Is there a defence against the dark arts?

This bizarre election campaign is based on building a personality cult around a virtual reality leader who can parrot well–rehearsed lines in controlled surroundings, but doesn’t have the guts to risk exposing her façade in a proper leadership debate. It demonstrates both the arrogance of the Tory PR machine and a press propaganda juggernaut that Putin must envy.

Behind deceptively simple messages there appears to  lie a skilful use of psychology, particularly an understanding of cognitive dissonance; the propensity to ignore, distort or misinterpret incoming information which does not align with existing beliefs or is otherwise unsettling.  The dissonance ramparts are not however impregnable; they can be breached, and an action tendency can be changed. Information that comes from trusted sources, or is otherwise credible, will sometimes get through.  During the referendum “project fear” and the denigration of experts was a clever device to offer wavering leavers licence further to indulge their dissonance and ignore powerful evidence to the contrary that might otherwise have triggered many voters’ decision tipping points.

Another tool being exploited is dissonance’s mirror image i.e. consonance. One way to achieve the desired acceptance of a new message is to tag it to an existing belief or to some information likely to be accepted as fact.  The widely expected difficulty of Brexit negotiations ought to work in our favour. it does not logically follow that the annihilation of alternative political voices or an awkward woman are the answer, but voters are looking for reassurance, for mitigation of perceived risk, and are taking these messages on board. 

The potential consequences of Hard Brexit may not be gaining the traction they deserve because voters who fear the worst also want to hope for the best. The existing Tory reputation for economic competence also provides some perceived risk mitigation. The fact that the Tories are planning to take our economy to the bookies and potentially gamble away so much of our future prosperity is a massive vulnerability which dissonance has thus far protected remarkably well.

This poses a problem in that contrasting Hard Brexit to perceived Tory economic competence, so that we can tag the message that Hard Brexit is a bad idea to something consonant, may simply reinforce positive perceptions of the Tories. Having only recently gone back to the dissonance drawing board the options below have thus far only been subject to limited doorstep testing.

When confronted with actual or prospective Tories I have tried suggesting that a willingness to go for a Hard Brexit or worse still no deal at all seems very Un-Conservative. This catches attention and appears unsettling. It can be followed up by tarring with the Labour brush; we expect Labour to take big gambles with our economic future but are very surprised to see the Conservatives taking such a huge financial risk. Then registering amazement that Maggie fought so hard to set up the single market but Theresa is willing to abandon it so thoughtlessly also seems to strike a chord. The concluding message that a big Lib Dem vote even in seats we might not win should discourage Theresa from going for a UKIP style Brexit then seems to fall on less stony ground.

I leave it for you to judge whether thinking about consonance and dissonance could contribute to fine tuning our messages, but it seems to work for the Brexiteers.

* Andrew Haldane is a former councillor and parliamentary candidate and current Chair of the Macclesfield local party and Vice Chair (Policy) of the NW Regional Party. In his earlier career, he worked in Marketing as a practitioner and later as an academic with an interest in Consumer Behavior applied to the shaping of Attitudes and Belief.

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16 Comments

  • Listening to May brings back memories of a Tory landlady who in the 1970s told me everything would be “wonderful” when the Conservatives returned to power. Well they returned to power in 1979. Were things wonderful? inflation increased and unemployment soared to record levels. The British economy went into absolute decline.
    Well in the years following there was a recovery of sorts. The economic mirage of the late 1980s.

  • A good article, if slightly OTT with a bit too much academic jargon for my liking. I don’t think it would work with hard Brexiteers, but it is by far the best suggestion I have seen for reaching to Remain Cons who have drifted back into the ‘Just get on with it’ camp.

    Try to use it.

  • The majority of the electorate are in the denial phase. As reality moves on that will change, how it changes will be interesting too see, do they wake up to reality or do they charge after the latest version of a world of milk and honey.

  • Nick Cotter 19th May '17 - 1:41pm

    I Agree with Frankie !!!

  • The Tories have unleashed an army of tame journalists and internet pundits whose principal objective is to get us to stop talking about BREXIT. You will see them on this site. Some of them masquerade as Liberal Democrat. Others are Liberal Democrats who have been duped by the Tories. If only we would stop talking about BREXIT, they say, we would rise in the polls. This is classic psychological warfare.

    Another example of Tory psychological warfare is the media reaction to last night’s TV debate. Despite Tim’s obviously impressive performance, the pundits tell us that he was faltering, that he failed to get his message across, and the others outclassed him. He was damned for talking about his home town, for talking about his family, for looking at the camera, and yes, for talking about BREXIT. The thing the Tories seem to fear the most is Liberal Democrats talking about BREXIT.

