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Are Labour really 12 points ahead in the polls?

According to a senior Conservative, they might be.

Labour’s small opinion poll lead has become Westminster’s biggest talking point. The government is divided and muddled over Brexit, has lost two cabinet ministers in less than two weeks, and is mired in scandal. Yet the opposition can only manage an average lead of a little under 2 per cent.

Or are they? ITV’s Paul Brand reports that a senior Conservative has told him that according to their private polling, Labour are actually miles ahead – 12 points in fact. Could a secret poll really reveal a much bigger Labour lead than the public polls suggest? Some thoughts:

Nothing has changed because… nothing has changed

Labour’s small lead obsesses Westminster because from the daily grind here, it appears that the Tory position has got much worse since the election. So a secret poll showing Labour well ahead is satisfying to commentators because it fits with the general sense of how things “should” be.

But zoom out for a moment: the Conservative position hasn’t really changed all that much since June 2017. The economy is not performing noticeably worse than it was in June. The Brexit talks are not any more deadlocked and rudderless than they were in June. Yes, a couple of people have resigned from the cabinet. I rate Priti Patel a lot more highly than many in Westminster but I doubt very much that a significant bloc of voters knew who she or Michael Fallon were, much less cared about them staying in post.

There’s a very important “but” here, which is that it is easy to see how the economy will get worse or the Brexit talks will suddenly enter a period of economically damaging crisis. I may be letting my pro-Remain filtered glasses dominate my analysis too much here, but it feels to me at least that the moment when you might expect Labour to break clear of the Conservatives in the polls has not yet arrived.

I really don’t think polls are all that useful this far out

The thing about voting intention is it’s a lot like asking people, “Which do you prefer: tea or coffee?” Most people will have a strong response in the abstract that may be different given the context. I, for example, vastly prefer tea, but know that the average shop-bought cup of tea will either have been brewed too long or too little, that it won’t be milky enough, etcetera, etcetera. Given all of that, I’ll settle for coffee more often than not when I’m out and about.

As it is highly unlikely that there will be an election for some time, worrying about the polls at this point feels a bit like focusing on whether or not I’m likely to have an Earl Grey or a cappuccino next Wednesday. A great deal could, and likely will, change at that point. The interesting polling questions are the underlying ones about economic competence, best PM, and what people consider a “good” Brexit deal.  (And even then the first two feel somewhat useless as it is highly unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will be facing Theresa May again next time.)

The more important electoral factor to think about is that thanks to their forward advance in the general election, Labour would have to be the worst-performing opposition ever not to end up in some form of government next time. The Conservatives really would have to do something truly remarkable to stay in office after 2022. And even to tread water they have to (a) deliver a Brexit deal that keeps their 2017 electoral coalition intact, (b) doesn’t hit the economy, and (c) keeps their party together.  Oh, and they also need to avoid a recession, which is in any case is probably about due even if all goes well with Brexit, as we haven’t had one for a while and we tend to have one every decade.

For the Tories, holding onto power a big ask, to put it mildly, and a much more interesting topic than what the polls are doing five years out.

That said, I don’t buy that this poll is real myself

So despite the fact that I can easily see how when the next election comes around, the Labour Party could emerge with a big lead, I doubt this poll is real, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the pattern in local council by-elections, which picked up on the uptick in Labour fortunes during late May this year, fits with the polls: Ukip collapsing, Labour devouring the Green vote, the Liberal Democrats treading water and neither of the big two able to pull ahead.

But the much more important reason is I can’t see why on earth Conservative headquarters would be commissioning nationwide polls of voting intention, particularly this far away from a contest. Voting intention is not all that useful to political parties, as no matter how bad the figures are, “give up and go home at 5pm” is not really an option. Private polls tend to focus on what parties can’t get elsewhere – that is to say, on questions about policy trade-offs, which of the other side’s voters are winnable, which of their own voters are looking elsewhere, and so on. (It’s not as if they can’t see the same polls we all can of voting intention for free.)

So while it is not impossible, it doesn’t feel that likely that this poll would exist. But given how grim the Tory mood is, it is easy to see how rumours that things are really much worse than the public polls can take hold, even close to the top of the party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.