Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Why wasn’t it “the economy, stupid” in 1997?

At the start of September, Mike Smithson drew attention to the improving figures on economic optimism – and how they haven’t been accompanied by a revival in Labour’s political fortunes:

Like in 1997 the fact the index is “in the black” seems to be having
no impact on the incumbent government. The Tories had positive numbers but were thrown out by Blair’s landslide - now Labour is still struggling in the polls ...

At a conference of political academics at the weekend I had a long conversation with Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University who is a strong proponent of this view. He told me “If it was the economy then the Tories would have been returned in 1997 with an increased majority.

The Clinton Presidential campaign of 1992 may have coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” but it is a political view with a long heritage in British politics. It was Harold Wilson who said, “All political history shows that the standing of the government and its ability to hold the confidence of the electorate at the general election depend on the success of its economic policy.”

So what did happen in 1997? After all, the period 1992-97 was packed with high profile economic news that had traumatic effects on millions. Sterling crashed out of the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) on “Black Wednesday” (16 September 1992), breaking the Conservatives’s reputation for economic competence.

Quite how traumatic the events of Black Wednesday were to the Conservative Party’s reputation are easy to overlook nearly twenty years on, but until then the century had seen four full-scale financial crises rocking the country’s economy – and every one had taken place under a Labour government. For the century’s fifth to take place with a Conservative in 10 Downing Street overturned what had been one of the essential features of British politics.

A deep recession followed by spending cuts and the government’s public support was pushed even lower as 22 tax rises introduced in the struggle to get the budget deficit under control.

Yet by 1997 the economic recovery was in its fourth year. This did not push John Major and the Conservatives back into the lead – or anywhere close to it. So were their political fortunes really not set by the economy?

Taking ICM’s figures, the Conservatives sunk from 41% in August 1992 to a low of 24% in March 1994. In that month, ICM changed its methodology and a second poll carried out at the same using its new methodology put the party on 28%. From there the party recovered to 33% in the final pre-election ICM poll and scoring 31% in the actual general election.

Gallup’s final pre-election poll also put the Conservatives on 33% (though over-estimated the Labour vote, giving a greater error on the Labour-Tory lead). Their methodology stayed the same through the Parliament, tracking the Tories from 40.5% in August 1992 to a low of 20% in June 1995.

Either way, the broad picture is the same – a prolonged and sharp decline in the Conservative support during bad economic times, followed by a much smaller subsequent revival. That doesn’t preclude 1997 having been the economy, stupid. It is a picture quite compatible with voters being heavily motivated by the economy – but making their judgements based on the damage to the Conservatives’s reputation by the ERM debacle, and by a desire to punish the government for the early 1990s recession. Add to that Labour’s transformation in its own image on economic policies, and a growing economy was easily overshadowed.

Polls asking people which issues were most important to them tracked significant increases in the numbers answering ‘health’ and ‘education’. However, this was simply the economy in another guise, for what drove up concern on those issues was financial shortages brought about by the recession of the early 1990s and the budget deficit it caused. So whilst by April 1996 only 34% of ex-Conservatives were telling Gallup that one of their “very important” reasons for switching was that the party was “making a mess of the economy”, the 66% who said the Government was “continuing to undermine the NHS” and the 55% who said that “public services – not just the NHS – continue to decline” were reacting to economic news too, via the medium of public spending restraint.

As David Butler and Dennis Kavannagh put it in The British Election of 1997:

To the surprise and disappointment of Conservative Central Office,
the economic recovery failed to fee through into support for the government. Voters’ economic optimism, the ‘feel-good factor’, was slow to rise. For this there were several possible reasons. The recession had been severe, and many people continued to be afflicted with problems such as anxiety over the security of their job or the negative equity of their house. It was only in 1996 that unemployment fell below 8 per cent. There remained a general sense of economic insecurity. As Spencer and Curtice observed, the recovery was marked by low inflation, more flexible and short-term work, and declining or only slow rising property prices. As a result voters felt less secure and optimistic than during pervious economic recoveries. Further it was recognised that the Conservatives had broken the promises on tax made at the election, and that recovery had only commenced once the government had been forced to abandon its initial policies ... In any case, the economy was not the only factor to affect the government’s popularity. It quite soon began to attract a reputation for incompetence.

Conservative popularity was undermined by steady drum beat of these other issues, including the moves to close large numbers of mines – ruled “unlawful and irrational” by the High Court, the organisational disasters at the Child Support Agency, mad cow disease and 12 ministerial resignations over personal behaviour. And then there were the deep splits over Europe.

What, if anything, does this tell us about Gordon Brown’s prospects? If your reputation for economic competence is broken and you are burdened with non-economic crisis after crisis, economic recovery is not enough to put your popularity back together again. Although Brown’s situation is marginally better – his repudiation of previous attitudes towards the financial markets is not quite in the same league as the Conservative repudiation not just of an economic strategy based on the ERM but also of years of rhetoric of tax – it is hard to see that it is better enough to allow him to succeed where John Major failed. Once the bad economic news has broken your reputation, recovering is not enough to put it back together again.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Day Boris Took the Train

Boris Johnson took my train this morning. He was opening the new Imperial Wharf station on the West London line. On the platform, he was accompanied by TV, press and various hangers on. (BTW This is not what you want when you are coming into work late after a Dr’s appointment). Boris must have had a good impression as he boarded the shiny train from the brand new station and travelled on all the way to West Brompton.

