Prof Patrick McGhee

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

UKIP leader ‘appears in public’ After Uncharacteristically Long Absence of 14 Hours.

In Politics, Satire on October 14, 2014 at 9:57 am

UKIP leader ‘appears in public’ After Unexplained Absence of 14 Hours.

Speculation on ill-health, coup continues.

Eccentric extremist leader Nigel Farage has made his first public appearance since yesterday, the country’s official state-controlled news agency the BBC says.

The broadcaster said on Tuesday that Mr Farage “gave inspirational guidance” at a newly rented campaign shop in a bleak residential district of Rotherham.

The official Party Newsletter, the Daily Mail, was reported by experts to have carried several photographs of Mr Farage using a walking stick as he inspected the site. Dressed in his traditional sombre utilitarian yellow tweed jacket and orange tie, Mr Farage was reported to have addressed an organised gathering of party approved journalists from the mainstream media.

Reports also emerged of relieved wailing and mass hysteria after Mr Farage’s appearance. “We are delighted to see that our Dear Leader is in good health and that his long painful absence is over. All of our science projects, huge city planning initiatives and the movement of the stars themselves have been waiting for his return. It was the longest 14 hours of my life.”

The news comes amidst further reports of internal political realignments with key figures such as General Douglas Carswell changing allegiances.

On Sunday, UKIP’s ambassador to Westminster told the BBC that Mr Farage was in good health despite his failure to appear to give his nightly public address on Newsnight and Question Time.

The absence of the 54-year-old iconic yet unpredictable leader had prompted a flurry of speculation about his health.

Some have even questioned if he remains in control of the secretive totalitarian UKIP party following his unexplained absence from state television screens and official public events since late yesterday afternoon.

The enigmatic Farage, educated in the West, reportedly enjoys expensively imported best bitter, crisps and exotic dry roasted peanuts delivered by international suppliers.

While information is scarce, commentators believe that Farage plans to cut off the UK from Europe, creating a one-party isolationist state. Economists claim that despite ideological rhetoric the party’s finances are in a desperate straights, dependent on handouts from neighbours.

The desire of state-run media to end speculation about Mr Farage also indicates he hasn’t been the victim of a coup, says the CNN’s Brad Evans from the US monitoring station in Glasgow.

England-Scotland relations remain tense following a failed coup attempt last month.

A pre-recorded BBC Radio 4 factory broadcast for workers, proclaimed: “first secretary of the Workers’ Party of England, first chairman of the National Defence Against Immigration Commission of the UKIP, supreme commander of the People’s Army, our Dear Leader today gave field guidance to military leaders at the newly built Undocumented Migrants Residential District”.

Nick Robinson is 94.

The 2014 Scottish Referendum: Twitter, Contested Ideas and Joining the Dots

In Politics on September 21, 2014 at 4:09 pm



Patrick McGhee

Twitter and the Referendum


So it’s over.  ‘No’ won by 55% to 45%. The campaign was fought on the doorsteps, TV channels, newspapers, pubs, schools, universities, workplaces and street corners all over Scotland. But for many it was conducted with most fervour, most tenacity, and often with the most wit on social media, particularly twitter. There is no question that twitter is now a major medium for electioneering in the UK, not just for mainstream or grassroot participants but for both, and for the relations between them. More than that it is not only a vehicle for campaigning, it is a topic of campaigning. It does not just report developments, it creates developments. It is a powerful force for organising and shaping opinion, as well as for gauging it.  I want to look here at a wide range of actual tweets posted over the last few days and weeks to highlight some aspects of that online campaigning.

