Michael Gove: calling all teachers, governors and parents

If you're a teacher, governor or parent who hasn't yet seen seen Michael Gove's letter about his highly controversial, unproven and rather expensive scheme to turn schools into 'academies', here he is inviting you all on to jump on to his barmy bandwagon:

If you wonder why I think that he and/or the plan is barmy, see my previous post on the subject.

Nor am I alone in having serious doubts about it, as you can see in Gove's claim to be 'freeing' schools is a cloak for more control from the centre by Simon Jenkins of The Guardian.

And, over the last few days, interesting discussions of the issue have been developing HERE and HERE.

A model resignation speech by David Laws

Whoever the next minister to resign from the government may be, he or she could do worse than taking a lesson or two from the short statement made by David Laws earlier this evening:

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's statement a few minutes later wasn't too bad either:

P.S. Two things that concern me about all this are first that the Daily Telegraph's timing of its 'exposure' of Mr Laws was motivated by their ongoing campaign against increasing capital gains tax and second that Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell might have tipped them off about the story - for more on which, see HERE.

Academies, academies, academies: Michael Gove's 3 Rs?

Education is, of course, something on which everyone is far more expert than the professionals who dedicate their lives to it.

And they don't get much more expert than former journalist Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Education.

Parents are keen to run schools?
Somewhere or other (Sweden, perhaps) he came up with the bizarre idea that parents not only can't wait to run their local schools, but would also make a far better job of it than those who are doing it at the moment.

Somehow or other, he managed to sell the idea first to the Conservative party and now to the new coalition government - and has apparently already started writing to primary schools to tell them the good news.

But there are two rather serious flaws in his argument:
  1. Most parents only take a passionate interest in the running of schools for the very few years during which their own children are at school - as almost any chairman of school governors (or parent over a certain age) could have told him had he bothered to ask.
  2. Only a tiny minority of parents are willing or able to spend the huge amounts of time involved in running a school - as almost any chairman of school governors (or parent any age) could have told him had he bothered to ask.
But, as you'll see from this video clip (originally posted on webcameronuk last August), Gove's attitude towards evidence is a bit lacking in the kind of rigour that he claims is lacking in our exam system, especially when it comes to examining 'rigorous' subjects like mathematics and science. And, with an Oxford B.A. in English, Mr Gove knows a thing or two about which subjects are 'rigorous' and which ones are not.

As a former president of the Oxford Union and debating adjudicator, he also knows enough about rhetoric to know that you don't need much in the way of evidence to make an argument sound plausible. All you have to do is pick three examples that support your case, wrap them up as three questions, each of which juxtaposes two contrasting categories, and the conclusion will be obvious for all to see:

Now for some research to prove I'm right
Having 'established' that maths and science exams obviously aren't rigorous enough, Mr Gove goes on to tell us about a rather ambitious project to prove that his assertion holds true on a much wider front.

He doesn't mention what objective (or rigorous?) measurement procedures will be used to assess the quality of exams over the past hundred years - yes, 100 years. But why bother with trivial details like that when you already know in advance that the answers to your two main research questions will be "No"?

Gove's 3 Rs?
For me, the thought of anyone with such a cavalier attitude towards evidence being being allowed to meddle with something as important as education is, to say the least, extremely worrying.

It's reminded me of some lines I wrote for the first speech I ever worked on with Paddy Ashdown - for the launch of the SDP-Liberal Alliance general election campaign in 1987, when he took the platform as their education spokesman.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the most depressing thing is that the same words apply so aptly to Mr Gove:

"When it comes to education, the Tories have come up with their own 3 R's: rigid, ruthless and reactionary. [APPLAUSE]

"Putting a Conservative minister in charge of education is like putting Herod the King in charge of the Save the Children Fund." [APPLAUSE]

Almost as depressing is the failure of the LibDem coalition negotiators to veto the elevation of Mr Gove to such a crucial job, not to mention the inclusion of his 'fast-track' Academies Bill in the Queen's speech.

An interesting discussion of the schools issue is also developing HERE.

Why Black Rod knocks 3 times & why pointless rituals are not always as pointless as they seem

Watching the State opening of parliament today, I noticed that Black Rod (or, in this case, his substitute) knocks three times on the door of the House of Commons, after it's been slammed in his face, to summon them to the House of Lords to listen to the Queen's speech:

In a previous post - Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason? - I discussed why so many lists come in three parts. But that related to speaking, whether in conversation or in speeches, not to door-knocking behaviour.

So this video clip got me wondering whether there was any particular reason for knocking three times, which was quickly resolved by resorting to Google - and the discovery that it's 'once for the executive, once for the legislature and once for the speaker' (for more on which, see HERE).

