Tactical Voting: Some Problems

There was a lot of anger yesterday about an online tactical voting tool launched by the pro-remain group Best for Britain. The tool appeared, judging by the results of the 2017 general election, to be suggesting Labour voters tactically vote Lib Dem in what were Labour/Conservative marginals. If the objective is to maximise seats held by parties in favour of a second referendum, this would obviously be an unfortunate recommendation.

The problem is, deciding how to vote tactically is a trickier business than it may seem at first sight. As Tony Yates shows here, tactical voting requires some sense of fixed, or only marginally changing background of other voters who are not voting tactically. The easiest way of attempting to do this is by looking at previous election general election results. But party allegiance at the moment is unusually fluid, and this is not the only data which could plausibly used to get a sense of how things look in particular constituencies. Best for Britain appeared to have based their calculations not just on the 2017 general election result, but more recent opinion polls and the European Election results.

How much weight to give these different types of data is a difficult question, but the answer may well not be zero. It is also not entirely clear who the tactical voters in these elections are. If, for the sake of illustration, it turned out that Lib Dem voters were much more willing to tactically vote Labour than vice versa, it is possible to imagine a situation in which the correct strategy for maximising remain seats were to recommend a Labour vote in a constituency, even if current predictions showed a greater Lib Dem likely vote share in that constituency than Labour without tactical voting. 

As Phil Syrpis points out, these problems may only really apply to a small number of marginal seats. But in the event of a close election, this could cause trouble. Moreover, disputes of this nature breed distrust between supporters of the various remain parties. This is a problem, as tactical voting is unlikely to work if there is too much hostility. People need to trust their second choice party at least somewhat, and are most likely to think of tactical voting as a useful strategy is they think of themselves as part of something bigger, where others might be returning the favour. 

Unfortunately, disputes over how to model the current state of the electorate are to be expected. This is partly, as may have happened with Best for Britain, due to differing opinions about methodology. But in other instances, these will also be mediated by partisan interests. Party campaigners are very likely to select prediction methodologies which show a more favourable picture for their party. This may be down to psychological biases, or just the role they fulfil as party campaigners. But either way, it is likely to cause problems down the line if and when candidates put out contradictory campaign material about the state of the race in their constituency. 

In a better world, perhaps the various remain parties might have circumvented these difficulties via an electoral pact. But not only there have always been near insurmountable political barriers to such an endeavour, that could also have caused a counter measure between the leave parties (though it may well still be the case that the latter happens). None of this is to suggest that voters should not attempt to vote tactically. We are where we are, and we have to make the best of this situation. But the difficulties may turn out greater than anticipated. 

Votes at 16? Some thoughts on a series of bad arguments.

There's a lot of discussion at the moment about whether the franchise should be extended to 16 year olds. I think that's a reasonable enough proposition. If the franchise is about giving fair representation to different interest groups capable of evaluating what those interests are, including 16 year olds doesn't seem like a bad idea (particularly if we are honest about the reality of how capable everyone else is of making sensible and reasonable decisions about their own interests). There's an element of value judgement here, for sure. But before we get into that, it's worth noting which arguments we should ignore, because this debate certainly seems to throw up a whole series of them.

The first kind is the 'slippery slope' argument: the argument that a policy in accordance with a particular principle can lead down the 'slippery slope' towards the most extreme interpretation of that principle. Think of people arguing that votes at 16 might lead to votes at 10. When I did debating at school, we were more or less taught never to use this argument. I think this is perhaps overdoing it a bit, but it does have a problem. The argument relies almost entirely on a metaphor to be convincing. Slope imagery aside, why should votes at 16 lead to votes at 10? There isn't any obvious reason why this would happen. Given that the rhetorical effect of the argument relies on the conclusion's obvious absurdity, it would seem reasonable to assume that one would in fact not lead to another. For slippery slope arguments to work there has to be some kind of actual mechanism for A leading to B, which unless you are talking about whether to go for a winter's hillside walk involves more than invoking a metaphor.

