A Bad Week for Weakened Leaders: But how far is Paris from Agincourt?

October 19, 2007

agincourt.jpg
It’s been a bad week for British leaders. A spate of sackings and resignations has occurred. The battered leaders met their nemesis after humiliating performances in sport, business and politics. But hope persists at the prospects for a great victory in the Rugby World Cup

There are so many stories. Too many for me to cover all of them in detail.

Some were easier to predict than others. Sammy Lee acquired his job at the start of the season, as manager of Bolton Wanderers FC, when the much-admired Sam Allardyce was head-hunted for Newcastle United. He stepped up from Big Sam’s shadow. But from the start he was dubbed little Sam, a painful reminder of his erstwhile stature and status. Bolton has had a dreadful start to the season. In a little league table of Premiership managers facing the sack, I had him placed second (just below Martin Jols of Tottenham). Sorry Martin. Hang in there.

Then there were the casualties from the World Cup of Rugby Football. I didn’t have a list of these. But I certainly would not have placed Graham Henry of the New Zealand All Blacks anywhere near the top. My list of managers most likely to take an early bath would have been headed by England’s Brian Ashton, about whom more later. Henry’s team had been confirming their status as the tournament favourites until the quarter finals. Until then they had outstripped opponents so thoroughly that they had hardly become match tight. They lost a tight game, playing below their potential. Exit New Zealand. Exit Henry.

Wales, Ireland and Scotland failed to make it through the first stage of the tournaments. Out went Gareth Jenkins of Wales, and Eddie O’ Sullivan, of Ireland. Only Scotland’s much-rated Frank Hadden survived.

England’s football coach Steve McClaren also seems to be surviving on borrowed time, after defeat to Russia leaves England’s qualification from the European Cup in doubt. In his case, there is a mathematical probability that England will reach the knockout stage of the European competition. This, as much as somewhat improved performances by the team, is staying the hand of the English Football Association. They had already botched the appointment of McClaren after a hasty effort and failed effort to secure Big Sam (sorry, Big Phil) Scolari during last year’s World Cup.

[Will Big Steve survive in his present coaching job longer than Big Martin Jols of Tottenham?].

In Politics

In Politics the increasingly nasty tussles between Gordon Brown and David Cameron continue in Parliamentary exchanges. Ironically, the more immediate victim of that contest was Ming Campbell of the Liberal Democrats. In a decision that caught the press unawares, Ming has his retirement announced for him by two leading Lib Dem king-makers and king -unmakers. (‘Did you wield the knife’ one reporter shouted audibly during the televised announcement. No, he resigned. Ming spoke the next day, saying he had decided that he would not be able to deflect the media from obsessing about his age, thus hindering all attempts to get across the political messages he wanted to convey.

These petty-paced political moves are arguably no more than the uncomfortable outcroppings of democracy. As I write, I learn of the real carnage within presumably an assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto as she re-entered Pakistan after a decade of exile.

In Business

In the aftermath of the celebrated Northern Rock affair, the bank’s leaders appeared before the commons select committee that had already interviewed the leaders of the Bank of England, The treasury, and The Financial Services Authority.

Under typically robust questioning, Adam Applegarth and Matt Ridley denied that they had ‘done anything wrong’ but indicated that they would accept the judgement of their shareholders, if they were eventually forced to resign.

In the course of the questioning, it was also revealed that all the bank’s senior directors had offered to resign in the immediate aftermath of the run, but had been asked to stay on to sort out its problems.

I think they are safe for the moment, on the same grounds as Big Steve McClaren has a temporary stay of execution. [Stop press, a few hours after I posted this, Dr Ridley accepted the inevitable and resigned].