It reminded me of something I'd written long ago about how reforms designed to make behaviour less formal and/or ritualistic need to take into account why such forms of behaviour originally came to be there in the first place.* Otherwise, reformers can easily end up throwing out a baby - that they didn't realise was there - with the bath water.

The case of the informal smiling Pope
My favorite example was the case of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days in office. Amazingly, after so short a time, he was described in some obituaries as one of the greatest popes of the twentieth century.

Before him, popes had apparently never been seen smiling in public, which was one of the reasons why he was hailed for having brought a new level of informality to the papacy. Others were that he'd refused to have a coronation and preferred walkabouts in St Peter's Square to being carried aloft on the traditional gestatorial chair.

The sight of a pedestrian Pope, smiling and mingling with his fellow men and women, presented a much less formal and more favourable image to millions of television viewers around the world. But for those who'd taken the time, trouble and expense of going to St Peter's Square, it was a complete disaster - apart from the tiny minority who happened to be standing a few rows away.

In fact, the Vatican had so many complaints from frustrated pilgrims that, before he died, John Paul I had already done a U turn and returned to the gestatorial chair.

At the time, I remember saying that, if only the Vatican PR department had understood the chair's importance in enabling the pope to be seen by a crowd, they could have simultaneously minimised papal formality and maximisied papal visibility by the simple device of installing a chair on the roof of a bog-standard Fiat - which is why, a few months later, I was delighted to see my sugestion come true with the invention of the popemobile for his successor, John Paul II.

Black Rod's 3 knocks on the door
So I was also delighted to learn today that there's a historical reason why Black Rod knocks three times on the door of the House of Commons and that it hasn't been forgotten - not, you understand, because I thought it was another example of the rule of three or had some other theory up my sleeve, but because it confirms, yet again, that there is often a logic behind apparently pointless rituals that isn't obviously or instantly apparent to contemporary observers.

(* 'Understanding Formality', British Journal of Sociology, XXXII, 1982, pp. 86-117).

Is Nick Robinson pompous and patronising - and, if so, why?

After watching the State Opening of Parliament earlier today, I was sufficiently struck by some of the contributions by their political editor to post a question on Twitter:

'Just watched BBC Queen's speech coverage & wonder if I'm alone in finding Nick Robinson a pompous patronising twerp?'

I was surprised (and reassured) when quite a few people quickly responded to confirm that I was by no means the only one on whom he'd had that effect.

This got me wondering just what it was about his contributions to the discussion that could have given rise to such an impression. Here's part of the sequence that prompted my question about Robinson.

If he also strikes you as 'pompous' and/or 'patronising', the analytic challenge is to identify what it was about the way he spoke that can be interpreted in such a way, at least by some of us:

Hillary Clinton warns North Korea of 'consequences' (again)

It's nearly a year since North Korea announced it had exploded a nuclear weapon as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima - which prompted US secretary of State Hillary Clinton to warn them: "There are consequences to such actions"

After the sinking of a South Korean ship by the North Koreans, she's on about 'consequences' again (see video clip below).

'Pre-delicate' hitches
Last year, I made the point that her warning about 'consequences' was punctuated by a large number of 'pre-delicate' hitches', for more on which see HERE and HERE.

What's interesting about Mrs Clinton's latest dire threat to the North Koreans - 'provocative actions have consequences' - is that there are so many 'hitches' (i.e. ums, ers and pauses) after she issues the warning.

'Post-delicicate' hitches?
This raises the question of whether conversation analysts should be turning their attention to analysing a new and possibly related pheomenon, namely 'post-delicate hitches'.

Or do they simply indicate that the US Secretary of State knows perfectly well that the Americans' 'best actions moving forward' will be exactly the same as they were last year - i.e. nothing much?

Labour leadership: "Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the most bourgeois of us all?"

Long ago, when I had to mark hundreds of first year sociology exam papers, the only way some of us managed to stay awake and focussed was to keep a lookout for 'howlers'. For example, one I still remember went as follows:

'The original proletarian worker wore overalls and a cloth cap.'

These days, the embourgeoisment (to retrieve another memory from my sociological past) of the Labour Party has progressed so far that MPs who've ever worn overalls and a cloth cap are an endangered species.

This is presumably why some of the leadership candidates have been invoking their proletarian background. Andy Burnham has written of his humble origins in Liverpool and Ed Balls has told us that one of his grandfathers was a lorry driver.

Simple measurement indices
All this has taken me back to other experiences from long ago, when I used to invent simple indices to assess things as diverse as the probability of ex-prisoners being reconvicted after release from gaol and the suitability of student applicants for admission to a university department.

By giving prisoners a different score on measures like type of offence and number of previous convictions, we were able to discriminate different groups with a high degree of accuracy, ranging from one with a 7% probability of reconviction within three years of leaving prison to another with a reconviction probability of 75%.

