The seven deadly sins of statistical misinterpretation, and how to avoid them

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Where are the error bars?

Winnifred Louis, The University of Queensland and Cassandra Chapman, The University of Queensland

Statistics is a useful tool for understanding the patterns in the world around us. But our intuition often lets us down when it comes to interpreting those patterns. In this series we look at some of the common mistakes we make and how to avoid them when thinking about statistics, probability and risk. The Conversation

1. Assuming small differences are meaningful

Many of the daily fluctuations in the stock market represent chance rather than anything meaningful. Differences in polls when one party is ahead by a point or two are often just statistical noise.

You can avoid drawing faulty conclusions about the causes of such fluctuations by demanding to see the “margin of error” relating to the numbers.

If the difference is smaller than the margin of error, there is likely no meaningful difference, and the variation is probably just down to random fluctuations.

Error bars illustrate the degree of uncertainty in a score. When such margins of error overlap, the difference is likely to be due to statistical noise.

2. Equating statistical significance with real-world significance

We often hear generalisations about how two groups differ in some way, such as that women are more nurturing while men are physically stronger.

These differences often draw on stereotypes and folk wisdom but often ignore the similarities in people between the two groups, and the variation in people within the groups.

If you pick two men at random, there is likely to be quite a lot of difference in their physical strength. And if you pick one man and one woman, they may end up being very similar in terms of nurturing, or the man may be more nurturing than the woman.

You can avoid this error by asking for the “effect size” of the differences between groups. This is a measure of how much the average of one group differs from the average of another.

If the effect size is small, then the two groups are very similar. Even if the effect size is large, the two groups will still likely have a great deal of variation within them, so not all members of one group will be different from all members of another group.

3. Neglecting to look at extremes

The flipside of effect size is relevant when the thing that you’re focusing on follows a “normal distribution” (sometimes called a “bell curve”). This is where most people are near the average score and only a tiny group is well above or well below average.

When that happens, a small change in performance for the group produces a difference that means nothing for the average person (see point 2) but that changes the character of the extremes more radically.

Avoid this error by reflecting on whether you’re dealing with extremes or not. When you’re dealing with average people, small group differences often don’t matter. When you care a lot about the extremes, small group differences can matter heaps.

When two populations follow a normal distribution, the differences between them will be more apparent at the extremes than in the averages.

4. Trusting coincidence

Did you know there’s a correlation between the number of people who drowned each year in the United States by falling into a swimming pool and number of films Nicholas Cage appeared in?

But is there a causal link?

If you look hard enough you can find interesting patterns and correlations that are merely due to coincidence.

Just because two things happen to change at the same time, or in similar patterns, does not mean they are related.

Avoid this error by asking how reliable the observed association is. Is it a one-off, or has it happened multiple times? Can future associations be predicted? If you have seen it only once, then it is likely to be due to random chance.

5. Getting causation backwards

When two things are correlated – say, unemployment and mental health issues – it might be tempting to see an “obvious” causal path – say that mental health problems lead to unemployment.

But sometimes the causal path goes in the other direction, such as unemployment causing mental health issues.

You can avoid this error by remembering to think about reverse causality when you see an association. Could the influence go in the other direction? Or could it go both ways, creating a feedback loop?

6. Forgetting to consider outside causes

People often fail to evaluate possible “third factors”, or outside causes, that may create an association between two things because both are actually outcomes of the third factor.

For example, there might be an association between eating at restaurants and better cardiovascular health. That might lead you to believe there is a causal connection between the two.

However, it might turn out that those who can afford to eat at restaurants regularly are in a high socioeconomic bracket, and can also afford better health care, and it’s the health care that affords better cardiovascular health.

You can avoid this error by remembering to think about third factors when you see a correlation. If you’re following up on one thing as a possible cause, ask yourself what, in turn, causes that thing? Could that third factor cause both observed outcomes?

7. Deceptive graphs

A lot of mischief occurs in the scaling and labelling of the vertical axis on graphs. The labels should show the full meaningful range of whatever you’re looking at.

But sometimes the graph maker chooses a narrower range to make a small difference or association look more impactful. On a scale from 0 to 100, two columns might look the same height. But if you graph the same data only showing from 52.5 to 56.5, they might look drastically different.

