Tag Archives: labour

The 2021 Notts Labour Collapse – Both Simple and Complex.

I live in a suburb of Nottingham, UK. It’s almost smack bang in the centre of England (though this means it’s somewhat in the bottom third of the UK as a whole by latitude). It’s one of those confusing cities that can be large or small depending on definition.

•    The “Unitary Authority” (“City” political entity in charge of everything) is defined by the traditional “City of Nottingham” with a population of barely one third of a million.

•    Like so many cities, “Urban Nottingham” (including sprawling suburbs covered administratively by the County of Nottinghamshire, NOT the City) but which in practice is “Nottingham” by way of integrated health-care, buses, and various other services, is much larger – around three-quarters of a million strong.

•    If you go up to “Metro Nottingham” (quoted on Wikipedia but which might – it’s not clear – include the “neighbouring city of Derby” which might be regarded as “commuter belt” but which would strongly contest membership of Nottm!) then we’re talking 1.5 million.

Why give this long intro? Because on “Super Thursday” recently, all the bits outside “City of Nottingham” elected councillors for Nottinghamshire. Notts had traditionally been a part of the Labour “Red Wall”. It began to crumble 4 years ago and collapsed entirely this year. The media “analysis” was largely simplistic about the collapse of Labour. I’m not arguing they are wrong. They are right. But for the wrong reasons.

I’ve had a chance to delve deeper into the Notts data. I think I see what went on, and the Tories must be (reluctantly) admired. Why? For their electoral guile in Nottinghamshire and likely elsewhere in both encouraging “local” parties to peel off economically left, socially conservative Labour voters, so incumbent Labour councillors lost, but then strangling such parties when their “brexit fueled desire for more local power” came to be a threat to the Conservative Party’s centralising nature.

The “story” of Nottinghamshire is both simple and complex. The Tories had 31 seats and had previously led a coalition. They needed 34 to govern alone (66 seats in Nottinghamshire). Their previous coalition partner was a regional party (Mansfield Independents with 4 seats). Ashfield is the district that borders Mansfield (and there are 7 districts in Notts – not necessarily equal sized in population so think of US States but with some “double candidate divisions” to try to somewhat offset this). Ashfield has 10 seats, 5 of which had been held by the Ashfield Independents plus a 6th by a sister party which then merged this election, effectively making the Ashfield Independents hold 6 of 10 divisions. For those puzzled by terminology, divisions is an old term used for county subdivisions. It’s akin to wards but not necessarily the same as a ward. Of the other 4 Ashfield divisions, 3 were Tory, 1 Labour.

The Tories clearly knew ALL FOUR WERE GOING TO BE LOST (which they duly were – the Independents now hold all 10 seats). Why? The Tories “moved” one of their councillors (who also happens to be the newly elected, as of 2019, Member of Parliament for Mansfield) to contest a seat in neighbouring Mansfield for this election. He had been one of the three Tory Ashfield Councillors – perhaps the key one.

On the one hand, fair enough for the guy to move into a district more obviously contained within his Westminster Parliamentary constituency. On the other hand, his council seat was a stone’s throw away and “moving” ahead of a landslide that nobody in the media predicted certainly raises questions….such as “How did you know that was going to happen?”

So the Tories knew they were in danger of moving backwards – they in fact lost 5 seats (mostly to independents) so now were 3+5=8 seats short of a bare majority of 34. Getting 8 seats from Labour (which was exactly what they got) would do it, but nobody likes the bare minimum. So who did they go after to get some additional seats? Their own coalition partners, the Mansfield Independents. All 4 of their divisions fell (though one division to another, differently affiliated independent), 3 to the Tories (including the aforementioned MP). Voila. 3 division majority of 37, what you see quoted on the news.

It is all presented as a “total Labour failure”, which, ultimately, it is. HOWEVER, the right wing, over the past few years before and since the Brexit Referendum, have:

•    encouraged people in deprived “Old Labour” districts like Mansfield and Ashfield who felt utterly let down by New Labour to follow UKIP etc,
•    then after “Brexit was delivered”, regional “parties for local people”.
•    The Tories even then went into coalition with such a “local party”.
•    Then when it suited them, they ate them. The now zero-seat Mansfield Independents Party should have remembered what happened to the Liberal Democrats when they went into coalition with the Tories.

The “short version” lesson:
•    The Conservatives in a key “former red wall county” actually LOST quite heavily to a new party of “older Lefties” who were not just “anti-Brussels” but “anti-Westminster”. Such people were left-wing economically and small-c conservative socially (and very “LEAVE” supporting).
•    However, the Tories clawed back losses there by
(1) exterminating their coalition partner – another similar “local party based in Old Labour area” – turnout DOUBLED in those seats compared to rest of Notts – 60% in a local election in Mansfield? That’s incredible, as in “unbelievable”, and
(2) grabbing Labour seats that were also “Old Labourish” but had “Starmer/New Labour” candidates.