Later on, when in charge of admitting students for a university course, I attracted hostility and admiration in roughly equal amounts by devising a weighting system that included different scores according to the type of school they'd attended - in those days, as follows: secondary modern (5) , comprehensive (4), grammer (3), direct grant (2) and public (i.e. fully fee-paying) school (1) - where the higher the score, the lower the 'A' level grades we demanded from them.

With this in mind, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to devise a similar index to guage which of the Labour leadership candidates (so far declared) stands where on the proletarian-bourgeous scale.

Atkinson's proletarian-bourgeois index
To compare them, the scoring system is based on 4 variables - so that the most bourgeois candidates will have the lowest scores and the most proletarian the highest:

A: Father's job
4 Unskilled
3 Semi-Skilled
2 Skilled
1 Professional/managerial

B: Candidate's first job
4 Unskilled
3 Semi-Skilled
2 Skilled
1 Professional/managerial

C: Type of secondary school attended
2 State school
1 Fee-paying school

D: Higher education
2 Non-Oxbridge
1 Oxbridge

According to this, John McDonnell comes out way ahead in the 'most proletarian' stakes, with Ed Balls pipping the Milibands to the post as 'most bourgeois'.

A Bus driver (3)
B First job (4)
C Secondary school (2)
D Higher education (2)

A Telephone engineer (3)
B First job (1)
C Secondary School (2)
D Higher education (1)

A Welder (2)
B First job (1)
C Secondary School (2)
D Higher education (1)

Miliband D
A University teacher/professor (1)
B First job (1)
C Secondary School (2)
D Higher education (1)

Miliband E
A University teacher/professor (1)
B First job (1)
C Secondary School (2)
D Higher education (1)

A University teacher/professor (1)
B First job (1)
C Secondary School (1)
D Higher education (1)

Maybe this is why Mr Balls has felt it necessary to go back a generation to tell us about his lorry-driving grandfather. His point, as in Andy Burnham's reminder of his humble past, was that their family's social mobility was made possible by the wonderful innovations of past Labour governments.

In their case, it may be true. But things aren't always as simple as that.

It took my paternal grandfather the best part of 40 years to progress from being a farm labourer to a tenant farmer to an owner occupier farmer. But, as the Labour Party didn't even exist for most of that time, they can hardly claim any credit for that.

And, as far as my own case is concerned, I've never been quite sure whether the journey from farmer's son to university lecturer and, more recently, communications consultant, counts as upwards, downwards or sideways social mobility - which is almost certainly one of the reasons why I was never quite convinced by mainstream sociology, and why my escape into the much more interesting world of conversation analysis came as such a relief.

Labour leadership candidates share the same hymn sheet, the same speechwriter or the same fear?

As you'll see in this clip, David Miliband and Ed Balls used remarkably similar words to announce their bids for the leadership of the Labour Party, both asserting that listening/hearing is more important than speaking/talking.

Do they really think the same, or are they merely using the same speechwriter?

Or could it be that they both share the same fear, namely that neither of them is as effective a platform speaker as a certain other candidate called Miliband?

A solution to the pressing need for a new Tory logo

During the election, I had a few conversations that went along the following lines:

Q: "What's that infantile scribble supposed to be?"
A: "A tree."
Q: "What's a tree got to do with the Tories?"
A: "I think it's supposed to say something about a greener agenda."
Q: "But why a tree? And why isn't the stump a darker blue?"
A: "Er ...."

Although I'm no expert on corporate imagery, I'd have thought that no such conversations would take place if the Tory 'tree' had been doing an effective job .

However, I did learn a bit about the subject at a fascinating meeting near Oxford in 1988, when the idea of the 'bird of liberty' was first mooted as a possible logo for the then recently formed Social and Liberal Democrats.

You may remember that, during the 1987 election, the SDP-Liberal Alliance had fought under a rather ugly diamond shaped logo that looked like one of those irritating 'Baby on Board' posters that some parents insist on sticking to their car windows.

New party: new logo

After the Liberals and SDP merged, Paddy Ashdown, the new leader, thought something more imaginative was needed - something that would be instantly associated with the party, like the Tory's former dark blue torch and Labour's (then) recently adopted red rose.

So he recruited a leading corporate image consultant who, as party member, was willing to provide his services free. A meeting was arranged, where he told us about how they went about doing such things and led a brainstorming session.

I vaguely remember words like 'liberty', 'freedom', 'taking off' and even 'phoenix rising from the ashes of the merger debates' (!) being bandied about.

I remember much more clearly that the idea of a bird came up very quickly, as too did fears that it might attract ridicule based on the Monty Python 'dead parrot' sketch - as indeed it did when Mrs Thatcher recited from it in her party conference speech just after the new logo had been launched (HERE).

