Alastair Osborne considers the processes behind collective decision-making – like the selection of a new leader which the UK Labour Party is currently debating – and finds parallels in a famous TV quiz show.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way people collectively reach a decision or change their mind about something with no obvious single reason for doing so.

I commented on social media recently that over 40 Scottish CLPs had now nominated Keir Starmer compared to only 5 for his nearest rival. I got a reply from someone telling me his son had done a Masters degree in political betting and this phenomenon is known as “the wisdom of the crowd”. He is now a professor somewhere in the United States so I would love to know who his money is on for the Democratic candidate there.

We have seen this phenomenon at work before in the Labour membership, when they coalesced behind Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. It has happened to Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK and both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon here in Scotland.

At the last UK election, suddenly “Get Brexit done’ resonated with voters across large swathes of the north of England. In Scotland we had the SNP tsunami of 2015 repeated. Of course you could argue that there were clear reasons for the public to take up these positions, but that doesn’t explain why people can stubbornly go along with or ignore all the rational arguments when it suits them and then change when the time seems right and they are ready.

I hadn’t been familiar with the term “the wisdom of the crowd” before so I did a bit of searching. I found it defined as the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than that of a single expert. This process, while not new to the internet age, has been pushed into the mainstream spotlight by sites such as Wikipedia that rely on collective human knowledge. (Ironically it was Wikipedia where I found this definition.)

When further research went on to point me in the direction of the ancient Greeks I was on more familiar territory. Aristotle is credited as the first person to write about what we would now call “the wisdom of the crowd” in his work Politics. Thucydides has Pericles say in his funeral oration: “Democracy is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy”.

The Greeks tried pure democracy, where everyone collectively decided (well everyone except women, children, foreigners and slaves). They also tried “sortition” – selection by lot – for choosing local magistrates and their juries. But for other key tasks they stuck to selecting by ability, experience and knowledge, for instance picking who should be their generals (probably a wise decision).

In the UK we tend to emphasise a representative democracy delivered through our parliamentary system but we do use elements of sortition in selecting juries and citizen’s assembles. We also seek out collective opinion through focus groups and pay attention to public campaigns.

The wisdom of the crowd can often fly in the face of individual knowledge and experience. When the Labour Party membership was giving overwhelming support to Corbyn to lead the party in 2015, many of his most experienced parliamentary colleagues were horrified at the prospect. In this current leadership election the voice of experience and the collective thinking of the membership seem to be more at one.

The TV programme Who wants to be a millionaire? manages to combine all the approaches I have discussed here. When a contestant is stuck on a question he or she can use: 50/50, a pseudo-random selection by lot; phone a friend, making use of others’ knowledge and experience; or rely on “the wisdom of the crowd” and ask the audience (a very reliable method, especially in the earlier rounds).

And now your question for one million pounds: Who can win the next election for Labour? You can go 50/50, phone a friend or ask the audience.

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42 thoughts on “The wisdom of the crowd

  1. The “wisdom of crowds” can also be seen as the actions of lemmings.
    However, public moods do change in mysterious ways, and political fortunes swing dramatically. I would assert the collapse in Scottish Labour was a long time coming, but was no surprise when it happened as Labour had been “resting” on their collective laurels for decades.
    But in the modern age, our minds are made up by what used to be called “opinion formers”–journalists, experts, pundits etc. I remember a famous journalist (James Cameron?) was given an hour on the BBC in the ’70’s to explain why the SNP couldn’t ever get Scotland over the independence line–not enough (or any!) opinion formers on their side. The SNP, with minimal media support have proved his thesis wrong ( not independent, but the potential cannot be denied), but they may be an exception to the rule.
    And the “opinion former” thing may doom Labour and its chances of winning an election. Because Labour HAS no exception. The media are owned or controlled by vested interests who, in the main, would not wish a Labour government, and who would slew the argument away from Labour. Even the BBC and Channel 4 have had a Yellow Card from Boris Johnson: Lobby journalists are now aware of his preferred outlets for government briefings. Those who he would prefer not to be there, will have had a not too subtle warning–will that affect their future scribblings with their careers under threat?
    I am no longer a Labour member, so have no dog in the fight, but from my perspective, the earnest but dull, Sir Keir Starmer, looks a shoo-in. But a staid London Lawyer? Is this the best Labour can come up with? If he gets in, then a leftist woman MP from the North of England will balance the ticket. Murray can put his Union Flag suit back in his wardrobe.

    But all very predictable. All very uninspiring. Boris will have to be a VERY bad PM ( I think he will be), and for his media backing to disappear (which it wont) for Labour to have any kind of chance.
    Just when you want a fiery orator atop the metaphorical barricades, Labour will have a sober-sided, softly spoken Mr Nice Guy. Good luck with that!

