - wouldn't it be more truly conservative, if marriage is such a key building block of the good society, to extend it to gay as well as straight Americans as soon as possible? And where does it say in the constitution that marraige is between a man and a woman? Answer: nowhere.

It is conservative to stand by while other Americans are denied healthcare? Let me sketch you a picture of a 'system' any true conservatives should deplore. It sees many tens of millions of Americans uninsured; insurers able to drop children from their parents' policies; and many more millions of Americans unable to leave their jobs or states for fear of losing healthcare cover. Now, you've probably got there before me, but this actually approximates to where the US was before 'Obamacare'. Such a system inevitably cuts into labour productivity and mobility, while assisting in a race-to-the-top costs system that sees hospital carpets and coffee machines get ever plusher (and doctors ever richer). How much better, then, would be a middle way between this and European-style state healthcare - a compulsory insurance system that tried simultaneously to lower costs while covering everybody? That, by the way, is exactly the intention of President Obama's Affordable Care Act - first proposed by the Heritage Foundation, a severely, severly conservative thinktank, and first implemented by Mitt Romney in the state of Massachusetts.

Is it conservative to stand in the way of mass immigration? Immigration is the lifeblood of efficient economies. It brings in job-hungry and hard-working young people, who are likely to have more children than the 'home' population. It fills up pension coffers. It brings in people who want to do all those jobs that rich First Worlders are too prissy to pick up. 'Tough' borders? Not so much. They are breeding grounds for people smuggling, fraud, militarisation and wasteful spending on border police forces that have very little effect on the numbers coming across anyway. The answer? Build fences, by all means (above). But you also need to provide more work permits, and a route to citizenship for undocumented migrants and their families. A true conservative knows that the state cannot, Canute-like, hold back immigration in any case: it can only manage its effects. Accept that, and you're on the path to true wisdom.

So, what are the answers to our three questions? Er, well: no, no and no. Anybody who answers 'yes' to any of these questions is not a conservative, but a mixed-up advocate of that peculiar blend of absolutist, un-conservative religiosity, libertarianism and statism that the Republican Party has become. Burke, Ranke, Disraeli, Macmillan, Collingwood: they'd all have been appalled.

Until Republicans start to answer these questions in the negative, they will continue to toil in the wilderness.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Memo to Republicans: the private sector's not all that

One of the most superficially attractive and persuasive things Mitt Romney (above) said during his bid for the presidency was: 'trust me: I'm a businessman. I can turn America around'. The very fact that the Obama campaign went out of its way to trash this legacy, and pollute this 'successful businessman' brand, shows just how scared they were about it.

Except it's all rubbish. And it shows just what a load of nonsense the whole 'businessman as saviour' language really is.

You know - all those people who say 'yada yada, in the real world, etc. etc.', 'in the wealth-creating part of the economy', blah blah... As they pull themselves up to their full height while resting one arm on a comfortably-ornate fireplace.

So. Who are these successful businessmen-in-politics? Herbert Hoover? Jimmy Carter? Yeah, they were a great success, weren't they? None of our objectively 'successful' British Prime Ministers have been businesspeople either. Churchill was a soldier and a writer, among other things; Wilson a social scientist and civil servant; Thatcher an industrial chemist; Blair a lawyer. Only Harold Macmillan had any sort of business experience (in publishing), and he inherited his company - showing very little interest in it until his long post-premiership retirement.

No, the Romney campaign is a good example of why we don't trust businessmen in politics. And why the 'real world' argument is for the birds. At a time when our corporate elites are out of control, and they've landed us in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s - when they pay each other vast sums for failure, and like to rest on their laurels - we understand this instinctively.

But perhaps we did need another proof.

Behold, then, the disaster of the Romney campaign - only now leaking out. It's an eye-watering set of blunders if ever there was one, all rooted in a view that 'business knows best' - and that government should stay out of the economic affairs. Paying bonuses to campaign staff. Relying on a top-down, father-knows-best computer system straight out of IBM in the 1970s - which then promptly crashed on the day of the election itself, leaving thousands of volunteers bereft of a centralised leadership they should never have needed. Leading 'from the front', with a homely 1950s father figure at the front. The whole thing fell apart when it collided with reality on Election Day itself. What a surprise.

