Category Archives: other

British Way and Purpose

The British Way and Purpose

The Army Education Corps was central to the political education of British soldiers in WW2 (and later for servicemen and women in navy and airforce). It’s work helped shape the polticial awareness and attitudes of the generation who created the Labour government of 1945. I only discovered the depth and scale of the work when I came across a copy of “The British Way and Purpose” in an Oxfam shop.

From 1943 all serving soldiers were expected to receive an hour a week of citizenship education. Instructors were provided with a series of booklets, consolidated in 1944 into this 600 page manual. It provides a fascinating insight into the thought which went into preparing for the peace, long before the end of the war was in sight. It must also be one of the largest ever attempts at the political education of an adult population. By the end of the war almost 5 million people were (at least notionally), receiving education designed to make them better informed citizens in the post war world. It not only sheds light on how important adult education was seen to be to peace and democracy, but it also represents an extraordinary attempt to describe a coherent and hopeful vision of the whole post-war world.

Much of the detail has changed, but many of the ideas here have shaped the world we have lived in for the last 70 years. At the beginning of a new decade, Britain is making a historic break with some of the key structures which were informed by that vision. It is worth asking how far we now want something different.

The attachment (the Preface and Table of Contents), gives some sense of the scale and ambition of the work .

Failing democracy

Hopes for a new decade

In December 2019 I was invited by the Eastern Daily Press to write about my hopes for 2020.

But we are not living in hopeful times. In one of the richest countries in the world, we have people sleeping on the streets, and many more who can’t afford a decent home. We have an environmental crisis, stagnant living standards, the greatest inequality in wealth for a century, growing poverty, a struggling health service, and a social care system which cannot guarantee that we will all spend our last years in dignity and comfort. And we have just given a Parliamentary majority to the party which has been in government for the last nine years.

A divided country

Four elections and a referendum have shown us a country, and a county,  deeply divided. On five consecutive occasions, around a third of the people voted for one thing, around a third voted for the opposite, and around a third did not vote. By a quirk of our electoral system, we now have a government with a large majority in Parliament, despite the fact that a slight majority voted for parties which opposed that government’s central policy. Probably more people voted to stop something they feared, than voted for something they hoped for.

So hope may be the wrong word. Like many people, I am pessimistic about the chances of any of these getting better soon. So I chose something which could, in the long term, help us towards a more democratic government, which could command the support of a real majority, and help resolve some of the challenges.

Three reforms

I want three reforms to our electoral system:

Firstly, we should replace our “first past the post” system with a proportional one. At present if you live in most of Norfolk there is no real chance of changing anything by voting in national elections, since all the seats are “safe” for Conservatives (or Labour in Norwich South). So what happens to us is decided by a few voters in marginal seats far away.

Secondly, we should return power and resources to a much more local level. For more than 40 years, central government has been steadily emasculating local government, by removing funding, and imposing national controls and performance measures. Public confidence has been undermined in a system where local Councils are still expected to deliver services, with ever more detailed monitoring and control, but with no scope to pay for what is needed.

Finally, we need far more opportunities for people to learn about and debate the issues which affect their lives. In 1943, in a bankrupt country in the middle of a war, the Coalition government decided to provide every serviceman and woman with three hours a week of education about political and economic issues. The result was a surge in understanding of the issues, and engagement in politics. If we spent more time helping people to understand the issues, we might have less division and a better world.

Can we hope?

I am not hopeful. Parties rarely reform the system which put them in power, especially if they know that their power rests on a precarious base. I am not confident of any of this happening in my lifetime, but for the sake of my granddaughter and her generation, I hope we can move at least a little forward.

The myth of “no deal” Brexit

Four years ago, most people in Britain never gave a thought to the European Union.

They could not name a European law which had made their lives more difficult, they were happy to be able to travel freely around Europe, and that there were enough people to run our NHS, to care for our old people, and pick our fruit and vegetables, they could not name a single European law which made their lives more difficult, and they were content that £1 a week of their taxes was spent on our membership of the EU.

