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Why did we really get this shock general election result? Answer: it’s complicated

They say we’re intelligent apes. But to read some commentary on the shock election result we’re not just intelligent but we each have a mental calculating capacity that surpasses the most powerful supercomputers and a forecasting ability that puts Nostradamus to shame.

“Voters found a way to deliver the outcome they wanted,” argued the Evening Standard’s editorial on Friday, saying that what voters “wanted” was to deliver a vote of no confidence in all of the main parties.

We heard similar talk after the 2010 election surprisingly delivered a hung parliament. This unexpected result, we were told, signalled the fact that the eminently sensible British public were not convinced by any of the main parties and had, yes, “found a way” to say that to politicians.

If that sounds like wisdom, pause to think through the logic. To “deliver the outcome they wanted” in the national vote would require some 30 million voters to cast their ballot not only with a clear view of how their tens of thousands of neighbours would also vote in their particular constituency – and then to calculate how their own constituency’s result would interact with 649 others in delivering the make-up of the Parliament. 

This, of course, is quack mysticism masquerading as political analysis. It is an anthropomorphising of the electorate; thinking about a mass of voters as a single individual with a controlling mind. It’s akin to the demagogic nonsense about the inviolable “will of the people” that one hears from hardline Brexiteers.

In reality, people took a voting decision based on the information available to them in the (erratic) polls and their own views and preferences. Yes, many may well have voted tried to vote tactically in their own marginal constituency. But the vast majority of voters will not have made a calculation on how their vote would affect the overall result of a hung parliament because it would simply have been impossible for them to do this. There was no “hung parliament” option on the ballot paper.

The outcome of the vote in terms of the make-up of Parliament was an emergent phenomenon . It didn’t reflect any “general will” but, like the forces of supply and demand in markets and the prices that emerge from their interaction, it flowed from individual choices and preferences.

Certainly some people might have got what they “wanted” in terms of the overall result. Many people might have been relatively content with the simultaneous humbling of Theresa May and the absence of Jeremy Corbyn from 10 Downing Street. It’s undoubtedly true that neither the Conservatives nor Labour won the support of a majority of voters (although in fact they both received very high vote shares by historic standards). But voters didn’t personally “find a way” to deliver the headline result because they can have had no idea how their individual ballot would affect the overall outcome.

The twin of specious anthropomorphism in evaluating election results is monocausal explanations. People voted in surprising numbers for Labour, some tell us, because they were mainly pro-EU young people.

Others insist there was actually a Northern swing to Labour because locals were firmly pro-Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn had cannily refused to resist May’s EU departure plans.

A red herring, say others, because this election wasn’t really about Brexit at all – it was really a judgement on austerity. All nonsense, another group says. It was an election that was essentially lost by the cackhanded Conservatives. People didn’t vote Tory because they were put off by the “dementia tax” and the catastrophic manifesto. No, it was the dismal lack of hope in the Tory marketing campaign that did it, say others.

But many things can be true simultaneously. All these factors can play a part – and, of course, others unconsidered. The important question is the relative importance of them. But rather than recognising this profound complexity, many pundits simply stress the factor that reflects their own preferences and values.

Complexity economics is an exciting research field. It aims to move away from the assumptions about homogeneous “representative agents” with fixed preferences and market “equilibrium” used in many mainstream economic forecasting models. Complexity economics seeks to get to grips with emergent, even chaotic, phenomena instead. One branch seeks to gain insights into the real world by running computer simulations of how agents programmed with different and evolving preferences interact and the many scenarios that might emerge through the interplay of individual choices, network effects and feedback mechanisms.

What our political debate could do with is a fuller appreciation of the multi-faceted and emergent properties of democratic elections: complexity politics if you will.


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