A black and white issue

The culling of badgers is irrelevant, malicious and ineffective.

I'm not a fully-signed up fan of "evidence-based politics", which you might find odd, since I'm a statistician. It's because it's often used to mean "I've found a small sociological study which supports the belief I had anyway, and I'm now going to call that study proof that I am right, and label anyone irrational if they don't agree with me about the science." Applying the definite article in front of the word "science" is the fastest way to make me suspect you're trying to shut down a debate.

Sometimes, though, the evidence comes from a more reputable source: a properly designed scientific experiment. Such is the case with the evidence about the impact of culling badgers on the incidence of bovine TB. I'm a little shocked to find, via googling, that I first wrote about this in 2008, more than three years ago. After all that time to review the scientific literature, DEFRA is now suggesting that farmers should be allowed to shoot badgers more or less at random, if anything a worse proposal than a total cull. With apologies, this is a black-and-white issue.

The Independent Study Group on Cattle TB (ISG) presented its final report (to David Miliband: remember him?) in December 2007. To say that the statisticians who took part in the work of the ISG are eminent is like saying David Beckham is quite a well known footballer. Christl Donnelly, George Gettinby, and especially Sir David Cox FRS, are statistical royalty. They were core members of the ISG and assisted with the design, analysis and interpretation of the studies the group commissioned into whether or not badger culling would have a positive impact on bovine TB.

You can read the full report here. It's worth reading this paragraph from John Bourne, ISG Chairman, in his overview to the Environment Secretary:

'The ISG's work - most of which has already been published in peer-reviewed scientificjournals - has reached two key conclusions. First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others' data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.'

I don't really think it's worth trying to rephrase that, as the statement and the evidence which supports it are as clear as day. But let me try: The culling of badgers is a psychological displacement activity, which will needlessly increase the amount of suffering on the planet. That's bad enough. But it won't keep cattle free from TB either.

I can't remember the last time a policy managed to be irrelevant, malicious and ineffective, all at the same time. Sometimes - I was going to write "politicians", but that's unfair, we all do this - sometimes we wish for something so much that we refuse to notice that the actions we're taking will actually prevent our desire from coming into effect. Something like that is happening here, I think.

Caroline Spelman - it was quite hard to convince people that selling off forests made sense (you did convince me). If you permit random culling of badgers to go ahead, you'll look back at the forest sell-off U-turn with fondness, I think. Please make use of the world-class, first-rate, independent scientific work that has been carefully done on this subject, and ask both DEFRA and the NFU to think again.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.