Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Homo politicius

The post election debate has been dominated in equal measure by the success of the Conservatives and the failure of Labour. Political pundits hare happily drawing conclusions about politics drifting to the left or right and the reasons why this might have happened. However all to often these assumptions are based on a rational actor model or homo politicus.

The assumption is that Homo politicus has deeply held views evidence based view. He has a deep understanding of politics and the direction of travel of the political parties. He makes his decisions on how to vote based on marrying up the parties whose manifestos are a closest match to his political views. Homo politicus is closely related to homo economicus (the being invented by economist who makes only rational decisions and prevents economic crises). The problem is that neither like homo economicus, homo politicus doesn't exist.

Indeed you just as look at the results of the last election to realise the problem with the homo politicus model. The conventional view expressed by many was that the recession and the austerity afterwards had been very hard on most people. Logically most people assumed that this would favour left of center parties with their focus on redistributing the wealth. Therefore based on a rational model you would expected outcome would be a drift to the left. In fact the opposite happened with voters punishing the left and drifting to ring wing and populist nationalist parties.

Part of the reason for the failure of the simple rational models is actually its very hard to determine what voters should be rational voting for anyway.  Presumably few voters would find an exact match between their desired policies and the policies of any party. Strictly speaking a rational voter who makes his decisions on the policies in the party manifesto alone would need to determine the important of the policies and the closeness of match.

However this overlooks the importance of trust and credibility. Even if you do find a party that offers the perfect policy platform there will no doubt be questions about ability of the party to deliver the policy. You might conclude that either the local representative or the party leader simply do not have the stature of personality to drive through their desired policy.

Even if we assume that politicians can be taken at their word there is a further problem with the rational agent model which is how should a policies be evaluated anyway. Is a policy good if it benefits the voter directly or should policies be judged on their wider benefits and risks. Should policies be looked at in terms of immediate payback or longer term benefits.

When weighing up multiple policies how do you determine relative importance of one policy area versus another (defense versus education versus health). Most people normally tend to weigh up benefits and risks based how they are perceived, which in turn depends on how they are reported. Hence people play lotteries and

When looked at in its entirety voting is a very complex decision. Weighing up all these differing aspects would be an almost impossible and would required voters to be very widely read on a vast range of subject areas. Needless to say most voters are not well read on a range of subject (most barely follow the news). Most voter base their voting decisions on much simpler criteria. These are typically: -
- Normally vote for this party? (Inertia)
- Can I trust the party and its leader?
- If I vote for them will they look after me and people I care about?
- Are they focused on issues that I think are important?

Actually what happened in this election was simply the perfect storm for the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties.The Lib Dems were punished on a trust issue (specifically tuition fees which was seen as an unforgivable act of betrayal by many voters). A centre left homo politicus would probably have forgiven the Lib Dems for this. However real voters felt wanted to "punish" Clegg for the betrayal (even if that meant switching to the party that had actually proposed the tuition fee policy).

Labour meanwhile had a perfect storm of its own. Indeed their perfect storm was arguably caused by the homo politicus model. Their leader had assumed that a moving left would shore up the core vote and combined with the collapse of the Lib Dems and a perceived leftward drift post recession would ensure victory.

However this worldview ignored all the complexity of real voters. For starters the leadership was seen as weak and out of touch and whilst more high minded people will say in shouldn't matter.... It did matter and people voted accordingly. The left wing message contained many individually popular polices. However Labour failed to realise that homo sapiens (unlike homo politicus) don't read manifestos nor pay much attention to specific polices. They do listen to the general noise and each of the policies reinforced a message of a party that would be interventionist and damage the economy.

Meanwhile despite moving left, Labour's "core vote" strategy fail dramatically in its own right. The rise of the SNP, driven by the referendum driving the Scottish nationalism being driven up the agenda, resulted in a shocking loss of seats in Scotland. This fits with This hardly fits with rational decision given the eye watering high levels of austerity that would be required by an independent Scotland and the largess that Labour were offering.

Perhaps even more shocking rebuke for this homo politicus model came from Northern England. Although UKIP didn't win any seats from Labour they did take a lot of votes and aside from a protectionist immigration policy they are hardly left wing. Yet their strong (and more than a slight fascist) vision had significant appeal in a group that were unlikely to see much benefit.

Right now the Tories and the nationalist are more popular than ever (although the anomalies of our voting system have been very harsh on UKIP). Meanwhile the Lib Dems and Labour are currently in the process of rebuilding themselves. Furthermore the next five years will enable the Tories and the nationalists to shape the agenda (almost certainly to the detriment of Labour the the Liberal Democrats). Rebuilding in this environment will be tough for both parties.

Both parties would do well to remember that they are dealing with homo sapiens. Core votes strategies leave little scope for unexpecting changes in people priorities. Cleverly positiong and neat policies may work in theory in practice however winning elections relies on much simpler such as A leadership with credibility and strong principled message which offers voters tangible benefits based on the issues that the voters see as important. 

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