America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.


fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant

I have just had a knee reconstruction and have spent the last 6 days wallowing in self-pity in a hospital bed in Tokyo, completing the last (I hope) uglinesses of three months of body horror (report to come). With little else to do I have resorted to Netflix, and of course I have watched Tiger King. So far I have just finished episode 5 (I was distracted by The Innocence Files, which I strongly recommend), but by the end of Episode 5 I was convinced that the main character of Tiger King, Joe Exotic, is very similar to Trump, and his public and political reception in America is an example of why Trump was not an isolated phenomenon. Americans, I think, have a problem with people with narcissistic personality disorders – too many Americans admire them – and are way too easily fooled by conmen. Here, I will explain why I think Joe Exotic is similar to Trump and what his public reception says about Trump’s rise.

First some basic background. Tiger King is a documentary about these super weird Americans who keep big cats as pets and money-machines, in these weird and horribly shitty rural zoos that should be closed down with extreme prejudice. The story is that it was meant to be a doco about one particularly weird and flamboyant member of this strange society, Joe Exotic, but during the making of the doco Joe tried to get a rival killed and so the whole thing spiraled out of control. I haven’t got to that bit yet, but everything leading up to is pretty disturbing. The main character is Joe Exotic, a gay gun-toting zoo owner from Oklahoma who has two husbands (not legally I guess?), both of whom are straight, and has a menagerie of something like 220 lions and tigers that he shows off to the public in flamboyant performances. He makes a lot of his money from cub petting, in which he takes newborn cubs (before the mother can lick them!) and allows customers to snuggle and play with them, until they reach about 12 weeks old, after which he dumps them in the zoo with the rest of the adults, where they become mostly just a financial burden (so he killed them or trafficked them). His opponent is a woman called Carole Baskin who runs a (rather dubious looking!) animal sanctuary for abused big cats, and has spent years trying to shut down Joe’s operation, including using a sneaky (according to the doco!) copyright trick to force him massively into debt. Rumour has it that Baskin killed her first husband and fed him to a tiger, information the doco does very little to dispute even though it seems pretty obvious that her husband was up to something shonky in Costa Rica and probably got himself killed down there. There are a few other tiger owners – one called Antle who has a sex cult and another who is a dodgy former criminal – and there is a ragtag crew of people who work for Joe Exotic and go to enormous lengths for him (one of these, who apparently was misgendered in the doco, lost an arm to a tiger and kept working for Joe). In his little menagerie-kingdom Joe keeps a lot of guns and explosives (he is clearly not one of those super-rare “responsible gun owners” that his libertarian political campaign manager would have us believe is the norm), meth and pot, and a lot of boys toys. In general Joe treats the tigers badly, and his relationship with his cats is emotionally very hot and cold and is basically transactional. They make him money, and he plays with them, but he doesn’t trust them and he doesn’t particularly seem to respect them.

It should be added that this documentary is really not very objective and although it’s great viewing, as a documentary it’s shit. It obviously has taken Joe Exotic’s side (at least in the first 5 episodes) and doesn’t show much objectivity about its subject at all.

So how is Joe like Trump? Let us count the ways:

  • He has the same personality disorders: He obviously has narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, just like Trump, or as some might put it he has the Dark Triad. His relationships are entirely transactional (he basically buys his straight boyfriend with meth) and everything is all about him. This is most clearly seen at the funeral for his second husband, which he makes all about himself, and the subsequent marriage to his new boyfriend within two months, which he uses to humiliate and break his dead husband’s mother. It’s visible in the way he treats his animals, his insatiable need for fame, the way he treats his staff, and the way every emotion he ever shows is clearly and obviously a performance. He can never be wrong, nothing is ever his fault, and the whole world is out to get him.
  • He is deeply misogynist: The videos he makes of Carole Baskin are really shocking, and he cannot control himself when he is talking about her. Even when he is running a political campaign he is making campaign videos calling her a bitch and a whore, and on his youtube channel he put videos of her as a sex doll being face-fucked with dildos, and being fed to his cats. He has the same reaction to a woman challenging him as Trump does to female journalists.
  • He is messy and disorganized and terrible with money: Just like Trump, he is incapable of running or organizing anything, and only gets anything done because a group of strangely loyal misfits jump at his every order and do everything he wants, even when everything he wants is constantly contradictory and changing. He also obviously can barely keep the farm afloat, where a better manager would turn it into a cash-making machine. Whatever money he does get he squanders on bullshit, like meth and trucks for his straight husbands or guns and ammo. This is no clearer than in the stupid brace he wears on his knee for much of the series – he obviously has not got health insurance and hasn’t paid for it for his staff (likely the real reason Saffer chose to have his damaged arm amputated – with no health insurance he could not pay for the reconstruction surgery). He would rather flamboyantly suffer than buy one less truck a year for one of his husbands and pay for health insurance for himself, let alone his crew.
  • He has dodgy mob connections: He obviously has access to a regular supply of meth, and is able to traffick lions and tigers however he wants, and in the first (?) episode we see him cozying up to a drug dealer who is so shady it’s hard to believe. Not only does he have these dodgy criminal connections, but he also obviously admires them – and they obviously see him as an easy mark.
  • He is an easy mark: Like most of the senior figures in the GOP, while he is running a long con on his friends, associates and supporters, Joe Exotic is also easily being conned by others. He got done like a dinner by the Kirkham guy, and when Jeff Lowe gets to him he is so easily tricked into giving up control of everything. Trump is the same – this is why he is owned by Russia. The biggest con-artists are also the biggest marks.
  • He has no interest in truth: He is a classic bullshitter, just like Trump. Whatever he says is true, and if he contradicts himself two days in a row it doesn’t matter because he does not recognize the difference between truth and lies. Words don’t work for him as they do for us.

So of course, just like Trump he runs for political office. First of all he tries the presidential campaign but then failing that he runs for Governor of Oklahoma, with a libertarian (idiot) for a campaign manager and a platform of low regulation. His platform and campaign imagery are so Trumpian – there’s even a scene where he tells some shlubb that if he is elected there will be “someone as broke as you” in charge, trying to market himself as a man of the people. Unlike Trump he doesn’t win, but he does get 18% of the vote. And when people are interviewed about why they will vote for him they give exactly the same reasons as people give for Trump: he’s just like us, he tells it as it is, he’s not politically correct and that’s good, etc. The interviews with his supporters could have just as easily have been at a Trump rally.

Furthermore, his chief enemy (in business, not politics) is so obviously identifiable as a Hillary Clinton-like figure: an older white woman with a real set of goals, who is methodical and prepared and speaks clearly and with intent, who every single media outlet seems to have described with the same adjectives as Clinton – desperate to be liked, unlikable, untrustworthy, etc.

This is the enduring puzzle of American politics. How could an obvious fraud, grifter, gangster, womanizing rapist psychopath like Trump be popular in America? We see the same thing with Joe Exotic: in a Morning Consult poll of 400 viewers of the show he had the second-highest favorability ratings and Carole Baskin had the lowest, and her husband the second lowest – below a libertard gun nut, a tiger-killing narcissist, his meth-head husband, another tiger trader with five “wives” in a sex cult, a rich fraud from Vegas who uses tigers to fuck models (or at least put their pictures on instagram), and another tiger trader who wishes he could learn how to “control women” the way the sex cult dude does. How do Americans judge older white women on a mission to be at the bottom of this pile?

I previously described the Trump campaign as similar to WWF, a giant fraud that all its fans know is a fraud but love anyway. Tiger King is another insight into this strange cultural phenomenon that seems to be unique to America, where people fall easily for frauds and gangsters and love them even after their obvious shonkiness is revealed. There is nothing authentic or real about Joe Exotic – he is a narcissistic, manipulative and vicious bastard who uses people for his own ends, and has never shown a true part of himself in his life – but despite the rest of the world watching this doco and recognizing this immediately, somehow to Americans he is authentic and serious in a way that a softly-spoken older white woman can never be.

America has a problem with grifters, psychopaths and narcissistic frauds. Too many Americans cannot understand when they’re being taken for a ride, and too many Americans enjoy being fleeced. This is the essence of Republican politics – it’s a giant con job played on people who are eager to be fleeced by men the rest of the world would not consider fit to lick our boots. It’s terrifying, and if Americans can’t break out of this strange fugue state and start understanding the way they’re being conned, their country is done for.

My recent post on the case fatality ratio of the new Wuhan Coronavirus sparked a long discussion about the role of European epidemics in the colonization of the new world. There is a theory that after Europeans came to the new world (the Americas, Australia, etc) they brought with them diseases that went through the local populations like wildfire, killing huge proportions of the local populations because they were not previously exposed to these diseases, and so lethality was much higher and even simple diseases that Europeans were used to (like influenza) were highly destructive in these naive populations.

This theory sparked my statistician’s skepticism, and also my cynicism about colonial narratives. Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492, an era not known for its highly advanced demography, and when they arrived counting the locals wasn’t their primary priority. Epidemiology wasn’t particularly advanced at that time either, and medicine incredibly poor quality, not to mention the difficulty of preserving accounts from that time. Furthermore, I don’t see any evidence that the mortality rates due to diseases like smallpox and plague have changed over time in western populations, and because our recent encounters (in the past 500 years) with immunologically naive populations have been very hostile it’s hard to believe that people bothered to adequately (let alone accurately) record what happened in that time, and it’s hard to imagine that there have been any actual, valid studies of immunologically naive populations in modern times.

Furthermore, there has been a major revisionist movement in the west in the past 20 years, which has tried to deny the reality of genocide in the Americas and Australia, and to cast the white invaders as innocent of any crimes, or at worst having made a few well-meaning mistakes. In Australia this has been spear-headed by Keith Windschuttle, whose Fabrication of Australian History series explicitly attempts to deny violence towards Aborigines and recast the destruction of Australian Aborigines as a consequence of disease and demographic decline. This has been pushed by national newspapers (The Australian, of course, fulfilling their role as propagandists for Satan) and our former prime minister, and its “success” has no doubt sparked similar narratives in other countries. There is even a counter-narrative in the Spanish world of the “Black Legend“, which dismisses claims of violence by Spanish conquistadores as propaganda by England and France. It’s very convenient for these people if they can claim that immunologically naive populations are especially vulnerable, and population decline due to violence is actually the consequence of disease. They can even claim that mass movements of indigenous populations occurred due to disease, not genocide. Handy!

This led me to ask two related questions:

  1. Are immunologically naive populations actually subject to higher mortality rates when disease hits them?
  2. Did disease kill the majority of the population in the Americas, and was that disease introduced by Europeans?

The first question can be answered by looking at the history of black death in Europe, and by genetic studies. The second depends on demographic and epidemiological data, and as I will show, there is none, and all the accounts are extremely dodgy.