But the eventual result was the very neat design of a bird flying upwards (that can be animated if required) that's served as the instantly recognisable symbol of the Liberal Democrats for more than twenty years since that original meeting in Oxford.

Fell the tree and plant a flower

Yesterday, while walking though a spectacular bluebell wood near Cheddar Gorge (and with complaints about the Tory tree lurking somewhere in the back of my mind) I had a 'Eureka moment':

Replace the tree with a bluebell.

Apart from eliminating the ambiguity of the scribbled tree, a bluebell logo would have at least five advantages:
  1. It's the right colour for the Conservative Party.
  2. Bluebells have a freshness and purity that any party would surely be glad to be associated with.
  3. If you want to emphasise your green credentials, what better way to do it than with such an attractive and popular wild flower
  4. As there's a well-known Scottish folk song called The Bluebells of Scotland, it might even help to broaden the party's appeal north of the border.
  5. Almost any picture of a bluebell is more aesthetically pleasing than the shoddy-looking scribbled tree.

So, for these reasons, and in the true spirit of a 'non-aligned' blog, I offer this free suggestion to the Conservative Party for a logo to replace today's trendy but tacky-looking 'tree' with an image of unequivocal and timeless beauty ....

David Miliband trips up on the teleprompter

A couple of days ago, I posted a clip from a speech by Labour leadership candidate Ed Miliband.

His 'joke' about his father was accompanied by a rather embarrassed looking grin, which can be observed HERE.

The following clip from a speech by his older brother David, also a candidate for the Labour leadership, suggests that it might be something that runs in the family. Scroll in for about 60 seconds and you'll see a similarly embarrassed grin when he apologises for having read too far ahead on the screens in front of him: "I beg your pardon - got ahead of myself."

Apart from the question of whether speakers should ever apologise for something the audience would never have noticed if their attention hadn't been drawn to it by the apology, it's another reminder to politicians that teleprompters are not a sure-fire guarantee of effective delivery (see other posts below).

Initial inspection of speech-making by the Miliband brothers suggest that, if either of them is to take off from where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown left off, there's considerable scope for improvement in the speech-making department.

Related posts:

It was Brown's last minute speeches wot might have won it - if only he'd done it sooner

Regular readers will know that one of my complaints before and during the election was the way in which speeches have played an ever smaller part in UK general elections and media coverage of them (see below).

I was therefore fascinated to hear former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley on this week's Any Questions (BBC Radio 4) echoing various other commentators by singling out the last three days of the election as the point at which Gordon Brown finally came into his own (to listen, scroll in 33 minutes HERE):

HATTERSLEY: "What I'm utterly certain of is that had Gordon Brown behaved for instance as he behaved during the last three days of the campaign when he was himself had he behaved like that for three weeks let alone three years the election outcome would have been quite different But that was the only occasion I saw the real Gordon Brown I knew and the tragedy is he didn't become that earlier."

And what was so different about those last three days?

Answer: He made two traditional barnstorming speeches at large rallies.

I rest my case - but very much doubt whether any of the Labour leadership candidates declared so far is capable of doing likewise.

Related posts on the election

Miliband the Younger speaks of Miliband the Elder

The announcement by Ed Miliband that he'll be competing with brother David for the leadership of the Labour Party reminded me of a tale he told during his first conference speech a few years ago, in which he jokingly referred to the political views of his Marxist father.

Or was it a joke? And did he have any more to say at a fringe meeting when Gordon wasn't around?

More seriously, did the far left views of Ralph Miliband leave no impression whatsoever on his two sons?

As an erstwhile sociologist, it's something I've often wondered about. If you're not aware of their Professor Miliband's contribution to the discipline, the titles of his main publications (below) will give you the general idea, or you can learn more HERE.

Books by the late Ralph Miliband
  • Parliamentary Socialism: A Study of the Politics of Labour (1961).
  • The State in Capitalist Society (1969).
  • Marxism and Politics (1977).
  • Capitalist Democracy in Britain (1982).
  • Class Power and State Power (1983).
  • Divided Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism (1989).
  • Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994).

How UKIP's dodgy dealings helped to defeat horse manure expenses MP

The Wells Journal, like most local newspapers, tends not to get involved in political controversy.

But it published a most extraordinary editorial on Election day, revealing an attempt by UKIP to get their members to vote Conservative in three local constituencies (all of which have now returned Liberal Democrat MPs).

By way of background, you need to know that David Heathcote-Amory, who lost his seat on Thursday after 27 years as Tory MP for Wells, is about as anti-European as it's possible to be. However, the local UKIP candidate had refused to stand down, as he'd been asked to do by the party's leadership.

Mr Heathcote-Amory was defending a majority of 3,000, and faced the additional pressure as a result of having had to pay back £30,000 (including £388.80 for horse manure) following the expenses scandal.

