Wednesday 21 April 2010

old polling methodologies out of the window?

Just a brief post this time. Polling companies must be sweating - results are suddenly much more volatile and from chugging along nicely a week ago when all the pollsters had a hung parliament with the Tories 10-40 seats short, we're now all over the place with predictions.

I'd be interested to know which pollsters are asking respondents:

  • if they watched last Thursday's debate
  • if they are registered to vote (the last date to register has now passed)
  • if undecided, a few more probing questions about style vs substance
Either way, the volatility means that there may only be some polling winners, with some big losers. Will we have a better idea of which companies are the most reliable until after the event?

Friday 16 April 2010

ComRes poll will fundamentally change election tactics

A poll this morning from ComRes, just hours after the first leaders’ debate, has the following:

Con 36 (-3)
Lib Dem 35 (+14)
Lab 24 (-3)
Others 5 (-8)

This sounds absolutely sensational, no matter how you look at it, however there is one caveat. The sample was only viewers of the programme. So don’t get too excited about Cleggomania just yet. I hear cries of "meaningless", but I wouldn't go that far - the population in question was 10 million, of an electorate of less than 50 million, and it's fairly safe to assume that turnout will be higher in the portion of the electorate that watched the debate than of the portion that didn't.

 Either way, it’s pretty dramatic stuff. From this, it doesn’t take a genius to draw a few basic conclusions:
  1. I’m not sure what questions the ComRes poll asked or their methodology, as their website is down, but assuming it’s a standard voting intention poll, then that’s categorical evidence that the debates will affect the election result. As such, they now take on a doubly important role. What’s more, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’re here to stay.
  2. All party leaders need to make the remaining debates their absolute priorities. If viewing figures go up, and you’d expect the BBC figures to be significantly higher and Sky, I would say, to be about the same as ITV, then you’re looking at potentially millions of people voting. Brown, Cameron and Clegg alike, all need to rethink what they spend their time doing. Visits to marginal seats can be held off in favour of gemming up knowledge, studying last night’s debate, looking for potential holes to attack, presentation skills, and so on. This goes equally for all three candidates.
  3. The Lib Dems, quite simply, need a quick strategy to maximise viewing figures for the remaining debates. They also urgently need to maximise viral viewing of highlights of last night on YouTube. All parties will want to viralise the best bits but the Lib Dems have most to gain; casual interest will mostly make its way to the Lib dems from people who didn’t watch the debate – they’ll be asking “what did this Clegg guy say that was so great?”
  4. Both Labour and the Tories need to downplay last night’s results, downplay the upcoming debates, and rethink being so friendly to Clegg. Marginal seats are at stake here.
It’s yet more great news for Clegg and co, though, and virtually guarantees favourable headline billing, once again, on tonight’s news programmes. The bandwagon is well oiled at the moment.

***Update*** Just to confirm, the raw figures above are being widely quoted as national figures. The weighted results, (ie for the whole electorate) are:

Con 35 (nc)
Lab 28 (-1)
Lib Dem 24 (+3)

This merely backs up my arguements above, especially the one that it's imperative for the Liberals to somehow maximise viewing figures.The debates do clearly affect anyone who watches them (comparing the unweighted data to the weighted data is insightful). All my points above are doubly valid.

Living in a marginal (2): Kilburn hustings the aperitif for leaders' debate

The thing that struck me most about tonight's Hampstead & Kilburn hustings in St Mary's church, Abbey Road was how pointless the whole exercise was. It was woefully publicised, for a start; I consider myself fairly clued up, and I was asking around on Twitter only this afternoon to find out if it was on in the first place. For anyone not following the H&K battle moderately obsessively, or who happened to walk or drive past the large banner on the church, then they wouldn't have heard about it. As a result, there were maybe seventy people in the audience - the vast majority being party activists and stooges. Were there any floating voters at all? It seemed to me that the candidates would have had a much more productive hour knocking on fifty doors apiece.

Still, it was my first encounter with any of the candidates in the flesh - and my first ever hustings - so I was glad of the opportunity. A drink on arrival was a lovely touch, and a chilly St Mary's a great venue for the action. We were treated to Ed Fordham, Chris Philp, Glenda Jackson and Beatrix Campbell; I was rather disappointed that Magnus Nielsen wasn't on the panel, as by all accounts his shouty exploits livened up the previous hustings a fortnight ago. Luckily, he was in the audience, and asked a sonerous and predictable question about Europe late on.

Early questions focussed on the larger picture: what the individual candidates would bring to the table, how politicians could reengage with voters and dispel their disillusionment, and their views on the economy.

