Alphabet Soup

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Ask any adult learner of English who already possesses a fairly high level of proficiency in the language to spell their own name. It is more likely than not that they will be unable to do so—or at least unable to do so well.

This may shock you. But, in fact, it should come as no surprise.

As one learner put it to me recently after failing to spell her name:“I was trying to remember the rhyme we learned in school.”

The rhyme she learned in school clearly didn’t help.

This common problem with an aspect of language that seems so basic neatly encapsulates the multiple difficulties that arise when the arduous business of learning a language is further complicated by misguided teaching.

In the case of the alphabet, the traditional approach is encumbered by three fundamental flaws:

1) the alphabet is incorrectly regarded as something very basic;

2) it is therefore taught early on in a course and then forgotten; and

3) it is usually taught in isolation both from social use and from other aspects of the language.

On top of this, there is a whole truckload of ideological and socio-cultural baggage associated with the alphabet.

It is regarded in popular discourse, for instance, as something proverbially very basic or childish and hence easy to acquire. We say, in English, that something is ‘as easy as ABC’. In Portuguese, the term ‘alfabetização’ refers both to ‘literacy’ and to the first years of elementary school. People who are unable to read or write are termed ‘analfabetos’, literally ‘unalphabeted’. Learners naturally, therefore, feel a certain shame at seeming not to have mastered this very basic learning stage.

In fact, the alphabet is not basic at all and it is not a stage on the way towards anything.

This is not only because children happily learn to speak and to understand spoken language at a very early age with no recourse whatsoever to a written alphabet. It is also because the very process of learning the names of letters and reciting them in a certain order is not something that is fundamental for any essential communication skill. You can talk and listen to people talking and even read and write perfectly well without ever doing this, as the existence of many a competent adult language learner who has forgotten the alphabet readily attests.

Should you doubt this, try writing down the names of the letters of the English alphabet and try to spell them correctly. I guarantee that, unless you are a regular Scrabble player, you will find this difficult, if not impossible. The answer, should you be interested, can be found at the end of this post.

For the purpose of reading and writing in a first language, there is a good argument for teaching the alphabet to children early on in school. But is this true for adults? And what function could such a procedure possibly serve if adult learners are already literate and already use the Latin alphabet in their own language? Even if they use a very different writing system, they will undoubtedly profit much more greatly from preliminary lessons that focus more on basic spoken communication skills.

No need then to teach the alphabet early on in a course at all.

 I am of course not advocating that the pronunciation of the names of the written letters should be removed from the language learning curriculum altogether. I suggest only that it should be covered at a relatively advanced stage and that it should be related always to those (relatively few) practical contexts in which the alphabet is actually needed.

When giving one’s name, for example, it is often useful to spell it out loud. But this would normally be in the context of a situation such a telephone conversation, which already presupposes quite advanced listening and speaking skills.

A good way to introduce the alphabet, therefore, is not through the arbitrary traditional order of the signs, but through the spelling out loud of common words and names, beginning with listening. Another helpful method would be to draw the attention of learners to commonly used acronyms such as DJ, MC, CNN and BBC. Learners are thus introduced to the names of letters of the alphabet in a sequence that reflects the commonness of their occurrence in real discourse, as they are (or should be) with other words.   

The fact that so many language courses and course books still begin with recitation of the alphabet is a sign of how little has really changed in the business of language learning.

This failing also however encourages us to reflect one of the fundamental principles that should underpin any attempt to learn or teach a second language. The content of a language learning course should always be firmly embedded in real-life natural language use and as far possible avoid the employment of artificial devices, such as alphabets.

The alphabet jingle may jangle in your memory for the rest of your life. But it will not help you spell your name when you need to. This requires practice of a very different kind.   

Answer

The names of the letters of the alphabet in English are traditionally written as follows: a, bee, cee, dee, e, ef (or eff), gee, aitch, i, jay, kay, el (or ell), em, en, o, pee, cue, ar, es (or ess), tee, u, vee, double-u, ex, wy (or wye), and zee.

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Sheep and Goats

Sheep and Goats—A Footnote to Testing Tests

A Chinese High School math exam question has recently gone viral on YouTube.

It goes something like this:

“A ship is carrying 74 goats and 35 sheep. How old is the Captain?”

As it turns out, there is nothing new about this question. It has often been used over the past forty years or so to test the ability of students to identify ‘fake’ questions, tolerate ambiguity or develop ‘critical thinking’.

The story in fact goes back even further. The French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, posed a similar question to his sister, who was beginning the study of mathematics in school, in a letter dated 1841.