The history of diseases in naive populations

A population that is naive to a disease is referred to as a “virgin soil” population, although it appears that this name is never used to describe European populations affected by the plague (which was imported from Asia) – “virgin soil”, along with terra nullius, is a concept reserved for the new world. In fact Europe was virgin soil for the plague in the 14th century, and experienced repeated and horrific epidemics of this disease from the 14th century to the 16th century, with smaller plagues later on. In total the black death is estimated to have killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, and to have precipitated huge social changes across the continent. That was 700 years ago, and yet today the case fatality rate due to plague remains 60%, so 700 years of exposure to this disease hasn’t changed European susceptibility at all.

We can also see this in influenza. The H1N1 epidemic of 2009 killed only 0.01% of people who caught it, even though it was a new strain of influenza to which people could be expected not to be immune. The Spanish flu probably killed 10-20% of people it infected, but it did not do an especially greater job in isolated communities who had never experienced influenza before. For example in Samoa it probably killed about 20% of the population, having infected 90%, which suggests it did not behave particularly egregiously in an unexposed population. Smallpox, which has existed for 10,000 years in humans, had a similar mortality rate over most of its history, with variations in this mortality rate primarily driven by the number of people infected and the quality of the healthcare system. There is some evidence that the mortality rate is lower in Africans, who had been exposed to it for longer, but if so this has taken 10,000 years to manifest, which suggests that in general infectious diseases do not behave differently in “virgin soil” populations, though they can be much worse in populations with inadequate health care or infection control methods.

It’s worth noting that many estimates of the impact of these diseases rely on extremely dubious estimates of population. Putting aside demographic methods of the 14th century, Samoa in 1918 was a colony managed by New Zealand, with a colonial management so incompetent that they allowed people to disembark from a plague ship flying a yellow quarantine flag, and then mismanaged the resulting epidemic so badly that everyone on the island got infected. Did New Zealand’s colonial administration have any incentive to accurately count the population before the epidemic? Did they accurately register newborns and elderly people, or did they only record the working age population? How good were their records? If the Samoa population is underestimated by a small amount then the mortality rate plummets, and conclusions about the effectiveness of the disease in this naive population are significantly changed. And was the population even naive? Were the NZ colonial administrators previously recording every influenza epidemic on the island?

These problems are an order of magnitude worse when we try to understand what happened in native populations.

How many Spaniards went to Mexico?

Accounts of the effect of epidemics depend ultimately on our knowledge of the population affected, and population estimation is a very modern science. How was this done in 15th century America, by people who were busy slaughtering the people we now wish they were counting? What was the variation in population estimates and who was recording population, how and why? Fortunately we have a partial answer to questions about how population was recorded, because a historian called David P. Henige wrote a book called Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate, much of which can be read on google books, that makes a lot of strong criticisms of recording of population at that time. Sadly his specific chapters on over-estimation of epidemics are not available online, but he does provide an analysis of accounts by Spanish reporters of the numbers of Spanish soldiers present at certain actions on the continent. As an example, he reports on the number of deaths recorded during the noche tristes, an uprising in the city of Tenochtitlan in which the Aztecs rose against their Spanish occupiers and slaughtered them, driving them out of the city. Spanish accounts of that event – by people who were there – record the number of deaths as between 150 and 1170, with Cortes (the general in charge) recording the lowest number. Henige also notes accounts of expeditionary forces that vary by up to 10% between reporters who were on the scene, and may not even mention Indian attachments that probably far outnumber the Spanish forces. He reports on a famous Spanish reporter on the continent (las Casas) who misreports the size of the continent itself by a huge amount, and notes that a room that was supposed to be filled with treasure as tribute was given radically different sizes by different Spanish observers, as was the amount of treasure deposited therein. He also notes huge discrepancies (up to a factor of 10) in population estimates by colonial administrations in north America. He writes

If three record books showed Ted Williams lifetime batting average as .276, .344 and .523 respectively, or if three atlases recorded the height of Mt. Everest as 23,263 feet, 29,002 feet, and 44,083 feet, or if three historical dictionaries showed King William XIV as ruling 58 years, 72 years and 109 years, their users would have every right to be thoroughly bemused and would be justified in rejecting them all, even though in each case research could show that in each case one of the figures was correct. Yet these differences are of exactly the same magnitude as those among the sources for the size of Atahulpa’s treasure room that Hemming [an author reporting this story] finds acceptable

These are all relatively trivial examples but they make the point: almost nothing reported from the colonies in the 15th century was accurate. In the absence of accurate reporting, what conclusions can we draw about the role of infectious diseases? And what scientific conclusions can we draw about their relative mortality in virgin soil populations?

Scientific estimates of epidemic mortality in Latin America

A first thing worth noting about scientific reports of epidemic mortality in the Americas is that they often use very old sources. For example, this report of the environmental impact of epidemics in the Americas  cites McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples (1977), Dobyns’s estimates of population from 1966 and 1983, Cook’s work from 1983, and so on. It also relies on some dubious sources, using references extensively from Jared Diamond’s 1997 breakout work Guns, Germs and Steel. Some of these works receive criticism in Henige’s work for their credulity, and Diamond’s work has been universally canned since it was published, though it has been very influential outside of academia. Many of these works were written long before good computational demography was well established, and though it’s hard to access them, I suspect their quality is very poor. Indeed, McNeill’s seminal work is criticized for using the Aryan population model to explain the spread of disease in India. These works are from a time before good scholarship on some of these issues was well established.

Dobyns’s work in turn shows an interesting additional problem, which is that no one knows what caused these epidemics. In his 1993 paper Disease Transfer at Contact, (pdf) Dobyns reports on many different opinions of the diseases that caused the demographic collapse in south America: it may be smallpox, or plague, or Anthrax, or typhus, or influenza, or measles. Dobyns’s accounts also often note that people survived by fleeing, but do not ever consider the possibility that they were fleeing from something other than disease. Contrast that with accounts from north America 400 years later (such as the story of the Pince Nez reported in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), which make clear that native Americans were fleeing violence and seeking sanctuary in Canada. There is a lot of certainty missing from these accounts, and we need to be careful before we attribute population decline to disease if we don’t know what the disease was, and are relying on accounts from people who refused to consider the possible alternative explanations for the social collapse they are witnessing.

This is particularly complicated by recent studies which suggest that the epidemic that wiped out much of the Mexican population was actually an endemic disease, that jumped from local rats to the indigenous population, spread from the mountains to the coasts (not from European coastal settlements), and had symptoms completely unrelated to European diseases. In this account, a long period of drought followed by rain triggered a swarm of a type of local rat into overcrowded settlements of native peoples, where a type of hantavirus jumped from those rats to humans and then decimated the population. The disease started inland where the drought had been worse and spread outward, and it primarily affected indigenous people because they were the ones forced to live in unsanitary conditions as a consequence of slave-like working conditions forced on them by the invaders. Note here that the western invaders, presumably completely naive to this disease, were not affected at all, because the main determinants of vulnerability to disease are not genetic.

Further problems with the epidemic explanation for native American population loss arise from the nature of the transatlantic crossing and the diseases it carried. The transatlantic crossing is long, and if anyone were carrying smallpox or influenza when a ship left port the epidemic would be burnt out by the time the ship reached the Americas. In fact it took 26 years for smallpox to reach the continent. That’s a whole generation of people slaughtering the natives before the first serious disease even arrived. During that time coastal populations would have fled inland, social collapse would have begun, crops were abandoned, and some native communities took sides with the invaders and began to work against other native communities. In 9 years of world war 2 the Germans managed to kill 50 million Europeans, several millions of these due to starvation in the East, and created a huge movement of refugee populations that completely changed European demographics and social structures. What did the Spaniards do in 26 years in central America?

It is noticeable that many of the accounts from that time seem not to account for flight and violence. Accounts at that time were highly political, and often reported only information that served whatever agenda the writer was pursuing. Las Casas, for example, whose accounts are often treated as definitive population estimates, appears not to have noticed massive epidemics happening right in front of him. Others did not notice any possible reasons why natives were abandoning their fields and farms, and didn’t seem to be able to consider the possibility that something scarier than disease was stalking the land. The accounts are an obvious mess, with no reliable witnesses and no numbers worth considering for serious study.

Conclusion

Without good quality demographic data, or at least even order of magnitude accuracy in population estimates, it is not possible to study the dynamics of population collapse. Without decent information on what diseases afflicted local populations, it is impossible to conclude that “virgin soil” populations were more vulnerable to specific diseases. There is considerable evidence that disease mortality is not different when populations are naive to the disease, drawn from European experience with plague and global experience with influenza, and there is no solid evidence of any kind to support the opposite view in indigenous populations. Historical accounts are fundamentally flawed because of their subjectivity, lack of accuracy even when their interests are not threatened, and the unscientific nature of 15th century thought. A whole generation of conquistadores acted with extreme violence before dangerous diseases arrived on the continent, so many accounts of population collapse must reflect only war, but even after the diseases arrived it is likely that they were no more dangerous in native populations than they were in Europe, which by the 16th century was experiencing endemic smallpox that regularly killed large numbers of people (in Europe in the 18th century it killed 400,000 people a year). There is no reason to think that the Americas were special, or that their local population was especially vulnerable to this or any disease.

It is important to recognize that these issues – accurate diagnosis of disease, accurate estimates of numbers who died, and accurate population numbers – are not just academic exercises. You can’t put them aside and say “well yes, we aren’t sure what disease did it, how many people died, and what the population was, but by all accounts it was bad in the colonies.” That’s not how epidemiology works. You would never, ever accept that kind of hand-waving bullshit when applied to your own community. Nobody would accept it if the Chinese government said “yeah, this coronavirus seems bad, but you know there aren’t that many people affected, the population of Wuhan is anywhere from 1 million to 20 million, and we don’t even really know it’s not seasonal influenza or smallpox.” You would rightly reject that shit out of hand. It’s no different when you’re talking about any other population. We have no reason to suspect any special impact of epidemics in the Americas or Australia, and no reason to conclude that they were especially influential in the history of those regions compared to the violence inflicted on the locals – which we know happened, and we have many accounts of. To look at the accounts we have of disease in the new world, and conclude anything about them beyond “it happened” is to put undue confidence in very, very vague and very poor reporting. There is no empirical evidence to support many of the claims that have been made in the past 40 years – and especially, by genocide deniers, in the past 20 years – about the role of disease in the destruction of indigenous populations of the new world.

This matters for two reasons. First of all, it matters because it has interesting implications for how we think about the threat of disease, and how new diseases will affect naive populations when they jump from animals to humans (which is how almost all new diseases start). These diseases can be extremely dangerous, killing 30-60% of the affected people in some cases, but the reality is that for them to become pandemics they need to mutate to facilitate human-to-human transmission, and that mutation significantly reduces their mortality rates. It is rare for a disease that transmits easily to also be dangerous, and there is very little in the history of the human race to suggest otherwise. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is perhaps the sole exception, and if so it should show just how rare such events are. We should, rightly, be concerned about coronaviruses, but we should also not expect that just because we’re naive to them they’re going to be extra dangerous. Diseases do what they do, and that is all.

