Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Feelings, not ideas, are the key to election victory

Emotions, those troublesome guides to our deepest selves. They come bubbling up so quickly, and can fade away just as rapidly, that they sometimes seem ephemeral. But they're key to how we actually see the world - in the jargon, they constitute the software of our heuristic biases, the rules-of-thumb that we apply to choice and life that we don't even notice, most of the time.

And they're critical to elections like the one we find ourselves in now.

Most voters have very little information to go on. The science of economics and the dynamics of organised social policy are specialised, complicated, contradictory things. Even experts find them difficult to understand - and even harder to use as guides to actual decisions. There's often little point tooling ourselves up in the way that the lay population can, because the level of knowledge that's easy to harvest can often do little more than give voters an entry key to a totally incomprehensible I-say-you-say world of mazes. The upshot? About half of voters don't even know that a General Election is due in just 78 days.

So they go on emotion instead. Which party do you identify with? Which leader do you find most convincing, trustworthy, capable-looking? Who best speaks for you? Those used to be easier questions, based on social class, but now they're much more complicated - rooted in a sense of self, region, shared identity, language, race, city, education, religion, even type of house, car and hobby. That means that many voters might change their minds, very rapidly, as the parties' images intersect with those other unstable markers of self and of identity.

Voters depend on symbolic representation and interpretation - clusters of tropes, ideas, fears and hopes that proceed by very obvious and appealing symbols. That's why the Conservatives reacted with concern and then fury when it looked last week as if they would be labelled 'the tax dodger's party' - because they knew that would solidify the idea, central to the public's perception of them, that they would only ever stand up for the rich. That's why the issue holds great dangers for Labour, too, since when and if their MPs' affairs don't stand scrutiny (whose would, under such a harsh arclight?) they'll look like a band of metropolitan 'Westminster' hypocrites. United Kingdom Independence Party voters (and potential voters) repeat established norms about 'bad' immigration in contradistinction to the 'good' immigration of the law-abiding and the hard-working, while they repeat their worries about radical Islam to each other over and over again. Voters like the idea of 'Labour' (or at least dislike it less than the 'Conservative' brand), but can't stand the image and reality of Labour's leader, Ed Miliband.

All symbols. All groups of emotional responses whirling around each other. And all critical to the election.