Then, to try to end a long running quarrel in the Tory Party, David Cameron decided to crush the Europhobe minority of his Party by proving that the British people were happy with this situation.

The people were angry about a lot of things – austerity, cuts to public services, falling real wages, rising crime, homelessness, food banks, potholes, queues in the NHS. None of these had anything to do with the EU. In one or two cases, the EU was actually helping.

But people were told that these problems were the fault of the politicians, and that leaving the EU would make these things better. Politicians told them to vote remain, so they voted leave

Since then we have become a deeply divided society over something that almost nobody cared about, and most people didn’t understand. And our country, of which I used to be proud, has become a laughing stock around the world.

So it’s no wonder that the only thing we now agree about is that we want it all to be over. That is why so many people would vote for leaving with “no deal” as soon as possible.

But just as leaving the EU will not deal with potholes in Norfolk, so leaving with no deal will not stop the debate about our relationship with the EU.

No deal is an illusion. We cannot survive without working relationships with our nearest neighbours. So after a “no deal” exit our government would have to go back to Brussels to ask them to open negotiations: on cooperation on crime, on how to avoid civil war in Ireland, on how to maintain free trade and shared standards for food and medicines, on citizen’s rights, on licensing of air traffic and professional qualifications. And they will be happy to negotiate, provided we first sign up to the things which our government agreed to, and Parliament rejected.

So no deal is groundhog day. It means starting the whole awful process of the last three years again, just from a weaker position. We will spend billions on bailing out businesses damaged by Brexit. We will see the flow of businesses moving out of the UK grow as they despair of our ever reaching a solution. Every commentator (including the pro-leave economists, and the Government) agrees that we will be poorer. We will still have 14,000 civil servants working on Brexit rather than our real problems. Our politics and government will continue to have no time for the country’s real problems.

It is time to be honest with the people – no deal is not a solution, it is not “getting it over with”, it is restarting the whole awful mess.

There are really only two choices – a possible agreement on how to leave the EU, carefully negotiated over three painful years, or sticking with the deal we had four years ago, membership of the EU, on terms more generous than any other country has. Four years ago the overwhelming majority were content with the deal we have.

We need to ask the people – how will your life be better if we leave? Is that worth the price of more years of political division, and a government too busy with Brexit to be able work on our real problems.

No deal is no answer – its time to ask the people.

UK cultural and political attitudes 2019

Hanbury carried out a poll of 4984 people in June 2019 on a range of cultural and political issues, on behalf of Politico. Data has been published by age, gender, region, referendum vote and political affiliation. The following is an analysis of some of that data.

The poll asked people to place themselves on a scale of 1-100 between two contrasting statements. In such polls there is a tendency for people to choose either the middle or the extremes. On most questions around a third of respondents chose the middle position, while a quarter chose one of the extremes. The summary below is based only on those who gave a very clear/extreme response (either choosing less than 11 or over 89). In most cases this accounts for a quarter of respondents.

Against each statement is a net score – the percentage agreeing minus the percentage disagreeing

This analysis identifies:

  • Issues where there is strong agreement across most groups
  • Issues where there is agreement but less widespread
  • Issues which divide people by age, party affiliation, or referendum vote

Most people strongly believe that

  agree disagree
the “country has moved [on cultural issues]… further away from my own views in the past decade“ 37 10
“making a decent living has got harder for people like me” 23 4
“the wealthiest have generally earned their money by exploiting others rather than hard work” 22 4
reducing the gap between rich and poor is more important than growing the economy faster 20 4
privatisation of utilities has been bad 20 5
society has become more divided 18 5

Most people also believe that

  Agree Disagree
a decline in marriage has led to “a decline in family commitments and values”, 17 7
efforts to reduce inequality between men and women needs to go further 16 7
government should guarantee a good standard of living for all working families 15 10
in criminal justice, punishment is more important than rehabilitation 15 11
the growth of living in cites has had a negative impact 14 4
too many young people are going to university rather than “technological” education 13 3
Faced with the choice between security and freedom, they prioritise security 13 7
economic factors have been more important than cultural in their own lives 13 9
globalisation has not benefited most people 12 4
society has been changed as much by economic as cultural factors 12 12
government should focus equally on economic and social priorities 10 10
technological change has been bad for jobs and wages, and all believe that globalisation has not benefited most people. 9 5