In a somewhat different story, ITV faces calls for the dismissal of various culprits in their money-making scheme based on rigged phone-in contests. The enormity of this story can be seen when it emerges that Mr Ant and Mr Dec are under threat. That’s like Santa up for shop-lifting in the Christmas Sales.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

King-makers popped up to endorse Steve McClaren, and to praise and bury Ming Campbell. They even popped up to endorse coach Brian Ashton, after England’s heart-stopping Rugby Union victory over France. It could be seen as one of those endorsements which increasingly indicate that the coach is in big trouble. The denial serves to signal the presence of trouble, not its absence. This was a slightly different kind of announcement, I think. It was made on the wave of national support for the England team.

Here we have an example of the rapid swings for and against a leader. Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell. The performances of his teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is from Paris to Agincourt?


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).


Gun crisis: Disentangling the political rhetoric

February 18, 2007

Three teenagers were shot to death this week in London. Politicians have pronounced on the violence and apparent pointlessness of their fate, an emerging gun-culture, alienation, and single parenting, laced with more than a hint of racialism against young black culture. To what extent can we disentangle the calculated and contrived from the compassionate?

Under these circumstances, Politicians find it all to easy to express a view, although fully aware of the minefield they are treading. Proposals will be labelled as primarily gesture politics. Grand visions will have to be backed-up with evidence of thought-through first-steps.

The case illustrates the dilemmas of political leadership. Politicians in power are in the position of being able to announce those specific new and promising first steps. Although this is the case for Tony Blair, anything radically new in what he suggests will be challenged by many in the media with the automatic reaction – why did it take his Government so long to get there?

David Cameron, in contrast, does not have to deal with that particular form of cyncial challenge to new ideas. He may even be able to offer novelty which as long as it has plausibility, will not be tested in the near future. He can justify why the ideas have not been previously policy for his party. He is still (just about) in a leadership honeymoon period (weighing up his overall treatment from the media). However, he still faces dilemmas. There is still the objection that he is operating from the luxury of not having to put his ideas to the test. And he has been careful not to commit his party too closely to specific policy statements, avoiding political hostages to fortune.

What did the leaders do, how did they do?

The early front-runner was David Cameron. His analysis was unusual for a traditional Conservative politician. However, Mr Cameron has been diligent in demonstrating that he is no traditional Tory. His reaction focussed on cultural deprivation as a deep-rooted and significant factor that needed to be addressed. The position would have been ‘nothing new there, then’ if offered by a traditional labour (or contemporary Liberal democratic politician).

John Reid as Home Secretary was at first more occupied with advancing the progress towards the provision of two new prisons. He turned his attention to the teenage deaths after David Cameron. His remedy, suitably tough was to reveal Government plans offering a review of gun laws and toughening them where necessary.

Tony Blair was curiously slower in response, but toward the weekend seemed to have reclaimed Dr Reid’s story for himself, in a TV interview, and a story that had been trailed to appear in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In ‘response’ to the yet-to-be-published statement, Sir Menzies Campbell broadly warned that there could be no quick-fix (sounding disdainful of rhetorical gestures on such a matter), but offering no ideas of long term alternative.

The political cross-dressing continues

Tony Blair has been consistent in his repositioning of New Labour on tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It is now commonplace to attribute the phrasing as a gift to Tony from Gordon when they were somewhat closer buddies. His approach is thus incremental (tougher laws for younger people). Dr Reid, in that respect is also close to this aspect of New Labour orthodoxy temperamentally. David Cameron is also consistent in repositioning New Torydom with considerable invasions of regions of social policies held firmly by Old Labour. Overall, both Blair and Cameron were consistent in their enthusiasm for political cross-dressing, shocking some of their previous supporters in the interests of change. Which leaves Sir Menzies Campbell with the unenviable task of pointing only to the truism that quickfixes do not work.

Winners and losers?

I’m not sure I can find any winners from the political offerings discussed. The proposals remain less than convincing that swift and effective changes are about to begin in the interests of vulnerable groups of young people in the inner cities of London, Mmanchester and elsewhere. The leaders we elected are delivering the leadership the rest of us deserve. Perhaps, as a message from Tim suggested in response to an earlier Blog, Gordon Brown might have some personal conslation in keeping out of the battle.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,609 other followers