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The wisdom of Bristol crowds


Last night I exercised my civic duty and voted in Bristol’s first mayoral election. I hadn’t decided exactly who I was going to vote for until I got to the polling station, and so I was thinking about how people make their minds up who to vote for. I was also thinking about how we imagine democracy – government by the people – to work, and what kinds of expressions of political will we think are legitimate.

All this follows hard on the heels of an obsessive following of the US elections in my house. One of the more bizarre rhetorics following Barack Obama’s win is the claim that he ‘bought’ the election by offering ‘gifts (Romney wants to you read the word ‘bribes’ here) to African American, Hispanic and young voters. These gifts are of course not brown envelopes full of cash handed over in a clandestine meeting on a park bench, but policies designed to help relatively hard-up groups of society. The idea that it is somehow illegitimate to offer sections of the population a better life in return for their vote represents a particularly twisted idea of democracy. Surely if Obama can win more votes by offering popular measures then he does – by definition – represent the majority view of the American population?

But what does this tell us about how we imagine democracy to work? It implies a kind of ‘wisdom of the crowds‘ model where every individual might not be able to see the big picture, but in aggregate, the sum of non-expert guesses amounts to a better result than any expertise could provide (this is also the logic behind the use of betting markets as pretty accurate predictors of elections.) So do we imagine that we all vote in our own individual self-interest but that the aggregated sum of our narcissism adds up to a good representation of the interests of society as a whole?

In practice, one problem with this view is that some people are more likely to vote than others, and those who are living in the poorest areas, the young and those who do not speak English well are less likely to make their voices heard at the ballot box. Hence, in Bristol, the Labour campaign focused on ‘getting the vote out’:

But do we really think that the act of voting works like the invisible hand of the market – that we all act as rational, self-interested consumers ultimately producing the most efficient outcome? Some of the rhetoric and discourse about elections, particularly in the US where we saw detailed targeting and demographic segmentation of the electorate, seems to promote this view. For me at least, I was trying to choose between two candidates for my second vote (I voted Green Party first): George Ferguson (Independent) and Marvin Rees (Labour). I think Ferguson would be more likely to make immediate changes to Bristol that would positively affect my life, but Rees clearly made his main priority the needs of people worse off than I am and had a vision of a more equal Bristol.  Representing the voice of a city turns out, for me at least, to be about a bigger social vision than simply the sum of self-interests.* Well of course I do believe there is such a thing as society after all.

Social science is currently enamoured of what analyses of ‘Big Data‘ can tell us, and elections represent one of the biggest and most established big data sets around. This is now supplemented by many, many polls, betting markets and algorithmic engines that attempt to predict the result of elections, to the extent that these samples of public opinion come to be seen to be as almost as valid representations of the public voice as the election itself and the election as simply another data point in the series. But voting itself is a strange, almost mystical, act – especially for a nation such as the US with a strong founding myth of democracy. And the act of voting always carries with it uncertainty. If it were not uncertain – if polls and algorithms could transparently deliver the voice of the people – then there would be no need for an actual election at all. The accuracy of polling data and algorithms have to be measured against the thing itself – the actual election.  Some have been extraordinarily effective at this, with Nate Silver’s data crunching in the US election being seen as some kind of voodoo prophecy:

But without the actual election, the polls and predictions would be meaningless. It still takes the act of voting to express a voice; data cannot replace this act, however clever its sampling and crunching methods.

How else do we, as the public, express our voice to the government? In the UK and many other countries, democracy is not direct but representative. We occasionally have referenda, but most decisions are taken on our behalf by our representative. When we are dissatisfied with our representatives we can choose more direct forms of making our voices heard – from petitions to demonstrations and direct action. Sarah Wanenchek argues that the relationship between government and citizens instantiated in the right to petition is embedded in the communications technology that allow people to not just understand what various candidates are offering, but to actually speak back directly to government. Polls and petitions both offer (partial) reflections of public opinion that governments should heed if they are to maintain legitimacy as governing in the name of the populace. But whereas polls rely on aggregation and questions devised by pollsters, petitions include the wording of people themselves and a means by which people can directly participate in political debate within the public sphere. It is worrying, then, that these more direct forms of democratic engagement may be characterised as unrepresentative lobbying and biased partisanship and less likely to influence government than the supposedly transparent results of polls.

As I write, the votes for the Bristol mayoral election are still being counted, though the low turnout in poorer areas in the south and east of the city, and the collapse of conservative and lib dem votes in the affluent north look likely to favour the independent candidate, George Ferguson. Bristol is a unique city that prides itself on doing things differently. We were the only city to vote for a mayor – largely seen as an expression of exasperation with the city council and local party politics. It makes sense that people would follow through and vote for the independent candidate who has stood on a platform of Bristol over party politics.  I can certainly live with that.

* I still have big reservations about Rees’s integration with the local and national Labour machine, by no means do I think Ferguson would be a disaster for minorities and the poor, and it remains to be seen how much power anyone has to actually get anything done.



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