Archive for the Politics Category

R.I.P. Rhodri Morgan (1939-2017)

Posted in Politics with tags , , on May 18, 2017 by telescoper

I was very sad this morning to find the news that Rhodri Morgan passed away yesterday at the age of 77. Rhodri Morgan was the first First Minister of Wales (a post he held from 2000 to 2009) and was also Assembly Member for my constituency until 2011. Rhodri Morgan was a hugely important figure in Welsh Labour Party. As  a charismatic leader and capable administrator,  he was extremely  influential  in the campaign for Welsh devolution and  was held in very high regard across the political spectrum.

I was reminded of Rhodri Morgan earlier this week as I realised that  14th May 2009 (i.e. eight years ago on Sunday) the date on which the Planck and Herschel spacecraft were launched. Was that really so long ago?

Rhodri Morgan was still First Minister when he visited the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University on the day of the launch. He came across as very likeable, down-to-earth and funny. He’ll be missed by a great many people, but most of all by his wife Julie to whom I express my sincere condolences.

Rest in peace, Rhodri Morgan (1939-2017).


Polls Apart

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by telescoper

Time for some random thoughts about political opinion polls, the light of Sunday’s French Presidential Election result.

We all know that Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the second round ballot: he won 66.1% of the votes cast to Le Pen’s 33.9%. That doesn’t count the very large number of spoilt ballots or abstentions (25.8% in total). The turnout was down on previous elections, but at 74.2% it’s still a lot higher than we can expect in the UK at the forthcoming General Election.

The French opinion polls were very accurate in predicting the first round results, getting the percentage results for the four top candidates within a percentage or two which is as good as it gets for typical survey sizes.

Nate Silver Harry Enten has written a post on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site claiming that the French opinion polls for the second round “runoff” were inaccurate. He bases this on the observation that the “average poll” in between the two rounds of voting gave Macron a lead of about 22% (61%-39%). That’s true, but it assumes that opinions did not shift in the latter stages of the campaign. In particular it ignores Marine Le Pen’s terrible performance in the one-on-one TV debate against Macron on 4th May. Polls conducted after that show (especially a big one with a sample of 5331 by IPSOS) gave a figure more like 63-37, i.e. a 26 point lead.

In any case it can be a bit misleading to focus on the difference between the two vote shares. In a two-horse race, if you’re off by +3 for one candidate you will be off by -3 for the other. In other words, underestimating Macron’s vote automatically means over-estimating Le Pen’s. A ‘normal’ sampling error looks twice as bad if you frame it in terms of differences like this.  The last polls giving Macron at 63% are only off by 3%, which is a normal sampling error…

The polls were off by more than they have been in previous years (where they have typically predicted the spread within 4%. There’s also the question of how the big gap between the two candidates may have influenced voter behaviour,  increasing the number of no-shows.

So I don’t think the French opinion polls did as badly as all that. What still worries me, though, is the different polls consistently gave results that agreed with the others to within 1% or so, when there really should be sampling fluctuations. Fishy.

By way of a contrast, consider a couple of recent opinion polls conducted by YouGov in Wales. The first, conducted in April, gave the following breakdown of likely votes:


The apparent ten-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour (which is traditionally dominant in Wales) created a lot of noise in the media as it showed the Tories up 12% on the previous such poll taken in January (and Labour down 3%); much of the Conservative increase was due to a collapse in the UKIP share. Here’s the long-term picture from YouGov:


As an aside I’ll mention that ‘barometer’ surveys like this are sometimes influenced by changes in weightings and other methodological factors that can artificially produce different outcomes. I don’t know if anything changed in this regard between January 2017 and May 2017 that might have contributed to the large swing to the Tories, so let’s just assume that it’s “real”.

This “sensational” result gave various  pundits (e.g. Cardiff’s own Roger Scully) the opportunity to construct various narratives about the various implications for the forthcoming General Election.

Note, however, the sample sample size (1029), which implies an uncertainty of ±3% or so in the result. It came as no surprise to me, then, to see that the next poll by YouGov was a bit different: Conservatives on 41% (+1), but Labour on 35% (+5). That’s still grim for Labour, of course, but not quite as grim as being 10 points behind.

