Monday, 31 August 2009

Post-race Spa analysis and what it means for the title races

A mixed bag regarding my tips, but overall good. Raikonnen just about managed to beat Fisichella, who did a hell of a lot better than I ever would’ve predicted. Hamilton, alas, had an argument with a wall (admittedly not really his fault). So with equal stakes on each tip about 150% profit should’ve been had (with no laying, which I did quite a bit).

Fisichella really pushed Raikonnen all the way and it’s a phenomenal result for Force India. Vettel did pretty well to climb from 8th to 3rd, Webber again finished poorly, and Button showed us all what a lucky sod he is.

Despite having his worst result (0 points at all due to a first lap entanglement with Grosjean) Jenson [Saxon for ‘luckiest driver in the universe’] had his title lead cut from 18 to 16, keeping him in a strong position with only five races left to go.

However, almost all the fat has been cut from the lead he has, and if any of the other three contenders score well they will make significant headway. As it stands:
Button 72
Barrichello 56
Vettel 53
Webber 51.5
Button has used up all his luck. If he keeps finishing with 1-2 points his lead may well evaporate in the next three races or so. But the fact is he has a 16 point cushion, and if he were to extend it by 4 points he would have a two race advantage with only four left. He really does need to rediscover some form though.

The Drivers’ title is at a crossroads. If things progress as they have recently Button will crumble and be overtaken, probably by Barrichello. If he can rediscover his past form Button can yet win the title. It’s a fortnight until Monza, where last year Vettel showed the world what a phenomenal driver he is by dominating the race in a Toro Rosso.

The Constructors’ is led by Brawn with a 23.5 point lead. That’s fairly healthy but certainly not safe. I’d expect Brawn to win this title with a 65% (give or take) likelihood.

It’s also worth commenting on Vettel. 53 points, third place, yet he’s only finished 7/12 races and only has one entirely new engine left (he’ll be using it at the engine-straining Monza circuit). With a better finishing rate (which is dire partly due to driver error and partly due to car failures) he’d be far ahead in first place. Of the four contenders he’s the best driver, in my view. If the Red Bull becomes more reliable next season he’ll be a very serious contender. However, this season he’ll face a 10 grid place penalty if another engine blows up and I think he should not be second favourite for the title at 5.5. Barrichello (7.6) should be second favourite.

Morris Dancer

Lembit Opik on the Pirate Party UK

If you don't read Lembit Opik's column, that he writes for the Daily Sport why not start reading it now? James Graham has set up a site called Prawn Free Lembit, the site is Lembit's column but without the porn on the sidebar and all around the site.

An extract from his recent column can be found below:
PIRATES could soon be in power in the UK! But they’re not the swashbuckling Johnny Depp-type –– or even our uzi-wielding chums from the Somali coast. I’m talking about the Pirate Party –– the Swedish outfit who campaign for free file-sharing online. They’re fed up of big fees being charged for music downloads, copyright being slapped on YouTube videos and internet usage being tracked. They won a couple of seats in Brussels and are now planning on standing in the UK general election next year. These buccaneers shouldn’t be underestimated. They’ve got a big supporter base of mostly young people. I can see problems with making everything free as composers and writers would lose out. But the pirates have a point. Until we take a more reasonable approach to tracking internet usage and copyright questions there may well be a case to say: “Yo-ho, me hearties!”
Lembit uses his happy chappy side in the column and I think that's what makes it interesting, I personally read the column (when ever it’s updated on Prawn Free Lembit) and would recommend that others did too.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Inflation – Every Little Helps

What can loyalty cards tell us about inflation?

When I was young my father made a big thing of collecting GreenShield stamps. For those around in the mid-70’s, you’ll remember that a number of participating retailers issued coupon books and then issued stamps when you purchased groceries or petrol. You had to stick 40 stamps on a page and when the book was full [1280 stamps], you could exchange it for tatty goods in the catalogue showrooms, that eventually became Argos. You could even redeem books for a speedboat (without outboard motor) by spending the equivalent of a new house on petrol, booze & fags.

I don’t think we ever did redeem the books but it was the 1970’s. And for a little boy, sticking the stamps in the book probably got me into the fantastically popular football sticker albums that came along shortly after. But that’s another story.

Green Shield Stamps weren’t the first incentive scheme and we’ve had a series of others since. Airmiles, Nectar and retailer’s own schemes. But what’s focusing my mind is they all seem to fade away after a while. And they all fade away when their value becomes debased, which tells us a little bit about the causes & effects of inflation, which I am convinced is round the corner.

The debasement normally follows a familiar pattern. The loyalty scheme builds-up a customer base. Then there’s a promotion that offers extra stamps/points for a given spend. And suddenly the stamps/points that have been accumulated can’t buy as much as they used to. Or, in a cynical twist, you can maintain the previous spending-power but only redeeming for stuff you wouldn’t want anyway. In any event, as ‘a store of value’ they’re not worth that much anymore. And then a new much larger denomination stamp comes along….

Now substitute the words "stamp" or “point” for “pound” and it all sounds a bit like inflation to me. Which is why I am perplexed by the decision by Tesco to give double points on their loyalty scheme and to publicise it so widely as a Good Thing this week.

The other day we had a mailing from Tesco in the bunnco household. We shop there occasionally and when we do it’s normally for a couple of hundred quid. The company proudly informed us that we had spent enough to qualify for a £3.50 voucher to spend on-the-house. Thanks Tesco!

I suppose that by sending the voucher, they’ve now redeemed and cancelled the old points so that in future new vouchers will effectively consist of ‘new’ double-points, rather like the Zimbabwean’s knocking a few zeros off the trillion-dollar banknotes. But you’re still only going to be able to get a free can of beans for every £100 you spend! We all know that… no matter how much you spend.

And you'll save more than you'll ever get in vouchers by shopping elsewhere, which is why Lidl, Aldi & new own-brand 'Value' ranges are now more popular.

But I suppose that Tesco’s decision is meant to make people feel richer even if the points produced aren’t worth as much as they used to be.

Which is why I think Tesco is making a big mistake whilst doing us all a favour: So many people participate in the Tesco scheme that they can now see for themselves in the comfort of their own homes how inflation happens when traditional stores of value are debased and what the consequences are. But with points, not pounds.

I’m not an economist but I do understand economics. And the parallels between the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing [QE] policy and Tesco’s decision to print-points seem clear to me. There’ll be a lot more points/pounds in circulation which will make people feel richer but they won’t be able to buy as much as before because inflation will fill the gap. It’s what happens. And the extra £50bn QE splurge announced two weeks ago is going to make it worse.

So it means getting out of cash and into assets, which is why the estate agents suddenly don’t have a lot of houses to sell but at least the Tesco Loyalty Card manager can apply for the Nobel Prize for Economics for making it clear to everyone at a level they can understand how increasing the money supply excessively is the road to ruin.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Spa Preview

Spa is one the great race circuits, and last season’s phenomenal duel in the wet between Raikonnen and Hamilton was a highlight sullied only by the FIA politicking which saw Hamilton robbed of victory for driving a car that did not have the regulatory amount of red paint on it.

But what of this year? Qualifying was a shocker, Button, Hamilton and Alonso out in Q2, Fisichella on pole for Force India, Barrichello in 4th is the best-placed title contender. The vaunted Red Bulls, for whom this track was meant to be perfect, are down in 8th and 9th, Vettel ahead of his teammate despite a slightly heavier car.

The fuel loads ( indicated that Fisichella is light, and so is Barrichello. Raikonnen’s 6th-placed Ferrari is around 655kg, similar to Trulli and Heidfeld (2nd and 3rd respectively).

I think Raikonnen stands a reasonable chance of success here. His KERS could propel him ahead of Barrichello and Kubica, who are both lighter on fuel. Fisichella’s racy, but his fuel load is lighter than most and he may well be leapfrogged during the pitstops.