Two groups

On many issues, the population divides into two broad groups

Cluster A: Oldest, leavers, Brexit and Conservatives are more likely to:

  • believe that society has become more divided,
  • value tradition over change,
  • value security over freedom,
  • believe that globalisation has been bad for society
  • believe that living in cities has had a negative impact on society,
  • believe the decline in marriage has led to a decline in family commitments,
  • believe that too many people are going to university rather than technological education,
  • believe that immigration has been bad for the economy,
  • prioritise punishment over rehabilitation,
  • are less likely to believe that the government should guarantee a good standard of living for all workers
  • support government by “a strong leader who does not have to worry about Parliament”

Cluster B: Young, remainers, Labour, Green SNP, and LibDem voters are more likely to:

  • Value change more than tradition,
  • Believe that gender equality must go further
  • believe immigration has been good for the economy,
  • less likely to prioritise punishment over rehabilitation,
  • believe that government should focus on strengthening society over economic growth
  • believe that government should guarantee a decent standard of living for all workers
  • believe that wealthy people have become rich by exploitation, rather than hard work
  • most likely to prioritise equality over growth,
  • most suspicious of “strong leaders”


  • Leavers are most likely to prioritise culture over the economy
  • Brexit voters are least likely to believe gender equality has gone too far, but still evenly balanced
  • Conservatives are:
    • least likely to think that privatisation of utilities has been a bad thing,
    • least likely to believe that government should guarantee a decent standard of living for all workers
    • least likely to be hostile to a strong leader
  • Women strongly support the government supporting a good standard of living for all workers

Repairing a broken constitution

Is the system broken?

There is wide agreement that our political system is broken.  Because Parliament accurately reflects the confusion and division in the country on the most pressing political issue of a generation, it is incapable of rational decision making, and has clearly lost the confidence of the electorate. For three years it has been unable to legislate on that, or any of the other major issues facing the country. A referendum called to resolve an internal dispute in one party has divided the nation and undermined trust in democracy. Our electoral system has been challenged by special interests, and the institutions which exist to police them[1] have proved incapable of doing so. First past the post elections continue to give very great power to parties with no clear majority[2]. Our constitution allows the paid up members of one political party to choose a Prime Minister, even when those members are deeply unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole. Once in post, that Prime Minister can appoint a strongly partisan government, and has absolutely no obligation to seek a renewed mandate for his or her agenda from the electorate.

This is wrong, and undemocratic, and it is not surprising that people are angry, despairing, or have simply given up hope in politics. Some believe that leaving the European Union will be an economic, political and constitutional disaster. Others believe that to fail to do so would be to finally undermine democracy itself. Conflicts of reason and emotion provide a dangerous cocktail of argument which cedes power to those with the loudest voices.

Could an election or referendum resolve the problem?

There is now talk of a government of national unity, or a new minority government with a remit to delay the Brexit process to allow a new referendum on Brexit. However, the best available evidence is that another referendum would produce further anger and division, with a similarly small majority in favour of remaining in the EU. Acting on that would arouse serious anger and mistrust in the democratic process, but failing to do so would create similar anger on the part of the half of the population who still want to remain. It would not resolve the difficulty that the four nations of the Union are likely to vote strongly in different ways. Similarly, a general election is unlikely to give a clear answer to the Brexit question, since the country is deeply divided, the two traditionally major parties are both divided on Brexit, and a host of other issues will also come into play. Opinion polls, and the European Parliament election result, suggest that an election would produce another hung Parliament, even more divided than the present one.

In most electoral systems worldwide a major constitutional change like Brexit is only carried out if a supermajority votes for it. Otherwise, the status quo is upheld. The supermajority can be a majority of voters (60%, two thirds or even more) or an absolute majority of the electorate. By any such test, the 2016 referendum would have failed. However, given that we have had a referendum, albeit with a very narrow result, it is not clear what the “status quo” would be: another recipe for conflict.