So what happened in the two weeks between these two polls? Well, one thing is that many places had local elections which resulted in lots of campaigning. In my ward, at least, that made a big difference: Labour increased its share of the vote compared to the 2012 elections (on a 45% turnout, which is high for local elections). Maybe then it’s true that Labour has been “fighting back” since the end of April.

Alternatively, and to my mind more probably, what we’re seeing is just the consequence of very large sampling errors. I think it’s likely that the Conservatives are in the lead, but by an extremely uncertain margin.

But why didn’t we see fluctuations of this magnitude in the French opinion polls of similar size?

Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box, please.

Local Election Issues

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , on May 4, 2017 by telescoper

Though very much overshadowed by the looming General Election, today sees important local elections in various locations across the United Kingdom including here in Cardiff where all seats on Cardiff City Council are up for grabs. This is an example of a unitary authority, unlike some areas where there are county and borough councils that operate on different levels.

Councillors are paid an `allowance’ which varies across the country but in Cardiff corresponds to a basic amount of £13,300k per annum. Not exactly a luxurious income, but it is essentially a part-time job. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy though, as many difficult choices have to be made when budgets are tight.

Since my current job at Cardiff University is part-time I did toy with the idea of putting myself forward as a Labour Party candidate, but in the end didn’t pursue it – largely because I’ve not had as much free time as I thought I would. In any case we have three very good prospective candidates in Iona Gordon, Kanaya Singh, and Caro Wild. I wish them all good luck!

When I first moved to Cardiff, in 2007, the Liberal Democrats were the largest party in the Council, a position they consolidated in the 2008 elections, where the administration that was formed consisted of a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party. At the 2012 elections the Liberal Democrats crashed and burned and Labour regained the position as majority party it had lost to the LibDems in 2004. These local elections normally take place every four years, but were deferred by one year by the Welsh Government, which is why they are taking place now rather than in 2016.

Local elections return councillors for each of a number of wards within each area. Some wards return only one representative while others can have a number of councillors. My own ward, Riverside, for example, has three councillors. When I moved to my house in Pontcanna in 2008 all three councillors belonged to Plaid Cymru; at the 2012 elections all three were Labour. I think the past success of Plaid Cymru in Riverside may relate to the presence of Welsh language media organizations in the area. It’s a very mixed ward, actually, with some very posh areas in the North (towards Llandaff) and some very working-class areas to the South.

What will happen this time? I honestly have no idea. It is very difficult to predict local elections on the basis of national politics for a number of reasons. One is that turnout is very low – 30% is very high for this kind of poll. Seats in the council can be gained and lost by just a few hundred votes. There’s also the fact that those people who do vote tend to do so on the basis of very local matters, e.g. the efficiency of the refuse collection service, rather than the national and international issues that will dominate the General Election. Not that this will stop the pundits prattling on about the results.

I can see Plaid Cymru doing reasonably well, but would be surprised if either the Liberal Democrats made a substantial comeback or the Conservatives made big gains. We’ll just have to wait and see, though, as I’ve been massively wrong about such things before!

Anyway, I’m going to a concert tonight to take my mind of things and have no intention of waiting up until the early hours of the morning to hear the results come in, so I’ll update this with the results tomorrow morning.
UPDATE 8.30am, 5/5/2017: Riverside ward returned three labour councillors and Labour retained control of Cardiff City Council.

Gay Sex, Politics, Religion and the Law

Posted in LGBT, Politics with tags , , on April 23, 2017 by telescoper

It seems that Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is under fire again for refusing to say whether he thinks gay sex is a sin.

I’m not a particular fan of Mr Farron, and won’t be voting for his party, but I think the flak being directed at him on this issue is unjustified. Much of it is pure humbug, manufactured to cause political damage.

Mr Farron (who is heterosexual) describes himself as a ‘committed Christian’. He no doubt feels that if he spells out  in public what he believes in private then it will alienate many potential voters even though he has voted progressively on this issue in the past. He’s probably right. On the other hand, by not spelling it out, he appears weak and shifty. The media are out to exploit his difficulty.

As someone who is neither heterosexual nor Christian I can help him. It seems to me very clear that the Bible does teach  that homosexuality is a sin and that if you’re a Christian you have to believe this at some level.

I say ‘at some level’ because another thing that is clear is that the Bible does not consider homosexuality a very important issue. Had it been a hot topic then perhaps Jesus might have been prepared to go on record about it, but there’s no reference in the New Testament to him personally saying anything about gay sex. ‘Thou shalt not have sex with someone of the same gender’ isn’t among the Ten Commandments, either.