It is possible for a driver unaccustomed to success to dominate from pole (Vettel did so during a virtuoso performance last year at the Monza monsoon) but I don’t think Fisichella will manage it. The Toyota (driven by Trulli) has been a freakish car this season, sometimes incredibly fast, more recently languishing at the back of the grid. Heidfeld’s BMW has also performed poorly until now. Ferrari have been doing consistently well for the last few races with a 3rd in Valencia and a 2nd in Hungary (both Raikonnen).

Presently he’s 5.2 on Betfair, but the odds on Ferrari winning are longer at 5.5.

Regarding the title race, this is a good one for Barrichello. If he gets a top points position he’ll slash Button’s 18 point lead to anything from 8 to 13, with 5 races left, and move further ahead of the contenders behind him. Button will be glad if he gets any points, and the Red Bulls will be aiming for mid-points or higher.

The Constructors’ continues to look good for Brawn, despite Button seeming to buckle under the pressure whilst his team mate goes from strength to strength.

I may also back Hamilton to finish in the points (presently around evens). He starts 12th, but has KERS and has been performing very nicely of late (although Spa is very unsuited to the McLaren).

Morris Dancer

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Scotland's Swing Seats 4way marginals in the North and East

Scotland 2010: The 31 seats that matter Part 7: The multi party Battleground seats in the North-east and Central 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 multi party “battleground seats” in the North-east and Central Scotland

Aberdeen South: (Lab) was the only Scottish Tory gain in 1992 (from Labour) it fell to them in 1997 and Anne Begg (the lady in a wheelchair in the House of Commons) is an able MP. The LibDems came close in 2005 and this is probably their top Scottish target. In 2007 the Holyrood seat which is LibDem held saw their then party leader Nicol Stephen suffer an 11.2% LibDem-SNP swing shaving the majority to 2,700 votes or 9.1%. Labour’s best hope is that as in Edinburgh South the best alternative is unclear and the anti-Labour vote is split letting Anne Begg hold. If it is clear the LibDems cannot win then we could see a repeat of 1992 and a Tory gain but otherwise a narrow Labour hold. If the LibDems sort themselves out then they should take the seat.

Ochil and South Perthshire: (Lab) formed out of large parts of the former Perth and Kinross Tory seat and the neighbouring Labour seat, this is a 3-way marginal which Lab just held by 688 votes in 2005 against the SNP. In the Ochil seat at Holyrood, the very popular ex-SNP Westminster MP George Reid took the seat from Lab in 2003 and his successor held it in 2007 but by only 490 votes. If the Tory party is doing well in its heartland this will be a Tory gain. If the SNP achieve a swing across Scotland they will take the seat and if the anti-Labour vote splits evenly they may just hold on.

Stirling: (Lab) Scotland’s answer to Enfield Southgate in 1997, this was arguably Labour’s prize scalp in the shape of Michael Forsyth, seen as the architect of most of the Thatcherite policies which so alienated Scotland from the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tories want it back but in 2007 the Holyrood seat created one of the big surprises of the night when the popular SNP list MP Bruce Crawford captured the seat on a large 9.5% swing, mainly at Labour’s expense. The Holyrood seat is very different from the Westminster seat and Anne McGuire a very able but “mouthy” Lab minister whose majority of 4,700 looks very vulnerable. A 3-way marginal, this one should be a Tory gain if the heartland vote returns, SNP if it doesn’t but Labour should lose it.

Edinburgh South: (Lab) is a strange seat being a genuine 3-way marginal in 2005 when Nigel Griffiths the former Labour minister held off the LibDems by a mere 405 votes or less than 1%. Since then in 2007 at Holyrood, the LibDem Mike Pringle held the seat with the same name but much different boundaries by almost 2,000 votes or almost 6% having achieved a 2.5% swing from Labour. Now that Nigel Griffiths has been exposed due to his unusual activities on Remembrance Day, this is now seen as the top Tory target in Edinburgh and it would take a swing of 4.5% for them to come from third to first. Labour should lose but to whom? If the LibDems have a good election they will easily take the seat but if not, a Tory gain.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Has Murdoch launched a "Get Brown Out!" campaign?

The following is a direct quote from Jonathan Hunt of the Fox News Channel reporting on the Prime Minister's statement today:

Our viewers should know that that (Westminster has no control over the decision of the Scottish Parliament) is disengenous at best. The Scottish Parliament is not entirely independent of the UK Parliament... and it is clear to anyone who knows that political system that... Gordon Brown could have stopped the release if he wished to do so

Now, if that is not a clarion call to people in the US to encourage their British friends to vote Conservative at the next election, I do not know what is!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Wish you were here. Are they all swingers in Great Yarmouth?

There are seats, “bellwether seats”, that always seem to elect an MP of the Governing Party and Sunny Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk Coast is one of those. In this article I want to focus on this single seat in a part of the world I know well.

I hope that other PB’ers will write other ‘seat profiles’ in other areas over the coming months.

Do you remember back in 1990 when Thatcher was giving her final PMQs to the Commons and some loudmouth MP heckled to say that ‘she was the best man they’d got’. Yep, it was the then MP from Yarmouth, Michael Cartiss. He held on in 1992 but he was ‘out’ in 1997 when Labour’s Tony Wright got home. But will Yarmouth swing back to Tory Brandon Lewis next year? Let's see.

Yarmouth’s current MP might kindly be described as a lucky ‘Good Constituency MP’. Lucky because he shares his name with the high profile Chairman of the Public Administration Committee and MP for Cannock Chase. And a ‘good constituency MP’ because he’s never going to rise above back-bench anonymity.

Whereas Cannock Chase’s Tony Wright is always on the national TV & Radio, his Norfolk country cousin doesn’t even benefit from Radio Norfolk or Eastern Daily Press coverage. We certainly haven’t seen any of the loudmouth antics experienced under his predecessor. And it’s a bit of a shame really because Yarmouth needs a strong voice in London…. even if many voters in the town think they have one in that nice man from Staffordshire!

Now, one of the strange things about Yarmouth is that it’s had an effective Conservative controlled Council with a large majority for the last 8 years or so but has returned a Labour MP in the meantime. But that’s because the traditional Labour vote has been piled-up in a few really quite deprived wards whereas some of the suburbs such as Gorleston-on-Sea, Bradwell & Caister-on-Sea as well as outlying villages like Rollesby & Martham have been solidly Tory… but not quite enough to outweigh Labour’s heartland in the town in a borough-wide poll. The LibDems tried hard at a by-election last year to break out from their North Norfolk stronghold [Norman Lamb MP] and got nowhere and there hasn’t been a LibDem councillor in the town for years, if ever. They won’t feature next year.

There’s been a lot of investment in Yarmouth recently. The seafront is looking really spick-and-span and a multi-million pound outer harbour capable of taking the largest ships is taking shape. A health centre is being extended but it’s been difficult for Labour to take the credit for these. And where a lot of effort was expended trying to get one of the super-casinos, Labour screwed it up, whilst the local business that makes all the fruit-machine glass just folded. For somebody who theyworkforus tells us has a keen interest in gambling, Wright seems to have been severely handicapped by the stewards in London.

Local Labour activists have been split over the MP’s expenses, where Wright escaped relatively lightly, but even before that they’d taken the core vote for granted and at this year’s County Elections, the most deprived division, Nelson, which includes the ONS’s 106th worst SuperOutputArea on the Index of Multiple Deprivation measure in the whole country, returned a UKIP councillor. The Conservatives need 3.5% swing to win the seat at the general. In the June 4th County elections, nationally the Tories enjoyed a 9% swing but in Great Yarmouth they got 13.8% with Labour only holding its core Magdalen Division by 56 votes (was 1200). It’s not looking good for Tony.

If you have a look at ElectoralCalculus, it seems to agree with Labour’s majority of 3.055 being converted into a Conservative one of about 5,000 depending on turnout. Unusually for a Norfolk seat, boundary changes do not apply to Yarmouth this time.