Of the performances, I was actually most impressed with Glenda Jackson in the early stages. There was, appropriately, an air of Lady Macbeth about her, but her pride in representing her constituents and belief in a strong, fair parliamentary system were both evident. I must confess she made a compelling impression on me in the early stages. She underwent an astonishing transformation halfway through as she suddenly seemed to lose interest - fidgeting, leaning back in her chair and making increasingly frantic hand gestures alongside disconnected answers. I don't know what got into her.

We touched on everything from "simple" issues like Europe, hunting and "Graylingate", most of which allowed the candidates to give swift answers. Chris Philp tied himself in knots over hunting, but it's a tricky one to defend when (1) you're in an urban constituency and (2) all the other panel members had given decisive responses against hunting in advance of him.

I had expected Philp to be a strong performer and I was slightly disappointed with his delivery. He is a strong, confident speaker, giving taut responses, but as my girlfriend whispered "he comes across as an arrogant City wideboy". Indeed there was something slightly cocky about him - perhaps it was a slight lack of contemplation before giving his answers. As for his content, of all the candidates he was keenest to push his party's manifesto and apply it to local circumstances. As a result he came across well, but the lines came out rather glibly, and there was the feeling that he was trotting out lines he had used many times before on doorsteps. In his defence, when he was heckled (as he was - frequently), he dealt with things very well.

I mention local circumstances. Philp and Fordham were especially keen to talk about Kilburn; clearly this had been billed as the "Kilburn hustings". I bet there wasn't anyone in the room from Kilburn - it had a decidedly West Hampstead feel to it. The less said about Ed Fordham's Kilburn jokes the better. Relevance in general was a bit of an issue; at the start Philp launched straight into his party's plans for apprenticeships for 16-24 year olds. There wasn't a single person in the room falling within that bracket.

Things hotted up when we hit the economy, with Philp branding taxation of the rich "an easy shot" - before using the equally easy line that the wealthy would all move abroad. Electoral reform was spoken of - with Fordham making succinct points and Jackson, once again, eloquently putting the case.

Succinct would be the word I would use to describe Ed Fordham more generally. He quietly made the point that two things spoken of by Jackson and Philp (electoral reform from Jackson, memory escapes what the Philp point was) as good ideas were already in the Lib Dem manifesto. He came across as balanced and earnest. Perhaps a little too earnest; compared to Glenda and Chris, Ed is neither a natural orator or debater and while the quality of his answers was excellent and kept him going, a little more debating aggression probably wouldn't have gone amiss. And less bad jokes. Beatrix Campbell, also, came across as credible and mature.

The two things I would have asked about were both argued over. The first was electoral reform, over which the candidates gave very satisfactory answers; the second was when Glenda Jackson said "this seat is between Labour and the Conservatives." This provoked an uproar among the many Lib Dems in the room. As I wasn't able to make the appeal in the room, I will make it here.

In this constituency we are (un)lucky enough that our votes actually count for something, so as a result we are thigh-deep in election literature. As a voter, I am slightly insulted and hugely irritated about both the Lib Dem and Tory literature claiming "Tories can't win here" and "Lib Dems can't win here" respectively. Why am I insulted and irritated? Because I am clued up enough to know what's actually going on here and know the state of play - while many people will be confused. It's a complex situation and easy to be confused. Both parties' literature not only takes advantage of voters' ignorance, but, worse, hopes that those voters will stay in the dark about the real situation.