Two minutes later Boris got off. This is not a long time to get a real impression of the railways. The usual entourage, with fixed Jack Nicolson’s smiles, circled Boris like wagon trains in the old west. The natives could not get close. And conveniently for Boris, he took the first train after the rush hour. An hour earlier, if he had managed to board the train, even two minutes would have been a proper education. As it was everything was perfect. Job done, next photo op. please.

Out of touch politicians cause poor government. So it was sad to see Boris be exposed to a rather bogus view. He will take away shiny steel and glass, empty trains and happy faces from those precious two minutes. What a shame he did not have to miss a train due to overcrowding, step over the rubbish or breathed the stale air of sweaty armpits.

I don’t blame Boris. Every politician from every party suffers from this. Exposed to new hospital wards, new motorways or shiny military equipment they get a warped view of the world. Functionaries are too eager to please and success has to be presented all the time. In fact,not only do I not blame Boris, I feel sorry for him. After twelve months, he’s already treading the well worn path that leads to political failure.

What can we do? Can the Internet cut through the smiles and polish and tell politicians how things really are? Do they listen? One thing is for certain, it is our responsibility to keep those in office in touch with reality. If we don't, no-one will. The Internet is a great new tool. Let's see if it works. Boris Johnson boarded my train today. He got a partial view of commuters’ lives. If he wants to be a good mayor, I think he should correct this.

So Boris, if you’re out there, I invite you to see another world. Buy a black wig and some glasses. Keep the rucksack and the crushed suit, they'll fit in nicely (you will have to put the bag down though). Slip your leash and take the 8:34 and get two minutes of raw 2009 London if you dare. We look forward to hearing from you.



I am running the poll below to get a feeling of what fellow PBers think of the idea of a hung Parliament. Please vote, and invite others...

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Singapore Review

As happened last year, Singapore proved a highly eventful Grand Prix (happily without a suspiciously convenient crashing incident).

Tips wise, both Red Bulls failed to score a podium. Webber never looked likely, but Vettel was somewhat unfortunate to cock up with a speeding incident in the pit lane.

Rosberg was also a bit unlucky to make such a silly error exiting the pits, but overall the result was positive if you backed all horses equally with no laying (I do support laying in F1 as freak accidents can occur quite easily).

Glock and Alonso made it onto the podium, and if you predicted that you’re not only wise but wealthy too (if you backed them).

Vettel’s 4th was handy from my perspective, but disappointing from his. If it weren’t for that speeding error he would have taken a much bigger bite out of Button’s lead and perhaps keep his marginal title hopes alive.

Button retains his position as the luckiest man alive. He couldn’t be any more fortunate if he opened his front door on Monday morning to find the Swedish Nymphomaniac Association’s tour bus had broken down outside his house.

He extended his lead by a solitary point over Barrichello, making it 15 with 3 races left. The drivers’ title is by no means over but Barrichello’s job got even harder.

Constructors’ is very good indeed for Brawn. More than 40 points ahead of Red Bull with 3 races left. Unlikely Red Bull can come back from that.

Japan is next week, and a good result in Suzuka will cement the titles for Button and Brawn.

Morris Dancer

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Singapore GP preview

Apologies for the lateness of this article, due to the timezone difference qualifying was delayed a couple of hours and I’ve only just seen the pre-race weights.

Hamilton’s heavy fuel load (for the top 10) and very good pace makes him the clear frontrunner for the win. From 11-13 Nakajima, Button and Raikonnen are all heavy (680kg) and could end up in a good position should there be a safety car.

It’s also interesting that 3rd placed chap Rosberg is heavier than either Red Bull driver (Vettel is 2nd, Webber 4th).

So, is there any value, and if so, where is it?

Perusing Betfair, I think it’s worth laying both Red Bulls for podiums, presently at about 2 for Vettel and 2.2 for Webber. I’d take the former at 2.5 or under, and the latter at 3 or under.

According to the excellent Mole blog (link: Vettel (2nd) is on the dirty side of the track (and therefore 4th-placed Webber must be also). Vettel especially is low on fuel and may get overtaken by Rosberg and Alonso (3rd and 5th respectively, though it’s worth noting the Renault does not have KERS at this circuit). Even if he isn’t he’ll have to pit relatively early.

I don’t think Raikonnen will do very well, although he has KERS which will prove useful off the start and in the likely event of a safety car the Ferrari has performed badly all weekend.

Similarly, Barrichello had some pace but his fuel load is very low for 10th place, and Button has good fuel, but underperformed in qualifying and will probably be overtaken by Raikonnen off the start.

Hamilton’s rightly heavy favourite, but given the chances of a safety car and the fact that on a street circuit most errors prove race-ending I’m unsure of any value in the winner’s market.

However, Mr Scott P. has highlighted the possible value of Rosberg to win, (presently 14.5). I concur with Scott’s view that Rosberg is faster than Vettel here (and would’ve won the last Singapore race if Alonso had been disqualified). Looking it over, I’m inclined to agree it’s worth a punt.

The Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka is in one week’s time, not the usual two.

Morris Dancer

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

How's Dave going to deal with this?

