Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Canada: Un-Cult of Un-Personality

Michael IgnatieffImage by John Hansen via Flickr
So I was reading in Metro, the free newspaper/magazine that can be found lining the floors of any TTC subway car or terminal like massive birdcages, about support for the prime ministerial candidates of the three so-called 'major' parties. I can't even find the newspaper now, so to hell with citations. But it didn't present anything we haven't seen a hundred times now: (1) Jack Layton has a net positive ranking - more people like him than dislike him. (2) Stephen Harper has pretty crummy net-negative ratings. (3) Michael Ignatieff gets ratings that make Harper look positively saintly. Inasmuch as it truly is measurable, and I think you could make some good arguments that it's not, support for Michael Ignatieff is abysmal. The man is just not very popular - not even within his own party. I have an EKOS poll that's a few weeks old that tells much the same story - but check out the partisan numbers:
  • Jack Layton:
    • Nationwide: 43% approve, 26% disapprove, 31% DK/NR
    • NDP: 69% approve, 11% disapprove, 20% DK/NR
  • Stephen Harper:
    • Nationwide: 33% approve, 49% disapprove, 18% DK/NR
    • Conservatives: 79% approve, 9% disapprove, 12% DK/NR
  • Michael Ignatieff:
    • Nationwide: 20% approve, 48% disapprove, 29% DK/NR
    • Liberals: 45% approve, 30% disapprove, 25% DK/NR
Apart from the interesting observation that Harper has better party support than even Layton (interesting in that his party is a recent synthesis of two different parties, one of whom he was very clearly partisan), what's noteworthy is (1) Ignatieff has a 'don't know' percentage rougly equal to Layton's, despite the much higher profile of the LPC over then NDP, (2) amazingly, his 'don't know' percentage is still 25% even among self-described Liberals, (3) only one in five Canadians as a whole approves of him, and less than half of Liberals do. Not the party faithful, mind you - just the people who told EKOS they planned to vote Liberal.

This raises three points: (1) Can you trust polls like this, or do they really mean anything? (2) Why has Ignatieff been so unable to engage the public? (3) At what point to the Liberals concede that Ignatieff is perhaps a net loss to the party and, that after three consecutive uninspiring party leaders, there's something amiss about how they're choosing prime ministerial candidates?

It's the first question I'm more anxious to address. I think Canadians like to see our electoral system as a bit more technocratic than, say, our southern neighbours: that the cults of personality that happen down there, exemplified by the recent electoral season where the Democratic primaries offered a more gripping political campaign than the actual election, tend to be less important that partisan politics. Up here, we vote for the party here, not the person - both literally, in describing the Westminster system, and figuratively, in describing our approach to politics. I think there is some truth to that, but less than we might imagine. The CPC, for example, truly is Harper's Party, and it's tough to see how his eventual departure from politics could be anything but earth-shaking for the party. New Democrats rally around Layton all but unanimously, and NDP campaign brochures often feature his mustachioed face more promintently than whichever local candidate voters are meant to vote for. The Liberals, by extension, seem positively headless: a body without a head has neither a brain to control its varied components nor a mouth to verbalise a common purpose. It's tough to imagine how this situation can be anything less than traumatic for the party - and a major reason why stasis has set in among voting intentions at the moment.

Actually I don't think it would be unfair to say that at the federal level, unlike in the UK or in British Columbia, this stasis is the effect of a weak middle: generally speaking, a poll that shows, for example, Conservatives up and NDP down in Canada rarely shows much transferrence between the two parties. Instead, it shows that a certain percentage of people drifting from the Liberals to the CPC is supplanted by an equal percentage drifting from the NDP to the Liberals. A weak centre creates an unbridgeable gap between two precipices: Conservatives on one side, who have put their stakes down to a degree unprecedented on the national scene in decades, and the Continent of Leftist Parties on the other side, where voters may freely wander between parties, or toy with different parties before eventually voting Liberal.

I think the main reason Ignatieff has failed to spark much support is something similar to the criticisms currently being levelled against the Republicans in the USA: that he seems to be against much but for little. Ignatieff gives the impression of someone who has taken too literally the title of "Her Majesty's Opposition": a dedicated insistence on opposing everything Harper says leads to criticisms of politicking for its own sake, and of potential hypocrisy. Ignatieff seems oddly unable to focus the anti-Harper sentiment that exists into any real force, and as such it merely builds and disappates, while pro-Harper sentiment, the mere 30-some-odd percent that it is, solidifies.

