Friday, 9 April 2010

Fear and loathing on the UK campaign trail

Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph framed the UK general election as “a battle between hope and fear”.

You can guess which party they think matches each emotion. But the election will come down to emotions – how voters feel about the parties, leaders, issues and candidates.

During the 2008 US presidential primaries, Newsweek’s Sharon Begley argued that the debate about whether the electorate is guided by its head or its heart, by reason or emotion, is over.” She went on to say:

“When voters consider candidates' positions, they are drawn to the candidate who assuages fear, inspires hope, instills pride or brings some other emotional dividend.”

Sharon Begley found most experts agreeing that fear and anxiety are the strongest emotions in terms of their ability to drive decisions in the voting booth. The runner-up emotion was anger.

This week, Begley assesses the Democrats’ prospects in November in light of the healthcare reforms. She draws on a new paper posted on the Web site of the journal Psychological Science. Two researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have found that anxious voters are more likely to put real effort into searching out information about where candidates stand on the key issues and then vote for those they agree with most. But angry voters rely more on vague, general information, with policy positions playing little part in their decisions.

Begley suggests that Democrat incumbents might tailor their messages according to whether voters are fearful (and therefore open to being swayed with more information about healthcare policy) or angry (in which case appeals to party or other generalities seem the best gambit).

That all sounds a little bit hopeful but for now, the more interesting question is, how does this theory play out in the UK? The part that fear plays in the parties’ messaging is not hard to see. The Conservatives play on fears that we might have five more years of Gordon Brown as PM. Like all long term governments asking for another term, Labour’s real message is: you can’t risk a change to the Tories. “We cannot cut our way to recovery-but we could cut our way to double-dip recession”, says Gordon Brown. Labour’s ill-conceived “Gene Hunt” poster is another example.

Last year, the accepted wisdom was that voters had written off Labour and it seemed that the Conservatives were on course for a handsome victory. Since January, however, Labour’s poll ratings have recovered slightly, apparently because of a new sense of confidence about the economy. The Conservatives’ ratings for economic competence have fallen. Neither Labour nor the Tories has established a clear, stable lead as the best party to manage the economy (hence the rise of Vince Cable). With the Amherst work in mind, we might interpret that as anxious, recession-bitten voters being more engaged that they were given credit for and giving the major parties a closer look, but still not being convinced.

What about anger? The Tories’ greatest asset in this campaign is, surely, voters’ resentments after thirteen years of Labour. The Liberal Democrats’ campaign narrative plays even more strongly to these emotions, inviting voters to cast “a plague on both their houses”. But the party is too rational in its approach and, perhaps, too romantic about its policies and beliefs to base an entire campaign on anger. The minor parties try to push the anger buttons even harder. More likely, the really angry voters will simply switch off and stay home on polling day.

And let’s not discount the role of hope and optimism in UK election campaigns. The Conservative campaign has looked more sure-footed since they switched to more optimistic messages, with the (less than honest) promises of tax cuts. In 1978, the famous Saatchi and Saatchi poster declared that “Labour isn’t working.” It also said, “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives”. Here we are again.

Posted via web from Neil Stockley

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