  2. Watched Scotland the promised land Jenny Lee elected to Westminster still to young to vote but knew how to speak to people and did lt the old way addressing a large crowd in the street .
    If only todays politicians could or would do it .

    1. David, I was working at Glacier Metals (Western road site), and during our break we often had a kick about. One day at an election (1974?) time, Willie Ross came to harangue us. He was a wee man (in more ways than one) and had to stand on a box to speak. No one payed him any attention (few in Killie seemed to like him), which really annoyed him, but when he got pompous and tried to lecture us (these were all grown men after all) the scene turned nasty, and he made a fast getaway.
      Some people have a natural way with crowds, but others really, really struggle. If you fail in front of a crowd, there is nowhere to hide, and I suspect that is why modern politicians keep clear of street politics.

      1. Thankyou for your comment Gavin
        He should have known better than interrupt a game haha

  3. Greek democracy extended to men only because the biggest vote was whether to go to war and if the vote was a yes, the voters were the ones who would have to do the fighting. In a way it was an early manifestation of ‘no taxation without representation’

  4. ‘The wisdom of the crowd’. Fascinating read. Makes you think.
    I wonder if anyone in the Labour Party has ever considered the ‘demographics of the crowd’?

  5. Tuesday nights CH 4 news Boris was asked about HS2 he said Cabinet took a collective decision he did not hear a peep of dissent I mean there were a couple of random remarks on how to make it even better .
    Shoulders shrugged arms waving .
    I think that’s how he works if he does not see the point not worth his time

    1. Perhaps some Cabinet members might give a different view now that Boris has sacked them. Boris was a Bullingdon bully and bullies don’t change their spots as they get older—if the Ministers want to keep their jobs, they will have to toe the line and keep stoosh. He also has a “thing” for Scots and Scotland. In two visits last year he met not one ordinary Scot; no walkabouts, no media interviews.

      A “free” holiday in Mustique? What is the payback?

  6. Correct Gavin even yesterday most of them went in and out of a door not available to cameras .
    The holiday exactly .
    Spotted this Fridays Times the new Attorney General Suella Braverman has in the past few weeks criticised Supreme court decisions and wants to curtail the power of the Supreme Court to intervene in political decisions
    Geoffrey Cox who earns 94thousand 450 is entitled to a termination payment of 23 thousand 610
    Julian Smith Andrea Leadsom Theresa Villiers 16thousand 875 lump sums .
    Esther McVey 7thousand 920 also got 16thousand 875 when she got sacked in November 2018
    At least the gravy train is still running

    1. David, Julian Smith has achieved trust, good outcomes and a return of Stormont. He was canned.
      Alistair Jack has done nothing, has had zero repore from most Scottish politicians and is a stooge for Boris. As are most of them. A Cabinet, media, comentariate of Yes Men!

      A cheap jibe. Boristo Mossy Lino. There: done!

  7. Thankyou for your comment Gavin .
    Regarding Julian Smith I cant think of another occasion when the leader of another country has expressed his dismay at a UK government minister being replaced .
    Alistair Jack seems a nice man but you are right does not seem up to it What he should do even if its behind the scenes is say to the Scottish Government is how can I help I can be your man in the cabinet .
    The Cabinet is now filled with yes prime minister types
    The row over the chancellors resignation goes on and the PMS holiday funding gets murkier

  8. On Thursday with Holyrood in recess and Dominic busy arranging the resignation of the chancellor and finding another one at very short notice the FM should have arranged her own reshuffle

    1. Storm Dennis, David.

      “Stormy Daniels” was a different kind of “sport” entirely! Haha.

  9. No Labour leader can win the next election. The Tories could loose it but that is a different stance.
    The reality is that with the best efforts of any new leader the best they can achieve is to reduce the gap.

    Take the main thrust of the article – the wisdom of the crowd. The crowd in London, Scotland favour Europe. The crowd in the North of England rejected it. That is the main failing of this article – It assumes the wisdom of the crowd can be harnessed in a simplistic manner such as a game show.

    You cannot possibly believe the wisdom of the crowd would support Trans rights over Women’s rights without any debate over valid concerns and yet 2 of the 3 candidates for leadership are pushing that. The stance is to kick people out of the party why challenge that stance.

    The Wisom of the Crowd only works on simplistic cases of narrow information such as a historical date. You cannot say I will use it for this complex topic and not that one.

    52percent of the population are having their concerns ignored by a leadership focused on demands of a tiny group of less than 1percent – The opposite of the Wisdom of the Crowd.

    1. 52 per cent of the population? From where are you getting that figure? You are surely, surely not suggesting that all women oppose trans rights, when it’s a small minority of women who do so?

      1. Another example! You demand my source as you at the same time state “”0nly a small minority of woman do”.
        I didn’t say oppose. I said their concerns were being ignored. You think that safety in Woman’s sport, Prisons, Refuges, Changing rooms, medical statistic data, crime data etc etc are all a price worth paying to avoid debate?.
        You have answered the question regarding the next election result.

