Where did it all go wrong , Part 2

I had no intentions of revisiting this topic, ever.

However the events of the last few days look like the fates and the Labour party are conspiring to mock Mr Murphy and his crew.  Almost everything has gone to plan: Labour lost the election; Ed Miliband resigned; Ed Balls lost his seat; there are calls for the Labour party to move ever rightward; and now Chuka Umunna has withdrawn from the leadership contest.

It has become the perfect battleground for Jim Murphy to ride to the rescue of the Labour Party, he is untouched by the failure of the last leader and his cohorts.  Murphy would be leading a charge of 40+ Labour Scottish parliamentarians and a substantial number of Blairites.  His biggest rivals are now out of the contest.  He would be almost unassailable in his quest to be the new leader of the Labour Party. Of course, he would relinquish his claim on the Scottish leadership; a title he never really wanted.

In fact the only thing wrong with this scenario, is that Murphy himself is not in power. He is barely hanging on with his fingertips and in the next few weeks enough MSPs (and most likely the new leader of the Labour party) will be stamping hard on those fingers.  So Jim is not ascending to the summit but looking into the abyss at the end of his political career.  However, it won’t just be the end of his career but also the end of the careers of his acolytes.  This is the reason he refuses to leave quietly, he is hoping against all the odds that something will turn up to save him so he is burrowing in deeper than a tic on a dogs backside. He will only be removed by surgery and as with all surgery there is some danger that the host will be damaged.

The SNP can look on in undisguised amusement while this plays out; Nicola Sturgeon at FMQ asked if she could sign the petition to keep Jim Murphy.  Flippant though the comment was, it shows the low regard for Murphy as a politician that most people have.  He would have had some grudging sympathy if he had followed other leader’s example and the day after the election announced he was going to resign.  However, Murphy had no intention of resigning, even after presiding over the worst election showing for the Labour Party in Scotland for almost 100 years. After Len McCLuskey’s intervention, blaming Murphy not only for the Scottish drubbing but also Labours poor showing in England (1), it seems inconceivable that he is going to fight this out to the bitter end.  But Jim is made of sterner stuff, or more likely his acolytes are, and he is manning the barricades.

The entertainment value of this last stand should not be underestimated.  If Johann Lamont’s parting  hand grenade about being treated like a branch office caused some disquiet in Labour ranks, goodness knows what they will do when Jim launches his MAD defence.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, where did it all go wrong?

So the polls are looking worse for Labour and Jim Murphy. He must be wondering, how has it all gone so wrong.  He avoided one major setback to his career when he was sidelined by Ed Miliband,  Jim didn’t want to become an irrelevant backbencher, Where is the kudos in that? So he was left to ponder how could he raise his profile and influence.  His eyes have always been on the main prize, leader of the Labour Party and then Prime Minister.  But how could he make this happen?

As luck would have it, he heard that some of his friends, the blairite supporters of David Miliband, who after doing such a great job on that campaign, were now running the Better Together campaign in Scotland.  The referendum was something Jim would have heard about on his occasional visits to Scotland but how could he turn that to his advantage.  The current leader of the Labour Party in Scotland at that time, Johann Lamont, was generally seen as useless by even the people in her own party. So Murphy with his cronies came up with a plan to replace her after indyref.  So what was to happen next was like an episode of Game of Thrones but without the drama, sexiness or interesting characters.  Needing to raise his profile, he kicked off his 100 towns tour. Unfortunately for Jim, no one paid any attention to this bizarre stunt, apart from a few independence supporters in need a good laugh.  Then he had a stoke of good fortune when he was mercilessly attacked by someone with an egg.  This single event was responsible for an incredible amount of media exposure for Jim, and also luckily it happened while he was being filmed.  After this, it was all looking good, all that was needed now was the removal of the current Leader of the Labour Party in Scotland.  After the indyref event, the Murphy faction moved quickly to remove Lamont, she was betrayed by her own supposed, best friend, who had by then sworn allegiance to the Murphy camp.

So everything was going to plan, Murphy and his acolytes had their camp in the Labour heartlands to the north, where they could wait and plot  The first thing to do was to see off the independence threat. Then, when the Yes campaign and SNP collapsed in the aftermath of an indyref loss, Labour would ride a wave of enthusiasm when record numbers of Labour MPS were returned to Westminster. Murphy with this foothold and the power and influence it would bring, could now safely wait for Miliband to either lose this election or the next.  Jim was a leader in waiting, he would be able to mould his Scottish MPs to his way of thinking and with the tacit agreement from the remaining blairites in the UK Labour party he could be an unstoppable force.

