Westminster wargames and what we don’t know

by David Butler

Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former SpAd, has been compulsive and compelling reading ever since his essay ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’ sparked controversy last October. His blogposts are rich with challenging material and thinking, unlike much of the noise in politics today. The other day, he released an Autumn 2010 Westminster wargame considering the potential dynamics of this current Parliament, setting out what the Cameroons wanted and thought would happen and what they didn’t.

The wargame covered seventeen categories, from macroeconomics to free schools, and from coalition politics to international terrorism. What the Cameroons wanted and thought would happen were generally on the lines of a Britain rejuvenated, a quiet world and the end of anti-politics. The opposite was a fragmented Coalition, economic decline and a conflict-ridden world.

The Cameroons were correct, on balance, in nine of the seventeen categories. The economy is (finally) growing and the cuts are seen as necessary with strikes manageable. Cuts to policing have not resulted in rising crime, although the police are still in need of reform.  On education, as I wrote the other day, Gove succeeded in expanding academies and implementing reforms to improve behaviour and standards. The Liberal Democrats did indeed lose the AV referendum but didn’t threaten the integrity of Coalition in the aftermath. The Lib Dems have not fractured and whilst the Tory grassroots are noisy over Europe, they haven’t abandoned Cameron. The Olympics were a resounding success, despite the issues with the legacy of the project. Civil liberties haven’t really been ‘restored’ but there has been a welcome absence of terrorism. The City of London remains a major financial centre despite the LIBOR scandal.

However, they were wrong in seven of the seventeen categories. On welfare, IDS’s reforms have failed to change incentives to work much. Immigration has not been limited (as it is mostly driven by the EU) and UKIP have benefitted from it. The EU has been a major issue within Westminster due to UKIP’s success. There have been significant international conflicts and the Arab Spring was the foreign policy black swan of the past decade. Health reforms are a mess, whilst the civil service have blocked reforms (which was the rumoured trigger for Sir Bob Kerslake’s departure). Finally, anti-politics is on the rise, with UKIP the main beneficiary.

In one of the categories (international currency and bond markets), I am unsure as to how to score it. The Eurozone Crisis would suggest that it is an incorrect prediction on behalf of the Cameroons. However, the lack of major global currency wars and a ‘Plaza 2’ make this category too close to call.

The wargame that Cummings participated in back in 2010 and the scorecards that will be drawn up of it reflected a wider truth, namely that human forecasting skills, even those of experts, are not brilliant; we love our hunches and our theories and hate to be wrong. Perhaps this is an obvious truth but it is that appears to be forgotten at times in the practice of politics. The weakness of human forecasting skills was set out in by Philip E. Tetlock’s book Expert Political Judgment. Tetlock found that 284 experts across a range of fields, over a twenty year period, barely outperformed simple chance in their predictions.

Tetlock’s study also compares “foxes” and “hedgehogs”, the categories popularised by Isaiah Berlin. He found that those he categorised as foxes outperformed hedgehogs. The forecasts made by hedgehogs were more reliant on an ultimate force – like the advocates of the Whig theory of history.  Foxes, by contrast, had a more ad-hoc approach, avoiding simple grand schemes and attempted to bring together large, diverse information sources. By acting more like the fabled foxes, and avoiding clinging to treasured theories, we can dodge bad decisions and hopefully make a few more accurate judgements

The Cameroons are, in general, foxes, for they are not slaves to a radical worldview in the same way that the GOP, UKIP or the Tory right are. Osborne has shown himself to be a prime fox, changing his deficit reduction strategy and using monetary stimulus when the fabled expansionary fiscal contraction didn’t deliver growth. However, the Cameroons can facilitate hedgehogs, like Iain Duncan Smith, and occasionally act like hedgehogs towards immigration policy and the EU (although this may well be the internalising of external Party constraints).

By my quick scorecard, the Cameroons were correct in their thinking, as stated in the wargame, on what they wanted and thought would happen in a narrow majority of categories. Their accuracy was close to what one could have predicted using Tetlock’s model. The wargame and Tetlock’s results should be a clarion call for modesty and healthy scepticism, rather than despair. We may not be perfect predictors, but there are ways of improving our performance. A little less dogma, a little more intellectual diversity and flexibility would go a long way.

David Butler is a Labour activist

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