But more importantly, we need to reject this idea that the catastrophe that unfolded in the new world between 1492 and 1973 wasn’t the fault of its perpetrators, white Europeans, and we need to reject even partial explanations based on epidemics. It was not disease that killed the people of America and Australia. There is no evidence to suggest it was, and a lot of reasons to question the limited evidence that some people present. The epidemic explanation is a nice exculpatory narrative, which tells us that even if white Europeans had approached the people of the new world with open minds and hearts in a spirit of trade and collaboration they would still have been decimated by our diseases. In this story we may have done some bad things but it doesn’t matter, because contact was inevitably going to destroy these fragile and isolated peoples. And this story is wrong. It isn’t just uncertain, it is wrong: there is nothing in the historical record to support it. If white Europeans had approached the new world in this spirit, there would have been a generation of trade and growth on both sides before the diseases struck, and then we could have helped them to escape and overcome the diseases we were familiar with, that were no more dangerous to them than they were to us. Their communities would have been better prepared to resist the social consequences of those diseases because they would not have been at war, and would not have been experiencing social collapse, overcrowding, starvation and poverty because of western genocidal policies. They would not have been forced into overcrowded and desperate accommodation on drought-stricken plains as slaves to Spanish industry, and the homegrown epidemic of 1545-48 would not have affected them anywhere near as badly. It’s important to understand that the tragedy that befell native Americans was caused by us, not by our diseases, and our diseases were a minor, final bit of flair on a project of destruction deliberately wrought by western invaders.

This other story – of diseases we couldn’t help but strike them down with, even if we had been pure of heart – is a genocide denier’s story. It’s self-exculpatory nonsense, built on bad statistics and dubious accounts of native life presented by biased observers. It is intended to distract and to deny, to show that even if we did a few bad things the real destruction was inevitable, because these frail and noble savages were doomed from the moment they met us. It is a racist narrative, racist because of its false assumptions about native Americans and racist because of what it assumes about the balance of mortality in the continent, racist for trying to pretend that we didn’t do everything we did. It is superficially appealing, both because it adds interesting complexity to an otherwise simple story, and because it helps to explain the enormity of what Europeans did in the Americas. But it is wrong, and it is racist, and it needs to be rejected. There is no evidence that epidemics played a major role in the destruction of native American communities, no evidence that native Americans were especially vulnerable to our diseases, and nothing in the historical record that exonerates European society from what it did. White Europeans enacted genocide on native Americans, and just a few of them happened to die of some of our diseases during the process. European society needs to accept this simple, horrible fact, and stop looking for excuses for this horrible part of our history.

Australia has been burning since New Year’s Eve, with bushfires spreading across a huge area of the eastern seaboard. The entire New South Wales coastal region from the border of Victoria to north of Sydney has been affected, along with a big swathe of eastern Victoria (Australia’s most densely-populated state) and communities up and down the coast are slowly being consumed. The main highway linking Western Australia to the eastern states has been cut, and towns on the route are running out of food. As I write this 21 people are listed as missing in Victoria, and about two score people have died along with the loss of hundreds of houses. These figures are preliminary because fire experts predict the fires will burn for weeks still, and the emergency services have not yet had any chance to assess damage in many areas. The federal government has mobilized 3000 army reserve soldiers, troop transports are being used to evacuate entire towns, and in many areas the fires have been left to burn because there are insufficient resources to fight them. Today, 4th January 2020, multiple records for maximum temperatures were toppled, with Canberra setting a new record of 43.8 C, 47C in western Sydney, and all of the south east under a blanket of intense heat and strong winds. The fires may change direction later in the day as a southerly change moves in, though intense winds may spread them even then. From a personal perspective, multiple friends of mine have been marking themselves safe on Facebook, or updating social media with information about their preparations for the incoming fire fronts. Although Australia is used to bushfires, the biggest ones usually occur later in the year and they do not normally all occur at once, across the entire country. This is the effect of global warming, and there is much worse to come over the next few decades.

Australia is currently labouring under a conservative government. For the past 40 years – barring a couple of years in the early 1990s – this party has refused to accept the reality of climate change, has denied its human origins, has fought tooth and nail in international forums to prevent global action against climate change, and has refused to do anything to stop climate change locally. After the past Labour government introduced real measures to begin mitigating climate change the incoming conservative government reversed them, hobbled the renewable energy industry, and used accounting tricks to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Even when they admit that climate change is real they refuse to link climate change to any of the environmental challenges Australia faces, whether drought, storm, flood or fire, and they refuse to take action to mitigate global warming, insisting instead on adaptation.

Today is what adaptation looks like. Communities destroyed, tens of thousands of people evacuating from their homes, huge stretches of forest and national park burnt out, wild animals and stock burnt alive, infrastructure ruined, and the entire country brought to a standstill as it watches the fury of nature in helpless horror. There is nothing that can be done, and ultimately nowhere to run. Climate change has reached the driest, most fragile continent on earth, and its inhabitants are adapting: running, hiding, burning, gasping and hiding on beaches and boats as they watch the sky turn black with the ashes of their homes and communities.

This is what adaptation looks like. This is what the climate change deniers have been demanding of us for the past 20 years. Mitigation is too expensive or impossible, they say, it is better to adapt, to prepare ourselves for the warmer future. Instead of preventing what is coming we should build robust communities that are ready to deal with it. These communities certainly have shown how robust they are as they adapt to the coming firestorms, crouching in the midday dark on beaches or waiting hours in crawling traffic as they abandon their homes. Robust communities, fleeing for their lives from a storm they have been forced to adapt to by 40 years of inaction.

This is what adaptation looks like, and it will get worse. Not only will it get worse, but the people who refused to take any action to prevent this storm coming will also abandon you to its fiery maw. They said you should adapt, but they won’t give you any money to adapt, because when conservatives are faced with a community challenge their answer is always: there’s no money. The same people telling you it’s too expensive to prevent climate change will also tell you it’s too expensive to adapt. Don’t believe me? Look at this government’s response to requests for funding for fire prevention. For two years the fire chiefs have been pushing the government to increase funding for fire services by a mere $12 million per year, and they have refused because “there’s no money.” Today they released $20 million for emergency fire fighting planes, which will arrive two weeks too late and probably won’t help anyway. Up until yesterday they were refusing to consider funding firefighting volunteers. That’s what they think of adaptation. You can burn, for all they care. They and their rich mates will hide in the cities, pretending to be friends of the communities that are forced to adapt, while they refuse to spend a single cent of the money they have made selling coal to the world. They will let you burn before they’ll share the profits of global warming with you.

This is what adaptation looks like, for communities that in many cases were staunch supporters of these conservative governments. Many of the towns and rural areas burning this new year are in staunch Liberal/National-voting seats, people who voted for the governments that deny climate change, and are now running because those same governments won’t help them adapt. Meanwhile the rich columnists of the conservative media sneer at them for not buying insurance, or for not preparing properly, as their homes become uninsurable and undefendable in the face of global warming. Conservatives don’t care about their own rural electorates, and will throw them to the fires of their greed. Nor will they show them the respect of even pretending to care: the prime minister, who in his victory speech last year said he would “Burn every day” to make the lives of the “quiet majority” better was on holiday in Hawaii as his country burned, and hosting a party for cricket players by the Sydney harbour as the disaster escalated. These people will never burn for you, nor will they show you even a modicum of respect or compassion.

Conservatives are traitors, economic wreckers, and ecological vandals. They will destroy this country before they will admit they are wrong, they will watch it all burn down before they will give up their ill-gotten gains, and they will never ever show compassion to the people whose lives are destroyed by their policies. Conservatives are the biggest threat to industrial civilization that humanity has ever faced, and their political movement needs to be destroyed utterly before it destroys us. Wherever you are in the world, you need to get these preening, greedy cowardly traitors out of office. The only hope for the future of civilization as we know it is the destruction of conservative political parties, their expulsion from the body politic, and their complete humiliation intellectually, culturally and politically. Get rid of them, before they get rid of you.

Some commentators on Twitter and in the media are saying that Labour lost the 2019 General Election because it lost too many votes to remain parties, and that failure to retain support from remainers was the problem. Angry Labour activists on Twitter have been listing off the remain seats that were lost, and saying that a strong remain strategy would have saved the party.

This is completely wrong, and I will show this using data from the 2019 election and the 2016 referendum.

Methods

First I used the dataset of constituency-level results I assembled over the weekend, which contains results for 339 constituencies, semi-randomly sampled from the list of all constituencies on the BBC election site and linked to leave voting data from the 2016 EU referendum. The detailed methodology for assembling this dataset is given here. I then assembled a separate data set of only the seats Labour lost, using this handy (but not quite alphabetical) guide from the Metro newspaper. I merged these with EU referendum data.

Using the full constituency data set, I created a logistic regression model of probability of retaining a seat against constituency leave vote, for all the seats that were held by Labour at the 2017 election. I plotted the predicted probability of losing a seat against the proportion of the population in that seat. Then, I conducted a crosstabs and chi-squared test for the seats held by Labour in 2017, showing the probability of losing a seat in 2019 by whether or not it was a leave-voting constituency. I defined a “leave-voting constituency” as any constituency voting above the median leave vote (which was 53.55).

Next, using the data set of the 59 constituencies Labour lost, I calculated the mean vote in this set of constituencies, and the proportion of constituencies that were leave-voting constituencies. I compared this with data for all Labour held seats that were not lost in the 2019 election.

Results

In my constituency data set there were 142 seats held by Labour in the 2017 election, of which 30 (21%) were lost in the 2019 election. Figure 1 shows the cross tabulation of leave seats with seats Labour held in 2019[1].

Figure 1: (Hideously ugly) cross tabulation of Labour-held seats by whether those seats voted leave

As can be seen, 92% of remain seats were held, compared to 66% of leave seats. This is extremely statistically significant (chi-squared statistic 14.35, p<0.001). That’s a nasty sign that the main risk of losing a seat was that it was a leave seat, not a remain seat.

We can show this explicitly using logistic regression. Figure 2 shows the predicted probability of a seat being held by Labour in 2019, plotted against the proportion of the seat that voted to leave in the EU referendum. The red dots on this figure indicate whether it was held by Labour in 2019: red dots on the top of the figure are seats retained, plotted at the value of their leave vote; red dots at the bottom are seats that were lost, plotted at the value of their leave vote.

