In which we need to talk about piggate

All this week the Daily Mail has been publishing extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography  of David Cameron, which has included some potentially relatively serious political stuff about Cameron’s knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom status and relations with military leaders for example. However, none of that sent twitter into a apoplexies. The bit that sent twitter over the edge was PigGate. Now if you’ve got this far in life without hearing about the pig, then I very strongly suggest that you look away now. It’s one of those things that, once heard, can not be unheard and, believe me, you’re happier in ignorance.

 

 

Seriously, you read on at your own risk.

 

 

 

Still here? Are you sure?

 

 

 

Right then. Well it was your choice. PigGate, for those who don’t already know, relates to the accusation that, while at university, David Cameron took part in a initiation ritual for some form of posh boy club that involved putting his – oh god, I’m not sure I can even type this – his… erm… gentleman sausage, shall we say, in the mouth of a dead pig. Now let’s be clear this is an entirely unsubstantiated claim from someone who has a major grudge against Cameron. Let’s proceed on the assumption that it’s not true (for reasons of both lack of evidence and really not wanting to get sued.) So, if it’s not true, does it matter?

Well, yes. Unfortunately for Cameron the reaction to the allegation does matter, and, from my very unscientific reading of the twitters, that reaction seems to break down into three basic types:

Type 1 – It’s an uncorroborated rumour. People shouldn’t take it seriously;

Type 2 – Well it was probably just youthful japes and high jinx. Didn’t we all do stupid things at university?

Type 3 – Any one of a range of jokes about ham face and apple sauce.

Type 3 is inevitable. I mean, it’s a rumour that the Prime Minister did adult-fun stuff with a dead pig – it would almost be rude not to make up and share as many off-colour jokes as you can think of. Type 1 is very sensible, and Type 2 is something of a worry, but what none of these reactions do is rely on the notion that the idea of the PM engaging in the sort of ritual suggested is simply implausible and unthinkable of such a fine and upstanding chap. And that, I suspect, is at the heart of Cameron’s public image problem.

Let’s be realistic – Cameron doesn’t have a BIG public image problem. He’s won one and a half general elections, and has already said that he doesn’t plan to lead the Tories into another. All he needs to do is maintain sufficient popularity to be able to choose his time of departure rather than be pushed. But Cameron’s personal public image is all tied up in the idea that he’s a new Conservative. He’s the Conservative who can be trusted with the NHS, because he knows first hand what it’s like to be the parent of a severely disabled child. He’s the Conservative who cares about ‘hard-working people’. He’s spent a lot of time trying not to be seen as an old Etonian rich boy, even thought that is absolutely what he is. And the lack of disbelief around the PigGate story suggests that he hasn’t quite pulled off that particular smoke and mirror trick.

And that is, potentially, damaging in a way that it probably wouldn’t be to a politician like Boris Johnson. Boris has never tried to downplay his fundamental hooray Henry-ness, so stories of him Bullingdon-clubbing it up fit with and reinforce a public image with which he’s comfortable. Cameron runs the risk of looking like a man who’s not really at ease in his own skin. And that’s never been a problem in the past because he’s been in competition with opposition leaders who made personal discomfort into a national spectator sport. Gordon Brown trying to do a relaxed smile or Ed Miliband shouting ‘Hell, yeah’ were moments of inept image management that turned the six o’clock news into something to be cringe-watched from behind a cushion. All Cameron has ever had to do before was look more at ease than that. But, during the Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn certainly looked entirely comfortable with who he is – whether the Labour party publicity machine allows him to retain that or media trains him into oblivion is yet to be seen, but looking inauthentic is, potentially, Cameron’s Achilles’ heel, and it’s not one he’s been punished for so far.

In which I reflect on the morning after the night before

So it’s the morning after the general election. The Conservatives have won. The SNP basically own Scotland. Labour had a bad night, only made less awful by comparison with the Lib Dems who did exactly as well as you’d expect for a party who’ve spent the last five years doing pretty much the precise opposite of everything their followers believe in.

But apart from those obvious things, what can we learn from the 2015 election? Well, I’d suggest these things:

 

1. Polling in a multi-party election using a constituency-based first-past-the-post system is tricky. Really really tricky.

There’s a lot that polling organisations have to try to factor in when trying to forecast the result of a general election. There’s how well the votes for each party actually hold up on the day; there’s whether the undecideds split in a predictable way; there’s the popularity of specific local MPs or candidate that might differ from a national average; there’s how the parties’ popularity is spread around the country, and about 1001 other things beside. There are also specific known phenomena like the ‘shy tory’ which is the effect caused by conservative voters being less likely to disclose their voting intention.

However, even given all that the polls leading up to this election were quite consistently wrong, and it’s that consistency that ought to concern pollsters and politicians in the future. Polls have a margin of error on them, and you should always expect there to be a few outlying polls during any campaign, but actually during this campaign the public polls were incredibly homogenous, and looking at the politicians’ initial responses to the broadcaster’s exit poll, it seems like the parties internal polling was much the same. Either Labour or the Conservatives could be the largest single party, and the share of the vote between Labour and the Tories was too close to call. Neither of those things were true. The next few days and hours are likely to be dominated by party leaders falling on their swords – there are probably a few senior poll designers wondering if it’s time for them to do the same.