By its normal non-partisan standards, the lead editorial in the Wells Journal on 6th May not only expressed extreme displeasure at the way UKIP had treated the newspaper, but also came very close to recommending its readers not to follow UKIP's advice:

'Embargo respected
Lord Pearson of Rannoch left me in a difficult position last week.

'He phoned me on the Tuesday in his role as leader of the UK Independence Party to offer the Mid Somerset Series an exclusive statement asking the electorate in the Wells, Somerton & Frome and Taunton Deane constituencies to vote Conservative rather than for his own party, on the basis that we would not publish it in the paper or on our websites before the Thursday.

'I agreed and Lord Pearson emailed me the statement in letter form on the Tuesday afternoon.

'So I was surprised the next morning to see a BBC reporter revealing Lord Pearson's extraordinary position in a broadcast from Wells Cathedral Green on their nationwide BBC1 Breakfast programme.

'His report featured interviews with four of the Wells candidates, including the Conservative who has taken considerable flak over his expenses and was delighted by Lord Pearson's support.

'UKIP's candidates and supporters felt angry and betrayed.

'So we watched our exclusive on BBC television. Then saw it copied by BBC radio and ITV, all two days before our newspapers were published.

'But we could do nothing. We could have had the story on our website within minutes of the BBC broadcast on the Tuesday morning but we had agreed to the Thursday embargo.

'Anyway, the Mid Somerset Series does not presume to advise anyone on how to vote but I do think it is a valuable right not to be wasted.

'Philip Welch'

ELECTION RESULT: UKIP votes could have saved another seat for the Tories

Jake Baynes, the local UKIP candidate, received 1,711 votes. Liberal Democrat Tessa Munt's majority of 800 over Mr Heathcote-Amory (Con) was less than half the number of UKIP votes.

What's more, if the Conservatives hadn't demanded a recount, the winning margin would have been half the final figure, as Ms Munt's majority after the first count was only 400.

Constitutional change will depend on architectural change

Adversarial politics
When I show video clips of British politicians in action to audiences from other European countries, it often prompts comments about how aggressively adversarial our politicians are compared with those in other parts of Europe.

The point my audiences make is that the possibility/probability that they might have to work together in a coalition government means that politicians in countries like Germany and the Netherlands can't risk completely alienating competitors who might soon become their colleagues.

I then start waffling about the history of church architecture and the way in which our adversarial attitudes are built into the palace of Westminster itself, where the House of Commons is arranged in choir stalls, with government and opposition confronting each other across a central aisle.

Sometimes, I complain about Winston Churchill's insistence, after it had been bombed during WW2, on having the chamber rebuilt as it always had been - when it could have perfectly well have been rebuilt as a horseshoe (and with enough seats for all MPs to be able to sit down at the same time).

The biggest 3rd party vote in Europe with the smallest 3rd party representation in Europe
Then, if time allows, I go on to point out that, since the foundation of the SDP and its merger with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in the 1980s, Britain's third biggest party has received a higher percentage of the votes cast in general elections than any other third party in Europe - in spite of which they only get a pitiful and completely unrepresentative proportion of the seats in parliament.

My point is that, at least since 1983, we have not been living in a country neatly divided into two rival political positions, but in one where we're divided into three main groupings, the third biggest of which averages around a one quarter of the votes (ranging from 25% in 1983 to 23% in 2010).

Time to turn the choir into a horseshoe
Now that 52% of the electorate has just voted for parties committed to electoral reform, I fear that the Conservative Party is the only one left that's failed (or simply refuses) to recognise that we no longer live in a society made up of 'us' and 'them', especially as it's going to be at the heart of the crucial negotiations currently taking place.

So I want to remind everyone involved of something I've seldom heard discussed in arguments about different voting systems, but which will need to be resolved as part of whatever package is eventually agreed, namely:

For the results of elections held under new voting arrangements to work effectively, they MUST be accompanied by new seating arrangements.

This was clearly acknowledged in the design of the new chambers for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (right), both of which are elected by proportional voting systems.

Current negotiations about constitutional change should therefore include the essential question of architectural change.

And the best suggestion I've heard so far is that the present House of Commons chamber should be turned into a museum and replaced by a new horseshoe chamber across the road at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre.

Exit poll denial (and a handy tip for the pollsters)

Channel flicking between BBC and ITN on election night, I was astonished by the cavalier over-confidence with which the assembled politicians and pundits wrote off the 'obviously' misleading exit poll that had been commissioned from NOP and Ipsos MORI by the BBC, ITN and Sky News.

When presenters employed by the said news outlets joined in the chorus of scorn, it raised the question of why their bosses had bothered to commission such pointless polls in the first place.

Time and again, we were treated to glib reminders that "It's only an exit poll", "exit polls are notoriously unreliable" and "they don't take postal votes into account" from pretty well everyone in the studios and on location around the country - all of whom had been afflicted by a collective amnesia about the awesome precision with which the same polling companies had used the same polling procedures to predict the outcome of the last general election.