There is also little doubt that the pro Independence ‘Yes’ camp were more visible and vocal on social media overall, and not just in terms of the objective number of accounts devoted to ‘Yes’, or the number of tweets supporting the cause of independence. The greater resolve, tenacity and scope of the online campaign under the #YesScotland hashtag was clear. However, for anyone following the campaigns of both camps through social media, the margin of actual victory in the end stood in stark contrast to the degree of dominance enjoyed by the pro-independence camp online in the run up to polling day. While this is in part attributable to the younger demographic of YesScotland it would seem to be also a consequence of the need for ‘Yes’ campaigners to take action to shift, what were in the early part of the campaign, relatively low levels of recorded support in polls.

There were allegations of online abuse made by each side against the other. And certainly some of the posts about individuals in both camps about each other and about 3rd parties, especially journalists, raised concerns that the social media debate was drifting into darker territory.

But here is not the place to review either the objective analytics, the impact of social media on the result, the allegedly intimidating transactions, the effectiveness of tactics or any of the myriad links between activity online and in the streets, or the ballot box.  I want instead to look at some of the very broad range of ideas and references brought into social media during and immediately after the referendum.  Some are potentially revealing about how we make sense of political debate, and of our place in it, as we increasingly move from detached observers to engaged advocates. They all in a sense show how we were, all of us, trying to ‘join the dots’ across a substantial but fragmented landscape, and with everyday life, with history, and with the future, in a political context were previous points of reference, such as traditional party preferences, would not get us very far.

There is no rhyme or reason to the selection that follows. Absolutely no claims whatsoever are made about the representativeness or otherwise of the sample. They don’t try to support one side of the argument or to propose a new one; I’ve tried to give both sides reasonable coverage because both sides had lots of interesting things to say. Think of it less as a curated portfolio and more as found footage.

One concept I find useful in making sense of tweets is what I call ‘somemes’, (Social Media Memes) that is to say, recurrent ideas in the format, vocabulary, metaphors or oppositions used in a series or class of tweets. These are patterns which depend upon the format of social media postings per se (in this case twitter) for their realisation. They are separate from topics or from broader internet ‘memes’; they are forms of tweets, nothing more than that.

In time honoured fashion, let me be clear that reference to a tweet here does not imply endorsement of that tweet or its content or its author. There a few funny tweets here, most intentionally, some perhaps not. There is no intention here of evaluating anyone’s use of twitter or their views.

So here it is: my very idiosyncratic review of some of the many posts on twitter about #Indyref.





One recurrent SoMeme is the locating of the referendum, the debate, and one’s personal decision or one’s observation about the process to a relative.

The link to a relative was presented as a sign of lifetime relationship with the issue, emphasising commitment and resilience, indicating integrity and therefore authenticity.

The SoMeme of families divided on which way to vote was a regular feature.

And of course there was the overarching theme of the UK itself being a family. The idea was one principally promoted by those in the ‘No’ camp.

However, not everyone saw ‘family’ or ‘marriage’ as unequivocally positive or significant and subverted the metaphor:

Equally, others nuanced the idea of family, to characterise independence as a different kind of dynamic within a family,  specifically the idea of maturation rather than simply separation:

Many posters on twitter positioned the debate firmly within a political framework. One interesting example of this type was the use of  neoliberalism as a political reference point. In some cases the debate was framed as Independence versus an Anglocentric neoliberalism from which a Yes vote would liberate Scotland:

Others saw Independence as the better tactical move to challenge neoliberalism:

In some cases the act of disengagement from a neoliberal framework was presented as quite simple and unproblematic, almost defined by a vote for independence:

However, as can often by the case, definitions of  ‘neoliberalism’  were such that not all driven by opposition to it advocated the same course of action. Some saw both Yes and No camps as operating within a broader social ideology in which Yes only appeared to oppose neoliberal ideology:

and another example:

For some none of the Referendum voting options mapped on to a satisfactory rejection of neoliberalism at all, representing the inadequacy of the referendum as a reforming device:

Interestingly, for the more traditional political analyst, Marxism had a cameo role:

But was rather witheringly dismissed – on this occasion at least:

The national sport of Football was seen by others as external to, and a distraction from, the real independence debate.