        1. Literally nobody, especially not me, is arguing that there should be no debate. Concerns are not being ignored. They are all over the media and social media, constantly. How long will you carry on pretending something which is the subject of intense discussion is being ignored? Stop being so dishonest on this subject please.

          1. Debate as in – ” if you don’t like it leave the Party”

            Please do have the last word given it is your right to do so as a man!

        2. I am largely with you, Julia. As a 70year old straight man, I have no issues with any one identifying with any sexual/gender/social group they choose, but they must not be allowed to impose their rights over the rights/privacy of others. It seems Trans people are a fairly small grouping, and it should not be impossible to meet their reasonable social needs—if there was a serious debate about what these needs are.

          The wisdom of crowds would also include Lynch Mobs. Hardly a recommendation.

          1. gavin,
            So am I. 100% with Julia. And so is 99% of the crowd.. A mans a man a woman is a woman. That is it. No argument. Ok, some people like dressing up but that doesnt change a thing.
            Why does the Labour Party dislike woman?

    1. Alas David, few neutrals liked them.
      Wee Wendy, too clever and done in (reputably) by her own brother/Gordon Brown. Had the makings to be a good, modernising, FM. But not wanted in a (Scottish) party stuck in the past..
      Johann, inarticulate (an oddity giver her profession) to start with, and poorly briefed. Never convinced.
      Kezia. Least said the better. Seemed clueless as to her actual role in politics, and had too many internal enemies. Never a Leader, but I quite liked her.

      There were also two “Acting” Leaders.
      Cathie Jamieson, whose heart was in the right place–why she went to Westminster is a puzzle (no its not. Labours MSP’s were/are a bunch of numpties).
      Jackie Baillie. Not my cup of tea, but has support in one wing of a split party.

      1. I think it would be a good idea if the Labour Party UK rules could be changed so that the next leader of Scottish Labour Party could be a job share and they could have two female leaders job sharing so that they could blame each other when things go wrong.

    2. Down at the head office Labour does have a problem with woman. No argument David, you know it. And if you dont check out ‘Woman’s Place UK’ and #Expelme.
      Expelme is a group of Labour Party woman members that would rather be expelled than see The Party give any further recognition to the transgender lobby. How do you think that looks to woman voters?
      Its a minefield for Labour. Personally I am not even interested in the pros and cons of the debate. To me there is no debate. But if Labour becomes split on this (and it is already), I can see this transgender argument do more damage to the LP than antisemitism.
      50% of voters are woman and I bet you that 99% of them want to keep women’s public spaces exclusive for themselves and their daughters. That should be it for any political party. The numbers speak for themselves. But not it seems with the 21st century Britsh Labour Party?
      P.S. 4 woman and one man on the slate (for leader). Woman have had the vote since 1928. Man wins again. Perception with ordinary woman voters? I’ll let you decide David.

      1. Your bet that 99% of women oppose inclusivity towards trans women and support the open transphobia of groups like the LGB Alliance is based on what, exactly? Because it’s certainly not based on evidence.

        Anti-trans campaigners are a loud minority. We must never mistake such a thing for a majority.

        1. Duncan, both Trans and anti-Trans campaigners are “loud minorities”.
          I am happy to back any solution that makes everyone happy, and feel safe
          What is that solution?
          What would be your solution?

          1. 1. Accepting the reality that reform to the GRA is not related to any of the problems being flagged up, and completing that simple bit of legislative change to make live slightly easier for perhaps 30 people a year.

            2. Having an honest, open debate about what genuine conflicts there could be between LGBT rights and women’s rights and how we can best solve them.

            3. Highlighting those on both side of this debate who are not acting with decency, and uniting to condemn them.

          2. Will reforming the GRA actually make this problem go away, or just make a new problem?

            Honest open debate–I’m all for that. Though I cannot really contribute. The requirement is for all to be happy with the solution.

            “Highlighting”—this is the flaw—every side seems to have a different “baddie” in this.
            My gender is hopefully “fixed” for eternity, and I don’t envy those in flux.

            Good luck!

        2. Yes. I reckon that at least 99 percent of women want to keep womens toilets and changing rooms exclusive to women.
          And as you know that doesn’t mean they are therefore anti trans groups nor does it mean they are transphobic . Shame on you for implying it.
          And your right Duncan my opinion is not based on evidence, it’s based on instinct.

  10. Wee Wendy of bring it on fame I agreed with her Cathie a socialist unlike the present SNP wannabes who appear to have sat back and allowed the FM to break up the finance portfolio no reason given or asked for .

