One of the funny things about being a statistician (funny peculiar, obviously; there's precious little funny ha-ha about it, trust me) is when you're considering some fairly abstruse bit of methodology, and it suddenly occurs to you that it has a relevance to a political discussion. Tim is to blame for this (I mean, he's to blame for this particular instance, I'm not suggesting he carries some sort of universal guilt for analogies between statistical theory and political discussion, not even Tim is that powerful, though we'd best not give him ideas). Anyway. He's to blame for yesterday's term-setting article What is Right-Wing? which I read just as I was thinking about split-plots.
A split-plot is an example of an experimental design whereby a completely random allocation of treatments to experimental units cannot practically be achieved, or would be undesirable, and thus the treatments are randomised within separate blocks. It has its origins, like most British statistical theory, in agricultural field trials. Fields - plots - of earth might have different properties of plant nutrition on their left and right hand sides (because of exposure to light, or rain, for example), so you wouldn’t want to test a novel fertiliser against a control by simply randomly assigning the new or old treatment to every plant in the field, in case by chance you ended up with most of the new treatments on the ‘good’ side of the field and most of the controls on the ‘bad’. You get round this by splitting the plot into left and right ‘blocks’, and randomising test or control to plants on the left, and likewise on the right. You then estimate the between-block (between left and right side) variability, and remove this from the test for the variance between the treatments within each block. Neat: especially when the difference between blocks (left and right) is much greater than the variation within them (starting to ring any bells?).
It seems to me a useful way of describing British politics currently; perhaps it always was a split-plot, but the fact of Coalition makes it feel more evident. We have between-party variance, of course. Parties are blocks. You might expect the political opinions within any one party to vary less than those between any two parties. Perhaps in the 1980s this was almost completely true; but it's not true now; at least, not for a possibly finite subset of 'treatments', which in politics we call 'ideas'. But we have within-party variance also, which might be approaching the point when it is larger than that between parties, at least for some ideas. This might be more concrete if we consider two examples.
Europe. It is almost certainly true that the central tendency of the idea about Europe within the Conservative block is significantly far away from the same central tendencies within either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Between-party variance is much, much higher than that within-parties. The central tendency is the average across all party supporters; not the same as saying that everyone believes the same thing. But if you average over Ken Clarke & Liam Fox & me & Sally and so on, you get an average position on Europe which is evidentially light years away from the average over Nick Clegg & David Laws & The Nice Woman Next Door Who Always Votes LibDem Because You've Got To Give Them A Chance, Don't You. This makes it easy for voters to decide who to pick with regard to Europe, at least for that subset of voters which retains the desire to vote for someone with a chance of being elected.
ASBOs. Not so clear cut. The average across the Conservative block again contains a mix of views, but so many of us are at the libertarian end of things that I reckon we're much, much closer to the average LibDem position than we are to those in our own party who actually think ASBOs are a pretty good idea. If it's not clear cut with regard to ASBOs, consider control orders, the perpetual 'prisons without bars' engaged at the whim of the Home Secretary as a result of Labour's Act of 2005. I bet a thread about that on Conservative Home would produce a much greater spread of opinion than, and a large degree of overlap with, a similar one would on Liberal Democrat Voice even if the articles themselves were saying pretty much the same thing. Party label is not a good ‘block’ to control for variation in the distribution of ideas about control orders.
Both those were Tory examples. It’s interesting to consider the same exercise for the Liberal Democrat party with regard to the necessity of immediate and significant cuts in public expenditure.
This is fairly uncontroversial, surely? The questions that interest me: what do we do about it? And what does Coalition do to our sense of ourselves as ‘right wing’?