    The latest thought spore to be propagated by Central Office is the rumour that Norman Lamb is in electoral trouble. I have seen this pop up at least a couple of times in the last few days. The Tories are sowing despondency and dissent in the ranks, and some Liberal Democrats are falling for it.

  • Andrew McCaig 19th May '17 - 2:08pm

    I think “Yes to the Single Market” is a much clearer and more powerful message than “No to Hard Brexit”, especially since neither Tories nor Labour have admitted they want a “Hard Brexit” but both have explicitly ruled out the Single Market.

    It can also be used to dismiss the spending plans of both the others since they have not factored leaving the Single Market into the revenue side..

  • David Westaby 19th May '17 - 3:06pm

    This is a very constructive contribution and I hope in the minds of the party strategists. I am committed to the concept of a referendum on the final agreement but we are in a period where this has less resonance with many. The conservatives have options for Brexit and to adopt such a high risk strategy does not fit with the concept of a sound government . They should be repeatedly pressed on what is the justification for taking such risks on behalf of this country.

  • Bill le Breton 19th May '17 - 3:11pm

    perhaps you should be publishing this kind of piece over in the Member’s Forum

  • David Crichton 19th May '17 - 5:06pm

    This is in effect a PFI election – short-term (hopefully!) benefit to the Tories (or, as it is now known, The TM Party) with our descendants paying the price for years to come.

  • David Allen 19th May '17 - 5:12pm

    We underestimate Theresa May at our peril. This election is Project Fear all over again. Just a bit more subtle this time.

    The standard Tory modus operandi is to create an enemy and then claim that only the Tories can stand resolute against that enemy. That’s what they have done with Brexit.

    We keep telling the nation that Brexit will be nasty and brutal. This merely plays into the Tories’ hands, because it is also their message.

    May says that the nation needs her to be strong and stable, and to stand up to the formidable enemy in the EU. We don’t really say anything equally convincing about Brexit, other than that Britain has taken the wrong track. Nobody will vote for us because we might have got yesterday’s decision right.

    We see May as vacuous, evasive, slippery, and awkward. This is, in fact, an image May is quite happy to project, and which many voters respond to favourably. They like the image, because they want someone to deal with the EU who will be evasive, slippery and awkward on Britain’s behalf. Being fearful of a bad deal from the EU, voters want a ruthlessly effective leader, and that’s what the Tories are claiming to offer.

    As the OP says, we should respond by attacking May, pointing out that she is taking reckless and unnecessary risks, and arguing that she is quite the opposite of “a safe pair of hands”. We should point out that when Tories talk about “putting Juncker back in his box”, they are displaying a woeful approach to negotiation, which will lead Britain into disaster – unless the Lib Dems gain the Parliamentary strength to bring Government back to its senses. A final rhetorical flourish could be to argue that, whilst Corbyn is clearly not the right person to have leading our negotiations with the EU, May would be an even worse choice.

  • The problem is we are in the phoney war stage. Britain is still in the EU and the huge damage of withdrawal is not apparent.

  • William Ross 20th May '17 - 7:52am

    When all of this is over will you keep on remoaning ?

  • I think we are at the stage where the initial anger of the referendum campaign and result is over, and before the reality kicks in. In that respect, May has timed this very well. However, people are currently fed-up with elections, and while they may roll their eyes at another election, the bad news for us is that during a campaign with many of us suffering from election fatigue, talking about yet another vote instantly becomes a much harder sell, even amongst those who quite liked the idea a couple of months ago, and who will wish for one in a year and a half’s time.

    To make matters worse, the activity surrounding an election campaign means that all of the bad stuff we were hearing about negotiations, and the consequences of Brexit drop into the background, so it’s much easier for optimists to hope for the best without being reminded of the probable reality.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th May '17 - 10:22am

    Death tax lottery
    Brexit lottery
    NHS Lottery
    Grammar school lottery
    gamble away your assets, economy and life chances with the tm tories

  • William Ross
    The recovery will takes decades if at all.

  • paul barker 20th May '17 - 3:21pm

    We have to remember that History isnt going to stop on June 8th, Labours slow decline & infighting will carry on, Brexit will take shape & most Voters wont like what they see. Of course Foriegners will be blamed but not as much as The Politicians who led us over the cliff.
    There will be more Elections, starting next May if there are no Byelections first, our recovery will continue.

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