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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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