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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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.