Coordinating messages when everybody’s talking

Up until a few years ago, the two main political parties knew what each other was up to. We sent people to each other’s press conferences, monitored the local papers of the other side’s leaders and had geeks like me pore through the policy documents that the other lot chucked out. The proportion of my early twenties that was given in pressing refresh on conservatives.com or reading the latest musings from Iain Duncan Smith must never, ever be calculated. If one of our opponents went off the national message, we wanted to know about it and get journalists to write about it.

Now, because of Twitter mostly and blogs to a lesser extent, there’s no way to monitor everything either side is saying at any one time. The sheer quantity of stuff being said about politics or by politicians has risen exponentially. The wonder isn’t that some people don’t go off message: the wonder is that there is any coherent message at all.

Our amazing ability to coordinate in this kind of situation has fascinated economists for many years. Suppose you and I have to pick a number in secret and if we pick the same number, then we each win a prize. This isn’t a Prisoner’s Dilemma: we aren’t competing and we aren’t trying to trick each other. But it’s hard nonetheless: you can choose from an infinite number of numbers, and so can I. The odds of us both having the favourite number of 3,001 are infinitely small.

And yet, a surprising number of people do win the prize. In one experiment, around, a quarter of the participants choose the number one. In that puzzle, the number one is called a “focal point” because it stands out as the lowest number possible. We can play the same game where we have to name mountains (everyone names Everest) or the side of a coin (everyone names heads). In another example, we have to each secretly decide a time and place in London to meet and only get the prize if we both go to exactly the same place at exactly the same time. Impossible? Seemingly not: most people go for 12 noon as the focal point time and they pick a London landmark (Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus or Buckingham Palace) as the location.

In an era of so much political stuff being produced in such short timeframes, it’s incredibly hard to get a line out to your own side before they comment themselves, much less to monitor what your own side do and ensure they stick to the message. That means that when one of your MPs speaks, they’re in a similar situation to the person guessing the number or the place and time in London – they normally want to say what all the other MPs are saying but only have an imperfect sense of what the precise details of the party line are.

This problem has been solved… by politicians doing the equivalent of meeting in Trafalgar Square at 12 noon. Everyone is largely sticking to the things they know their colleagues will also stick to. Whether it’s Labour’s cost of living crisis, the Tories’ long term economic plan, the line is being held for the most part, and not in a noticeably worse way than in the days when all a prospective parliamentary candidate had was an election address, a few leaflets and unmonitored face-to-face conversations with voters.

In some ways this is an amazing achievement for both sides. The top down model of message discipline and sign off was an enormous pain – the proportion of my early twenties spent trying to get quotes for newspapers signed off by various Labour ministers also does not really bear thinking about. Of course, sign off still goes on for the big things – but if the monitoring and sign-off structure of Party HQ had expanded at the same rate as the content, Labour and Tory head offices would now require most of the office space in Westminster.

The risk, however, is that Trafalgar Square at 12 noon is a rubbish place. It’s crowded and it’s boring. At the start of the parliament, Labour’s focal point was cuts and, though that’s not the party line now, it’s still the spot that many of its politicians return home to. For the Tories, the European referendum and GDP growth are equally good focal points but they are definitely not equally important in the eyes of the voters.  These are all positions where MPs are saying exactly what people expect them to say – indeed, they wouldn’t be so easy focal points if that wasn’t the case.

What no one’s quite cracked yet is to get MP’s to naturally converge on somewhere more interesting – the political equivalent of a good pub outside the centre of town. No one’s managed to successfully update the command and control model either. Whichever side solves this problem first will have a significant advantage in the next General Election.

References:

Metha, J., Starmer, C., & Sugden, R. (1994). Focal Points in Pure Coordination Games: An Experimental Investigation. Theory and Decision, 36, 163-185.

Schelling, Thomas C. (1960). The Strategy of Conflict. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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