The lesson? Whilst the 4 Labour Arnold candidates beat the trend by being visible in DOING things for their constituents, elsewhere Labour got hammered. Not always from a “direct blow” from the Tories, but otherwise from the inevitable conclusion of a long process that started with the Blair decision to leave the left behind.

Labour voting reform?

So. Zoe Williams has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons with a piece attempting to predict the result of the Labour leadership election. She has interesting insights, some obvious, some perhaps less so. One that most would consider obvious is:

There are some known knowns: Thornberry, if trends continue, won’t make the ballot. 

I agree. So we’re probably down to a three horse race, Long-Bailey, Nandy and Starmer. As Williams points out, actually it is pretty difficult to pin down at least the latter two regarding their “true values”. What they’re saying during this campaign is not necessarily the best guide. I’m someone with a multi-decade career in examining preferences; looking at revealed preferences – what a person has DONE ALREADY, is often (though far from exclusively) the best way to understand what they value. Thus Williams has attempted to look at their votes in Parliament, among other actions. It’s still an uphill task but she should be admired for trying.

Her main conclusions:

  • Long-Bailey won’t finish third in the first round of voting so won’t be eliminated;
  • In circumstances where she HAS come third, her supporters’ preferences have almost all gone to Nandy;
  • Supporters of Starmer almost all put Nandy as second preference;
  • Supporters of Nandy almost all put Starmer as second preference.

For those of you who know my background – co-author of the definitive textbook on Best-Worst Scaling, you probably have had the “aha” moment already. However, for others, I’ll guide you through something I freely thought was probably more of a “theoretical curiosity” than a real possibility in a real election. I’m quite fired up!

IN SHORT:

  • UNDER THE (SEMI-PROPORTIONAL) EXISTING ALTERNATIVE VOTE (RANKING – SPECIAL CASE OF SINGLE TRANSFERABLE VOTE) SYSTEM, STARMER WILL LIKELY WIN;
  • UNDER A HYPOTHETICAL (VERY NON-PROPORTIONAL) FIRST-PAST-THE-POST SYSTEM (CURRENTLY USED AT WESTMINSTER), LONG-BAILEY WOULD LIKELY WIN;
  • UNDER ANOTHER SEMI-PROPORTIONAL SYSTEM – MOST-LEAST VOTING – NANDY WOULD LIKELY WIN.

So, using the same set of rankings, 1, 2 & 3 from every Labour voter, we could have ANY ONE OF THE THREE LIKELY CANDIDATES WIN, DEPENDING ON THE VOTING SYSTEM. Voting enthusiasts will have likely watched “hypothetical” cases on YouTube etc showing artificial data that could do this. But I genuinely believe, if Zoe Williams is correct, that we might be about to see real data in a real election that demonstrate this phenomenon!

Before I go any further, I shall make two things clear:

  1. The Labour leadership voting system is established. It is ranked voting (Alternative Vote). This is merely a thought exercise intended to spur debate about the Labour Party’s policy for electoral reform at Westminster.
  2. Plenty of people have discussed the existing FPTP used at Westminster, and AV (as a “compromise” measure between FPTP and “full Proportional Representation – PR”). Unfortunately AV lost the referendum on electoral reform – badly – several years ago. Thus I want to illustrate another “semi-proportional compromise” that might prove more acceptable to the British public – Most-Least Voting.

2020 LABOUR POSSIBLE RESULT

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

Understandably, there are NO hard data on the relative percentages of support for the (assumed) three candidates likely to qualify for the final round involving the general membership of the Labour party. I’ve used some, I hope not unreasonable, guesstimates, based on YouGov figures (when there were 4 or 5 candidates, but the bottom two together accounting for <10%).

THESE FORM THE FIRST PREFERENCE (ROUND ONE) PERCENTAGES FOR THE THREE CANDIDATES.

For round two, it is pretty obvious Nandy will be eliminated.

The question becomes, “To whom do her supporters’ votes go?”

For that, I use the information from aforementioned article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian. Unless Long-Bailey has a MUCH bigger lead over Starmer than seems reasonable at the moment, and unless Zoe’s finding that Nandy’s supporters are likely to put Starmer as 2nd is totally wrong, then Starmer is likely to win after redistribution. End of story. RED FIGURES.

Under a hypothetical First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system (as used for Parliamentary constituencies at Westminster) there’s a good chance Long-Bailey would have won – with probably a plurality but not majority (i.e. not >50% but beating the other two). BLUE FIGURES.