Electorate 68,886 Turnout 60.06%
Top 2005 Votes 2005 Share 2010 Prediction
LAB 18,849 45.56% 34.76%
CON 15,794 38.17% 45.46%
LIB 4,585 11.08% 8.76%
OTH 2,148 5.19% 11.02%
LAB Majority 3,055 7.38% Pred Maj 10.71% CON Gain

Over on Anthony Well’s UK Polling Report, Yarmouth comes in at 62 on the Conservative’s list of targets. It’s no secret that the Tories have been investing heavily in the top 70 targets and local people have seen Brandon Lewis’s face staring down at them from billboards for months. It’s a must-win for them if they’re to have any sort of majority to work with.

So, who is this Brandon Lewis? I bumped into Tony Wright’s sister some months back and she was complaining that the Tories had chosen ‘some lawyer from London’ to fight her brother. But I’m not sure that characterisation is accurate. Yes, Brandon is a lawyer but he does have local connections: His father owned the Yarmouth’s famous Docwra Rock Factory and he’s been living locally for a while. He’s certainly been seen canvassing hard in the constituency, which is why the Yarmouth outperformed nationally on June 4th.

And then there’s Brandon’s secret weapon. He has just given-up the leadership of Brentwood Council in Essex to concentrate on winning the seat. Brandon became the protégé of the local MP when he took the Tories from 8 seats to control of that Essex Council in short order… and who is the MP for Brentwood & Ongar? Step forward Eric Pickles, Chairman of the Party.

There’s been evening racing at Yarmouth this week and the town has been full to bursting as people holiday at home and enjoy a flutter on the course. And in the national race, whoever the runners and riders may be, it’s Yarmouth that backs the winner every time. It’s Brandon to win by a distance. Nail it on.

Bunnco – Your Man on the Spot

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Qualifying and race predictions

I slightly overestimated Button’s pace, but he did slot in just behind Vettel and significantly ahead of Webber in qualifying, in line with my response to Peter in the previous post’s comments.

It’s a McLaren front row, Hamilton 1st, Kovalainen 2nd, and neither should have immediate difficulties as they have KERS and the cars behind them (Barrichello, Vettel, Button) do not. Sixth placed man Raikonnen is the next chap with KERS and could easily leapfrog Button and Vettel early on if he starts well.

Mark Webber starts in a disappointing 9th, which won’t do his chances of claiming the Drivers’ title much good but will help Button as the Aussie is his closest rival. Looks to be a great weekend for the English but a bad one for Australia. How terribly sad.

Hamilton is rightly favourite to win. Hard to pick out podium spots as it’s easy to see a large number (down to Raikonnen at least) having a realistic shot. However, I’m surprised Kovalainen’s odds of winning are as long as 8.8. It’s true he’s not as good as Hamilton and has a record of disappointing, but he’s second on the grid with KERS so he should finish the first lap at least in second place and with a good start could even overtake Hamilton early on.

Vettel rather spoilt P3 when his car decided to urinate a huge stream of oil over the track, an indication of the new regulations (limited number of engines per season) and the toll they’re beginning to take. Although arguably the most talented driver out there, Vettel has failed to finish in 40% of the Grand Prix so far.

He crashed out in Australia when he got clumsy with Kubica’s car, spun in Malaysia, had an accident in Monaco and suffered suspension failure in the last race in Hungary.

With Vettel’s high failure rate, Webber starting in ninth, McLaren suddenly rising to dominance, Brawn recovering (at least in the heat of Valencia) and an 18.5 point cushion still Button looks set fair for the Drivers’ title. Of course, he could crash in the first corner, but assuming nothing crazy happens I think this race may mark the comeback of Brawn and Button.

Apologies for my cock-up on the main site, here’s a link to the starting line up:

Morris Dancer

Friday, 21 August 2009

After the first of three practice sessions Brawn looks a little better

After enjoying a blisteringly good start to the season Brawn and its leading driver Button had begun to move backwards, with little bites constantly being taken out of Button’s Drivers’ lead and big bites from Brawn’s Constructors’ lead.

The first practice session of the European Grand Prix (Valencia) saw Brawn achieve 1st and 4th with Barrichello topping the timesheets. McLaren also continued their good run with Hamilton 3rd and Kovalainen 2nd.

Red Bull had reasonable performance (5th for Vettel, 8th for Webber), and it is only a free practice rather than qualifying so only a limited amount can be read into it. Barrichello had an issue late into the session getting into gear and over the 90 minutes Button complained about both understeer and oversteer, problems which didn’t stop him coming 4th.

The race also sees the return of Ferrari’s Luca Badoer who last raced in Formula One a decade ago, and the debut of Renault’s replacement for Nelson Piquet: Romain Grosjean.

Only Brawn or Red Bull can win the Constructors’, and only Button, Vettel, Webber or Barrichello can take the Drivers’ title. Button still enjoys a healthy 18.5 point lead despite a string of poor performances.

If the first free practice session is a generally accurate indicator I think Button’s lead will either stay as is or increase after the race (ie, he’ll finish ahead of Webber and possibly Vettel as well). Hamilton seems likely to get a podium and possible a second consecutive win.

After this there are only six more races, so if Button can get a 20 point+ lead again it would give him an enormous advantage. Brawn may even win the Constructors’ where they lead Red Bull by 15.5 points. We’ll have to wait and see how the next two practice sessions, qualifying and the race goes, but come Sunday evening it should be apparent whether Brawn are back, or if Red Bull are poised to overtake Button and Brawn in the title races.

Morris Dancer

Saturday, 15 August 2009


Waves on the Electoral Tide – a punters guide

This is a fairly long post, I’m afraid, but you can skip down to the "Fluctuation Size" section if you're confident about the Curtice findings on UNS (which were recently highlighted on the main site) and the use of standard deviations.

The point of this article is to inform the punter when looking at individual constituency odds compared to UNS. What would fair odds be if the fluctuations were random? They're not totally random, but it gives you a starting point (like "evens" for a seat that would fall exactly on UNS) from which to work.

Background – skip this if you’re familiar with the issues around using UNS

One of the biggest warnings about using Uniform National Swing (UNS) for predictions is that the swing is never uniform nationally. In the past, it was often assumed that the deviations from UNS would cancel out. In the round.

Yes, Constituency A which should have fallen on UNS didn’t (Dover, for example), but it’s okay – Constituency B, which shouldn’t have fallen (Putney, for example), did. And for every Dover, there would be a Putney. More or less.

John Curtice blew that idea out of the water at the last General Election, as highlighted by Mike recently on the main blog. The key point is that the assumption only holds if the variations in swing needed are spread pretty uniformly. So for every constituency overshoot of 3%, there would be as many seats in danger as would be saved by a constituency undershoot of 3%. And that’s not true. If more are "in reach of the waves" above the line of UNS than below, then the fluctuations should cause more extra seats should fall (those above the line) than those below the line to fail to fall, giving a net bonus to the swing - as occurred in 2005. Conversely, if the distribution has more "in reach of the waves" below the line than above, there would be a net underperformance.

Another key assumption is that the variations are essentially random – that an overshoot in a seat 2% further than the UNS would reach is as likely as an equal overshoot in a safe seat or hopeless seat. Likewise with undershoots. If a party were to concentrate its overshoots in marginals and undershoots in safe seats and hopeless cases, they would have a happy Leader on the Friday morning after the election. That's targeting, basically. Each party attempts to skew the overshoots in its own favour – Labour with more success than the Tories in the 92, 97 and 01 elections; in the 05 elections, the Tories had a little more success in targetting than Labour and noticeably more than the Lib Dems. Thiscan have an effect of shifting the entire electoral tide (“sea level”) by up to about 1% over the average swing (with poorer performances in non-battle seats).

There will be a random element, of course, but demographics, comparative local party strengths, local MP incumbency (especially good MP? Tainted by expenses?) and other local and regional factors will be prominent in increasing or decreasing the chance of the seat being held or falling. This is where you make your judgement call to adjust the odds produced assuming randomness.

