Tactics for a general election: The significance of Kerr’s Folly

August 28, 2007

The next General Election may be several years away. It is already shaping the thoughts and actions of the main political parties. While the new European Treaty may be of secondary importance to voters, it could play a vital part in the outcome of the election.

Conservatives and Labourites alike should be thinking beyond the obvious regarding the treatment of the New European Treaty. The issue is very much on the political agenda. The Government stands accused of breaking an election pledge. So how damaging might it be to Gordon Brown?

Background.

This week all the pressure seemed to be on Gordon Brown. Two unions, The GMB and RMT, are calling for a referendum by tabling motions for the TUC annual conference. This adds from the left to calls from the Conservatives and UKIP parties from the right. Presumably the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats would also welcome a referendum. This suggests that the government faces opposition from inside and outside its ranks to its decision to avoid a referendum.

Kerr’s Folly

A classic paper in the Academy of Management Journal in 1975 by Steven Kerr drew attention to ‘the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B’. The essential point made by the author is that the key to effective implementation of plans is understanding how reward systems work. Or, as Bill Starbuck memorably put it, ‘it’s the reward system, stupid’.

According to Kerr, numerous examples exist of reward systems that foul-up because the types of behavior rewarded are those that the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all. He explores this in various social, economic, and political fields. The paper leads us to the notion that politicians are all too-aware of the process through which the electorate wishes to obtain one thing and might appear to be of rewarding the politicians by voting for them. However, experience has shown that the electorate may wish for one thing and punish the politican by voting in effect to deny the policies approved of. Specifically, in politics, policy is couched in a deliberately vague manner, lest the electorate punish the ‘honest’ politician for spelling our any unpleasant consequences of that policy.

The [American] citizenry supposedly wants its candidates for public office to set forth operative goals, making their proposed programs clear, and specifying sources and uses of funds. However, since operative goals are lower in acceptance, and since aspirants to public office need acceptance .. most politicians prefer to speak only of official goals, at least until after the election. … The [American] voter typically punishes (withholds support from) candidates who frankly discuss where the money will come from, rewards politicians who speak only of [policy] goals, but hopes that candidates (despite the reward system) will discuss the issues [revealing potential pain to the voter].

In other words, Kerr’s folly indicates how we get the political behaviors and elect the politicians we deserve

The Behaviors we Deserve

It becomes the received political wisdom for a political leader to find ways of presenting policy with avoidance of mention of its costs, leaving that to the opponents of the policy. This happens to be one of the strengths of an open society. For example, in the UK, Conservative policy for releasing citizens from the burdens of taxation have to be justified increasingly with specific explanations of funding for maintaining social institutions such as the Health Service.

The Treaty, The Election and Kerr’s Folly

A knowledge of the theory of Kerr’s Folly might not win an election. But it explains and perhaps helps predict political ‘moves’.
Let’s see how it might be working at present. Gordon Brown is pressed ‘to stick to an election commitment’. He is benefitting from being seen as a ‘Not like Blair’ statesman. He is thus vulnerable to accusations of behaving in a Blair-like way, involving a bit of ducking and weaving. Thus he risks the displeasure of a proportion of the electorate, demonstrated by a slump in opinion polls.

In its original form, Ferr’s Folly suggests that the electorate may want to punish a politican for avoiding any tricky behavior, spin, or obfuscation. But if so, the folly is that the self-same people appear to deprive themselves of evicting such politicians by discounting the undesired behaviors, and when it coms to the vital vote, cast it on different grounds. In other words, if the electorate thinks a referendum will not really make much difference presumably to self-interest, a slump in opinion polls interpreted as disapproval on general grounds moral grounds will ultimately not count for much.

So, should David Cameron choose to fight over the principle of Labour’s broken promise? Probably not. One of the reasons is that there is still considerable ‘wriggle-room’ for the Government. The finer details of the logical or even moral case are not so critical as the evidence of personal disadvantage of the issue to voters.

The Knight’s Move

But battles are rarely predictable. A sudden unexpected surprise, like a devious Knight’s Move in Chess, changes the entire game.
Suppose Mr Cameron does go big on this attack on Mr Brown and his failure to stick to the Manifesto of the last Election? This may present the Prime Minister with the opportunity to be ‘forced’ to accept a call for an early election. If so, be sure it will be at the time of his choosing. It is not unknown in the heat of battle to drive the enemy into a more favorable position.


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