Figure 2: Probability of losing a seat in 2019 by leave vote

This model was highly significant, and showed that every 1% point in the leave vote reduced the odds of Labour holding the seat by 7%. Note that this figure includes Scotland, so the results might be slightly different if only England were considered, but even the strongest remain-voting seat that was lost – even were it in Scotland – is well above the remain vote of some seats that were held. This model shows that at the extreme end of the leave spectrum, up above 60% of the electorate voting for leave, the probability that Labour retained the seat dropped to around 50%. That’s terrible!

My constituency data set contains only 142 Labour seats, and 30 seats that were lost, but actually 59 seats were lost. Since my data set is semi-random, there is a small chance that it will misrepresent the results. So I checked with the dataset of all seats that were lost. This data set contains 59 seats. Here are some basic facts about this data set, and comparisons with the constituency data set and the full list of Labour-held seats:

  • Labour lost 14 remain-voting seats (24% of all seats lost) and 45 leave-voting seats (76%). This is very similar to my crosstabs, where 24 of 30 seats lost (80%) were leave
  • The average leave vote in the 59 seats that were lost was 57.7%, slightly above the median, ranging from 31.2 – 71.4%.
  • In contrast, the average leave vote in the 112 seats in my constituency data set that Labour held was 48.8%, ranging from 20.5 – 72.8%
  • The average leave vote in all seats held by Labour going into this election was 51.1%, ranging from 20.5 – 72.8%

This is clear statistical evidence that Labour went into this election having a slightly remain-leaning set of constituencies, primarily lost leave-voting constituencies, and emerged from the election even more remain-focused than when it went in.

Conclusion

Labour did not lose this election because of a large swing in votes to the remain parties. It did not lose a large number of remain-voting seats, but was decimated in the leave-voting areas. Labour held on to all of its most heavily remain-focused seats. In attempting to appeal to both leavers and remainers, Labour managed to retain most of the remainers and lose a lot more leavers. Labour emerged from this election even more remain-focused than it was when it went in[2]. There are some very simple reasons for this:

  • The swing to the Tories and away from Labour was much bigger in leave-voting seats
  • The Brexit party was only active in Labour-held seats, and got its largest vote share in the strongly leave seats
  • The swing to the Lib Dems was much less closely related to the leave vote than was the swing away from Labour (see my last blog post, Figure 4)
  • The intensity of the relationship between leave voting and swinging to Lib Dems was lower in Labour-held seats than Tory-held seats (see my last blog post, Figure 4)

In trying to please both sides of the Brexit divide, Labour failed to satisfy the leavers. Pro-brexit Labour voters were simply much, much more committed to Brexit than pro-remain Labour voters were to remain, and so Labour lost the leave areas. There are lots of remainers out there who want to claim that remain is wot did it, but they are simply wrong. I’m super pro-remain myself, but the data makes it very clear: British Labour voters want to leave, and they were willing to pack in their allegiance to the Labour movement to get that done. Whatever you might think of their politics, that is the simple hard fact of the electorates Labour represented.

It’s worth noting that in 2017 Corbyn campaigned on Brexit. The Labour manifesto explicitly accepted Brexit and said Labour would negotiate and leave. At that election Labour won a historically high share for a party in opposition, a higher share of the vote in fact than Blair won in 2005 (when he retained government). In that election they came within a bees’ dick of winning government, and in that period before Corbyn accepted the compromise of a second referendum two Tory PMs left, and Johnson only held onto government by the skin of his teeth (recall there was talk of a unity government). Blair and Cameron have both shown it’s possible to hold government with 35% of the vote, so it’s perfectly possible that had Corbyn gone into this election on a leave platform he would have seen a much smaller swing against him, and could have won it. We don’t know, but on the basis of all the evidence here it seems like the second referendum policy was a disaster for Labour.

This gives two clear lessons for Labour to take in over the next few years and as they choose a new leader:

  1. Labour’s policies and Corbyn were not the primary problem, and dropping them is not going to help. Obviously Corbyn is going to go, it’s traditional, but the manifesto’s policies were not the problem. The Labour right is going to push for the party to throw the Corbyn years down the memory hole (in today’s Guardian we have Suzanne Moore begging for a vet to “sedate” the Corbyn supporters!), because they are and have always been intent on fighting these genuinely left wing policies. Ignore them, and stick to the real Labour platform that will really help the country as it recovers from the horrors of this Tory leadership
  2. Labour – and the British left generally – have to get over Brexit. There is no option left to remain, and no chance it will ever happen now. The Labour right want to claim that Corbyn doesn’t understand working class voters but his original policy – of full-throated Lexit – was much more in tune with what ordinary working class Labour supporters want than anything that the Blairist rump have to say. The debate now for Labour has to be about the type of Brexit, and how to make it work. This means fighting Johnson’s bullshit deal, but on the basis that they can make a better one – obviously this doesn’t matter now but it is the job of the opposition to hold the government to account, and they should do so from the clear perspective of their voters, that Brexit has to happen. This is going to be hard for some of the urban remainers from the south and east, but that’s life if you’re a politician. Further talk of remain just has to end

For 20 years the EU was a thorn in the Tory side, constantly causing them trouble. Cameron ripped that thorn out with this referendum, and although May spent some time botching the healing process Johnson has patched up the damage and squeezed out the last remainer pus from the Tory body politic. If Labour don’t face the reality of Brexit and what it did to this party at the 2019 election, then the issue will fester for them – as it did over so many years for the Tories – and hold them back just as it did the Tories. It is time for Britain to move on from Brexit, and for the Labour movement to accept the reality of the disaster that is coming. Once people realize how Johnson’s Brexit has screwed them, they will turn to Labour – and Labour needs to be ready with a transformative, genuinely left wing agenda in order to recapture its heartland and do what is right for working people. Corbyn was right about Brexit, right about the policies Britain needs, and after he is gone he will still be right about what has to be done. Don’t repudiate those lessons, and in the process destroy the movement.


fn1: My apologies for pasting this as a picture directly copied from Stata, instead of making a nice pretty table – I hate it when people do this but it’s late and I hate making tables in html. Stata offers an option to copy as html but it doesn’t work. Sorry!

fn2: This final conclusion is shakey because it depends on my constituency data set, and I don’t know if it would still be true once all the remaining Labour-held seats are entered into the dataset. I think it will, but there’s a chance the final data set will end up the same level of leaviness as the 2017 constituencies, statistically speaking. But this conclusion is not a very important one anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it isn’t held up by the full dataset.

The UK General Election has just finished, with Labour losing badly to Boris Johnson’s Brexit-fetishizing Tories. The media are describing Labour’s loss as the worst since 1935, which is true if you look at seats lost but not at the vote – with 32.2% of the vote share it’s the best result for a losing Labour party since 1992, and although the swing against Labour was very large – 7.2% – this is partly because the previous share of the vote that Labour achieved, at 40%, was phenomenally high – Blair only beat 40% once, and many post-war Labour governments have ruled a majority with a much lower share of the vote than Corbyn achieved in 2017.

In the early post-election recriminations people are laying the fault entirely at the feet of Corbyn and the Labour manifesto, but I’m not convinced that a different leader or a less radical manifesto could have helped. The 2019 election was a historic election, similar to the 1945 election, with a huge decision about the future of the UK to be made and a major recent event hanging over the election. In the 1945 election the huge decision to be taken was the establishment of the modern welfare state, and the recent event was the war. In the 2019 election the decision is Brexit, and the EU referendum is the major event overshadowing the election.

This Brexit issue overshadowed the whole election, and in this blog post I will show that it had a huge impact on the Labour vote, which made this election almost impossible for the Labour party to lose. I will show this using a statistical analysis of 2019 election results.

Methods

I obtained 2017 election results and 2015 EU Referendum results from the UK Parliamentary Research Briefings website. I merged these data sets together using ONS ID (the unique number that identifies parliamentary constituencies) so that I had the percentage of each constituency that voted leave in 2016, and their 2017 election results, in one dataset. I then conducted a semi-random sample of the 2019 General Election results using the BBC Election results website. The sample was semi-random because there is no publicly available official dataset at this stage, so I had to enter them by hand looking at each constituency in turn on the BBC website[1]. I started by ordering my dataset by constituency name from A-Z and working sequentially through them on the assumption that I have limitless patience and 10 hours of my life to give to this, but gave up somewhere around “D” and took a random sample of another 100 or so constituencies. Because names are approximately random, this means I have 200 or so approximately random samples from the first stage, and another 100 or so genuinely random samples from the second stage. I may have had a hangover, but there are limits to how much time and effort I am willing to put into rescuing the UK Labour party from bad analysis!

I dropped Northern Ireland from my analysis because a) I don’t understand their political parties b) Sinn Fein’s decision not to enter parliament is weird and c) Northern Ireland should be part of Ireland, not the UK. I kept Scotland but excluded it from some of my figures (see specific figures for more details). I excluded the Speaker’s seat (which was Labour) from analyses of the Labour swing because there was no opponent so the swing was weird; I also excluded another Labour seat with a very high positive swing from these analyses, and dropped one Conservative seat (Buckingham) with the same problem.

Once I had done this I then calculated the swing against Labour, Lib Dems and Tories by subtracting their 2017 result from their 2019 result. I confirmed this works by comparing calculated Labour swing with actual Labour swing from the BBC website (which I entered as I went through my semi-random sampling). I obtained Brexit party vote shares from the BBC website, leaving this field blank if the Brexit party did not stand a candidate[2].

I then conducted several linear regressions of the swing:

  • A linear regression of conservative party swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Labour party swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Lib Dem swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Labour party swing as a function of Brexit party vote

For all regressions I tested a quadratic term in leave vote, and I included a term for whether the constituency was in Scotland or Wales. I included a term for whether or not the constituency experienced a Brexit party challenge in the first three regressions, and tested an interaction with leave vote. I dropped any non-significant terms in order of their non-significance to get the best model. I also centered the EU referendum vote at its median (53.5% of people voting to leave), so that the constant term in all linear regressions measured the swing against the party in question in the median leave-voting seat.

I then obtained predicted values from all regressions to include in the plots of the swing against the leave vote or the Brexit party vote. Brexit party vote is effectively being used here as a proxy for Labour voters’ decision to abandon Labour over Brexit. I did not model the relationship between swing against Labour and Brexit vote because I think this swing is the Brexit party’s fault, but because I expect it represents the likelihood that Labour voters abandoned Labour over Brexit. One might suppose they abandoned Labour for Tory over general policy, or because they respect BoJo, but the only reason for abandoning to the Brexit party is Brexit, and so this acts a proxy for the possibility that they also jumped ship to the Tory party over Brexit. Because the Brexit party only stood candidates in Labour-held constituencies it is impossible to test what might have happened if the Brexit party stood against a Tory incumbent.

Results

I had data on 341 constituencies, just over half of all eligible constituencies. Among these 341 constituencies 146 (43%) had a Brexit party challenger. Of the 142 seats that were Labour held in 2017, 112 (79%) survived to be Labour-held in 2019. None of the 199 non Labour-held seats in my dataset switched to Labour in 2019. The mean swing against Labour in seats it held was 8.7%, and the mean swing against it in seats it did not hold was 7.5%.

