Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The butterfly effect: one vote could change it (but that depends on where you live)

Last night I was having dinner with my girlfriend when I asked her "So who you gonna vote for?"

"Well," she replied, "I don't really want to vote for Labour, but I don't really want to vote for the Tories, but then again the Lib Dems have no chance so that'd be pointless. So I don't really know."

I had to put her right - but it suddenly occurred to me that it was an ambiguous statement. Did she mean "the Lib Dems can't win HERE" or "the Lib Dems won't have any effect on the election"/

Either way, she was wrong. Hampstead & Kilburn is a tight three-way marginal with both Ed Fordham's Lib Dems and Chris Philp's Tories attempting to pinch votes from Labour incumbent Glenda Jackson while trying to squeeze each other. There's almost nothing in it. Every vote will count - each vote critical in what is likely to be a neck-and-neck finish between Conservatives and Liberals. We are truly fortunate to live in a constituency where our vote actually counts for something; for the vast majority of voters, the archaic electoral system ensures that the country is dominated by safe seats, with one vote here or there utterly meaningless and counting for nothing. THIRTY FIVE Tory MPs descended on Hampstead & Kilburn the other day - presumably all MPs who don't need to bother campaigning on their own patch and can throw away a few votes with a shrug of the shoulders.

But it's not just locally that the Lib Dems "have a chance"; nationally, too, we are heading to a situation whereby one seat here or there could make the difference between an outright majority in Parliament (most likely for the Conservatives) and a hung Parliament with a position of power for the Liberals. In the past, there may have been a feeling of "what's the point of voting in a Liberal MP? They won't have any governing power" - but that's not the case this time around.

All of this got me thinking - and it almost got me scared. Could we, lowly voters in North West London, be the butterflies that flap our wings and be the crucial voters in the crucial seat that determines who runs the country for the next four years? That could be a hurricane worth starting. Our H&K wings could be very influential indeed.

Of course, this shouldn't be happening. Why should my vote count more than anyone else's? I happen to be in a situation that thanks to being in the right place (a rare marginal constituency) at the right time (an unusually close election race) my vote is tremendously powerful. If our electoral system wasn't so broken, then we wouldn't find ourselves in this position. For the meantime, however, my girlfriend had better choose carefully who she's going to vote for. And as a result, expect those thirty five MPs - and a lot more glossy paperwork besides - to descend on our doorstep.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Patogh, Crawford Place - review

The Edgware Road area is rapidly becoming my favourite part of London. Following on from my recent visit to Abu Zaad, I found myself back in the area on Wednesday meeting my dad. We needed a quick bite and although, once again, it was "no chance" of a table at Mandalay, we managed to get ourselves into Patogh, tucked away in Crawford Place.

There are only four tables. It was full when I did my recce, and although I was told that I'd be able to get a table between 9 and half past, I thought it prudent to nip in at 9:05 and tell then that we were still finishing our pints next door. Prudent it was: when we arrived ten minutes later, we were in the nick of time, as we swept past a group who were about to be given our table. They departed hissing and snarling.

Patogh serves simple Iranian cuisine. The menu is limited, and I was slightly taken aback by the choice of main courses - basically a choice of lamb or chicken cooked in "special sauce". This sounded deeply unpromising. The choice of starters isn't enormous either - it's mostly salads.

We plumped for a mixed starter option, consisting of hummus, yoghurt and a sort of cucumber-and-tomato salad, and another salad option which was mostly feta and walnuts. It's definitely out-of-doors, summer food - refreshing stuff. They seemed to have a run on mint: I ate more of the stuff in one sitting than I normally consume in a year. Simple, satisfying fare.

The real star of the show was the bread - order a "large bread" and you'll be presented with a behemoth of a flatbread that takes over half the table. Between three of us we made a manful effort but barely got through half of it, and another one appeared with each of our main courses. The bread itself was wonderfully flavoursome and textured, with a heavy preponderance of sesame seeds; Perfect for mopping up yoghurt and throwing some mint leaves onto.

The main courses were simple grilled meat, with salad and more mint leaves, with more of that bread. Again, it was simple, with just the right mix of tenderness, smokiness and flavour. As grilled meat goes, it was up there with somewhere like Tayyabs.

