Is the ‘Chumocracy’ Good Politics?

Boris Johnson will not be the most popular Prime Minister to go down in history. Presiding over a withdrawal from the European Union with a deal that, predictably, left the Brexiteers unsatisfied, during a pandemic leading to the loss of 370,000 jobs between August and October 2020 in the UK, none of which is making anyone anywhere any happier.  That is, unless, of course, you are close to the Prime Minister’s bubble. In which case, as evidenced by the series of contracts and senior roles gifted to the loyal, you are likely to be doing quite well for yourself. This has subsequently drawn frustrated accusations that Westminster under the Tories has become a ‘chumocracy’

Is anybody that surprised? Surely, by now we are all thoroughly aware that this is nothing new. Alternatively, this is this just more Punch and Judy outrage at the tattered idea that the venerable politics of the UK could fall so far. The reality is that it would be naïve to suggest that anything other than ‘chumocracy’ was the regular state of affairs, and we are usually well aware of this even as we rage against it. Unfortunately, whether we think he is a good leader or not, whether we like Mr. Johnson or not, is more or less irrelevant. Through the lens of selectorate theory, Johnson’s politics, while not beneficial to the majority of the population, makes a great deal of sense inside of the political framework.  

Keep your winning coalition as small as possible

The Prime Minister has been relatively consistent on this account, understanding the need for a close circle of loyal essential supporters who will help him to maintain power. Gove and Raab have been constant, while Cummings and Cain were solidly present, even protected in the case of Cummings, until their use as Brexit ambassadors was functionally unnecessary, becoming outright toxic in Dominic Cummings’ case, and, being no longer essential, they were dismissed from the coalition.

Chris Grayling is an interesting figure, seeming to yo-yo in and out of favour depending on the PM, judging by his hop, skip and jump from Secretary of State for Justice under David Cameron, a dramatic battle for race for chair of the UK intelligence committee backed by Johnson, before storming out after losing to Julian Lewis, whom Johnson then petulantly stripped of the Tory whip, and questionable ferry contracts as Secretary of State for Transport. Despite remaining in the Commons he has, as of September 2020, secured a £100,000-per-annum role as a part-time Strategic Advisor to Hutchison Ports, for which he works a Herculean 7 hours per week.  Helps to have friends in high places.

Keep the nominal selectorate as large as possible

In a world casting around for leadership and finding it lacking, leaving openings for charismatic characters to present themselves as an answer to any and all problems, The Dictator’s Handbook provides us with a sentence that is important in the current political climate: “To understand politics properly, we must modify one assumption in particular: We must stop thinking that leaders can lead unilaterally.

Ever the populist, COVID-19 created a tough year for Boris. It demanded that he lead the country in a style that is the polar opposite to his preferred camera-flash swagger and bluster. It demanded serious leadership under trying circumstances in which he cannot control the message or the marketing. Confirming the general perception of him, he demonstrated that situations like this are clearly not his strong suite.

Despite his premiership being plagued by questions regarding his practical leadership skills outside of copious bluster, under Boris we saw Conservative wins in places that would have previously been unthinkable – taking five Labour heartland constituencies in the Northeast and reducing the labour majority in others during the 2019 General Election. This would suggest that the Tories under Johnson have not only kept their nominal selectorate large enough, but have expanded it in places that other conservative figures might have considered unrealistic.

If the general perception is that the Conservative party will draw their votes from the wealthy, the upper middle class, and the older voting population, then their winning seats in old-school working-class constituencies is flipping a few preconceived notions and it seems farfetched to blame that entirely on Jeremy Corbyn. Moreover, there are significantly more poor people than rich people backed up by a growing wealth divide that seems focussed on entrenching this state of imbalance, meaning that if the Conservative votes are broadly considered to be coming from wealthier demographics, then we can, to some extent, suggest that their typical voting base on that count is always going to be smaller than their opposition. In that regard, the opportunity for them to expand their nominal selectorate is not something that can be ignored.

Control the flow of revenue

Controlling the flow of revenue is what the chumocracy is in a nutshell. It’s what all incumbents do, regardless of affiliation, because if they did not do this then they would not be incumbents in the first place. Ensuring that the rewards and assets go to the right people in your coalition and, thereby, securing a period of loyalty, which is short-lived in democratic systems according to Mesquita, is merely an objective of the game.

Think about all the government positions, PPE- and Brexit-related contracts that are being assigned to people that are seemingly completely out of their depth, or are otherwise experienced in completely unrelated fields of industry to the types it might be assume you would look for to solve these logistical problems. If you had a hiring manager who selected people with no relevant experience or knowledge related to a high-level position you were looking to fill, you’d probably simply deem that person unsuited to their role and find someone else to do it for them.

Unfortunately, it turns out that this isn’t a concern when running a country. You just need to stay in power. People will complain regardless, but they are unessential, so you only need to truly consider them when they become a threat to that power. So, if contracts are going to people who will remain loyal to Boris Johnson and thus helping him defend his position in power, then the government will be only too happy to award those contracts to these chums. If we have the notion that a leader leads on behalf of the people, we will not, according to selectorate theory, run the correct calculations, and thus end up with the wrong answers. I’m not a legal professional, but as far as I’m aware, none of this is illegal. Furthermore, it would be incredibly difficult to frame in defensible language something to the effect of ‘do your job as leader to an acceptable standard’ in a vain attempt to force any leader to delegate resources in a manner beneficial to what selectorate theory calls the ‘interchangables’.

Running the numbers

Despite his lack of popularity, it seems that our populist Prime Minister is playing his political pieces in almost textbook fashion. Some of it hasn’t gone entirely his way, and as a year 2020 was a disaster for his headline grabbing charm offensive-style leadership. From the point of view of recent polls, he’s not been particularly successful, and accusations of the ‘chumocracy’ are just pebbles in an avalanche of inadequacy. From the point of view of politics as a semi-mathematical operation, the people complaining about the chumocracy are missing the point entirely. The chumocracy may well be an entirely adequate way to operate.


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