He's not the only one who doesn't have time to look at graphs. Photo: Getty Images
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Does "sharing the facts" win elections?

The psychological evidence is that sharing the facts doesn't change people's minds. 

Correcting and decrying the perceived wrongness of others is the chief political preoccupation.  David dismisses Ed, Andy elbows Harriet, Jeremy and Nigel condemn everyone else and on it goes.  People who say they dislike this denounce others as pursuing yah boo, negative politics and these people are, in turn, are impeached for failing to provide proper opposition.

If the goal is to persuade people to change their minds, then attack and rebuttal has a mixed record.  On one extreme, SNP attacks on Scottish Labour clearly moved voters dramatically at the last election.  But on the other hand, think of all the criticism that a George Osborne or a Harriet Harman has faced in their careers: it hasn’t seemed to have really held them back from their political projects. 

One explanation may be found in the idea of “backfire” or “boomerang” effects that students of persuasion often talk about.  Being told that Protestants are conservative can make Catholics more liberal.  Saying that vaccines have no side effects appear, at least sometimes, to reduce the chances of someone getting a vaccination. No smoking signs can increase the desire to smoke. Informing American conservatives about the dire consequences of climate change on France has been found to reduce support for addressing carbon emissions.

Once we hold an opinion, it seems that we will try and defend it.  Suppose you tell me all the reasons why you hate the West Wing.  I’ll take the time to mentally dismiss each one of your criticisms: why shouldn’t every major political issue be resolved with a 90 second speech and some rousing music?  I’ll begin to delve into my memory for my favourite episodes.  By the end of the conversation, I’ll have applied myself to building the case that the West Wing is brilliant and my own counter-arguments may stick with me for much longer than your criticism.

So there is a heroic psychological assumption behind the commonplace political idea that when one politician angrily denounces another, this will help win over those voters who are watching.   According to at least one major review of the evidence, there are a similar number of examples of negative campaigning backfiring as there are for it working.  Whatever the equivalent statistics would be for the UK, it shows how developing a criticism of your opponents that actually wins you votes is an immensely complex and subtle a task.

However, much of politics has nothing to do with winning elections.  People singing songs from the football terraces aren’t expecting the other team’s supporters to suddenly change their minds.  When we think we are punishing rule-breakers, the reward centres of our brain are activated.  Loudly insulting the other side is the easiest way for mediocre politicians to get covered in their more supportive media.  It is a way of overlooking internal disagreements and demonstrating passion and it avoids the risky and time consuming process of coming up with a detailed policy proposal.

Why is this tendency towards ineffectively denouncing the other side so dangerous?  Because the backfire effect from one person’s shouting can hurt a much wider cause.   When things are complicated and life is busy, it’s often a time saving rule of thumb to know who you disagree with.  In a cynical age, it seems a lot easier to use the compass-point that your worst opponent is always wrong, than it is to trust that your favourite hero is always right. 

I’m more pro-European for every Nigel Farage interview I’ve watched and more pro-immigration for every Daily Mail article I’ve read.  But we have to have the imagination to think that this must work the other way too.  If the left and centre left has done one thing over the last five years, it has been to loudly denounce the Tories.  To put it mildly, the net effect – votes gained minus votes lost - does not appear to have been in our favour.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.