When confronted with new facts, politicians' first instinct – like that of most people – is to try to get them to fit their preconceptions.
Thus those that have long advocated a particular policy on widgets will instinctively look to make any new data about widgets support what they advocated previously. It's not that they bad people, but, I'm told, just the way our brains are wired.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident in Westminster than where opinion polling is concerned.
Yesterday, a polling firm, Survation, published data from two Parliamentary constituencies – Great Grimsby and Dudley North.
In both seats, which the Conservatives came within a whisker of winning at the last election, Labour seems to be comfortably ahead.
Without there necessarily being any direct shift in support from Tory to Labour (as for example happened between 1992-97), these polls suggest that Labour could gain because of the re-distribution of support amongst third and fourth parties. Lib Dems going to Labour, combined with some of the Tory base going to UKIP, could change the electoral arithmetic quite dramatically.
It is at this point in the conversation that widget syndrome usually kicks in.
"This only goes to show that Cameron must announce X" say long-term advocates of X. Self-conscious modernisers, meanwhile, will tell you why this means we need to become more self-consciously modern.
I am not convinced. Of course one needs the right policies, but the one way for a party leader to guarantee that they won't get any credit for them is to allow themselves to be seen to be doing something because they have to. To be plausible, perception of your motives is vital.
What the Survation data really suggests to me is that the era of pendulum politics is over. A loss of support for one party no longer automatically translates into support for the other. To respond, we don't need knee jerk policies on widgets or anything else. We need to fundamentally rethink the way we do politics.
If the political market place is fragmenting, with room for niche brands and distinctive offerings, we Conservatives should stop looking for one-size-fits-all solutions. We need to become a much more niche, decentralised party.
A generation ago, the Conservative Party was routed in Scotland because a party that branded itself as a Scottish Unionist party until the 1970s, allowed itself to be seen as an English party. It wasn't a purple party that took our share of the market in Scotland, but the dark blue of the Scottish Nationalists.
Across English constituencies today, we are in danger of being seen as a Westminster party. The property of those in SW1.
It will take more than a tougher widget policy to change that.
Britain is one of the greatest places on the planet to live.
It's not just me who believes that. There are tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of people who settle in Britain each year who seem to think so too.
One or two people in the comment thread below might disagree, but I hope the rest of us would never hold it against any individual for wanting to make a better life for themselves by living in the UK.
We can, however, hold it against the political class for failing to be a little bit more selective as to who gets let in.
With so many people from around the globe wanting to come to our country, you'd have thought we might have a system in place that ensures we attract the brightest and the best. Unfortunately, we don't.
Being in the EU, we are open to anyone from any EU member state wanting to settle here. That means that we allow many unskilled migrants, who are more likely to claim Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.
At the same time, highly educated and entrepreneurial Singaporeans, for example, have to apply for work visas. It makes no sense.
I know of a farm in Essex (not in my constituency, I might add) that has for years depended on Bulgarian students to help gather in the harvest. Each year they come over, work hard, and return to Bulgaria. Without them, the farm would not cope. However unfashionable it might be to point this out, it needs pointing out.
But here's the thing. While Bulgarian students are willing to travel across a continent to work on that farm, just a few miles away are some folk living at public expense, who could do the work, but won't. This also needs pointing out.
We cannot get serious about reforming the immigration system without also ending the something-for-nothing benefit culture. At times, I wonder if politicians almost depend on the crazy immigration system we have in order to avoid having to make any difficult decisions about benefits.
In order to change things for the better, Britain needs to take back control of its immigration system. It is no coincidence that two of the countries with the best immigration systems I can think of – Switzerland and Australia – are both outside the EU.
It is those elected to Bern or Canberra – not faceless officials in Brussels – who decide on who gets to live in Switzerland and Australia.
And because those elected take responsibility for immigration policy, immigration policy in both Australia and Switzerland has adapted to the needs of each country.
