Book review: The Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

How To Read Opinion Polls

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Do not obsess over every poll

Reading opinion polls is like checking your weight: there really is no point fretting over every minor daily fluctuation. Tomorrow the Tories may be one percent ahead, today one percent behind. The general trend is solid: both the major parties have been basically neck and neck for months.

Just because the Tories are ahead, this does not mean they are winning

This may seem like an odd thing to say, but due to the unfair and outdated boundary system, Labour would still probably get the most seats even if both parties received an equal number of votes. Or even if Labour got a few percentage points more. It is thought that the Tories would need to be at least five percent ahead in the polls fairly consistently to even stand a chance of becoming the largest party. They aren’t doing that currently.

Don’t get paranoid

True, the press are overwhelmingly Tory. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that no poll from either Ashcroft or The Sun or The Telegraph can be trusted though. There is no obvious bias in their polling.

Ignore betting odds

Betting odds seem to b being treated almost as seriously as opinion polls in this election. Treat these with caution. They are, after all, derived from people’s opinions on who will win and these are most likely ultimately shaped by the results of opinion poll anyway. That and the press. The suspicion that Labour is heading for defeat owes more to the anti-Labour feeling in the print media than to which party people say they are intending to vote for. In short, Labour is winning but many believe the newspapers who are telling them the opposite.

Watch out for electoral upsets

Beware! Opinion polls can be wrong too! There have thus far been two great post-war electoral upsets in 1970 and 1992. Both resulted in the Tories winning unexpectedly. Both were twenty two years apart. Twenty three years on from 1992, we are about due for another one!

Book review: Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box

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Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections
Edited by: Philip Cowley and Robert Ford
Published by Biteback Books

People who vote Tory are rubbish at sex. Okay, perhaps that’s not fair. But they are worse than at sex than normal people are. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s apparently true. If this troubles you, perhaps defecting to UKIP might help? Or marry someone else.
That’s actually the only real revelation about sex contained within this book of fifty short political essays about elections and the imminent 2015 General Election penned by the leading political academics throughout the land.
The title was worth a try though. After all, one suspects simply calling it 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections might not have attracted fewer readers.
Which would be a shame as the book does address important, interesting if non-sexy questions:
Does canvassing for votes actually make any difference to an election result at all? Why is Wales traditionally so anti-Conservative? Why are there still so few women MPs? Are ethnic minorities really more likely to support Labour? And who lost their party the most support: Blair or Brown?
This is an interesting book then and a useful one. Just don’t go in expecting there to be lots of sex. There isn’t.

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October Surprise!

A look at nine last minute stories which (if they happened) could swing the US presidential election…

  1. Governor Mitt Romney is revealed to have taken part in a recent ceremony in which thousands of dead non-Mormons were baptised posthumously as Mormons. Embarrassingly, many of those listed as baptised included many people who were not actually dead who Romney assumed were dead (such as actress Angela Lansbury and Senator John McCain), several people who were clearly already Mormons and several fictional characters who Romney apparently thought were real people (Sherlock Holmes, Roger Ramjet, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Skeletor).
  2. Romney also admits switching the past votes of many dead Democrats to Republican ones, this changing the outcome of every presidential election since 1920 into a Republican victory. Former president Bob Dole defends Romney’s actions.
  3. The Romney campaign receives another blow when an hour long programme is broadcast featuring actor Clint Eastwood interrogating an empty chair which he believes to be occupied by President Barack Obama. Surprisingly, the actor appears to be won over by the chair’s arguments during the course of the programme and ends the show by endorsing President Obama’s re-election campaign.
  4. Obama is revealed to be “following” Hugo Chavez on Twitter.
  5. Romney reveals he briefly hypnotised the President during the first presidential debate thus explaining Obama’s semi-comatose state throughout. Similar hypnosis largely explains the soporific effect Romney’s speeches have on many audiences.
  6. Secret plans reveal Romney intends to sell the state of Ohio to the People’s Republic of China if elected. “It makes sound business sense,” he argues. “There’s no money in Ohio. I’ve seen the projections.”
  7. In a speech, President Obama unwittingly reveals a major plot twist in the new Bond film Skyfall.
  8. Newly released wannabe Reagan assassin John Hinckley attempts to “impress” actress Ellen DeGeneres by assassinating Obama. Once again, he fails on both counts. Obama survives and like Jodie Foster before her, Ellen isn’t even slightly “impressed”. She is more “alarmed”. Women eh?
  9. In a surprise move, Great Britain is suddenly granted admission as the 51st state of the Union. With a firmly pro-Obama population and far more Electoral College votes than California, the change secures the re-election for the president.