As for the service and atmosphere, it wasn't much to speak of. The cramped space stifles the ambience somewhat, and compared to Abu Zaad and other larger places around the corner on the Edgware Road, it's not nearly as much fun. The staff were friendly enough - no complaints.

It's not a place to go for elaborate Iranian cuisine, but as a place to get fresh, rough street food it's another great arrow to have in the quiver. A place to check out if you're looking for a west London meal for less than £20 a head - but worth storing their number and calling ahead if you want a table. Recommended.

Other reviews from the Standard here and Time Out here.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Mumford & Sons smash it but John Cale & Heritage Orchestra a missed opportunity

John Cale with the Heritage Orchestra - Paris 1919, Royal Festival Hall ***
Mumford & Sons, Shepherd's Bush Empire *****

"Are you English or Welsh?" a voice leered in my ear.

"I'm sorry?" I stuttered uncomfortably.

"Are you from England or Wales?" said the woman again, with a heavy Cardiff accent. Her teenage son disappeared into his jacket with embarrassment.

The lady clearly felt sorry for me at having to go to a gig on my own without anyone (my mother, for example) for company. She then regaled me with stories of how she had turned down the chance to go for coffee with the mighty Velvet Underground lead man, John Cale, a few years back.

I was taken aback at her opening gambit but Cale himself is Welsh and commands a strong Welsh following. My Welsh work colleague bored me with tales of how a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had driven Cale around to a gig in the valleys several years ago. I managed to give that monologue the slip, fearing more anecdotes were on their way. But I digress.

Unlike 99% of the audience I actually heard about the gig through being a huge fan of the Heritage Orchestra (a few weeks ago I mentioned them in my list of the best musical things of the 2000s). I had only seen them perform live once before - playing Gabriel Prokofiev's Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra and some Plaid tunes - but they have a wonderful LP of their own music and did a gig a few years back with Brazilian legend Eumir Deodato, which was, by all accounts, excellent. When I heard that they were doing a performance with John Cale of his seminal album Paris 1919, my ears pricked up. I'd never heard the LP before, but as soon as I gave it a listen, my mind was made up that this would be an immediate front runner for gig of the year. The album is a nostalgic Beach Boys-esque slab of beautiful pop, and the thought of adding a full orchestra to it brought my anticipation levels somewhere near sky-high.

Perhaps I expected too much. My only criticism of the Heritage Orchestra will always be that they could be more ambitious and never quite fulfill their potential to do something really extraordinary, and sadly this was the case at the Festival Hall. The term "Orchestra" was pushing it a bit, too: the strings consisted of three first violins, three second violins, four violas, three cellos and three basses (Cale is a viola player!); a couple of horns, a trumpet and a trombone. With Cale's four-piece rock band, who were more pronounced than the orchestra, c'etait tout. The Heritages have always lacked ambition in their orchestration and the arrangements of Paris 1919 were, for the most part, dull. Only some imaginative string work and a prominent trombone on "Graham Greene" really got going, although a gorgeously rich version of "Half Past France" got the spine tingles going in the way I'd been hoping when I splashed out £28 for my (upper circle) ticket.

The strength of material like "Child's Christmas in Wales", "Hanky Panky Nohow" and the title track meant that this was still a decent gig, but Cale himself seemed disinterested as they ploughed through the album in track-for-track order and he barely acknowledged the Heritage Orchestra throughout.

In the second half Cale reappeared with just his band and this time they rocked hard. Unfortunately, I was the only person in the audience not to know any of his material, so much of it was lost on me, even "Femme Fatale". The crowd loved every minute, including my gregarious Welsh new-found friend whose son manfully endured her banshee whooping after every tune.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I still maintain that this could have been one of the all time gigs to remember being at. Instead, it felt like a missed opportunity.

We discovered Mumford & Sons at work in the week I started, about five months ago now, and they have become the spiritual office favourites ever since, with the album on rotation about four times a day in the autumn. It was only fitting, then, that three of us (with various girlfriends in tow) should sally forth to see them live at the Empire on Sunday night.