An alternative plan

We clearly need a way of dealing with the two deeply intertwined issues of Brexit and constitutional reform. They need to be considered at the same time because, if Brexit happens, government will be embroiled in international negotiation over trade and many other issues for years to come, with no time or inclination to consider constitutional (or any other) issues, and the problems will only grow. However, if there is no clear route through which the goal of those who voted leave can be achieved, then they would be entitled to suspect a plot to invalidate the previous decision.

I therefore propose a radical strategy which seeks to deal with both issues at the same time, and with the current divided, but broadly representative, Parliament. It comprises four elements:

  1. A caretaker government of national unity should be created from the current Parliament, to serve no longer than May 2021 (the date of the next general election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act).  Whether it is formed by a cross party collaboration led by an acceptable backbench MP, or by one of the opposition parties, it must be agreed that during that period there will be no major policy change or legislation which does not command the support of a specified proportion of MPs (perhaps two thirds?). This can reassure members of all parties that supporting the national unity government will not allow one party to impose partisan policies.
  2. The government should immediately request an extension to the Article 50 notice for two years to carry out a constitutional review and a referendum.
  3. The government should immediately legislate to create one or more representative citizens assemblies to consider the UK’s relationship with the EU, and to make recommendations with a specified deadline, and to authorise a referendum
  4. That government should immediately convene a constitutional convention to consider and make recommendations to Parliament on the following issues (which need to be considered together, since they interact in many complex ways):
    • The extent and nature of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and  the place of England in the Union
    • The conduct of a further referendum on Europe
    • The future use (if any) of referenda: what issues are appropriate for referenda, whether they should be outlawed altogether, or governed by a supermajority
    • A more proportional electoral system to ensure that members of the electorate can realistically believe that their votes count
    • The reduction of the voting age to 16
    • The reform of electoral law, including the regulation of media coverage and online campaigning, the institutions for policing breaches of that law, and the penalties for doing so.
    • The possible repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
  5. In the light of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention the government should bring to Parliament a Constitution Bill, addressing the issues in 4 above. The aim should be to have such legislation in place before the next planned General Election in May 2021.

Is this realistic?

It will be argued that we cannot afford the luxury of two years of navel gazing: there are too many important issues to face. I believe that there is no better alternative. It is clear that our political system cannot arrive at agreement on how to deal with any of these issues. The most we can expect from an election or referendum now would be to give one party or another a sufficient majority to impose divisive policies on a sceptical electorate. Restoring confidence in democracy requires an overhaul of the system, nor merely rerunning the failed machine.

[1] The Electoral Commission has said that its powers are no longer fit for purpose, and the police have failed to pursue alleged breaches of the law.

[2] In 1983 a 42% vote share gave Margaret Thatcher a majority of over 70. In 2017 the same vote share left Theresa May 2 seats short of any majority at all. A mere 533 votes in nine key constituencies would have given her a clear majority.

Engineers and Warriors

Ian Leslie has at last explained to me why I fall out with friends who share my political aspirations.

Robert Hanlon said “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. On that basis, Leslie distinguishes “engineers” from “warriors”. 

I am an “engineer”, a “mistake theorist”, who believes that our problems are the result of ignorance or confusion. My opponents are wrong, not wicked, and if we talk to each other we may find a solution. They may even persuade me that I am wrong!

By contrast “warriors”, or “conflict theorists” believe that there are irreconcilable conflicts of interest, which can only be overcome by one side winning.

The Trump, Farage, Johnson mode is a warrior one, shared by some people on the left. It is charismatic and exciting, it motivates campaigners because it promises simple solutions and has a clear enemy.

The EU is a supremely engineering project. In the words of Johnson’s hero “jaw jaw is better than war war”. By endless tedious discussions and compromise we arrive at a consensus which takes us forward in small boring steps. It rejects accusations of treason – compromise is usually the solution, not the problem.

It is because we campaign as warriors and govern as engineers that governments fail.

Fingers crossed!