You can avoid this error by taking care to note graph’s labels along the axes. Be especially sceptical of unlabelled graphs.

Graphs can tell a story – making differences look bigger or smaller depending on scale.

Winnifred Louis, Associate Professor, Social Psychology, The University of Queensland and Cassandra Chapman, PhD Candidate in Social Psychology, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

6 Reasons Why Nicola Is Wrong

This is a guest post by Reed Fleming.

Following the announcement by Justin Lester of sensible policy to tackle the housing crisis in Wellington, and to make swimming free for under 5s, mayoral hopeful Nicola Young attempted to join the contest of ideas this week, but perhaps shouldn’t have bothered.

In a Facebook essay, Young bemoaned the impact of street beggars on Wellington’s ‘look’, in a disappointing dogwhistle to the right. Here’s 6 reasons why she should’ve held fire on writing it:

1) It won’t work

It shouldn’t need saying that bans like this don’t work. Just like liquor ban zones drive drinkers to the Botanical Gardens, a ban on begging in the CBD would send beggars to Brooklyn shops, J’Ville shops, Island Bay shops, Kilbirnie shops. Will Nicola ban them there too? Will she call police to enforce the ban? What about when she’s not looking? While she’s making sure that anyone employed by Council to enforce the ban won’t be on a living wage, because she hates that too, what would the cost of enforcement be?

And where would Nicola draw the line between street performer and beggar? In the unlikely event Nicola won and brought the ban into effect, what’s to stop beggars from becoming legal street performers by beating on an upturned bucket? Case in point: weird gorilla costume guy. Beggar or sidewalk Beyonce? Who decides?


2) It doesn’t solve the problem

“Hard on beggars, hard on the causes of beggars”, except, Young has no plan to be hard on the causes of beggars. Out of sight, out of mind isn’t a solution. It’s just a dogwhistle to her well-off base and donors who’d rather not be pestered by the urban peasants. As Lambton Candidate Rev Brian Dawson and Local MP Grant Robertson pointed out, (both of whom get an earful from CBD constituents on the issue) a compassionate approach which invests in social services and housing will solve the problem, not criminalising being poor.


3) It won’t win votes

Of course, like any candidate in an election, Young made the announcement to win votes, –specifically right wing votes. Young is a former National Party candidate, and she’s in an ugly battle with at least one other candidate from the right: Bill English’s sister-in-law Jo Coughlan. It’s an STV election so preferences are all important. Every round a candidate needs enough votes to stay in as others get eliminated. Young needs right wing votes in order to scoop up Couglan’s preferences and make into the final rounds of voting.

Except, once Young’s picked up all the conservative poor-hating votes, she faces the uphill battle of meeting a Labour candidate in the final round. Justin Lester can expect to pick up many rusted-on Labour voters that continue to elect Labour MPs at the central government level with and where Labour candidates have substantial margins in three of the five wards.

Party vote stats from 2014 reveals that Rongotai and Wellington Central, electorates which make up 2/3rds of the WCC area, are among the top 10 seats in the country for combined Labour and Green party vote. Over 58% of the Rongotai electorate voted Labour or Green, and similar is true in Wellington Central. Appealing to the far right isn’t a winning strategy, because 42% of the vote does not a Mayor make.

Either Young knows this and she’s actually throwing the mayoral election in order to raise her profile for the local ward, as some speculated in 2013, or: she’s got a losing strategy. Time will tell.

4) It’s a bad strategy against Lester

Following on from why it won’t win right wing votes, it’s also not a good strategy to take votes from Lester. Lester, who potentially has to beat Celia to his left, and Young (and maybe Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett) to his right, is positioning himself as a centre-left nice guy. He’s communicating his business cred, and presenting market solutions to fix the housing problem. Not only has he got many of the cities mostly-left voters in the bag, he’ll be hoovering up moderate voters who’d typically think twice about giving their first preference to a Labour-endorsed candidate. Veering hard right does nothing to win back these voters from Lester.