Let us consider the relationship between the swing against Labour and the Brexit vote in seats where it was challenged by this party. Figure 1 shows the swing against Labour in England plotted against the proportion of the vote that the Brexit party won, with the predicted trend in the swing from my final regression model. The final regression model explained 54% of the variation in the swing against Labour, included a quadratic term for the Brexit vote, and included significant terms for Scotland (a 3.5% larger swing against Labour) and Wales (a 2.2% smaller swing against Labour). The intercept term in this model was -3.8, which indicates that in the absence of a Brexit party challenge these seats would have seen a mean swing against Labour of about 3.8% (95% confidence interval 2.6% to 5.0%). In this counter-factual[3], most of these seats would not have changed hands if there was no Brexit party challenge.

Figure 1: Russian Ratfuckery, in its most exquisite form

It is very clear from Figure 1 that the Brexit party had a massive impact on the Labour vote, pulling it down by a huge amount in the seats where they ran a candidate. The Brexit party did not win a single seat in this election, but they cost Labour a lot of seats. Once again, Farage had a huge impact on British politics without ever sitting in parliament. In some of the northern seats the Brexit party got a huge share of the vote, and it is very likely that almost all of it came from Labour. In the seats with a middling Brexit vote, between perhaps 5 and 15% of the total vote, Labour lost between 10 and 20% of the vote share. I think this is a strong indicator that Labour was bleeding votes due to Brexit.

We can confirm this by examining the relationship between the swing against Labour and the proportion of the electorate who voted for leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Figure 2 shows the swing against Labour in England and Wales plotted against the leave vote, separately for constituencies with a Brexit party challenger (red) and those without a Brexit party challenger (blue). Most seats with a Brexit party challenger were Labour seats, while those without a challenger were mostly Tory. The blue and red lines show the predicted swing against Labour from my linear regression model, which explains 39% of the variation in the swing against Labour. This model had a term for Scotland (which had a 2.4% larger swing against Labour), a quadratic term for the leave vote, and an additional effect on the swing due to the leave vote in areas with a Brexit challenger. In the median 2016 EU referendum leave-voting constituency, the swing against Labour was 6.5%, and this was 2.1% higher in seats with a Brexit challenger.

Figure 2: Relationship between the swing against Labour and the leave vote

It is clear from Figure 2 that the swing against Labour was smaller in seats with a Brexit party challenger that voted to remain in the EU. In seats not held by Labour, the swing against Labour was larger in seats that were either strong leave-voting seats or strong remain seats. In these seats – the seats Labour had to win to win government – Labour was being squeezed in both strongly remain and strongly leave seats. In the seats Labour already held (mostly with a Brexit party challenger), or that it did not hold but faced a Brexit party challenger and a Lib Dem or SNP incumbent, the party faced intense pressure due to brexit. In seats it held that had a large leave vote Labour was completely smashed. These seats are mostly in the famed “red wall”, the northern seats that Labour has always been able to rely on. Note the largest positive swing to Labour occurred at about the median leave vote, between 45 and 55.

An interesting phenomenon in this election is the failure of the conservatives to gain a large swing from Labour. The national swing against Labour was 7.9%, but the conservatives only gained a 1.2% swing. The primary beneficiaries of that swing were the Lib Dems and the Brexit party. Of course, these national figures hide major variations within constituencies, which are easy to see if we look at the swing to the Tories at the constituency level. Figure 3 shows the swing to/against the conservatives in England, plotted against the leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum. Red points are points where there is a Brexit party challenger, and blue points are those without a Brexit party challenger (mostly Tory-held seats) At the median leave vote my model estimated a swing to the Tories of 1.3%, with a further swing to them of 1.4% in Wales. This model included a quadratic term in the leave vote, and explained 57% of the variance in the Tory swing.

Figure 3: Observed and predicted swing to the conservative party, by EU referendum leave vote

It is noteworthy that in the seats that voted to remain the Tories experienced a swing against them of as much as 10%, but in the strong leave-voting seats they experienced a huge swing to them. This swing was larger in seats without a Brexit party challenger, presumably because there was no Brexit party to absorb the leave sentiment, but even in pro-leave constituencies with a Brexit party challenger the Tories gained a very large swing. Note, however, that in some pro-leave seats there was a swing against the Tories where there was a Brexit party challenger. These were Labour seats that saw all their pro-leave vote go to the Brexit party. But in pro-leave seats with no Brexit party challenger – the seats that Labour needed to win to form government – there was a consistent large swing to the Tories. We again see here the value of Farage’s decision to stand candidates only in Labour seats.

Finally let us consider the role of the Liberal Democrats, the greatest frauds in modern politics, in destroying the UK. Figure 4 shows the swing to or against the Lib Dems in England, plotted against the 2016 EU referendum leave vote, with the predicted swing from my regression model. Again, red points are for seats with a Brexit party challenger (Labour- or Lib Dem-held seats) and blue points are for seats without a Brexit party challenger (mostly Tory-held seats). This model has no quadratic term for the leave vote: in non-Brexit party seats every percentage point increase in the leave vote was associated with a swing against Lib Dems of 0.2%, but in seats with a Brexit party challenger this swing was only 0.1%. At the median leave vote the Lib Dems experienced a swing towards them of 6.0%, reducing to 2.8% in seats without a Brexit party challenger. Scotland and Wales saw large reductions in this swing to the Lib Dems, of 5.3% in Scotland and 2.1% in Wales. Basically, the Lib Dems performed best in Labour seats in England that voted to remain in 2016. In these seats the swing against the Labour party was often almost entirely towards the Lib Dems. This model explained only 29% of the variance in the swing, probably because the Lib Dems win by very local-specific campaigns, not so strongly affected by national factors.

Figure 4: Look at these arseholes spoiling the Labour vote

Note that in some Tory-held remain seats (the blue dots to the left of the figure) the Lib Dems had huge swings to them, but in many seats they did not win. A good example of this is Cities of London and Westminster, which was Tory before this election and did not have a Brexit Party challenger. The Lib Dems fielded Chuka Umunna, a class traitor who abandoned Labour to join TIG, then jumped ship from them to join the Lib Dems, natural home of fickle and untrustworthy people. He won 30.7% of the vote, scoring a swing to the Lib Dems of 19.6%. This enabled the Tories to hold this seat with just 39.9% of the vote, against Labour’s 27.2%. Had he not stood, it is possible that a large proportion of that vote might have gone to Labour. In the seat he used to represent for Labour, Streatham, Labour held on despite a surge of 17.0% in the Lib Dem vote (this seat is not in my data set so you can’t find it in Figure 4). Cities of London and Westminster voted 28.1% leave in the EU referendum, making it one of the least leave-voting seats in the country; Streatham voted 20.5% leave, making it the second least Brexity in the country. Thanks to Chuka’s “efforts”, the citizens of both these seats will now have to leave the EU.

What it all means

These figures and the associated regression models should make very clear that Labour was screwed by Brexit. The Tories scored huge swings in pro-leave seats, which shored up their vote in seats that Labour had to win and forced Labour to defend seats it could normally rely on. Worse still, Farage’s decision to stand Brexit party candidates only in Labour seats meant that Labour lost large numbers of voters to this no-good Russian con-job, while also facing defection to the Tories. At the remain end the Lib Dems were stealing their votes, so they were bleeding votes at both ends of the leave spectrum. The only way they could have averted this problem would have been to go to the election with a full-throated Brexit strategy – a Lexit manifesto – which would have shored up the red wall and ensured they didn’t lose many of those seats. However, even if this had been successful in the North, it would have cost seats in the cities, where the Lib Dems would have stolen many seats. This is worse than useless, since we know from experience that if they have the choice the Lib Dems will betray the country to the Tories, and will never form a government with Labour.

I don’t think a Lexit strategy would even have been that successful. Just as when Labour goes full racist, the people they’re trying to win back just don’t believe it, and vote for the Tories anyway. Had Corbyn gone to the election with a full-throated Lexit manifesto a lot of the people he was trying to convince would have assumed he was lying, and he would have lost the northern voters anyway, at the cost of the cities and the youth vote. Jo Swinson truly could have become PM!

Given this squeeze I think Corbyn made a sensible decision to run on a big left-wing manifesto and try to make the election about something other than Brexit. This was especially important given the Labour position on Brexit was consistently misrepresented by the media. I saw multiple media figures on Twitter claiming Labour did not support free movement (they did; it was in the manifesto) and saying their position on Brexit was “too complicated” (it wasn’t: they were going to negotiate a good deal and put it to a referendum). Given this their best bet was to try and turn the debate to one on honesty, the NHS, poverty and inequality. I think this is wise messaging and important: the UK is heading into the abyss, and at some point the Labour party is going to have to save the UK from ruin, so why not make this point at a time when you can’t win the Brexit debate?

I think it’s also important to consider what would happen if the party had made a choice to go full Remain or full Lexit. In the former case they’re abandoning their northern seats, telling them that they don’t care about their concerns and won’t listen to their democratic voice. In the latter case they’re abandoning young people, who are much more likely to be Labour supporters, and telling them they will destroy their future. Given that the future is all that young people in the UK have, this is political suicide. The only way to square this circle is to present a policy that offers hope to both these core groups. Labour is the party of the urban poor, industrial labour and young people, but when these three constituencies have radically different demands on the overwhelming issue of the time it’s impossible for Labour to win.

If Labour failed in this election I think it was in failing to convince the electorate of the value of their Brexit policy. But given they weren’t able to express it without the media mangling it and misrepresenting it, and given how dishonest and vicious the campaign was, I don’t see how any other leader could have done better. Even if you credit the notion that Corbyn is hugely unpopular, and assume some part of the swing was hatred of this genuinely decent guy, it makes no difference: the figures I’ve shown here make clear that Labour were fucked no matter who their leader was and what their manifesto was. This was a Brexit election, and the Tories are obviously the party of Brexit.

Three years after he exploded the Brexit bomb, and 30 years after he face-fucked a dead pig so he could win Johnson’s approval, David Cameron has achieved what he originally intended: the destruction of the Labour party by unleashing a racist monster in the UK. History will not judge any of these awful men well.

Where to now for the Labour party?

I think the Labour party should keep Corbyn and keep his manifesto. They aren’t going to win with another Blairist monstrosity – Ed Milliband tried that in 2015 and was sunk by a viciously anti-semitic media campaign that portrayed him as a Jewish communist with dual loyalties[4] who can’t eat a bacon sandwich. By the time the next election comes around the world is going to be desperate, trapped in the throes of global warming and looking for new ways out. Why throw away what the country needs? This election Labour’s manifesto was the best and most inspiring left-wing project in the UK for 30 years, and it was right. Jeremy Corbyn is right – he won the arguments. He just couldn’t beat Brexit.