In Switzerland, where one in five workers is non-Swiss, there is an intelligent, rational debate about needs of the Swiss economy. Look how far the debate in Australia about immigration has moved on since the days of Pauline Hanson.
Surely we need to discuss not only the needs to the economy, but what helps make successful first and second generation Britons, too?
If those we elected to Parliament – and vulnerable to the views of the voters - were responsible, we might begin to have an intelligent debate about what kind of immigration we need. As long as we remain in the EU, I doubt this will happen.
It is a question of maths. Either we can retain our system on non-contributory welfare benefits, or Britain can continue to allow the unrestricted movement of Europeans into Britain.
We cannot do both.
Britain is currently one of only five EU member states – the others being Ireland, Estonia, Germany and Finland – that offers those out of work non-contributory cash payments. Only in those countries can you draw payments, when unemployed and looking for work, without having paid into the system.
There has been a 70 per cent surge in EU migrants coming to the UK in recent years. Most come to work, but already one in every 25 on Job Seekers Allowance is an EU migrant – and that is with a residency test in place.
The European Commission has taken issue with our residency testing, and wants to allow every European the same right to claim non-contributory benefits in Britain as UK nationals. If we did that, the system will become unsustainable.
It goes without saying that if you or I pitched up in Paris, Milan, Athens or Bucharest, we could not claim benefits without having contributed. Such benefits don't exist there as they do here.
No matter, the Eurocrats are determined that they should decide who is entitled to UK benefits. Did anyone imagine that this is what we were signing up to when we joined the Common Market all those years ago?
How bizarre would it be if Clement Attlee's welfare state was brought down not by swivel-eyed free marketeers, but by the EU project? Tragically, the British Left is too intellectually moribund to see it, just as they proved too flat-footed to appreciate the impact of uncontrolled immigration (not for the first time, I sense that the British Left defines what it is for largely in terms of what it believes Tories to be against – a wider assessment of the national interest rarely enters into it).
For some time now, the Commission and their pet pundits have been trying to undermine the idea that benefit tourism is a problem. A series of "experts" – often in receipt of large Commission grants – have been wheeled out to tell us it is a non problem. Besides, they say, EU immigration is a good thing.
We should take such claims with a large pinch of salt. The authors of one such report last month on the tax contribution of migrants contained an elementary error. The report's authors seemed not to understand how tax is collected. Another authoritatively told us welfare was not acting as a magnet for migrants, yet drew that conclusion on the basis of "stakeholder consultation", rather than facts.
Another pro-migration report was authored by the same "expert" who in 2004 told us that unrestricted migration from ten new EU states would mean a mere 13,000 migrants a year.
Britain is, I believe, the best place to live on the planet. We cannot rationally begrudge people wanting to come here to make a better life. We can begrudge unelected officials who want to prevent us from being a bit more selective about who we let in – and who can claim UK benefits.
With so many people wanting to come here, we ought to encourage the brightest and the best. If the European Commission gets its way, we will be required to accept low skills migrants, who – despite "expert" claims to the contrary – are already considerably more likely to claim in work benefits.
If you're a Lefty, you probably think Britain ought to be more like Sweden, with high levels of tax and spend. Those on the political Right might want to model ourselves more on low-tax Texas.
But bizarrely, Britain today manages to combine Swedish levels of tax and spend, with Texan standards of public service provision. No wonder voters on both Left and Right feel let down.
"Don't exaggerate, Carswell," I hear you say. "It can't be that bad." But how many hospitals in downtown Houston do you suppose are subject to police investigations over the alleged manipulation of cancer patients' data? My local hospital is.
I know a school in Essex where nine out of 10 children do not get an A*-C grade GCSE in maths and English. How many charter schools in the US would be able to get away with that?
Government spending as a percentage of GDP might be coming down. But it is falling from a Scandinavian 48 per cent peak.
By any objective measure, Britain has been badly run for a generation. The amount of tax taken by the state has rocketed, without the corresponding improvements in public services the public had a right to expect.