5) It’s hypocrisy

Young hates street beggars because they’re annoying, confronting and slow us down on the narrow footpaths of Wellington. But cast your mind back a little and you’ll remember: she’s guilty of it herself. As pointed out by At The Drivethru Podcast, it was only a few months ago that she was begging for signatures under a false pretense that traffic signals depicting Kate Sheppard would be replaced. Young had no problem then with strangers asking for things, or loitering around ATMs. But that was her. And that was then. And this is now – in her latest crusade to cleanse the streets of the great unwashed.

6) She admits that she is ineffective

Nicola Young was elected in 2013. Since then, she has been at the top table of decision-making for New Zealand’s third largest local government body. Not only is Young a Councillor, but is the lead of Central City Projects and sits on the Urban Development Committee – she is among the best placed to implement this type of policy, but has instead remained silent for 3 years.

In many other instances, such as the Island Bay Cycle Way, she’s taken a stand, done the numbers and changed Council policy. All of sudden, she’s all but admitted she was an ineffective “backbencher” sitting around the Council table. Besides the fact the Council table has no benches, and no back row of seats, Young has it wrong by thinking we’re going to believe all of a sudden that this is an important issue to her.

And of course it raises the question – if all Nicola Young can do after three years on a $90,000 salary and a powerful seat on Council, is point fingers at others, come up with a dud policy that won’t work, won’t solve the root cause and won’t win votes – then maybe it’s time she stood down? The contrast between her and Lester, who last month got a motion through council to save the local night shelter, is as clear as day now. Wellington can have someone who gets things done, or who sits on the sidelines.

Nicola, Wellington’s embarrassed for you.

The 38%

This is a guest post by Labour activist Sophie Rapson.

It’s been a difficult couple of years being a progressive Labour member.  On one hand a lot of constitutional change has gone through, substantial and good change to this fairly anachronistic organisation.  On the other hand, some of these changes have been fraught with politics and tainted by factional warfare, which left the outcomes of the constitutional changes less than ideal.

As a young woman, my expectation for constitutional change was gender equity provisions.  The focus where many of us wanted to see constitutional change was the level of women in caucus.  After many submissions, meetings, and Annual Conference it was decided that at least 45% of the Labour Party caucus had to be women (because apparently 50% was too difficult).  To say that I was incredibly disappointed was an understatement.

The leaders of an organisation I so greatly respected and the organisation I see as the best vehicle for social change decided that having 50% women in caucus was too high a target.  Because having 50% women in caucus in 2014 was too fast a transition and would lead to us losing the 2014 General Election.  Which appeared to be code for – some male members of the caucus would miss out and the faction numbers would be disrupted.

Instead of quitting the Party, I acknowledged that change and good, lasting change is incremental.  Politics is a long game, and good people need to stay and stick it out for the long haul.  Make sure that progressive change eventually comes.  So I accepted that my gender would be underrepresented in the Labour Party for another 3 years, oh and since the beginning of time.  Let’s not forget that women have been underrepresented forever, but no, we shouldn’t move too fast, we’ve only known about this problem for… oh wait.

So I was happy to continue and live to fight another day when I could again put a constitutional amendment up to have at least 50% women in the Labour Party caucus.

Then Shane Jones resigned and a reshuffle occurred.

Hey I thought, this might be an opportunity for improvement to the 40% women ranked caucus figure.  Maybe balance out the caucus gender mix, not expecting the world, maybe for it to remain the same.

The reshuffle resulted in a ranked caucus made up of 38% women and 62% men. (Only the first 26 out of the 34 member caucus is “ranked”).

It also contained a number of promotions for male members of caucus.  Although Nanaia Muhuta was promoted (she is now the first woman Māori caucus leader!) and Jacinda Ardern moved up one spot. The overall result was a number of woman demoted and a greater number of men promoted.

So on the eve on an election, where we are supposed to be achieving 45% women in the resultant caucus we decided to drop the level of women in the ranked caucus to 38%.  (Let’s not even discuss the unranked MPs situation.  I also haven’t addressed other diversity issues in caucus, specifically Maori and other ethnicities representation, which is a subject for a whole other rant.)

When are we going to start to realise that collectively our performance and effectiveness as representatives decreases as the caucus becomes less diverse.  Better decisions are made when a varied perspective is present.  On what planet does having over 60% of the caucus as men going to lead to good decisions.  I thought we were the party of inclusion, fairness, and equity?