A variation of that argument is a kind of false reductio ad absurdum. "If you gave 16 year olds the vote, you might as well give it to 10 year olds!" Or, on the other side, "If voting is about political knowledge, which 16 year olds supposedly don't have, why not restrict it to those who can pass a politics quiz/in IQ test?" The answer to those both is twofold. Firstly, there might be other, completely different reasons not to (restricting the franchise based on tests would almost certainly harm the worst off, 10 year olds might be a whole lot less responsible than 16 year olds etc). The second problem is this argument overlooks that we may be talking about a continuous scale of trade offs, where a somewhat arbitrary decision has to be made. Having an opinion about where a line is drawn that is arbitrary at the margin (why, other than convenience, not one day after your 18th birthday?) does not imply that you can't usefully discuss substantial changes, or that doing so implies that you don't think there needs to be any lines in the sand at all. Think about setting the speed limit on a motorway. There are a series of trade offs to be made about fuel efficiency, traffic, safety, people getting to where they want on time etc. You have to set a limit somewhere. In the the UK this means 70 mph. The fact that it is precisely 70 mph is kind of arbitrary- it's a round number. But neither the arbitrariness of the precise number, nor the the fact that the question may involve value judgements, mean that you cannot construct meaningful arguments about a substantial change. There might be legitimate reasons to disagree about a 60 mph speed limit vs an 80 mph limit, with neither position implying an even lower or even higher one, and nobody would argue that either of these positions imply support for no speed limit, or no driving whatsoever.

The third kind of bad argument is the argument by analogy. "If people are responsible enough at 16 for that to be the age of consent, surely they are old enough to vote!” Or on the other side: "If people cannot marry without parental permission at 16, surely they should not be able to vote!” What's wrong with this kind of argument is that its persuasive force relies on the assumption that things are the way they are because there is some kind of decent rationale to them. That, as Hegel said, the actual is the rational. In reality these facts are historical baggage often as questionable as anything else. There is little reason to think they reveal some kind of profound truth as to how things should be, or, in the case that they are justified, that those justifications equally apply, or even that there is any great value in trying to force our attitudes to have some kind of overall coherence.

The final bad argument is that those advocating a particular position on votes at 16 have bad motives. "Labour only want 16 year olds to have the vote because they think that they will vote for them", or "Conservatives only want to deprive 16 year olds of the vote because they won't." Both are probably true, but equally irrelevant. There is no reason why a good policy can't come from bad motives. Indeed, historically the extension of the franchise is a great example of this: much of the parliamentary wrangling over women getting the vote pre-1914 were precisely about whether women would be more likely to vote Liberal or Conservative. The fact some Liberals were well disposed towards extending the franchise because they believed it would help them electorally did not make doing so a bad policy.

Once the bad arguments are left to one side, what we are left with is a more prosaic judgement. Are people old enough to make political judgements at 16? I think yes, based on admittedly limited experience (and frankly thought). Less so than people aged 30? Perhaps, but not so sufficiently so to disqualify them from the vote. Do they have legitimate interests, as stakeholders? Sure. In some ways less than people over the age of 18, but in others more. They certainly have unique interests that deserve representation (think education policy), and a direct, if not greater stake, in large national decisions like Brexit. Could somebody reasonably come to different conclusion? Sure. Contrary to popular debate, this isn't a grand question of principle. It's a value judgement about whether to shift a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand.

The Brexiteers Close Ranks

Something very strange has happened over the last 24 hours. The Brexiteers, both in Parliament and in the press, seem to be closing ranks behind Johnson's deal. Or at least they seem to be doing so within the Conservative Party. This is perplexing, as it seems to involve everything they said they hated about the Withdrawal Act, but now with a separate customs arrangement between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (the so called backstop) becoming the policy of first choice.

How could this happen? There are a number of possible explanations. One is fatigue. The issue has dragged on, and, so the (erroneous) thought goes, this will put an end to it. The second explanation is that the ERG are cutting their losses. Perhaps they realise that no deal isn't a viable policy after all, or isn't one that can be achieved within this Parliament, and this is the best (or to any sane observer, worst) they are going to get.

But perhaps something else is going on. As Chaminda Jayanetti wrote here, 'elite cues' have played an important role in determining which positions are seen as acceptable and which are not by leave and remain supporters. Bizarre obsessions with the WTO, outrage at regulatory alignment etc are conjured into reality by key figures in the debate who have mass public following. Some of these may represent genuine niche obsessions, others may well have been political posturing by the ERG to oust an outsider Prime Minister (May) in favour of one of their own (Johnson), perhaps believing that this in and of itself would lead to a better outcome.

There is a strong tribe mentality to all of this. It is as if the most important question is the one once posed by Thatcher: "is he one of us?". In the case of Johnson, leavers can certainly answer that question affirmatively. It is not just that he led Vote Leave, but that since taking office, he has done everything he can to signify his scorn for all the old enemies: remainers, the judiciary and parliamentary processes. At this point all the cues are there. The most emblematic figure of the leave campaign has declared a new triumph, as has Rees Mogg, the most emblematic of the ERG. There is sufficient ambiguity over the terms of the future relationship that people can still imagine themselves painting the canvass much as they'd like, so long as they don't think too hard about the implications of customs border in the Irish Sea. Perhaps, as some in the ERG seem to be thinking, this could still be a path to a no deal outcome if no agreement is ratified within the transition period. In any case,  they can rest assured that Johnson, someone who is most assuredly 'one of them', has their back. Scrutiny is, after all, not necessary between friends.