Exit poll 2005
As the polling booths closed five years ago, a headline had come up on the TV screens of the nation telling us that the exit polls predicted a Labour majority of 51 seats. When the all the votes had been counted, the actual figure was a Labour majority of 51 seats.

Yes, they had slightly overestimated the number of Conservative seats (predicting 209 against the actual 198) and underestimated the number of Liberal Democrat seats (predicting 53against the actual 62). But they were spot on both with Labour's overall majority of 51 and their number of 356 seats.

Exit poll 2010
With all that in mind, you'd have thought that the chatterers might have thought twice before writing off a poll conducted by the same companies using the same well-proven methodology of previous years. But not a bit of it. They knew best and trotted out the same repetitive refrains.

Meanwhile, as the results came in, it gradually became clear that we could all have gone to bed a lot earlier if only we'd been allowed to believe the news from combined forces of NOP and Ipsos MORI.

For the record, here are their hopelessly flawed predictions and the actual results:

Con: 306/305
Lab 255/258
LD: 59/57

In the words of John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday: 'a crowning triumph of the opinion research business'.

A more reliable exit poll?
In the Wells constituency, where I live, an interesting new predictive measure emerged this year. It became clear that the Liberal Democrat candidate had won when we learnt that far fewer of her posters had been ripped down this year than in 2005 (when she'd lost by 3,000 to David Heathcote Amory).

I've advised the IpsosMORI high command that they might like to take this into account in any future exit polls they do.

The good news is that they've agreed to consider building in a 'defaced poster count' next time.

The bad news is that, with their fastidious methodological caution, they're worried about how to control for whether or not poster removal results from the actions of a lone ripper or many rippers - and, if the latter, there would then be the question of how representative they are of the electorate at large.

Election day and the joy of voting

I've now voted in four different constituencies, three of which were such 'safe' seats that there wasn't even anything to be gained by voting 'tactically'.

But this is the fourth election in which I've been living in a marginal constituency, and it really does make a difference knowing that your vote can affect the result.

The fact that the result could go either way not only provides a powerful incentive to vote, but also makes the whole electoral process much more exciting.

That's why I'm glad I no longer live in a 'safe' constituency and feel sorry for those who do (i.e. the majority of voters).

It's also one reason why, since I first voted back in 1966, I've always been in favour of voting reform.

The other is that, as I pointed out the other day in What's wrong with a 'hung' parliament if that's what the electorate votes for?, I remain completely baffled as to why so many of our top politicians seem quite happy to spend decades in opposition - with minimal influence over the government - in exchange for a decade or two of exercising absolute power on their own behalf every now and then.

Election night 1992: "the Conservatives have lost their overall majority" - Gordon Brown

As the results of the general election started coming in on polling day in 1992, the Labour shadow spokesman for Trade & Industry made the following announcement to the nation:

".. the Conservatives have lost their overall majority, it looks as if they've got no mandate to govern - in fact it looks as if this has been a bigger swing to Labour at any election since 1966."

A few hours later, it turned out that the Conservatives had in fact won an overall majority of 21 in the House of Commons, enabling John Major to stay stay at 10 Downing Street for another five years.

Lukewarm support for Brown from cabinet ministers during his speech yesterday?

Cutaways from a speaker to the audience can sometimes be quite revealing, as was illustrated in a clip from the third TV debate I posted a few days ago HERE (and in an earlier one showing a woman in the audience anticipating and agreeing with a rhetorical question being posed by David Cameron HERE).

In the USSR during the 1930's, being seen to be the first to stop clapping could have dramatic consequences, as was vividly described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago (pp. 60-70):

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name).... For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the 'stormy applause, rising to an ovation,' continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop?... After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first!... At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly - but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?... With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers!...

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

‘Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.’

Mandelson, Burnham and Cooper for the Gulag?
Scroll 1 minute and 50 seconds into this clip from Gordon Brown's speech in Manchester yesterday and ask yourself whether you think his cabinet ministers are applauding enthusiastically enough.

Pay particular attention to Lord Mandelson, who isn't clapping at all, Andy Burnham, who's the first to stop, and Yvette Cooper who stops a fraction of a second later.

I suppose you could argue that none of them should be clapping a commendation from their leader. On the other hand, you could say that none of them seems to be showing quite as much enthusiasm or excitement as they should be doing so close to polling day.

At last: the first sign of passion and audience excitement in an election speech

After much blogging about the absence of proper speeches at proper rallies during the election (see below), I was delighted to see this barnstorming performance from Gordon Brown at Westminster Hall yesterday:

I was also delighted that news of the speech was quick to circulate around Twitter and the blogosphere - and anyone who thinks that proper speeches at proper rallies don't make for good television might like to reflect on the fact that, less than 24 hours later, 37,531 viewers have watched it on YouTube (latest total at 22.00 hrs: 49,186).

