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Here’s what we’re all missing about the polls

It feels as if the lessons of 2017 - polls can change - and 2015 - polls can be wrong - have both been forgotten. 

What’s behind Labour’s failure to pull into a decisive lead? I’ve been speaking to various people about the topic on an off-the-record basis and will discuss their thoughts in my column in next week’s New Statesman. But first, I wanted to talk through some thoughts of my own on the issue here.

There are, to my eyes, a couple of odd elements to the debate surrounding “Labour’s failure to establish a decisive lead/the Conservatives retaking the lead”. The first is that while everyone at Westminster is getting very excited about the polls, the movement is well within the “normal” margin of error – that is to say, plus or minus three per cent – and comes a little more than half a year after Labour all but eliminated a 20-point Tory lead to achieve a virtual draw.

Did we really all forget so quickly that the polls can change, well, so quickly? In addition, we appear to have not only forgotten the lesson of 2017 – polls can change – but also that of 2015, which is that polls can be wrong. We also know that it is particularly difficult for pollsters to capture public opinion four years from the next election, when most ordinary people have switched off – particularly as far as the crucial “how are you going to vote at the next election?” question goes.

This is not to say I think the polls now are entirely useless: they provide information about broad values and what people care about it. Were I Labour, I’d be deeply worried about the fact that between a quarter and a third of their voters, depending on the pollster, are some degree of lukewarm on Jeremy Corbyn, who is all-but-certain to lead the party into the next election. And were I a Conservative, I would be worried that the National Health Service is rocketing up the list of things that voters care and worry about.

But I’ll make a prediction, not because I expect it to be right – I think long-range punditry is even more valueless and prone to error than long-range polling – but simply because it’s always good to get your assumptions on paper in order to check against them later. It’s this: whatever the outcome of the next election, we will look at either the proportion of Labour voters who were uneasy about their Prime Minister designate or the growing number of all voters who were getting more worried about the condition of the NHS as more significant than the state of the voting intention scores.

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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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.