I wrote this not to signal my resignation from this Party, but as an assurance to those in power that I’m going to continue to question and challenge you on this issue.  I will challenge that this issue is an election killer.  I will remind you that the number of competent women not engaging and getting involved in politics because of this bullshit will continue to increase.  Those women that we so desperately need to reach that 45% target.  Or heaven forbid, 50% one day.

I will watch with interest at how the moderating committee handles Rule 360 of the Labour Party Constitution.  At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets messed with.  But please, PLEASE prove my cynicism wrong.

Yours in solidarity
Disappointed Labour Woman

Australian Labor leadership election

The ballot papers that rank-and-file members of the Australian Labor Party will receive this week are for the most important vote they will ever have as a member. For the first time, rank-and-file members will vote for the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party leader.

For a party that was often a pioneer amongst social democratic and labour parties, it seems odd that Australian Labor was the last major centre-left party in an English-speaking Westminster democracy to embrace the direct election of the leader.

A lot of that is due to the experience of the Australian Democrats, a socially liberal third party. The Democrats were a successful minor party for three decades, holding the balance of power in the Australian Senate and having representation in state parliaments. The party imploded after the membership of the party elected a federal leader that were not supported by the caucus room. The party now has no parliamentary representation and has been overtaken by the Greens. The Democrats have been cited by many opponents of the direct election of leader.

Continue reading “Australian Labor leadership election”

Marriage equality – lobbying tips

Labour activist Tony Milne, who was involved in the successful Civil Unions campaign, has pulled together this quick list of lobbying tips for those who want to make a difference in the campaign for marriage equality.

Respect the way in which an MP has decided to make a decision (there are multiple ways MPs are influenced or could come to their decision, and multiple factors they are taking into account when making a decision – some of which may have nothing to do with the bill itself).

Discuss, don’t lecture.

Share your view and experience, don’t bully, hector, or harass (makes you feel better, but doesn’t help persuade – in fact, does the opposite).

Pick up on the signals in any response to inform future responses. For example: if an MP says they will be guided by their electorate (incredibly valuable information for an MP to share!), organise locally to encourage locals to explain from a personal perspective what it will mean to them the day the law passes. Or organise a petition of locals to demonstrate local support.

Never attack an MP you’re trying to persuade.

An undecided MP (even a “no”) who has been treated with respect, dignity, compassion and understanding, is more likely to become a “yes”.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of our opponents whose poor tactics and lack of lobbying skills have helped our victories in the past.

It’s all about Kevin

A guest post from an anonymous ALP member.

I’m not sure it matters who ends up winning the eventual ballot/s, there isn’t going to be much of a prize for the winner.

Both the Rudd and Gillard governments have done some great things (putting aside our inability to sell half of them) but the next election won’t be fought on Labor’s record in bringing us through the global crisis in a better position than any other country. It won’t be fought on issues such as workplace relations, health care, education, broadband or climate change – all areas (and there’s many more) where our policy is superior. Instead it will be fought entirely on the revolving door leadership. This isn’t just the fault of Rudd, blame can be cast on both leaders, the cabinet, the strategy and media advisers and indeed the faceless men.

We look an absolute rabble and the election is now Abbott’s to lose, something which thankfully he is uniquely capable of doing.

In similar circumstances the QLD election is the LNP’s to lose with polling putting the conservatives well in front. Can they make it through the six week campaign period without screwing it up? The ALP’s strategy clearly was to have an extra long declared campaign to give Newman and the LNP enough time to fall in a heap. While hoping for the other guys to screw it up isn’t the best strategy ever, it’s understandable – this is a party that has spent most of recent history in opposition because they are so divided and dodgy.

The LNP is that short of talent they had to find a leader outside of Parliament, and clear divisions between the merged party remain. Voters who are sick of an aging government are only going to start scrutinising an alternate government late in the election cycle. It’s the “are they ready to govern?” question that will be crucial to the result. Clearly I believe they are not, but the ones that matter, the voters have a six week long timer to make up their mind on that question.