Is this like Labour's all women short-lists?
The controversial selection of the Tory mayoral candidate for the next month's by election continues to make waves and could have a wider significance. I am returning to the subject as well because one poster on PB1 has been trying to cast doubts on my reporting of this matter.

So the bulk of this post is my words but from an email to David Cameron from the borough's Tory leader and current deputy mayor, Nicky Attenborough. This has figured prominently the local press.
She wrote:"....It was very obvious that the meeting had been hijacked and quite clearly, from where I was sitting, I could see the Liberal Democrats on the front row, Labour on the back row and a sea of faces who couldn't even understand what the candidates were saying.

So how could you say that this was a Conservative selection procedure? It was a joke and the backlash has been very severe. Especially since the members were written and told they would have a private meeting in the end to endorse the candidate.Despite several angry protestations from the floor, this was ignored, and people with a green band were told to put their hands up. Quite frankly, it just seemed the icing on a very bad cake.

You have treated loyal members of this Party with utter contempt, people who fundraise for you, support you financially, go out in the good years and the bad, in all weathers to deliver and canvass for you, sit in polling stations for you, and up to now, were proud to stand for the Conservative Party..."
The Ladbrokes prices are at CON 8/15: LD 5/4: LAB 14/1.

Mike Smithson

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Welsh Battleground : Gwynedd

Having seen recent posts on the battleground seats in Scotland, it only seems fair that the other major nation part of Great Britain gets a mention, namely Wales, but unlike the Scottish review this review will be done by former county area. This part will deal with the seats that make up Gwynedd

Ynys Môn
2005 Result: Lab 35% Plaid 31% Ind 15% Con 11% Lib Dem 7% Others 2%
Ynys Môn (which literally translates as the Island of Mona) is the Welsh name given to the island of Anglesey (which can boast as being one of only a few constituencies in the whole of Britain to have been won by every party (Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Plaid Cymru) at some stage during it's life. Ynys Môn is Plaid Cymru's third target seat in Wales which might make people think it will be an easy gain (however, it was the number 1 target seat in 2005 and they managed to miss it by 4%!)

Notional 2005 Result: Lab 34% Plaid 32% Con 16% Lib Dem 16% Others 2%
Arfon comes back into the parliamentary fray after an absence of nearly a century but anyone looking at the geography of the seat would recognise it instantly. This is Plaid's second target seat (having been carved out of the Caernarfon constituency) and with that history should be an easy Plaid gain (but as we have seen nothing is easy for Plaid)

Dwyfor Meirionnydd
Notional 2005 Result: Plaid 51% Lab 22% Con 14% Lib Dem 11% Others 2%
To say that this constituency is a mouthful is an understatement. Not only does it rank up there with Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles) as one of the more difficult constituencies to actually say, but it's been made up of bits of Caernarfon, Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and Clwyd West constituencies. Despite all this, the seat's politics has not changed too much and Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid's leader in Westminster) is almost certain to retain his seat and role

Notional 2005 Result: Lab 33% Con 29% Lib Dem 19% Plaid 14% Others 5%
ABER at the front of a word in Welsh means estuary, and the Aberconwy seat not only has the estuary of the Conwy (at Llandudno) in it's boundaries but also the whole course of the River Conwy, and just like the river, the former Conwy constituency (which this seat replaces) has meandered between Conservative and Labour (and in the Assembly elections, Plaid) and is one of the seats that the Conservatives need to gain in order to deny Labour a fourth election win

Next Time: Dyfed, named after a Welsh prince, and although only having five seats, those seats have had some great political names representing them in the past.

Spoilt Ballots? The Friday Count Debate

Norwich North broke the mould in being the first English parliamentary election for some time to count the ballots on the following day. Why was this and is it a good idea? Bunnco – your Norwich North Man-On-The-Spot asks around in Norfolk.

One of the long term legacies of Norwich North is likely to be an end to general election counts on-the-night. Back in July the Chloe Smith result wasn’t announced until 1pm on the Friday after 4 hours of frenetic counting activity in a wedding marquee on the Norfolk Showground.

The decision to count on the Friday was initially characterised as something strange – something ‘Normal for Norfolk’ – but since seems to have gained some traction with Returning Officers elsewhere announcing they’ll be counting on the following day too.

There’s been a predictable outrage from Politicos across the spectrum about the prospect of a Friday morning count and last weekend, on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour, some Blair-Babe was arguing that ‘of course’ we should count overnight. So what’s caused this problem? The simple answer, of course, is that it’s her Government’s new rules. But why?

For an answer you need to ask Colin Bland, the returning officer at Broadland Council who oversaw the Norwich North count. So I have!

“It’s not just a case of 'let's have the count start at 10pm' as we have been able to do before,” he tells me. Two things have happened which change the game.

1 New rules on the verification of postal votes to reduce fraud have been introduced this year
2 There’s been an increase in the number of people opting for absent ballots and crucially with more handing them in on the day.

In the past, attending the opening of the postals in the days before polling day has enabled party-workers to gain valuable voting intelligence. The officials never actually showed the front of ballot papers as they were removed from the envelopes but you could normally see the vote cast showing-through the underside of the folded ballot paper as it was put in the box. This way you could get a rough-and-ready idea of the party proportions and target effort in the marginal wards accordingly.

But new rules introduced this year to prevent fraud mean it's different.

