‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds vs the Wisdom of Experts

Compare the prime ministers who emerged as a result of ‘expert’ judgement within their own parties, to those who were chosen by the electorate.

Since the war, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown became prime minister without first having an election. It would be hard to argue that this turned out overall to be a more impressive group than those who were directly elected - Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron.

(Eden, Macmillan and Major did go on to win endorsement from the voters, but only after their party had placed them in the premiership.)

The open primary contest which resulted in Sarah Wollaston becoming the Conservative MP for Totnes is cited as a powerful reason for open primaries. More are likely, including even in the Labour Party. Sarah Wollaston is by almost everyone’s reckoning a very able politician, but she would have been a good MP if she had been chosen by her constituency association, and an open primary can only produce the best from the available candidates.

There is a danger here of getting carried away with the Marks and Spencer or John Lewis syndrome of finding something that works in one situation at one time and then declaring that it would be the solution in any number of unrelated situations. I remember the calls in the 1980s for the British economy to be modelled on Japan’s, the example of Marks & Spencer being held up as a model for running an organisation just before their profits collapsed and the company was faced with a takeover threat. The John Lewis Partnership runs a good set of shops, but it is not a perfect model for an organisation dealing with urgent life and death decisions or major capital investments.

There are other complications. Arguably virtually no-one voted for a coalition government at the last election. We had been warned that it would be a weak and unstable government. Now, many people accept that coalition governments can work and would quite like another one – but, of course, there is actually no direct way of voting for one.

Crowds can make good judgements, but many people are misinformed. Last year you were 1,700 time more likely to die on the roads of Britain than to be killed in a terrorist attack. The government spends 15 times more on pensions than on Job Seeker’s Allowance. Crime is 53% lower than in 1995. Membership of the EU costs the average tax-payer about £28 per year. The population of London has barely regained its peak from the 1950s. But how many people make their decisions based on accurate evidence?

Perhaps the best answer is the wisdom of crowds, who have first been informed by experts.

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