Smithson’s view: So what’s the betting on Henley?

Sometimes I get criticism from Lib Dem activists over the way I operate my site,, and the usual complaint is that I am not operating it in the interests of the party.

Well, I don’t run it to further the Lib Dems or any other faction. It’s moved to its position as the UK’s most-read political website (four times the page down-loads of Iain Dale) because it seeks to provide a dispassionate information service and discussion platform for those who like forecasting and betting on political outcomes.

Occasionally party campaigners have found it useful to quote the site, and during the Leicester South by-election in 2004 its forecasts of a possible Lib Dem victory featured strongly in much of the party’s by-election literature.

On Henley I have not predicted a Lib Dem victory, but have revealed my own betting which was to risk £40 to win £1,000 on the party succeeding. My thinking was that in a fierce contest with the Tories the party always seems to do well, and there can be no better example than Bromley two years ago. So a bet based on a 5% chance of success looked great value and I recommended it to others. Based on current information I think that any price up to about a 12.5% probability looks good and worth a punt.

The other big bet on Henley, and where I’ve risked a lot of money, is that Labour will lose its deposit. That means its general election share of 14.5% of the vote will fall below 5%. Sounds a lot, but Brown’s party has a long history of being squeezed very badly in fierce CON-LD contests.

At Christchurch in 1993 it dropped to 2.7%, Newbury in the same year saw a drop to 2%, while in the re-run of Winchester in 1997 Labour came in with just 1.7% of the vote. Those were at a time, remember, when the party was soaring in the national polls.

Now, against a background of the rapid collapse of Labour’s national poll shares, I think that my money is safe even though I’ve bet at prices as tight as 1/3.

I’m convinced that one of the big stories on the morning of Brown’s first anniversary at Number 10 will be a lost deposit in Henley.

* Mike Smithson founded and edits, the UK’s leading political discussion blog. He was a founder member of the Liberal Democrats, stood for Parliament at the 1992 General Election, and has served as both a county and borough councillor. This is the fourth in a regular series of monthly articles from Mike.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliamentary by-elections.


  • Bibliophylax 24th Jun '08 - 11:37am

    Are Labour even standing a candidate? I haven’t seen any evidence of it.

  • Mr Smithson, how do your page-loads compare to Con Home or Guido?

    What would be an equally interesting bet is that this is the by-election that breaks the reputation of the Liberal Democrats for ‘doing well’ in such contests. By that, I mean that on a reasonably good turnout the Lib Dems fail to eat into the Conservative share of the vote in any substantial way.

    Forget Bromley, the story this time is that its game over for the Lib Dems in Henley and goodbye to the era of Lib Dem upset wins for a while at least.

    But isn’t that the real reason why you are only betting £40 on a Lib Dem win?

  • Old Hack – I’m sure there would be many takers for a bet that the Conservative vote share will rise in Henley – care to offer some odds?

  • I was going to answer Mike Smithson, but having read Old Hack’s comments I feel I have to deal with him first. Mr Hack, I fear that is not the story, but what you want the story to be. The story is yet to be written, surely?

    Back to Mike.

    Mike, Mike. You keep pedalling this line of ‘neutral observer – sole intention of making some money by watching the way the wind is blowing’. But your site is nothing of the sort.

    The majority of your site is, and always has been a major place for the spin cycle of modern politics to occur. What is more, it has been flooded by the Tory Online Echo Chamber. There is, therefore, very little objective analysis contained within its pages, with many debates reduced to “Lib Dems, LOL” or “Gordon Brown, he is more of a tyrant than Stalin himself”.

    Part of the problem is that I feel you are in denial about the power of your site. Your view of it is based on a perception of 4 years ago when the site was a small and specialised and only psephological nerds / political betters turned up. It had a club like feel, and was reasonably balanced between supporters of the various parties. It had no particular influence then. However, a group of us noticed in the run up to the 2005 election that many of the commentators were starting to write stuff that reflected discussions on the site – so we set up a game / experiment called pb.c cricket where you could score ‘runs’ based on how quickly and fully a particular line you came up with would enter the mainstream press. We were very successful even then.

    Soon after that point, it was clear that the Tory online community noticed the success of your site and the power that it had to influence debate. The site that was previously balanced became dominated by Conservatives, and the debates that were previously good natured, even when feisty became more and more partisan.