Every ballot paper is now included in a second envelope. The second envelope contains a signed voter declaration. That declaration is fed into a scanning machine where the signature is compared with the one provided on the original voter registration form. The machine is pretty good provided there's a close match with the signature and the date of birth. And because you now never actually see that ballot in the first envelope, there's no decent intelligence for party workers to be gained any more, which is a shame for the campaigners.

The machine scan checks for 25 points of correspondence between the signature on the postal vote application [as held in the computer memory] and the signature on the postal vote declaration which accompanies the return postal ballot paper envelope. If there are 18 or more correspondences, the vote is allowed automatically; if not, there will be a manual check between the original postal vote application with that on the declaration. This is the sort of process that takes time if it is to be carried out accurately.

In most cases, all this validation can all be done ahead of time as the postals dribble-in during the days preceding polling day but in the Euro elections in neighbouring South Norfolk last June, 600 postal ballots were handed in on the day at the polling station. We know that in The General there'll be more postals, more will be handed in on the day and the turnout will be higher. So returning officers are now estimating that 10% of the total number of postals will be handed in at the polling station.

And they all need to be signature-processed before ballot verification can be completed and the count proper started. And that’s the problem because it can take hours to validate them. Returning to South Norfolk’s June Euro poll, with 600 votes to process on a 35% turnout, election officials worked through the night until 3am to validate the postals in readiness for the Friday count. So validation for the General could take much longer… perhaps until 6am. And it’s just not on to have everybody hanging about on double-time until the early hours before you can even start to verify and then count.

Norwich North’s, Colin Bland told me. “If we didn’t allow people to hand postals in on-the-day, we wouldn’t have a problem and we could count overnight. But we do, so we can’t.”

Moving further afield, we know from Mike Smithson that there are about 50,000 postals in Newcastle so assuming that as many as 5,000 are handed-in on-the-day, let’s think how Election Officials might somehow short-cut the process to enable the count to start in the small hours?

Firstly, there’s no reason why returning officers can’t tour the constituency on polling day to collect the postals handed-in at the polling station which are placed in special sealed boxes and then bring them to the Count and then start validation straight away as if they had been delivered by the postman. In Norwich North, Bland did just that, getting a head-start collecting about 300 postals by lunchtime. But hundreds more were handed-in after that and right up to the point at which the polls closed. So it’s only a partial solution.

As one national Party Agent confirms, Bland was doing it correctly: “Some councils check postal votes handed in on the day in the early evening to reduce the pressure earlier. Such checking can be carried out while the rest of the count continues, it does not have to be consecutive as long as there is one other box of ballot papers to mix them with when they have been checked, the verification can carry on. ”

But this is fraught with logistical difficulty in large rural constituencies like South Norfolk or neighbouring Breckland, each with 119 parishes, some with more than one polling station. And this is why half the constituencies in rural Norfolk have already declared a Friday morning count.

I wonder whether we might see a dividing line at The General with compact urban constituencies [more likely to vote Labour] going overnight on the basis they can have multiple collections of postals during polling day with the sparse rural ones [Tory-leaning?] opting for the Friday. Might this distort the betting between the close of poll at 10pm and the final declarations?

Of course, the verification could be speeded-up by buying more machines to scan and verify postal votes. But each costs in excess of £20,000 and needs a specially trained operator. In times of financial restraint, is it worth investing those sort of sums to double a capacity used only every other year? It’s difficult to justify in the present climate.

Counting the following day does also provided a cost saving – about £1,000-£1500 was saved on overtime in Norwich North, which could amount to £1m nationally, although this can be partly offset by removing civil servants from the day-job the following day.

Make no mistake. I would really like to have the vote on the night. Getting rid of Gordon Brown 6 hours earlier than otherwise might be the case seems like a good idea to me. And as a person used to attending the count as a counting agent, I love the nocturnal excitement. But we have to safeguard the whole process against fraud... which is why it’s important to check the absents so carefully… and that inevitably takes time. We can’t have it both ways.

But can it be done on-the-night? An increasing number of Electoral Officials don't think so. And they're the ones who run the election. In a touchingly old-fashioned sort of way, I'm not sure it’s proper for Politicians to direct an overnight count. This is one area above all others where Politicos must let the officials get on with it. There really shouldn't be Political Interference in the running of elections.

But, as one venerable former headmaster told me the other day, back in the 1950’s the General Election count was something done on the Friday and that the whole school got involved with it. If we’re trying to engage a whole new generation in an understanding of politics might a Friday count demonstrate to the pupils that polling day isn’t just a day’s holiday whilst the school hall is used for voting, but actually part of a more valuable democratic process?

On balance I’m persuaded that we should leave it until the Friday so we can all share the excitement after a good night’s sleep. Perhaps Colin Bland was more of a trail blazer than a bogeyman after all.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Rural Battleground Seats in North and East Scotland

Scotland 2010: The 31 seats that matter Part 3: Rural Battleground seats in the North and East of Scotland

At the General Election, now expected to be held in May 2010, out of Scotland’s 59 seats, as many as 31 could change hands.

Since 2005, Scotland has voted 3 times, at the Holyrood and Council elections in 2007 and at the European elections in 2009. Every 4 years all Scottish councils elect all councillors simultaneously using the STV multi-member ward system and Holyrood a mixture of “first past the post” for 73 constituency MSP and 8 regional lists each electing 7 additional regional MSPs from party lists.