Most-Least Voting (GREEN FIGURES) may require some exposition since only regular readers will be familiar with it. M-L voting works on the principles that:

  • Voters MUST, for a “valid, non-spoilt ballot”, indicate their MOST PREFERRED and LEAST PREFERRED candidates.
  • So a voter gives just TWO pieces of information, “most” and “least”. Clearly, as the number of candidates increase, this becomes MUCH easier than AV, involving a “full ranking”. Oodles of research (see aforementioned textbook co-authored by me) demonstrates that people are TERRIBLE at full rankings and that this has VERY REAL problems in terms of producing a candidate that is mathematically “the best” – the statistical rules that MUST hold for the AV algorithm to “work” almost never hold. This might be why Aussies are increasingly disliking AV – I lived there for 6 years and saw it in action. Believe me, I’ve seen the stupid results it can produce.
  • Now, with only three candidates, like here, giving ranks 1, 2 & 3 seems identical to just selecting “most” (rank one) and “least” (rank three). Yes, the information is identical – ASSUMING THE FORMAT OF THE QUESTION HAS NOT INDUCED DIFFERENT “GAMING OF THE SYSTEM i.e. tactical voting.
  • What differs is the MATHEMATICS OF WHAT IS DONE WITH THESE THREE RANKINGS.

Under M-L voting, “more weight is given to people’s degree of dislike” – to be more precise, THE EXACT SAME WEIGHT IS GIVEN TO WHAT THEY LIKE LEAST/HATE AS TO WHAT THEY LIKE MOST/LOVE. This doesn’t happen under AV. Why? And how?

  1. “Most” votes for each candidate are added up, just as under FPTP.
  2. “Least” votes for each candidate are added up, separately.
  3. Each candidate’s “least” total is subtracted from their “most” total.
  4. This produces a “net approval score”. If it is positive, on average the candidate is “liked”, if negative, on average “disliked”.
  5. The candidate with the highest net approval score wins.

Note some important properties of M-L voting:

  • If you have majority support (>50%) then it becomes increasingly difficult to “knock you out” – so the British people’s oft-stated desire for “strong single party government” is not sacrificed, merely made a little more difficult.
  • For those (LOTS) of candidates in British elections winning with a plurality but not majority (i.e. winning but not obtaining 50+%), often getting low 40s, then they have to be a LOT more careful. The opposition might be divided upon their “preferred” candidate, but if they all agree you have been obnoxious to their supporters they will ALL PUT YOUR CANDIDATE AS “LEAST PREFERRED”, PUSHING THAT CANDIDATE INTO NEGATIVE TERRITORY. He/she won’t win.
  • The strategy, if you don’t have a strong majority in your constituency, is to offer a POSITIVE VISION THAT DOESN’T ENGAGE IN NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING AGAINST YOUR OPPONENTS. Candidates who are “extreme” without being constructive LOSE.

So, what’s the relevance for the Labour leadership contest? Well, if it is true that Long-Bailey and Starmer do indeed “polarise” Labour supporters, each having a relatively large, passionate body of supporters who are ill-disposed toward the other, then electing either one could prove toxic for Labour when facing the Conservatives. Maybe the candidate who “comes through the middle by alienating virtually nobody” might be better?

As usual, I will mention Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. There is NO FAIR VOTING SYSTEM. You must decide what are the most important targets for your system, then choose the system that best achieves these. You won’t achieve EVERY target. However, you can achieve the most important ones.

So Labour, what do you want?

  • The possibility of single-party power but, given current population dynamics, something that seems a LOT more difficult than it was in 1997 under Blair, or
  • A system which preserves the single-member constituency and which cannot be fully proportional, but which is semi-proportional and which is very very close to FPTP…..maybe close enough that it would WIN a referendum, unlike AV?

MOST-LEAST VOTING WOULD NOT BE FULLY PROPORTIONAL. BUT, GIVEN A DESIRE FOR SINGLE -MEMBER CONSTITUENCIES, IT WOULD BE SEMI-PROPORTIONAL, THUS:

  • The percentage of seats in the House of Commons per party would be MUCH closer to their percentage of the popular vote;
  • HOWEVER, it would NOT be EQUAL. Parties offering popular manifestos that did not vilify others and which commanded support in the 40-something range, could STILL get an overall majority in the House of Commons.
  • Whilst those in favour of “full PR” could still complain, I’d argue this is a pragmatic compromise between two fundamentally incompatible aims – Proportionality and Single Member constituencies. Furthermore, if a majority government DOES emerge, it’s unlikely to have done so via vilifying minorities. There will be no tyranny of the majority.

FINALLY, PLEASE DO NOT TAKE ANY OF THIS AS AN ENDORSEMENT FOR A PARTICULAR CANDIDATE. I AM IN NO WAY SEEKING TO “CHANGE THE RULES” TO GET WHO I THINK WOULD DO BEST. I MERELY USED THE LABOUR CAMPAIGN AS AN EXEMPLAR BECAUSE IT HAS SOME (SORT OF) REAL NUMBERS THAT MAKE THINGS INTERESTING!!!!

I think there’s debate to be had here.