Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 28 January 2013

Incentives dear boy

Mark Ferguson has posted a call to arms on LabourList this morning urging his comrades to stop neglecting their heartlands and proclaiming that there is no such thing as a safe seat.

His case-study is Bradford West where George Galloway stormed to victory in last year's by-election partly due to the indifference shown to the constituency by the local Labour Party who had been allowed to get away with this because the seat was perceived as solid red.

Mark's argument sounds reasonable but let's consider an analogy.

Imagine that you run a team responsible for administering a number of small local shops, let's say 325 of them across the country. You know that 200 of them have turned a consistent solid profit for the last 50 years. You know that for a further 60 of them they have returned a decent profit for 45 of the last 50 years and are very likely to do so again in the next few years.

That leaves the remaining 65 stores which have historically been more inconsistent. 30 of them have about a 75% chance of returning a profit but the remaining 35 have a 50% chance of going bust without some significant investment and general corporate TLC. Also, there are another 50 stores currently run by a competitor that you would like to get your hands on but that will involve a lot of investment to acquire them and then keep them going.

So as CEO of this company, how do you allocate your resource? It seems pretty obvious to me that the 260 stores that have consistently turned a profit and are very likely to continue to do so should be left largely to their own devices. Sure you might want to send someone round to each of them to say hello, make sure there are no problems looming and tell them how well they're doing but beyond that, spending much more time and money than that would be wasteful and from a corporate perspective rather pointless. Where's the gain? The real focus would be on the 65 stores that are struggling and the attempted takeover of the 50 new stores. That's where the real gains lie in turning around stores that are struggling to make them profitable and adding new stores to the company.

Labour are in a very similar position. They have around 260 seats and most of them are likely to be pretty solid. They may want to put some central resource into some of the more marginal ones but really, to try and win a majority they need to focus on the 100 or so target seats that will get them a working majority. If they were to take their central resource and pour loads of it into seats where they already have big majorities, under our electoral system it would be a waste. The money and time is far better spent where it can likely make the difference between a seat won and lost, not a seat that is won with an even bigger majority than last time.

Mark is wrong when he says there are no safe seats. Yes there are. And Labour has at least 200 of them. Galloway was a "black swan". Yes, he has hit them twice (in 2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow as Mark rightly points out and in 2012 in Bradford West) but it is very unlikely anyone else is going to be able to do that to Labour in 2015. Even if they could it would be 1 or 2 seats maximum and cannot really be planned for. It still makes far more sense to focus on the marginals and maximise their chances of winning there.

Of course this does mean that over time people in the safe seats feel neglected and there is a long term risk that they will get tired of being taken for granted and look elsewhere. This is as true in "true blue" safe Tory seats as it is in safe Labour ones.

It is our electoral system that causes this. The safe seats stack up on either side and the main fight is for the 100 or so marginal seats that are up for grabs. The parties are simply responding to the electoral incentives in the same way as our shop manager is responding to the realities of the market. This cannot be changed by "urging" parties to stop taking people for granted. It will only change if the electoral incentives change to make it worth the while of the parties to focus on every single vote.

Until that happens calls to arms like this are essentially whistling in the political wind.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I think you and Mark are talking across each other a bit here. I read the Bradford West report by Lewis Baston he mentions this morning, and his comments are best taken in the light of that. Because of the declining number of people involved in party politics in all seats across all parties, the danger is not necessarily losing seats in 'black swan' like events like Galloway. Instead, it's the fact that local parties (as with Labour in Bradford West) have hollowed out so that small numbers of people effectively control the party and the constituency.