Time for Labour to come off the fence

In July 2019 the leaders of the major Trades Unions agreed that the Labour Party should agree to put any Brexit plan back to the people. Shortly afterwards Jeremy Corbyn wrote to all members adopting a modified version of this.

At the July meeting of the Broadland Constituency Labour Party I proposed a motion which would take that policy one step further, towards what I believe will be our final position. That motion was supported by those present with a two to one majority, although the meeting was inquorate, so will require ratification at a future meeting. This is what I said in proposing it.

I believe that we have wasted three years talking to ourselves inside the Party about this issue, refusing to act as a principled opposition, while the electorate look on puzzled and confused. While we try to keep the peace in our party, the voters are deserting us.

Brexit was a project of the extreme right of the Tory Party, designed to entrench predatory capitalism, and in 2016 Labour Party said that the best possible policy for the UK was to retain full voting membership of the EU, and use our considerable influence as the third largest member state to help move Europe to the left. We said that leaving the EU would make Britain poorer and weaker, it would harm jobs, security and welfare. All available evidence shows that this remains the view of the majority of Labour members and voters.

However, 37% of the electorate voted leave and we lost the referendum by a narrow margin. The Labour Party then adopted a position that respect for the “democratic vote” requires that we support something which we had previously opposed. This is not what we normally do. When we lose a general election we do not passively accept the “will of the people”, we continue to campaign for our principles, and work for another election to reverse the decision.

This has confused the electorate, who are not clear what we stand for, and suspect us of playing politics for party advantage. It has lost us votes to parties with clearer Brexit policies. In the Euro elections 45% of those who voted Labour in 2017 switched to explicitly remain parties.

The country and Parliament are deeply divided on this issue. Neither of the extreme positions – “no deal” or revoke can pass Parliament, and Jeremy’s policy is now the compromise one, which I have been campaigning for for 2 years, to put the question back to the people.

However, the Party position is still that in an election we would promise to seek to negotiate a better form of Brexit, and then put that to a referendum. There are two problems:

  • Firstly, the EU has said repeatedly that there will be no new negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and polls show that the majority of people in the UK believe them. A policy which suggests that we believe in the impossible will be difficult to sell to the voters.
  • Secondly, if we believe that no form of Brexit is as good as remaining, we are in an absurd situation. We will negotiate a deal which we don’t believe is the best option. We will then hold a referendum in which we either support our own plan, contradicting our own view of the national interest, or we campaign against our own deal. Why would the EU consider talking to us on that basis? Why would the electorate consider voting for it? Why would activists be prepared to campaign for it?

If we are to win back those who have left us, and persuade the undecided, we need to be clear that we are standing on our principles. Brexit in any form will damage the country. Every possible form of Brexit is different from, and worse than, what the leave campaign promised, and any of the forms of Brexit now available. It is time to be clear where we stand, as a positive remain party in all circumstances. That is where I believe we will end up. The current fudge may keep an uneasy peace in the party, but it will lose us any election.

Taking back control?

Few people question that Britain faces major economic and social problems – falling living standards, housing shortages, poor quality jobs and unemployment, declining public services, a health service in trouble, low productivity and industrial decline. However, the responsibility for most of these rests with the UK Government, not the EU. Yet Brexit means giving more control to the Governments which have made the mess.

The Government has claimed that Brexit, and specifically the withdrawal agreement agreed in late 2018, will result in Britain “taking back control of our laws, money and borders”.  In reality, “control” means rejecting laws which we have agreed to, spending money we have not got, and controlling our borders in ways which will damage our economy and public services, and our international reputation.

Giving back control to the Governments which made the mess

Brexit means that UK governments, which have allowed the economic and social problems to develop, will have the power to make their own laws and regulations independently of the EU. Their record of solving these problems is not good.

In making those laws we will not become “independent” because we will still have to abide by international laws and treaties, including the rules of the World Trade Organisation and any agreement we make with the EU, and we will have to agree how to deal with legal disputes about interpreting those laws.

Rejecting laws which we agree with

Most UK law is made by Parliament, without any influence from the EU.