There’s one more rather minor assumption – that the UNS (which is the overall swing from one party to another over the entire country) will be equal to the average swing of all constituencies. Which appears to be trivial on the face of it, but actually isn’t – and isn’t quite true. Because constituencies vary in size, it would only be true if the big constituencies behave exactly the same as the small ones – if the Isle of Wight swings 5% to the Tories from Labour, but the Western Isles swing 5% towards Labour, the average swing between constituencies is zero. But when you look at the average swing of the populations added together (the UNS), it would say 3.33% Lab to Con. On the whole, Labour tend to do a touch better than UNS due to this fact in any case (around 0.3%-0.4%), but unusually in 2005, the average constituency swing was about a quarter of a percentage point better for the Tories than the UNS - possibly because the benefit for Labour had got about as high as it could and was unwinding a touch. Note that this is different from success in targeting marginals and should be added (or subtracted) to the level of the electoral tide.

INCORRECT ASSUMPTION 1: Uniform spread of marginality so fluctuations cancel out. This is where the need to measure the fluctuations comes in – the tables at the end of this article.
INCORRECT ASSUMPTION 2: Fluctuations are random around the average. This is where your judgement comes in - it's an opportunity for the punter

All of this is now well accepted, but it’s all qualitative to this point. A punter needs something quantitative to help inform the betting strategy. Most specifically – how big are the likely fluctuations? What kind of overshoots and undershoots are probable? In short, how high are the waves on the electoral tide?

There have been comments on the main site that “such-and-such seat would never fall due to local factors”. The local factors are all very well, but there is an electoral tide and this article should show how much effort is needed to beat it. In addition, it should indicate just how far from UNS you can realistically look for betting opportunities.

Standard deviation

I’ve had a look at the size of the swings and fluctuations in the last five elections to get an idea. In order to show the size of the statistical noise – the variability – of a distribution of numbers (like the distribution of swings across all constituencies), mathematicians tend to use “standard deviation”. It’s also important to know what shape the distribution is. This is helped by a rule of thumb that the larger the distribution, the more it tends to the famous Bell Curve of the “normal distribution”. Looking at these elections, the swings seem to come out rather bell-curve-y all right, which means that we can say what the standard deviation means here:

(Image from Wikipedia)

68.27% of results are within 1 standard deviation above or below the mean.
90% of results are within 1.645 standard deviations of the average
95% of results are within 1.96 standard deviations of the average (as it happens, this is exactly what “Margin of Error” on opinion polls represents)
99% of results are within 2.576 standard deviations of the average
99.73% of results are within 3 standard deviations of the average.

There will be 633 632 mainland constituencies fought between Con/Lab/LD [editted] at the next election. Accordingly, for any given swing considered (say, Lab to Con), we’d expect (approximately):

430-435 seats with performance within 1 standard deviation of the swing,
135-140 between 1 and 1.645 standard deviations,
30-35 between 1.645 and 1.96 standard deviations,
24-26 between 1.96 and 2.576 standard deviations,
4-5 between 2.576 and 3 standard deviations,
1 or 2 “freak” results further than 3 standard deviations from the average constituency swing.

That’s in either direction, of course. But the crucial question is – how big is one standard deviation?

Fluctuation size:
For Lab-Con swings: standard deviation should be about 3%. The average standard deviation has been 2.89% (maximum of 3.44% in 1997, minimum of 2.36% in 2005). In 2010, with a big UNS expected, I’d expect a slightly bigger than average standard deviation, so I'm setting 3% for this standard deviation.

For Con-Lib swings: standard deviations again about 3% (but very fractionally higher than Lab-Con swings, on average). Average standard deviation of 3.14%, maximum 3.34% (1987), minimum 2.97% (1997).

For Lab-Lib swings: standard deviation between 3.5% and 4%. Average of 3.77%, maximum 3.95% (1992), minimum 3.60% (2001).

So, in terms of odds. Work out how much swing is needed for the seat to fall. Compare to UNS. Leaving out the constituency size issue (which blurs it by a quarter to a half a percent either way, usually favourably to Labour), a seat where the swing required is exactly equal to the UNS would be – all things being equal – an even money shot. Exactly 50:50. That’s your baseline – you then judge from whatever factors you like whether that seat is more or less likely to fall. Region? Local strength? Which party will have superior targeting? Tactical voting and voting unwind? That kind of stuff. But you’d start from evens and adjust from there.

So I've put together a table showing the baseline starting odds in the Con/Lab battles.

Baseline Odds

Look at the swing required. Adjust for your best guess of targetting marginals and constituency sizes - add or subtract up to about 1.5% at most. Then cross reference below to get your starting odds, before you move them for local factors.

Or to put it another way – work out where the electoral tide has risen to and have that as the new “sea level”. The table below gives you the size of the waves (and troughs) – and how rare they are at that scale and you can use your judgement (based on local factors) as to the chances of them appearing at the constituency in question.

In the tables below, I’ve presented suggested “fair baseline odds” of the fluctuations being that large (if it were random). The percentage chance of falling is artificially precise – we don’t actually know yet what the standard deviations will be so I’ve estimated them – and I’ve made the translation into odds as “transparent” as possible so that you can make them more or less precise as you see fit. (Click on tables for larger image)

Conservative-Labour swing and Conservative-LibDem swing (estimated standard deviations of 3.0%)

*Treat the extremes with great caution – if the standard deviation is a bit off, it doesn’t take much to turn that 43/1 shot at 6.0% overshoot required into 11/1 (for 3.44% standard deviation) or 90/1 (for 2.36% standard deviation). The italicised area of the table is the area that most has to be used “with caution”- especially for Lab-Con swings (the LD-Con swings tend to have more regular fluctuations)

So for a seat which (adjusted) UNS says should be reduced to a 6% Labour majority, then your baseline odds on it falling should be 5/1 before using your judgement on local factors. For a seat where the Tory should be swept in with a 6% majority (needs to undershoot the swing by more than 3% not to be taken), the baseline odds should be 5/1 against the Labour incumbent holding.

Labour-LibDem swing (estimated standard deviation of 3.8%)

So there you have it. Use with care, as with all mathematical tools - but hopefully this will give a good starting point for each constituency analysis. The kind of thing I'm aiming for is: "XX should be 10/1 - poor local party performance, MP tainted by expenses, that region looking better for the Tories ... say 5/1. While YY should be 1/2 on, but strong local party performance, good local MP, demographics bad for the Tories ... call it evens".

Good luck.

Andy Cooke

(EDIT - Tables were initially wrong way round - now corrected)

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Brown and out whenever he will?

One ever-present topic of political betting conversation is to speculate on when Gordon Brown might stand down. There are direct markets on this (on SPIN, Betfair and the mainstream bookies) and indirectly this question influences other markets, such as the "next Prime Minister" markets. In this post, I am going to concentrate on the Betfair market, on which you can bet by quarter on when Gordon Brown will cease to be leader of the Labour party. The favourite is for Gordon Brown to cease being leader of the Labour party in April to June 2010. Is that right?

There are effectively three possibilities: Gordon Brown stands down or is replaced before the next election; Gordon Brown stands down following the election; Gordon Brown does not stand down in the timeframe.

Before the election

Perhaps the most telling indication of Gordon Brown's failure as a leader is that it is those posters and commentators who are not irredeemably opposed to Labour who are keenest to see him replaced. Conservative posters and commentators in particular are eager to see him in place for the election. Labour loyalists who are also loyal to Gordon Brown are very few and far between. In the press, only Mary Riddell in the Telegraph seems to be truly loyal to Gordon Brown.

That in turn would suggest that Gordon Brown should be very vulnerable. There are two danger points for him: the party conference and early in the New Year with equal dangers of both.But for all that logic dictates that he should be replaced, I think that he will survive to fight the election, for the following reasons:

1) No one has the cullions

This could more politely be labelled loyalty. But the great and the good had a gilt-edged opportunity to push Gordon Brown out of the door in June when James Purnell resigned. Either Alan Johnson or David Miliband could have ensured this. Both declined to do so. There is no obvious reason why they should act now when they failed to act then. They have both missed their best chance.