Instead of defending the way things are, we Conservatives need to be a little bit less conservative. We need to be the party of radical change.
In 2015 voters will face a clear choice; either you can vote for Ed Miliband – and the idea that we should hose yet more money at public services, hoping that this time it will be different – or you can vote for more public service reform, and the idea that those who run public services ought to answer to the public.
But it is not just public service reform that Conservatives need to champion. Britain desperately needs political reform, too.
One of the reasons Britain has been so badly run under successive governments is that it has been run from the sofa in Downing Street.
A more "presidential" Downing Street has not always got the big, macro decisions right, whoever is in charge. From Margaret Thatcher's implementation of the poll tax, to Tony Blair on Iraq and David Cameron over Syria, those on the sofas in Number 10 could have done with someone else saying "hang on, chaps. Are we sure about this?"
Instead of voting to change which clique gets to sit on the sofa in Number 10, we need to vote to change the system of sofa government itself.
Ministers and mandarins need to answer outward to Parliament, not just to the special advisers in Number 10. Ministers today ask themselves "will judicial review allow me to do this?" We need proper legislative review of ministers' actions.
Instead of a president in Number 10, we need to return to the notion that the Prime Minister is primus inter pares. If MPs are to be bound by collective responsibility, government needs to be bound by Cabinet decision-making once again.
Our politics, like our public services, needs reform to ensure far more openness and accountability. Do that, and we might be better governed whoever is in government.
I'm seething. But not half as angry as my constituent.
Her daughter had studied hard and been accepted by a good university. She had just started life as a fresher. Mum was so proud, busying herself with the sort of things that proud mums do when their daughter goes off to university.
No one imagined that that that irksome delay with the Student Loan whatsit was anything to fret about.
Because my constituent, and her family, had lived for a while in Germany, the Student Loan Company wanted more details. How long had she lived in Germany? Was she normally resident here?
Spend two minutes talking to my constituent, and it is perfectly obvious she – and her daughter – are as British as a post box.
But it is ticking the boxes on the application form that counts. And because she had lived in Germany for a short time, her application for a student loan was rejected. Despite a very understanding Vice Chancellor, she has now had to drop out of university.
Try to imagine how that family in Clacton might now feel, when they read that student loans to Bulgarians and Romanians have just been suspended.
Do you suppose my constituents are likely to be grateful that at last some chump in Whitehall has finally woken up to the fact that many of the Bulgarian and Romanian applications were, apparently, bogus?
No, my ministerial pals. They are going to be furious. Livid. Volcanic in their anger. And it will be directed at you.
What the heck are we doing, they will ask themselves and their neighbours, giving student loans to any Bulgarians or Romanians in the first place? The very month that my constituent's daughter had to pack her things and leave university, we were apparently approving student loans to non-UK nationals. Why?
Thanks to decades of Euro folly, those in SW1 have landed us in a situation where a British student, who happens to have spent some time in Europe, is thrown out of university. European students, meanwhile, have been accessing student loans.
Being British now counts for nothing in a bureaucratic world in which it has become strictly verboten to discriminate on grounds of nationality. So we end up discriminating on grounds of residency. Which is what got a British student thrown out of a British university after six weeks.
Another day, another illustration of what membership of the EU actually means. Politicians and their pet pundits in SW1 need to stop thinking about EU membership in terms of backbench "rebellions" or "Tory splits". Think about what it means for this Clacton family.
Did anyone imagine that this is were we would end up when we voted to join a Common Market all those years ago?
We cannot go on like this. For the first time I am starting to think that maybe the Tory Party must become explicitly "outist" – or, I fear, there might not be much left of the Tory party.
Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address. His 272 words, delivered on the afternoon of 19 November 1863, is one of the most famous speeches in history.
Why do politicians give speeches? To let the rest of us know what they are thinking, obviously.
But for what purpose?