The third question is something only the élite at the LPC can truly answer. I think there's a fear that prolonging a stream of lame-ducks from Martin to Dion to, seemingly, Ignatieff and perhaps beyond would be worse for the Liberal brand than propping up Ignatieff past his sell-by date for the sake of consistency. They might also not want to appear too bound to the whims of the public, who after all can change their opinions of people (Ignatieff started off with good levels of support, for example). But it does increasingly appear that Ignatieff is the wrong man for the job: the job he has (party leader) and the job he wants (prime minister). To the extent that the party's fortunes are bound to their leader's fortunes, that's a question the party might want to address soon rather than later.
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Canada: the Youth Vote, Nationwide

Jack LaytonImage by Reza Vaziri via Flickr
With a new poll released every week, EKOS Canada is a great boon for people like me who love analysing opinion polls in excruciating detail. No one else in Canada approaches this frequency: not Angus Reid, not Environics, not Harris-Decima... and with a sample size of around 2000 per week, they've also got some of the best margins of error in the business.

Except... EKOS tends to offer the same core stats per week: not only the nationwide totals, but totals based on region, based on gender, age and education level. They do separate stats for five major cities, too. All well and good, except that when you're subdividing subdivisions, 2000 becomes a smaller number pretty quickly, and the margin of error gets thrown sky-high.

I'm intrigued by the youth vote, for several reasons: one, it might suggest future voting trends, and two, it shows what issues are and aren't important to younger people. "Youth", by the way, means 25 and less. Well, 18 to 25, rather. I think you can learn a lot by studying what the youth are thinking, but I'm not sure how much EKOS can help you there, really. From week to week, their youth stats veer to an extent that suggests young voters are so fickle as to have no solid opinions whatsoever. The poll of 8 April showed the youth in Manitoba and Saskatchewan registering precisely 0.0% support for the Conservatives, only to discover six days later that the same demographic now registered 56.6% support for the Tories.

Obviously this is a joke. But their sample sizes were, get ready for it, 5 and 9 people, respectively. Less even than a mere show-of-hands, this is a 'stat' that is entirely meaningless. For a few weeks now, I've been collecting the youth vote as listed in EKOS studies, hoping that the combined numbers across a handful of polls (9, in fact, going back to mid-March, a range during which EKOS's overall polls have shown a marked stability) can give us more convincing numbers. By now, the combined sample size is 1377 people, a respectable amount, and we have 92 prairie voices now - much better than five.

So what does it show? Well, when I talk about the 'youth vote', I refer to my collated super-poll based on the previous nine EKOS polls. But when I talk about the overall vote, I refer only to the most current EKOS poll, which has a sample size of 2226 people.

With that in mind, let's start with the nation-wide. EKOS tells us that, overall, we're stuck at this deadlock:
  • Conservatives: 33.6%
  • Liberals: 27.1%
  • NDP: 16.9%
  • Green: 10.6%
  • BQ: 9.3%
  • Other: 2.5%
But the under-25 vote looks something like this:
  • Liberals: 25.6% (↓ 1.5%)
  • Conservatives: 23.3% (↓ 10.3%)
  • Green: 20.7% (↑ 10.1%
  • NDP: 16.7% (↓ 0.2%)
  • BQ: 10.4% (↑ 1.1%)
  • Others: 3.2% (↑ 0.7%)
Thus, while the percentages logged by the Liberals, the NDP, and the BQ reflect the overall population to a ridiculous degree, the difference is crystal-clear when looking at the Conservatives and at Green. More than ten points in either direction: the youth support the Tories fully ten percentage points less than the nation overall, and they support Green fully ten points more. This means:
  • The CPC ranks first overall, but second (to the Liberals) among youth.
  • Green ranks fourth overall, but third (ahead of the NDP) among youth.
  • Youth support Green in numbers twice as high as the nation as a whole does.
  • While nationwide, CPC support is almost three times higher than Green, among youth the difference between the two parties lies within the margin of error.
I'm going to look region-by-region in another blog entry, but these trends exist in every corner of the country.

Perhaps the aphorism about young conservatives having no heart and old liberals having no brains is not really a quotation from Winstion Churchill. It doesn't matter: there is clearly a degree of truth to the underlying reality that conservatism as a whole is a conviction that appeals to older people more than younger people. While the youth still rank the LPC at number one, do note that it is with a lower percentage than the country as a whole. Meanwhile, the three progressive parties capture fully 47.8% of the youth vote: just shy of half. Clearly the left of the political spectrum is where you'll find a good number of under-twenty-fives.