2) The prisoners' dilemma

Indeed, it gets worse. While either could have acted in June without much blame attaching to them - they would have been seen as taking the tide at the flood rather than orchestrating the coup - any move now by either David Miliband or Alan Johnson will be seen as a leadership bid. If David Miliband acts, Alan Johnson probably gets the job. If Alan Johnson acts, David Miliband probably gets the job.

Alistair Darling is in a separate category since he doesn't have leadership ambitions, so far as anyone can tell. I can imagine him resigning if he thought it best for party and country, and bringing Gordon Brown down. There is no obvious reason to expect him to do so now, however.

3) The fear of something worse

The Cabinet may fear that they will head for certain defeat under Gordon Brown. But it could be even worse if the Labour party disintegrates into internal faction-fighting in advance of an election. There would surely have to be a contested election this time. It would be a brave man or woman who predicted that would pass without incident between the candidates or their proxies.

4) Peter Mandelson

Following the failed June coup, Peter Mandelson has secured for himself a position of unparalleled influence for a senior minister. Except in the unlikely event that he himself became the next Prime Minister, he will lose that position under any successor of Gordon Brown's. This means that any plotters will need either to win Peter Mandelson round (good luck with that task) or fight against him as well as Gordon Brown. I expect that Peter Mandelson would fight, fight and fight again to save the position he loves.

It follows that I see Gordon Brown stepping down before the next election only if he decides to do so of his own free will (and Peter Mandelson fails to persuade him to stay in office). If he does so, again I expect it will be at either the party conference or early in the New Year, with equal probabilities of both.

Someone clearly agrees with my conclusions, if not my logic. The "Brown days" market on SPIN has jumped sharply in the last week, suggesting that someone thinks that the odds of Gordon Brown going early have dropped markedly.

The next election

There is a subsidiary question wrapped up in this, which is when the next election will be. This post is going to be long enough, so I won't go into all those whys and wherefores, but May 2010 is the heavy favourite and in my view justly so. The rest of this post assumes that the election is in May 2010 except where explicitly stated otherwise.

Of course, Gordon Brown might win the election. Don't laugh. It's not impossible. "Winning" in this context includes Labour being the largest party in a hung Parliament. In those circumstances, Gordon Brown is almost certainly safe for the rest of the year.

While it must not be discounted, I do not place great credence on this, seeing it as much more likely that Labour will either lose or lose badly. What then?

At this point, it is important to look at the terms of the bet on Betfair. I place a high probability on Gordon Brown announcing that he is stepping down on election night if Labour lose, just as John Major did. However, the Betfair bet pays out when he ceases to lead the Labour party, not when he announces his departure. This means that the Labour party electoral timetable and Gordon Brown’s chosen date of departure are the critical elements.

I regard it as unlikely that he will immediately hand over to Harriet Harman on an interim basis. Gordon Brown would be the first former Prime Minister since the second world war to step down so abruptly after an election defeat. Even John Major served as Leader of the Opposition for a few weeks. No leader of the Opposition since the second world war has stepped down abruptly after electoral defeat either.

Gordon Brown would have an eye to his legacy and would not want to be seen to be letting the party down after leading it to defeat. Even if he decided to hand over - my expectation - I personally doubt that he would do so in a rush. He would recall that Michael Howard’s much delayed replacement was rather successful for the Tories and that Michael Howard received favourable press for how he handled it. I expect Gordon Brown would stay in office until the next party conference at the earliest and possibly longer.

If Gordon Brown announces on election night that he is standing down at the party conference, will angry Labour MPs come with pitchforks to get rid of him sooner? I simply can’t see it. Why start internecine warfare about someone who is already political history?

Even if I am wrong, if Labour lose in a May election next year, my expectation is that he’ll stay in office at least until a leadership election is held. The candidates will need to secure nominations from MPs and that will surely mean Parliament will need to sit and new MPs will need to be canvassed. Won’t that take him into July at the very earliest?

Consider this timetable:

The most likely election date is 6 May 2010. Hypothetically, Gordon Brown announces that he will stand down in the early hours of 7 May 2010. (Tony Blair announced his resignation on 10 May 2007). Looking at this timetable, that would suggest that Gordon Brown would eventually step down before the end of June 2010. However, Parliament would (I think) only return on 13 May 2010. Nominations could not close too quickly after Parliament's return, since Labour MPs would want to time to discuss properly among each other who they would nominate and candidates would want the chance to canvass the nominating electorate. I suggest that the very earliest that nominations could close is 20 May 2010, and given that there will be some new Labour MPs who would need more time than the old lags to make up their mind, I suggest that 27 May 2010 is at least as likely. In that case, Gordon Brown would step down on 1 July 2010 if the same timetable is followed - ie, Q3. Now, you may disagree with me that extending the timetable in this way is likely. But some probability must be ascribed to it and it doesn't seem that negligible to me.

I regard the chances of Gordon Brown leaving office as party leader in April-June 2010 as substantially overstated.

In my view, it is likely to occur only if:

(1) Labour suffered an election defeat in a March election and Gordon Brown decides to stand down immediately;

(2) Gordon Brown resigns with immediate effect on election night; or

(3) Gordon Brown resigns and the Labour party electoral timetable is set in motion without delay.

The third of these is the most substantial possibility to my mind, and I place no more than a 1 in 4 chance of this outcome coming to pass. The single most likely possibility in my mind is that Gordon Brown would step down at the next party conference. If that is in September, that makes Q3 2010 a clear favourite in my mind and the Betfair prices look very tempting. I have been participating when the prices looked particularly good. My view is that the prices for Q2 2010 are simply wrong.I have had the courage of my own convictions and also factored the optimal Labour course of action into my betting. My current position therefore is to lay Apr-Jun 2010 and to back later periods at the right price. I am therefore light green for periods up to and including Jan-Mar 2010, deep red for Apr-Jun 2010 and deep green thereafter.

I look forward to being told just exactly how I've got this completely wrong. But as the title of this piece suggests, Gordon Brown is in far greater control of the date when he ultimately stands down as leader of the Labour party than is commonly appreciated - he controls the date of his resignation, the date of the election, the decision whether to remain as interim leader. Anyone who doesn't factor all of this into their thinking is taking a big risk.


Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Scotland's Swing Seats SNP v Labour in the East

Scotland 2010: The 31 seats that matter Part 1: SNP v Labour Battleground in the 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 Labour v SNP “battleground seats” in the East of Scotland.

Aberdeen North: (Lab) held by Labour’s Frank Doran, one of their more able Scottish performers. In the 2007 Holyrood elections (where Aberdeen is represented by 3 seats), North was an SNP hold with a 6.6% Lab-SNP swing increasing the majority to 3,750 or 15%. Central a Labour hold saw a 2.1% Lab-SNP swing shaving the majority to under 400 votes or 1.8%. It is hard to see Labour holding this one.

Dundee West: (Lab) remained Labour when East went SNP and held by James McGovern with a majority of over 5,000 in 2005 but in 2007 popular local councillor Joe Fitzpatrick turned Labour’s 2003 majority of 1,000 into an SNP majority of almost 2,000. I expect the SNP to throw the kitchen sink at this seat in 2010 so expect an SNP gain, especially as the city council is now SNP run. This seat falling would make Dundee the first city in Scotland ever to be SNP controlled at Westminster, Holyrood and city council level.

Glenrothes: (Lab) the seat which Labour held in last year’s by-election on a quadrupling of the postal votes and then the marked register promptly disappeared. Incredibly the Labour vote increased from 2005 but away from the media frenzy and party workers coming from all parts of the country, will the SNP be able to benefit this time from running the council and holding the Holyrood seat since 2007? The 3rd and 4th party votes are likely to return to normal so will Labour or the SNP benefit from the lack of squeeze?