Here us the reality. The Lib Dems claim that the Tories have no chance in this seat. Better tell that to the 35 Tory MPs (presumably all from safe seats; our crippled electoral system strikes again) who famously descended on Hampstead & Kilburn recently to do some campaigning. Here's why the Lib Dems are wrong.
  1. The Conservatives would never have put the efforts they are putting in, if they had no chance of winning. Those mammoth efforts will inevitably lead them to a greater share of the vote
  2. The Tories are nominally in second place in the "old" wards of the H&K (formerly Hampstead & Highgate) seat. They have a strong presence.
  3. The more affluent wards may more naturally gravitate towards the Conservatives than the Liberals.
  4. There is a strong national swing from Labour to the Tories, and the Conservatives will, rightly, feel that very few seats are "off limits" to them.
  5. The Teather vote will not necessarily translate from Brent East to H&K (although the yellow boards in that area are pretty prominent already).
Meanwhile the Tories (with Glenda Jackson backing them up tonight) claim that the "474 votes to win" claim of the Lib Dems is a nonsense, and that the Lib Dems are nowhere. He also claims that the figures used by the Lib Dems are obsolete. This, too, is rubbish because:
  1. Those results refer to real election data. These people actually did vote for those parties last time around. Therefore they are liable to again, potentially.
  2. BBC, UK Polling Report (which tells me that even in the old seat, the Liberals were only just behind in third), and Sky News (which explicitly describe the Lib Dems as being in "a close second") all use the Thrasher & Rallings data. The Evening Standard had an article the other day which mentioned the Lib Dems as challenging hard in second.
  3. As with the Tories, there has been a lot of hard on-the-ground campaigning by the Lib Dems. They're not stupid either...
  4. Tonight's election debate. It's all too easy to think it's just the local candidates themselves and their local campaigning that will determine the results of this seat; on the contrary, there will be plenty of people who are swung mainly by the national issues. Many people barely register that there's an election on; I spoke to one tonight (she lives round the corner from St Mary's, and a Lib Dem campaigner on her way to the hustings had knocked on her door. My friend felt flattered that somebody had bothered to speak to her, and may actually vote for Fordham as a result). For many floating voters, especially towards the apathetic end of the scale (they all count!), these debates could be all they need to decide. Nick Clegg's staggeringly good impression with the public tonight, with 61% declaring him the winner in one poll, could be enough to tip the percentage in his favour in key swing seats like these. Perhaps it would be a better idea for Clegg to return for another visit to the constiuency now that people know who he is?!
Ultimately, the bookies have it spot on, I reckon: Ed Fordham is the odds-on favourite (10/11), with Chris Philp 2/1 and Glenda Jackson 3/1. In other words, unless both the news sites and the bookies are entirely stupid, then the politicians' campaigns are trying to take us all for fools.

What I had wanted to say to both men was this:

Both of you know that what your election material says is complete rubbish, and I know that you know this, because you are not complete muppets. You are both clearly intelligent men. You know the situation. I defy you to look me in the eye and tell me that you truly believe that the other party is not a threat in this election. I know that you cannot. I urge you both to ditch the cynical exploitation of confused voters, and concentrate on convincing us that you are the best candidate to be our local MP because of your personal qualities and beliefs, and that your party is the most fit to govern. You are as bad as each other on this.

I maintain that we have a set of three extremely strong main candidates, and backed up by the eloquence of Beatrix Campbell for the Greens, the shoutiness of Magnus Nielsen for UKIP, and the wonderfully naive enthusiasm of Tamsin Omond for The Commons, it remains a fabulous race. Game well and truly on.

Update: another write-up here. That reminds me, I forgot to write about Sir Peter Stothard, who was utterly hopeless as chair. No control, waffled, no sense of timing, put Chris Philp first three times in a row (Philp, quite rightly, sounded nettled at this). He was awful.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Flirting with quantum mechanics: why there's Uncertainty over hotties

I’m often asked to explain the principle of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the associated paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat.  (this is a lie). Anyhow, a while back it came up in a pub conversation (don’t ask) and I was put on the spot. This, ladies and gents, is quantum mechanics in a nutshell – and the way I’ve interpreted it since I was at school:

Imagine you’re walking along the road and you spot a hottie walking towards you. You really hope she’s checking you out (replace “she” with “he” if you like). Here’s the paradox: if you look at her, she will definitely look away, and you won’t know if she’s checking you out or not. Therefore she will only check you out if you don’t know that she’s doing it. As soon as you make the measurement, she’ll be looking the other way. Although at least this will mean you can ogle to your heart’s content.

This is the observer principle, closely related to the Uncertainty Principle, a basic principle of quantum mechanics, – that every measurement you make affects the result of the quantity being measured. The measurement here is whether the fit bird is looking at you; you make the measurement by looking; as soon as you make that measurement, the value itself is affected. If you hadn’t looked, then she might have been eyeing you up, but if you look at her, she’ll look away.

This is similar to Schrödinger’s Cat – that is, she’s in a superpositional state of both checking you out AND not checking you out, as long as you don’t look at her, in the same way that the cat is both alive and dead until you open the box.

As for me – my hunch is that I don’t need quantum mechanics to tell me that hot girls don’t give me the time of day, so I give them a good ogle and move on, as they stare at their toes, consoling myself that according to the laws of physics, she wouldn’t be looking at me even if I was Jude Law.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Living in a marginal (1): under starter's orders in Hampstead & Kilburn

Just a brief one tonight. We're truly off this time, and it's official, not that much will change in Hampstead & Kilburn where the election race is nearer its conclusion than the start.