Partly it is to justify, or explain, a course of action. After years of bloody, brutal conflict, Lincoln wanted his Union electorate to appreciate why they'd had to make such sacrifices. Lincoln's words are more than just an explanation. They rally his audience to a vision of something greater, more uplifting, than the here and now.
In non-democracies, where leaders are less accountable to the demos, there is less need to constantly justify and explain, or give the vision thing. Hence the leaders of countries like China, for example, are notably more reticent. When they do give a speech, it is often plodding, and aimed at a foreign audience.
In many 21st century Western states, effective executive power has slipped gradually away from those we elect, towards quangocrats, state functionaries and judges. Unelected officials – rather than those we vote for – increasingly get to decide who can enter the country. Or what sort of houses get built and where. Or if that wind farm planning application gets approval.
This leaves those competing for voters still in the business of giving speeches. But what they say is no longer an attempt to justify or explain a course of action. Increasingly politician's speeches have become a substitute for action.
Contemporary politicans often give speeches to demonstrate that they are on the voters' side. Whether it is energy prices, or immigration, or the price of petrol, the purpose of a speech is to emote – rather than to outline a specific course of action.
In so far as they outline a vision, politicians speeches are often motherhood and apple pie. They say the kind of things – stringing together the clichés – that they feel someone in their position ought to say. (Watch Love Actually again this Christmas to see what I mean).
Wielding executive power is difficult. It takes ideas and precision. Being able to distinguish between tactics and strategy. And requires some sort of ideological framework and judgment. Much easier just to give a speech ...
Many of the managerialist politicians inside SW1 believe in ideas-free politics. Ideology, to them, is a dirty word. Passion is something to be practised for the cameras.
For them, the key to giving a great speech is a hire a great speech writer.
But all the wordsmiths in the word cannot give you something worth saying unless you have ideas you believe in.
The "real Tory divide" on Europe, according to my friend James Kirkup, is between Tory MPs in safe seats versus those in the marginals.
"Those sitting on fat majorities" he wrote the other day "are intensely comfortable banging on about Europe". Whereas "those fighting for survival" in marginal seats say that the Tory party should talk about "anything but Europe."
That might be what some folk brief lobby correspondents, but I am not sure it is a view supported by the evidence.
If Euroscepticism was an indulgence of MPs in safe seats, one would expect Eurosceptic "rebels" to come from seats with bigger majorities. In fact the opposite is the case.
The size of the average Conservative MP's majority is, according to my calculation, 9,471. Yet the average majority amongst those 81 Tory MPs who voted for an In/Out referendum before it became party policy is 8,276.
If anything, those who woke up to the "we-want-a-referendum" thing first had smaller majorities.
Correlation, of course, is not causation.
Perhaps those MPs in more marginal seats tend to be younger, and thus more Eurosceptic in outlook? The fact that an MP is a Eurosceptic could help explain why in certain cases they have a safe seat in the first place.
I suspect that MPs in more marginal seats are more receptive to the views of their (overwhelmingly Eurosceptic) electorate.
No matter, we all support an In/Out referendum now. Which is my real beef with what James wrote.
Lobby correspondents have spent so many years writing about "Tory splits" on Europe that they have missed the real news; there is no longer a significant Tory divide on Europe. We all agree to let the voters decide if we stay or leave.
Before David Cameron committed us to an In/Out referendum, there was on average an EU-related Commons "rebellion" every three to four months. Since then? I can't think of a single one.
Of course, now that we do agree on letting people vote to get us out of the EU, we can focus on many of the other changes Britain so desperately needs as well.
Over the past decade or so, immigrants have paid billions of pounds more in taxes than they have cost the public purse, according to a report by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CREAM). And, what's more, immigrants are 45 percent less likely to claim state benefits.
Yet more justification for all those "Britain needs more immigration" articles one finds in the Economist, perhaps?
Except on reading the CREAM report, I discovered errors, guesswork and oversight.