A brief mention of Camille O'Sullivan, who was performing at the St Patrick's Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square beforehand in the sunshine. My recent review waxed lyrical enough so I won't say more except that once again she was superb (not sure about doing U2's "One" though!), doing some of the material she'd done at the Apollo gig (Kirsty MacColl's "In These Shoes" and Nick Cave's "Ship Song") as well as some different songs. She battled bravely to entertain the crowd who mostly consisted of extremely smashed Irish 14-year-olds. When she's next in town, do as I say and get yourself a ticket or I'll give you a smack.

Then it was off to the Empire (a nice venue and surprisingly small). after hearing Thom Stone (shy, dull) and Alberta Cross (loud, rocky, will probably remain virgins their entire life) we got the main course. Mumford & Sons are so energetic that it's easy to forget they have no drummer; instead the rhythm comes from "Country" Winston's banjo and Marcus Mumford's bass drum which he plays in addition to guitar. Bass (mostly acoustic) and keyboard make up the band, with occasional guest spots from a horn section.

The gig was epic. The sound quality, volume levels and balance were wonderful while the band threw themselves into their unique mixture of barbershop chorales, lyrical poetry and tubthumping folk-rock hoe-downs with electric energy. Sigh No More doesn't have a weak track on it and while flagwavers "The Cave" and of course "Little Lion Man" drew the biggest cheers, ballad "Awake My Soul" showcased the band's choral balance perfectly while headbanger "Roll Away Your Stone" must have worn away a lot of shoe leather from all the foot-stamping both on stage and in the crowd. I've not had so much fun at a gig for ages and  they're undoubtedly one of the best bands in the country at the moment, and three new tracks bode well for an upcoming new album. The ovation at the end was uproarious and deservedly so.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Lewis PR Social Media Summit: how will social media affect the election?

Last night I went along to a conference organised by Lewis PR. I went with two hats on - Lewis are a client of ours at Social Media Libary, so social media is the field I work in; my primary motivation, however, was to see what the experts thought about the role social media is having in the election campaign. Much has been written, but there's no substitute for having someone put behind a microphone and questioned.

Lewis were great hosts and put on copious drinks and nibbles. The conference was in the form of a panel discussion, with a slightly cringeworthy (though interesting) video introduction. The four speakers each had a few minutes to present a speech (I found out afterwards that they hadn't been warned about this). I'm afraid I missed much of what Dan Burton, of sponsors Salesforce, was saying as my attention was focussed on the big screen where there was a live Twitter feed for comments from the floor. It was a little too distracting at times but a great idea and provided plenty of amusing moments.

The event was hosted by Paul Evans, with the Evening Standard's deputy Political Editor, Paul Waugh*, Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt and Labour's Tom Watson making up the panel. The discussion itself was mostly confined to mainstream generalisations about the way blogs and Twitter can have an impact on politics. For people who were fairly clued up there was little by way of insight; Jeremy Hunt mad an interesting comparison between the way political organisations approach social media today to the way email was first handled ten years ago. Through pure hard slog, local party groups were able to slowly build up email databases - similarly, there's no easy way of building vast databases of social media contacts (I should know; I do it for a living!)

Paul Evans opened the debate by asking for a show of hands from the floor of how many people felt social media would make a "big" impact in the election, how many people thought it would have a "slight" impact, and how many people thought it would have no impact at all. Very, very few people plumped for the first option - and this from an audience with many PR and social media professionals in its midst. Tom Watson was of the opinion that this would not be the social media election but the TV election, thanks to the upcoming televised debates between the party leaders; there seemed to be general assent to this point. I'm unsure; the debates may be enough to push the undecided towards a snap decision based on an hour's footage, but my own feeling is that social media is more fundamentally influential.

As I mentioned last week, I get the sense that social media has made the electorate more clued up about issues and policy. Your average voter now not only has an opinion on the state of the economy, but also on the best way to sort it out and whether we should be cutting the budget deficit or spending our way out of trouble - a pretty fundamental dividing line between the three main parties. Twitter's "dumbing-down" effect of reducing everything to bite-size chunks has probably helped people understand what's going on in nice, easy soundbite form, while forums allow detailed political discussions between amateurs who probably wouldn't have them in the pub; I myself have had political arguments on forums dedicated to music and policing respectively - and have learned new opinions and slants on issues. Social media is a powerful knowledge-sharing tool.

