All posts by John B

My preference is that the clown show leaves town

Like most countries founded by people with a passionate and blind terror that they might at some point be subjected to democracy, Australia has a Senate with more-or-less absolute veto power over its House of Representatives.

As in many federal countries, Australian Senators are allocated on a state-by-state basis, not on a citizen-by-citizen basis. The result is that a Senate voter in Tasmania (population 550,000) has more than 12 times the say of a Senate voter in New South Wales (population 7.5 million).

In other words, the Senate is entirely unrepresentative by deliberate design, and anyone who cares at all about voter representation should solidly be lobbying to either abolish state-by-state voting or to abolish the Senate itself.

There is currently a mass debate about Senate reform in Australia. Unsurprisingly, it consists of absolutely none of this, but instead is an absurd and unedifying clown show. The net result is that the Green Party and the Liberal (conservative) Party have agreed a reform deal that tinkers slightly with the voting system, and various people on the political left are displeased.

The ABC’s excellent commentator Antony Green has the gory details,  but in short (detail brutalised for clarity; not importantly for these purposes, but make sure to plagiarise Antony and not me for your civics class):

  • Under the current system, you go to the election booth, be given a list of parties standing in the Senate, tick a box for your favourite, and then if they fail to get in, then your preferences are distributed according to a list that they have created in advance, all the way from Candidate #1 to Candidate #200.
  • Under the new system, you will go to the election booth, be given a list of parties standing in the Senate, number your favourites from one to six (and continue after six until you’ve numbered everyone or can’t be bothered to write any more), then your preferences will be distributed according to the order you wrote. If everyone you’ve listed gets eliminated, your vote gets thrown away.
  • Both systems also give you the option to number your own candidates from #1 to #200 if you are weird, but nobody actually does this. Under the current system you must number all boxes; under the new system you will only have to number 12 boxes but can number more if you like.

The most important thing about this change is it makes very little difference to what normal voters do, which is to vote 1 for Labour, Liberal or Greens, preference whichever of the other two they hate the least above the one they hate the most, and then number as many other boxes as they are grumpily made to.

The second most important thing about the change is that it’s a very minor improvement on the status quo. Normal people will be making their own choices, rather than following a dodgy list that’s inevitably compiled for tactical rather than ideological sympathy reasons. Weird people will no longer get hand cramp from numbering 200 boxes.

So why on earth is there an outcry?

Well, the only people who lose out from this process are old-school corrupt party machine politicians who trade votes like commodities… I wonder if these people have privileged access to media platforms at all?

Dropping the dynamic, because everything is awful

Because I am a naive optimist, when I migrated various defunct blog archives from elsewhere to here, I assumed that running them on auto-updated WordPress would be fine. This was a stupid move. Not specifically because WordPress is bad, but because everything is bad, and hacking is easy. And, of course, happened.

After several months of this site being broken and struggling to keep client sites afloat, I’ve finally got everything sorted out.

My main websites, client and personal (this one included) are now signed up with crazy amounts of security. I’ve blocked all kinds of user agents, headers and IPs, and I’ve signed up with Cloudflare. They’ll probably get hacked again because YOLO, but at least less so than before. Meanwhile, the old websites are cloned HTML mirrors of the original with everything set to 644,  so nobody nefarious can nefare with them.

And now I can log into this site, I might even write something substantive here before anyone else dies.

He was watching the defectives

Extremely sad to hear about the sudden unexpected death of long-time friend, crony and partner in crime Tom Barry, of BorisWatch and @boriswatch fame.

Tom provided exactly the kind of hard-nosed, subject-expert and ruthless research and writing into London’s terrible mayor and supine general assembly that nobody in traditional local journalism has (bothered to do / had time for) in decades.

He did this while carrying on a day job as a telecoms expert and being a fully committed dad to two  adorkable boys aged under 11*, and whilst being at the very least a good enough partner to Ish that she put up with him for the whole timeframe.

And he was only 41, and this has broken me a bit. Young people get run over or end their lives or  have tragic but long-running illnesses, they don’t just die, that isn’t how it works. They don’t send pics from beer gardens the same month they die of glorious fun with the kids they love mockingly labelled “when will the torture of parenthood end?” because the fucking concept that it might is ridiculous.

