Beware groupthink

The perils of “following the crowd” in this unpredictable election.

Yesterday, I flagged up Alex Barker's "unpacking" of the consensus view among Britain's top pollsters that the Tories will indeed secure a Commons majority on 6 May -- despite a narrowing in the polls.

Writing on the FT blog, Alex pointed out that "a unanimous consensus is always something to be wary of, particularly when it doesn't quite reflect the evidence available".

Today, the excellent Aditya Chakrabortty has a piece in the Guardian dissecting the cult of the "expert commentator" and dismissing the "high-intensity forecasting" of the nation's political pundits as "largely worthless".

Aditya writes:

Cast your mind back to June last year, when yet another Labour putsch was being launched against the Prime Minister. Trawling through the comment pages published in the week when the coup was at its height -- with ministers resigning, and local and European elections looming -- I found 20 columns and leading articles in the Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian discussing whether Brown would survive. Of those, half predicted he would go, while only a quarter thought he might stay (the rest, perhaps wisely, didn't chance their arm). If the broadsheet fortune-tellers could not assess the outcome of a backroom plot featuring a few ministers and MPs, how far should we trust their judgement on what tens of millions of voters will do?

This is probably unfair, and certainly unscientific. Brown did come close to being toppled last summer, and cabinet conspirators tend to duck out of ICM-style opinion polls. But, on the broad question of whether we should set much store by political predictions, the answer is a flat no.

Aditya also flags up a fascinating book by the University of California, Berkeley psychiatrist Phil Tetlock, based on his 20-year study of predictions by political, media and economic experts, which found that they are no better than the rest of us at prognostication.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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