I’m the sort of person who has favourite Laws of Social Science. Don’t judge me.
The two “Laws” (let’s be honest, they’re rules of thumb) are Goodhart’s Law and Campbell’s Law. The first, Goodhart’s Law, is best described in paraphrase from Marilyn Strathem:
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
Campbell’s Law is related, and essentially says that if you make a measure a goal then people will game it and the system to try to hit it.
I seem to spend a lot of my life spotting Goodhart and Campbell in action. Inflation figures, company culture measurement, online recommendations… to name but a few I’ve seen in the past few weeks alone. But last week’s election results have got me thinking that our electoral system itself is a regular example of the way in which measurement corrupts insidiously.
We are led to believe that an election is a time where our rights as citizens in a parliamentary democracy allow us to express preference for which of our many political parties should have a right to govern. The party that has the most votes lead to power.
Except… The various forms of electoral process that we have, mostly focused around First Past the Post models mean that it is theoretically possible for a party to have an outright majority share of the popular vote and still not be in power. If you won 49% of constituencies with 100% of the vote, and lost 51% with 49% of the vote, you’d have a huge overall majority and still not have control of parliament. Whilst that theoretical situation isn’t likely, the last time a UK government was elected with a mandate formed of an absolute majority of the total vote was in 1935.
Which means that “winning an election” through a measure of the majority of seats in the House of Commons is not anything like “having consent of the majority of the population to govern” no matter how much people might bang on about being the “people’s government”. This is Goodhart in action.
And then the gaming. Policies are focused not on the population as a whole, but on targeting particular segments of the population deemed significant enough to swing votes. This is why UK political parties avoid upsetting pensioners like the plague – it’s nothing to do with being nice to grannies, and much more to do with not turning a demographic that is more likely to vote against you.
What I think last week showed more than anything is that the Conservative Party are better at these games than anyone else. In large part this feels like a result of a duopoly in British politics (and English politics in particular) which is the Conservatives versus Anybody other than The Conservatives who aren’t actual fascists rather than the Conservatives versus Labour. The liberal left vote is far more fragmented than the right wing vote, particularly now that Farage has drifted off on a fishing vessel into the sunset.
But, with a majority of the population unrepresented by the party of power, disillusionment will grow in the system. To an extent that has always been the case (lord knows as someone who grew up in the height of the Thatcher era. But with a much more democratised/anarchised set of tools for communication and organisation available to people today through the Internet, how much power without majority consent will work going forward is going to be interesting to see. The last ten years of UK politics were first the coalition and then, well, nothing really happening. Since IndyRef 1 the politics of the UK have been dominated with not policy but referendums and General Elections.
A few months ago Chris & I spoke with Matt D’Ancona on WB-40, and one of the most interesting snippets from that conversation was his observation that politics has moved (even before Covid) from the committee rooms and bars of Westminster to the chat rooms of WhatsApp.
But these new political venues aren’t nearly as exclusive as the physical ones that came before. Maybe social networks will start to hold politics to account in the way in which our electoral system simply doesn’t?