I have seen rumours that some on the Labour right were cheering when MPs lost their seats. I have seen in the media and on Twitter Corbyn’s old enemies in the Labour party gloating over the Tory victory, laughing at the Labour movement’s disappointment and salivating at their chance to retake control of the party. Perhaps they envisage another illegal war, where they can kill another million muslims? Or perhaps they look forward to palling around with rich non-doms, being “intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich”. Oh, the larks! These people are not part of the labour movement. They’re scabs, and their obvious joy at this defeat is disgusting. They need to leave the movement, and leave it to those British people who actually want to save the country from ruin. During this period of reflection, we should be clear: it was Brexit that defeated Labour at this election, and the direction it was headed under Corbyn is the only future for Britain other than ruin. So these scabs need to get out of the party and leave it for people who actually care about the future of the UK and the future of the world.

Once Brexit is past, and these class traitors are out of the labour movement, we can hold the Tories responsible for what they have done. We couldn’t beat Brexit, but we can hold its architects responsible for the great evil they have perpetrated on ordinary British people.


fn1: It’s okay, I had a hangover and nothing better to do on Saturday

fn2: Or “chump”, to use the preferred terminology for these sad-sacks

fn3: Which is bullshit

fn4: Oh the irony …

Today the riots in Hong Kong seem to be grinding down to their bitter end. This week the fascist street thugs killed a 70 year old street cleaner with a brick and set a man alight for arguing with them, and now they are trapped in university campuses and running out of food and options[1]. Hopefully the people who killed that old man will be brought to justice, and this remaining hard core of violent thugs who have spent the last few weeks running around Hong Kong beating up mainland Chinese people will be taken off the streets.

A disappointing part of this whole saga of racist street violence for me has been the way many in the international left have supported the racist thugs. This started with a complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the extradition law that started the whole movement, and some on the international left even supported the movement as it spiraled into street violence and calls for independence – or even a return to colonial rule. Now obviously, in some times and places, it is necessary (from a left wing perspective) to support radical action on the streets for some political goal, but obviously if you’re going to support such actions you need to be thinking: what is that goal, and what left wing vision will it achieve? In the case of this violent movement – after the racist street thugs splintered off the original antiElab movement and started the five demands – the question has to be: What is the ultimate left wing vision for an independent Hong Kong? These guys are throwing molotovs on the street in pursuit of separating from China, so if they were to do that, what would an independent Hong Kong look like? What leftist vision do we have for that?

Hong Kong has very little industry, no agricultural land, no natural resources, even its water is piped in from Mainland China. If it separated from China it would basically have two industries: land speculation and banking. Now those are completely viable industries, I’m sure, and there is certainly a place for an independent financial hub in Asia, but how could this city-state be a left wing vision? We already have a kind of model for that, Singapore, and although it is a nice place and has some very strong socialist principles going on (such as the huge public investment in housing and the central planning of much of the economic activity) it is also a libertarian dream. It is not a great vision for an independent Hong Kong, and it’s also not possible for Hong Kong to achieve: a large part of Singapore’s success is built on social harmony and a lot of that is built on some repressive free speech laws and the strong public investment in housing. Given that housing speculation is one of Hong Kong’s main industries, it’s unlikely that an independent Hong Kong will suddenly nationalise 80% of the housing stock. Furthermore, Hong Kong is basically run by four families, and any left wing version of an independent Hong Kong would very quickly have to run into conflict with those tycoons[2].

I can’t see a left wing vision for an independent Hong Kong, so I wonder – what do left wing people hope to achieve by supporting these rioters as they run around Hong Kong beating up Chinese girls with iron bars? What is the future of Hong Kong that the left would support, if it split off from mainland China under the pressure of these thugs and their firebombs? And if you cannot see a path to economic security and an egalitarian society, why would you support independence, even if independence were in and of itself right?

Which brings me to the second part of my disappointment with western leftists’ support for the independence rioters. The return of Hong Kong to mainland China is an essential part of the decolonization process. There can be no effective, genuine left wing ideology that does not support decolonization, and although there are legitimate reasons to argue against violent decolonization, a peaceful decolonization – as happened when Hong Kong was returned to China – is something that all leftists should support. The National Liberation struggle may have a bit of a ’70s whiff to it, and it may be a bit beardy and uncool, but it is still a fundamental plank of any real left wing vision for a fairer and more egalitarian world. That means that Hong Kong needs to be part of mainland China and ultimately so too does Taiwan. Supporting an independence movement in Hong Kong means reversing that decolonization process, and if you are going to support recolonization, or oppose decolonization, you need a very good reason. “A strong, independent, left wing state” isn’t enough, especially given that’s exactly what China is anyway; but given Hong Kong has no possible pathway to becoming a strong, independent left wing state (or any kind of left wing state), you’re simply betraying left wing principles by supporting it.

Now you might argue that freedom is more important than decolonization. This might be true under some circumstances, depending on the nature of the state you’re supporting separation from, but I don’t think it’s possible to argue that under the one country two systems ideal; and it certainly isn’t possible given the vanguard of this movement are fascist street thugs who want to return to colonial rule. There is no freedom under British colonial rule, and any movement that advocates for that – and waves the British colonial flag – while beating up people on the basis of the language they speak, is never going to be a movement for freedom and democracy.

This movement of racist thugs is a dead-end for the left. It’s not a movement for freedom, it’s opposed to the decolonization project that is essential to modern left wing ideals, and its only end point is a right wing tax hell hole squatting on the edge of China causing trouble. Left wing people should not support this movement, and as its last dead enders stumble bleary-eyed out of the universities they’re holed up in, we shouldn’t give them our support!


fn1: Their decision to occupy the university seems to me to be a sign of how little connection they have to the international left. University sit-ins only work if the government is at least slightly willing to play along with the game, if there is the possibility that they are going to make concessions, and the government is only likely to do that if they think the activists are honest and aren’t going to engage in an orgy of property violence. Anyone who has done a university sit-in (as I have, once) will know that they are extremely hard to do well, and when the police decide to finish them up the process is ugly. Looking at photos of these kids’ activities in the university cafeterias and common spaces, I don’t get the impression they are very well organized or familiar with how sit-ins work. I don’t think they have much connection to the international left if they haven’t been able to learn these things.

fn2: These tycoons are the real reason Hong Kong’s young people feel so hopeless, and they have done a very very good job of distracting Hong Kongers into thinking mainland China is the cause of their problems.

The rule of law …

On 1st April this year the first protest march against the Hong Kong extradition law was held in Wan Chai. Ten years ago on that same day, 1st April, the London Metropolitan police murdered Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, at the G20 protest in London. They killed him on film, in front of thousands of citizens, by pushing him onto his face from behind and beating him with a baton. They then refused to help him, denied that they had done it, and refused to accept any responsibility until the film of the event was released. The day after his death the police attacked peaceful protestors at a candelight vigil to remember him, also on film. They lied about his death for days and found a corrupt coroner to do an autopsy, in a scandalous miscarriage of justice that took a year to be undone. Finally, after a second autopsy and an inquiry the police officer who killed him, PC Harwood, was found not guilty of manslaughter, and eventually dismissed from the police force. He was never convicted of any crime, and neither were the police who assaulted mourners at the vigil for Tomlinson. For weeks after the event the police and their friends in media organizations like the Sun, Daily Mail and the Telegraph maintained that demonstrators had prevented ambulance officers from reaching Tomlinson, when in fact the police had refused to provide first aid and the only help Tomlinson received was from protestors.

At the G20 protest in London – which lasted for 4 days – the police used aggressive “kettling” procedures, police dogs and horse charges. A total of 180 protestors were injured. While PC Harwood and the police who assaulted the mourners were never convicted of any crime, one demonstrator was sentenced to two years in prison for throwing a chair through a bank window.

Today in Wan Chai the protests against the Hong Kong extradition law continue, as they have done almost continuously since the events began on 1st April. During this four months no one has been killed, although the police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray at the protestors. Police in London 10 years ago also used batons and pepper spray, along with horses and kettling tactics. What have the Hong Kong protestors done, and how does it compare with the G20 protest?

  • They sprayed the Chinese for “chink” (支那) on the walls of the Beijing Liaison office, knowing full well that in mainland China this is a vicious racial slur
  • They broke into the legislative building and trashed it
  • They have repeatedly torn down the Chinese flag and replaced it with the former Hong Kong colonial flag, a reminder of a time when China was humiliated by a foreign power
  • They graffitied the graves of important historical figures in Hong Kong history with racial slurs
  • They attacked mainland Chinese people and chanted “go back” at them
  • They occupied the airport and railway stations, disrupting major transport hubs and interfering with the business of ordinary Hong Kong people, and deliberately disrupting the business of mainland traders near the border
  • They forced mainlanders to hand over their phones to demonstrators to prove they weren’t filming them

How many of those things did the G20 protestors do? And how many of those things did you see reported in the western press? I’ll wager you saw none of it, but if you read today’s feed on the Guardian about the demonstrations you will see all manner of cute little tidbits about all the peaceful and happy things the demonstrators are doing, told with a breathless tone as if it’s just a day out in the park and the first time the reporters have ever seen a demonstration. Breathless reports about how the demonstrators are cheered by passing citizens and told to “add oil”, reports of them using cute codewords to alert teams to raise umbrellas, pictures of decorated barriers, uncritical reporting of rival demonstrators as “triads”, reports from the airport of protest banners saying they can handle tear gas, talking about flash mob tactics with an approving tone and cute exclamation marks … it could almost be a picnic!

You didn’t see any of that style of reporting back in the G20 protests in London. There was no breathless tone of approval, no reports on the cute things that everyone does at demonstrations to defuse tension, pass the time or relieve boredom. Western reports did not describe protest tactics with approval at how smart and organized they were, or talk about which passersby approved (they only reported disapproval). When protesters at the G20 wore masks to hide themselves from police cameras or pepper spray they were described as thugs or maligned as “black bloc”, not seen as innocent young people taking necessary measures to defend themselves from police violence. In the Hong Kong riots police attack protesters; in the G20 London protest “violence broke out”, the passive voice used to ensure the police did not take the blame. There were no lasers used by demonstrators at the London protest, but rioters in Hong Kong have fired lasers at police “to obscure their identity”, and the media have not reported this as if it might carry some risk of blindness for police. For weeks they have reported about demonstrators helping old men across the road, about their kindness to strangers, about the organized way they care for their town and each other. There was even some ridiculous footage of them cleaning up their rubbish. You didn’t see any of that at the G20 London Protest, even though it all happened (these things always happen at protests).

