19 May 2014

El Niño and Ed Miliband

The invaluable Ballots and Bullets Polling Observatory at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations recently produced their 36th summary of opinion polling of voting elections since the last election:

When I posted about their 28th summary last September, I suggested that there were two axes of symmetry. One showed Labour’s poll rise reflecting the Lib Dem’s decline, the other axis the same relationship between UKIP’s rise and the Tories’ decline. This idea now seems to have broken down. The Lib Dems still seem to be stuck on a plateau below 10%. The Tories seem to have done slightly better in the last six months – if that’s because some UKIP supporters have returned home, then UKIP has nonetheless kept its numbers up, perhaps at Labour’s expense.

Once the European Parliament elections are out of the way, UKIP may enter a long decline until 2015. If it does, it will be interesting to see if that benefits the Tories, or Labour or both. And some Lib Dems may return to the fold, mostly at Labour’s expense probably. John McTernan is a centre-left commentator whose opinions are, in my view, always worth considering. (For example, see his piece for the Guardian, John Smith would have led us to a decent world, on the 20th anniversary of the Labour leader’s untimely death). In the Scotsman on 8 May, McTernan concluded that the 2015 election will be hard to call:
The Tories will prosecute an apparently simple argument: the economy is working, don’t let Labour wreck it. … For Labour, the nightmare is economic growth quickening, incomes rising swiftly.
The fear of the government will be that events beyond their control will overwhelm them. One of the biggest is an interest rate rise. Former chancellors Norman Lamont and Alistair Darling are both warning that there is the danger of a housing boom. Voices off are one thing, but what if the Bank of England decides to act? So many families are stretched financially that the smallest increase in mortgages could be enough to tip them over the edge. The other is an NHS winter crisis. This is what did for the Tories under Thatcher and Major – patients on trolleys in corridors would be disastrous for Cameron, as they would be the emblem of public service cuts.
And of course, these possibilities are not mutually exclusive. But, as far as the NHS is concerned, the 2014/15 winter seems a long way off on a balmy day in May. This is particularly so when the last winter was so mild. To quote the UK Met Office:
Mean temperatures over the UK were well above the long-term average for all three months {December, January and February] with a mean winter temperature of 5.2 oC which is 1.5 oC above the average and the fifth highest in the series. There was a notable absence of frosts, and the lowest UK temperature of the winter, -7.7 oC at Altnaharra, Sutherland on 17th February was the highest such winter value for at least 50 years.
whereas the year before:
The mean temperature over the UK for winter was 3.3 °C which is 0.4 °C below the long term average. December was equal to the long term average for the month, January was 0.3 °C below, February was 0.9 °C below and at 2.8 °C was the coldest month of the season. Spells of notably mild weather occurred in late December and early January, and notably cold weather in early December, mid to late January, and the latter part of February.
The difference between the two winters comes out in the charts below (blue indicating below and red above average temperatures).

2013/14 (left) 2012/13 (right) Mean Dec Jan Feb temperature anomalies
Health planners are, of course, well aware of the effect of winter conditions on the demand for health services. For example, Public Health England have a Cold Weather Plan for England 2013, Making the case: why long-term strategic planning for cold weather is essential to health and wellbeing. This points out that:
Evidence shows that there is an increase in hospital admissions from cold-related illnesses, as the temperature falls … Admissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increase as temperatures fall, particularly in those most socio-economically deprived. Hospitals and social care commonly face winter pressures. These often result from a high demand for beds and difficulties in discharging patients. This may be compounded by staff shortages due to illness. Cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious diseases with a seasonal increase, as well as weather-related accidents – contribute to raising the number of admissions. Prolonged in-patient episodes can result, either due to medical complications or a delay in discharging patients because of lack of suitable accommodation.
Increased levels of illness due to cold weather can put a strain on local NHS services such as general practices and hospitals. There is evidence that cold weather may prevent people from accessing these services.
It would obviously be helpful for planners to know what the weather will be like next winter. The Met Office (in Exeter, Devon, SW England) has a team of researchers engaged on monthly to decadal prediction with one specialising in the El Niño Southern Oscillation, known as the ENSO. Just how the warming of waters in the tropical Pacific ocean affects weather in the northern hemisphere is complex with other factors to be taken into account, and is certainly a subject for experts. But in 2008 the Met Office did state that:
"We have shown evidence of an active stratospheric role in the transition to cold conditions in northern Europe and mild conditions in southern Europe in late winter during El Niño years".
So it was interesting to see a fairly high probability US consensus forecast for an El Niño event this year:

Not that it means any distinct probability of El N coming to the rescue of Ed M. Better to leave that kind of forecasting to John McTernan who, despite the uncertain start to his article, ended on a more confident note:
But while the big parties fight for tactical advantage, the result of the election will probably be determined by the two minor parties – the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. The Lib Dems’ fate is easily described. In 2010 Clegg sold sincerity to the public. He broke his word on tuition fees and broke his party. They have lost votes irreversibly to Labour and will lose seats to them and the Tories. Ukip is the wild card. It takes votes from the Tories – which is bad enough – but they are also dragging Cameron from the centre ground, which is worse for him. Elections in Britain are always won from the centre, but Nigel Farage has derailed the Tories. 
So, the centre-left is united behind Labour and the centre-right are split between three parties – the Tories, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats. This is a massive advantage for Miliband. Labour is currently on 35-38 per cent in the polls, a historically low level but in 2005 Tony Blair got a 65-seat majority with a similar figure. The reason? Ukip took 2,000 votes from the Tories in every seat. It was enough. No-one doubts Farage will raise that level next year. It’s advantage Miliband.

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