The futility of forecasts OR Why no-one knows who’ll win the next election

by Stephen Tall on January 1, 2013

If you don’t read Tim ‘Undercover Economist’ Harford, then you should. I frequently link to his stuff in my weekly ‘essential reading’ lists because he’s witty, concise and forensic, a tricky combo. His latest post An insatiable desire to peer into the future is worth highlighting as we start 2013 with the usual list of guesses masquerading as insight predictions for the year ahead.

ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman has, for example, saved us all the bother of waiting for the next set of election results: It’s two years away, but the 2015 election is already lost. Why? Four factors conspire, apparently, to make a Tory majority an outright impossibility. Maybe it’s just rhetorical flourish, but it is also nonsense on stilts.

Given how much the political plates have shifted in the last three years (scan the headlines in the first week of January 2010 if you don’t believe me) to try and predict an event that’s 30 months away is a fool’s errand. But Tim, of course, puts it much more eloquently…

Why do we love predictions?

No idea. Here’s one guess: saying “the UK economy will recover strongly in 2012” or “President Assad will be out of office by June” compresses a vast amount of expertise and analysis into a few words.

But the words are probably meaningless.

Yes. But it’s Christmas. Actually studying the situation in detail is far too much like hard work. The wonderful thing about a forecast is that both the forecaster and his audience feel that something profound has been expressed. And nobody will remember the forecast anyway.

A fool’s errand, eh? Well, that’s my cue, clearly… So here goes: The Tories probably won’t win the next election outright. However, I’m more sure that Labour won’t. As for the Lib Dems, we’ll either be wiped out, or surprise the commentators (again) with our resilience, or — more likely — something inbetween.

That’s as certain as I can be. And anyone who pretends they know different is going to be proved either wrong or lucky: it really is that binary.