    The site in its pages became more overtly Conservative orientated and those expressing views that were different, more complex or more nuanced than the standard lines were not just debated, but simply ridiculed and subjected to scorn and personal abuse.

    And although this is not the way that you operate personally, the fact that there is little room for debate on your site as previously, there is no doubt that the certainty of the direction of travel.

    So the combination of the higher profile of the site – and c’mon Mike, you know that you are invited more and more to speak and write for other media outlets on these topics, and the huge bias of the site has meant that your site has now become a force for influencing the debate in the wider media. So when you announced that a Tory landslide was almost a certainty, you were not just reading the tealeaves, you were helping to create a perception. And politics is all about perception.

  • Paul Lloyd took the words right out of my mouth Mike, you are in denial or just suffering from what people call “Arsene Wenger” disease…didn’t see it or hear it.

    This line “provide a dispassionate information service and discussion platform for those who like forecasting and betting on political outcomes” I find especially funny, again not seeing or reading what is in front of you.

    I and many more Lid Dems, Labour and those or no political colour no longer write or visit your site as its taken on the equivalent of a Star Chamber, with rabid, mostly young and ill informed Tories ready to pounce or anyone who does not profess their love for Mr big spam…sorry Cameron.

    Sorry to make the above so flippant but to take your site as serious political comment, no, not now and maybe not ever again. The Tories have wheeled in the Trojan horse and it’s done a great job.

  • roger heape 24th Jun '08 - 2:27pm

    Henley is not Bromley times have moved on-partcularly the national opinion poll ratings of the Tories.

  • Erm, of course, the other point is that if there is insufficient Lib Dem contributions on there, then people should post more frequently. To some extent, I agree with Paul Lloyd’s post about the influence of the site – certainly, one of the few backbench Labour MPs, I can name (and even know something about) is Nick Palmer because of his posts. I suggest that people perhaps worry less about their blogs which few read and concentrate on putting their views across on this site which is the most widely read on the internet. Oh, and to Old Hack, I believe that political betting gets signficantly more page views that either Guido or Con Home.

  • Martin Land 24th Jun '08 - 3:56pm

    Those who the Tories can’t buy, they will seek to bully.

    Personally, as far as PB is concerned (and I do make irregular comments) just praise the Lord that so many Tories have so much time to spend on PB et al rather than actually campaigning on the doorstep!

  • Julian H.

    Sorry. This line is not dealing with the points that I made. Namely:

    1) Pb.c is a very influencial political site. Other forms of betting do not have the same power to (legally) influence the outcome of what you are betting on.

    2) Out of interest the Standard / YouGov polls did, on average, overstate the Tories by approximately 4% – about the same average that Mori overstated Labour (they were not more accurate on average) just ‘wrong’ in the ‘right’ direction. The poll everyone holds up as evidence of YouGov’s accuracy was taken the day before the election – a week after the last Mori poll – if Mori were to have repeated their poll on the day before, maybe they would have got it ‘right’.

    3) My point is that Mike’s analysis is becoming less neutral and more ‘personal’. And he is beginning to overstep the mark with the information he divulges. He has published two internal Lib Dem e-mails on his site – e-mails that were intended for internal consumption only. He also makes political comments and regularly criticises both Clegg and Brown but praises Cameron, and then hides behind his ‘betting’ opinion.

    4) That you can name the ‘Lib Dem’ commentators – basically all of them – shows how unbalanced it has got. The regular Tories on the other hand have a list that goes on and on. It was not always thus, and it led to better debate and more rounded analysis. I am not against Tories having their say – but it is often the case now that when someone disagrees on the site with the standard ‘Tory’ line then they are subjected to a barage of abuse. The other day, for example someone said that I “must be on crack” for expressing an alternative opinion. I have been called worse on there.

    And finally

    5) The cult of Smithson drives me a bit mad, to be honest. Yeah the site is a good idea, and yeah he has done quite well out of betting on politics. But he is not God and I and the rest of the world do not have to bow to his opinion. Sometimes I disagree with him – and on the issue of ‘I am but a humble better, I am not responsible’ I disagree wholeheartedly with him.