First, an elementary error. When calculating the fiscal contribution made by migrants, the report's authors try to work out how much tax migrants pay. In doing so, the report's authors seem to count the £10 Billion business rates paid to the Treasury each year as if business rates were a tax paid by every self employed person in the country. It isn't. Most of that £10 billion tax contribution comes from big companies.
Crediting every self employed person with a £2,500 tax contribution that they do not make is not only wrong. Because a much higher proportion of EU migrants are self employed, it seriously distorts any net assessment of the overall financial contribution they make.
Then there is the guesswork. When trying to work out how much corporation and capital tax migrants pay, the report appears to make assumptions that look to me like a guesstimate.
Then there is the oversight. The report tells us that migrants are 45 percent less likely to claim benefits. Really? If you only look at Labour Survey data it is possible to draw that conclusion. But not if you look at HMRC data, which suggests that migrants are 20 percent MORE likely to claim certain benefits.
Is it not a bit odd that a serious research unit, associated with University College London should produce a report that does not appear to understand who pays business rates? Not nearly as odd as the reaction I provoked by pointing this out.
Writing for the Independent on Sunday, David Blanchflower dismissed what I had to say as the "visceral response" of a "Right-wing Tory MP". He did not, however, get around to countering the points I had actually made.
It was enough for Blanchflower to simply assert that "Christian Dustmann is definitively the number one expert on migration in the UK". While Carswell, on the other hand, is a mere "amateur".
Indeed I am.
But isn't it all the more shocking that a mere "amateur" can expose flaws in a report produced by the "number one expert on migration"? No wonder UK immigration policy seems to be such a mess.
"Be fair, Carswell" I hear you say "it's jolly hard to work out how much migrants pay in tax".
I agree. Hideously complicated. So much so that I believe we cannot possibly claim to know for certain. Which is my point.
Responding to my critique, Christian Dustmann did not rebut the substantive points I raised. Instead he said that it was a "well-established" way of doing it. Maybe the fact it is so "well-established" helps explain why so many similar reports have tended to draw the same kind of conclusions? That does not prevent it from being wrong.
He went on to accept that the data on which his report was based was "not perfect". "Assumptions" he wrote "have to be made". Quite. So why make such big and bold announcements about the impact of immigration if the data is known to be so imperfect?
It was, you may recall, Professor Dustmann who once "predicted that opening UK borders to 10 new EU countries in 2004 would increase the population by 13,000 a year". Data can indeed be imperfect.
Britain is more of a democracy now than in the past. Right?
Everyone knows we've been getting steadily more democratic. First working men got the vote. Then women. There's even talk of giving it to 16-year-olds.
The proportion of the population entitled to vote has undoubtedly increased. But what about their ability to hold those with power to account?
Measured that way, democracy has been in retreat.
Look at a political map of Britain today and you will see a mosaic of local party monopolies – 21st-century "rotten boroughs". In seven out of ten parliamentary constituencies, there is almost no chance that the seat might change hands between parties at a General Election. Yet within most of these safe seats, it is the party machines and cliques that control candidate selection (think Falkirk). They do so as tightly as any local duke or landowner once did.
The uncomfortable truth is that most folk still do not have a real say over who gets to represent them in Parliament.
Many MPs answer not to their constituents, but to the party machine and other MPs. And because of this, the executive has been steadily able to neuter the legislature. Those we elect to hold government to account find that they are accountable to government.
Ponder for a second what really kicked of the English civil war. It was the king's insistence that he be able to appoint ministers without reference to the Commons. But isn't that more or less what the Prime Minister now does?
Until the mid 1970s, it was Parliament, not the Prime Minister that decided the scope of ministerial responsibilities. Far from being a quirky leftover from the past, the powers of Crown Prerogative have been extended.
From 1701 until 1918, it wasn't just Parliament that approved what ministers did. Local voters were required to approve who became a minister in the first place. Once invited to join the government, an MP would have to return to their consistency, resign their seat, then fight and win the by-election that followed. There might have been fewer voters in each constituency, but they were able to approve ministerial promotion.