This ultimate origin story is in fact the most interesting part of the puzzle.

In France in the 1840s, universal education was still in its infancy (literally) and many, left and right of the political spectrum, questioned its utility and the motives underlying the introduction of a nationwide school curriculum.

On the right, it was viewed as an attempt to uproot people from their local culture and encourage less privileged members of society to question their lowly status and the class system as a whole.

On the left, intellectuals such as Flaubert saw it as a recruitment drive aiming to produce a mechanized bourgeois society organized exclusively around industry and finance, at the expense of poetry, mystery and genuine human relations.

It is for this reason that Flaubert jokingly poses his sister this pseudo-problem, as she is about to embark on her academic studies.

The answer Flaubert was begging was presumably that an artist (and by extension a person) should be free of the constraints of science and finance and thereby at liberty to choose certain things.

Different from Flaubert, however, in whose communication, the ironic intent is gentle and apparent, recent versions of the question are applied en masse, perhaps with benign intent, but with the clandestine purpose of ‘tricking’ candidates into providing incorrect answers in the interest of ‘scientific’ research.

Online discussions of actual responses to this problem include some very revealing examples.

One Chinese candidate recently looked up the average weight of sheep and goats and the bureaucratic requirements regarding age and experience stipulated for a ship’s captain charged with carrying cargo of this bulk within the territorial waters of the People’s Republic. This candidate concluded that the captain must be aged 28 years or older.

Flaubert would have hated this eminently unpoetic solution. But it is the best, if we assume the question to be a fair one.

Other literal-minded question solvers have not been so resourceful. One hapless French student, confronted with the question in the late 1970s, argued desperately that the number of sheep plus the number of goats is too high to be the age of a person, while the number of sheep divided by the number of the goats is too low. Therefore, the correct answer must be the difference between the two values given.

Flaubert would have hated this candidate’s unctuous but desperate efforts to please his or her masters even more.

And yet, who can blame candidates for not taking such a question seriously in the context of the ordeal of a math exam and attempting to answer it in these terms? Just as experimental subjects consistently pumped up the electric shocks administered in the Milgram experiment.

The ‘sheep and goats’ question is not really about math education, but rather, like the Milgram experiment, about obedience to authority.

People come up with ridiculous answers to this question, not because they are foolish or uncreative, but because they are conditioned to do so by the constraints of an authoritarian educational system.

The experiment is actually self-defeating in its own terms. There are many genuine math problems that have no solution. This may be because no such solution has yet been found or because (more troublingly) it is impossible to find such a solution. Evidence suggests that cases of the latter are by far more numerous.

This means not only that we all know much less than we think but, more worryingly, that there are many things we can never know—not because of our own limitations as human beings or those of our technology, but because of the essential ambiguity and inscrutability of the things themselves.

Disturbing this may be, but we would all be better served, were this fundamental uncertainty included openly in our school curricula and political discourse, rather than used divisively to test the supposed degree of intelligence or stupidity of students and tests, or politicians and voters; sorting them, by way of some kind of authoritarian trickery, into groups of sheep and goats.

So far as math and other questions are concerned, ‘Duh’ is often the best answer. Gödel, Homer Simpson and the Zen masters told you so.

“Poorsplaining” and “True Education”

A recent newcomer to the ever-growing English lexicon is the word ‘mansplain’—a verb that refers to the act of a man over-explaining something (usually something quite obvious) to a woman, as if she were stupid. There is a funny scene in the US comedy series Silicon Valley in which a male character mansplains mansplaining itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyC_NKEz62A

Joking and political correctness apart, I think this term makes a useful contribution to the English language and sheds light on an oppressive behavior pattern (going far beyond gender disparities) that has hitherto tended to be overlooked.

I will coin the term ‘poorsplaining’ for this broader phenomenon, since it is invariably used as a discursive mechanism by which a powerful group seeks to entrench the disempowerment of a less privileged group, under the guise of apparently enlightening them. It is a way of explaining things (poorly) to the poor in a way designed to keep them poor.

“Poorsplaining” has in fact become the main mode of conveyance of political and supposedly educational discourse in the modern age.
This has come about for understandable reasons based on generally good intentions. But good intentions alone, as the old cliché goes, can all too easily pave the way to hell.