As polls have varied since 2007 but few Scotland only polls have been taken I have predicted outcomes on the basis of the SNP polling 30-35%, Labour 30-35%, Tories 20-25% and LibDems 10-15%. The problem predicting Westminster results is that few Holyrood seats resemble the 2005 created Westminster ones and the Council boundaries rarely match the Westminster seats either.

Here are the 5 rural “battleground seats” in the North and East of Scotland

Gordon: (LibDem) a seat in which the Tories used to weigh their vote, LibDem since 1987 when taken by Malcolm Bruce, his personal vote may just hold back the SNP tide. Alex Salmond took the Holyrood seat in 2007 on a 10% swing. The LibDems continue to face problems in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Councils where the Group leader has been deposed and another leading councillor under investigation for alleged improper dealings in the former and 3 councillors have left the group and the ongoing repercussions of the “Donald Trump affair” in the latter. Malcolm Bruce will be hard to shift but give the Daily Telegraph expenses claims about Mr and Mrs Bruce; this could be an SNP gain.

Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine: (LibDem) a LibDem seat since taken from the Tories in 1997, a top target with a popular local Tory MSP standing again so the best Tory prospect in the north of Scotland. The 2007 Aberdeenshire Council results covering all 3 seats showed SNP up from 15 to 22 seats, Tories up from 11 to 14 seats, LibDems down from 28 to 24 seats and Others down from 14 to 8 seats. Aberdeenshire is Labour free. Malcolm Bruce’s wife recently gained a Tory seat in a council by-election which is partly in Gordon and partly in Aberdeenshire West but that was before she featured in the Telegraph expenses claims. This will only be a Tory gain if there is a general move back to the Tories in rural Scotland.

Angus: (SNP) was the most marginal SNP-Tory seat in 2005 and went solidly SNP so Mike Weir should increase his majority. However locally people are saying that as the SNP has already squeezed as much as it can from the other parties, any Tory recovery could see the SNP vote increase and them still lose this seat at a time when it takes other seats all over Scotland.

Dunfermline and West Fife: (Lab) provided a sensational by-election victory in 2006 for the LibDem’s Willie Rennie on the death of Rachel Squire, considered by many to be Labour’s most able Fife MP. This will be a Lab-LibDem gladiatorial contest of enormous proportions, especially since Gordon Brown is the neighbouring MP. In 2007 at Holyrood the LibDems just took the Dunfermline West seat which forms a large part of the Westminster seat on a huge swing so who would bet against Willie Rennie holding this seat, which technically makes it a LibDem gain from 2005.

Perth and North Perthshire: (SNP) another see-saw SNP-Tory seat which in England would have a 15-20% Tory majority. Pete Wishart, the sitting MP was a member of Runrig, one of Scotland’s top bands but the Tories consider they have only lent this seat to the SNP so in the same way Galloway bucked the trend at Holyrood in 2007, this will either be a big increase in the SNP majority in line with the rest of Scotland or a narrow Tory gain. It will come down to whether the SNP has already fully squeezed the non-Tory vote or whether enough former Tory voters return. It could see the SNP vote increase and still lose.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Post-Monza race analysis and title forecasts

That was an exciting race both in itself and regarding the quartet of tips made in my prior article (and a failed 7/1 tip for Raikonnen to lead the first lap on the main site).

From a betting perspective the 7/1 for Barrichello to win came off, as did the 2.3 podium tips for both Brawn chaps. On the downside, the Button race win at 7/1 failed, as did the Raikonnen tip mentioned above. Assuming no laying and equal stakes on the quintet of tips I think that’s a total profit of 192%. Personally I advocate in-race laying as F1 is quite prone to unforeseen game-changing events (weather, safety car, driver error, being rammed off the road, car breakdown, spinning on the last lap and so on).

Drivers of note: Kovalainen lived up to my description of him as a perennial under-achiever. With a heavy fuel load, KERS and starting third he would’ve been the favourite if he could actually have consistent pace during a race. McLaren should’ve axed him last season.

Liuzzi drove phenomenally well to qualify 7th and was doing very nicely until he spun off. Most impressed with him.

Raikonnen continues to drive well and benefited from Hamilton’s mistake on the final lap for a quartet of consecutive podium finishes.

So, the title races are half as interesting as they were this time yesterday. Vettel scraped a solitary point and Webber’s incident with Kubica has meant the Red Bull drivers have almost no chance of acquiring the Drivers’ title which seems to be an in-house fight between Barrichello and Button.

Similarly, the Constructors’ is all but over, and if the Brawns keep this pace up they’ll secure it shortly. Red Bull could still catch them but I can’t see it happening.

Barrichello cut Button’s lead by a mere 2 points, so it now stands at 14 with just 4 races left. At the time of writing Button’s 1.31 and Barrichello stands at 4.7. The result today was unusual because it gives both drivers reasons to feel confident. Button finally had a good race, getting the podium entirely on merit, and Barrichello had another win and beat his rival for the title which will be a nice psychological boost.