1. Politics as football
Those who subscribe to this approach elevate their historical tribalism over the importance of any single (or finite subset) of their political ideas. Winning is everything, even if ideas one holds dear are sacrificed because most people in your team don't agree with you. The entire New Labour approach to government was this - total war against any and all opposition. I can't bear football - one may as well support 'Ariel' over 'Persil', and the obsessive Brownite identification with the real game, presumably as a signifier of their putative honest-guv normality, was emetic - but it would be wrong to say that tribalism in politics is without virtue. No-one in this life should attain everything they desire. Subsuming one's desires into that of the group teaches humility and leads to better outcomes for most (swimming-pool Conservatism). More importantly, we hope that the dialectic between tribes will lead to a competition of ideas which will generate the truth about any proposition (in so far as we can admit the possibility of a universal ‘truth’ - I agree completely with Melanchthon about this), even if we have to sacrifice our own individual belief about the proposition as part of that process. The fight between tribes is a surrogate for the fight between different sets of competing ideas about different propositions, and if the between-tribe clash is removed, the outcome would be soggy consensualism (aka not giving the voter a choice).2. Politics as mathematics
Adherents of this approach reject tribalism for its lack of coherence, in the formal sense: to them, what matters most is that any policy proposal coheres with the basic axioms of their belief system. To those of us who don't share this approach, such people may appear ideological, whether they cling to the desire for worldwide socialism, or the abolition of the state, or think that there's no issue in public life which could not be resolved if only the UK would break from the EU. Personally I’m closer to the soccer politicos than the mathematical ones (oddly) because of my own dogma, that evidence should always modulate belief (I think inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning is more useful in politics). But we should recognise advantages of this position: it minimises outbreaks of the cardinal political sin: the U-turn. Adherents of the coherent approach to politics will also surely have less attachment to any party label, and will make bedfellows with supporters from anywhere on the spectrum when they align (perhaps by chance) on the same side on any particular issue. They tend to be criticised on this website as not being sufficiently ‘loyal’ to their party; but they are being obsessively loyal, in fact: loyal to their own worldview. Overall they will be less successful, electorally; but from time to time, because of their willingness to share platforms, they will be capable of delivering overwhelming electoral force.
The strange thing is that my friend Tim is a real-life soccer fan, but largely (it seems to me) a mathematical politician. Whereas I can’t be bothered with football, but (like lots of Tories?) have always been happy to ignore any differences I might have with individuals or subgroups in the party over particular issues, because on average I agree with most of our platform, most of the time, and would always prefer a Tory administration to a socialist one. The other day Tim urged us to make common cause with trades unions, in order to fight the AV referendum. The response of many Tory readers here was: no way! If the unions are against it, then I must be for it. Honestly? Tim is, of course, correct. We should be a little more mathematical and a little less tribal - the advantage of Coalition is that we have external permission to do this.
It’s not a gaffe for two Conservatives to disagree about (for example) identity cards or Europe, nor is it the end of the British Tory Party for a Conservative to vote with a Liberal on some pieces of legislation, and against him on another. Rather it is liberation from the artificial stricture of pretending that fidelity to one’s primary tribe entails either ignoring or lying about those aspects of the tribe’s platform with which one disagrees. The machinery by which this change could be formalised is surely electoral reform. Both supporters of AV (I think: not me) and supporters of the Douglas Carswell plan for completely open primaries (definitely: me) want change both in order to increase the ability of a voter to align with his primary electoral desires (regardless of party label), and for individuals within parties to be more openly honest about where they disagree with their tribal platform, without sacrificing the sense of ‘party’ required to deliver an effective Executive. Note that Labour, predictably as ever, are fighting against this political revolution (I don’t think that’s too strong a word), consigning internal critics of Brown’s government to unperson status, blindly opposing every initiative from the Coalition, and - of course - rejecting both the Liberal and the Carswell approach to electoral reform.Liberation (from the big state) and honesty (in transparent government): already these are the primary political objectives of the Coalition. It strikes me that liberation and honesty may well be the primary psychological outcomes of Coalition for the parties and voters of the Centre and the Right also, a change which will surely be welcome, and a change which Labour will one day regret setting its face against.