However, and I think this is a huge caveat, any claims that the New Democratic Party may like to think it has to represent young Canadians are apparently quite hollow. Though it's a marginal difference, the NDP actually poll in lower numbers among under-25s than among the country as a whole - a reversal of what one might expect, and a worrying trend for a party that always hopes to grab the imagination of new voters and future voters. Last year, Jack Layton talked about removing the 'new' from the party's name, among other reasons in order to reiterate the fact that the party was hardly some flash-in-the-plan but was indeed a well-established, reliable alternative.

But on the basis of this, I think that somehow, while always standing on the outside, the NDP has become a 'party of the establishment', at least in the eyes of younger people. I suspect that under-25s will not, in large numbers, suggest that the NDP offers a fresh alternative to business-as-usual parties. I suspect that to the under-25s, the NDP is just one of the country's three established parties, and the out-of-touch image mainstream politicians often find youth has attached to them seems to be sticking to the NDP just as much as to the other parties.

How much does it matter? Well, the CPC can shrug off youthful antipathy, knowing that 'sooner or later, they'll come around' - that time makes lefties into righties, and increases CPC support. However, if the starting point for the NDP is a sad fourth place nationwide, and if traditional logic suggests those numbers will atrophy further as the years pass, then what hope do the NDP have?
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Friday, May 7, 2010

UK: Tiny majorities

Divisions of the United KingdomImage via Wikipedia
So the exit polls were remarkably on the money, after all. It's been nothing but the phrase 'hung parliament' and constant discussion of its possible repercussions for the past 24 hours.

It is, of course, true. No party was able to achieve a majority in the parliament of 'the united Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland', the political entity whose unweildy name is an indication of its complex politics.

People in the UK confuse the rest of the world in how they use the word 'country'. England, Wales, Scotland and perhaps northern ireland or perhaps the island as a whole... these are all 'countries'. What then is the UK? Well, I have no idea. But it has a parliament, even if it lacks a football team. If you're a fan of devolution, consider the following: if these were truly distinct countries, and if we were looking at four parliaments instead of one, there'd be little talk about hung parliaments and plenty of talk of clear, decisive mandates. Consider the following:
  • In England, the Conservatives took 297 of 532 seats, or 56%.
  • In Scotland, Labour took 41 in 59 seats, or 69%.
  • In Wales, Labour took 26 seats in 40, or 65%.
  • In Northern Ireland, the DUP took 8 seats in 18, or 44%.
Only one hung parliament in four, and as we all know, Northern Irish politics are always different. In fact, though, why stop there? Let's look at the regions of England, too:
  • North East: Labour took 25 seats in 29, or 86%.
  • North West: Labour took 47 seats in 75, or 63%.
  • Yorkshire and the Humber: Labour took 32 seats in 53, or 60%.
  • East Midlands: the Conservatives took 31 seats in 46, or 67%.
  • West Midlands: the Conservatives took 33 seats in 59, or 56%.
  • South West: the Conservatives took 36 seats in 55, or 65%.
  • South East: the Conservatives took 75 seats in 84, or 89%.
  • Eastern: the Conservatives took 52 seats in 58, or 90%.
  • London: Labour took 38 seats in 73, or 52%.
Nine further results, nine majorities: ranging from 90% Tory to 86% Labour...

It's rather famously not news that Labour do well in the North, and in Scotland and Wales. It's not news that the Tories do well in the South, outside of London. Behind the appearance of a radical restructuring of British voting trends lies a lot of business-as-usual. But over the near future, there will be a lot of talk about mandates acceptable to the British people. The illusion of a very divided electorate falls apart when you look region-by-region. Both the Conservatives and Labour do have firm mandates: only regionally.

And the truth is that it might have been a poor showing for the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, but in the likely event that they will find themselves ruled by what, in their own territories, is barely more than a fringe party... well, that will only fan the flames of separatist rhetoric.
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

UK: Three losers

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown captured d...Image via Wikipedia
The ballots in the UK general election have been closed for slightly less than an hour now. All the BBC can talk about, all they have in their hands, is their exit poll. An exit poll is, after all, a poll, not an election result. So it fits in well with our blog's stated purpose. Here it is:
  • Conservatives: 307
  • Labour: 255
  • Lib Dems: 59
  • Others: 29
At the risk of falling into cliché, if we take a minute to presume that the exit polls are close enough to take as an 'approximate' view of reality, the fact is that this remains an election with no winners but with plenty of losers.