Whichever clique happens to be sitting on the Downing Street sofas gets to decide who becomes a minister and what they do as a minister – not the people you actually vote for on polling day.
Within living memory, the Commons controlled its own agenda. Today a committee of the executive decides what those you elect should be allowed to decide (with a little time for tame Backbench Business blah blah, you understand).
Until the 1930s, those we elected could table amendments to the Budget – in other words make real tax and spend decisions. Today MPs are invited to say "yes" or "no" to a Budget drafted in Whitehall, which few of them have even read, let alone understood.
More people might have the vote. The ability of voters to determine public policy has steady declined. No wonder so many people no longer bother with the whole process.
Russell Brand is right to recognise this. The solution, however, is not to give zillionaire celebs a greater say. We need more direct democracy, with open primaries and recall votes, so that ordinary folk with votes might actually have votes that count.
For years, the debate about immigration has been dominated by "experts".
Complex and inaccessible data was used by remote academics. They crunched the numbers and drew the conclusions. The rest of us had to take it on trust that the facts sustained what they told us.
Take the recent report by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (Cream). The data, declares their report, shows migrants are "less likely to receive benefits ... than UK natives". And they "made a considerable net positive contribution to the UK's fiscal system".
End of conversation. The people with the PhDs agree. It must be so.
But hang on. Does this report sustain these conclusions? Let's use this internet thingy to deconstruct what the "experts" declare.
1. How does the report work out what migrants contribute in tax? With some school boyish errors, it would seem.
Take for example business rates. They generate something like £10 billion a year for the Exchequer – and as everyone ought to know, that £10 billion of tax revenue comes largely from big business.
But as Michael O'Connor points out, the report appears to credit business rates as a fiscal contribution – worth what appears to amount to £2,500 each – from every self-employed individual in the country. That is simply wrong.
Yet doing so massively distorts the fiscal balance sheet, since we know that EU migrants are far more likely to declare themselves as self-employed. (Indeed, if you come from Romania or Bulgaria, you often have to call yourself self-employed to
be allowed in).
2. How does the report assess the contribution of migrants in terms of company and capital taxes? By guessing, it seems.
Company and capital taxes represent about 9 per cent of the UK tax base. To work out what share comes from migrants, the report allocates a share to migrants on the "implicit assumption that company ownership (i.e. share ownership) is similarly
distributed between the native and immigrant population".
Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. But to me that sounds like guessing.
3. What data does the Cream report use? Labour Force Survey data, which is drawn from what information folk give about what they are claiming. It is not cross checked with what they might actually be claiming.
While Labour Force Survey data suggests migrants are less likely to claim out of work benefits, HMRC data shows they are significantly more likely to claim working tax and child tax credit.
4. How does the Cream paper assess the benefits paid to migrants? By conflating benefits and tax credit – and, worse, by assuming everyone gets the same amount.
If, for example, a Brit get £20 a week child benefit, and a migrant gets £80 a week tax credit, the report treats them as together getting £100, which it nets out as £50 each.
Why does this matter?
5. The report fails to factor in data we have about different migrant groups very different claiming patterns. Michael O'Connor highlights work by Drinkwater and Robinson in 2013.
Migrants from Poland, Estonia, Latvia or Hungary, for example, are less likely to claim (relatively low) unemployment benefits – but significantly more likely to claim (relatively high) tax credits or housing benefit.
In other words, this is not simply methodological nit picking. It could undermine the claim that European Economic Area migrants contribute 34 percent more in taxes than they receive in benefits.
Not for the first time, I suspect a report written by "experts" tell us more about what "experts" think than it does about the way things actually are.
No doubt I will get the usual stream of angry tweets from angry Lefties, demanding that I defer to the "experts" and the academics. But I have read what they wrote, and indeed read some of what they themselves read. Which is precisely why I do not defer to them. Thanks to the internet, we do not need "experts" to tell us what to think anymore.
"A revolutionary text ... right up there with the Communist manifesto" - Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times