Monday, 31 March 2014

Can negative campaigning have lasting positive effects?

Many of us profess to object to campaigns characterised by negativity, but usually expressions of such objection are to be found when our own "side"is under attack. In recent months, partly but not exclusively due to reflecting on the Scottish independence debate, I have come to question whether negative campaigns are actually as much of an affront to democracy as I've historically believed - and whether negativity can actually achieve positive results in the longer term.

Indeed, the tendency towards "positive" messages seems to fly in the face of human nature. Or, at the very least, the "British" nature - which is so often manifests itself in cynicism and the inclination to think ill of people rather than seek the good in them. Out political culture has been heavily shaped, and co-dependent upon, by such thinking. Our adversarial political system stems not from the facilitation of positive discourse, but actively perpetuates the politics of tribalism and negativity that underpin it. Even the Scottish experimentation with the "new politics" has failed, with Holyrood now reverting to type. It is the negative messages that are so often the most powerful, the most memorable and so often the most eloquent, as evidenced by the oft quoted words of many politicians. Put-downs and asides are more effective than a well-articulated political speech, however positive: Gordon Brown will forever be remembered as "Mr Bean" long after Vince Cable's progressive economic views have become of interest only to academics.

Negative campaigns are often successful campaigns. Take No2AV as a prime example: the campaign actually operated on the basis that negativity works. For all the objections of the Yes campaign, the essential truth remains that one side understood that messages do not have to be either true or positive to be believable, while the other was left complaining about tactics when licking its (largely) self-inflicted wounds. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was focused far more in rectifying the problem of the "democratic deficit" than in shaping a better Scotland, and many within it were equally motivated in curbing the influence of the SNP. Negative campaigning is a tactic hardly unknown to Liberal Democrats, who use it to sell their horse-races to local electorates; the demonisation of Tories in constituencies where "only we can beat them"has contributed to many Lib Dems successes, even if the intentional projection of ourselves as an anti-Conservative party is now creating unforeseen damage. Negativity can and does affect outcomes in a "positive" way, at least in respect to getting the desired result.

Inevitably, negativity isn't always successful. But, if used wisely, it can be an effective tool. It would appear to me somewhat hypocritical to express dismay at others using precisely the same strategies that we would use in similar circumstances. What does not appear to work, however, is cynical negativity being paraded as a "positive message" - and again No2AV had the intelligence to appreciate this. Better Together, on the other hand, appear to be completely ignorant that voters dislike dishonesty far more than they do negative messages.

That said, I have never been one to view campaigning in terms of the immediate objective. While No2AV was successful in winning a referendum, and while the Liberal Democrats have historically used negative tactics well in winning parliamentary seats from Conservatives, but winning results are not necessarily an endorsement of one's aims. Few people rejected AV because they were passionate advocates of the First Past the Post system, just as many who vote Liberal Democrat did so from neither belief in the need for a liberal society nor indeed any real identification with the party's political objectives.

Better Together must realise that, for them, the relentlessly negative approach is not working. There has been no real attempt from them to couple the negativity with the "positive vision" it professes. Their difficulty isn't that they have used overtly negative tactics, but that their entire campaign has become characterised by it while lacking the appeal to populism that is such a necessary catalyst in the triumph of negativity. The Scottish Liberal Democrats appear to recognise the limitations of Better Together's unimaginative style, with Willie Rennie urging a "sunshine strategy" and warning against complacency (while also, rightly, putting the emphasis back where it belongs - on democratic matters).

For all this, Better Together still seem well placed to win the forthcoming referendum, even if the gap is narrowing. Alex Salmond, who himself has sent out some surprisingly negative messages recently, is a believer that the "positive always wins in the end". The lessons from US elections is this is far from true, but he does have a point. Negativity is only effective if you are able to identify the right issues, if your messages are believable, if you are able to offer alternative solutions and if you have respected messengers. On all these counts, Better Together has failed - even Alistair Darling, for whom I have respect, is clearly the wrong person to lecture Scots on economic priorities. Closer to home, on each of these counts the Liberal Democrats have also struggled in the last few years, although there some cause for believing progress is being made on identifying the right issues and on the communications front.

There remains the not unlikely potential scenario whereby the negativity of Better Together will win them the battle but lose them the war. This is true of all negative campaigns, and why I maintain my opposition to negativity more generally. It is an easy tactic, often proving successful in scoring key victories, but negativity can never provide any kind of mandate. If Better Together gets the result it wants later this year it may have won the vote, but it will have failed to convince voters of the value of the British establishment. The victory would not be a public endorsement of either the UK or the campaign. There is nothing more certain to accomplish the feared "neverendum" situation than Better Together's inability to put forward its own vision, or even merely to articulate what is so good about the Union.

Negativity might serve campaigns well in terms of being decisive in determining election outcomes, but it is a limited tool. Accentuating the negative is no way to convince others to buy into one's way of thinking. Negativity cannot win hearts and minds, and it cannot empower individuals to engage constructively with the pertinent questions. Whatever short-term benefits can be reaped via negative tactics, all the evidence points to it creating longer-term difficulties and a very insecure basis for public endorsement. The fact that negativity can achieve results does not mean that the by-products are themselves either positive or desirable.

It is therefore, with some relief, that I see that the Liberal Democrats are finally going into a European parliamentary campaign with a positive message. It may win us few votes - indeed, we would all expect a decrease on 2009 - but I would rather lose being honest to who were are, standing up for what we believe, taking forward the positive message of inclusion and integration, than gaining seats through timidity and a fear of making a pro-EU stance. It may well be that Nick Clegg considers that we have nothing to lose; that there are opportunities are being the party of "in" (even if most want neither "in" nor "out", but to shake it all about). In any case, he appreciates that the real victory on Europe is to be achieved in a longer-term war, rather than in a singular election. He is daring to be positive and, while that has led to the unwise decision to take on Nigel Farage in TV debates, is looking to do what Better Together have not - appeal to the minds (if not hearts) of voters, seeking to convince them of the benefits of continued EU membership.

The difference between negative and positive approaches is the emphasis on seeking a mandate, rather than merely votes. With difficult choices ahead, the Liberal Democrats would be right to take the longer view rather than opt for the easy short-termism inherent in negative campaigning - if we are to "create a liberal society", negative messaging hardly seems an appropriate, let alone efficacious, weapon.


Goose said...

if we are to "create a liberal society", then don't go into coalition with a polar opposite party and abandon your convictions at the same time. If the Libs had an ounce of courage they would abandon the coalition, power, ministerial positions and go back to what Grimond stood for, but then did not Grimond enter the Lords and sit down with the Establishment?

Andrew said...

Hi Goose,

I wonder how you think a "liberal society" can be achieved if not in collaboration with others, including those who think differently?

The Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservatives, which as you will know if you look at my posts from May 2010 was not my preferred option. However, entering coalition was the right thing to do, even if I was (and remain) unconvinced we did so on the right terms. Of greater concern is some of the decisions the government has made since, often in regards matters not referred to in the coalition agreement.

I do wonder how SNP supporters who (rightly) criticised the Lib Dems for NOT entering coalition talks with them in 2007 on the basis of having a diametrically opposed view on a key issue, can simultaneously suggest that the Lib Dems should not have entered into a coalition with another party on the same basis. Surely that's odd doublethink?

I am not a defender of the government, but while as a Liberal Democrat I am unhappy with much of what the coalition has done (and indeed am openly critical at times) I do not believe it was wrong to enter coalition. A liberal society will never be achieved by a single party, but requires a collaborative and co-operative approach with people of other parties and, indeed, of none.