There's no getting round the fact that Labour have lost: even if they can cobble together a coalition with the Lib Dems, they have certianly lost their mandate: they've lost any real claim to 'represent' the British people in any real way. There's no surprise there. Given that David Cameron looked like cakewalking to a majority just a month ago, it's tough to see a hung parliament as anything but a loss for the Conservatives as well - polls all long have shown very little enthusiasm for the Tories this time round: merely less antipathy than exists towards Labour. The biggest loss, though, has to be the Lib Dems, really: this exit poll shows them, amazingly, losing seats since 2005. While the Lib Dems can spin that scenario into a plea for electoral change, and while a hung parliament is very obviously exactly what they've been salivating for, 2010 was meant to be the real electoral breakthrough for the Lib Dems. Losing seats is a queer way to have a breakthrough...

No winners at all. No breakthroughs for nationalists, for Green, for UKIP either... one hopes, then, that the way forward here is humility. One hopes that all three parties will come forth and talk about their inability to have engaged the public's imagination or hopes this time round. Obviously co-operation is essential between the parties: not just for the for-the-love-of-God-stop-talking-about-them 'markets', but most importantly to stop the British public as a whole from falling either into a profound apathy or into the trap they appear to have avoided this time out of voting for far-right fringe parties.

Will that happen? Well, the optimist in me hopes so. The pessimist in me? He sees dark times ahead...

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Monday, May 3, 2010

UK: Divide by three

David Cameron is a British politician, Leader ...Image via Wikipedia
Probably my last post before the UK general election. Looks like the Tories will come out on top after all. The race is for the basement, really: will the LibDems keep their lead above Labour, or will they drop back down at the last minute?

Well, when I say 'drop back down', I certainly don't mean to pre-campaign levels. It's too soon to say for sure ow permanent it is, but it's starting to look like we're seeing the entry of the LibDems as a real major player - something they've veen threatening to do but failing to do ever since they were the Liberal-SDP coalition. Whatever your opinion on the LibDems, there are two things I'm willing to say: (1) they are the true story of this election campaign, and will be remembered as such, and (2) bipartisan politics no longer exist in the UK - in fact, they never really did, but it was always convenient to act as if they did.

YouGov at the moment has:
  • Conservatives: 35%
  • Labour: 28%
  • Liberal Democrats: 28%
  • Other: 9%
I think it's ridiculous to look at this stat and say anything other than 'the Tories have a significant lead over their rivals', but I bet you'd find that that lead is not that far outside the margin of error, and that theoretically all three parties could be polling exactly equal numbers: disregarding that not-small 9%, the other 91% might be evenly split between three parties. It's a given that it will be, at the very least, almost evenly split.

While I see this as a sign of a healthy democracy (to say nothing of frustration at the 'politics of old'), it does create a problem, hopefully a short-term one, for the politics of Westminster business-as-usual. There's much hand-wringing about the political insecurity of a hung parliament, but I think that the first thing the UK will need to do as of 7 May is get over their fears of a hung parliament: there's a decent chance that they'll never have another majority government.

I don't see this as anything to fear, but hopefully the UK will find its political maturity more quickly than Canada, where people continue to believe that coalition governments are less democratic than a party that fully two voters in three voted against claiming any kind of mandate to act alone. Whoever wins on 6 May (and it will be David Cameron) will have no mandate: he will start in office with the knowledge that far more people voted against him than voted for him. And this is patently ridiculous: the moral authority to govern a people descend from the notion that the people consent to being governed by you. In its absence, all you have is totalitarianism.

Unless, of course, you can increase your mandate by finding a way to be inclusive in parliament: to work together with at least one of the other 'big three' parties (and a few of the others would help too) in order to develop the sense that you are leading the country not as the leader of a party with support in the thirties but as the leader (spokesman) for a group of parties that, in combination, represent the majority of British voters. It's only logical.

Will it happen? Well, Cameron's not the right person to launch the next stage in British parliamentary procedure, but it does fall to him. What will happen? Let's wait and see.
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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Canada: We're number two, but we try harder

Jack Layton addresses the 2003 NDP convention ...Image via Wikipedia
EKOS has released their weekly poll on the Canadian political landscape. This one includes two different indicators, both of which serve as kinda-good-news for the NDP. One is the non-news that Jack Layton gets better personal ratings than either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff (I think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might poll better than those two lately). The other, and for our present interests more noteworthy, item regards voters' 'second choice'. In other words, if for some reason they were unable or decided not to vote for their main party, who would they vote for instead?

