Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Behavioural politics, day 7 of 30

And on the seventh day...Gordon Brown launched the Labour manifesto.

This was a good opportunity for Labour to deepen the public's engagement with their ideas. The more rational the conversation, the more the two main parties are likely to equalise. Both are skilled at targeting the median voter - democracy provides a strong competitive pressure to build a coalition of voters just big enough to win, without becoming so centrist that your base vote doesn't turn out.

Therefore, if the choice is made purely on the issues in the manifesto, the parties should end up with a similar share of vote - which would certainly be a position Labour would be happy with, given where they are starting out. What's more, the media gave Labour most of its attention throughout the day, temporarily free of the obligation of balance (the Tories are launching tomorrow and will no doubt get the same favour).

The manifesto reads well (at least the part on the economy, which I read in detail). It has few new spending commitments, which in this context is probably a good tactic due to the strong loss aversion currently in play (people who consider the manifesto as a whole may react much more strongly to the extra debt or taxes they expect to incur, than to the benefit they'll get from the spending). But it does have enough new policy announcements to suggest that Labour is not completely out of ideas.

The Conservatives, partly through luck and partly through a skilful response, did manage to take the edge off the launch. First by an emotional interview with David Cameron on ITV, which won some headlines. Then by finding some negative comments made two years about Gordon Brown by Ellie Gellard (@BevaniteEllie), who introduced the manifesto launch. And finally by the fortuitous timing of the legal aid award to three Labour MPs who are fighting theft charges in the expenses scandal. It's hard to know whether all this outweighs the positive impact of the manifesto launch, but it certainly reduces it. Labour will be hard pressed to return the favour tomorrow.

Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats showed his courage by allowing Jeremy Paxman to interview him - which neither of the other party leaders has yet been willing to schedule. Clegg performed well and this is a good step in establishing the Lib Dems as a serious competitor. They have definitely managed to win much more attention in this election than on previous occasions, probably because of the likelihood that they will form part of a coalition after the election.

Jim Prior has written an article comparing negative political campaigning to the (mostly) positive marketing campaigns run by commercial brands. A fair point, but there is a big difference between the two. In the short-term, politics is much closer to being a zero-sum game than is brand-building. There's a prisoner's dilemma here - if one party remains positive and the other goes negative, the positive party loses woefully. Therefore it becomes rational for the parties to play as aggressively against each other as they can.

Of course in the long term, trust is eroded and politicians as a group lose authority. Therefore it would serve them well to find a way to make a deal to limit negative messages - at least between elections, if not during a campaign.

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

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