Yesterday Nick Clegg was in town. I switched on BBC News 24 and saw Ed Fordham nodding earnestly as Clegg answered various questions on...I wasn't listening, actually. The yellow battlebus was in the background. Pretty standard fare.

At least he was on the constituency. I caught a glimpse of Chris Philp on Newsnight this evening; he had clearly decided not to bother campaigning in H&K today, preferring instead to try and grab a posing opportunity with David Cameron somewhere on the South Bank. Is being on the ground that important? Not really, I must be honest, I was looking for a cheap dig.

The Liberals have definitely got the edge when it comes to leafleting though. It's close between them and the Tories, but I got a glossy this morning (the most positive Fordham communication in ages, rather than anti-Philp) as well as an envelope of Sarah Teather related gear (I find her pretty ghastly myself). Why the material banged on about Dawn Butler I don't know - surely that just muddies the waters further? I spotted a large yellow diamond board on Brondesbury Park (junction with Sidmouth Road), too. H&K was also mentioned in today's Standard as a Lib Dem target seat.

Hard to tell, then, how things are going here but it clearly remains a close fight with both Labour and Tories pouring resources in - clearly it's there for the taking. On a personal note, I see that the referendum on alternative vote won't be taking place but Labour have pledged to push on with it if they win the election. This is a desperate shame that it's fallen through but hardly surprising. It's prettymuch a deal-breaker for me - the most critical issue of all at the election - and I'll be interested to see what the individual candidates' views are on the issue at the next hustings. Hopefully none of them will feel too constrained by party policy.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Edinburgh's recent heavyweights: The Plumed Horse vs The Kitchin

Mainly thanks to having the bestest parents in the world, I've been fortunate to eat out in two of the hotshot restaurants of the time in Edinburgh in recent months. Edinburgh's restaurant scene has been described as "burgeoning" since the middle ages, with dockland Leith, in particular, the focal point. Both The Plumed Horse, and The Kitchin are in this area. Both lived up to their illustrious reputations.

The Plumed Horse is in real Trainspotting territory. On an unpromising street in...well, nowhere to be honest, it's an inauspicious start. We went there courtesy of my mum as a joint celebration for differing successes for myself and my dad. The atmosphere is robust and lively. In a side room there was a group getting loudly and enjoyably smashed; happily, the staff didn't look embarrassed or apologetic, but got on with their jobs amicably. The rotund maitre d' provided exceptional banter, of the sort that makes you feel at home and at ease. Enjoyment was the name of the game here.

The food, though far from cheap, was excellent. Canapés and amuses bouches were a cracking start, but my foie gras terrine took things to the next level - lush, rich, but not over the top. An undoubted highlight. We universally agreed that the main courses were oversalted, but that was a minor detail; I plumped for a pork offering, consisting of pork fillet (superb) combined with belly (less so). The fudge and ginger parfait for dessert was highly inventive and tasty, although I felt it was overly chilled.

Fast forward a few months to today. We've been meaning to go to The Kitchin for years now, but have always been foiled either by circumstance or lack of space. It's always been top of our "must do" list, and finally today was the day - in my birthday honour, no less. It's a different experience. Part of the "trendy yet bleak" Commercial Quay restaurant development, which is the sort of place you parachute yourself into for a meal, then escape from in a taxi forthwith, the decor is a stylish and well thought out charcoal grey, in a spacious, modern interior. Very impressive. The canapés, this time cheese pastries and parsnip crisps, were forgettable, however the amuse bouche of cock-a-leekie soup was superb; clearly a showboat for the chefs' broth-making skills, it did the job perfectly. From then on the quality was uniformly high. I had langoustine ravioli in a langoustine bisque for starter. I had a slight quibble that the foam on the bisque would have been better removed as the texture wasn't quite right, but the flavour was wonderfully rich. Julienned and grated vegetables in the bisque added interest. Elsewhere "thumbs up" reports came for the ox tongue and pig's head terrine.

The service was the downer. Identikit skinny, twenty-something males promoting the Auld Alliance with their peculiar brand of Franco-Scottishness, were overly obsequious - one even bowing as he introduced the canapés. It was all a bit much and a hint of personality and even individuality would have been nice. They do have the natural advantage, however, that they are serving top grade food, and the main course of mutton did not disappoint. Consting of a chop, a herbed and spiced croquette of minced pork, and what was either a sweetbread or even a piece of veal, all sitting on a bed of cumin-enhanced aubergine caviar, this was a real winner, with the croquette the highlight. Other corners of the table expressed their approval of a squid dish. The chocolate soufflé was a knockout winner - with superb caramel ice cream just taking the mickey. A nice glass of Australian Muscat rounded off the meal admirably. The set menu was unusually interesting and didn't make you look longingly at the expensive a la carte.

