So apparently there is some kind of election thingy happening on 6th May.
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
– Sir Winston Churchill, 1947
I’ve been reading thoughts from Peter Kellner and Mat Bowles on the issue of polling and turnout.
First, I have to admit I find the concept of ‘swing’ rather discordant. Kellner analyses the race in these terms -the election is an iterative equation and not an isolated event. I am reminded of the Monty Hall ‘Game Show’ thought experiment, where there is a prize-goat behind one of three doors.1 After Monty, the host, has revealed one of the bogus doors, the chances of the goat being behind the door you did not choose is 2/3… or so the Mathematicians say, ignoring the fact that something has happened in between. Likewise with elections – the concept of ‘swing’ suggests that this election is merely a function of the previous one.
Yes, yes, I know: Elections are a function of previous outcomes. Voters have an after-the-fact loyalty to the person they voted for last time, for example. The memory of the brutal Thatcher years, or even The Winter of Discontent, still has influence in 2010 when many (if not most) of the voters don’t remember them first hand. Still, like voting along ethnic lines, the fact that the starting positions on the electoral board are skewed doesn’t seem like the ideal of democracy.
All this means that the contest is already over in 382 seats, according to the Electoral Reform Society. This inspires people in those constituencies to stay at home. Worse, it nudges the politicians in those constituencies – both those destined for victory, and those who know they will lose – to campaign elsewhere. So begins a vicious cycle of disenchantment for the electors, and a disconnect between them and their MPs. Add to that the Heisenberg effect of polling (i.e. measuring voter intentions might actually alter voter intentions) and you can make a strong case that all these pesky statistics actually serve to discourage voting.
How does PR or STV change the equations? Or must we, in the end, return to Churchill’s quote about democracy and make the best of a bad job?
1. On reflection, I think in the original formulation of the puzzle, the prize is a car and the goat is the bogey-prize. I prefer my version though. A goat in the back garden is a handy alternative to lawmower, and we all like feta, don’t we?