Edinburgh East: (Lab) a seat long held by Dr Gavin Strang, one of Labour’s most able Scottish parliamentarians, in 2005 he retained the seat with a majority of just over 6,200 votes or almost 16%. The Holyrood seat which is smaller was taken in 2007 by Kenny MacAskill, now the very high profile Justice Secretary in the SNP cabinet on a swing of 13% giving the SNP a majority of almost 1,400 votes or just over 4.6%. Gavin Strang is retiring and Labour was rocked by outrage over the imposition of a women-only shortlist so if the SNP take any Edinburgh seat it should be this one.

Livingston: (Lab) was for some years the seat of the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who won the seat in 2005 with a majority of over 13,000 votes or 30%. Following his sudden death soon after the General Election, he was succeeded by Jim Devine his former election agent who held the seat at the by-election. However having suffered a 10% swing to the SNP, Jim Devine’s majority was reduced to less than 2,700 votes or 9% making it highly marginal. Sure enough at the Holyrood election in 2007, Cllr Angela Constance who just failed against Jim Devine captured the seat from Bristow Muldoon the sitting Labour MSP on a 7.5% swing giving her a slender majority of 870 or just over 2.6%. Facing an SNP opponent boosted by the presence of an SNP MSP and SNP run council, Jim Devine is like Canute trying to hold back the tide. Of course Jim Devine will not be defending the seat due to him being barred by Labour’s star chamber over his expenses so that may be enough for an SNP gain.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Is food political?

Could Hunger become a factor in the election?

Back in the 80's when I was at University doing an agricultural degree at Reading, we dwelt for a time on human motivations as proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper 'A Theory of Human Motivation'. You can read all about it for yourself here

In short, Maslow suggested that people have ever more complex needs and motivations but in order to become personally fulfilled, people need to progressively conquer in turn 'Physiological needs' then 'Shelter & Safety needs', 'Social needs', 'Esteem' and finally the rather grandly-termed 'Self-Actualization' or fulfilment.

So what's this got to do with politics?

Politics is all about appealing to peoples' self-esteem and desires for fulfilment... but people are only listening to these grand ideals when they feel safe and secure at home within a stable social structure.

The recession and unemployment has made people focus on the the lower-level but more fundamentally important needs. Like not being hungry.

I'm not suggesting that the shelves at Tescobury's are going to be empty any time soon but the Government doesn't seem to be recognising that people are more open to messages about basic needs than they were. They haven't twigged that luxury 'eye catching initiatives' such as elevating Sir Alan Sugar to the peerage or promoting more 'equalities' are simply missing the point.

And that's why I think that Shadow Agriculture Minister Nick Herbert is onto something when identifies that we've become more dependent on food imports in the last decade. He's tapping into a subliminal sense that we haven't placed sufficient strategic importance on ensuring that we can feed ourselves. Yes, he's making a political point, but he's also addressing a more fundamental viceral need embedded in the human psyche. The need to be able to provide for ourselves.

He reports that since 1997

* The UK’s self-sufficiency in indigenous food has fallen from 82% in 1998 to 73% in 2008;
* The UK trade gap in food, feed and drink has widened by 52% in real terms between 1998 and 2007 to £15.2 billion;
* Over 36,000 hectares of planted land for vegetables has been lost under Labour, falling from 153,000 when they took office to 116,000 in 2008;
* Over the same period, the area of land for producing fresh fruit has fallen from 36,000 hectares to 28,000 hectares;
* The number of dairy cows has fallen from 2,453,000 to 1,909,000;
* The number of beef cows has fallen from 1,911,000 to 1,670,000;
* The number of pigs has fallen from 7,834,000 to 4,714,000;
* The sheep and lamb flock has fallen from 43,983,000 to 33,131,000;
* The number of poultry kept has fallen from 169,901,000 to 166,200,000;
* The area of land for cereals has fallen from 3,358,000 to 3,274,000."

Arguably, it's the role of Goverment to put food in the belly and keep the lights on at home. Yet as I look forward to the grand challenges ahead, food security and energy security seem to have been totally overlooked. Or Fudged. And people are starting to notice this basic failure of Governance brutally exposed by the different economic situation.

This post isn't some sort of special pleading for the farmers or the oil barons, but I do observe that Labour's lack of attention to basic human needs characterised by its abandonment of the countryside and its failure to plan ahead for the time that our North Sea reserves are depleted is about to come back and bite it.

Well, we've all got to eat.

How long with Cameron's party last in government?

By Irfan Ahmed

I am someone who believes if the Conservatives get elected to government they won’t last very long, on that note I would like to run a poll on Political Betting Channel 2 to try and find out what other think. I would like to know, how long people think a Tory government will last.

My view is that they will only last one term, as Cameron and Co. will show the general public they are politically unable to run the country and will lose the 2015 general election.

But what do you think?

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Schumacher's Stiff Neck

So, it now looks highly likely that Schumacher will race for Ferrari again, quite probably for the remainder of the season. However, this is not yet an absolute certainty as there are still questions over his neck, stiff after a motorbike crash some months ago and possibly not up to the tremendous G-forces of F1.

Should he get in the car Schumacher will also face the problem of never having driven it. The ban on testing means that Ferrari needed to acquire unanimous agreement from the other teams for their ‘new’ boy to play with the F60 prior to Valencia, permission they failed to be granted thanks to Red Bull (title contenders), sister team Toro Rosso and Williams.

He has, however, been practising in a privately owned Ferrari F1 car from the 2007 season, equipped with slicks. He’s also been practising with karting and shed a few pounds already.

Importantly, Schumacher’s enormous experience of circuits will be less valuable at Valencia because he’s never raced there. The next race after Valencia is Spa in Belgium, a classic circuit Schumacher will know like the back of his hand. He’s won there no fewer than six times, and Ferrari is the top winning team, with 15 victories in Belgium. A second place in Hungary will fuel speculation Raikonnen and Schumacher have real podium potential, especially at Spa.

It will also be interesting to see whether or not Hamilton can retain the form that saw him triumph in Hungary after Alonso (probably not driving at Valencia due to a team punishment for Renault after a failed pit stop meant one of his wheels went walkies on the track) dropped out.

Morris Dancer

Unknown Knowns

Following the Rumsfeldian theme....

What are the events that will happen, but are not general known/thought about? There are many occasions when specialists or intersted parties have knowledge that hasn't reached the counciousness of the general public as a whole. For example, I was quite surpised during the Petrol Strike by the fact that people *didn't* know that 80% of the price of petrol is tax.

An interesting event that will occur is the replacement of petrol with battery powered. The current state of the art is that such cars have a reasonable range and good performance, but a very high price. Within 10 years, we will have cars in the sub-£20,000 category, capable of a driving 500 miles between charges. Such vehicles would be cheaper to own than the equivelant fossil fuel vehicles. While the possibility of electric vehicles is known, the rapidity wth which they are going to become a cheap practical transport system isn't

Hydrogen - the main competitor - is not capable of improving the energy density (the amount of fuel that can be stored) much further. Refueling times are fixed at the half hour level by the physics of cryogenic material. Fuel cells are complex and just as liable to degrade over time as batteries.

What will be the results of this change. A common place about electric vehicles is that if there is a mass takeup of the technology the electricity grid will collapse. There is a power shortage in the near future by most measures, after all. But consider - such vehicles might well be charged at night, when there is a vast surplus of generating capacity. An interesting possibility is that filling stations would store power in huge, fixed, battery banks. Cars would "fill up" from them rapidly, and they would steadliy charge overnight. This would be preferable to huge, short duration loads on the grid, by directly charging a car in 10 minutes (say). This infrastructure has been suggested by all the studies into mass use of electric vehicles.

Such a battery bank would be a vast store of electricty. This would enable electricty generators to "smooth" the generation curve. A perfect world for the generating companies would be a completely flat level of demand, 24 hours a day. This would mean that the number of power plants could be massively reduced - a huge amount of capacity is only there to meet peak demand. Good bye power shortage? Wind power would also become much more usable if there is somewhere to store the power generated at the wrong time.

