Sunday, 26 July 2009

Gut instinct

I recently finished reading Drew Westen's The Political Brain, which is an attempt to apply knowledge about how the brain works - and in particular the relative importance of emotion and rationality in making decisions - to political campaigning. It's a very interesting book, though I have some significant reservations about the message. 

First, though there is a lot of research behind the book, sometimes it feels like the advice being given is very much simple common sense, whilst at others it feels like he is drawing some pretty significant conclusions from limited research. There were a couple of points where I felt a bit like a did when I read the rather disappointing Don't Think Of An Elephant. Lakoff has also written some excellent stuff (the non-political Metaphors We Live By for example) but I find his forays into politics unconvincing.

Secondly, though some of his suggested ripostes to Republican attacks are top-notch, and feel very convincing, they are written with the benefit of hindsight. What I mean by that is that it can be very difficult to deliver an (emotionally) pitch perfect response on the spot. Some people can do it, others can't. The given examples of some Democrats bumbling their responses to Republican attacks might in some cases simply be cases of people being caught out. I should point out though that this is a minor criticism, as his general argument about the failure of Democrats to respond to Republican attacks effectively (emotionally) is very compelling.

Thirdly, and this is more a general point that applies to others advancing simple solutions to electoral problems, we have to acknowledge that it isn't all about the candidates, what they say and how they say it. Whilst books like this provide useful insights, I don't know to what extent applying everything it says would stop Labour getting a hammering next year. I accept the general argument in the book - we don't really rationally weigh up the policies of Party A versus Party B when deciding how to vote - but events, broader societal trends etc also clearly have a significant impact. Labour's failure is about more than Brown's inability to charm the voters. (This is a bit of a straw man, as Westen's argument is obviously more sophisticated than I've suggested, but the broad point needs making).

Having said all that, I did really enjoy the book, and it reinforced a number of points to me that Labour ought to take on board (though I'm sure the party is already much aware of this kind of stuff than I am). 

First, lefties don't win by presenting a shopping list of policies, a point also made by Geoffrey Nunberg. Lefties have a tendency to try and win elections by presenting good ideas about how to solve perceived problems, whereas righties (more so in the US obviously) go for values. Clearly this isn't to say that we shouldn't talk about policy, but the way we do so should make clear the 'why' and tie it to what we stand for. IMO this is an area where Labour is very weak currently. Again I'm saying nothing new, but it is hard to get an overall feeling of what we stand for based on the initiatives undertaken by the Government. (PS. The Walker Review sends out all the wrong signals to me).

Secondly, we do need to think very carefully about people's visceral reaction to candidates. This should not matter, it should be about what they do, but unfortunately we just don't work like that. People have a gut level response to candidates. As Westen demonstrates based on just a few seconds of footage, or a photo, people form a view about a candidate that can be hard to shift. They are also pretty good at predicting whether a candidate will be successful or not based on these short snatches of body language etc. It doesn't need spelling out that Labour has a big problem here.

Thirdly, don't let attacks go unanswered. This is an area where Labour is actually pretty good I think, but the response should also be an opportunity to set out how we are different. I think we should have gone to town on the Tory white paper on financial reform - focus on the Right blaming the regulators because they can't face blaming the City, the disruption caused by scrapping the FSA, and dress the whole thing up as the Tories making a political point, not being serious about reform. The fact that these (entirely predictable IMO) reactions have emerged anyway shows we would be pushing at an open door. 

The final point to make here is that whilst we have a problem of our own in terms of punters' reactions to our candidate, the Tories have weak points too. I am still unconvinced that Cameron has the same kind of rapport with the voters as yet that say Ken Clarke has. He is clearly not repellant, but I would say he's a bit neutral in terms of an emotional response (I could be off-target here because of my own partisan feelings, but am trying to be objective). 

But more importantly I think Osborne is a definite negative. He comes across as a bit slimey, as if he isn't quite telling you the full story. I suspect even photos of him signal this a bit. I hear this reaction when I talk to non-political family members so I think there is something in it worth exploring. In addition he has made some serious mistakes in policy terms - initially described taking banks into public ownership as going back to the 70s, had his nose firmly up the backsides of the private equity industry right until the end, wrongly predicted a run on the pound, the botched White Paper etc. I think we should make an active effort to make the punters consider what they think of putting this bloke in Number 11. 

And doesn't it make it bloody obvious why we won the last three elections, and now lag miles behind in the polls?