Paul Waugh made the point that social media is only influential if stories break into the mainstream. As a journalist, my impression was that he meant stories are only heard by the masses if they are picked up by a mainstream journalist. This is too simplistic. The social media word-of-mouth chain reaction doesn't work like that - often a piece is written on an obscure blog, picked up and spread on Twitter, then migrates to blogs and forums, and thence to Facebook, where if enough people pick up on it, the story can be truly called mainstream without ever having touched the traditional media. Many of the top political bloggers, consistently called "influential" by the mainstream press, only have about 1000 Twitter followers.

A classic example is MyDavidCameron. I've waxed lyrical about this before so I won't go into it again (see my SML piece for example) but I got on the case with it quite early on and watched it spread via forums to Facebook long before it finally got picked up on by the papers (ironically, I believe the Mail might have been one of the earliest papers to cover it). At the drinks afterwards, somebody noted that satirical websites are likely only to reach the middle classes which is a fair point - although I've seen discussion of MyDavidCameron on football forums too. MDC's creator, Clifford Singer, was in the audience - I was too star-struck to approach him (once again, fine work sir).

The panel discussion seemed to be cut very short - indeed I had a question up my sleeve, although I had a few good chats about it afterwards. I had wanted to ask the panel what their thoughts were on social media turning GE2010 into the dirtiest election yet. Social media, if used with cunning (not something that politicians tend to have great reserves of), can kickstart some very underhand campaigns, sabotage and subterfuge, rumours and spin, negativity and sly sockpuppeting. Printed election media is all accountable and traceable, but online communications can be far harder to trace. The vicious campaigns against Kerry McCarthy and Nadine Dorries are examples of this, as well as the comments sections on Guido Fawkes. In the case of the latter, I was told afterwards that it's only a matter of time before a big libel case emerges, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. (Another whisper I heard: there's more to come on Cameron-and-drugs...hold tight).

Talking of underhand campaigning, someone who knows a few things about that is Tim Ireland* who I had a group discussion with afterwards. I was intrigued to meet him having recently stopped following his Twitter (find out why here). Actually, Ireland was an affable, articulate Australian chap of about 40, although inevitably the discussion came around to Paul Staines and Iain Dale and once he got the bit between his teeth, he didn't stop. I drifted off into a conversation with Lib Dem blogger Darren Bridgman* (a very nice bloke) and twenty minutes later I still heard "Staines and Dale" floating over the airwaves. Ireland's sense of right and wrong impressed me greatly and I'm following his Twitter again, but I'll say what I said before: if he put as much energy into some positive campaigning for Labour, the Lib Dems or whoever he supports, rather than fanatical wars-of-words with Tory bloggers, then he might make a considerable contribution to a local campaign. I hope he focusses his efforts elsewhere.

Also in the house: top Lib Dem writer Mark Reckons*, with whom I had a quick chat about the way bloggers view PR companies' efforts to approach them with stories. It was good to have a chat with Paul Evans and Paul Waugh on the way back to the tube. I always follow Waugh's Twitter and associated blog with interest - I often disagree with much of what he says but he's always breaking interesting stories with a hint of humour and even if his bread is buttered differently to mine in some aspects, he's one of the best of the political online/offline journalists.

My own constituency is one of the most fascinating three-way battles in the country, with two of the main candidates (Liberal Democrat Ed Fordham and Tory Chris Philp) very active both on blogs and Twitter. As an example, when Fordham was interviewed by the local NW6 blog, Philp contacted the author directly and asked specifically for an interview - clearly both men believe it's as important as a morning's canvassing. The latest addition to the Hampstead & Kilburn mix is Tamsin Omond of new environmental/leftwing party The Commons; Omond herself was there with several of her teammates. I had a good chat with Emma Murphy who was intelligent and enthusiastic; I hope they don't affect the final result of the seat, but I was quite impressed by her and her colleague and good luck to them.

It was a shame that the discussion panel didn't last longer as there was definitely more mileage there. Many people commented that it was a shame that Facebook, YouTube and social networks weren't touched upon; I'm of the opinion that Facebook can be quite limiting in terms of its content and is best used as a portal to point fans towards YouTube content and external links which can be more media-heavy. Lengthy articles don't sit comfortably in Facebook - although in this bitesized age, perhaps a couple of sentences is all you need?