In the not so distant past, political and intellectual élites draped themselves in a deliberately arcane and impenetrable mode of discourse designed to shore up their power base and deny anyone without privileged access to it any say in the debate. There is a scene in the James Ivory film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in which a group of politicians are debating enfranchisement. One of them proceeds to ask the butler a question about economic and foreign policy, couching it in obscure terms. The butler is both stumped by the form in which the question is posed and too deferent to offer any point of view of his own. The politician takes this as proving his point regarding the need to disenfranchise the working classes.

Using language to make things unnecessarily difficult to understand is obviously oppressive. But the opposite—making complex matters apparently easy to understand—can be equally oppressive and much more deviously so. It has the advantage, from the point of view of the elites, of being a much subtler, less intrusive, seemingly more inclusive approach.

In the 1970s, future UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood atop a soap box brandishing a bag of groceries and attempted to poorsplain to the British populace how macroeconomics is in fact no different from managing the family budget. No economist would agree that this analogy is at all apt, although some might cynically argue that it is a useful necessary illusion to ensure that the rich are granted tax cuts while the poor are kept in their place. The ideological legerdemain was especially effective in so far as it was delivered by a woman—a woman who, true to her traditional stereotype, was doing her household chores and keeping things in simple terms.

Fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are campaigning frantically at Town Hall meetings and rallies in an effort to be elected to the most powerful political position in the world.

I am rarely impressed by politicians (especially when they are in campaigning mode) and these two were, by and large, no exception. But I saw something at a Town Hall meeting with Hillary Clinton that truly impressed me. A member of the audience asked the Democratic Party candidate a very specific question about difficulties she was having with her family healthcare insurance policy. Politicians usually take such prompts as an opportunity to appear caring, while spouting platitudes and set-pieces in response. Clinton did something very different. She asked the member of the audience to give her more details about her situation and proceeded to advise her on a face-to-face basis on the healthcare insurance options available to her. This impressed me but obviously did not make very ‘good television’. As the confused guest and the moderator tried to steer her back towards more comfortable platitudes, Clinton did something unprecedented, noble, yet perhaps politically fatal. She said, “It’s more complicated than that.”

Meanwhile, across the country, Donald Trump was haranguing rallies with a brutal simplistic discourse, putting everything in the most absurdly simplistic and monosyllabic terms and not responding to any negative feedback or input whatsoever, except aggressively.

Trump is savvy, but not sensitive, intelligent or knowledgeable. Most people are more like him than like Hillary and he exploits that to the hilt. Clinton had recently handed Trump a gift when she described his supporters as an “irredeemable basket of deplorables.” Trump seized on this as an unguarded undemocratic display of condescension (which in fact it was). But he did something else far more significant. He explained to his audience what the word “irredeemable” means. “That means you can’t change,” he added, whenever he quoted the phrase.

Clinton later went back on what she had said, but in a statistically pernickety manner, arguing that she had only meant that some (not all) of Trump’s supporters were ‘deplorable’. She did not elaborate on her use of the term ‘irredeemable’.

This is in many ways the very opposite of the Thatcher campaign in 1979. Eyes roll as Hillary “womansplains” boring details to potential voters, while supporters cheer and roar as Trump from his podium of male privilege ‘poorsplains’ (condescendingly and poorly) complex economic and foreign policy issues and the meaning of English words.

Both politicians now find themselves hoisted by the petard of their own rhetorical and gender-influenced strategies. Trump struggles to provide a more thorough explanation of ill-thought-out macho policies that he had previously poorsplained the populace into believing in. Clinton’s recent well-thought-out memoir on the reasons for her defeat runs perilously close to the risk of being characterized as gender-stereotypical whingeing.

There is obviously much more to be said about this highly nuanced ongoing political controversy than I can possibly go into here. So, I shall turn instead to the pernicious influence of what I have dubbed ‘poorsplaining’ in the education system.

Charles Dickens’s Hard Times begins with a parody of a schoolmaster giving a lesson to underprivileged children. The class is discussing not Latin verbs or engineering or government economic policy, but interior decorating—more specifically the type of wallpaper with which it is appropriate to paper a sitting room. A girl pipes up that she would like the room to be papered with a pattern involving horses, because she likes horses. She is duly berated by the teacher, who insists that it is ‘more rational’ to use a flower pattern or geometrical abstraction.

This is probably not the part of Hard Times that readers incline to remember. But it is, I think, significant that Dickens chooses to begin his dour tale of Victorian injustice and social exclusion with a classroom scene and mocks the kind of education that is (excuse the irresistible pun) furnished by the teacher.

