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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Leader: The wretched of the earth

Britain must accept more asylum-seekers - and create a sustainable plan for their integration into wider society.

The quality of our public discourse on asylum is lamentable. The Conservative government, preoccupied with its absurd immigration caps and targets (all missed), has shown little leadership on the issue. In an excellent speech on 1 September, Yvette Cooper correctly denounced the “political cowardice” of ministers for failing to respond adequately and compassionately to the plight of asylum-seekers fleeing turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. She contrasted the government’s inaction with Britain’s proud traditions of welcoming incomers and the most desperate refugees.

Yet those who agree with Ms Cooper should also accept that admitting large numbers of asylum-seekers – she suggested that Britain should take in 10,000 people fleeing the Middle East – would pose considerable challenges to public services, housing and social cohesion. It is not enough to accept more asylum-seekers. There must be a plan for their integration into wider society, by helping them to learn English, find work and pay taxes. Above all, what is required is not a panicked, short-term response to the immediate crisis but an EU-wide solution for the long term.

The British government, however, does not seem interested in helping to find one, which was why Ms Cooper’s call for a country of 65 million to admit 10,000 asylum-seekers seemed so bold. For all its difficulties, Britain is richer than most other countries in the EU. It can afford to do far more than its intransigent approach to admitting asylum-seekers suggests. Between 2010 and 2014, 15 EU countries admitted more asylum-seekers per head of population than the UK.

In 2014, the UK granted asylum to just 14,000 people, compared to the 47,500 taken by Germany. This year, as many as 800,000 are expected to apply to Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the refugee crisis “will concern us far more than Greece and the stability of the euro”, and German regional leaders have agitated for greater federal funding and faster processing of asylum claims. Such an approach is absent from much of the rest of the continent: many European nations seem to have resolved that the best way to deter asylum-seekers is to treat them deplorably. The Dutch government has announced plans to cut off the supply of food and shelter for those who fail to qualify as refugees.

Nor has the EU distinguished itself. A proposal made in May for member states to admit 40,000 asylum-seekers between them has collapsed. The EU has also failed to engage other nations in a larger multilateral response to alleviating the crisis: the wealthy Gulf states, which keep their borders firmly closed to the desperate of Syria ought to be shamed into action. As many as 2,500 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year; across the EU, the number of applications for asylum reached the record figure of 626,000 in 2014 and it will be even higher in 2015.

David Cameron can legitimately say that he is operating in a climate of great hostility to migrants and asylum-seekers – just read the tabloid headlines. Yet leadership is about informing public opinion, not merely following it. The Prime Minister has a rare opportunity to shape a more enlightened and compassionate public discourse.