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Media: politics and numerical illiteracy

Richard North, 01/12/2012  


Mail 832-uki.jpg

Reading figures and understanding their significance, one would have thought, was an essential skill, and especially for the likes of Professor Anthony King, political pundit extraordinaire. Yet, in the Daily Mail this morning, he misreads the result of the Rotherham by-election, even if he is telling us that the 22 percent share of the vote gained by UKIP was "short of spectacular".

What was actually "spectacular", in a perverse sort of way, was the turnout at 33.89 percent. That converts UKIP's "22 percent" into a mere 7.3 percent of the available vote, from an electorate of 63,131. 

What makes this so significant is that this was a constituency which, in the January 1910 general election managed a turnout of 82.5 percent, delivering a victory to the Liberal candidate William Holland with 72.4 percent of the votes cast.

Rotherham's first Labour MP was actually Fred Lindley, who took the seat in the 1923 general election, on a reduced turnout of 75.3 percent, but he did get 53.9 percent of the vote, taking 16,893 votes in all.

The Conservatives recovered the seat in 1931, when on a turnout of 82.6 percent, George Herbert took 50.8 percent of the vote but, with 23,596 votes in his pocket, only managed a majority of 762. Rotherham had become a truly marginal seat.

In a by-election two years later, in 1933, the seat was won back for Labour by Bill Dobbie, former NUR president, on a 73.5 percent turnout. He took 69.1 percent of the votes cast. The seat has remained Labour to this day.

Fast-forward to 2010, and the turnout had dropped from the 82.5 percent of a century before to a mere 59 percent. But when we go forward two more years, to this week's high-profile by-election, the turnout drops to 33.63 percent. A hundred-plus years have cut the turnout by sixty percent. Now that really is spectacular.

When we turn to Professor King's thesis for this morning, he tells us that UKIP, on the basis of its recent performance, "has established itself as the new shelter for the politically homeless". But, as we report earlier, UKIP's actual performance over the last six by-elections is to garner support of 3.3 percent of the election.

At this point, I must emphasise, the focus is on Professor Anthony King, not UKIP. It is his performance under review. And for him to assert that a political party – any political party – has become a "shelter for the politically homeless" on the back of 3.3 percent of the electorate, is utterly bizarre.

Elections now are becoming the province of bald men fighting over a comb. Even the Mail in its comment, notes that voters are turning are turning away from the mainstream parties – and politicians in general – in their droves.

But what this paper and Professor King fail to see is that they are not turning to the smaller parties in any numbers. They are simply deserting the political process altogether. The apparent rise in popularity of the smaller parties is largely an artefact, reflecting the lower turnouts which give them a larger share of a diminishing vote.

Thus, the story they are all missing is that the electoral process is collapsing. Six Labour MPs are currently sitting in the House of Commons with an average mandate of 16 percent, and not one has been able to rise above 21.7 percent.

This is democracy in crisis, yet that buffoon Ed Miliband welcomes the Rotherham results, with a mandate of 15.6 percent, as an endorsement of "One Nation Labour". This is not just blindness – it is dangerous blindness. The very edifice of democracy is crumbling away and this fool prattles about an "endorsement".

Nevertheless, Professor King is no better. His analysis is numerically illiterate. Election pundits used to calculate the swings between the two major parties, he tells us, then airily informing us that they would now be better advised to calculate the swing between the two coalition parties.

What they actually need to calculate is the diminishing mandate. If the people are not turning out to vote, then we have a crisis: the whole political process lacks legitimacy. And we do have a crisis – one to which Professor King and the political classes have not yet woken up.  

COMMENT: UK POLITICS THREAD




 

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