The underlying demands of the protest are also reported differently. The G20 protestors’ concrete demands for change – for a fairer distribution of the wealth that global elites have been stealing from ordinary people, for greater equity, for environmental action and action on global warming – were ignored, and the whole movement made out to be a seething mass of discontented socialists. In the Hong Kong riot the protests are always reported as being about the extradition law, even though their actions – the “Hong Kongers!” chants, the “go back” chants, the racial slurs, the equivalent of Pride Boys moving in the mass[1], the tearing down of the Chinese flag, the calls for independence – make it clear that a large part of this movement is not about that at all, but a demand for independence from China. They also completely misrepresent the law itself, presenting it as a law to extradite people to China when it is not that at all, and conflate it with things completely unconnected to the law (like the bookseller issue). There is also a constant breathless expectation that the police will turn more violent or the army will be sent in, even after four months of restraint and patience on behalf of the Hong Kong government that would never have been seen in the UK.

If the G20 protests had lasted 4 months, shutting down Heathrow Airport and the Tube and involving vicious attacks on European bank workers on the streets week in and week out, would the Metropolitan police have been so restrained? Considering that they murdered an unconnected civilian on the first day, and covered it up? No, I don’t think they would have. And rather than having the main media organizations wondering daily whether the police would escalate, by the time a month had passed outlets like the Times and the Daily Mail would be begging them to. Western media coverage of the G20 protest in London was shameful, and their pathetic acquiescence to the lies the police told about the murder of Ian Tomlinson was a deep stain on their profession. Now we have to watch them uncritically refusing to report anything bad about the Hong Kong demonstrations, and reporting them as if they were a fun family picnic for the simple reason that their government doesn’t like the Chinese government – and for reasons of good old fashioned racism, of course. Today, for example, the Hong Kong chief of AFP tweeted a claim that the Opium War was good for China, and doubled down on it when challenged. These people are responsible for reporting to you about what is happening in Hong Kong, and they don’t care about any truth or any balance at all.

Underneath all of this unrest in Hong Kong is another tragedy. The extradition law was brought to parliament after a 20 year stay because a Hong Kong national murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and fled the country, and because there is no extradition treaty with Taiwan he cannot be sent back to face justice. The story of that murdered girl and her family’s need for justice has been buried in the hyperbole about freedom and the rule of law, just as 10 years ago the truth of Ian Tomlinson’s murder was buried by a complicit, lickspittle press under an avalanche of lies and obfuscations. It is looking likely that the murderer of that Taiwanese woman will get away with his crime, just as PC Harwood suffered no legal consequences for murdering Ian Tomlinson. And in both cases the press will look the other way, forget the ordinary people that mattered, and offer up lies and calumny in the service of the national interest. They shamed themselves then and they shame themselves now.


fn1: It’s pretty well established that the 2014 umbrella movement had a nasty racist component, probably led by a movement called Civic Passion that is also present in the current demonstrations, and seems to be a little bit like a Pride Boys movement for Hong Kongers.

As sure as night follows day there has been another mass shooting in America, this time at a Walmart, where 20 people have been killed by a 21 year old white man who published a manifesto on 4chan. He turns out – shock – to have been a white supremacist who is concerned about Mexicans taking over Texas, and particularly worried about the possibility that it will flip Democratic (because Hispanics vote Democratic) and usher in an era of permanent Democrat rule (which is apparently a bad thing). You can find his manifesto here if you are up for reading this sort of stuff, and you can tell where he stands pretty quickly from his two opening sentences:

In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.

This dude is not happy about Hispanics taking over his country, and he has a plan. He says he has read The Great Replacement, a theory espoused by the dude who wrote The Camp of the Saints (Steve Bannon’s favourite book) and he thinks he needs to take action to protect his nation from being overrun by foreigners. Most of his manifesto is classic white supremacist nutjob stuff, though remarkably lucid for the genre and (by Fascist standards) relatively well argued. On Twitter, however, he is getting some traction amongst concerned leftists because he ascribes some environmental reasons for his actions, and some people are hailing him as the first eco-fascist shooter. For example, William Black writes:

This suggests that he has an environmental motive for his attack, and needs to kill foreigners to make sure that only Americans can enjoy the fruits of America’s fragile environment.  In response, someone else suggests that hyping the threat of global warming may have been a mistake:

If the right is turning to eco-fascism then it will put a new slant on all their activities and give them a new wedge to use against opponents of fascism; it also signals that they may have seriously upped their game, since until now ineffectual bullshit flailing against the “Chinese hoax” of global warming has been their thing. But how true is it that this guy is an eco-fascist? And was he really worried about global warming? His manifesto is 2,359 words long, and this is his entire comment on environmental issues:

The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle Is destroying the environment of our country. The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources. This has been a problem for decades. For example, this phenomenon is brilliantly portrayed in the decades-old classic “The Lorax.” Water sheds around the country, especially in agricultural areas, are being depleted. Fresh water Is being polluted from farming and oil drilling operations. Consumer culture is creating thousands of tons of unnecessary plastic waste and electronic waste, and recycling to help slow this down is almost non-existent. Urban sprawl creates inefficient cities which unnecessarily destroys millions of acres of land. We even use god knows how many trees worth of paper towels just wipe water off our hands. Everything I have seen and heard in my short life has led me to believe that the average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle, even if the changes only cause a slight inconvenience. The government is unwilling to tackle these issues beyond empty promises since they are owned by corporations. Corporations that also like immigration because more people means a bigger market for their products. I just want to say that I love the people of this country, but god damn most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.

It’s 270 words, or just over 10% of his manifesto. He commits almost that much verbiage to describing the weapon he’s going to use. This isn’t exactly Unabomber-level commitment to the cause is it? In his ecological dissertation he does not mention global warming or climate change, but only overuse of resources, with a reference to The Lorax (which I don’t think has any words to say about global warming). His screed is essentially Malthusian, not environmentalist, and his position is relatively clear: since political change to reduce waste and overconsumption is hard, we need to cull the herd. This isn’t a new position in right-wing thought, although obviously attaching it to an AK-47 is an unpleasant rhetorical escalation. In the 1990s Australia had a right-wing anti-immigration party, Australians Against Further Immigration, who worked from this exact position, and it’s been a fixture of European fascism forever. But it’s not the centerpiece or even a major part of his manifesto: It’s bolted on the end of his piece, as an addendum to his main concern, which is the Great Replacement. He devotes about as much space to complaining about the role of corporations in undermining American workers through immigration – this is a theme all through the first two pages of his writing, covering the issue of automation and Universal Basic Income and how the presence of low-paid foreign workers will mess up the society-wide response to automation that he sees as necessary – and much of what he writes has a lot more to do with the National Conservatism[1] of Hurley and Carlson than it does to do with any kind of eco-fascism.

It’s also impossible to imagine that an American conservative at this time would break so much with conservative orthodoxy as to endorse global warming as real. That would basically alienate you from your entire political cohort, and would be a poison pill for all your political relationships. Now that his social media are shut down it is impossible to glean his opinions about this, but it should be clear from recent American political movements that it is almost impossible to be an American conservative and accept the reality of global warming, let alone take it seriously enough to kill people over.

This man is not an eco-fascist, but that does not mean that eco-fascism won’t come to America in time. As the climate crisis deepens we can expect all high-income nations to experience increasingly difficult environmental problems, and since the USA is particularly vulnerable to global warming we can expect to see it hit harder and earlier than say Europe. You can be sure that when it becomes impossible to avoid acknowledging the problem the American right will find a way to blame all the years of inaction on the left and/or Jews, and will react with its customary lack of humanity or sense to deal with the challenges global warming creates. But before that you can expect a long period of denialism and increasingly brutal treatment of refugees, foreigners, and ultimately poor and black people within US borders as resource crises strike (probably starting with water). I have previously reviewed the foundational text of modern American fascism, the Turner Diaries, and noted the extreme nihilism and violence of their vision, and in that book it is very clear what the American right’s response to resource pressures will be. On the one hand it is clear that they are willing to burn the entire world down rather than compromise their racial purity, and their solution to extreme privation is to force white people to compete in a brutal and murderous competition to gain access to the limited resources available. So we can expect the American right to further exclude refugees and migrants, to become more vicious in their treatment of “non-productive” minorities within America, and to enhance these cruelties while continuing to burn the fossil fuels that are causing the problem; and when they finally accept that it is too late, we can expect them to pit poor whites against each other to determine who gets to survive in the burning times.  I doubt we will see anything as enlightened as a violent fascist overthrow of corporate polluters in order to preserve the environment for the white race. If you doubt me about that, read the Turner Diaries and ask yourself what the movement’s leaders would do, given they all consider that to be the ur-text for their movement.

We have a long wait yet before eco-fascism comes to America, if it ever does, but in the meantime we have a very real and very dangerous fascist movement taking over the country. Don’t look to some weird eco-fascist fringe for the threat to the future of America and the world: look to the Republican party, which is producing all the intellectual and rhetorical support for these terrorists, and looking the other way while the country burns. And don’t get distracted: their only real interest at this time is race, and they have their eyes on the prize even if you don’t. So stay focused, and do everything you can to beat these people back before they burn down your country and our world.


fn1: Good choice of name there boys, you’ll go far.

Could you lie to this nice lady?

On 18th May 2019 Australia held a federal election, and the ruling Liberal/National Party (LNP) Coalition scored a victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) that was billed by most observers as an “upset” because opinion polls had in general been predicting a narrow ALP victory. The opinion polls predicted that the ALP would get a two-party preferred vote of 51.5% over 48.5% for the LNP, and would cruise to victory on the back of this; in fact, with 76% of the vote counted the Coalition is on 50.9% two party preferred, and the ALP on 49.1%. So it certainly seems like the opinion polls got it wrong. But did they, and why?

Did opinion polls get it wrong?

The best site for detailed data on opinion polls is the Poll Bludger, whose list of polls (scroll to the bottom) shows a persistent estimate of 51-52% two-party preferred vote in favour of the ALP. But there is a slightly more complicated story here, which needs to be considered before we go to far in saying they got it wrong. First of all you’ll note that the party-specific estimates put the ALP at between 33% and 37% primary vote, with the Greens running between 9% and 14%, while the Coalition is consistently listed as between 36% and 39%. Estimates for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party put her between 4% and 9%. This is important for two reasons: the way that opinion pollers estimate the two party preferred vote, and the margin of error of each poll.