    1. Wee Wendy and “bring it on” only brought her own downfall from her critics (as I said, her brother and Gordon Brown were mentioned in despatches).
      Cathie flew too close to the sun, and her wings melted.
      Don’t get your reference to SNP wannabes–sat back—break up finance portfolio???
      Isnt that a GOOD THING? More brains pondering/deciding economic moves? Isnt Labour split between Leonard and Grant?

      Anyone but James Kelly!

      1. Thankyou for your comment Gavin
        Well what a difference 48 hrs makes
        Allegations Priti Patel has been bullying her top civil servant
        Then the new immigration system
        Free movement ends for EU citizens skilled workers will be subject to the same rules as those from outside the EU .
        Low skilled migrants will no longer get access to UK jobs .
        Nursing homes bars etc will no longer be able to rely on large numbers from such as Poland
        Same for the construction industry which will be hit hard
        Self employed Polish plumbers carpenters plasterers and other EU citizens will find the familiar immigration systems no longer available
        EU citizens with poor English wont get in ,
        EU citizens who travel on an id card will encounter problems as the government intends to phase out insecure documents
        They will then be expected to use passports
        Most EU citizens I have met usually an NHS worker trying to help me who speaks better English than us.
        Not to fear the Home Secretary has assured us we have 8pt 45 million people between 16 and 64 who are economically inactive .
        She appears to have included students retired the sick etc
        If her rules had been in force years ago her parents would not have been allowed in .
        Wednesday night BBC nine Scotland tonight both said no UK or Scottish Tory was available for comment and Ch 4 news had John Redwood
        And Reporting Scotland say Jackson Carlaw has said new rules are a work in progress and he will lobby the PM .

        1. David, it seems to me that Boris (hiding away from the floods in his Kent Bunker) and the Tory right wing have got precisely what they have agitated for over the last 30 years.
          An isolated UK, separated from our biggest market, with “nasty foreigners” banned from entry (black marketeers charter), “social contract” dumped, wages kept low and profits diverted to tax havens.
          Priti Patel has also been accused of “vile and aggressive” behaviour while in charge of the Department of International Development–by former Ministers and Civil Servants.
          The media are either feart (BBC and Channel 4) of Johnson, or actively on the side of his regime.
          The “wets” in the Tory party are now silenced by expulsion or deselection.
          The Labour party are still in turmoil over policy, direction, ideology and leadership, and are no “safe haven” for voters for years. How Labour will win back lost voters in England is a genuine puzzle, with limited media support, Boris an ego-maniacal liar and disunity the order of the day.
          Lib Dems and Greens an irrelevance.

          Keir Hardie was all for Dominion Status for Scotland—like New Zealand, Canada, Australia etc.
          When will Scottish Labour get off its collective butt, and support self government for their own country?
          A real partnership between Scotland and England can only be achieved with two independent States—look at Ireland/England–never been so friendly.

  11. Well the next big argument walked round the corner Wednesday night Council tax .Glasgow and Edinburgh will be repeated all over Scotland .Time to go visit your local councillor

  12. Can I refer everyone to the STV news website take a look at what Jackie Baillie has to say

    1. She tells the truth as she sees it, but……..she is part of the problem, a weel-kent face who has been in or around the top of Scottish labour for two decades.
      Bailie is on the opposite wing of the party from Leonard, and she advocates change of direction—a direct criticism of him. Hard to see them working in tandem.
      Part of the problem with Scottish Labour is their lack of fight on Scottish issues, their silence on what Westminster does (or with the Migration Bill, what it DOES’T do) for Scotland. The longevity of Scottish Labour as Top Dog in Scotland in fairly recent times, means they have a past they cannot live down.

      North Brit Gordon Brown “forgetting” his own past contribution in 2014 is of no help.
      Where is his “Federalism”?
      Where is his “Home Rule”?
      Four equal nations.
      A Union of equals.
      Blah blah blah, every night on BBC Scotland and all the papers.
      Yesterday he complained about “nationalisms” in the UK. He forgot about British nationalism, his own failing.

      Its probably time for Scottish Labour to come out the political closet. Is it “British” or “Scottish”, seeing it was too ashamed to be European..
      No shame in either, but its future might depend on its choice.

  13. Floods and chaos in England on a scale not seen before householders and business owners unable to get flood insurance but they are going to get council tax increases as are we .
    Instead of daft bridge ideas how about releasing the money to local councils and keep the council tax down

  14. Meanwhile down SNP Land way Angus Robertson according to the Sunday press close to Nicola wants the SNP nomination for Ruth Davidsons Holyrood seat knows the area went to school there you know
    Joanna cherry described in the Sunday press as close to Alec Salmond also wants the nomination knows the area its her home branch you know .
    Then the Justice Secretary in Saturday and Sunday press does a move along nothing to see here routine and the FM goes on Marr to say she aint going anywhere soon
    The Labour party could teach them we are professionals at this haha

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