Hustings are hard to read. Even before the candidates open their mouths factors have already influenced the opinions about to be formed; every attendee arrives preprogrammed with a lifetime of preferences and biases, and in this case, just like the tv version, decisions about which candidates will participate have been made by the organisers.Then when the candidates do speak, their words are variously bolstered, dismissed and occasionally rejected by an audience with several partisan elements. Attempting to separate out the activists and party faithful to form an objective opinion about which candidate has been the most influential with the punter is itself subjective. But sometimes a moment stands out.
The fourth of six preselected (and well constructed) questions was about the NHS and led to hissing and booing from the audience when the Conservative candidate began his answer with a reference to Jeremy Hunt’s now infamous weekend death rate statistic. So infamous that Tim Harford, presenter of More or Less, took it apart in an article for the Financial Times titled ‘How politicians poisoned statistics‘.
While it’s heartening to know that people in Witney are so well informed, it’s quite disturbing to discover that the favourite to represent them isn’t. And surprising; I’d say a lawyer is highly unlikely to mix up correlation with causation. So how did it come about?
My guess is it’s down to a lack of critical thinking that occurs in groups with a shared cause; a mixture of groupthink and confirmation bias creating an environment in which people tend not to question or challenge what appear to be accepted norms. Put simply, Robert Courts has read his party’s position on a subject he’s not that familiar with and trusted it, taking it at face value. This phenomenon won’t be confined to the Conservative Party, but now I come to think of it, I know nothing about how its policy is arrived at – does it debate it at conference? Whatever the process is, is it more or less likely than other parties to lead to poor decisions?
Oft mentioned in Robert’s argument for his candidacy (I’ve lost count of the number of leaflets posted through our door) is the fact he’ll be a Conservative MP working in a Conservative government with local Conservative controlled councils, implying that he’ll have more influence as in insider. We could really do with an influential MP working to resolve the growing problems of local transport, health services and affordable housing here, but one can’t help noticing that we’ve had exactly that with the added advantage of a Conservative PM for the past six years. Just how much more influence can a constituency have?
Paradoxically, local Conservative councillors appear to have little or no influence with their party colleagues in national government, as was highlighted by letter-gate last year when the the local and national leaders clashed over cuts to the local budget. Where is it going wrong?
David Cameron held this seat for the Conservatives in 2015 with a decisive 60% of the vote so it’s both Robert Courts and the Conservative party’s to lose, and an extremely tall order for any other candidate and party to win. In which case, extending my guess to a working hypothesis that states ‘Conservative party dominance is constricting creativity and causing complacency’, where will the diversity in thinking and new ideas come from if we get more of the same?
I suggest we need more diversity in our politics, for all our sakes.