A Shared Exceptionalism

Two facts stand out as about contemporary electoral politics. The first is that almost nobody thinks they can be tricked or manipulated. The second is that almost everyone thinks lying politicians are manipulating the other side. These two facts ought to cause some pause for thought and introspection.

This is no more evident in British politics than in discussions of Brexit. It's a common (and I think correct) claim among remain supporters that the Leave campaign used dishonest, psychologically manipulative strategies to a kind of frenzied support for leave. Arguments of this sort are generally met with the response that this claim is patronising and insulting: it assumes people are gullible enough to be manipulated in this way. But at the same time, leave supporters are equally likely to claim that remain support is a driven by the after effects of 'project fear', the supposed attempt by the Remain campaign to scare the electorate into voting to remain in the EU. Let's forget for a moment what we think about the truth of these two claims. The point is that they both presuppose that people are capable of being psychologically manipulated and being drawn to bad arguments. Yet it is quite uncommon to think that this capability extends to our own side, let alone ourselves. This is our shared exceptionalism: the commonly held belief that everyone can be manipulated but ourselves.

One further absurdity of this is how poorly it sits with the rhetoric of democracy. This is as the belief that others are being manipulated by sinister forces breeds suspicion of democratic processes, at least when they give the other side a chance of winning. One conclusion that can be drawn from this is to stress the importance of trying to understand the reasoning and stated motives of those who differ politically on their own terms. There is no doubt some value to that conclusion. But I think another, more honest, and perhaps complimentary one would be to admit that we are all capable of holding false beliefs, giving credence to bad arguments and having motivations other we are aware of and tell ourselves we have.

Gaming out a Government of National Unity

As the October article 50 extension deadline approaches talks of a so called government of national unity (GONU) are making the rounds again. The parliamentary arithmetic makes this outcome unlikely, but if we entertain the possibility, one thing stands out as an oddity: the main players are, at least ostensibly, arguing about who would get the first go at pitching a new Prime Minister. The reason this is odd is because the players seem to have got the game backwards, wanting to have a go at replacing the current government first, when they should want to go last.

Why is this? Imagine, for a moment, that enough MPs are willing to support a GONU in the event that this was the only alternative to a no deal Brexit at the end of this month. This may well not be the case, but we have to assume it is for arguments about who goes first to be worthwhile (if not, there is no situation in which any GONU occurs). It is also true that no GONU has the backing of enough MPs as a first choice (in other words, any GONU would have to be supported by MPs who would rather support some other GONU if this were possible). The numbers are likely such that any grouping has an effective veto on a GONU if they want to use it. But this means having the first shot at forming a GONU is curse: provided you can be sure there will be a subsequent opportunity for another group of MPs to try and form a GONU, and provided in the last instance this will by default have the numbers to carry a confidence motion (because this is the only alternative to no deal), the ideal situation is to be the last group of MPs which can attempt to form a GONU.

Put more concretely, imagine the following scenario. There is a successful vote of no confidence in the government. The Labour leadership attempts to form a government, but is denied support by the Lib Dems and most of the former Tory rebels. The latter two cobble together some support for another a government led by Ken Clarke. It is likely this is the last opportunity to form a GONU before the 14 days of the fixed term parliament act expire. In that instance, the Labour leadership would face the choice of supporting the GONU, or denying this support, which would mean a no deal Brexit. What's more, given that attention and memory would likely focus on this last chance, were the Labour leadership to deny a GONU support, they would likely (reasonably or otherwise) get the lion's share of the blame for what happens next.

It is clear then, that if these assumptions are correct, having the first shot at forming a government of national unity is a poisoned chalice. This makes sense of the recent exchanges between the Labour and Lib Dem leadership. The Labour leadership insists that not only that they are given the first chance, but that support is given before a vote of no confidence for a Labour led GONU. Swinson's counter offer- give it a try, and if it fails, others can have a go, does not answer this problem for the Labour leadership, as it gives rise to precisely the situation outlined. Should any of this matter? Of course not. Who leads a short GONU with a limited mandate is of little importance, given the gravity of the situation at hand. Unfortunately, it might matter a great deal to the parties involved.