In this category, the NDP do incredible. Their total 'second choice' numbers are 17.4%, which puts them in a virtual tie for first with the Liberals, at 17.5% ('no second choice' leads in almost every category I'm about to consider, so I'll not discuss it). The Conservatives rank below even Green for second choice - a sign of how polarised opinions of the CPC are, and also a sign of how fluid support among the traffic-jam of left-of-centre parties could potentially be. Anyway, let's see how the NDP do stat-by-stat.

They're preference #2 (behind the Liberals) for Tory supporters and Green supporters, and preference #1, by large margins, for Liberal and BQ supporters. Oddly, they rank low among supporters of 'other' parties.

They're the most popular second choice in Québec as a whole, preference #2 behind the Liberals in BC, Sask/Man (considered together in EKOS polls for some reason), Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and #3 behind a Liberal-Green tie in Alberta.

They're second-choice preference #2 for men nationwide, behind the Liberals, but #1 for women nationwide. They're behind the Liberals in the <25 and 25-44 age groups, but #1 in 45-64 and 65+ age groups. They're #1 for university graduates and 'high school or less', but tie Green for #2 in college grads.

Impressive stats, all-round. Except, of course, that EKOS is polling which party people don't plan to vote for. It's a bit of an always-the-bridesmaid thing, really. It shows that the NDP are well-liked, especially outside of the Conservative base, but not necessarily trusted to cast a vote for (this seems especially true in Québec, where the NDP's stock have at times been so low that they do not even have a provincial party, uniquely so among party-based legislatures in Canada). It's tough to know how much tactical voting enters into an opinion poll, but you might say that there are people presently telling EKOS they plan to vote for the Liberals or, arguably, the BQ as opposed to the NDP merely in order to keep the Tories out (in Quebec, possibly to keep each other out too). But I get the feeling that that's not really all that high a percentage. I think that 17.4% of the electorate 'like the NDP, but like another party better'. And in that context, it's not all that great news. It suggests that the NDP would stand to gain votes primarily through some large-scale shattering of confidence in the LPC or the BQ.

One thing that is interesting, though, is that this poll suggests that perhaps the NDP should reconsider which alternative to First Past the Post to support. As far as I know, the NDP by and large supports Proportional Representation - something that, at the moment, would afford them approximately 17.6% of seats in the House of Commons (yes, that's correct: the second-choice numbers for the NDP almost exactly equal their first-choice numbers). Perhaps they'd do best to consider a Preferential Ballot, where, confronted with a list of candidates, people enumerate them in order of their preference, '1' being their principal vote and '2' being the candidate to whom that vote is transferred if vote #1 was cast for a losing candidate. In this system, we can see that some 35% of the electorate would write either a '1' or a '2' next to the NDP.

But so what? Well, the poll shows that roughly as many NDPers choose Liberal second as vice versa, and as many NDPers choose Green as vice versa. This is also true for NDPers and Conservatives, mind you, but to a lesser degree. I think that, by and large, what we'd find in a Preferential Ballot system, is that in ridings where the NDP polled third or lower, the NDP vote would be broken up, largely in favour of the Liberals, in many cases pushing the Liberals ahead of the Conservatives. In ridings, though, where the NDP polled above the Liberals in second place, most of the Liberal vote wold be distributed to the NDP, in many cases pushing them above the Conservatives. What we might find, in this case, is a large number of ridings with a nominal Conservative plurality (the most votes but less than 50% of the vote) changing hands in a Preferential Ballot arrangement to either the NDP or the Liberals - in Québec, perhaps also to the BQ. Emboldened Green supporters in some ridings might push Green to second overall in some ridings (Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, for example, or Central Nova, or some ridings in BC or Alberta), which could then, upon redistribution of the Liberal and NDP votes, push them above the Conservatives, producing a parliament with Greens in it.

In any case, in a Preferential Ballot system, the Conservatives - 44% of whose electorate say they would vote for no-one else - would be the losers. Yes, they get double-digit second-choice support from each party, but that still remains substantially less than the second-choice support the other four parties enjoy from each other. The famous image from the leaders' debates in 2008 of four party leaders sat next to each other, all directly confronting Stephen Harper on the other side of the table is grounded in reality, and is a feature of the Canadian landscape that on the one hand registers great animosity towards the Conservatives but on the other hand, under FPTP, returns more Conservatives to parliament than any other party.

Which is a reality that all the good news Jack Layton gets in this EKOS poll won't change.
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