Friday, April 9, 2010

Incumbent MP bias : Cambrian News highlights a new cognitive bias

I buy the Cambrian News (local paper for mid Wales infrequently, much in the same way I buy the Farmer's Weekly every few months to keep an eye on what is going on in the area. I was out of Aberystwyth the day of the 1st set of "hustings".

From the comment section by Patrick O'Brien in the paper based Cambrian News this week, it was probably a good thing I was away. I can't find a web based version of this article, but the story goes along the lines of "they all agreed on just about everything. Questions were submitted upfront, the audience was well behaved, the 4 candidates were all careful not to say anything which could offend".

What was interesting was the last few paragraphs where the writer suggested that the incumbent MP looked most comfortable and being on face value the stronger candidate. This is what I think is the bias.

Lets examine what the 4 of them have spent the last 5 years doing

  • Plaid : Penri has spent most of the last 5 years lecturing in agriculture and being part of the Plaid party machine
  • Luke : has I guess spent most of last 5 years either doing a law degree or Solicitor training, with some element of being part of the party machine
  • Richard : has I guess spent most of the last 5 years either in school or being a student (assume this from him being 20) and been a town counciler.
  • Mark : has spent most of the last 5 years being an M.P. at Westminister where he had practise walking the walk. He made speaches, saw others make speakers, draw out the good and bad, helping people with problems, dancing around the local council. He will appear a stronger canidate because he is already in that world. If you want to train for something, then do it.
This makes the decision of suitability(where you vote) for the office of Ceredigion M.P. a difficult one unless you already party aligned. I meet with both Mark and Penri in my role as acting chair of the C.A.B. Both were proactive and very supportive. I have meet them both in other contexts and exchanged a few emails. Apart from Mark having the experience of the last 5 years, both would be equally competent at helping local people with their problems, the MP's surgery. Give Penri a year to find his feet, learn the train timetable off by heart, I suspect they would be at parity in terms of constituency level work.

For me the real question is which one is going to be a better strategic thinker, be part of driving their parties policy, tell their whip to **** off when they feel strongly about an issue, indeed to feel strongly about an issue beyond keeping their job and to be a real pain in the arse to the likes of George Osborne and Ed Balls.

Hustings are not a suitable medium to see beyond "Incumbent MP bias" and to really get inside the head of each candidate to understand what they might be capable of. A candidates blog which gives informed comment is a far better indication of a active and capable mind and of what the candidates really stand for.

Patrick was no doubt on the money, but I think forgot this rather important bias. Unless we take it into account, there is little point in having elections until an MP dies or retires.

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