 

2. All the parties struggled to win outside their heartlands.

The Tories did best, and they took a couple of unexpected seats in the North of England, most obviously from Ed Balls, but they also lost seats like Wirral West. A lot of the Tory gains were from the Lib Dems in the South West of England. For Labour the former heartland of Scotland turned away from them, and they didn’t make inroads into the Tory vote in the south. And the Lib Dems don’t really have a heartland – they paid the price for that lack of ‘unloseable’ seats last night. What does seem to be happening is a fracturing into a SNP block in Scotland, a predominantly Labour stripe in northern England, and a big Conservative wodge in the south. David Cameron used the phrase ‘one nation’ in his speech in his constituency, and has a massive challenge now in holding the nations together. Is David Cameron the right person for that job? An Eton and Oxbridge educated, English, career politician is a tough sell in northern England, let alone Scotland. It’s going to be hard.

 

3. The Conservatives will need to get better at Commons party discipline

In 2010 the coalition government held 363 seats at Westminster. With that number of MPs on side, the government still lost votes on the EU, military action in Syria, and a number of smaller issues. At this election David Cameron is likely to have 328 or 329 MPs – that’s a tiny majority. It would only take a couple of bad byelection results to destroy it altogether, and Cameron will need to get all his MPs out to vote on every key issue. That’s going to be a challenge. The hard right-wingers and the EU sceptics on his backbenches will expect their backs to be well-scratched in return.

 

4. Rumours of the death of print media have been exaggerated (also known as: Twitter is a bubble)

Most of the mainstream print media in the UK has a right wing slant. There are exceptions – The Guardian amongst the broadsheets, and the Mirror amongst the tabloids – but the general mood is on the rabid end of Tory. In the closing days of this election campaign much has been made of the reprinting of pics of Ed Miliband eating in an untelegenic sort of a way, and of the personal attacks on Miliband’s personal life. Over in social media land though there has been a fightback with hashtags like #JeSuisEd and #milifandom and lots of hyperbole about how this was the social media election. But. But your twitter feed is a very narrow and selected. We all tend to follow people who are fundamentally like us, and the rest of the world is full of people who might not be like us, and those people have valid opinions too, whether they create a humourous hashtag for them or not.

 

5. The campaign for 2020 starts now. Sorry. But it does.

Because actual three week long campaigns are meaningless. The Question Time programme with the party leaders demonstrated that. The audience was properly angry, but largely angry about things that happened between 2007 and 2011 – the financial crisis, the recession, the start of austerity. If Labour want to win in 2020 they can’t repeat Ed Miliband’s strategy of keeping his powder dry until election year. Miliband was criticised throughout the parliament for being indecisive and not taking clear policy positions. Whoever is Labour leader when the dust settles needs to decide what Labour is for and start being that party straight away. One key difference between Labour and the Conservatives in this election, and between Labour now and Labour under Blair, is that Labour recently haven’t seemed proud of who they are and what they stand for. They need to fix that now, because voters decide early who they trust.

 

So there are my thoughts. I could probably come up with at least five more if I sat here long enough (stuff like – having a referendum really doesn’t close an issue down, does it? Proportional representation, Scotland anyone?) I shan’t though. I need to sleep. Good night (or morning or whatever it is) all.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it wrong about… coalition building

So, Ed Miliband won’t do deals with the SNP. Nick Clegg has ruled out deals with any party also doing deals with UKIP or the SNP. Politicians are ruling out all sorts of possible post-election coalition permutations. It’s sort of the precise opposite of what happened last time, and in a way, suggests that politicians have matured a bit in their approach to coalitionbuilding. Unfortunately they haven’t really matured enough. Last time Nick Clegg was like a toddler in the playground, and David Cameron bounded up to him and showed him some gravel he’d found. Fifteen seconds later they were bestest bestest friends and running up and down Downing Street playing aeroplanes. This time around our politicians are more like teenagers. They’ve got their little friendship groups and the risk of looking stupid by getting rejected by anyone else is just like totes beyond horrendous, so they’re all making very clear that they’re the ones doing the rejecting.

So they’ve grown-up a bit, but not so much that any of them are prepared to talk about what they would do in a hung parliament, and the only thing any of the polls in this election are predicting with any confidence is that it will be a hung parliament. The Conservatives seem to have just about nearly sort of inched ahead in terms of number of votes, but the vagaries of our electoral system means that there’s no guarantee that that will equate to winning the most seats.

It’s looking increasingly likely that, in addition to no single party being able to form a majority government, it’s going to need more than two parties to form a majority coalition. So that probably means either the Tories plus UKIP plus the Ulster Unionists plus the Lib Dems, or Labour plus the SNP plus the Lib Dems, but both of those options include alliances that have already been ruled out.