Estimates of how many UK laws are influenced by the EU vary from 15-50%. The higher figure includes many very specific and technical regulations, only affecting a specific industry (e.g. “classification of padded waistcoats”, which is important to some clothing manufacturers, but not the average voter).

There are hardly any EU laws which the UK Government has opposed. Since 1999, the UK Government has voted against EU laws on only 56 of 2,592 occasions (2%). In some of these cases, the UK Members of the European Parliament voted against the UK Government.

The biggest area of EU legal influence is agriculture (the Common Agricultural Policy accounts for 42% of all EU laws and regulations). The interpretation and application of the rules in the UK is carried out by the UK Government. The CAP accounts for 55% of all UK farm income £4 Billion pa in total. The Government has promised to replace this during a transition period, but has made no guarantees beyond that.

Losing our money

The UK Government agreed the current level of contributions to the EU budget, using a formula agreed between the 28 Member States. Our Government has a full voice in those negotiations, and in the past negotiated a unique “rebate” for the UK, currently worth £5B.

The total cost of Brexit is currently around £30 billion a year, nearly four times our contribution to the EU budget. The costs are in reduced economic growth, the promised continuation of subsidies for agriculture, and the cost of employing additional staff (including civil servants, trade negotiators, and Border Force staff).

To put the various costs in proportion:

  • the “Brexit Dividend” proposed by the leave campaign during the referendum was £13 billion pa, or £4.17 per person per week
  • the actual current UK contribution to the EU budget is £8 billion pa, or £2.85 per person per week
  • the cost of reduced economic growth since the referendum has been £26 billion, or £8 per person per week
  • The long term cost in reduced economic growth of the most optimistic model of Brexit as assessed by the Treasury (the “Norway/EEA” model) is £20 billion pa, or £21.15 per person per week (Their other models – a negotiated deal or WTO terms – produce substantially higher costs)
  • the cost of the Government’s promise to continue agricultural subsidies is £4 billion, or £1.17 per person per week[1].
  • or comparison, the cost of the NHS (for comparison) is £145 billion, or £46 per person per week

Even before Brexit takes place, the effect of the referendum has been to lose more than the promised “Brexit Dividend”.

Not controlling our borders

The UK government is not good at controlling migrant numbers (leaving aside whether it is desirable to do so, on which people disagree).

At present, the EU accounts for only one third of net migration into the UK. The Government imposes strict rules on non-EU migration, but this number is now at its highest for 14 years. Since the Coalition came to power in 2010, and decided to reduce numbers, the net figures for EU and non-EU have both risen by 43,000 a year.

“Freedom of movement”, which allows any EU citizen (including UK ones) to move freely across the whole of the EU is not unlimited:

  • The UK is not in the Schengen accord, which abolished border controls among the states which signed up to it.
  • The UK still controls its borders, checking the identity of travellers and the purpose of visits from EU countries
  • The UK Government has chosen not to use the rules which exist. Under EU law, anyone who moves to another member state for work can be required to leave if they have not found work within three months.

The Government’s proposals for a new immigration policy would allow free immigration for people earning over £30,000 a year. This would bar most EU citizens working here in the NHS (nurses, care workers etc), in hotels and catering, and in agriculture and food processing. All these are areas where we already have a shortage of workers.

[1] The UK’s net contribution to the EU budget (ONS ).
Spending on the NHS of

Since the referendum the UK’s growth rate has fallen (from the fastest in the EU to the slowest).

Should we believe opinion polls?

On Facebook, activists regularly suggest that opinion polls should be ignored, because they are politically biased, or because they have proved inaccurate in the past. As I explain below, this is not true.

