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I return to the question of the next election, even though it is far away. Our view of what will happen then determines, to a great extent, what we do now. There is a reverse domino effect which means imagined future events cascade backwards to influence the present. At the moment, Conservatives are calm, almost comfortable. But today's complacency, coupled with the randomness of events, may turn in less than a year into renewed anxiety, forcing fundamental choices.

At last week's conference, most people seemed pretty confident that Conservatives will win the next general election because a) the LibDems are in calamitous retreat, b) Milliband is hopeless and yet will not be ousted, c) the proposed boundary changes will reduce the electoral bias to Labour.

That story certainly sounds credible. But credible narratives are so deceptive. They make us over-confident. Instead, look at the situation from the point of view of 'social physics', the notion that aggregated human behaviour – multiple events involving large numbers of individuals making many decisions – follows predictable patterns. In data time series, the question always is: should we regard any current movement away from average as being a trend that will continue, or as a blip that will be reversed? The latter is called 'mean reversion' and is usually a better bet. 


If mean reversion is more likely to prevail, then it suggests that a) the situation of the LibDems is more likely to recover than to worsen; b) Milliband is likely to become more credible not less credible, and in any case the Labour vote next time will probably be higher rather than lower; c) a large number of MPs and Lords will pursue self-interest and therefore the hoped-for redrawing of seats may be tied up in many knots; and one could add a fourth potential for mean reversion: the return of splits within the ranks of Tories on issues such as Europe and the true nature of Conservatism.

It is perfectly possible that none of these things will happen – but remember that any one of them makes the others more likely and thus an outright Conservative victory becomes very difficult. Mean reversion favours norms, and to win campaigns demands a longer view, which will suggest an increasingly urgent choice: play it safe and strengthen relations with the coalition partners, or be bold and opt for a distinctive, riskier Conservatism. That debate will itself be destabilising.

One could simply argue: push aside any thoughts of distant elections and just concentrate on doing the right thing for the nation, today. Of course that is the correct thing. But the truth is we live in the 'permanent campaign', and every decision taken today is conditioned by these idle speculations.

20 comments for: Stephan Shakespeare: Mean Reversion, or how 2015 defines 2012

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