All in all, an interesting night. Nice to put some faces to names and thanks to Lewis PR for putting it on.

Note: asterisked* links are to other reviews/articles about last night's event. As well as the asterisked links above, there's also some good commentary from Danny Whatmough* and Paul Greenwood* and on Twitter at #lewissms.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Electoral Reform Society: a tenner well spent

In a fit of righteousness I splashed out a tenner a few weeks back to join the Electoral Reform Society. Fair voting systems are something I've always been in favour of and surely one of the most important issues facing our country. With the impending election heading for a hung parliament, the issue is racing back to the top of the agenda and I felt I'd like to become more knowledgable. So I joined.

I hadn't heard a peep from them until a rather lush glossy magazine plopped on the doormat yesterday and it is worth the wait. It's full of informative articles both about the campaigning activities the Society has been up to, alongside opinion pieces on Single Transferable Vote, Alternative Vote and so on.

As someone who had a vague idea that electoral reform was something "good" before, I now feel armed with the knowledge and the conviction that our democratic process is completely wrecked. Just a handful of voters decide the outcome of the country; a tiny swing from one party to another can results in huge swathes of seats transferring hands. More importantly, the views of significant minorities are simply not taken into account whatsoever. We bleat about giving democracy to other countries as a front for giving our troops something to do (or die for) but true democracy is something sadly lacking much closer to home.

There's a particularly nice article pointing out that the FPTP system resulted in Jedward nearly winning the X Factor. Under a more proportional system would they have got anywhere?

My pockets are £10 lighter but it's something well done. This is an issue that transcends party politics - and one of the most important issues we face this year. Now's the time to get somethnig done about it.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A look at the latest YouGov opinion poll in marginals

Yesterday I wrote a few thoughts on the way that the latest YouGov opinion poll had been written. as a member of the regular YouGov panel, I wasn't sure if this was just some continuous research, or a particular poll (the length of the survey suggested to me that it was the latter). What I hadn't realised was that I was one of a sample of 3431 respondents in marginal seats (of which I live in one) and this was a survey commissioned by Channel 4.

The full spreadsheet data tables are available online so I was able to get my nose into the results and see what conclusions could be drawn.

The sample was drawn from "Labour marginal seats" - defined as Labour-held seats, defending against the Tories with a majority of between 6 and 14 per cent. Labour-Lib Dem and Conservative-Lib Dem battlegrounds were not considered (more on that later). Anything with less than 6% majority for the Labour, we can assume that the Tories will win - at any rate, they'll have to if they are to win a majority in Parliament. They will also have to take the bulk of the 6-14%ers as well, presumably why YouGov chose these seats as their sample.

It has been suggested that the Conservatives have been effectively getting their message across in key marginals better than nationwide across the country and some Tory commentators have been optimistic about their prospects; the topline figures this time around won't make pleasing reading with just a 2% gap - comfortable for Labour. (The results: Con 39%/Lab 375/LD 15%/others 9%). Gordon Brown's approval rating is pretty low (49% describing him as fair, poor or dreadful) but this is almost unchanged from 12 months ago when the same survey was taken. Cameron's rating are marginally better - he will also be encouraged by his "DK" ratings falling; his presence is being felt, for better or for worse.

Given that these seats are all Labour-Conservative battlegrounds, the crucial fight will be for the squeeze on the Liberal Democrat vote, so an analysis of the opinions those claiming to be currently intending to vote Lib Dem on the Labour and Tory credentials respectively may give insight into how those Liberals who will decide to relinquish their true colours and vote tactically will go. Unsurprisingly, they can't get excited by either Brown or Cameron but Brown is the more popular. 39% of Lib Dems thought that the country would take a turn for the worse under a Conservative administration, with only 8% thinking life would get better - worrying for the Tories when it comes to the squeeze.