Because of Rudd’s actions, you can take at least two weeks off that timer, as state election stories will be buried by the latest in speculation over the challenge and the fallout from the result. That assumes a one sided result, a close contest and it’s going to remain the only political story for the foreseeable future. A landslide result might have a good result for Queensland ALP, but it appears Rudd’s best case response is a second winning challenge after a close loss in the first one. If it wasn’t his home state I could understand him not wanting to delay his ambition by six weeks to help a state election that is likely lost. But he’s blowing one of his own state party’s few remaining strategies.

Which I guess sums up how I see his motives, it’s all about Kevin. He’s willing to sell his QLD state colleagues out for his personal gain. He’s willing to destroy the credibility of the Government to take back power. In tearing down the Government to try and take back the leadership he either hasn’t considered (or does not care) what condition the party will be in if he loses. ‘If I can’t have it, nobody can’ is a disturbing approach for a progressive politician when on the other side of the chamber sits a hard right conservative who would love to wind back all the good policy both Labor Prime Ministers have put in place.

Today Kevin Rudd jumped the shark

This is a guest post from an anonymous ALP member.

I first became involved in the Australian Labor Party in 2007 and winning that election elicits some of my fondest memories of my political life. I’ve been heavily involved in the ALP ever since.

Kevin Rudd’s press conference and decision to resign as Australian Foreign Minister is the beginning of the end for his career with Labor. To use a great phase: he’s done a Mark Latham.

Kevin Rudd is a very popular guy with the wider community. He has a great ability to make spin sound like straight talk (sadly contrasted by Julia Gillard’s unenvious ability to make straight talk sound like spin), but the message that comes out of Canberra is that he’s hated internally. As Prime Minister he was the School Principal that the parents loved, but the teachers couldn’t stand. Nothing has changed.

Kevin talked in his press conference today about his concern for the nation. Australia is a country that has coped with some of the most serious economic times that the world has seen in more than fifty years better than any other nation on earth. Our unemployment rate is phenomenally low. We’re officially the richest people in the world. Our government has made amazing progress that should warm the hearts of lefties everywhere: we’ve put a price on carbon, increased the wages of our lowest paid workers. We’ve introduced paid maternity leave and we’re rolling back middle class welfare. We are taxing our billionaire mining magnates who have become rich off resources we all own. We’re investing more in education and health

Kevin can proudly take some of the credit for our achievements of the last four years. So can Julia. Labor’s problem has been that we haven’t been able to sell our achievements. So when Kevin attacked the direction of the nation and the direction of Australia, he said exactly what the disillusioned wanted to hear and exactly the opposite of what the party faithful have been trying to get across since we took office.

It’s now increasingly clear that from the moment Kevin chose not to contest the leadership in 2010 he has been working to destabilise this government; working against Labor and for his own interests.

Aided by the media desperate for blood, Kevin and his tiny band of follows have done chipped away at Gillard. Not because of any policy difference, but purely in the quest for power. Hopefully now it comes to a head.

The feeling I get from my friends and colleges in the party is that he’s done. In an extremely anecdotal fashion the message I got today was almost universal dislike for Rudd’s resignation. Rudd might still be popular with the public, but his ego is too big and his quest for power too great for him ever to be an option again.

He wasn’t rolled in 2010 by “faceless men”. He was rolled by his work colleges, by the elected Labor members of the Australian Federal Parliament. He was rolled because he couldn’t work with them and he still can’t. He proved that today with his calculated dummy spit.

There is no longer a place at the Labor table for Kevin Rudd.

Perspective on Christchurch’s local representation

Paul McMahon is a member of the Spreydon-Heathcote Community Board, Chair of the Labour Local Government Committee (Christchurch) and Chair of The People’s Choice (Christchurch 2021): This post is his personal opinion and is not speaking for Labour or Christchurch 2021.

As several other writers have reminded us recently, in the past the Christchurch City Council used to win awards for their community engagement due to the high quality of civic leadership and local democracy: a lot has changed since then. There are serious problems within the Council and in the way it is run and led. The public have a right to feel angry and disenfranchised.

At the protest the feeling of anger and a real desire for change was palpable: this is not a flash in the pan of civic history, it was the beginning of the end of the ruling regime. Change is coming to Christchurch, but what the nature of that change is very much up in the air. We are on shaky ground in more ways than one.

