I'm game if you are

Pairing people off can have some nasty and unexpected side effects. Occasionally, it works: Torvill and Dean spring to mind, as do Crick and Watson. But Blair and Brown, it is becoming increasingly clear, was not a match made in heaven.

Further alliances are likely to be struck in the next few weeks, and similarly disastrous long-term consequences may ensue. What the Labour Party needs now, before it's too late, is the help of a branch of mathematics known as game theory.

Game theory has proved useful to politicians in the past. When John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) invented his "Nash equilibrium", a mathematical trick for settling arguments in a way that offers all parties a mutual advantage, it was applied with great success to cold war politics. It has also proved useful more recently: a government auction of bandwidth to mobile-phone companies in 2001 used Nash's equations to fetch as high a price as possible while keeping the phone companies happy.

So perhaps politicians could use game theory to settle their internal differences. A framework already exists. The "stable marriage problem" is designed to form long-lasting, strife-free alliances.

The maths begins with a familiar scenario - a group of people eager to pair off. The sticking point, as always, is that some people are more desirable as partners than others. The chances are that there is one person who dominates everybody's wish-list, meaning that if the process is left to itself, almost everybody will end up dissatisfied.

But there is a way forward. First, everyone has to rank all the potential partners in order of preference. David says he could work with Andy more easily than he could with Ed, for example. Andy, on the other hand, would rather work with Diane than with David. Unfortunately, Diane ranks Andy lowest of all. And so it goes on, until all the lists are in.

Once the rankings are in, you look for a set of pairings where everybody has the highest-ranking partner that will have them. In 1962, the mathematicians David Gale and Lloyd Shapley proved that it is always possible to find an outcome that is entirely stable - you really can create a situation where there is no partner swap that will make anyone any happier. It's a perfect recipe for long-term stability.

In half a century, however, the stable marriage problem has found only limited practical use. Dating websites could use it to solve all their clients' problems, but perhaps it suits them better to keep dissatisfaction levels high. The only documented case of everyday use seems to be in finding hospital placements for graduating doctors.

This is the perfect moment to apply it to politics. Labour could pioneer a scientifically formed leadership that will take us into an era of stable political partnerships. The downside? Exceedingly dull memoirs.


Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.