Romney sold himself as a great CEO. In fact, trapped in an old-fashioned view of what the corporate world could do and be, another CEO ran rings around him. A CEO based in voluntarism. In activism. In grass-roots, bottom-up organising. In shifting landscapes, flexibility, and light-on-your-feet co-operation between real people and real communities.

His name is Barack Obama, and he's never run a company in his life.

Approaches from 'business'? Pah. You can keep them.

Friday, 9 November 2012

What the Republican Party has to learn

So - getting hammered, right? Never pretty. No-one likes it, and members and supporters of the Republican Party will be hurting pretty badly today. President Obama has been re-elected, very convincingly - more convingly than I thought he would be, and with a bigger share of the popular vote than even modellers such as Nate Silver predicted. His lead is now greater than that of President Bush in 2004, and may even top three or even four per cent in the end.

Republicans lost ground in the Senate, too. And a little bit in the House of Representatives, though here blatant gerrymandering on both sides of the aisle kept their losses to a minimum, and they kept hold of the lower house of Congress.

What should they learn? Well, and I ask this with a weary sigh: where do you start? Here's five historic lessons that the GOP should take to heart.

Stop forcing candidates to speak with forked tounge. Governor Romney (above) is, by all accounts, a rather nice man in private - and certainly one able and robust enough to serve as America's chief executive. He's also, in his heart of hearts, a moderate - as he showed towards the end of his campaign. But his party forced him to twist almost every thing he'd ever said: on immigration; on tax reform; on abortion; and on health care. They did it last time, to Senator John McCain, and they still hadn't learnt their lesson. Voters aren't stupid. They know when someone's uncomfortable. They know when someone's hiding their true self. And they switch off. This is why voters warmed to him after the first debate, when he suddenly revealed Mitt 3.0 (or 4.0, or 5.0): Moderate Mitt, pragmatic, flexible, even likeable. OK - so his views would still have been to the right of the populace, and he still came across as a starchy plaid-shirted dad from the 1950s, but that's okay. No-one thought Reagan was hip either.

Stop watching Fox News. Fox News is, without doubt, poison for the mind. Its one-track obsession with taking on and defeating 'socialist America' hasn't ended up helping their pet causes much, though, has it? The station's spectacular (and very funny) election night melt-down, during which pundits simply refused to accept the public's verdict, could once only have been imagined in satire or film. Now it's actually happened! You couldn't make it up. But there's a real point here: Republican should stop watching this stuff. It just seals them in an echo-chamber in which the voters care only and forever about the attack on the Benghazi compound; or about Obama's birth certificate; or about the President's remark about 'voting being the best revenge'. Liberals should stop watching MSNBC all the time as well, but we'll come to that when we consider the Democrats' future.

Stop throwing money at the problem. Plutocrats such as Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in this campaign season - and got (hide those smiles at the back) absolutely nothing to show for their blatant attempt to buy democracy. But their massive cash reserves blinded them to a simple truth: it's not the cash, stupid; it's what you do with it. Democrats adopted a much smarter, leaner, data-driven, statistic-drilling approach that wiped Team Romney's efforts off the face of the earth. These financial arms races can, in any case, only end up with a countervailing amount of money pouring in from the other side of American society. Labour unions and citizens' groups, in particular, basically plugged their bank accounts into the Obama cause - as did millions of ordinary Americans who just couldn't stomach oligarchs buying their election.

Stop hating people. Where do we start with this one? Selecting Senate candidates who apparently think that rape can be God's will? They might not actually think or feel this in their hearts, but their disdain for women, and their deeply ingrained wish to control them, was plain for all to see. So no-one should have been surprised to hear the following refrain in return: 'you know what, Republicans? You hate us. So we're going to give you a kicking'. Todd Akin in Missouri ran miles behind Romney in the voting - so even conservative women, who quite liked the idea of a Republican White House, couldn't stand the man. And on race, well - all you need to look at are Florida and Ohio's attempts to suppress the minority vote by changing voting rules and squeezing poll hours.

Develop a populist language that attracts low-income voters. One of the most ridiculous incidents of this whole campaign could be summed up in the headline: 'candidate to voters: drop dead'. What on earth would convince you to seek election among the people - as Governor Romney apparently did - when you think that 47 per cent of them are freeloaders? Why would you want to lead them anyway? Republicans are too rich; too cossetted; and too isolated from the mainstream of working people's lives to understand how they look. They need a great big bath of cold water. They need to reach out to average working Americans, and to start to speak their language. Forget the social conservatism stuff, and talk to real people about their real lives. Most Americans don't want their governors telling them how to behave in the first place - lesson numero uno for a proper conservative party, such as the one David Cameron has successfully led to (near-) victory in the UK.

