This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Politics academics all ignorant lefties

"I’m sceptical about much election forecasting...but I confidently acquit my colleagues of the charge of being groupthinking lefties." had some fun this week with the results of a poll of politics academics, carried out back in 2006, which showed the vast majority both wanted and expected a Labour victory after the general election. A full 54% of politics academics wanted a Labour victory, compared to just 15% who wanted a Conservative win. Ditto their predictions for what the Commons would look like after the election: 53% expected a Labour victory, just 18% thought a Conservative victory was likely. And an overwhelming 80% thought Gordon Brown was the best chancellor of the post-war era. Given both this overwhelming Labour bias, and what currently look like very inaccurate predictions, why should we believe the academic election forecasts reported here a few days ago?

The problem is that we’re not comparing like with like. Politics, as a discipline, is extremely broad, a point we make repeatedly to students wanting to study it at university. At Nottingham, for example, our third year students can take modules from a list of about 30, covering everything from intervention in Africa to war and massacre, from the politics of science fiction to Middle Eastern politics, and from political utopianism to Russian security policy, as well as modules looking at parliamentary politics or the politics of public opinion.

The much-ridiculed survey was of members of the Political Studies Association, a group which represents that broad church. The result is that when the PSA does surveys of its members on things like this it often gets silly results, which is why I wish they wouldn’t, and have argued before – in an article that didn’t win me any friends – that they make us all look pretty stupid.

But the recent political forecasts didn’t come from all politics academics; they came from a very specialised group of election experts. Plenty of these aren’t in the PSA anyway (many of those presenting papers at the Manchester conference are not even UK academics). So, in short, those who did the forecasting are not all PSA members, and not all PSA members are election experts. I wouldn’t necessarily trust this lot’s views on political philosophy (nor they mine), but I do trust their knowledge when it comes to elections.

As for political bias, well, there’s no doubt that academics are on the whole left-of-centre. I was once told that academics used to be much more representative of the rest of the population, until the public sector/private sector voting cleavage became so prominent in the 1980s, although I’ve seen no evidence of that. For what it’s worth, I suspect – although again with no evidence – that the elections experts are not as left-of-centre as academia in general. But more importantly, where’s the evidence that any bias, if it exists, has impacted on the various voting forecasts? Anyone who studies the papers presented at the recent conference – or any similar work – will see that these are pretty hard headed models, into which the data go, and out of which the results flow. It’s really not clear where the bias is supposed to be.

As the original post pointed out, I’m sceptical about much election forecasting (as is my colleague Cees van der Eijk, who wrote an excellent short article for the British Journal of Politics and International Relations setting out his doubts), but I confidently acquit my colleagues of the charge of being groupthinking lefties.

They might well still be wrong, but if they are, we will be able to judge their models against the result, and say why. And it won’t be because of any bias.

Professor Philip Cowley

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