The problems are not new and the current cause is simple: the reigning majority of Councillors, led by the Mayor, have not adhered to the basics of democratic process, oversight and governance. This group has been called the “A-team,” and, according to one local body veteran I know, they are the tightest-knit governing political party Christchurch local body politics has seen within living memory. This grouping has allowed the Mayor and the CEO to dominate our local government, by giving them the votes they need at the Council table and by not requiring due democratic process to be followed. The dysfunction currently under the spotlight is how this ruling party has decided our local government should be run since 2007, but the foundations were laid before then.

Between 2004 and 2007 our local democracy was routed in a pincer manoeuvre of democratic deficit and corporatisation. It was the halving of the number of councillors and the amalgamation of wards (merging wealthier wards with poorer wards) before the 2004 local elections (highlighted by Chris Trotter in a recent piece published in The Press) that delivered the king hit that severely weakened democratic representation on the Council, while the corporatisation (presided over by Mayor Garry Moore and CEO Dr. Lesley McTurk) gutted the Council of its public service ethic, institutional knowledge and, therefore, its capacity to respond adequately to the challenges of the recovery we now face.

Furthermore, I would go as far as to say that the reform programme of the Moore-McTurk era is precisely what has enabled two men, the Mayor and the CEO, to so detrimentally dominate what was once the best governed city in the world. In particular, the dissolution of the standing committee structure, the reduction of the power and role of community boards, the centralisation of service-provision and decision-making, and the proliferation of middle and upper management roles. All of these changes have, directly or indirectly, undermined the supremacy of elected members and elevated the roles of the Executive staff and Mayor.

The solution to the problem is to return to democracy, not to remove it altogether as some are advocating. The prospect of government-appointed commissioners is not one anyone should relish. I understand why it has some appeal, but we have already lost a democratic voice in our Regional Council (Ecan), so losing democratic control of the City Council would mean all the decisions about the recovery of our city would be made in Wellington, disenfranchising us even further.

Christchurch is the people’s city, it is neither the Council’s nor the government’s city, and so it should be the people who decide who governs: and the only way to do that is, whether sooner or later, through elections. Disenchantment with the recovery process will only be heightened, and the democratic deficit increased, if the government installs commissioners. They must be sorely tempted, but it carries with it a lot of political risk: once the government installs commissioners they will shoulder all the responsibility and all the blame.

If there are going to be any radical changes, they should be in-line with the principle of subsidiarity and aimed at giving the community a stronger voice in the recovery from the earthquakes. Rather than centralise decision-making in Wellington, the government should go completely the other way. Instead of concentrating power, they should disperse it into the community through strengthened and empowered community boards, whose job it is to be representatives and advocates for their communities.

Decisions about the recovery should be made as close to the people they affect as possible, as openly as possible and with as much participation by the people of Christchurch as possible. If the government appoints commissioners they will be depriving us, the people of Christchurch, of our local democracy and of the ability to determine the shape of the recovery: that is precisely why people feel frustrated with the Council now!

As people who already feel powerless in the face of over 10,000 earthquakes, losing local democratic representation, even for a time, will rob us of even the little voice we currently have. Change is needed, but it must be democratic and it must be empowering to our suffering communities. If the majority of the Council will not change, then an early election is the only answer.

Third way party reform: part 3

The final in a series of guest posts from Hayden Munro. Read part one and part two here.

So now we come to the point of this story, the lessons we should draw from From and Blair’s story. The lesson is an important one and it is this: if progressive Parties weaken the organised forces that push for the interests of working and middle class people, they should not be surprised to find themselves with a political system that does not listen to these people. The out sized political power of the super wealthy is the direct result of decisions to weaken the organisational power of groups representing middle and working class interests. As happened throughout western economies and society, the push for individualised methods of social organization, rather than the collective action that defined the post-war era, weakened the power of ordinary voters to influence the system.

Hacker and Pierson, in their unbelievably highly recommended book Winner Take All Politics explain why organised groups can influence government action where individual voters cannot:

“To influence the exercise of government authority in a modern democracy generally requires a range of formidable capabilities: the capacity to mobilise resources, coordinate actions with others, develop extensive expertise, focus sustained attention, and operate flexibly across multiple domains of activity. These are attributes of organisations, not discrete atomised voters.”