The first thing to note is that the final estimates of the different primary votes weren’t so wildly off. Wikipedia has the current vote tally at 41% to the Coalition, 34% to ALP and 10% to Greens. The LNP vote is higher than any poll put it at, but the other three parties’ tallies are well within the range of predicted values. The big outlier is One Nation, which polled at 3%, well below predictions – and far enough below to think that the extra 2% primary vote to the Coalition could reflect this underperformance. This has big implications for the two party preferred vote estimates from the opinion poll companies, because the two-party preferred vote is not a thing that is sampled – it is inferred from past preference distributions, from simple questions about where respondents will put their second choice, or from additional questions in the poll. So uncertainty in primary votes of the minor parties will flow through to larger uncertainty in two-party preferred vote tallies, since these votes have to flow on. By way of example, a 1% difference in the primary vote estimate for the Greens (e.g. 9% vs. 10%) will manifest as a difference of 10% in the total number of two-party preferred votes flowing to the major parties. If the assumed proportion of those votes that go to the Liberals is wrong, then you can expect to see this multiplied through in the final two-party preferred vote. In the case of One Nation, some polls (e.g. Essential Research) consistently gave them 6-7% of the primary vote, when they actually got 3%. So that’s a 50% miscalculation in the number of preference votes that flow to someone from this party. This is a unique problem for opinion polling in a nation like Australia and it raises the question: Have opinion poll companies learnt to deal with preferencing in the era of minor parties?

The second thing to note is the margin of error of these polls. Margin of error is used to show what the range of possible “true” values for the polled proportion might be. For example, if a poll estimates 40% of people will vote Liberal with a 2% margin of error that means that the “real” proportion of people who will vote Liberal is between 38% and 42%. For a binary question, the method for calculating the margin of error can be found here, but polls in Australian politics are no longer a binary question: we need to know the margin of error for four proportions, and this margin of error grows as a proportion of the estimate when the estimate is smaller. For example the most recent Ipsos poll lists its margin of error as 2.3%, but this suggests that the estimated primary vote for the Coalition (39%) should actually lie between 36.7% and 41.3%. This means that the estimated primary vote for the ALP should have a slightly wider margin of error (since it’s smaller) and the Greens even more so. Given this, it’s safe to say that the observed primary vote totals currently recorded lie exactly within the margins of error for the Ipsos poll. This poll did not get any estimates wrong! But it is being reported as wrong.

The reason the poll is reported as wrong is the combination of these two problems: the margin of error on the primary votes of all these parties should magnify the margin of error on the two-party preferred vote so that in the end it is larger than 2.3%, so we should be saying that the two-party preferred vote for the Coalition that is inferred from this poll is probably wider than the range 47 – 51%. That’s easily wide enough for the Coalition to win the election. But newspapers never report the margin of error or its implications.

When you look at the actual data from the polls, take into account the margin of error and consider the uncertainty in preferences, the polls did not get it wrong at all – the media did in their reporting of the polls. But we can ask a second question about these polls: can opinion polls have any meaning in a close race?

What do opinion polls mean in a close race?

In most elections in Australia most seats don’t come into play, and only a couple of swing seats change, because most are safe. This election has definitely followed this pattern, with 7 seats changing hands and 5 in doubt – only 12 seats mattered in this election. Amongst those 12 seats it appears (based on the current snapshot of data) that the Coalition gained 8 and lost 4, for a net gain of 4. Of those 12 seats 9 were held by non-Coalition parties before the election, and 3 by the Coalition. Under a purely random outcome – that is, if there was nothing determining whether these seats changed hands and it was purely random, the equivalent of a coin toss – then the chance of this outcome is not particularly low. Indeed, even if the ALP had a 60% chance of retaining their own seats and a 40% chance of winning Coalition seats, it’s still fairly likely that you would observe an outcome like this. A lot of these seats were on razor thin margins, so that literally they could be vulnerable to upset if there was something like bad weather or a few grumpy people or a change in the proportion of donkey votes.

I don’t think polls conducted at the national level can be expected to tell us much about the results of a series of coin tosses. If those 12 seats were mostly determined by chance, not by any structural drivers of change, how is a poll that predicts a 51% two-party preferred vote, with 2% margin of error, going to determine that they’re going to flip? It simply can’t, because you can’t predict random variation with a structural model. Basically, the outcome of this election was well within the boundaries one would expect based purely on the non-systematic random error at the population level.

When a party is heading for a drubbing you can expect the polls to pick it up, but when a minor change to the status quo is going to happen due to either luck or unobserved local factors, you can’t expect polls to offer a better prediction than coin flips.

The importance of minor parties to the result

One thing I did notice in the coverage of this election was that there were a lot of seats where the Coalition was garnering the biggest primary vote but then the ALP and the Greens’ primary vote combined was almost as large or a little larger, followed by two fairly chunky independent parties. I think in a lot of elections this means that Greens and independents’ preferences were crucial to the outcome. As the Greens’ vote grows I expect it encompasses more and more disaffected Liberal and National voters, and not just ALP voters with a concern about the environment. For example in Parkes, NSW the National Party and the ALP experienced major swings against them, but the National candidate won with a two-party preferred vote swing towards him. This suggests that preferences from minor parties were super important. This may not seem important at the national level but at the local level it can be crucial. In Herbert, which the Coalition gained, two minor parties got over 10% of the vote. In Bass the combined ALP/Green primary vote is bigger than the Coalition’s, but the Liberal member is ahead on preferences, which suggests that the Greens are not giving strong preference flows to the ALP. This variation in flows is highly seat-specific and extremely hard to model or predict – and I don’t think that the opinion polling companies have any way of handling this.

Sample and selection bias in modern polling

It can be noted from the Pollbludger list of surveys that they consistently overestimated the ALP’s two-party preferred vote, which shouldn’t happen if they were just randomly getting it wrong – there appears to be some form of systematic bias in the survey results. Surveys like opinion polls are prone to two big sources of bias: sampling bias and selection bias. Sampling bias happens when the companies random phone dialing produces a sample that is demographically incorrect, for example by sampling too many baby boomers or too many men. It is often said that sampling companies only call landlines, which should lead to an over-representation of old people so that the sample is 50% elderly people even though the population is only 20% elderly. This problem can be fixed by weighting, in which the proportions are calculated with a weight to reflect the relative rarity of young people. This method increases the margin of error but should handle the sample bias problem. However, there is a deeper problem that weighting cannot fix, which is selection bias. Selection bias occurs when your sample is not representative of the population, even if demographically they appear to be. It doesn’t matter if 10% of your sample are aged 15-24, and 10% of the population is aged 15-24, if the 15-24 year olds you sampled are fundamentally different to the 15-24 year olds in the population. Some people will tell you weighting fixes these kinds of problems but it doesn’t: there is no statistical solution to sampling the wrong people.

I often hear that this problem arises because polling companies only call landlines, and people with landlines are weirdos, but I checked and this isn’t the case: Ipsos for example samples mobile phones and 40-50% of its sample is drawn from mobile phones. This sample is still heavily biased though, because people who answer their phones to strangers are a bit weird, and people who agree to do surveys are even weirder. The most likely respondent to a phone survey is someone who is very bored and very politically engaged; and as time goes by, I think the people who answer polls are getting weirder and weirder. If your sample is a mixture of politically super-engaged young people and the bored elderly, then you are likely to get a heavy selection bias. One possible consequence of this could be a pro-ALP bias in the results: the young people who answer their mobile are super politically engaged, which in that age group means pro-ALP or pro-Green, and their responses are being given a high weight because young people are under sampled. It’s also possible that the weighting has been applied incorrectly, though that seems unlikely to be a problem across the entire range of polling companies.

I don’t think this is the main problem for these polls. There is a 2% over-estimate of the ALP two-party preferred vote but this could easily arise from misapplication of preferences. The slight under-estimate of the LNP primary vote could come from inaccuracies in the National Party estimate, for example from people saying they’re going to vote One Nation on the phone, but reverting to National or Liberal in the Booth. Although there could be a selection bias in the sampling process, I don’t think this selection bias has been historically pro-ALP. I think the problem in this election has been that the fragmentation of the major party votes on both the left (to Green/Indies) and on the right (to One Nation, UAP, Hinch and others) has made small errors in sampling and small errors in assignment of preferences snowball into larger errors in the two-party preferred estimate. In any case, this was a close election and it’s hard for polls to be right when the election comes down to toss-ups in a few local electorates.

What does this mean for political feedback processes in democracies?

Although I think the problem is exaggerated in this election, I do think this is going to be a bigger problem in future as the major parties continue to lose support to minor parties. One Nation may come and go but the Greens have been on a 10% national vote share for a decade now and aren’t going anywhere, and as they start to get closer to more lower house seats their influence on election surprises will likely grow – and not necessarily in the ALP’s favour. This means that the major parties are not going to be able to rely on opinion polls as a source of feedback from the electorate about the raw political consequences of their actions and that, I think, is a big problem for the way our democracy works.

Outside of their membership – and in the case of the ALP, the unions – political parties have no particular mechanism for receiving feedback from the general public except elections. Over the last 20 years opinion polls have formed one major component of the way in which political leaders learn about the reception their policies have in the general community. Sure, they can ask their membership for an opinion, and they’ll get feedback through other segments of the community (such as the environmental movement for the Greens, or the unions for the ALP), but in the absence of opinion polls they won’t learn much about how the politically disengaged think of their policies. But in Australia under compulsory voting the politically disengaged still vote, and they still get angry about politicians, and they still have political ideals. If this broader community withdraws completely so that their opinion can no longer be gauged – or worse still, politicians learn to believe that the opinions of those who are polled are representative of community sentiment in general – then politicians will instead learn about the reception their policies receive only through the biased filter of stakeholders, the media, and their own party organisms. I don’t see any of the major parties working to make themselves more accessible to community feedback and more amenable to public discussion and engagement, and I don’t think they will be able to find a way to do that even if they tried. Over the past 20 years instead politicians have gauged the popularity of their platform from polls, and used it to modify and often to moderate their policies in between elections. Everyone hates the political leader who simply shapes their policies to match the polls, but everyone hates a politician who ignores public opinion just as much. We do expect our politicians to pay attention to what we think in between elections, and to take it into account when making policy. If it becomes impossible for them to do this, then an important mode of communication between those who make the laws and those who don’t will be broken or worse still become deceptive.

It does not seem that this problem is going to go away or get better. This means that the major political parties are going to have to start finding new mechanisms to receive feedback from the general public – and we the public are going to have to find new ways to get through to them. Until then, expect more and nastier surprises in the future, and more weird political contortions as the major parties realize they haven’t just lost control of the narrative – they aren’t even sure what the narrative is. And since we the public learn what the rest of the public think from opinion polls as well, we too will lose our sense of what our own country wants, leaving us dependent on our crazy Aunt’s Facebook posts as our only vox populi.

As people retreat from engagement with pollsters, the era of the opinion poll will begin to close. We need to build a new form of participatory democracy to replace it. But, and how? And until we do, how confused will we become in the democracy we have? The strange dynamics of modern information systems are wreaking havoc in our democratic systems, and it is becoming increasingly urgent that we understand how, and what we can do to secure our democracies in this strange new world of fragmented information.

But as Scott Morrison stands up in the hottest, driest era in the history of the continent and talks about building more coal mines on the back of his mandate, I don’t hold out much hope that there will be any change.