To be honest, I could write for hours. The Republicans have left behind moderates who want to vote for them, but now have to with a heavy heart... if at all. They're in denial for now, but that'll break. They need a back-to-basics, root-and-branch, total makeover. They need to appoint women, hispanic and African-Americans to positions of power in their party, now. They need to stop acting like a bunch of swivel-eyed obsessives. They need to start cutting deals in Washington, starting today.

They need to wake up before it's too late.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Obama 2012: the winners and the losers

Well, er, erm... I wasn't all that close, was I? But this blog's predictions weren't too far off either, and at least picked who the winner would 'probably' be. It wasn't a bad night for using the following idea as an organising concept:

If Democrats turn up at the polls, the President will be very, very narrowly re-elected. Many swing state polls are assuming electorates that look a bit like the Presidential election of 2008 - younger, less white and more female than others we've got used to. So if the electorate looks like the Republican wave year of 2010, Mr Romney will win quite easily.

But he didn't. Democrats did turn up. Hispanic, African-American and Asian Americans waited in line, many for hours, to ensure that the man they had voted for in 2008 wasn't turned out of office. So did young people and women - particularly single women. You know what? America used to look like an older white man - a father figure like Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite. Now it looks a lot more black, brown, young and female - and lot more liberal and even more left-wing, particularly in the Senate. All those commentators who said 'pah, young people are too busy boozing to turn up'? All those people who said 'minorities won't bother to vote'? All those senatorial candidates who thought that women shouldn't always be in charge of their own bodies? Well, they're the minority now.

You know who the real winners were in our neck of the commentators' and the pundits' woods? The counters. The cool, the calm and the collected. The statisticians. The social scientists. The modellers. The mathematicians. The reasoners. The truth-tellers. Take a bow, Nate Silver; Drew Linzer; Simon Jackman, the Huffpost Pollster's modeller. Take a bow, guys. You were right.

And the losers? Well, this column is not usually an emotional or even a warm-blooded one. It's dedicated to the same reasonable analysis that has carried the day. But forgive me if I shake free for a moment. The losers are the liars; the exaggerators; the crazies; the 'birthers'; the fabricators; the election buyers; the fantasists; the ranters and the ravers; the losers are, in a word, the haters (take a bow, Donald Trump). And the experts who refused to judge the numbers at face value - but saw instead what they wanted to see. Where is Dick Morris now? George Will? Karl Rove? Michael Barone? That 'expert' from Eating word pie, that's where.

We'll be talking about the future over the days to come - for Republicans; Democrats; and for the rest of us. Where are we going now? Well, and regular readers will know that I'm going to say this, great perils and dangers lie ahead.

But for now, I will leave you with words from President Obama's victory speech. It was a heady brew of that muscular American liberalism - with all its faults and flaws, its evasions and its limits -  that President Kennedy also represented. And it contained the following tribute to that much-maligned concept, the idea of hope itself:

I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism -- the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us, so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

You know what? It's hard to summarise the United States of America more succinctly.

Monday, 5 November 2012

'Calling' the Presidential election

So after all the billions of dollars; all the debating; all the screaming and shouting and hating and fearing: it's nearly all over.

And it's time to make calls.Who's going to win?

Now, let me be absolutely clear: this column, were it to have a vote, would cast it enthusiastically for President Obama, a leader who has hauled the United States and the world back from the brink of an economic precipice. If you have a vote, and you're reading this in the United States, I would urge you in the strongest possible terms to go out and use it - and to back to incumbent.

But I think it'll be tight. Really, really tight. A squeaker. Choose whatever term you want - you get my drift.

Right now, President Obama has a 0.4 per cent lead in the Real Clear Politics average, a 1.2 per cent lead from the website Pollster, and a 0.7 per cent lead on the Talking Points Memo website. Those numbers are unlikely to change much as the last polls trickle in. How did Real Clear Politics do in 2004 and 2008? Well, they were 1.2 per cent adrift from the final gap in 2004, and they were 0.3 per cent 'wrong' in 2008. Pollster, by the way, was also 0.3 per cent off the final result in 2008. Really close; this time, that close to the gap between the candidates means that either could win the popular vote. Statistical guru Nate Silver gives the President an 86 per cent chance of winning that (statistician that I am at heart) I just can't square with this sort of uncertainty. Intrade punters, betting their own money, are saying 67 per cent right now, and somewhere between those figures might be about right.