  • Julian. At least three of those names you mention in the second post (feel they) have been driven off / only post on very rare occasions now (Tabman, Book Value & Innocent Abroad). Which goes some way to proving my point.

    The problem is that pb.c was different. Those of us who went there enjoyed the more good natured, but reasoned debate that occurred there. Now it has turned to mob rule, and to my mind that has affected both the quality of the output – including Mike’s – and the neutrality of it.

    My other point is that I am not sure if I think Mike Smithson is naive or disingenuous to think that he is merely a neutral observer. But it seems obvious to me that in a game when perception is everything that a nod or a shake from the internet’s biggest tipper is going to influence perception somewhere down the line. The article above from Mike seems to be wanting to have his cake and eat it – “I am the biggest political website in the UK” – “I have no influence on politics” defies belief.

  • I am a big fan of Mike’s site and I think his analysis is fair.

    I am grateful for the way he separates out his betting advice from what he hopes will happen, and have made a fair few quid from going with his advice rather than my own more optimistic predictions.

    As with all blogs I just take a lot of the Tory comments with a large pinch of salt.

  • Big Tall Tim 24th Jun '08 - 5:50pm

    PB.Com is largely a Tory posters site but that’s an outcome of the Tories doing well nationally.
    I post occasionally, mainly to wind the Tories up, especially SeanT, JFH and Marcus Wood. It’s a shame that Rik has disappeared.
    Only 1 of Mike’s threads has driven me to criticise him on PB-Com. That was the re-production of an internal e-mail asking LDs to come to henley alst Thursday to help with a delivery. I believed then and I still believe “it was bad form” to re-produce an internal e-mail for the benefit of the PB.Com site.
    However the vast majority of the other 10k threads have been informative and entertaining.
    My main problem is I only post on PB.Com when I should be working 🙂

  • I am surprised at the suggestion that Lib Dems are moving away from Mike S’s site and my impression is that there is a higher proportion of them posting on the site than people supporting the LD’s in the opinion polls.

    It is apparent that less Labour supporters are now posting on the site but is that surprising given Labour’s fall-off in the polls.

    My estimate is that almost 50% of the bloggers now support the Tories which is not materially inconsistent with the polls

  • I think Paul Lloyd raises some fair points for discussion, but also is getting a bit hysterical in places. And I say that as a LD poster on Although I post there less often these days, I have been posting since the beginning of 2005.

    The site is influential, and can set the weather a bit. But the solution to overwhelming Tory presence is not to walk away and sulk. This is politics, and that is the way things work. Treat like a by-election – because it is! 😉

    On a more serious note, I do think there is a need now for a proper rating system on like Slashdot uses. I have been calling for years now for a “killfile” ability to screen out all the moronic posts from sock-puppets like “Martin Day” and others, who form most of the Tory hot-air.

    The importance of the site and the vast quantity of posts now mean that there does need to be an evolution of the site to the next level. The story of Slashdot and how it evolved is very interesting, and I recommend it to everyone here, especially Mike Singleton himself:

    I think this can take to the next level in political discussion and mean that the serious commentators of every political colour – and there are probably 5 from each party who I would rate as better commentators than the likes of Polly Toynbee and Simon Heffer etc – could engage in debate with anonymous others without the innane gabble of Tory schoolboys getting in the way…

  • I think it is the other way around Mike. The internet had a flood of bloggers before the polls turned.

    I have not got a problem with Mike Smithson’s site being a Tory haven. That’s not my problem. I just wish that he wouldn’t hide behind his betting. It is a political site and highly influential. As such it leads opinion as much as it follows it. If Mike is not aware of this, then maybe he should reassess. It may not be his intention, but that does not mean it is not the outcome.

  • I am not quite sure where I am getting hysterical, M’boy. I just merely disagree with Mike Smithson, and have put up the reasons why.

    So thank you for accepting that I may have some points. I agree that people should get on there and fight, but that means a recognition that pb.c is not a site for ‘dispassionate dispassionate information service and discussion platform for those who like forecasting and betting on political outcomes.
    ‘ whether Mike wants it to be or not, but the biggest political debate forum on the internet.

  • Some very interesting comments on here.

    I challenge anyone to go back to some of the very early comment threads (esepcially, for example, around the time of the Hartlepool by-election in September 2004) and tell me that the quality of the comments now is a patch on back then.

