In January last year, at our yearly staff and volunteers retreat, we decided that TheyWorkForYou should do something special for the general election. We decided that we wanted to gather information on where every candidate in every seat stood on what most people would think were the biggest issues, not just nationally but locally too.
Our reasons for setting this ambitious goal were two fold. First, we thought that pinning people down to a survey that didn’t reward rhetorical flourishes would help the electorate cut through the spin that accompanies all elections. But even more important was to increase our ability to hold new MPs to account: we want users of TheyWorkForYou in the future to be able to see how Parliamentary voting records align with campaign statements.
This meant doing quite a lot of quite difficult things:
- Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
- Working out how to contact them.
- Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
- Developing a balanced set of national issues.
- Sending the candidates surveys, and chasing them up.
The Volunteer Army
This has turned out to be a massive operation, requiring the creation of the independent Democracy Club set up by the amazing new volunteers Seb Bacon and Tim Green, and an entire candidate database site YourNextMP, built by another new volunteer Edmund von der Burg. Eventually we managed to get at least one local issue in over 80% of constituencies, aided by nearly 6000 new volunteers spread from Lands End to John O’Groats. There’s at least one volunteer in every constituency in Great Britain, and in all but three in Northern Ireland. Volunteers have done more than just submit issues, they’ve played our duck house game to help gather thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and postal addresses.
What we ended up with is a candidate survey that is different for every constituency – 650 different surveys, in short. The survey always contains the same 15 national issues (chosen by a politically balanced panel held at the Institute for Government) and then anything between zero and ten local issues. We’ve seen everything from cockle protection to subsidies for ferries raised – over 3000 local issues were submitted, before being painstakingly moderated, twice, by uber-volunteers checking for for spelling, grammar, obvious bias and straightforward interestingness (it isn’t really worth asking candidates if they are in favour of Good Things and against Bad Things).
In the last couple of days we’ve started to send out the first surveys – we’ve just passed 1000 emails, and there are at least 2000 still to be sent.
We’re aiming to release the data we are gathering on candidates positions on 30th April. We’ll build a nice interface to explore it, but we also hope that others will do something with what we are expecting to be quite a valuable dataset.
Candidates are busy people, so how do we get their attention? Happily, some candidates are choosing to answer the survey just because TheyWorkForYou has a well know brand in the political world, but this has limits.
The answer is that we are going to ask Democracy Club, and it’s army of volunteers to help. We’ll shortly roll out a tool that will tell volunteers which of their candidates haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the record , and provide a range of ways for them to push for their candidates to fill it in.
It would be a lie to say we’re confident we’ll get every last candidate. But we are confident we can make sure that no candidate can claim they didn’t see, or didn’t know it was important to their constituents. And every extra voice we have makes that more likely.
Lots of people are asking what the list of national question is. It’s been in our version control for ages, but I can understand that most people don’t look there 🙂
This is the list:
1. Many people think taxes will have to rise in the next parliament to cut Britain’s budget deficit. If they do, any increases should disproportionately be paid by higher earners.
2. The British government interferes too much with business.
3. Government should tackle climate change aggressively even if it means energy bills go up.
4. It would be a big problem if Britain became more economically unequal over the next 5 years.
5. Despite the recession, Britain should increase spending on public sector services.
6. People should provide for their own retirement, and not demand the state to help them do so.
7. Immigration levels are too high.
8. There are too many CCTV cameras in Britain.
9. A married, heterosexual couple provide the best environment in which to raise a family.
10. In general, politicians in Britain are honest.
11. The arts in Britain should pay for themselves, and not rely on Government subsidy.
12. The new British government should begin negotiations to leave the European Union.
13. Even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Britain should not support any military action against Iran.
14. British troops should stay in Afghanistan as long as they are needed.
15. Britain spends too much money on foreign aid.
Thanks to the panel who worked them out.
Can you send me a copy of the West Brom East survey? I’ll fill it in when I can.
Thanks Tom – have sent a copy of the survey to the address you posted that comment with.
I will try to assembly an ad hoc team here in Oxford. (Some of my former colleagues in the University has more ready access to the code and more powerful hardware than I.)
Sadly I notice few Conservative candidates are answering the questionnaire. This will impact negatively on the quality of the dataset for the kind of analyses I sketched out.
Dear Francis, I have just realized how valuable this dataset would be! I hope you are geared up for a 15-dimensional principal component analysis, followed by clustering. Comparing the resulting clusters with existent partisan configurations would be extremely interesting.
In particular, it would help us all (including the politicians themselves) make sense of the possible partisan realignment to come … if we are blessed enough to encounter a situation with hung parliament and/or electoral reform. I set out some of the possible scenarios here: http://www.pieandcoffee.org/2010/04/27/thinking-a-few-steps-ahead/
You might just be helping to develop the next generation of British political ecology, in a quantitative, rational way!
Kaihsu – wow! If we give you a data dump, will you do the analysis 🙂
Very busy now polishing the quiz that shows the results. And wouldn’t want to distort next batch of candidate responses either. But early next week…
Or give Professor Simon Hix a call in the morning. http://personal.lse.ac.uk/hix/