I do find it strange that so many people who described themselves as Christian obsess about same-sex relationships while clearly failing to observe some of the more important biblical instructions, notably the one about loving thy neighbour…

But I digress.

I don’t care at all what Tim Farron’s (or anyone else’s) religious beliefs say about homosexuality, as long as they accept that such beliefs give nobody the right to dictate what others should do.

If you believe gay sex is sinful, fine. Don’t do it. If you don’t approve of same-sex marriage, that’s fine too. Don’t marry someone of the same sex. Just don’t try to deny other people rights and freedoms on the basis of your own personal religious beliefs.

And no, refusing you the right to impose your beliefs on others is not a form of discrimination. That goes whether you a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist or merely confused. You are free to live by the rules you adopt. I don’t have to.

I’d go further actually. I don’t think religious beliefs should  have any place in the the laws of the land. It seems to me that’s the only way to guarantee freedom from religious prejudice. That’s why I’m a member of the National Secular Society. This does not exist to campaign against religion, but against religious privilege.

In fact the UK courts agree with me on this point. This is Lord Justice Laws, on behalf of the Court of Appeal relating to the case described here:

We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion, any belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

To come back to Tim Farron, I say judge him and his party by what you see in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and on his track-record as a politician, not by what you think his interpretation might be of a few bits of scripture.

March for Science – Cardiff

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 21, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick note to say that tomorrow I’ll be attending the Cardiff March for Science, which is one of a series of events happening around the world. I quote:

The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.

The Cardiff March starts with a rally at 10am on the steps of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay and is followed by a march around the bay to Techniquest for a science event there to which families with children are particularly welcome. It should be a fun occasion  There’s a science-themed fancy dress competition. I’ll be going as a middle-aged man with a beard.

For further details see here or follow the Twitter feed:



The Snap Election

Posted in Politics on April 18, 2017 by telescoper

Well, there’s a surprise. This morning, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that there will be a snap General Election for June 8th 2017.

Or rather she didn’t. Not quite. Under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act the government must win a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons in order to call an early election. That vote will be held tomorrow. However, ‘Leader of the Opposition’, Hereby Corbyn has for some reason welcomed the move so it seems likely the vote will be carried. Unless, that is, a significant number of Labour MPs defy him. We’ll see.

In her short speech the PM stated that she was calling an early election because Parliament was somehow obstructing her plans for BrEXit. That’s a surprising claim, since the main opposition party voted for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and has actually done precious little opposing of any kind.

So that argument makes little sense to me. Moreover in 2016 when she came to power, Theresa may stated adamantly that there would be no early General Election.

So why the change of heart? My theory is that the results of the criminal investigation into fraud by the Conservative Party at the 2015 General Election are about the be announced, and the PM doesn’t want to endure a wave of by-elections in marginal constituencies won by dishonest means. Hence the hasty decision to neutralise that threat.

Unless there is tactical voting on a massive scale it seems likely that the Conservative Party will win the forthcoming General Election with a large majority. A big turnout from young people might shake things up too.

I hope everyone who is eligible will register to vote and cast their ballot on the day, tactically if necessary. The Conservatives are treating this country like their private playground and I would be more than delighted if this gamble backfired on them. I have to say, though, that I’m not optimistic.

Campaigners say right-wing attempts to singe King of Spain’s beard nothing new

Posted in Beards, Politics on April 3, 2017 by telescoper

A bearded perspective on one of the Great Questions of the Day..

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

Media release 2nd April

Contact Keith Flett 07803 167266

Campaigners say right-wing attempts to singe King of Spain’s beard nothing new


The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has warned that the current furore around Gibraltar as Brexit discussions open may be a ploy by right-wing elements in the Tory Party to launch a fresh attack on the King of Spain’s beard.

King Felipe V1 who sports a salt and pepper beard is thought to be the only serving hirsute European monarch.

Francis Drake, after agreement with Queen Elizabeth 1st, launched an attempt to singe the beard of an earlier King of Spain, also called Felipe at Cadiz, prior to the 1588 Armada.

The Daily Mail complained about King Felipe’s beard on his appointment in 2014:

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, we’re no great fans of Royal Families but…

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