What of revenue? Green vehicles are currently barely taxed. It would not take a great deal of takeup to start hitting the government hard in the wallet. Introducing taxes on green vehciles will be very difficult. For the foresable future, taxes at the level levied on fossil fuel vehicles would render alternative fuel transport uneconomic - they will cost more. It is quite possible that this will begin to be felt before the end of the next parlimentry term - definitely by the end of the one after next.

Planning is currently based on the idea that cars are undesirable. If they are silent and non-C02 emitting this will change. Houses next to major roads may become a lot less undesirable, for example...

So, power station construction may become less of an issue - not something that many are predicting at the moment. Taxation will be a major problem and urban planning will be massively effected. All within a decade or two. That and the collapse of the economies of the major oil producers. Scotland with oil no-one buys? Saudi Arabia minus 90% of it's income?

Monday, 3 August 2009

Political betting - a Rumsfeldian perspective

Chess is a trivial game. I do not make this statement to annoy chess players: it is a mathematical statement. All information is available to both players throughout, the rules are predetermined and in theory at least all possible outcomes are known.

Unlike chess, bridge is a non-trivial game. The different players have different information at different times. Each player must make his decisions not on the basis of perfect information but on the basis of what he knows at the time. It is possible to make objectively the right play but for it to fail where other plays would have succeeded. Good players will win in the long run, but they can and often will lose in the short run.

Politics is non-trivial and it is not a game. Not only do different players have different information at different times, the rules can change dramatically - if indeed there are any rules. Things that can seem completely unimportant in advance can become the subject of all-consuming debate. Dull subjects can become the lead story. Who would have guessed in January that the public would have been transfixed for days by a political story involving a bathplug and porn?

All of this is perhaps stating the bleeding obvious. But political betters do have a tendency to assume inevitability about the future in a way that they would consider barking mad in other aspects of life. Sometimes the race goes not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and strong happen to them all.

Political betting involves weighing up contingencies: when is the election date? will Gordon Brown be replaced? can Labour recover in the polls? But behind those contingencies, the known unknowns if you like, there are, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, unknown unknowns: the things we don't know we don't know.

Some things are truly unknowable, but others are unknown unknowns simply because no one has bothered to think about them. So in that spirit, I set out five things that might transform British politics in the next 10 months.

1. A natural disaster

George W Bush was able to invade Iraq, screw up the occupation and still get comfortably re-elected. But he never really recovered from the debacle of Hurrican Katrina. In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen, but we could get floods, storms, unnatural heat (don't laugh), a big freeze or, if you are a fan of the Discovery channels, the fallout from supervolcanoes or asteroid strikes. Would it be to the benefit or detriment of the Government? That depends on how it was handled. An asteroid strike would, I expect, lead to a sharp rise in Lib Dem prospects in Wales.

2. Financial turmoil

Amazingly, given that we have only just come out of a bout of this, everyone seems to have forgotten how scary it can be. Might it happen again? If it did and the Treasury responded with as much assurance as it did last time round, might the Government benefit?

3. War

As late as mid-July 1914, the war that British people feared was a civil war in Ireland. A new war could erupt very quickly. There are plenty of obvious flashpoints where Britain might get sucked in - and staying out might be as controversial as going to war in some locations. If the war was of worldwide significance, British politics would be shaken up completely.

4. Flags at half mast

This is rather morbid, but if the Queen were to die, the nation would go into mourning. Things that seemed perfectly fine in normal circumstances would seem horribly inappropriate. Some politicians would get it right, some would get it completely wrong.

Then the nation would be consumed by issues of the succession and the difficult question whether Camilla should be queen. No politician is going to rush into that, particularly since the heir to the throne is hardly a man without opinions of his own.

Fortunately, the Queen seems to be in excellent health.

5. David Cameron trashes his brand

The story of the last few years has been the inexorable rise of David Cameron. But he is a man not a demigod, and he can make mistakes. One serious mistake is all it takes to finish a politician off. If David Cameron becomes damaged goods, all bets are off for the next election.

Of course, none of these things may come to pass. Other entirely unexpected things almost certainly will come to pass. Each year something comes as a bolt from the blue. When calculating political odds, a discount factor must be applied for "events".


Sunday, 2 August 2009

Mandy for MP may not mean Mandy for PM

There is evidence that Peter Mandelson wants to return to the House of Commons.

Why? Why does he need to be an MP?

The conventional wisdom is that he wants to be leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister. However, we should consider what this would mean. If he is parachuted into a super safe seat, then it might be possible to have in place by the end of the year. Could a man who had to resign a record number of times from the cabinet lead the party to victory? The odds suggest that the best that Labour can hope for is a hung parliament. Even that is probably a slim prospect.

A further question is whether he would actually get the job. Brown would have to step down – is that probable? Then, he would have to be elected by the party at large in a coronation – there is little time left for a fully contested election. Many in the Labour party - especially those on the left – would oppose him, whatever the cost. After all of that - would Mandelson want to return to lead the party to defeat?

Could it be that he wants to be an MP, one of the survivors after the next election? To run for leader in the aftermath? I think that this is more plausible - but still very unlikely. There would be time for the leadership battle, and some on the left might accept him as the price to prove that their party wasn’t heading for the 1980s again – a party lead by Mandy couldn’t be considered hard left, despite left wing policies.

Another issue, and one that I think is much more important, relates to the Tory plans for the Lords (what follows assumes a Tory victory). Currently there is a Labour majority. Brown (or whoever is the Labour leader at the next election) will submit a large honours list as well. Cameron could deal with this by appointing a vast number of new Lords – but this would swell the size of the house to ridiculous proportions. More likely is the possibility of a largely (90%?) elected house of a smaller, fixed size. This would just happen to chuck out the vast majority of the peers created under New Labour. Mandy and Michael Martin losing their positions would play very nicely with the Conservative base. To the public at large a massive cut in the size of the House of Lords combined elections and clearing out the dead wood could be a very popular.

The impetus for such reform will be the (almost certain) use of the Labour majority to try and stop the policies of the new Conservative government. I do not expect them to respect convention on what the Lords can and cannot do. They will see themselves as the last bastion of the Labour party, and will attack in whatever way they can.

Mandy would be smart to avoid this sad fight – the sight of the life peers vainly trying to hold onto their allowances will not be pretty and will play very badly with the public. Peter Mandelson MP would be unaffected - he could get on with the job he probably wants, being the power behind the throne. Betting on him becoming PM before the election seems like a very long shot to me – even afterwards would be improbable. But Mandy returning to the Commons seems increasingly likely.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The punters' view of how well Cameron will do

In a recent post on Political Betting, antifrank listed the best odds available from the various bookies for bands of seats which the main parties might win in the General Election.

Using that data as a starting point, we can estimate the implied probability for any particular result. For example, let's take the Conservative seat total. The best odds quoted for the low end were:

Under 100 200/1
100 - 124 200/1
125 - 149 150/1

Converting these odds to probabilities, and adding them up in turn, this means that the bookies think there is a 0.49% chance of the Tories winning less than 100 seats, a 0.995% chance of them winning less than 125, and a 1.65% chance of them winning less than 150 seats. Or, to look at it the other way round, the bookies are saying the Tories have a probability of 0.9951 of winning at least 100 seats, 0.9905 of winning at least 125, and 0.9835 of winning at least 150.

Continuing the process, we can find the cumulative probability for the upper figure in each of the bands quoted, right up to 450 or more. (We have to make a correction, to allow for the bookies' profit margin of around 15%, to ensure that our probabilities add up to 1.00). And it is then a simple matter to fit a curve to the resulting data points, to give us a smooth interpolation of the probabilities for any number of seats in the range. (Note for pointy-heads: I used a degree-6 polynomial fit). The results are as follows (Click on the graph for a higher resolution version)

It is now a simple matter to read off the probability for the Conservatives winning at least N seats, for any value of N. For example, the markets are saying that there is around a 50% chance of Cameron winning 350 seats or more.

I have also marked a few points which show the implied probabilities for other markets. (The ones I've shown are all bets on the Conservatives winning either a majority of a certain size, or winning individual seats - see below).

