Leadership books I won’t be reading this week

July 15, 2007

818206461_3e2fcfd47c_m.jpg
In the near future, I will not be reading two very large books about leadership that were published this week. The first by Alistair Campbell is an account of his days as Tony Blair’s spin doctor. The second is by Conrad Black on Richard Nixon.

It’s mostly a matter of added value. There have been quite exceptional coverage of both books, for rather obvious reasons. Maybe I could find something unique by a page by page reading. As it is, the books are on hold, for me. Even as holiday reading, I think I’ll wait for the paperback versions.

Alistair’s magnus opus

Alistair’s mangnus opus, The Blair Years, is subtitled Extracts from Alistair Campbell’s Diaries.

It has been serialized and summarized enough. I’ve also watched several hours of television docu-drama around the story in the book. Even if this had left me wanting more, my hunger had been assuaged by the news that the author has produced an expuragated account of his own primary notes. He has removed material that could be turned into political capital by Tony Blair’s opponents. That, from the decade’s spin-master, was enough to confirm my misgivings about reading his final offering on behalf of himself and his greatest creation, the Blair Brand.

I was tempted to invest time in a full read by one review by Julian Glover. But even Glover (like others) noted how few references in the book cited the journalists with whom Campbell had frequent contact.

Alastair Campbell’s diary is a 750-page heavyweight that can be boiled down to a single sentence: “How me and Tony stuffed the media and changed the world”.

It captures strikingly the laddish, hungry, boastful side of New Labour, a thuggish competition to acquire and use power. The details are realistic and for the most part depressing … Nasty, brutish and long, Campbell’s diary is the edited outpouring of an obsessive, but its significance cannot be denied.

That significance, historically, is likely to be its account of the unfolding of events and reactions to events around the Iraq war. The point was not quite convincing enough to overcome my ‘no thanks, no sale’ position.

The Big Black Biog

I shall also be abstaining from about 1000 pages of a biography of Richard Nixon by Conrad Black. The book was launched during the week when its author hit the headlines in Chicago where he was convicted in a high-profile fraud trial. It has been cruelly pointed out that unless his appeal is successful, Lord Black will now have time enough to plan and write his next historical text away from the distractions of running a business empire.

Several critics have rated him as a competent writer of historical works. No Jeffrey Archer here. One review again helped confirm my prejudices that the book would not be worth reading just yet. So it’s thanks to The Guardian’s Peter Preston for saving me the £30 and the labors of ploughing through Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invincible Quest .

It is worth noting that its reviewer is a distinguished journalist who was editor of The Guardian for twenty years. His achievements include several exposes of corrupt Conservative politicians including Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton.

Even so, his review offers a powerful critique of Nixon, and (a happy coincidence) a chance for Preston to comment on its author, someone he obviously been tracking for many years. (Nothing personal, Conrad, only doing my job).

Here’s Preston summarizing Black’s analyid

Nixon, [according to Black], was a politician of great talent, and a man traduced. Black, on behalf of traduced chaps everywhere, has to come out of his corner fighting. Mere facts aren’t .. entirely fit for rehabilitation purposes… Nixon was tricky from first to last, carving up hapless opponents who played by the rules, first with the slur that hurt most, always liable to break into foul rages against “that senile old bastard” Eisenhower (or any younger bastard who crossed him). You can’t show that the real Nixon was better than this. You have to tell us so, with conviction. And Black can’t pull that off all the time.

So we’re back to the inevitable second strand here, to Richard M Nixon as an invincible model for [Lord Black, who is] …much more than your average, controversy-ridden press baron. He has a rare talent for serious history, and the talent to tell it well. … How could he toil to such solid effect in the midst of such personal strife? It’s remarkable. But it is also calculated. Set Nixon against Kissinger, rivals as well as partners, and you’d think Kissinger (a Black appointee to the Hollinger board) would get rave reviews. Not exactly. Kissinger was a “self-absorbed egotist”, a malignant gossip, a master “of scraping the barrel with his obsequious memos and asides” – while “loyal Richard Nixon” was “touchingly generous countless times in his life” but, in his loneliness, sadly vulnerable “to the counsel of extreme cynics and people of thuggish mien”.