No matter how worthy the cause – it must have organised power behind it if our political system is to respond to it. It’s this fundamental truth, that ordinary people best exert power over their leaders when they organise and band together, that is the foundational assumption of the labour movement. It’s why we have unions and why we have progressive political parties. Sadly, the story of progressive parties for the last 25 years then has been a concerted effort to weaken the ability of working and middle class people to exert organised pressure on their leaders.

It is important to know that this move from effective organised participation to ineffective individualised participation is not the story of all forces in our political system. In fact there is one interest group who has moved in the opposite direction: corporations and the super wealthy. Since the 1970’s business groups have become ever more organised and effective at putting pressure on politicians to take their concerns seriously and to govern in their interests. One way to measure this is the exponential rise in the use of lobbyists by business groups (a rise it should be noted, that can also be seen in New Zealand). The extent of this new organised lobbying effort was dramatised by a recent report by Public Campaign, an American interest group who found that 30 of the US’s biggest corporations paid more in lobbying fees trying to influence public policy than they paid in federal taxes between 2008 and 2011. So while corporations and the super wealthy were finding more and more organised and effective ways to push policy makers to bow to their concerns, progressive parties have spent the last 25 years removing their members ability to effectively organise in their own interests. In the battle over who Government listens to, one side has been unilaterally disarming while the other has been stocking up on ever more effective weapons.

The last few years have shown decisively that the current political-economic arrangement, where the super wealthy have vastly disproportionate power and bend the rules to suit their interests, isn’t working. It is widely accepted within Labour that our party has to change, has to allow more say for our members in everything from leadership to policy formation. The challenge we have is creating a party system in which our members not only have a voice, but the organisational might to make sure their voice is heard. We must remember that any reforms that lessens our members’ ability to organise, be it through a union or sector group or even just a voting bloc, lessons their ability to make the political system respond to their interests. We must make sure we build our new Labour Party on foundations of real, effective representation, rather than top down elite control in the name of “democracy”. Collective action and organisation are the tools by which members of the labour movement have built a better world and a fairer New Zealand for the last hundred years. They are the way through which we will create an economy that once again works for everyone. We must make sure we protect them.

Third way party reform: part 2

The second in a series of guest posts by Hayden Munro. Read part one here.

However as we now know, for all its electoral success, Clinton and Blair’s Third Way failed in some very real ways, ways that would see it summarily rejected by the majority of progressive thinkers and leaders by the turn of the decade. Within ten years, Blair would watch as his successor Gordon Brown re-embraced the Keynesian style demand side stabilisation policies of “Old Labour” in the face of a Great Financial Crisis that Blair never saw coming. Even worse, Blair was forced to watch as his chosen heir David Miliband was defeated in a Labour leadership election by his brother Ed Miliband, who ran on a ticket of opposition to the Iraq War and a “turning the page” on Blair’s legacy. Likewise Bill Clinton could do nothing but smoulder as his wife Hillary was defeated in the 2008 US Democratic Primary by an upstart Senator who promised to move on from the days of “Old Washington” and the small scale incremental change of the Clinton years. The electoral repudiation of the Third Way is the strongest possible evidence that there was something fundamentally unsatisfying with the outcomes of the Third Way project, and a look at Clinton and Blair’s economic record tells us why. Fundamentally, on the key economic challenges facing us today, the Third Way did not offer solutions.

To understand why the Third Way was unable to address these concerns, we must look at how it came to dominate the politics of Labour and the Democrats. It is here that we begin to see answers for why our politics stopped being responsive to the vast majority of our citizens. Because what both From and Blair did was takeover their parties by reforming how their members participated in their parties’ internal democracy. Despite the vast differences between the US and UK political system, and the rules structure of the Democrats and Labour, From and Blair’s strategy was the same: change the rules under which the party operated in a way that weakened the ability of opposing groups to organise against them, by promoting the idea that less organised forms of participation were more “democratic”. The effect of depowering organised groups within the party was always the same: it increased the power of elites and centralised control of the party apparatus and platform in the hands of an elite few. This led to less membership, less organisation and parties governed in an increasingly “top down” way.

Continue reading “Third way party reform: part 2”