Sex, Lies & the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about British elections (Cowley & Ford; Biteback Publishing; 2014)
In 2005 two economists from the University of Chicago published a book called Freakonomics. In pithy, understandable English they used economic concepts to link abortion with crime, the Ku Klux Klan with estate agents, and sumo wrestlers with teachers. Four years later four million people had bought a copy of their short counter-intuitive essays.
The book epitomised a type of non-fiction that’s blossomed over the past twenty years: explaining academic research through quirks, factoids, and unusual – and seemingly unrelated – stories. Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist books have been among the most successful attempts at this in the UK, but for a long time nothing similar had enlivened British political research.
Two academics, Philip Cowley and Rob Ford, have now admirably corrected that. In fifty short chapters, they have grappled with perennial political questions – from the effectiveness of political campaigns to the oddities of public opinion – but done so far more engagingly than most political books.
They manage to make fairly dense research easily understandable (each chapter is actually written by a different author, usually an academic, but Cowley & Ford edited them all). And they mercifully avoided the recycled wisdom that dominated other election guides published this election year.
In short, they have approached academic research as most journalists try to approach news: how can we make this engaging and comprehensible to as many people as possible? Some academics think these issues only fit to be discussed in the depth academic journals allow, but Cowley & Ford haven’t rid their pieces of complexity by keeping their chapters short.
Both have form here. Cowley is one of the authors of the Nuffield Election Studies – the definitive academic study of British elections – and Ford co-wrote Revolt on the Right, the most discussed political book of 2014.
After praise it’s common to point to a book’s flaws. Does Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box have any? Sure. Some chapters are, inevitably, less interesting than others, and they criticise the New Statesman early on, but this is a welcome book. It isn’t easy to turn the ideas of fifty academics into clean copy. In the same way that the Nuffield series developed out of one early, hopeful book, we can hope Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box inspires more attempts to make academic research engaging, challenging and useful.