The passage is even more striking in that it presages a modern era in which TV shows and advertisements purportedly educate the populace as to the more refined fashions, while eschewing provision of basic information on civics and economics, still less mathematics or engineering. A culture in which knowing how to properly paper a wall is more important than the ability to build one or the knowledge of how to use your rights to pressure the government or your landlord to build one for you.

It is but a short skip from Dickens to the more dumbed down form of schooling to which I was subject, whereby art lessons supposedly involved promoting ‘free expression’ and avoiding the imposition of culturally-determined ideals. There were, of course, limits to this. But they were arbitrary rather than sensible ones. I remember an art class when I was six years old in which we were encouraged to experiment with free abstraction and use of color and I produced a painting that involved a series or orange boxes set against a purple background. Rothko style. The teacher, who was probably only doing this sort of exercise out of government-imposed edict anyway, castigated me on the grounds that purple and orange are not colors that ‘go together’. Ever since then, “purple and orange” have been my preferred color scheme, as they are, interestingly, in some of the more subversive comic book art that eschews primary colors. As a result of this arbitrarily imposed authority, within an arbitrarily imposed liberal context, I became arbitrarily rebellious.

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (a film loosely based on the events surrounding the real-life Columbine High School massacre) in which the students are sat down and dutifully, if a little unenthusiastically, being taught about tolerance and difference. This scene occurs shortly before the shooting begins. Elephant is obviously based on a very real and very shocking act of extreme and seemingly senseless violence, but a similar theme is addressed in Lindsay Anderson’s 1960s film If…, in which the graphically presented revolutionary violence is confined to fantasy and set against a backdrop of the very real violence, abuse and ideological indoctrination of the normalized everyday life of an English ‘public’ (i.e. expensive private) school.

Both films involve a scene in which the headmaster/director is shot dead. In Anderson’s film, he is strutting arrogantly around in robes and perfunctorily gunned down from a distance by a rooftop sniper. In Elephant, he is confronted by his killer in the corridor and pleads for mercy. But the fate of the headmaster (the ultimate symbol of the school ethos as a whole)—one ridiculously authoritarian, the other ridiculously liberal—is the same and equally mercilessly meted out.

Here the Trump and Clinton communications strategies are reversed, ideologically speaking. The conservative authoritarian private school mansplains arcane and meaningless doctrines and rituals for young minds, while the modern liberal US public school preaches diversity and tolerance and dumbs down the curriculum in an effort to be ‘inclusive.’ Both, however, like the 2016 US presidential election campaign, succeed only in fostering a climate of alienation and heighten the potential for outbursts of senseless violence.

As a teacher and a learner myself, I am well aware that learning is never easy and it is patronizing, disingenuous and ultimately unfair to pretend that it is or can be made to be so. Learning should be difficult, but it should not be difficult because of understandable resistance to arbitrarily imposed norms or obfuscating language, but because of the inherent obscurity, ambiguity and complexity of the subject matter, of the world itself. This is where the true source of fascination with learning lies and it is precisely this innate thirst for complex nuanced knowledge that is stifled by authoritarian and liberal schools and politicians alike from an early age.

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was first published in the early 1970s but is more relevant than ever today. At the very start of this book, Illich notes an overlap between the language of education and the language of war. Nixon, for example, vows to “teach the Viet Cong a lesson”… by bombing them. In another chapter, Illich imagines a future world in which learners are connected to and learn through one another in ‘virtual learning communities’ by way of some, at that time, still unimaginable future technology, thereby dispensing with the need for the unavoidably oppressive infrastructure of schools.

Such technology and such virtual networks of course now exist in multitudes and, although they are still used less for good than for ill, there is increasingly no need for mansplaining or poorsplaining. All learners have always obviously been quite capable of exploring the nuances and complexities of the world for themselves. Now they are also fully equipped to do so. Illich’s futuristic utopian pedagogical world may yet be more than a mere pipe dream. For the sake of all of us and the fate of the world, let us strive to make it real,

Testing Tests

As a teacher and language test setter, I am well aware how individual questions or whole tests can tend unwittingly to disadvantage candidates of different social, racial and educational backgrounds. In an ideal world, we would eradicate all such inequalities but, in practice, attaining such a perfect equilibrium would be impossible and would not necessarily even be desirable, were it to produce tests that everyone can pass. We should however aim to eradicate any aspects of a test that unfairly disadvantage or even deliberately exclude candidates of a certain background.

