Monday, 11 May 2009

Gut vs Head, Round 2

Gut, Head, Head, Gut. We make almost all our decisions instinctively, or if you prefer, unthinkingly. We're disproportionately influenced by what we can easily remember, or what makes a big impression. Once we start telling ourselves a certain story about something, we only see what fits that story. Things that happen to us, once, matter more than things that happen to thousands of strangers, all the time. We put our faith in authority figures rather than question every single thing we hear*. We evaluate ideas we already agree with using different parts of our brains than we use for ideas we don't like. We flinch from unlikely, dramatic risks and run headlong into more likely, everyday risks. We over-estimate how much we know and how good we are at applying it. We are, collectively, a lot dumber than we like to think.

But hey, it's got us this far. So don't worry about it - you and your rag-tag collection of cognitive biases are going to do just fine. The problem is for people who want to persuade us to do things, and in this specific instance, people who want us to vote Labour at some point in the next year. These are the issues:
  1. We're bored with Labour in any case;
  2. The dominant story we filter politics through now is: Labour are an incompetent bunch of petty swindlers;
  3. The authority figures are against Labour/Labour has lost authority;
  4. The Conservatives look good.

These are basically Gut issues, and any hope Labour have of getting elected rests on tackling them head on. This, frankly, is not going to be easy. Take, to pick an issue at random, the economy. Back in the day this was a strength, and so the fact that people were beginning to wonder if Labour hadn't had long enough in charge wasn't an issue. Now both the poor performance of the economy and the suddenly impoverished government finances are, with less and more justice respectively, laid at Labour's door. Not only newspapers, but also impartial figures such as the Governor of the Bank of England and respected international bodies, have said that Labour got it wrong. The recession has not only caused people to doubt Labour's competence, but that doubt has become a good reason not to vote for them. (I never said Gut was stupid - not trusting the guy who led you into a swamp to lead you out again is a pretty good rule of thumb.) Finally, the Tories have made hay with the economy, particularly in using it to attack Brown's reputation - the source of his authority.

So what to do? Fixing the economy would be a good start; by the time an election comes around, we're predicted to be out of the recession. But hoping for a break won't be enough. If people are bored, give them a reason to be excited. Lay out what Labour will do with the economy. Start by stating the problem clearly. Don't weasel out of responsibility. Take it. But having established where we are, start talking about where we want to go. Talk about priorities. Who is Labour going to be worrying about in government? What's the plan for looking after them? Rather than say, "We're going to have to make tough decisions," why not make them, defend them and stick to them? Coming up with a sound plan for the economy, explaining it to people and demonstrating why it will work and why it needs to be done will go a long way to demonstrating some competence, rebuilding some authority, showing some principles and giving people a reason to support you.

This is the basis for attacking the Tories. Labour actually had one good day last week. PMQs went surprisingly well precisely because Cameron overstepped the mark and went after Brown personally rather than focussing on the issues. If Brown would claim to be a "Head" politician, Cameron is unquestionably a "Gut" one. Which gets him quite a long way. "Didn't fix the roof while the sun was shining", "Labour's Decade of Debt", constant calls for an apology from Brown: it makes an impression on people, and gives them powerful images to recall whenever they think of Labour and the economy. But I would argue that there's still an awareness that the Conservatives haven't actually set their own stall out yet, and that people want a bit more. Head actually has quite a strong appeal to Gut - we might not want to do the heavy thinking, but we're impressed by people who do (or look like they do.) If you've just led your followers into a swamp, pointing out that your rival's cunning plan to cut off everyone's feet won't really help is a perfectly valid argument.

I'm not pretending any of this is easy, or that people don't (rightly) need a lot of convincing. But if Labour want to win an election then that implies a belief that they'd be better at running the country than the Conservatives: they should be able to make a half-way convincing case for that proposition. Doing anything else with the next twelve months would be an unforgiveable waste of time.

*When the tribe's oldest hunter said, "Look out - there's a lion behind you!" the people who became ancestors weren't the ones who replied, "So you claim, but I'm going to need a little more than just your unsubstantiated say so."

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