Then we have Preston’s somewhat mischievous summing up:

Consider your literary verdict carefully, members of the jury: and try to remember exactly who’s there before you in the dock.

So it’s thanks Alistair, thanks Conrad, but no thanks. But most of all, thanks Peter Preston, and Julian Gover. For two great reviews, but also for saving me a lot of time than I can now spend on less dodgy dossiers.


A rough guide to reading Leadership polls

February 21, 2007

The latest leadership poll in Britain signals good news for the Conservatives, and bad news for the present Government. But how good, and how significant are the results? A simple three-step process is suggested which will help readers to take a more informed view of what such polling results might mean.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the conservatives are the strongest they have been in the polls for 12 years. The BBC examined the poll data and concluded that support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42%.

Good news indeed for David. The article, by Julian Glover continues the regular monthly polls by the Guardian conducted by polling experts ICM. I tried to assess the significance of the results, and quickly hit several complications. The BBC news was particularly unhelpful. It plucked out a few elements of the Guardian poll, but in a way that left me searching for pen and paper to make sense of the information.

An hour, and a few sheets of crumpled notepaper later, and I had arrived at some interesting conclusions. I realized that it was not the first time I had been forced to work out things in this way from newspaper reports of polling results.

Here is a rough and ready guide that might help anyone who is not already familiar with the terrible beauty of statistical analysis. It is based on not much more than a respect for numbers (numeracy).

How to read opinion polls

Step 1 Stick as closely as possible to the data and decide what the numbers are telling you. You may have to re-organize the data for this.
Step 2 See what conclusions are being drawn in the news story
Step 3 Ask what gaps are there between the data and the conclusions.

The three-step process applied

In practice, news stories tend to rush you on to step 2, then perhaps provide some help with Step 1, and avoid much mention of Step 3. The BBC report illustrates the point:

Support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42%, an opinion poll suggests. With Mr Brown expected to take over as PM, the ICM/Guardian phone poll asked 1,000 adults at the weekend which party – with a named leader – they preferred. The same question a month ago suggested Labour under Brown would gain 31% and Conservatives under Cameron 39%. The Lib Dems under Sir Menzies Campbell dropped to 17% from 19% a month ago. When asked about voting intentions – regardless of leaders – the poll suggests 40% of respondents supported the Conservatives, up three points on January. Support for Labour was static on 31%, and the Liberal Democrats lost 4 points to drop to 19%.

All clear? Not unless you can think in more dimensions than I can. It’s actually clearer if you draw very crude graphs. Then you see he complications arising because the pollsters have been measuring voting intentions in two ways: mentioning, and not mentioning the leaders of the parties.

Even without graphs, if you put the data into a table you will see that the data reveals a swing to the conservatives (39% to 42% with mention of David Cameron, 37% to 40% without mention).

In rather similar way there is a swing away from the Liberal Democrats (19% to 17% with mention of Ming Campbell, 23% to 19% without mention). The labour figures are harder to interpret. They indicate a swing away only when Gordon is mentioned (31% to 29%, static at 31% without mention of Gordon).

This gives us the basis of our Step one. The data says there is a slight shift to the conservatives, a slight switch away from the Lib Dems, a slight switch away from labour if Gordon Brown is introduced into the questioning.

Step 2: The conclusions drawn are that the conservatives are the strongest they have been in the polls for 12 years (The Guardian claim), and that support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42% (BBC interpretation of the Guardian poll).

Step 3: Well, actually there are various assumptions which are glossed over in the claims in Step 2. Sticking strictly to the data, we cannot project what support will be for the parties, with or without David, Gordon and Ming built in.

Nor can we speculate what difference their presence or absence is likely to make on voting day. These are among the real-life complications which make back-projection for twelve years inadequate for projection one or two years ahead.

I’m inclined to see what happens when we have a few more months of data. (Plea to The Guardian / ICM: please can you keep the ‘with and without’ questions to help us work out what is happening, using our three-step system).


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,609 other followers