But how much of it did BBC Television News let you see?
The BBC 10 0'clock news excelled itself with a seven and a half minute report that seemed to be designed to encapsulate everything I've been complaining about since the election began (see links below).

We were shown 22 seconds from each of the speeches by Brown, Cameron and Clegg - presumably exactly equal shares to conform to the Representation of the People Act.

But the Act doesn't constrain the verbosity of political editor Nick Robinson, who spent 123 seconds telling us what they said, asking each of them how they felt about it and generally pontificating about what was going on.

So viewers had to listen to Robinson speaking for more than half (52%) of this opening sequence, compared with just over a quarter (28%) listening to what three party leaders were saying.

Then to opinion poll news, where we were treated to more than a minute's display of the BBC's obsession with flashy graphics, as a manic Jeremy Vine migrated from a virtual bar-chart to a virtual House of Commons (see also Euro-election coverage: was the BBC's graphical overkill a violation of its charter?).

And, just in case you hadn't seen enough of Nick Robinson, up he pops again at the end of the sequence to bag another 74 seconds of the night's lead political story .

P.S. Since I posted this a few hours ago, John Rentoul, chief political commentator at the Independent on Sunday, has picked up on it and added some interesting comments HERE, based on his past experience of working with Nick Robinson at BBC Television.

Related posts on the election
Earlier posts on UK media coverage (or lack of it) of speeches

Anti-Brown & pro-Cameron bias in Dimbleby's repetition of TV debate questions?

During the third TV debate, there were quite a few complaints on Twitter (and elsewhere on the internet) about the frequency with which David Dimbleby, the BBC's moderator, kept interrupting the discussion to repeat the questions that had prompted it (see below).

I too found it vaguely irritating, not least because I've long had doubts about the way Dimbleby chairs BBC's Question Time compared with the much more incisive and entertaining style of the late Sir Robin Day (for more on which, see HERE).

I also found Dimbleby's repetition of the questions needlessly distracting - if only because it took my mind away from the debate to reflect on why he was doing it, and whether he'd found something in the 76 rules of engagement that the previous moderators had missed.

But I can't see anything in the relevant section (Rules 58-64 below) that encourages moderators to repeat the questions. In fact, you could even argue that such frequent repetition of the questions was actually a breach of rule 60 - as it interfered with, rather than ensured, 'free-flowing debate':

Role of the moderator
58. To moderate the programme
59. To keep the leaders to the agreed time limits
60. To ensure free-flowing debate being fair to all candidates over the course of the programme.
61. To ensure fairness on the direction of the programme editor
62. To seek factual clarification where necessary
63. It is not the moderator’s role to criticise or comment on the leaders’ answers.
64. The candidates accept the authority of the moderator to referee the rules on stage and ensure a free flowing, fair debate conducted within the agreed rules

So why did he do it?
Initially, I could only think of two possible explanations for Dimbleby's repetitive interventions.

One is that he may have thought that the two previous moderators, Alastair Stewart and Adam Boulton, had been too willing to stay in the background and he was now going show the youngsters how they should have done it.

The other is that, having waited for decades to preside over such a debate, he was jolly well going to make the most of it - and, as there was no ban on repeating questions, that was all he could do to get more of his own words in edgeways.

Or did it conceal a bias against Brown and in favour of Cameron?
However, having gone through Dimbleby's repetitions again in preparing this post, I noticed an intriguing difference in the frequency with which he chose to repeat a question before asking one or other of the leaders to speak.

He did it 6 times before selecting Brown, 3 times before selecting Clegg but only once before selecting Cameron.

In conversation, repeating a question that's already been asked usually means that you didn't think that what the other person had said so far was an adequate answer to the question.

If that was at the back of Dimbleby's mind in this (admittedly small) sample of repeated questions, it would imply that he was being more critical of Gordon Brown than of the other two, and that he may have had a bias in favour of David Cameron.

Have a look at the following and see what you think.

And, if you want to check it out more closely, you can watch the video of Dimbleby in action by scrolling down to Dimbleby's repetitions and clicking on the transcript of them at 'Key moments in text and video'.

Dimblebly's question repeats and reminders:
DD: Let me just repeat the question: we all know there are going to be spending cuts after the general election, no matter who wins. Why can't you be honest and tell us? I assume it means tell us about all the cuts you might make. Nick Clegg, you have a chance to respond to what the others said.

DD: Over the past few years, the taxman has taken more and more from the average worker's payslip. If you were elected, what would you do about taxes? Gordon Brown.