  1. Opinion polls are a much more systematic measurement of public attitudes than anything else – certainly there is nothing representative about those who answer to door to canvassers, are stopped in the street by journalists, or attend political meetings. This does not mean the polls are absolutely accurate, nor that bias is not introduced by journalists reporting the results.
  2. There is no reason to believe that poll results are biased by the views of the owners of the polling companies, or by the clients who commission the polls. Polling organisations earn their living from a wide range of clients, public and commercial, by telling the truth as far as they can. No commercial advertiser or political party will pay serious money just to have its views or products flattered. For this reason, polling companies have a professional code. They publish their questionnaires and sampling methods and their data. Anyone can look for bias: if you find it, call it out!
  3. Most polls are accurate within their stated limits. All publish their margins of error, which are rarely reported in the press. In the case of the EU referendum YouGov consistently predicted a result within this margin throughout the campaign, and the final result matched this. In the 2017 General Election, YouGov predicted the Conservative vote share (42%) exactly, but underestimated the extent of the swing to Labour during the election campaign, which went on after the last pre-election poll. Of 41 UK election and referendum polls conducted by YouGov up to 2016, their predictions were only twice out by more than 3%, and in 29 cases they were below 2%.
  4. Professional opinion polls should not be confused with “polls” on websites and Facebook posts, or surveys on specific topics. The former tell us little or nothing, since participation is entirely voluntary, and depends on how widely the invitation is circulated. The latter are different, in that they are usually interested in the views of a specific population on a specific issue (like approval for a road scheme). Usually responding is voluntary and response rates are typically low, but they can give a broad idea of the extent of support. By contrast, a professional opinion poll (especially on political attitudes) collects the views of a representative sample of the population. They typically draw on a large panel of volunteers (800,000 in the case of YouGov) they invite responses from a sample selected to be representative of the broad population in gender, age, location, previous voting behaviour and current voting intention. They adjust the results to reflect what is known about the behaviour of “don’t knows” or people who refuse to answer, and these assumptions are updated whenever an event like an election provides a test of the match between polling and the real vote.

There are two particular reasons why polls sometimes get the answers wrong. Firstly, some events (like referenda) are very rare, so there is little historical evidence to test whether key assumptions (like the behaviour of don’t knows) are correct. Secondly, the speed of change in people’s views during an election campaign can vary (as in the Labour swing in 2016). Thirdly, a national poll cannot tell anything about the distribution of votes by constituency. Under first past the post elections, this is critical, since large numbers of votes for a party in a “safe” seat will still only return a single MP, whereas the same number of votes distributed evenly might return two or three, or none. In the 2017 election, the average Conservative MP was elected by 42,000 votes, but 507,000 Green Party votes returned only one, and 550,000 UKIP votes returned none. The same effect can be seen in the 2016 US Presidential Election, where Hillary Clinton won the majority of votes, but lost the Election because the vote was distributed unevenly between States).

Constituency level polling is, of course, extremely expensive. A sample of 1000 has been shown to be reliable for a national poll, but this means less than 2 responses from the median constituency. For this reason YouGov developed their MRP methodology, which combines the known attitudes of particular groups (drawn from large national samples), with the demography of individual constituencies, to predict at Constituency level. Thus we have a fairly clear idea of the proportion of Remain voters among white, 35 year old, university educated, women in high earning groups. The proportion of the electorate in each constituency who fall into that group is known from census and other data. By applying this to all the groups in each constituency it is possible to predict a result for each constituency. In the 2017 general election this predicted a national Conservative lead of 3.5%, against the result on the day of 2.4%.

All this suggests that one should believe polls within their advertised margins of error, but beware of late swings, and how the results may be spun by journalists. It is also worth noting trends: when a single company using the same methodology and questions over time shows a steady change, it is more likely to be real, than a one off poll, particularly when carried out after some major news event.

On this basis, it is worth noting that of over 60 polls on Brexit in the last 18 months, none has shown a leave majority, and the trend has been steadily towards remain, especially in the Labour seats which voted most strongly for leave, they should not be dismissed.

More on the historical accuracy of polls can be found at

The British Polling Council Code can be found at


Britain’s Political Clans and Brexit

A new study by BMG research and researchers at the University of Manchester[1], suggests that it is possible to group the UK electorate into 10 distinct values based “clans”, and that these “clan” identities provide a better explanation of voting behaviour in 2015, 2017 and the Brexit referendum, than traditional left/right, social class or demographic factors.  The research is based on survey evidence from 27,000 people, who responded to 27 values based questions.