This was a view expressed by both sides of the issue:

However, both sides were happy to turn to social media to announce endorsements from footballers.

The No camp even managed to find a whole team worth of endorsements, along with two managers.

However, outright football metaphors were seemingly quite rare, though this stadium based registration drive probably pushed the concept as far as it could go:

Even for a footballing country, the real game at stake seemed too important:

Before the result a few tried to predict the outcome. Some with more accuracy than others:

But in the final few days the official polling varied enormously. Up to Sep 13th all overestimated the final ‘Yes’ support.




The Result and the Fallout


In the end the final result showed a bigger winning margin than had been anticipated.

By Sunday morning the SoMeme of ’45’ had taken firm grip of the ‘Yes’ response to the result.

There was skepticism however as to whether or not the 45% had enough in common, other than voting ‘Yes’ to form any kind of effective political group:

Interestingly, some on the ‘Yes’ side pointed to the number of people on twitter who seemed to be regretting their decision to vote ‘No‘.   This was sometimes linked to what was seem as signs that what Alex Salmond called TeamWestminster were starting to look like they were going to renege on the Vow made in the last week of the election to deliver greater devolution for Scotland. Equally, posts using the terms #indyref and ‘relief’ appeared to include a mix of grass roots and mainstream media reporting on institutions’ response to the result.

An emerging theme, building on intense distrust and annoyance with mainstream media was the call to broaden the ambit of the devolution plans to include the BBC:

How can anyone possibly summarise all of this? Who knows, but some were brave enough to try:




Sharped-eyed readers will have spotted that space has not permitted full coverage of all 5.4 million tweets posted about #Indyref. If you have a tweet you think captured the mood of the campaign or of a moment within it, post it in the comments section below. If I can I’ll update this page with suggestions.

So there we have it. In some respects there are 1,001 people to give the final word to. In other respects there really isn’t any other choice at all…

‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’

In Politics on September 13, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.

– Frodo, Lord of the Rings

By Patrick McGhee

With the Scottish Referendum only a few days away every poll that is published is now eagerly awaited and treated like a mechanical instrument delivering a precise reading of voter intention. Each rise and fall in the reported level of support for the Yes and No camps is interpreted as an indication that opinion is shifting, that some intervention by a politician or company has nudged popular preference this way or that, that a ‘message’ is getting through, or not.  The obsession with each poll has exacerbated since the Sunday Times survey on 7 September which put the Yes camp ahead for the first time in the campaign.  As the real polling day draws near, the voracious needs of rolling news will increasingly treat each new poll as yet another reading of an increasingly feverish patient’s temperature.

But polls are not thermometers and stated intentions are not mercury, even if they are sometimes mercurial. We can see this when different polling organisations tell different stories about levels of support even with polls taken on the same day.  This variation can be statistical smoothed out through indexes of Polls of Polls where rolling averages dilute one-off statistical aberrations. But such rolling polls are less sensitive to sudden and small changes in opinions and can underestimate last-minute shifts in views.

This is not the place to look in detail at the fragility of self-reports per se and the subtle ways surveys can be influenced by the biases of pollsters, methods, timing, location, question sequences and much else. On this there is a vast if sometimes complex academic literature but fortunately several good reviews.

I want instead to look here, briefly, at a feature of recent Scottish referendum polls which does not appear to have received much coverage: the very wide range of reported levels of ‘Don’t Knows’ (DKs) in polls.  Unlike elves many Scots are saying neither ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Traditionally, the levels of DKs are set aside as uninformative or merely distracting from the main message of the shout above the fold, with most newspaper poll headlines, particularly for local, parliamentary and European elections more or less ignoring them completely.  In the Referendum debate there has been, until perhaps the last few weeks, some increased attention paid to what has been seen as high levels of DKs, particularly in the context of astonishingly high voter registration such that apathy cannot be appealed to as an explanation.