The headline for the Lib Dems is that their prize asset, Vince Cable, is considered the best potential Chancellor by quite some distance: 10 percentage points ahead of Alastair Darling. It's not a surprise but will make a good soundbite for Cowley Street. This question (and the subsequent one asking respondents to compare the economic credentials of Cameron-and-Osborne vs Brown-and-Darling) put in lights something that was becoming more and more obvious: George Osborne is the Tories' Achilles Heel. Given that the economy was by far the most imporant issue to the electorate, this should worry Conservative HQ. Health was another important issue, and with the Labour-led "Save the NHS" campaign bubbling along nicely, the Conservatives may look to the immigration issue to push in the marginal seats. Immigration was the second most commonly cited issue and with the Tories strongly out in front in their handling of it (although as I pointed out yesterday, I think the question was badly worded), it might be in their interests to let it rear its ugly head.

Asking whether David Cameron is "heavyweight" or "lightweight" is a cheap question but the results were pretty comprehensive: 62% describing him as lightweight. Even amongst Tory voters, only 44% thought he was a heavyweight. When the personalities of the leaders were analysed, Labour may worry that the trait that was most prominent about Brown was that he "can't work effectively with his colleagues"; having said that, you could flip that on its head by noting that only 30% thought that Cameron "can work effectively with his colleagues" (when I was responding I didn't spot the subtle difference in wording!). Also encouraging for Labour is that post-Bullygate, there is only a small difference in the numbers who think of him as a bully versus those who'd describe him as a strong leader. As for Cameron, the "too posh" jibe was also a bit cheap - although it's interesting to note that there was only a small difference in sentiment between ABC1s and C2DEs on this.

Nick Clegg's problem is one of visibility. His rating are consistently poor for individual issues, and comparitively lower than you might expect from his party's ratings. Voters are clearly not stupid - it must be a long time since a Liberal shadow chancellor was considered the economic heavyweight - but Clegg has an identity crisis. The upcoming TV debates, and other election materials where the three main parties will get equal billing, will come not a moment too soon and allow Clegg to show the electorate who he is and where he stands on the main issues. I would expect Clegg's ratings to rockets once the campaigns begin in earnest; it's a shame that the PM+Chancellor combo question didn't include Clegg + Cable as an option as I think that duo could be very popular indeed at this time.

As I surmised from the wording of the questions, incumbent Brown was considered less honest than Cameron on the state of the economy (hardly surprising - it's not new for a politician to downplay his own mess) whilst on the other hand Brown is significantly ahead when it comes to "understanding the problems ordinary people face in difficult economic times". A subtle question loaded with class warfare, but one that may inspire some Labour campaig literature.

One interesting question with an unbalanced response scale regarded the economy and the way forward. respondents were offered three options on how to get the country out of the mire: (1) cut the deficit, (2) not cut the deficit as it would risk recovery, (3) not cut the deficit but protect jobs and services (I paraphrase here!). The results here, I feel, are rather meaningless - with two "don't cut the deficit" options versus one "cut it", bias is introduced. 48% plumped for a "don't cut the deficit" option. Interestingly, there was a very low (13%) "Don't Know" response rate for such a technical question; this bodes well for any politician who actually wants to talk about policy, and may explain Vince Cable's high ratings as he has a knack for presenting technical arguements convincingly.

Of course, these results only refer to Labour-Conservative battles. The Tories will need to pinch some Liberal Democrat seats too - and that's without mentioning numerous Tory-held seats that the Lib Dems could quietly snaffle. YouGov's Peter Kellner, in his analysis, reckons that the Conservatives will struggle to make a net gain of more than ten seats from the Liberals, and that these figures applied to the marginal seats would not be enough to give Cameron's party a majority.

The fight is well and truly on.

Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité - incomprehensible yet incredible

I'm currently listening to Olivier Messiaen's Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité. It's a late Messiaen work - and inaccessible even by Messiaen's cloudy standards. Yet there's something so simple about the way the dense chords give way to a solo by the blackbird or yellowhammer on the organ pipes. I'm not enough of a musician to be able to understand Messiaen's music properly but this one really speaks to me. It's deeply spiritual music.

I'm listening to a recording from St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. I did actually have a recording of the piece before, but only a cassette that I ripped from a CD recording by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, one of the country's top organists whose wife Deirdre used to teach me recorder when I was very small (20+ years ago). I wonder how Deirdre is these days?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

If ever there was proof that Bing was a pile of crap...