The Louisiana State Voter Registration Literacy Test of the 1960s was a test designed specifically for the purpose of disenfranchising African Americans and it provides a good guide as to what not to do when designing a test. The Jim Crow establishment in the Southern States was concerned to hold back social change and civil rights for as long as possible. Although it was no longer legal to disenfranchise citizens on the basis solely of race, it was still permissible to withhold the right to vote from those who were deemed illiterate and hence ‘mentally deficient’. The State of Louisiana thus introduced a test to be applied to all citizens who had not completed basic education, a disproportionate number of whom were, for reasons of historical discrimination, inevitably going to be black.

The test the State of Louisiana came up with is devilishly effective. It is not just tricky, it is carefully crafted, in every respect, to ensure that every candidate will fail and, furthermore, with a very low score, thereby further confirming the mental deficiency of the potential voter.

The test consists of 30 questions of a ‘logical’ nature.

At the time, it was widely believed that tests based on pure logic were less likely to discriminate and more likely to assess ‘pure’ intelligence than those based on language skills, math or other school subjects. This in itself is a highly dubious assumption and one that I return to below.

Candidates were given 10 minutes to answer all questions and would fail and thus be prevented from voting if they fell short of a score of 100%. It is clearly impossible, even for a highly trained logician hyped up on amphetamines, to accomplish such a task.

Were this not barrier enough, most of the questions are of the kind that tie your brain in knots or are virtually impossible to answer with any degree of certainty. Questions of the type “Underline every word in this sentence that contains the letter e except this one” abound.

This test is obviously as laughable as its intent is despicable, but it is the only example I know of a test specifically designed to garner a 100% failure rate and, for this reason, I recommend that test setters study it as a way of ensuring that none of their questions resemble it even in the smallest degree.

The racist electoral authorities in Louisiana were only able to slip this transparent exercise in bigotry and deceit under the eyes of higher more liberal authorities because there was a general idea at the time that supposedly logic-based intelligence quotient (IQ) testing provided a fair unbiased measure of intellectual ability. Such tests were routinely applied in the UK to children as young as eleven to determine whether they would be granted a more academic education providing later access to better paid clerical jobs or one based on more manual skills. They were also used by psychologists to classify individuals as ‘morons’ or ‘cretins’ (these now highly offensive epithets were then regarded as technical terms) and thereby deny these individuals access to certain opportunities and rights (including, in some cases, the right to procreate).

IQ tests seem fair. There is a balance between verbal, mathematical, visual-spatial and logical skills. They do not appear to depend on any prior book- or family-learnt knowledge. A whole impressive-looking baggage of science and statistics is at hand to back them up.

More critical scholars who examined IQ test results found, however, again and again, that, while such tests could not be accused of discriminating on the grounds of race or class, children who are raised in an urban environment perform significantly better on them than those from rural areas.

In an attempt to explain this anomaly, they pointed to questions (common in IQ tests) of the ‘odd-one-out’ variety.

To give a fictional but not atypical example:

Which is the odd one out? A. dog B. cat C. cow D. chicken

The ‘correct’ answer is D, because the other three animals are mammals. But you could arrive at the same conclusion by way of other forms of logic: dogs, cats and cows have four legs, all produce milk, only chickens have wings etc. etc. Even if we take knowledge of the difference between mammals and birds out of the question, it does not, on the face of it, appear to be a particularly difficult question.

Children from rural areas, however, tend to answer differently in disproportionate numbers. And the most common type of explanation given by the children themselves for opting for Cow in this fictional case, for example, was something akin to “Dogs chase cats and chickens, but they don’t chase cows.”

What is interesting here is not the fact that the rural children got the question ‘wrong’ but the way that they explain their reasoning. After all, the question is highly flawed and has many possible answers. Cow, for example, could be the right answer because cows are bigger than cats, chickens or dogs, or because cows are used to produce milk for human consumption, while dogs and chickens and cats are not. In fact there are an infinite number of possible answers and explanations.

The researchers concluded that the rural children differed in their response for two different but related reasons. First, the children brought up in the countryside noted the order of the list, while the city kids assumed it to be random. So the rural kids were thinking something like this: “OK. The dog comes first. So this must be a question about what dogs do to the other three animals. Well, I’ve seen them chase cats and chickens, but never a cow. Pronto. Obvious answer.”

The rural children visualize the order of the words into a kind of dynamic everyday narrative with which they are familiar, whilst the urban kids are happy to regard the order of words as no more significant than that in which the melon, cherry, lemon and orange fall in a fruit machine. They are used to randomness; while rural dwellers look for a fixed pattern.

