Opinion polls – don’t overhype them!

As the election campaign continues (with just over two weeks to go before polling), the media continually report the latest opinion polls, which mostly show Labour and the Conservatives at both around 33-34%. Conclusions and predictions are being made on the basis of these results, but do they actually mean anything?

An opinion poll is a poll of the voting intentions of a cross section of the population. Polls can be carried out by telephone or online. But my problem with them is that they bear almost no relation to what happens on polling day, as I will discuss.

Our voting system in the UK is ‘first past the post'; in other words, in a particular constituency, the person who gets the most votes is elected. An opinion poll carried out within a constituency could give meaningful results if enough voters are included, because it can give an indication of the likely outcome of the election in that constituency. But this is not the case for an opinion poll that covers more than one constituency, or is country-wide. Why? Because we don’t have proportional representation, and percentage support across constituencies does not necessarily translate into actual seats in parliament. For that reason, they have little meaning, and are best ignored. Certainly they shouldn’t be used to make predictions!

Currently the main arguments in the campaign seem to be concerned with the possible role of the SNP in the next parliament. Even though Labour have made it very clear that they would not form a coalition with them, the Conservatives keep banging on about the danger to the UK if they did. At the end of the day, the extent of the SNP’s influence will depend on how many seats they get, and whether they will win seats from Labour.  And since the only predictions about this come from opinion polls, my view is that we must wait and see! It’s going to be a long 16 days.

The campaign rumbles on

This election campaign already seems to be dragging. With the election itself more than 3 weeks away, the party manifestos are only just appearing, and all that seems to have happened so far is that the rival parties are making claims about what they would do if elected, claims are often completely unsubstantiated.

For example, the Tories keep making promises about money that they would spend (today it was increasing the level at which inheritance tax is payable, yesterday it was the NHS, etc.) But at the same time they go on about making savings ‘to reduce the deficit’. Do they really think the electorate are all stupid? (No further comment on that one!) On the other hand, Labour seemed to capture the mood when they announced that they would remove ‘non-dom’ status; quite right, and it’s shocking that it even still exists in my view. And for a change, this claim was costed out.

I have to mention the attack by the Tory defence minister on Ed Miliband, which seemed to be based on some kind of Cain and Abel conspiracy. I think Ed emerged from that the stronger; after all, he and his brother were only rivals for the party leadership, and no blood was shed! It showed how low the Tories can sink in order to make political capital, and it was not a pretty sight.

Perhaps the one thing that has made me smile so far (which is rare in an election campaign) was Nicola Sturgeon’s (allegedly) stellar performance in the televised election debate. But hang on, she’s not an MP, so why was she even there!? She could promise the moon and stars if she wanted, because she can never be held to account. After the debate there were apparently enquiries from some obviously bright sparks about whether they could vote SNP in England. I give up.

I heard a representative of the YouGov polling organisation say this weekend that Labour and the Tories are absolutely neck in neck at this stage of the campaign. Well, maybe, but if the Tories continue making desperate claims which they would clearly be unable to fulfill, their credibility might start to fall away. And if Ed Miliband’s standing keeps improving, as it seems to be, then the (mostly) sensible policies Labour are proposing might help them improve their position. The unknowns are UKIP, who might win 2-3 seats, the LibDems, who will likely have far less seats after the election, and the SNP. Personally I doubt they (the SNP) will get quite as many seats as some are predicting, but they will nevertheless be a factor for whoever forms the next government. And, if they are seen to be affecting policies that are only relevant to England, for example, then surely that is a step in the direction of separate parliaments for each of the home nations? But that remains to be seen. In the meantime the endurance test continues.

Cafeteria Politics

As the election campaign advances, I am seeing more and more instances of what I call ‘Cafeteria Politics’. Before explaining what I mean, I should give some background. In my experience, most people’s political views align with a particular party, be it Labour, LibDem, Conservative, Green, or one of the nationalist parties. And yet, the media, in an effort to involve ‘undecided’ voters (a concept that also defeats me), asks them about ‘issues’. For example I heard someone say, in response to a question, that ‘Education and ‘the Economy’ were of most importance to them. They trusted Labour on Education, but the Conservatives on the Economy. So, asked the interviewer, which way would they vote? Answer: they might not vote at all, because you can’t combine political ideas like you can for food items in a cafeteria (hence my term Cafeteria Politics). So why lead people along in this way? I think it’s misleading nonsense. Instead these ‘undecided’ voters need to read the party manifestos (when they’re published), look on their websites, and do whatever they need to do to reach a decision, which may have to be a compromise. As Aleksandar would say, ‘simples’ ! And stop pretending that cherry picking of issues is an option. Otherwise the inevitable consequence will be even more nonvoters than already seems sadly likely.

Turning to the campaign so far, there are no real surprises. 100+ business leaders write a letter in support of the Tories (shock horror) which is published by that great neutral newspaper The Telegraph (even more shock and horror). UKIP are worried about 16 and 17 year olds voting in an EU election because they are likely to support our continued membership. And the SNP continue to think they may really be in a position of influence after the election. Finally the LibDems touchingly make promises that ignore the possible annihilation of their party representation at Westminster post-election. It’s all good fun, and we still have more than a month of this nonsense to put up with! Happy Days.

Manchester United: reality and hype.

After last year’s disappointments, it was always going to be a case of rebuilding the team this year. Although it would have been nice to have beaten Arsenal last night, ultimately the FA Cup was a distraction this year. Van Gaal has bought some good players, and the team is coming together, despite what the ‘unbiased’ pundits say. Now the emphasis must be on improving on last year, when the team came 7th. I don’t necessarily think that getting into the Champions League places is a ‘be all and end all’ for this year. It’s a worthy aspiration, but a top 6 finish in this rebuilding year would be entirely acceptable if one takes a realistic view of what is possible. Challenging games lie ahead, and LvG and his team must hold their nerve and do as well as possible for what remains of the season.

