This year is general election year in the UK. Polls predict a win for the Conservatives, ousting Labour after 13 years in power. But what can game theory tell us about election strategy, and what does selling drinks on the beach have to do with it?
Imagine a stretch of beach with sunbathers evenly spread along it. You are a selling cold drinks, and there is another seller, selling the same drinks at exactly the same price. The only strategic choice left for you is location along the beach because sunbathers will simply walk to the drinks vendor closest to them. You could locate yourself in the middle of one half of the beach i.e. 1/4 of the way along, and hope that the other guy does the same at the other end of the beach. But if you did that the other guy could simply locate himself in the centre of the whole beach and take about 62.5% of the whole market. So you both end up in the centre of the whole beach (and probably end up having to differentiate yourself in some way).
This logic shows why petrol stations end up so close to each other. And it also shows why political parties move inexorably towards the centre as elections near. It doesn’t pay to be off to the left or right. So the real battle of an election is in defining the centre (this is where polling and other research comes in), and arguing why your party is much more representative of the centre than the other party.
So where is the centre? Well recently Gordon Brown made a comment about “the playing fields of Eton” – this was designed to create a perception of the Conservatives as way off centre, promoting the interests of a thin slice of the population at one end of the spectrum. He has since pushed this further, stressing that he is not targeting his core vote (i.e. left of centre), but the middle classes.