If we look at the polls for September 2014 we can see that, whatever the level of the lead reported by a given poll for either side, the level of DKs various hugely. This is particularly strange given all pollsters use the same clear question, specifically the same clear question which will be put in front of voters on Thursday: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

The issues of ‘Don’t Knows’ is an important area because there are at least two discourses running through the cultural commentary of the Referendum. One of these is of a slow and deliberative ‘Big Conversation’ where a new form of popular political engagement is driving a renaissance in public debate and reflection; a discourse that could be reinforced by the idea of a large number of high commitment, low certainty voters. The other discourse is of a structural inevitability reflecting, depending on your point of view, years of neglect and complacency by political parties, one in which gender, geography, class and religion and a sense of economic survival, risk and identity have already driven people to make their minds up, be it either for ‘Yes’ or  ‘No’. A good understanding of the level of ‘Don’t knows’ along the timeline is arguably important because whatever Scotland decides it will be important to know how we got there and how people engaged with the debate.

So what levels of DK have different pollsters been reporting?

Survation report 10-11% DKs while ICM report  around 17% DKs. This is quite a range of variation in the percentage of voters who report being unsure, and higher than traditional party voting intentions.  But it gets even stranger when we look at the recent TNS-BMRB figures which found an astonishing 23% of DKs in their sample. How do we explain this? Perhaps the more established polling organisations such as ICM and TNS-BRMB have more sophisticated methods than the relatively new Survation? Maybe these more experienced groups use more subtle methods to give respondents the chance to say “I don’t know”.  This ‘expertise’ hypothesis does not remain compelling however when we look at the very well established YouGov polls where we find their level of DKs stands at strikingly low 6%.

What can explain this variation in DKs? What is it about these different polls or different pollsters that provide these widely different estimates of the percentage of the Scottish people who have not yet made up their minds? Are opinions fixed as YouGov would seem to suggest, or is the conversation still stimulating reflection, as TNS-BMRB imply?

At this stage with the data available it is almost impossible to give a definitive answer. But there is one hypothesis that might be worth considering.   YouGove and Survation with low levels of DKs both used online polling for these recent Referendum polls, whereas TNS-BMRB with their huge 23% DK level used face-to-face interviewing. In the middle with their 17% DK level is ICM. How did they poll? That’s right – by telephone.  Could it be the case that face-to-face interviewees are reluctant to give voice to their uncertain views whereas online there are fewer interpersonal anxieties to assess and navigate? Is it that over the telephone the interpersonal impact is somewhere in between? As trained as pollsters are in consistency and detachment in face-to-face interviews, it remains they are social interactions in a way that online polling is not. And yet it remains impossible to determine as there may well be other factors associated here with face-to-face interviews compared to online or telephone polls other than the level of interpersonal directness affecting the results. Face-to-face is usually in the street, unsolicited and people have other things to do. Saying “I Don’t Know” maybe helps bring the interview to an end more quickly. Or maybe it avoids the possibility of others nearby hearing. Or maybe people in face-to-face settings are sometimes uneasy with the prospect of having to give a reason for their preference. Or maybe it’s something else entirely, who knows?. Because in the end, like elves, we are not passive in the face of questions, but active agents in constructing complex exchanges, and do not give of our views in a vacuum.

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”

3 Steps The Government Can Take Now to Improve the Tuition Fee Scheme

In Blogroll, Politics, Uncategorized on August 12, 2011 at 9:39 am

Next week’s A-level results will get higher education back on the mainstream news agenda.  Those students enjoying examination success will look forward in most cases to university enrolment. The front pages of most newspapers will be filled with pictures of happy smiling students.