I think Button will win it. Barrichello drove well today and has done for a number of races, but the Brawn is extremely reliable, and although Barrichello is out-driving Button now he isn’t doing so well enough to get 4 points extra every race, particularly given the competitive nature of the McLarens and Ferraris. I think Button’s lead is too big to be eroded just by being beaten on the track by Barrichello. I wouldn’t advocate betting on that market at this stage (I laid Barrichello slightly at 4.8 post-race).

So, we have 4 races left, including the new circuit of Abu Dhabi and I think Suzuka is going to go from day to night, which could prove interesting.

Morris Dancer

PS SCD article may be forthcoming during the week.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Pre-race forecast for Monza

Now this is a tricky bag of monkeys and no mistake. I saw somewhere that KERS should prove ultra-effective at Monza (and Renault are running it in addition to Ferrari and McLaren). Sure enough, Hamilton is in pole position, with Raikonnen 3rd and perennial under-achiever Kovalainen in 4th.

Sutil put in a great performance for Force India to finish 2nd whereas his erstwhile team-mate Fisichella (now of Ferrari) is a lowly 14th. Brawn’s cars are 5th and 6th, Barrichello leading Button, and title contenders Vettel and Webber languish in 9th and 10th respectively.

So, it should be a straightforward Hamilton victory, right? No. Hamilton should still be favourite, but he’s also the lightest on fuel of anyone in the field, and only Sutil is close to his fuel weight. Raikonnen is about 10kg heavier and the Brawns are absolutely loaded with over 30kg more than Hamilton.

So the Brawns will one-stop, and Hamilton and Raikonnen two-stop. Although it’s nicer to be further up the grid, it’s worth recalling that the last two winners came from 6th (Raikonnen last time at Spa) and 3rd (Barrichello at Valencia) to win.

I’ve put a little (equal stakes) on Button and Barrichello at 8.8 each (to win). Ross Brawn seemed thrilled with the result and Button was much more confident and relaxed when he spoke post-qualifying.

For a more likely chance you could try the 2.3 available for Button to get a podium, and similar odds for Barrichello.

I suspect this race will see Button consolidate his lead, finally, and really get one hand on the Drivers’ Title. Likewise, Brawn should make their grip on the Constructors’ Title even stronger.

Morris Dancer

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Spotting the next SPOTY in our Celebrity Culture

With Andy Murray’s exit from the US Open, I’d like to reassess this year’s Sports Personality of the Year award. Please feel free to add a Comment if you think I’ve missed anything.

These are the best available odds on the main candidates (NB some of them are Betfair odds, i.e. minus 5%, or 4.99% if you’re practically professional):

1/09/09 Today

Jenson Button 10/3 9/4

Jessica Ennis 4/1 5/2

Andy Murray 4/1 49/1

Andrew Flintoff 8/1 8/1

Andrew Strauss 12/1 11/1

33/1 bar 41/1

The Big Night is not until December 13th, so it’s not too late for another serious contender to emerge, but the chances of that are fast diminishing. In fact, I can't think of a big event taking place in the next three months that could do it. (Again, feel free to correct me in a Comment!) If the end of the Formula 1 season springs to mind, I’ll come to that in a minute.

My analysis (hoping that that’s not too scientific a word).

People sometimes bemoan the fact that the Sports Personality of the Year doesn’t always have much of a personality. I’m sure you realise that that’s not the point, any more than the Eurovision Song Contest is a song contest. My own definition of a “personality” may not match yours, and in any case let’s not forget that this is simply a popularity contest whose title uses the word “personality” because it’s a bit clunky to call it the Sports Person of the Year.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to list the main factors that can significantly affect a SPOTY candidate’s popularity. Any or all of the following can help a candidate to win votes:

· Achievement in the year in question

· Achievement in previous years

· Significance of the year in question (for instance, a retirement)

· A family story (family tragedies, poignant love stories, etc)

· Celebrity status (a certain showjumper springs to mind!)

· A record of overcoming misfortune (injuries and so on)

· The media coverage of all the above

· How much and how good their coverage is on the night – which partly depends on whether the candidate participates in a BBC sport

· Yes, their personality, and how they come over on the TV

· Most importantly, the competition, in the form of other British sporting achievement. (For instance, it’s usually difficult for non-Olympians in an Olympic year, and no one other than an England rugby player was going to get a look-in in 2003.)

We can all think of recent examples where one or other of the above factors seemed to be particularly important. I hid it in the middle of the list, but I believe that increasingly in our celebrity-dominated culture, we have to take into account the importance of Celebrity Status. So, bearing all this in mind, who should be the front-runner in this year’s competition, and are the current odds justified?

Jenson Button

In 2007 and 2008, something quite unusual happened in Formula 1. A British driver dominated both seasons, coming 2nd and then 1st. The last British Formula 1 Champion was Damon Hill in 1996. Hill won the SPOTY even though it was an Olympic year (Steve Redgrave came second). He also won in 1994, without winning the Formula 1 Championship.

But Damon Hill was already a genuine TV personality, and frankly, Lewis Hamilton was not. Given the deterioration of Formula 1’s image in recent years, and the fact that Button is even less of a “personality” than Hamilton, I think the best that Button can realistically hope for is that a Formula 1 driver comes second in the SPOTY for a third successive year.

Jessica Ennis

Candidates from athletics benefit from the fact that it’s a BBC sport, but it’s still unusual for an athlete to win the SPOTY in an odd-numbered year – you have to go back to Jonathan Edwards in 1995.

