Sunday, April 19, 2009

Buying Votes

Elect me and I will put a stop to your free beer!

Every now and again, the stone gets lifted and we innocents at large get a shocking glimpse of how our Westminster political system actually works. We are revolted at just how sleazy and dishonest the whole process is. We are sickened by the slimey reptiles that slither out into the sunlight.

Of course, our rulers try to blame it on a few bad apples. But in truth the entire system is rotten to the core.

Take the question of buying votes. In 1868 the novelist Anthony Trollope (pic) stood for a Parliamentary by-election in the Yorkshire town of Beverley. The campaign cost him the extraordinary sum of £1,000, largely spent on a naive attempt to focus on the issues. He later wrote:

"I spent the most wretched fortnight of my manhood... It had come to pass that political cleanliness was odious to the citizens... a leading Liberal turned up his nose at me when I told him there should be no bribery, no treating, not even a pot of beer on our side!"

Clearly Trollope didn't get the hang of elections at all, utterly failing to grasp the conditions for closing the deal. No bribes, no seat. Needless to say, he lost.

So how stands Beverley today?

The town is now part of Beverley and Holderness, one of 56 Parliamentary constituencies in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. And it's one of only 12 of those seats not held by Labour.

Which is interesting. Because Labour spends very considerable sums of money - our money - in Yorkshire and Humberside, squaring its voters.

According to HMT, the region gets 17% more public spending per capita* than, say, the South East. That's pretty chunky, so you'd think the electors of Beverley would have the grace to show their appreciation in the time-honoured way.

Still, the region's other voters certainly understand which side their bread's buttered. Yorkshire and Humberside's overwhelming 79% Labour representation at Westminster compares to the South East's mere 23%.

Of course, some regions get even more of our cash. Just focusing on England (see previous posts for Scotland, Wales, and N Ireland - eg here), the North East region is the outright winner, with per capita public spending a stonking 31% above the South East. And no fewer than 93% of the North East's MPs are Labour.

Across England as a whole, the relationship between a region's receipt of public money and its election of Labour MPs is very strong.

Here's a simple chart that plots each region's public spending per capita* (relative to the average for England = 100) against its representation by Labour MPs (as a percentage of its total MPs). We have excluded London because, although it also gets a higher share of spending and elects a majority of Labour MPs, it is in many respects an outlier relative to the rest of England.

Now, for you non-statisticians, an R2 of 0.85 is pretty high. It means there is a very close association between the two sets of stats here (the correlation coefficient is 0.92, where 0 means no association and 1 is a perfect fit).

And the message is as clear as daylight - regions that elect a lot of Labour MPs can expect to be rewarded with a bigger dollop of public spending. Even Trollope would have understood.

Sorry... what's that you say?

Labour voting regions are poorer so they naturally get more public hand-outs?

Well, there may be some element of truth in that. But when you run the same analysis, only using income* in place of Labour representation, the statistical fit with public spending is markedly weaker (an R2 of 0.65). In other words, electing the right MP trumps being poor.

*Footnote The figures on public spending per capita are taken from HM Treasury's Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2008, and refer to so-called "identifiable spending". Regional income is gross value added from the ONS.

PS It was Harold Macmillan who famously said he enjoyed going to bed with a good Trollope. And while we're on Supermac, check out this great TV election broadcast from 1955. He very hesitant and keeps forgetting he's not addressing a public meeting, but we get a good idea of how the bonfire of controls pretty quickly gave us never-had-it-so-good. Also clock how everything they boast about taking off ration is very bad for you - sweets, butter, eggs, bacon, cooking fat, cheese... can you imagine what Nanny would say.

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