Monday, 12 April 2010

Behavioural politics, day 6 of 30

An interesting challenge to Labour today - they have been accused of using personal medical data to send leaflets to cancer patients, claiming that care would be cut back under the Tories.

We don't yet know the truth of this - Labour has denied this kind of targeting and I'm not sure how they would get access to such data anyway. But it's quite likely that the mailing is not targeted at all, and the suspicion arises from a horoscope effect or dog-whistle rhetoric.

Imagine you open up the newspaper to read your horoscope. Today, it says, you're going to face the recurrence of a challenge from the past but your innate fortitude will help you overcome it. And a communication from a friend will remind you that you're well-loved. Well, it isn't too difficult for that prediction to come true - we can all map our lives into this kind of vague "prediction".

Similarly, dog-whistle phrases are recognised and resonant with those to whom they're important, while others will pay less attention or not notice them at all. Surely "cancer patient" must be near the top of the dog-whistle list?

The only problem for Labour here is that they have been too successful with their message. It has been so effective in scaring people that some of them think it must have been personally targeted. This has led to media attention they didn't want. Google has had similar problems with its advertising technology.

The Lib Dems have been accused of "cosying up" to Labour, which I think is fair comment. Though they have thrown a few brickbats at Brown, their main criticism has been of the Conservatives. In fact, this makes perfect sense from a game-theoretic position. The only chance for the Lib Dems' to have any power is if there's a hung parliament. And the only chance of that is to hold the Tories back. The probability of Labour retaining an absolute majority is thought to be tiny (Betfair offers them only about one chance in 17), so the Lib Dems' best strategy is to hammer the Tories in the hope of blunting their votes - even if, in some places, Labour benefits rather than the Liberal Democrats themselves.

The Tories haven't been much present in today's news - David Cameron has gone on a charity walk with cricketer Ian Botham, but no major new announcements. People are starting to notice that the rest of the shadow cabinet are nowhere to be seen - this is definitely Cameron's campaign. That might be a gifted strategy but it has the potential to backfire. We'll see. Monday is Labour's day too, as they are launching their manifesto - so the Conservatives will mostly be out of the news until their own launch on Tuesday. Something dramatic is called for.

Finally, for contrast, here's a prime example of non-behavioural politics from Andrew Sullivan.

Ratings: Labour 8/10, Lib Dems 7/10, Conservatives 6/10.

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