DD: Just before we go on, let me repeat the question. Over the past few years, the taxman's taken more and more from the average worker's payslip. If you were elected, what would you do about taxes? Gordon Brown, what would you say in reply to David Cameron's attack on you?

DD: Just a reminder of the question: this area, the Birmingham area, used to be full of businesses that made things. So many of them have been shut down or sold off and gone abroad. I want to know how you propose to rebuild the country's manufacturing industries. "We can't just have offices and shops." David Cameron.

DD: Let me just remind viewers and listeners of Radley Russell's question. Are politicians aware they've become removed from the concerns of real people, especially on immigration, and why don't you remember you're there to serve us, not ignore us? Nick Clegg?

DD: Once again, the question. Are politicians aware that they've become removed from the concerns of real people, especially on immigration? Gordon Brown.

DD: Mr Parkin's question was that he finds it galling that some who haven't paid into the system abuse it by living off state benefits. Gordon Brown.

DD: The question was about preventing the abuse of state benefits. Gordon Brown.

DD: Of course, education is a subject, a topic, policy, devolved from England, to Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland. But I think the question goes wider. What will each leader do to ensure the children Mr Crowhurst teaches has the same opportunities in life from a very deprived area in Birmingham as those from any other school? Gordon Brown.

DD: So the question is about a teacher teaching in a deprived area of Birmingham, how do you ensure, as a leader, they will have the same opportunities in life as those from any other school? Nick Clegg.

BBC website provides a superb resource for students of the TV debates

I'd strongly recommend fellow anoraks and/or anyone interested in taking a detailed look at the third and final TV debate, to visit to one of the most useful resources I've yet seen - posted HERE on the BBC website.

Key moments in text and video not only combines a transcript with the video of the whole debate, but you can click on any part of the transcript and be taken straight to the video sequence to which it relates.

If this kind of technology had been available back in the 1980s when I started work on Our Masters' Voices (for which I had to tape and transcribe all the excerpts myself) I reckon I could have written the book in at least a tenth of the time that it actually took.

This resource would be even better if you could copy segments from the video, but I've yet to work out how to do that. If you know the secret, please let me know.

The Art of the Public Address

Given the BBC's shift away from playing anything much from political speeches on its main news programmes (for more on which see links below), I'm wondering whether it was deliberate irony on the part of Radio 4's schedulers t0 broadcast a light-hearted investigation into The Art of the Public Address by Laurie Taylor - today, with less than a week to go before polling day.

I knew the programme was in the pipeline, as I make a brief appearance in it as a 'straight man' to Arthur Smith's comedy lines. And I confess to being mildly disappointed that my favourite PA announcement didn't survive the editor's cut. It came on the platform of Bath Spa station on a very rainy day, when those of us 'alighting' from the train were told:

"First Great Western apologises for delays to West-bound trains, which are being caused by a herd of goats sheltering in the Severn tunnel."

But I was very pleased to have made a more positive contribution as an amateur talent scout. On my way home after being interviewed by Laurie, I came across Scott, a particularly impressive PA announcer on the platform of a London Tube station, persuaded him to give me his phone number and emailed it to the producer - my debut as a casting consultant, and Scott's debut on BBC Radio 4.

Related posts on UK media coverage (or lack of it) of speeches

Cutaways as the nearest thing to applause in the TV debates

Well, much to my surprise, the audiences at the three TV debates succeeded in conforming to the ban on applause, as specified in rule of engagement No. 40, for four and a half hours.

Signs of agreement
But there were a few isolated sequences that enabled the millions of viewers at home to see someone in the audience showing approval and/or agreement with something said by one of the speakers. And, in the absence of applause, this was the closest we got to seeing any positive reactions to what one or other of the leaders was saying.

At first, I thought that the following clip might lead to the BBC being accused of breaking rule of engagement No. 71: There will be no close-up cutaways of a single individual audience member while the leaders are speaking.

But then I realised that, by restating a general question ("Who would have thought...") into one aimed directly at the woman who had asked the question ("When you lent that money to the banks, did you think...), Nick Clegg had liberated the BBC editors to cut away to the questioner - under rule of enagement No. 72: However if one of the leaders directly addresses an individual audience member, a close-up shot of that individual can be shown e.g. if a leader answers a question by directly addressing the questioner.

This meant they could show the questioner shaking her head and anticipating Mr Clegg's own answer ("No) before he got there. But, whereas such individual displays of agreement with a rhetorical question are more usually the precursor to a collective one (i.e. a burst of applause), as can be clearly seen HERE, this one, thanks to rule 40, did not.

What particularly impressed me was how alert to the rules the BBC live picture editor must have been to see the opportunity provided by rule 72 quickly enough to be able to cut away within a mere four seconds of Clegg starting to speak directly to the questioner. How many of the viewers at home, I wonder, were listening quite as closely as that to the debate?