They will of course be the final cohort before the new fees regime is introduced, with tuition fees set in most cases at or near £9,000. As I have made clear as co-signatory to a letter in the Telegraph last year I am opposed to the Coalition’s new fees arrangements for university tuition.  My opposition is both on the grounds of principle and practicality. As I highlighted in a recent article in the Guardian online, I am particularly concerned about the way in which the values of the parameters of the new system could be changed in the future, particularly if this, or any future administration, comes under financial pressure.  For example, the parameter ‘Amount to be Paid Up Front’ could be changed from its present value of zero to something much higher.

The vulnerability of student repayment arrangements to direct financial pressure, or to pressure refracted through a polarised bipartisan political agenda, can be seen in the concessions extracted by the Republicans from the Obama administration as part of the larger settlement on the US Debt Ceiling crisis. Subsidised loans are effectively abolished and, even with a $17bn cut, the Pell Grants Scheme potentially faces a $1bn shortfall in 2012. The impact of the settlement affects students in many different ways, as this analysis by Candice Choi highlights, but, as usual, it is the disadvantaged and underrepresented who will be most badly affected.

It is essential therefore that in the UK we make sure that we look carefully at the system that has been set up for student repayments. What can we be doing now to make the system being put in place fairer, more robust and less vulnerable to political reshaping?

There are three specific areas of reform which I would like to propose. They reflect a need for greater stability, focus and consistency.

  1. Make a commitment to stability in student financing arrangements. The Coalition should commit to a no compulsory upfront payment requirement for the rest of this Parliament and enshrine in law a three-year notice period of any changes to the values of the key parameters in the model that are detrimental to students, their families or sponsoring employers. This is important because the preparatory work for HE students prior to enrolement is signficant be it A-levels, access to HE programmes or other routes. Further, sponsors after all need a degree of stability in the thing they are being encouraged to sponsor. Additionally, such a commitment would provide a greater level of predictability for universities. The last thing we want right now is further complications or deterrents for students, or even just the prospect of such a changes.
  2. Encourage optional early repayment.  One of the cuts made in the US deal was the abolition of a discount for early repayers of Federal loans. In the UK this is a touchy subject. In the lead up to the fees debate in November 2010 Liberal Democrats generally were against the idea of any upfront repayment at all as it enabled wealthier students and families to avoid any accumulating interest on the tuition fee ‘debt’.   I have an open mind on this. We don’t get exercised about the fact that people can pay upfront for a whole range of other goods and services. Furthermore, sponsors don’t want to be making payments towards interest or to have payments structured complexly over time. They often want to make a one-off up front payment. Making everyone pay more and taking longer to do it is not self-evidently an optimal arrangement.  In any event, there are larger issues of fairness and transparency to be addressed. So let’s put that matter to bed and create space for the wider debate.
  3. Include all graduate income in calculations. At the moment the key feature of the repayment arrangement is that graduates only start to repay their loan liability at a rate of 9% on earnings above £21,000. I take the view that if we are to have a repayment system with these parameters, then these values, (9% at £21k)  are manageable for graduates. However, as far as can be determined from the DBIS website on student financial support ‘income’ is only considered in terms of salary earned through paid employment. Surely all taxable income, including unearned income from shares, rental properties and trust funds should be included? This would be affordable (it’s actual income for the graduate) it helps the Treasury (faster rate of loan recovery) and, even if objectively the financial benefit was marginal, it’s fairer.

This time next year we welcome students under a very different financial model. As misconceived as it is in my view, we can still make that model more stable, more transparent and more fair. More to the point, we need to be seen to be doing so.

Of course, what we should really do is rework the model and its parameters, and not just the values of those parameters. Teaching funding should be subject to a cut of no-more than the 25% or so being visited upon other Government Department’s spending budgets, with the balance made up of revenue from a Graduate Tax. But to have that, in turn, as an interim position until such time as we can construct a model of free higher education at the point of use for all who can benefit from it, given that UK society as a whole enjoys such a significant and enduring dividend from high participation in one of the best higher education systems in the world.

That would indeed be something for us all to smile about.

Professor Patrick McGhee

Twitter: @VC_UEL