It'll be so tight that Americans will be up all night - and possibly biting their nails for many days to come (or at least until Ohio counts its provisional ballots on November 17). And arguing about Republican governors' vote suppression in Florida and Ohio: in the latter state, its Secretary of State is trying to chance election rules at the last moment in order to make it harder to understand and comply with ID rules. There is some possibility of an electoral college draw - in which case Governor Romney will almost certainly be chosen to sit in the White House by a Republican House of Representatives - or yet another Supreme Court tie-breaker will be required.

You don't have to take my word for it - you can look at the early voting data, which shows President Obama narrowly ahead (insofar as one can tell) in Iowa and Coloroda - states he won at a canter last time. The early voting figures tell us exactly what the polls do: it's basically neck-and-neck at a national level, with perhaps some key swing states leaning over a little to Mr Obama. Fewer Democrats have voted early this year when compared to 2008 - though enough have turned up to give the President most of the swing states. If, that is, Democrats haven't been cannibalising their election-day turnout. Because if they have, they're toast.

And all this, of course, assumes that the polls are right. Now don't listen to any crazy talk here: their record is actually pretty good, on the whole, as the numbers above imply. There is a small, but non-negligible chance that they are wrong. 'Correcting for house effects', a process conducted by most aggregating websites, assumes that right in the middle of the polling range, there's a 'zero' target that's right. Take that assumption away, and anything could happen. British voters, of course, have their own memories of this: in the 1992 General Election, most polls predicted a hung or undecided Parliament in which Labour was the biggest party. The Conservatives won by eight (count them - eight) percentage points. Mr Romney could do really well with conservatives who don't like talking to pollsters, upsetting the odds: Mr Obama might bring tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking voters to the polls, or appeal particularly to young cellphone users who are hard to reach. Your guess is as good as mine on this one, readers.

In the end, it'll all come down to turnout. If Democrats turn up at the polls, the President will be very, very narrowly re-elected. Many swing state polls are assuming electorates that look a bit like the Presidential election of 2008 - younger, less white and more female than others we've got used to. So if the electorate looks like the Republican wave year of 2012, Mr Romney will win quite easily. There's plenty of evidence this year that Democrats are a bit disheartened by what they perceive as 'their' man's so-so performance in office. Republicans are passionate, fired-up, desperate to get rid of a man they perceive as a European-style socialist at best, and possibly a 'foreign-born' threat to national security at worst. You can see that from tonight's Gallup Poll, which has Mr Obama up three amongst all registered voters - but down one against likely voters. Balance that against the fact that the demographics are changing, and states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and even Arizona are inexorably moving away from the Republican Party as their electorates become more hispanic... And you have a story of anger and pride against the shifting tectonic plates of America's racial balance.

So the bottom line: expect Obama. But really, really don't be surprised if you get Romney, a candidate who gets top marks only for obfuscation and mendacity: but who might become the most powerful man in the world tomorrow night.

That is all. Enjoy!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Nate Silver and the war against statistical truth

Amongst all the noise generated by the US Presidential election (and we still don't know who's going to win) is a very, very worrying drumbeat that's pumping away just under the surface.

It's a war, waged by ultra-conservative commentators. And it's a fight against numbers - even (if you'll forgive the rather embarrasing show of emotion) against the truth.

Their nastiest bile - and some of it has been really nasty and disgusting stuff - is aimed at Nate Silver (above), hero of baseball and poker predictors everywhere, and the author of the New York Times' 538 blog. He's a man who's made his name applying statistical models of the data to predict outcomes - results that he's usually got right. Now he's being accused of arrogantly 'assuming' what will happen in the end, being privy to secret data from the Obama camp, weighting pollsters' results how he likes, and much else abusive and slanderous rubbish. It's all part of a wider picture, of course - that elements of conservative America are spinning off into their own 'post-truth' politics, in which they can question anything they like (so long as it's not their own preconceptions). A world in which they try to undermine voting machines' reputations before ballots can even be cast - though of course Democrats have long had their own conspiracy theories about the voting machines that were used in the 2004 elections.

