Alex Massie

People are Stupid, but the Electorate is Not

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Martin Bright argues that "the British people deserve a hung parliament". I'm not sure that's quite correct. It might be more accurate to say that David Cameron's Conservatives have not quite convinced the electorate that they merit a large majority. (Nor, for that matter, have Labour persuaded anyone other than true believers that they merit a fourth term.)

Of course, this too is a little unfair since, given the current constituency boundaries, the Tories need an overwhelming victory to gain a comfortable majority. If all else were equal, a six point win would be comfortable enough. But all else is not equal and so the Tories could win convincingly in terms of the actual votes cast but still be denied a meaningful majority.

Which brings me to Danny Finkelstein's typically excellent column this week. Danny argued, plausibly and usefully, that the public pays vastly less attention to politics than folk in the political and media worlds like to think. Most of the time, most of the public doesn't have a clue. Swing voters are often the worst, least informed voters of all. Talk to them too much and you might find yourself doubting the utility of democracy itself.

And yet, when one looks at the last 60 years of election results it's hard to see too many occasions when it seems obvious that the electorate got it wrong. Hard to see, that is, if one considers these matters dispassionately. Perhaps there's an element of hindsight bias here, but it's tricky identifying too many occasions since WW2 when the electorate, in all their lumpen wisdom, chose the wrong party. 1950, 1964 and 1974 (twice) were each, essentially, ties and, in each case, reasonably so. But I think it difficult to make a case that many, if any, of the others have been won by the wrong or less-deserving party.

This is, broadly speaking, also true of American Presidential elections. 1960 and 2000 were essentially ties and you could argue that Gerald Ford would have managed the latter part of the 1970s better than Jimmy Carter and that George HW Bush was somewhat unlucky in 1992. But apart from that I think you struggle to find many, if any, examples of the electorate getting it hideously or irrationally wrong. Again, all I ask is that one views these matters from a disinterested perspective.

So there you have it: the wisdom of crowds! Of course, if Labour were to recover and win a fourth term that would prove the exception to this general, and surprisingly consoling, view.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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