Monday, 22 July 2013

The 2015 cola war

 Sometimes, if you strip away the branding, there's not a whole lot of difference between rival products:
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are long standing arch-rivals, but in terms of their chemical composition composition they are virtually identical. Despite this, people commonly express a strong preference for one over and above the other. A 2004 study into how our perception of the brands shapes our preferences was carried out at the Baylor College of medicine in Houston USA. In the experiment, one group of subjects was given Coke and Pepsi anonymously without any branding or indication as to which was which, while the second group was given branded versions of the colas to try. During the tastings, the subjects were given MRI scans to determine if anything different was happening in their brains. In the anonymous task, brain scans revealed that the group was relying exclusively upon sensory information to inform their preference, however scans revealed that the group with the branded products were also using a different parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events. This showed that brand knowledge was biasing preference decisions.
You're encourged to think you've got a choice between two different fizzy drinks, when what you're really being offered is two near-identical beverages with slightly different branding. Disappointing, if you value real choice, but no biggie. But what if our political choices were restricted to virtually identical products with different branding?
So why, when we have three clearly divergent political cultures, do I have the feeling that there's nobody to vote for — that whichever government is formed after the next election will continue to iterate and evolve the policies that have dominated British politics since May 1979?

I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.

The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.
I still have some faith that my vote is worth casting, although that faith is starting to feels less like a rational expectation that I'll be offered a meaningful choice and more like a variation on Pascal's Wager:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that real electoral choices exist. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain change; if you lose, you lose nothing.

As Stross points out, there's the additional consideration that cynicism and apathy lead to the sort of passive disengagement that definitely lets rulers get away with whatever they like.