    It was for more “clubable” in the early days, and there seemed to be greater respect on all sides.

    I rarely go on there now, partly because I have to work harder and partly because of the sheer volume of dross points and posters that have to be waded through.

  • I am a LibDem who posts from time to time on Mike’s site, but I do not bet. If I did bet, I would read all comments there to see how emotional as opposed to rational betters feel; but I would not post. I would use the balance of feeling to identify where the odds looked irrational, and bet accordingly. Since the comments suggest that the irrational money tends to go towards the Tories, my bets would tend to be against the Tories.

    May I appeal to those who feel aggrieved in some way at Mike’s site to follow that betting strategy in a cool-headed way for the rest of the year; and donate 20% or so of their net winnings to party funds?

  • Mike Smithson 24th Jun '08 - 7:28pm

    For large periods before the 2005 general election there was only one Conservative supporter who regularly posted on PB – Sean Fear. He used to take an absolute hammering and he dealt with it with creditable good humour and without rancour.

    The issue now is that according to the polls getting on for half the electorate say they will support Cameron’s party and this, inevitably, is reflected in the number of comments and commenters.

    There is a problem that I’m trying to deal with quietly and that is that after a decade and a half in the wilderness two or three Tory contributors are letting their euphoria spill over into making repetitive and sometimes offensive contributions.

    As to Paul Lloyd’s points I sometimes feel that his overwhelming hatred of all things Tory leads him to suspend all rational thought. His so called “analysis” of YouGov’s London mayoral performance is a case in point. The pollster that is led by the spouse of a Labour cabinet minister, Peter Kellner, got it exactly right. Of course there were variations in the run up to polling day but that happens with all firms. Paul – get over it.

    Thank you Julian H and others for their supportive comments.

    My betting record speaks for itself.

  • Mike Smithson 24th Jun '08 - 7:57pm

    Diversity – I think that your are wrong on that. The current general election betting at the moment reflects an ultra-cautious view of Tory prospects. The polls are suggesting a three figure Tory majority while the spread betting markets, where the serious money is gambled, are pointing to an overall majority in the 30s.

    People who bet according to their allegiance are mugs.

  • Personally I think that Mike Smithson is doing great work for Lib Dems by keeping Conservative activists busy on his site talking about their bright future and laughing to Lib Dems instead of doing something more useful, like for instance delivering leaflets in Henley.

    That said, the discussion on the site is mostly repeating itself, and Mike Smithson is closing the mouths of those, who are criticising the Conservative bullies, to whom he has given a free reign. But maybe that’s a part of his great masterplan, to keep the Conservatives busy on something useless.

  • C’mon Mike. Debate the points. You boast that you have the biggest political website in the country, but also claim that you have no influence. Does the media have no influence on political stories? Really?

  • Darrell. I sometimes wonder why I bother. I totally agree that Mike Smithson does not have to run a site for anyone. I have no problem with political existing. Moreover, I want it to exist. I just don’t think that it is outside the loop, which is what Mike claims it is.

  • Daniel Bowen 25th Jun '08 - 7:35am

    One of the glories of is that it does encourage people to show their true colours and prejudices (somehow). At least one Tory activist (R Willis) has seen his political career seriously set back as a result.

  • Julian – there is a combination of all those factors in my absence.

    I think what the argument boils down to is this:

    – there is a view that people who bet on the outcome, view politics more dispassionately than those who don’t
    – therefore, PBC discussions are supposedly less prone to spin than other places
    – the media has picked up on this, and wrote pieces about PBC using that presumption
    – many people (and now, significant numbers of Tories) also picked up on this, and started spinning on the site
    – political betting is one of those areas where there are small traded volumes, so betting movements can become the story
    – this is what it is hoped can be exploited
    – the msm is influenced by the site, and in turn influences the public

  • I too used to post on pb.c and read each thread religiously but 6 months or so gave up on that, and now don’t bother with any of the comments and just skim the headlines.

    The site is certainly neither as fun nor as friendly as it used to be – and sadly also less informative. In part it’s a victim of its own success, but now it really just feels like an adjunct to ConHome, and I expect the contributing readership is similar.

    But there are plenty more places on the web to divert me!

  • Oxonian. I am scared to ask 😉

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