The Wisdom of the Electorate

As a Westminster Lib Dem candidate there is no denying that the election results were disappointing. Willie Rennie losing his seat in Dunfermline and Kevin Lang failing to gain Edinburgh North & Leith were particular lows for me, while seeing our increase in the proportion of the vote and holding the balance of power provided some glimer of hope.  What the result did remind me of strongly was the excellent James Surowiecki book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘.

Surowiecki’s book shows that under the right circumstances crowds, groups and electorate are remarkably intelligent, and often smarter than the smartest people in them.  Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision. Why? Because, as it turns out, if you ask a large enough group of diverse, independent people to make a prediction or estimate a probability, and then average those estimates, the errors each of them makes in coming up with an answer will cancel themselves out.

So the decision of the electorate might not make happy reading for any of the political parties but it does reflect something I heard time and time again on the campaign trail, that if there was a box to tick for a hung-parliament, then many of the voters would have ticked it.  The electorate wants all the parties to work together to get our economy moving again and provide a fairer society.

However for Surowicki’s theory to work you can’t have just any old crowd.  For a crowd to be wise it must have diversity of opinion, independence, decentralisation and aggregation.  Certain sections of the media have been keen to point out that the crowd in the financial markets want a Tory or Tory/Lib Dem government but I do not think our democracy should be held hostage to the whims and wishes of hedge fund managers.  As we saw with the sub-prime crisis the financial markets have flaws in being wise for various reasons and I would rather listen to the electorate than the City.

So I do think the electorate’s decision has been a wise one but it is now up to the politicians to act in the national interest in giving the voters the government they seem to want.

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