This stuff matters. You have to understand numbers and concepts of scale to understand the world around you. Of course numbers are constructed, shifting, uncertain - as this column has argued and accepted on many occasions. But that doesn't mean that they're all as good as one another. Still less does it mean that you don't have to be able to put them in context, mobilising actual knowledge (the outbreak of italics is a metaphorical jab in the chest with a pointed finger, I know - but hey, I'm angry).

So, for instance... Republicans have been arguing that the fact that they're ahead in the polls with 'independent' voters, who aren't registered as Democrats or Republicans, means that they're going to do well next week. Which they might. But it doesn't necessarily mean this - because many conservatively-minded voters may now be listing themselves as 'Independents' as 'their' party zig-zags ever more crazily to the far right. Take another example. Republicans have been arguing that they are doing well in Ohio, based on the fact that early turnout in their countries has been very good. But get right down to the ward level, and things look rather different, with Democrats turning out well. It may well be that right-wing journalists have not dug deeply enough into the grainy mess of the raw numbers here.

And so on. And on.

There's one very telling set of details buried in all this - and it's that Silver uses the methods of social science, not the impressions of pundits or commentators. He is clear that he is not predicting that Obama will actually win: he's just saying that it's pretty likely, on the basis of the numbers that we now have, and compared to the alternative. And he's not saying that this won't be close. He's simply saying that, while close, the balance of evidence for predicting victory is (delicately but definitely) on one side and not the other. More moderate conservative voices accept all this, of course, while pointing out that their real problem is with the 'utopian' idea that models can predict the unfolding of the future.

That cod-philosophy to one side, it's important to note that Silver publishes his methods - as do other reputable number-crunchers trying to turn leads or deficits into predictions. He draws on accepted mathematical proofs. He's not alone, with other prediction sites and (something I put a lot of weight on) gambling markets also giving President Obama somewhere between a two-thirds and a 96 per cent chance of victory. He accepts that the eventual result on Tuesday night might be different from what his numbers suggest. They're suggesting a likelihood, and 80 per cent saying he'll win from a model doesn't mean he will. 20 per cent changes come off all the time (well, they come off a fifth of the time). He doesn't change his views (or his model) in mid-stream. He uses data - not the gut feelings that pull us all over the place all the time.

You know what? I prefer his approach to that of the people chucking abuse at him. Call me old-fashioned.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The myth of 'Mittmentum'

The US Presidential campaign continues to amaze. It's a tie in the polls. Swing states seem to lean over towards the incumbent, but early voting makes things look very, very close indeed. Statistical modellers are pretty confident that Barack Obama will be re-elected, but remember that they're still only projecting that by a point of two. It's going to be close. There's no time for the two candidates' lines to diverge much anymore.

We'll be talking about these factors later in the week (including ever-more personal and disgraceful attacks on bloggers who dare to predict an Obama victory), and then trying to peer through the fog of data to 'call' the election (as Americans say) on Monday.

But for now electors should beware anything anyone says about polling. The fog of war has descended, and there will be no 'truths' uttered until Wednesday morning.

Take one example: the much-discussed phenomenon of 'Mittmentum', which is supposed to describe an ever-strengthening tide of support rolling in towards the Republican's election. Republican strategists are saying they're going to win; that the polls are moving in their direction; that they're going to 'expand the map', going into states that Obama won easily in 2008 - such as Pennsylvania or Michigan.

Except that it isn't true.

Take a look at the graph that I've drawn above (click on it for a better look). What do we see? Governor Romney shot up in the polls after his successful drubbing of the President in the first debate in Denver (by far the worst, most disastrous performance by an incumbent in the history of these debates). He really did have 'the big mo' in the first few days of October. That's for sure. But then his position stayed static, with perhaps a teeny, tiny drift towards him until the last week or two, during which the Democrats have begun to reverse the tide a little.

'Mittmentum'? Don't you believe it. It's a mix of a bluff and an inappropriate methaphor. What does 'momentum' mean, anyway? Dictionaries record that the word carriers with it the connotation of ever-building, irresistible, inevitable force. And in politics, nothing is inevitable.

And by the way: you shouldn't believe anything you read that comes from the ideologically-committed from now until you see actual hard data spewing from computers on Tuesday night.