...it's the fact that this blog isn't even listed on Bing despite having been in full flow for months. Although I come up on Page 2 in a Google search for "Eoghan". So when I'm being egotistical, I don't find it hard to find myself.

And even Chandler was embarressed of his name.


Yeah, man.

a quick look at the wording of YouGov's latest opinion poll

As someone who takes a keen amateur interest in market research, like many thousands of people I take part now and again in online panel surveys through YouGov (the going rate is £50 every few years...it probably works out at about 5p an hour or something!) Today I was invited to take part in an opinion poll, and as the polls are getting hotter and hotter as we approach the election, clearly the researchers are trying new methods of trying to ascertain voting intentions. The survey today asked a number of questions in interesting ways, so I thought I'd write a quick note on it while it was still fresh. Unfortunately I only started to make any notes o the questions when I was halfway through the survey, so my memory of the early part is pretty dim!

After beginning with the usual "what party will you vote for/who did you vote for in 2005" type questions, we moved to some sharper questioning. Much of it contained "weasel words" and leading questions, but I imagine quite deliberately to test whether a certain party political message was getting through more effectively than another.

One portion of the survey focussed on the economy. One question very pointedly referred to the "standard of living" potential PM/Chancellor combinations would provide - in 2010 I imagine more people in the country could name the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor than any time in the last few decades. This was followed by "Which leader is best equipped to lead Britain out of difficult economic times?" I wonder if there will be much difference between the two questions; by taking the difference between the two indices we might get a picture of which Chancellor is more highly regarded (the survey didn't ask this explicitly, but perhaps there would be too many DKs. I find it hard to judge what Gordon Brown's economic reputation is these days - in the past he was regarded as an economic god, more recently an economic disaster - I suspect many people will see him somewhere in between.

One or two of the questions were quite subtely leading thanks to the choice of words used. "Who is the most honest about the economic problems facing Britain?" is always likely to induce bias against an incumbent government...it's a damn sight easier for a challenger to be "honest" about problems that are of no concern to them at the moment! On the other hand, I felt that "Who best understands the problems ordinary people face in difficult economic times" contained a weasel word that would likely favour Labour. It'll be interesting to see the results. Most fascinating of all was "Who makes you most optimistic about Britain's future?" - perhaps the question every voter should be asking themselves in the booth come polling day.

A Likert scale with several statements heavily loaded with bias was then presented. "It is time for a change in government" obviously alluded to the Tories' election slogan, countered with "The economy is too fragile right now to have a change of government in the enxt few months". There was a cheeky comparison of David Cameron to Thatcher, juxtaposed with "Britain will be fairer under a Labour government". Elsewhere in the survey the word "lightweight" was used - a term which has been used on numerous occasions about Davod Cameron and which I feel he still struggles to shake off.

Presumably pollsters deliberately stack up their questions with bias but that doesn't mean some of the questions can be error free. A question asking who would be best at "tightening controls on immigration" makes the assumption that makes immigration controls tighter is in fact best for the country; for many a bleeding heart liberal (*waves*) this is a nonsense. I also wonder where the next question on "select your top three issues from this list" picked their issues from; tired old chestnuts like Iraq/Afghanistan and Europe, barely covered in the media in recent months, were beside all the major topics (tax, economy, education, pensions) but not some of the major current issues (corrution and electoral reform for example). Why didn't they take inpiration from the albeit massively unscientific Power 2010 poll?

Finally there was a comparison of Brown vs Cameron on personality issues. We were asked to select traits which applied to Brown from a list - these included "strong leader" and "can work effectively with colleagues", which were fixed like an anchor as they also applied to Cameron, and traits specifically for Brown ("bully") and Cameron ("just a salesman").

It was a longish survey to run over lots of similar questions and I rather suspect that were I not interested by either surveys or politics then my attention would have wandered as there was lots of similar wording. It's lucky I'm into both!

As someone who has never worked as a research professional, I feel rather shy about making a critique of a professional survey. One thing's for sure - I'll be fascinated to see the results and compare them to my predictions.

***Update 4 March*** It turns out that this poll was for Channel 4 in marginal seats (I live in Hampstead & Kilburn) and those nice people at C4 have uploaded a full spreadsheet breakdown of the results. Were my predictions right? I'll have a look tonight!