The other difference concerns the way the children of different backgrounds categorize things differently. The urban children rely primarily on abstract categories learnt from books in school. Even though they may be unfamiliar with the details of Linnaean taxonomy, they are used to organizing things by counting legs or according to functional use. And even if they got the question ‘wrong’, they would be inclined to do so on the grounds of the cow being bigger—another abstract quality.

What we are witnessing here is a clash between two kinds of wisdom. Rural knowledge is practical, visual and specific. Urban knowledge is abstract, categorical and random.

The test is the big loser here, because it fails to strike a reasonable balance between these two kinds of understanding, both of which are equally valid and important. And tests fail to be fair for this kind of reason again and again and again.

*

There are all sorts of tests in life. Academic tests form a small (if privileged) subset, IQ tests (fortunately) an increasingly smaller one.

But I wonder whether the same sort of criticism might be applied to other kinds of more important tests: elections, for example, and the dark shadow of elections that is polling.

Like multiple choice IQ tests, ballot papers present voters with a randomly ordered list of candidates affiliated to various parties. It is different from an academic test in that there is no ‘right’ answer and you can change your mind the next time the test comes around. It is also different, in so far as the test works both ways. The democratic system is testing the feelings of the population and the people are testing the policies of their potential rulers.

I therefore find it somewhat disturbing that many people, in the wake of the two most controversial and unexpected national elections in UK history and other similar ones around the world, posted comments on social media to the effect that ‘voters got the election wrong’.

This presupposes that there is some ‘right’ answer and, in so far as this negates the very essence of democracy, it is a belief that serves as a gateway to various shades of ugly authoritarianism—a slippery slope towards the reintroduction of something akin to but more sophisticated than the Louisiana Voter Registration Literacy Test.

I personally find Donald Trump’s personality and policies odious, but more insidious still is the notion that by electing him president, the American people somehow ‘got the election wrong.’ I think Brexit is a tragedy for Britain, but I would not argue that, having had their say, the British people somehow ‘got the result of the referendum wrong’.

The recent general election in Britain has thrown any notion of electoral right or wrong to the wind. It is deeply unfair to argue, given the Tory Party and Teresa May’s dismal performance in recent years, that the electorate got it wrong by failing to deliver her a stomping majority to push through unfair and misguided policies. But it is equally unfair to argue that hers is not, at least for the time being, a legitimate government.

In a true democracy, the right answer is always the one that the people opt for and they always have the right to change that next time round, which will rightly come sooner rather than later, if elections throw up ambiguous results. Hung parliaments provide good ‘teachable moments’ for politicians and electors alike.

Elections enable voters not only to opt for the best answer to their problems but also, in the event of a hung parliament, to demand a better test.

Since 2015, I have been sifting through as much British election data as possible in an effort to find an explanation for the tumult of the past two years. A whole rainbow of choices is now available compared to previous elections, in which voters were confronted with a simple choice of switching directly from Labour to Conservative or vice versa, or in more highly polarized areas, shifting from either side to the middle ground of the Lib Dems.

This was predictable and pollsters, those other testers, usually ‘got the result right’. This is obviously no longer the case.

Sifting through the data, I have identified numerous complex patterns among so-called floating voters. I shall focus here on one group alone: those who voted Liberal Democrat or Labour in 2010, UKIP in 2015 and Labour in 2017. Some of these individuals have voted for three different parties, with widely diverging policies, in the space of just seven years. Are they wrong?

Obviously, I think not. They are rather like the rural children who see things not in terms of the abstract categories beloved of pollsters (Do you consider yourself basically Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem?) but instead in those of the more dynamic practical issues of who better chases whom and what this means in everyday life.

During the Blair administration, when Labour and the Tories were largely in cahoots, these voters drifted to the Lib Dems, stirred by the populist man-down-the-pub manner of Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy. Disappointed by the Conservative Lib Dem coalition, these voters then shifted in large numbers to UKIP, whose leader not only had an earthy man-down-the-pub manner but also appeared to explain why all three parties had failed them for so many years, albeit by unfairly pinning the blame on immigrants and the European Union. Whence Brexit. Now, in 2017, these same voters are rallying back around Jeremy Corbyn’s more progressive Labour Party and look set, in the near future, to overturn decades of Conservative or quasi-conservative rule.

Are all these people wrong? Of course not. They are simply and rightly more interested in which candidate/party seems better placed to chase off the chickens than in fitting neatly into the abstract socio-economic/fiscal-policy categories into which, according to the pollsters and the politicians, they should belong.

Never have we been further from Louisiana. Never has the test of an election got things so right.