Like Ennis, Edwards came to prominence by winning World Championship gold. Could this be enough, as it was in 95? Well, Philips Idowu won gold this year too, but he’s not even in the running. I’m sure he’s a great bloke when you get to know him, but I don’t think the BBC voting public are quite ready for his combination of pierced tongue, eyebrow spear, and godbothering. (The odds would seem to bear this out – as I write, he’s available at 169/1.) By contrast, Ennis is a charming and attractive “girl next door” character. I think she has every chance of emulating her recent predecessors in this role, Paula Radcliffe (2002) and Kelly Holmes (2004).

Andy Murray

In my view, Murray’s odds have been unrealistically short for many months, on the basis that if he won either Wimbledon or the US Open, then he would be a shoo-in for the SPOTY. But I don’t think he was ever really in the running. Greg Rusedski won it in 1997 after reaching the final of the US Open, but that was a really slow year. Second and third were Tim Henman – and Steve Redgrave, in a non-Olympic year!

And in those days Rusedski and Henman were both genuinely popular personalities.

In 2009 we have a newly-emerged “personality” in a BBC sport, and England have won the Ashes. To me it seems unlikely that Andy Murray would have won the SPOTY even had he won the US Open. And, as with Idowu, he’s probably a lovely guy one-to-one, but on TV he simply doesn’t come across particularly sympathetically.

Of course, the fact that Murray’s been over-rated for so long has had one good consequence – as you can see in the table above, other candidates’ odds have been slightly longer than they should have been. Until now.

Andrew Flintoff

As soon as Flintoff declared his intention to retire from Test cricket, he became a contender. When he ran out Ricky Ponting, allowing the mainstream media to portray him as England’s Ashes Hero, I was surprised not to see his odds shorten further than they did.

He won the SPOTY four years ago, the last time he was the Ashes Hero, but that was the first time we’d won it for a generation. Without the open-top bus tour this time, he hasn’t yet achieved the same level of public and media acclamation as last time. But it could yet happen, perhaps on SPOTY night. It can certainly happen to a larger-than-life character who’s already a Celebrity.

Andrew Strauss

Frankly, if the SPOTY was decided on merit, Strauss would have a great chance. But it’s not and he doesn’t.


I’ve never been convinced of the merits of the other main contenders, and I believe it’s a straight race between Flintoff and Ennis. A lot hinges on how the actual programme goes on the night. Will they both come over well? Will Flintoff blow it by appearing too arrogant, or Ennis by being too nervy? Ennis has had less practice in the spotlight, so perhaps her poise will desert her on the night. But in the end, I believe the SPOTY will go to either her or Freddy. In the absence of other indicators, I expect name recognition and Flintoff’s prior celebrity status to swing it in his favour.

My Bets

True to Smithsonian tradition, I will declare my bets:

Back in January when Strauss was appointed England Test captain, I got a small amount on at 50/1, just in case. I am now considering laying off, but I will probably leave it. Again, just in case.

In July, when the Athletics World Championships squad was announced, I put small amounts on Radcliffe (335/1) and Ohuruogu (235/1), and a larger amount on Ennis (12/1). Any one of them could have become “the story”, and it turned out to be Ennis. I have since topped up at shorter odds.

I hadn’t expected England to win the Ashes, so at first I left Flintoff alone. But during and after the final Ashes Test, I got on Flintoff at 10/1 and 9/1.

I have no money on Button or Murray.

Obviously my Ohuruogu and Radcliffe money is already up in smoke, but I’m happy with my other investments. In recent years I’ve made a good profit on every winner except Calzaghe. I will now decamp to somewhere quiet and await the Button landslide!

When not poring over the SPOTY odds, Robert Barnes spends his time managing

Sunday, 6 September 2009

UNS - The Tory Target

It is a common place among the politically aware that the Conservatives need a big lead in the polls to get a majority.

It is also well known that Lord Ashcroft & Eric Pickles see their job as targeting the marginals their party needs. In short, they want valuable votes. A million extra votes in Tory safe seats has no value....

Sometimes, expressing known facts in a different way brings them into focus.

What Ashcoft and Pickles have been doing is mounting a scientific, long running and well funded attack on UNS. Their plan is for a non-uniform national swing.

While all this has been mentioned before (particularly on PB), it is worth repeating.

The evidence seems to be that they are having an effect. The marginals polls that we have seen, the regional breakdowns of the main polls, the cancelling of the election-that-never-was and the obsession with Ashcroft among the vulnerable Labour MPs all point in this direction.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Battleground Seats in the South of Scotland

Scotland 2010: The 31 seats that matter Part 6: Rural Battleground seats in the South of Scotland

At the General Election, now expected to be held in May 2010, out of Scotland’s 59 seats, as many as 31 could change hands.

Since 2005, Scotland has voted 3 times, at the Holyrood and Council elections in 2007 and at the European elections in 2009. Every 4 years all Scottish councils elect all councillors simultaneously using the STV multi-member ward system and Holyrood a mixture of “first past the post” for 73 constituency MSP and 8 regional lists each electing 7 additional regional MSPs from party lists.

As polls have varied since 2007 but few Scotland only polls have been taken I have predicted outcomes on the basis of the SNP polling 30-35%, Labour 30-35%, Tories 20-25% and LibDems 10-15%. The problem predicting Westminster results is that few Holyrood seats resemble the 2005 created Westminster ones and the Council boundaries rarely match the Westminster seats either.