Then something extraordinary happened, instead of retreating into obscurity after losing the indyref vote, membership of the SNP exploded.  Long time members of the Labour party deserted and joined the SNP. Labours share of the vote in its heartlands collapsed.  According to orthodox thinking, after a defeat in a vote, the defeated should slink away to lick their wounds and not really be seen again for a few years.  Murphys plotting against Miliband did not go unnoticed in London.  Two days ago his two main rivals for that leadership position delivered the blows that could consign him to obscurity by publicly contradicting the story that was being played out in front of the media in Scotland.  Namely, that Scotland would not suffer any budget cuts after the next election if Labour were the winners.  Ed Miliband also had a hand in this by offering Murphy’s head as a sacrificial peace offering to Nicola Sturgeon.  The youtube video  “Jim Murphy, Saviour of The Union” that was released a few days ago ended with a doctored painting of Nicola Sturgeon in “Judith Beheading Holofernes”  perhaps a more fitting painting after Ed Miliband’s intervention would have been  “Salome with the head of Jim the Baptist” also by Caravaggio,

It wasn’t supposed to be like this and here he is being treated as a branch manager and having no power to resist.  In May, Murphy could be irrelevant. According to the latest Ashcroft polls he doesn’t look like he will be an MP, and he will be leading a branch office in disarray,  possibly having suffered their worst showing in Scotland in 100 years. With no power or influence Murphy will not be leader of the Scottish contingent  for long.  So what will he do, keep his head down and work hard to keep his seat or come out fighting against Miliband as he isn’t just in this himself, he has his acolytes gathered from the Better Together crew to look after.

Unfortunately for Mr Murphy, he will be soon out of power, out of friends and shit out of luck.

Day of the long knife (x3)

Today between what  Ed Miliband, Ed Balls (1) and Chuka Umunna (2) have said, we have witnessed the attempted political assassination of Jim Murphy by his own Labour Party colleagues party.

I have 2 reasons for believing this:

  1. The polls in Scotland aren’t looking good for Labour and it is now getting too late to change the seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory of the SNP vote. In the event of a likely hung parliament Ed Miliband is going to need help to become PM.  It looks like his biggest ally in achieving this goal could be Nicola Sturgeon.  To ensure that Ms Sturgeon is kept onside Mr Miliband needed to show her an act of good will, and what better than to sacrifice a man who is annoying everyone at the moment, Jim Murphy. What does Milliband lose by doing this? Very little.  The Labour party in Scotland is increasingly loooking like a lame duck with no hope of turning around the SNP lead. Murphy will possibly not be an MP after the GE. And as a bonus Mr Miliband gets rid of someone who openly defied him when he took over leadership of the Scottish branch by declaring that he, unlike his predecessor would not be running a branch office of London Labour (3)
  2. Jim Murphy came to Scotland, not to lead the Labour Party in Scotland but to have a staging post for his attempt to become leader of the Labour party, here he could build up some influence and power within the grouping of Scottish Labour MPs. A grouping of 40 or so MPs would be a good foundation to have during a bid for the leadership.  However, today his two main rivals for that leadership position delivered the blows that could consign him to obscurity by publicly contradicting the story that was being played out in front of the media in Scotland.  Namely, that Scotland would not suffer any budget cuts after the next election if Labour were the winners.  This makes Mr Murphy look out of touch with the higher echelons in his own party and also powerless in the face of their decisions.

An interesting question is, what does Murphy do now? He said that Scottish Labour was not a branch office of London Labour, “I am big enough and ugly enough not to be pushed around by anyone. I’ll make the decisions, we’ll call the shots here in Scotland.”  (3)  And here he is being treated as the branch manager and having no power to resist.  In May Murphy could be irrelevant, not an MP, leading a branch office in disarray,  possibly having suffered the worst showing in Scotland in 100 years. With no power or influence Murphy will not be leader of the Scottish contingent  for long.  So what will he do, keep his head down and work hard to keep his seat or come out fighting against Miliband as he isn’t just in this himself, he has his acolytes gathered from the Better Together crew to look after.

The next few days could be very interesting indeed.

How to rig voting

Background

I have seen this subject coming to the fore again with the publication by a group in Dunoon  about alleged vote rigging during the referendum for Scottish independence(1). There was talk after the referendum about how the result could have been fixed. One of the things brought up was how the postal ballot could be fixed; there has always been a bad smell around the use of postal voting in the UK(2). This theory was rubbished by a number of people for a variety of reasons, some logistical, some technical. As a purely intellectual exercise, the technical objections got me to think about how I would have rigged the referendum.