So - which to go for? The Plumed Horse was one of the best all round restaurant experiences I've ever had - only slightly let down by slight basic errors like over salting and over chilling. At this level, anything less than perfection can be a let down. The Kitchin, on the other hand, edged it on the culinary front, but suffered by comparison where ambience was concerned. I'll call it a (high-scoring) draw; if you can see past the "yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir" slender youths serving your food, the the Kitchin may be the best bet; personally, I had a slightly more enjoyable time at the Plumed Horse. This is all hair splitting though; both are exquisite.

From Stansted to Edinburgh in one meandering scribble

Stansted Airport is a joy. It's hard to get excited about airports - they all seem pretty much the same to me - but stepping out of the train, straight into the terminal, checking in and through security in five minutes to the welcoming Wetherspoons and the football: bliss. £28 for the train ticket was an irritation, but hey, I'll get over it. And seeing Daniel Agger's goal (the arrogant prat) was the icing on the cake (when talking football, must insert cliché).

Over the last few years it has become a long-running joke between me and my dad that whenever either of us is at an airport, anywhere in the world, we have to have a pint, then call each other up to say where we are and what we're drinking. This time it was Heineken. On that note, I can't wait until 22 May, when I'm off with three mates to Paris to watch the Heineken Cup final.

Still on flights - can there be a drearier way to come into London than Stansted? The train to Liverpool Street goes through uniformly dull terrain (Hackney Marshes, Hertfordshire etc) and then into one of the least interesting parts of town - if it was my first trip I wouldn't be inspired.

This time my flight was relatively uneventful - although I get splitting headaches these days when we start the descent. Otherwise no complaints - it was Easyjet I was flying with, thus marginally less opinionating than O'Leary's crowd.

The Evening Standard is a paper that I often disagree with, but their editorial page on Friday was spot on. The leader warned that whoever wins the election will inevitably have to tackle the unions head-on. Severe cuts will be needed at some point; severe cuts mean pay cuts and job losses, as well as reduced pensions; whenever there's a whiff of some inevitable job cutting, the unions hit back hard. The Standard got it right: the unions must realise their place in the bigger picture. They will not be able to repeatedly hold the country to ransom. The needs of the many must be greater than the needs of the few. The key thing will be working out how to make those cuts while inflicting as little misery on as few individual families as possible. Yet the unions will, no doubt, hit back hard and not make things easy.

Chris Blackhurst, the Standard's City Editor, is a columnist with whom I generally have pretty short shrift, but he too had it spot on when he said that a hung parliament "may not be harmful at all." Perhaps with a nod to the Labservative campaign, Blackhurst went on to point out the limited difference in economic arguements between Labour and the Tories: "we're about to endure weeks of political but & thrust for just £5 billion out of £622 billion." That's all. Darling and Osborne can posture all they want, but in reality neither has a bold plan for recovery, and indeed their policies, such as they are, remain similar. When Blackhurst said that Vince Cable "comes across as solid and wise" I thought someone must have written the article as an April Fool - was this the same Chris Blackhurst who was whining about having his million pound house taxed the other week?

Also in the news are the rise in cab fares at night to exorbitant fixed rates, with a minimum fare of £15 (tough luck if it's raining and you want to jump in a cab to take you round the corner). The £30 fixed fare is more interesting, though; it applies for any journey of between three and seven miles. Hang on a second. Cabbies are legally obliged to take you six miles, but if they can get the same money for a journey half the distance, expect to hear a lot of "sorry, not going that way tonight" as they hungrily search for a greedier fare. Passengers must be sure to insist firmly and know their rights according to the law. In general, though, the fares are making a mockery of a quintessential London experience.

I'm in Edinburgh at the moment over Easter - hence the flight - and every time I come back it appeals more and more. Morningside is getting ever more gentrified. A couple of years ago the local supermarkets were Morrison's and Iceland; they've gone, to be replaced by Waitrose and M&S! It's full of little boutiques too, selling knitwear, deli produce and crafts.

The most middle class shop of all must be Aitken & Niven. Tens of thousands of families must have been through their doors over the years to pick up school uniforms for the private schools - their staid, conservative appearance is achingly Morningside. I hope it never changes (although the George Street store is sadly missed).

Finally: Charlotte Square. I never really appreciated it before, but what a stunning architectural masterpiece. It's absolutely perfect - about as elegant as Georgian architecture gets.