Here are the 4 “battleground seats” in the South of Scotland

Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock: (Lab) is the only Ayrshire seat which could fall to the Tories. Sandra Osborne held this seat in 2005 with a majority of almost 10,000 votes or 22% so it seems an impossible task. However the seat comprises most of the Holyrood seats of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley formerly held at Westminster by George (Lord) Foulkes and now at Holyrood by Cathie Jamieson the former Labour Deputy Leader at Holyrood and Ayr held by Tory John Scott. In 2007 Cathy Jamieson saw a 9.5% swing to the SNP reduce her majority to just under 4,000 votes or just under 12%. By contrast in neighbouring Ayr, John Scott’s majority doubled from 1900 to 3900, largely due to the SNP taking a lot of votes from Labour. The same day South Ayrshire council (which covers both Holyrood seats and the Westminster one) elected 12 Tory, 8 SNP, 7 Lab and 3 Independent councillors and this is the one council in Scotland being run by the Tories in a minority administration. This has breathed new life into the Tory party in Ayrshire. At the European elections the Tories came a clear first here so whilst this should be a Labour hold, it is definitely one to watch, perhaps Scotland’s answer to Sunderland Central.

Dumfries and Galloway: (Lab) the top Labour-Tory marginal in 2010 in Scotland. It sees a re-run of 2005 when Russell Brown the sitting Labour MP for Dumfries beat Peter Duncan the sitting Tory MP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale to win the new seat carved out of the majority of them both. Russell Brown is defending a majority of just under 3,000 votes or 5.74% and in 2007 Peter Duncan got himself elected to Dumfries and Galloway council where the Tories became the largest party and are now running the council in coalition. The Holyrood seat of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is held by Alex Fergusson who in 2003 took the seat from the SNP with a majority of only 99 votes and in 2007 achieved a swing from the SNP of over 5.5% taking his majority up to over 3,300 votes or 11%. Every opinion poll in the past 2 years has indicated this to be a Tory gain and in the Euro elections the Tories topped the poll.

Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale: (Con) is the only Tory seat in Scotland at Westminster and was a surprise win for everyone except David Mundell who had worked the seat hard. All attention had been focused on the neighbouring seat of Dumfries and Galloway which had been pencilled in as a Tory gain in 2005 so D, C and T had slipped below the radar. Since winning the seat with a majority of over 1,700 votes or 3.9%, David Mundell has achieved a high profile in his role as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. In addition to seeing the Tory representation on Dumfries and Galloway council rise and run the council in coalition; the Tories are the largest party on Scottish Borders council running it in coalition and they doubled their seats from 4 to 8 in South Lanarkshire and are the junior partner in a coalition with Labour. In the Dumfries seat at Holyrood in 2007, Dr. Elaine Murray the sitting Labour MSP increased her majority over the Tory Murray Tosh on a swing of 2.5% to over 2,800 votes. There were specific circumstances namely Murray Tosh’s wife had died shortly before the election and during her illness he did almost no campaigning giving Elaine Murray a clear field. It should also be said that she is recognised as one of the hardest working and most able Labour MSPs at Holyrood. David Mundell should hugely increase his majority to around 10-15% with his vote going above 40% so a Tory hold.

Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk: (LibDem) part of which was for many years Sir David Steel’s seat, won by Michael Moore in 2005 with a majority of 5,900 votes or 13%. This disguises the fact that in the area the LibDems are in retreat and in 2007 at the Holyrood elections, John Lamont took the seat of Roxburgh and Berwickshire for the Tories on a swing of 9% from Euan Robson of the LibDems giving him a majority of just under 2,000 votes or 7.75%. In the neighbouring seat of Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, part of which is in this seat and part in David Mundell’s seat, in 2007 Jeremy Purves held off a strong challenge from Christine Grahame of the SNP, both seeing an 8% increase in their vote, largely at the expense of Labour who fell from 3rd to 4th. This is a top Tory target and as Chris Walker had to stand down due to pressure of business, John Lamont has now been selected so it will be Westminster MP v Holyrood MSP in much of the seat. At the Euro election the Tories came out on top. If the LibDems do well in Scotland, they will hold, if not it will be a Tory gain.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

My theory on a "big victory" for the Tories

Mike Smithson over at Channel 1 of Political Betting has said something which sounds a little interesting to me. As I am someone who tries to read what's on the page and then what's in between the lines, I have a theory that I will put forward to fellow PBers.

The extract I am interested in is:
I still think that the Tories are on their way to a big victory - but at the moment I’m not risking any cash on it.
If you ask me Mike is just saying the first part of the phrase, I don't think even he believes that the Tories are on their way to a big victory. Personally I am backing the idea of a hung Parliament but mind you I have never been right with my predictions, so why isn't Mike risking money on the big win for the Tories?

I personally think Mike is looking at this whole argument from a different angle to the rest of us, its quiet true that you don't risk money until you are sure of a win and that's what I think Mike isn't sure about.

I like Mike wait for what Brown pulls off at Conference, and let’s see what Labour achieve at the polls. A fourth term would be massive, it would destroy the Tories and that's why I think its time we watched Labour very carefully over the next months.