So why are politicians so keen to rule out what could be workable coalition options? Well some of them relate to points of policy – it’s difficult to imagine the uber pro-European Lib Dems as natural bedfellows of Nigel Farage, and that’s clearly also a stumbling block for pro-United Kingdom parties when it comes to doing deals with Scottish or Welsh Nationalists, but there can’t be very many people who genuinely think that Labour can make it into government without support from the SNP. The numbers simply don’t add up. The Tories position isn’t much better; if they can’t get both the Lib Dems and UKIP on board their numbers look equally unlikely to get them to the magic 326.

Even if Labour attempt to form a minority government they’ll only be able to do anything if the SNP vote with them, and that’s where we get to the problem with all this ruling out, because it’s a very specific form of ruling out. Announcing that you won’t do any ‘formal deals’ is very specific, and in no way rules out only attempting to pass legislation that you already know other parties definitely agree with.

Realistically as soon as the polls close on Thursday every party will be running around desperately trying to do deals with every other. And that’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just the reality of the fact that the two parties who’ve dominated UK politics for the last century are increasingly under pressure from smaller parties. First past the post, like most electoral systems, only consistently gives you single-party majority governments if you only have two significant parties in the race. Multi-party politics creates coalitions, and minority governments who need to negotiate with opponents and make concessions and compromises to get legislation approved.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s just true. What is a bad thing is politicians pointing each other and using the fact that deals will be brokered and compromises made as a stick to beat the other with. What is a bad thing is the media printing pictures of party leaders as the whipping boys of their coalition allies. Because that just suggests that we all need to grow up a bit more – past the teenage stage and into the elusive functioning adult stage. Hung parliaments look to be here to stay; it’s probably time we all got over that and got used to the idea that compromise and talking to people you disagree with might not actually be the end of the world.

So that’s it. The election campaign is all over bar the voting, so tomorrow will be all books and loveliness on the blog with my (slightly belated) 52 Weeks: 52 Books update for April.

In which there is a little scandalette and it gets me thinking

Demonstrating the dizzying pace of the modern news agenda a small political storm has brewed and passed over just in the time I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what to blog about.

The Electoral Commission in the UK releases quarterly figures showing donations made to political parties. The figures released today showed a bequest for half a million which was split between the two Coalition parties. A little bit of light journalistic digging showed that the bequest was made in the will of a Joan Edwards who specified that the money should go to “whichever government is in office… in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.” It was speedily pointed out that thinking fit to keep it for yourself was probably not quite in the spirit of the thing, and within a morning both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had conceded the point and agreed to hand the money over to the Treasury. Cue many editorials about the grasping nature of modern politicians and their lack of engagement with the notion of public funds for the public good. Some of those editorials may even be wise and worth reading, because, yes, if you’re the government and you get a wodge of cash to spend as you “think fit” and your first thought is that you could use it to pay for a better wine selection at your party conference then shame on you.

However, my first thought on reading this story wasn’t about how disappointingly grasping and self-serving the politicians involved seem to be, it was about the bequest itself. Somewhere out there a woman decided to leave half a million pounds to the government of the day, not knowing, presumably, which party that would be or how they would choose to spend the money. I can’t decide whether that demonstrates a refreshing faith in government and democracy or simple naivete. Maybe it’s neither – maybe the woman in question had fallen out with her local cats’ home and left the money to the government just to spite them.

What I am fairly sure about is that I wouldn’t do the same. If I had half a million pounds to spare (and a quick rummage under the sofa cushions confirms that I don’t), I can imagine wanting to use the cash for the greater good. I am a proper hippy bleeding heart liberal after all. I believe in outdated stuff like the welfare state and universal healthcare and higher taxes for the comfortably-off. But to voluntarily bequeath half a million to the government of the day like Joan? I don’t think so. And there are three reasons why not:

1. I’m a bit of a control freak. Sure, I want to improve the world with my money but I want to choose how.

2. I want to see what happens to the money. That kind of rules out the whole bequest thing. I think I’d want a scheme where I just went “Here is some money. Please tweet me if you’ve got something cool you’d like to do with it, and I shall pick stuff that sounds good/interesting/worthwhile…” Back to the control freakery again.

3. I don’t quite trust that any political party would definitely use my money for the greater good, and that’s a really bad thing. Polls repeatedly show that the British public lack faith in their politicians. This Ipsos MORI poll from June 2013 is a good example, showing the extent to which we believe our politicians to be self-serving. It is, therefore, really annoying when they act in ways that reinforce that belief. After expenses scandals, and previous question marks over party funding, politicians should be going out of their way to clean up their act, rather than opportunistically divvying up bequests between themselves. Perhaps that perception is that if the mistrust extends across the party divides then there’s no comparative loss if the public don’t trust you, because they don’t trust the other guy either.

And at this point I feel I should have a pithy conclusion as to how to fix the break down of trust between electorate and elected, but I don’t I’m afraid. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments. And feel free to share your spending plans for any unexpected (or, indeed, imaginary) cash you might have lying about.