This blog seems to be eulogy-focused lately. Unlike Meg Williams , as well as not being  in his 80s, Tom had a great deal of internet presence – but the two share the context of having touched shedloads of lives for the better. Also, CAN EVERYONE FUCKING STOP DYING?

Two updates.

One: Tim Fenton has written a great piece on Tom’s extremely well researched ‘blogging’ (or ‘investigative journalism’, as it used to be called when paid journalists could be bothered to do it) exploits.

Two: I wrote this at the start of day on 3 November (AEST – lat night 2 November GMT) when the news was under semi-embargo from family. Even since then, I’ve had at least one thought on naval history where I  thought “I’ll ask Tom about this one… fuck.

*I fully expect to get a write-in comment from Tom’s eldest saying “actually I am 11 so I’m not under 11”, because did I mention adorkable? Hopefully I’ll be able to ask him for naval history clarifications in due course.

Today we’re all gay Americans

Congratulations, the US Supreme Court, for making a sensible decision based on Constitutional precedent that horrendous rightwing idiots will pretend is overreach until long after we’re all dead.

To celebrate, here is a nostalgic musing on religion in education.

There was a strange Welsh Baptist chemistry teacher at my high school who ran a renegade version of the Christian Society (the actual Christian Society was run by a nice Quaker chap who was extremely ecumenical and earnest).

It showed exposes by American Southern Baptist churches about how evil everything was. Including a four-part series about how evil rock and roll was.

Naturally, we pitched up to this every lunchtime, on the grounds that rock and roll and bearded Southern Baptists explaining exactly how evil rock and roll was were both more fun than a drizzly field in Guildford.

My favourite bit was when at the end of the final episode, the Southern Baptist presenter explained that not all modern music was bad, to the accompaniment of some utterly awful evangelical Christian Rock dirge, and Mr Jenkins paused the tape to point out to us that actually all modern music is very bad indeed.

We affirmed his opinion that this music was, indeed, very bad. He seemed happy.

Meg Williams, a woman of all importance

This is a very sentimental post.

My last surviving grandparent died today. She was born in Caerphilly (better than being born carelessly, I guess) as Peggy Jean Jenkins. Not as Margaret Jenkins, that’d be boring. And because Wales, she was never called Peggy Jean by anyone; she was Meg from birth.

Her husband, who died last year, was born in Dolygaer (I can’t think of a pun, sorry) as David Elwyn Williams. His family were more boring than Meg’s when it came to Welsh naming choices, although he was never called David by anyone; he was Elwyn from birth.

(by the way, I don’t think anyone of Welsh ancestry ever found the multiple names in the Bible weird. “Simon who is called Peter?” – “yup, I think my uncle Peter’s real name is Simon”.)

I discovered, looking up The Internets, that Meg had no online existence at all, not even dry dull database existence, whether as as Meg or Peggy Jean. This doesn’t seem right, somehow. She was far more interesting and good and excellent than most of the folk who are chronicled online.

She was a schoolteacher and a campaigner for good things and a helping-out-the-neighbours-er and a telling-people-to-stop-being-self-righteous-dicks-er and a mum and a nanna and a great-nanna.

She’s being cremated at a crematorium, by a minister of the church she’s frequented for far longer than it has existed (the 20th century was the century of left-liberal Protestant churches noticing that they were actually the same).

And she’ll be remembered more fondly (in net ratings terms), by more people, than most people who are Of Importance in the way that Society tends to measure it.

Here’s her obit in the local paper. A life in fewer words.

A woman’s not dead while her name’s still spoken.

There was no late swing, and there were no shy Tories

One of the most interesting questions after the 2015 UK General Election is, how could all of the electoral polling possibly have gone so incredibly wrong?

Labour and the Conservatives were predicted to be neck-and-neck and both short of forming a government on their own, with Labour losing about 50 seats in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party.

UK 2015 seat prediction on election eve, according to the Guardian’s poll-of-polls

Instead, the Conservatives won a small majority of total seats. Netted out, Labour gained only four English seats from the Conservatives despite its low 2010 base, and lost two seats in its heartland of Wales to the Conservatives.