So some things need to be put up front, I believe the technical objections to rigging the postal ballot are very weak. 30 minutes thought and I could do this. My background is in computing, with some years spent in a major energy supplier, I have seen over 1 million individual bills printed, folded and inserted with other advertising bumf into envelopes in a week. At no time during this process was human intervention required until more paper needs to be loaded onto the platens.

Thinking as an agent of the state, the idea is how I would ensure that my side won the vote. I set some rules for myself:

  1. The team had to be small
  2. The logistics had to be manageable
  3. The fix had to be repeatable
  4. The timescale had to fit
  5. It had to be very hard to detect.

Some of these rules are arbitrary and I know there should be others but I think they keep the thought processes concentrated on the problem in hand. With unlimited resources, time, and money anything is possible so we have to put a limit somewhere on what is allowed.

The numbers game

So how many votes would I need to ensure victory? The voting population of Scotland is 4,283,392, see SIR-turnout-postal-rejected-admin-WEB.xls spreadsheet, cell B36. Of that 4.28m, technically you needed 2,141,697 to guarantee a majority of 1.

Polls taken after the referendum show the “British” vote in Scotland to range from 27% in the Ashcroft poll (3) to 29% in a poll conducted by YouGov for academics from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Essex(4), this corresponded with the data from the 2011 census which indicated approximately 27% for British only(8.4%) and Scottish/British identity(18.32%)(5).   A crude averaging of these figures gives us 28% as the core vote we would rely on. This equates to 1,199,350 if they all turned out to vote. This would mean for a 100% turnout in the election, you would need to secure an extra 942,347 votes to win by 1 vote. In the end, victory was achieved with 802,576 votes above the 28% total (2,001,926-1,199,350).

Towards the end of the campaign it was being predicted that turnout was going to be high, in the region of 97% (~ 4,154,890 votes), see (6) as an example. The actual number of valid votes on the day was lower than this at 84.5% (3,619,915), a difference of some 535,505 (4,154,890-3,619,915) from earlier forecasts. A mid to high eighty percent turnout would be what we would expect and plan for, this would be the highest turnout since the General Election in 1950. (7)

So 802,576 is the magic number. That is a big number to fix; it is roughly 18.7% of the total voter population. So how do you do it? To use a cliché, it is a bit like how do you eat an elephant? And the answer is a little bit at a time. So for a number this large there isn’t one way to do it, the task needs to be split up into smaller portions or it would be very visible and break rule 5. Some of the methods would be visible: the use of propaganda from state media (8); psychological warfare to keep people scared and resistant to change (better the devil you know), this accounts for almost half of all no voters; vague promises of extra powers (9). Some would not be so visible: diplomatic pressures to entice foreign governments to issue critical statements or spin these statements to appear critical (10); The Civil Service acting in a non-partisan manner. (11)

Covert Work

The ones we are most interested in are the covert methods that could be used. These would be low-key methods altering low volume of votes.   This is where we get to vote rigging; basically there are 2 types of rigging:

  1. inflating your own votes or
  2. reducing your opponent’s votes.

A good strategy here would be a combination of the two methods; every vote you reduce is one less you have to add.

I attended the count at North Lanarkshire and although it was at times a bit shambolic, I don’t think there was any collusion in trying to alter the count in the hall (Yes won in North Lanarkshire) regardless of what the Russians monitors are reported to have said. (12) Rigging votes in the counting hall would break rules 1, 3 and 5.

One of the anomalies of the voting system is the postal vote, according to the SIR-turnout-postal-rejected-admin-WEB.xls spreadsheet there were 801,396 issued postal packs, (this is almost the magic number mentioned earlier). The number of postal votes received before the close of polls was 737,137. Although the main vote was only 85.4% of the registered levels, postal voting returns were 92% with some reports that it was at the 96% level in some areas.

The postal vote is where I would use my technical knowledge to make a difference, it meets all my rules:

  1. The team has to be small; this keeps the number of people in the loop to a minimum. The more people involved in something like this the less chance it will get out.  I would expect that prior to 1979; this was a tiny part of someone’s brief. In 1997 this would have come more into focus and actually become a proper part of someone’s job, to look at the possibility and put together a plan to counter independence. By 2007, this had moved from being a possibility to almost a certainty, at this point a proper team would be put together to handle this. This would be a small team consisting of a couple of programmers, a network specialist, and at most a couple of other specialists.
  2. The logistics have to be manageable; a major plan that can’t be quickly and efficiently carried out is no use to anyone. This would include physical logistics. We are talking about some very specialised hardware and somewhere to store it. This wouldn’t be done using a couple of laptops and a multi-function printer from PC World. The hardware although being more specialised would just be bog-standard business computing hardware. The only specialist kit required would be the printing equipment. This is where the most capital outlay would be.  There are more specialised companies providing bespoke hardware and as expected the costs rise dramatically. I am looking at cost not being an issue with a capital budget of at most £1.5m, dependent on whether we buy or lease.
  3. The fix has to be repeatable, using computer systems makes this easier, and we can prototype and dummy run this until all the bugs are ironed out. A possible dry-run could have been any by-election. The by-election in Glenrothes in 2008, could be an example of a dry-run. Even Labour activists were surprised to win that one, this prototype being used to iron out the bugs in the process.
  4. The timescale has to fit; this is the one I had most trouble with but once I stopped thinking short-term then the solution presented itself. This isn’t something thrown together just before the Edinburgh agreement was signed. This would have been in place for a long time; the state will have been war gaming attacks on its sovereignty since WW2. How to fix elections so that no external threat can destabilise a state would be high on any secret service’s agenda and the British state would be no different. Independence would be treated like any other threat to sovereignty. Someone, somewhere in the Security services has to think the unthinkable (13)
  5. It has to be hard to detect; this means that when the votes are injected into or removed from the system they don’t stand out nor do they leave a trace. The smaller the numbers to be manipulated either way, the better it will be. The receiving system can’t know it has been fed a rigged vote. My preference would be to use the PV to change 5% of the vote, roughly 200k votes. This would be hard to detect but in a close race it could be the difference between failure and success, we are gambling here by playing the percentages game.

The Voting dead

So where would we get our list of voters to be added to the postal ballot. This is amazingly simple, the dead get to vote again as they did in 1979. From 2008 till 2012 there have been just over 272K deaths in Scotland(14) and a further 54700 in 2013. (15) This is a very big pool to draw numbers from; a cross reference between voter rolls and death certificates would be incredibly easy to carry out. No special equipment or access required for this, just computing power. We could either keep entries valid or insert some to top up a particular area’s numbers. This isn’t the only scope for increasing numbers: emigrants could also cast their vote although no longer living at their old address. However, emigration levels are probably too low to make a difference but once again we are back to playing the percentages.

Conclusions

As I said at the beginning of this piece, this was done only as an intellectual exercise to see if it was possible and to see if I thought it was feasible. I can still punch holes in my theories but it might be a start for someone else. In the end it doesn’t matter as we can never prove it and the biggest weapons in their armoury were right out there in plain sight for everyone to see.

Final Thoughts

The last weeks panic wouldn’t have been caused by a rogue poll just showing the Yes campaign slightly ahead but a combination of them being slightly ahead and an apparently record turnout could cause a panic. All calculations so far have been based on a mid to high 80% turnout. To suddenly have newspaper and polling companies showing voting intention running at a very much higher rate would mess up the calculations we had made so far.

With the vote looking like it is getting to close for comfort this is when we get panic mode, and possibly suppressing the number of opposition votes. Depressing votes could be done in one of 2 ways.

  • Physical removal of ballot boxes. This only works if you know all the votes in a box favour the other side or you could end up removing more of your own votes.
  • Replacing ballot boxes with boxes you have stuffed with your own votes.

Neither of these options is good, they break almost every one of the rules we set but if there isn’t much time left and the outcome is looking tight, we might have no other option. One of the most surprising vote totals for the day was from Glasgow. A city that was reportedly having record numbers of registrations with long queues of people waiting to register to vote. In fact this seems to be the place where the 97% turnout story starts. Yet, on the day, Glasgow had one of the smallest percentage turnouts. In a short period of time we have people anxious to register to vote and then after going through that process they didn’t bother to vote.

When all is said and done one of the main problems is, why were there no proper exit polls on the day? According to some expert witnesses in an American court case about poll rigging, one of the most important things if you don’t want to get caught is, you don’t allow exit polls(16).   Did they learn from Glenrothes about the level of distrust that exit polls raise with anyone examining the results?(17)

Should we stop PV?

The longer you think about the Postal Voting process the more the holes in the system become apparent(18).  The polling process is to a large extent based on trust and when this trust is broken the whole thing begins to look suspicious. In North Lanarkshire we were denied the opportunity to follow the PV from the council headquarters to the count apparently on the recommendation of a senior police officer. So who is to say that the votes that left the council offices were the same ones that arrived at the counting hall? If we are to continue with PV, then some serious work needs to be done to ensure the process is transparent and fully auditable.

Failure to address the weaknesses in the PV system will just bring the system into more disrepute and look more like someone is trying to protect vested interests.