The argument is that values, which may be unconscious, and which are linked to people’s emotions, serve as decision-making shortcuts or standards for evaluating actions, policies, people and events. They are thus the underlying drivers of voting behaviour, perhaps taking precedence over “rational” weighing of costs and benefits.

This fits with the widespread observation that voting behaviour in the EU Referendum, and much of the subsequent political debate on Brexit, is emotional, and that attitudes to Brexit and subsequent developments are surprisingly uninfluenced by changing evidence. It has also been observed that, while 31% of the electorate say that are not supporters of any political party, only 10% do not define themselves as “leavers” or “remainers” on the Brexit issue[2] (and 44% say that they are “very strong” “remainers” or “leavers”).

The paper also argues that the “clan” approach more accurately represents the political realities, which are masked by traditional binary analyses. For example, “left v right” misrepresents a much more complex reality, where, for example, people may simultaneously hold left wing economic, and right wing social, views. They demonstrate that in the 2015 and 2017 elections and the Brexit referendum, clan membership was a more accurate predictor of voting behaviour than socio-economic group.

Six clans, which account for two thirds of the electorate, are strongly associated with leave or remain positions. Because their positions are rooted in fundamental values, they are the least likely to change their views.

  • “Remainers”: In three clans the clear majority of members voted remain (by 39, 67 and 82%). These three clans represent 30% of the electorate, and their values are international, broadly left wing on social policy and relaxed/positive about migration.
  • “Leavers”: In three clans a clear majority voted leave (by 50, 66, and 69%). These three clans represent 33% of the electorate, and support a small state, feel strongly about British institutions and are conservative on social issues. Some have socialist views on the economy, but they are opposed to migration and multiculturalism.

In terms of future policy, it is the other four clans whose positions are most interesting, although they are the least interested in politics. Nevertheless they form the battleground for any new referendum campaign:

NHS – “Notting Hill Society” (10% of the electorate: 52:48% for remain).

The most pro-business of all clans. Mixing a modern form of conservatism (associated with Cameron and Osborne) on the environment and society, with traditional views on family life and British institutions. Relatively positive on migration and multiculturalism. This is the oldest of these four clans (the leave associated clans are all rather older).

For the NHS clan, the key issues probably relate to the impact of Brexit on business and trade, and the impact on environmental regulation.

MWL – “Modern Working Life” (7%: 52:48% for remain))

Strong believers in the value of hard work and social mobility, supporting the view that it is always possible to achieve your goals, so long as you work hard. They tend to adopt left-of-centre economic values, but on balance they believe individuals, not others, should be responsible for their own financial well-being, and tend to hold liberal views on the environment, LGBT rights and gender equality. They are also moderately positive about immigration. This is the youngest clan and the one who swung dramatically from Conservative to Labour in the 2017 election (by 21%).

For the MWL clan, the key arguments are likely to be around social (and perhaps geographical) mobility, the opportunities to work and issues of environment and equality.

SAR – “Strength, Agreeable & Respect” (9%: 58:42% for leave)

These tend to favour authority and discipline, leaning in favour of a ‘just desserts’ approach to crime and punishment, and a tendency to favour authority and discipline in various areas of public policy, including defence, human rights and the justice system. They have a preference for a strong and often uncompromising state, which extends to areas such as defence and Britain’s place in the world. Mixed views on most other areas of social and economic policy.

For the SAR clan, the key arguments are likely to be around defence and security, and Britain’s place in the world.

APY – Apathy (10%: 52:48% for leave)

Generally uninterested and disengaged from politics, with very few strong views on many issues. They are unlikely to have given much thought to most economic, political and societal questions, either because they are simply not interested, or because they feel alienated by the current state of our politics.

This clan are least likely to turnout for any future referendum, and it is difficult to identify what issues might change this. However, they should not be ignored since, in the 2016 Referendum, a significant number of people who had never voted before chose to do so, perhaps because in a referendum every vote counts (unlike most votes under the normal UK “first past the post” electoral system).