Labour’s remaining gains in England came from the brutal destruction of the Liberal Democrats, which the polls dramatically understated. This was cold comfort, as the Conservatives took far more former Lib Dem seats, including almost all of the ones that the polls had predicted would stay orange.

Actual UK election results
UK 2015 actual UK election results

So what the hell happened?

Two popularly floated explanations in the media have been a late swing, and the ‘shy Tories’ problem. Both are almost certainly wrong.

Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got late swing

One thing we can reasonably rule out is the concept of a late swing to the Conservatives: a scenario where the polls accurately captured voting intentions, but where people changed their mind at the last minute.

We know this, because online pollster YouGov made an innovative attempt at a kind of internet-based exit poll (this is not how YouGov described it, but it’ll do). After the vote, it contacted members of its panel and asked them how they voted. The results of this poll were almost identical to those recorded in opinion polls leading up to the election.

Meanwhile, the UK’s major TV networks carried out a traditional exit poll, in which voters at polling stations effectively repeated their real vote. This poll (which covered a balanced range of constituencies, but whose results weren’t adjusted as they are for small-sample opinion polls) found results that were utterly different from all published opinion polls, and came far closer to the final result.

Putting the two together, the likeliest outcome is that people were relatively honest to YouGov about how they voted, and that they voted in the same way they told all the pollsters that they were going to vote. This isn’t a late swing problem.

No True Shy Tories

If we ignore Scotland (where the polls were pretty much correct), this is a similar outcome to the 1992 General Election: opinion polling predicted a majority for Labour, but the Conservatives instead won a majority and another five years of power.

A common narrative for poll failure after the 1992 election was one of ‘shy Tories’ [1]. In this story, because Tories are seen as baby-eating monsters, folk who support them are reluctant to confess anything so vile in polite society, and therefore tell pollsters that they’re going to vote for the Green Party, the Lib Dems, or possibly Hitler.

From 1992 onwards, polls were weighted much more carefully to account for this perceived problem, with actual previous election results and vote flows also being used to adjust raw data into something that can reasonably be expected. This happened in 2015, as it has for every election in between [2].

We know that the internet provides the illusion of anonymity [3]. People who’d be unlikely in real life to yell at a footballer or a children’s novelist that they were a scumsucking whorebag are quite happy to do so over Twitter. Foul-minded depravities that only the boldest souls would request at a specialist bookstore are regularly obtained by the mildest-mannered by an HTTP request.

In this environment, if ‘shy Tories’ and poor adjustment for them were the major problems, you would expect internet-based polls to have come closer to the real result than phone-based polls. But they did the opposite:

The current 10-day average among telephone polls has the Tories on 35.5% [and] Labour on 33.5%… The average of online polls has the Conservatives (32%) trailing Labour (34%)

So what is the explanation then? This goes a bit beyond the scope of a quick blog post. But having ruled out late swing and unusually shy Tories in particular, what we have left, more broadly, is the nature of the weighting applied. Is groupthink among pollers so great that weighting is used to ensure that you match everyone else’s numbers and don’t look uniquely silly? Are there problems with the underlying data used for adjustment?

Personally, I suspect this may be a significant part of it:

According to the British Election Study (BES), nearly 60 per cent of young people, aged 18-24, turned out to vote. YouGov had, however, previously suggested that nearly 69% of under-25s were “absolutely certain” to vote on 7 May.

Age is one of the most important features driving voting choice, and older voters are both far more conservative and far more Conservative than younger voters [4]. If turnout among younger voters in 2015 was significantly lower than opinion pollsters were expecting, this seems like a good starting point for a post-mortem.

Update: YouGov’s Anthony Wells comments on the YouGov not-quite-an-exit-poll:

[1] Some polling experts think the actual failure in 1992 had more to do with weighting based on outdated demographic information, but opinion is divided on the matter.

[2] Several polls in 2015 that showed 33-35% Labour vote shares were weighted down from raw data that showed Labour with closer to 40%.

[3] An illusion that diminishes the closer one comes to working in IT security.

[4] There are papers suggesting that this is to do with cohorts rather than ageing, and that It’s All More Complicated Than That, but anyone denying the basic proposition above is a contrarian, a charlatan or both.