By seeing where they lie on the chart, you can see if they are good value or not, compared with what the seat bands are telling us. If you are betting for the Conservatives, you want the point to be as far below the line as possible (i.e. lower implied probability, which means better odds). Conversely, if you are betting against the Conservatives, you want the point to be as far above the line as possible.

Take the Betfair Party Seats line, for which the current mid-point and last matched price is 360 for the Tories, i.e. this is the figure which punters on that market think corresponds to a probability of 0.5. If you look at the graph, you'll see that this is about 10 seats higher than the seat bands market implies for a probability of 0.5; this indicates that buying the Tories on this market is not good value compared with the seats band. The same is true for the Paddy Power and Ladbrokes markets for majority of over 50 and over 100 (however, in these cases you need to allow for the bookies' profit margin). On the other hand, betting on the other side (for a majority of less than 50, on Paddy Power at odds of 2.5, implying a probability of 0.4 that the Tories will NOT get a majority of at least 50), looks good value compared with the seats band (To avoid clutter, I haven't shown this on the chart).

We can also do something very interesting for assessing spread bets. Since we now have the cumulative probability, we can trivially deduce the implied probability for exactly N seats, for any N (it's just the difference between the probability of at least N and at least N-1). And if we sum the product of those probabilities times the number of seats, we get the price which the seat band markets imply should be the mid-point for the spreads (i.e. the expected value). This is currently very substantially less than the actual mid-point for the Tories: SPIN's mid-point is 359.5, the weighted value of the seat-bands market is about 340. This is not a surprise when you look at the shape of the chart, which has a long flat tail at the low end of the distribution. But it does mean that if you want to bet on a Tory seats value of greater than 360, you may be better off betting on the seats bands than on SPIN.

I must emphasise that none of this means that the other markets are necessarily wrong ; what I have done here is simply reflect what one particular betting market (the seat bands) implies is the probability distribution. We'll never know whether it is correct; this is not a physics experiment, you can't simply repeat this general election hundreds of times under identical conditions to find out how many times each outcome occurs. This is where one has to apply one's own judgement; personally, I think the distribution is too skewed towards the low end, and that the actual probability distribution should be more weighted to a Tory majority in the 25 to 100 region. Others may disagree: that is the essence of political betting.

Finally, a note on individual constituencies. This is much more speculative, because of individual variations (although not every seat can buck the trend!) I've marked a few examples, where I've taken the implied probability from the best available odds in the market, and related these to the corresponding Tory majority at which the seat would fall, everything else being equal. (I used Anthony Wells' excellent UK Polling Report website for the data. )

Take, for example, Broxtowe, the constituency of PB regular Dr. Nick Palmer MP. According to UK Polling Report, the Conservatives would have 214 seats if the 2005 election vote shares were repeated with the new boundaries,and Broxtowe is Tory target 42. Therefore, if everything else were equal, the probability of Broxtowe going Blue would be the same as the probability of the Tories winning 214+42=256 seats in all. Looking at the chart, the probability of this is around 0.9, so we would expect the odds to be no better than decimal 1.11 (1/9). In fact you can get 1.20 (1/5) from Ladbrokes, implying a probability of just 0.83 (and that's without making allowance for Ladbrokes' profit margin). This means that either a bet on the Conservatives winning Broxtowe is very good value compared with the seat bands, or there is some specific reason why Broxtowe is less likely to fall to the Tories than other targets which would fall to similar swings.

Conversely, applying the same method to a seat like Birmingham Selly Oak, you get a data point which falls far above the line on the chart; this suggests (in the absence of any other information) that it is bad value to bet on the Tories winning here; it could, therefore, be very good value to bet on Labour retaining it.

Richard Nabavi

Naming the Date - When will the General Election be?

From time to time there is a fresh round of speculation about the date of the General Election. Some say that, with unemployment [a lagging indicator] getting worse, the sooner it's called for Labour the better. But then Mark Penn pops up so say that Labour can still recover so actually it might be a case of wait-and-see. But one thing's for sure, until we have fixed term parliaments, the Government can call the date so I want to think about when that might be.

The Electoral Commission's website states quite clearly what the latest possible date for the General must be.

The five years run from the first meeting of Parliament following a UK Parliamentary general election. The current Parliament was first summoned on Wednesday 11 May 2005, so will cease to exist at midnight on Monday 10 May 2010. A general election to elect the new Parliament must be held by no later than Thursday 3 June 2010.

But how did they get these dates?

For that you need to visit the Parliament Website and an interesting paper RESEARCH PAPER 01/14
Parliamentary Election Timetables, where it lays down the statutory basis for calling the date including such interesting details like the provision to delay the date by 14 days should the monarch die during the campaign.

Parliament can be disolved at any time but recent convention has been to proroge it, which is a prerogative act of the Crown, which suspends nearly all business of both Houses, including the sitting of committees, until Parliament is
summoned again.
In previous C20 elections, the prorogation ceremony was an elaborate affair that took place whilst the houses were sitting but dissolution can occur at any time, even in the recess by simple Royal Proclamation and the issue of Writs.

Once the dissolution takes place the current timetable provides for a bare minumum of 24 days to polling day. This used to be 17 days but the additional time for postal voting has extended this to 24 days. But this is a tight time scale is rarely followed.

Oftentimes there's a televised announcement that the PM "intends to ask The Queen" to dissolve Parliament and the prorogation follows some days later.... and then a longer date than the 24-day minimum period for the poll is selected. In 1997, the campaign was a record 44 days made up of two parts: The announcement that John Major intended to call a dissolution then the dissolution and Campaign itself.

In Brown's case, he wants the shortest possible campaign because we know [Mike Smithson's third rule] that the more Cameron appears on the television, the better he does in the polls. And in the election period, broadcasting rules mean that the BBC have to give more coverage to the opposition parties than is unsually the case.

The current wisdom is that the General Election will be called on the 6th May 2010, just 28 days before the absolute deadline set by Statute.

And that 6th May day implies that Parliament would be either proroged or dissolved by the 12th April [24 days earlier]. Rather unhelpfully, the Parliament website does not give the dates for the 2010 Easter Recess but, taking this year's as a guide, Parliament returned on 20th April 2009 after just under 3 weeks holidays, that is 7 days after Easter Sunday.

Next year, Easter Sunday falls on 4th April, implying that Parliament would return on 12th April.... the last possible date to call the election on 6th May. Are MP's going to go on holiday in late March and just come back for one day to call the election? I just can't see this myself.

If Brown going to wait until after the holidays, why not announce the Poll on the last day of the Parliamentary spring term, which I assume [based on last year's calendar] to be on Thursday 26th March.... indicating a date of 23rd April as the date.

So, my initial gut feel is that Brown will wait until the last day in June and hang-the-consequences or use the Easter Recess to announce the date indicating a mid April poll. St Georges Day.

But what might spoil this analysis? Well, we have local elections on 6th May 2010 but only in those district Councils that elect by thirds... and nowadays they are in a small minority. I don't actually see coincidence with the Locals next May as important as I did.

In my view, The key determinant to spoil the St George's Day polling-day prediction will be the date of the Budget. This year Darling's budget was delivered on the latest date for many years [22nd April] and the date was announced on 12th February... 69 days ahead of time.

My own Man-On-The-Spot tells me that Brown will use the next budget as a last throw of the dice and then go to the Country straight away. In 2008, the budget was delivered on 12th March, over a month earlier than this year. That date was announced on 1st February, just 39 days ahead. I'd say we're looking at an early budget next year.

If you ask me to guess, I'd say that next year's Budget will be on Weds 10th March 2010 [it always seems to be a Wednesday] with Parliament proroged in an elaborate ceremony the following day... with a quick 28 day campaign to Thursday 8th April in Easter Week, when, Brown reasons, all the Tory voters will be on Holiday.

So, forget the 6th May. it's either 8th April or 23rd April.... And I'm piling it on the earlier date! Whatever it is, it's the date of the budget announced at the end of January which will tell us the date of the election.