UK university tuition fees demystified, and potential consequences of Labour’s pledge to reduce them

Ed Miliband announced last week that Labour would reduce university tuition fees from £9000 to £6000 if elected. This undoubtedly makes for good headlines, but what does it actually mean, for students and universities?

To answer this, let’s look at the current fees, how they are administered and what they cover.

In fact the term ‘tuition fee’ is potentially misleading, as this can imply something that is paid upfront. In fact what happens is that students are effectively loaned £9000 a year to cover their tuition, which the government pays. Then, in the future, if and when their earnings exceed a certain amount (£21000 per annum), they start paying it back, at a rate of 9% of what they earn over the £21000. The size of the instalments they pay and the rate at which they pay them is a subject in its own right, but it is explained in detail here.  The loan is also written off after 30 years, making it possible, even likely that some students will not pay everything back. But from the student perspective, in going to university they are taking on a loan of £27000 for a 3-year degree, plus any living and maintenance costs. It is interesting that despite dire predictions, this has not put off students wanting to go to university, and on the contrary application numbers are generally up.

From the university perspective, the government pays them £9000 per student per annum, all of which is potentially repayable by the student. This is in contrast to previous systems, where the government paid a contribution to universities for each student they taught, which was a grant as opposed to a loan. The rationale for the change was that the government made the decision that they could no longer pay student tuition fees, especially with the increasing student numbers planned and anticipated. The £9000 is sufficient for some courses, but many universities say that it doesn’t cover the cost of some science, engineering and medicine courses, due largely to their increased equipment and facilities costs. In these situations they have to subsidise the courses from their own funds.

Turning now to Labour’s pledge to reduce tuition fees to £6000 per annum, from the student perspective it reduces the size of the loan they are taking on, which in turn will reduce the maximum  amount they have to pay back. But in practice, depending on their salary and how it increases with time, it might have less impact, because of the salary cap before repayment kicks in, and the 30 year write-off. (again, see Martin Lewis’ blog post, referred to above for more details).

From the university perspective this reduction can only work if the imbalance of £3000 per student per year is made up, otherwise they will be seriously out of pocket (and it was mentioned above that £9000 barely covers the cost of some courses). While Labour have alluded to how this amount will be recovered, it is by no means clear that it will work, and universities are justifiably concerned about it.

In conclusion, I have tried to explain tuition fees as they are now, and how a change would affect students and universities. A reduction in fees could potentially have a far more serious effect on universities than any positive effect on students, except from a psychological perspective, and I think it needs further thought!

Bob Beattie– a tribute


Bob Beattie (4 April 1939 – 10 February 2015)

Robert Thomas (Bob) Beattie was born in Liverpool in 1939. He graduated from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in Natural Sciences in 1961, and then took a Master’s degree in Psychology at Liverpool University.

He worked as a clinical psychologist in Oldham before coming to Keele in 1965 as the Psychology Department’s first lecturer in Clinical Psychology. He lived for a while in Keele Lodge, at the village end of the campus, close to the Sneyd Arms. Stuart Riley, who knew him then, said that ‘He had authority and had no trouble with the FY students, at a time when some staff did, even when he insisted in spelling fantasy with a “ph”!’

He moved to Lancaster University Management School in 1969, where he stayed until 1973. This was followed by a move to Ely, and freelance employment with the Civil Service Commission and the NHS in London.

When Bob returned to Staffordshire, he worked with Peter Mountain, and was a key member of Mountain & Associates Marketing Services, a management consultancy which was initially located in Newcastle (Staffs), but moved to Keele Science Park. After the company closed down, Bob remained at Keele, and from his offices in the Covert, did some marketing work for Keele.

In recent years, Bob played an amazing role informally counselling, advising, encouraging and helping postgraduate students, and there is no doubt that Keele benefited from this. Zak Zarychta recalls that ‘he was always prepared to listen and to offer both advice of a practical and more pastoral nature. He always started such conversations with “So what seems to be the trouble, dear boy?”’ When he decided to move to Ramsgate to be closer to his family, in 2012, the KPA honoured him with a portrait, which hangs over his favourite corner of the clubhouse, and a memorable send-off.

In my many conversations with Bob, I found him willing to listen sympathetically and to offer advice that was always supportive, often remarking that ‘the drones are hard at work doing their worst’, when discussing the latest edicts from university administration!

In conclusion, it was a pleasure and privilege to have known Bob. My sincere condolences to his family, and to Bob I say ‘rest in peace, thanks, and (in his own words), see you anon’.

(I am grateful to Chris Harrison for providing information on Bob’s early years at Keele, and to Zak Zarychta and Stuart Riley for their recollections).

The ‘magic’ of the FA Cup

With all the FA cup matches that have taken place this last weekend there has been the usual hype about the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup. I suspect the reality is somewhat different for most premiership clubs, whose main concern is staying in the PL and maybe getting into the European places! For them it is at best a distraction and at worst a nightmare.

There have been more than the usual number of upsets this weekend, but that isn’t ‘magic’ for all the clubs concerned. For example Chelsea and Manchester City are out, and Liverpool and Manchester United have replays. Getting knocked out is bad for team morale, and having a replay means yet another match to schedule in an already crowded timetable.

For premier league clubs, playing in Europe, either in the Champions League or the Europa League is an aspiration, and is far more important than the FA Cup. This is not just a matter of finance, but also prestige.

I think it will only be a matter of time before we see the FA Cup (and even more so the League Cup) becoming the province of the Championship and the lower leagues. PL clubs have neither the time nor the interest to participate any more, and although it might be a while before they admit it, it will happen sooner rather than later!

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