Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Is The Fink wrong on negative campaigning?

Danny Finkelstein has an opinion piece in The Times today entitled "The Tories will get burnt fighting fire with fire" in which he argues that they should stop going negative against Labour in their campaigning and instead be more positive about what they would do:

Question this approach and senior Conservatives will remind you that they are not unilateralists. A multilateralist sees Mr Brown's favourite technique and knows how to respond. The PM likes to make up a Tory policy and then attack it. He likes, for instance, to assail the Conservatives for planning to take away tax credits from poor people, a policy he simply invented. Surely, the Tories say, we have to fight fire with fire. We have to make the same sort of attacks, if only as a deterrent.

Yet if the Tories are multilateralists, they are also free traders. They know that if one country protects its goods, it doesn’t make sense for a trading partner to retaliate. The protectionist country suffers (through high import prices) whatever other traders do. If you introduce tariffs yourself, all you do is join in the suffering.

And so it is with negative attacks. Mr Brown’s attacks often make him seem petty, partisan and mean-spirited. Sometimes they make him seem completely out to lunch. If Mr Cameron responds in kind it could make him seem the same. Associating Mr Cameron with personal attacks endangers the Conservatives’ most important asset — their leader’s image as a more generous, broad-minded sort of Tory.

I wish that Danny was right but I fear he is wrong. People often say that they do not like negative campaigning but from what I can tell the research evidence is far from clear. Of course people are going to say they do not like negative campaigning but sometimes the person themselves is not a good judge of their own motivations. They may not even realise that they are responding to it. I also think that if this sort of approach was doomed to backfire as Danny suggests then parties simply would not do it. They would have learnt this lesson by now. They want to win after all.

However, like Danny, I still hope that the coming election campaign will be more illuminating than it has been so far. We are in a crisis at the moment and the electorate deserve to have the policies of the main parties properly explained to them.

Something that may help here is the TV leaders debates. With 4.5 hours of scrutiny, it will simply not be possible for them all to just spend their allotted time slagging each other off! I think in that particular forum that approach will get very tiresome very quickly and that they will need to spend the majority of their time saying what they will actually do.


Ian Eiloart said...

I've conciously voted against negative campaigners before - switching my vote from the campaigner to the target - as a direct result of the campaigning.

I can think of two occasions - one was an attack on the candidate, the other was a misrepresentation of electoral system in a PR election.

I don't suppose that I'm in a majority here, but there certainly is a risk that you'll lose some votes with negative campaigning, while gaining others. There are a few questions:

The mercenary question: will you gain more votes than you lose. And, related: could you be doing something more effective instead.

The strategic question: are you damaging the political system in the long term, depressing turnout, increasing voter antipathy, and encouraging the rise of smaller parties.

Does it make a difference when you're defending a seat, rather than trying to take it? My guess is that negative campaigning is less useful if you've got a positive record in office, and on local action, that you can campaign on.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

“and the electorate deserve to have the policies of the main parties properly explained to them” - and the evidence for this is what?

It is said the main parties avoid properly explaining for the moment they do the other main parties either steal their policies or, more likely, then explain why they are very, very wrong. So, as Dave et al seem keen on at present, the best strategy is to appear nice and say nothing. The electorate have not noticeably rebelled against this, to their shame, the undeserving muppets.

Robert Reich has blogged recently about conducting politics in a negative manner. See where he says, inter alia, : -

“The real problem isn’t partisanship. Bold views and strong positions are fine. Democratic debate and deliberation can be enhanced by them.

The problem is the intransigence and belligerence that has taken over Congress and much of the rest of the public — a profound distrust of people “on the other side,” an unwillingness to compromise, a bitterness and anger disproportionate to issues being discussed.”

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

And further to the above on a party revealing policy, a "Times" article on the highly corrosive conduct of politics in this country by a well-known personality: -

“Gordon Brown really can be very annoying.

He basically lies about the policies of other parties, then attacks the lie. He hopes that no one will be bothered to pick him up on the detail.

It makes it very difficult to have a serious argument with him.

It's is a very dangerous political technique, this, because it robs political debate of any truth or objective content. It needs to be challenged relentlessly.

See article @ really-can-be-very-annoying-pphe-basically-lies-about-the-po licies-of-other-parties-then-attacks-the-lie-he.html

Letters From A Tory said...

"I still hope that the coming election campaign will be more illuminating than it has been so far."

Seeing as the Conservatives are the only ones who are actually setting their stall out at the moment (bar one random wind turbine announcement from Nick Clegg), I'm sure things will improve soon.

Mind you, we are still potentially three months from polling day and Labour are broke, so they're in no position to get started now.

Millennium Dome said...

LFAT: "Seeing as the Conservatives are the only ones who are actually setting their stall out at the moment"

This itself is an example of negative and deceitful campaigning.

The Liberal Democrats have put out quite a number of policy positions already this year, not just the green jobs proposal that you mention, but launched an entire arts policy last week, plans to revitalise the countries high street, plans to put 3000 more police on the beat, and most most importantly firmly laid out the four core policies for negotiating our position post-election: investment in education, fairness in taxation, new green jobs in the economy, and reform in politics.

I realise that "the Lib Dems are irrelevant; they don't say anything" (ironic from a party that spent so long saying nothing about their own policies) is important to to Conservative message, but it is still spin, and frankly untrue spin at that.

The Conservatives are now announcing policy (or at least aspiration), but it does appear that at least as many of their announcements are rowing back on previous policy as are breaking new ground: married couples tax - Dave admitted he messed that up; age of austerity or no to swinging cuts, where is Conservative economic policy today? And that's before we get to tittle-tattle stories about candidates who resign and then un-resign the next day.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and it's all a ghastly media conspiracy by the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph and the Times (surely some mistake?), but the Tories certainly give the impression that there's no need for negative campaigning as they are quite capable of tearing their own campaign to piece from within.

Andy said...

I agree with your point about how negative campagining can effect people without them knowing it.

Remeber the Bush Kerry election in the US? Kerry refused to respond to the personal attacks made by Bush and others during the campaign and was seen as weak by the electorate as a result. Obama made a concerted effot in the 09 election to not only rebute the alligations but also to get in there 1st with his. Could Cameron be accussed of looking weak if he merely ignores Labours negative attacks?