Researching Brexit and the effectiveness of dead cats

Lynton_Crosby_Political_StrategistIt was in the UK General Election of 2015 that we seemingly encountered the concept of the dead cat. It was a campaign innovation by the Conservative Party’s campaign strategist, Linton Crosby (left). Essentially, throw the dead cat into the arena even if it is not a cat. Or dead. It does not matter. For most observers, it is a dead cat and it is the only thing that people can see. So, for example, linking Labour and the SNP – with Alec Salmond calling the shots. Never on, but enough to worry English voters (and possibly Scottish).

I mention this because this is the year that the implications of all of 2016’s successful dead cats – Brexit and Trump to name but two – will be realised. At least partially. Both fill me with foreboding – the former because of the apparent incompetence of the Government to manage the transition; the latter because…well, anxiety about a Trump presidency is natural, is it not? The bigger questions, however, are about how to counter the dead cat when it is thrown in to the arena and to understand the causes of the Brexit vote. I have short observations oEuro_flag_yellow_lown both of these.

Let me deal with Brexit vote first. Over the Christmas break I read a very interesting academic paper with some poignant empirical observations. The paper is called “The 2016 Referendum, Brexit and the Left Behind: An Aggregate-level Analysis of the Result”. The authors are Matthew J Goodwin and Oliver Heath and is published in the Political Quarterly (Vol 87(3), July September 2016). This is an early peer-reviewed analysis of available data that the authors have interrogated to ascertain who were the key voters. This is a summary of what they found:

  • There is a statistically significant positive correlation between (high) levels of education and propensity to vote Remain (excluding London and Scotland).
  • The over 65s – particularly in areas where UKIP polled well in the 2014 European Parliament elections – significantly voted Leave. So, 19 of the 20 “oldest” local authority areas voted Leave.  By contrast, 16 of the 20 “youngest” local authority areas voted Remain (Oxford and Cambridge are the youngest of these). The exceptions again are London and Scotland.
  •  Areas with the fewest recent immigrants from the EU that were most likely to vote Leave (for example, South Staffordshire and the West Midlands). Of the 20 local authority areas with the most EU migrants, 18 voted Remain.
  • Those local authority areas that have experienced a sudden increase in the number of EU migrants over the last 10 years tended to me more pro-Leave.

What conclusions can be drawn from this analysis? The authors conclude that the Brexit vote was determined by a high turnout by older voters, those with lower educational qualifications and in lower-skilled jobs. Essentially, those “left behind” in terms of economic transformation and whose values are at odds with those of a “liberal elite”. I conclude that these are all political factors that successive UK governments have ignored.

new_worldSo, what do I have to say about dead cats? I was listening to an excellent suite of programmes on BBC Radio 4 this week under the umbrella title of The New World. In the the first of these, Jo Fidgen examined the concept of post truth. In this programme, there were a few uncomfortable findings. It seems that we are all as likely as each other to disregard the truth particularly if we disagree (with it) and live with others who disagree. Most disturbing is the dead cat syndrome. Fidgen uses the example of a murder inquiry to make the point. An aristocrat has her jewelry stolen. The media report that the gardener had been arrested on suspicion of the theft. However, the gardener was released with no charge; but in a controlled experiment, on his release, a sample of people still believed that he was guilty, despite the no charge report. It was not until the media reported that the butler had then been arrested and charged that the people in the sample were prepared to believe that the dead cat gardener was in fact innocent. Truth is perhaps beyond political.

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