Successful policies press our emotional buttons

Here are some that people care about—and that Labour should put in its manifesto


Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images 

Right now, policy-makers are scribbling calculations and deliberating over manifesto commitments. Ah, manifestos: those great dust-collecting items read pretty much exclusively by party members and political hacks who then lie in wait, ready to trap an unsuspecting promise-breaker. That means you, Philip Hammond.

It’s only been a fortnight since Camp Corbyn finally revealed a pair of policies that seem to articulate winning Labour themes. VAT on private school fees and a real living wage of £10 per hour appear to help those in need at the expense of those who can afford it, notwithstanding the debate about who actually benefits. The response so far is promising—a YouGov poll found 52 per cent of people support VAT on private schooling, while ICM say that 61 per cent back the introduction of the £10 real living wage.

Good policies with admirable aims, well communicated and garnering public support—the Labour manifesto looks sorted. Except there’s a problem, The voters won’t necessarily respond in the way that the party would like. The misapprehension that they will has directed policy-makers and campaigners down a blind alley for years.

Progressive parties like to demonstrate how well their policies meet what the public say they want. This approach has led them towards those engaged voters who take the time to read up on policy. No surprise then, that Corbyn and the Labour party have been able to attract exactly these kinds of voters into their membership ranks.

Opinion polls ask people how they intend to vote, or what they think about a policy. Ask a question, get an answer. The trouble is, those answers may not reflect actual behaviour. Polls can fail by not taking into account that people are emotional beings. A policy can be popular, but it doesn’t follow that it moves people. The act of voting is an emotional one for many—hinging on lingering party loyalty, or an angry protest against a failing government.

We can now measure the emotional certainty associated with people’s responses to policy initiatives via ground-breaking techniques. Reaction Time Testing (RTT) measures the speed with which people respond to questions in micro-seconds, calibrated to each individual’s parameters. Quite simply, the quicker the response, the greater the depth of emotional certainty associated with their answer. We then index the emotional value of the policy: 100 is an absolute power to persuade and zero is complete indifference.

Sometimes the emotional appeal of a policy idea is manifestly there, in other cases there is a real disconnect between explicitly stated support and emotional connectivity. So how about that £10 an hour pledge? Of the 61 per cent who support it, they do so with a lack of emotional conviction—it receives a score of only 18/100. During the referendum, “Project Fear” messages were scoring about 26/100. In contrast, Take Back Control resonated to another level, with twice the connectivity because it linked together multiple ideas with simple cut through. In other words, people liked it, understood it and it moved them.

If we look at other policies that we might expect from Labour, it gets worse. Take the old penny-on-income-tax-ring-fenced-for-the-NHS, which everyone says they support right up until they vote for the opposite. It generates a similar lack of emotional certainty (15/100) to the real wage, and thus it will fail to move people’s voting intentions over the long haul.

So where can Labour look for policy appeal? Well, first up should be the reintroduction of the 50p top rate of tax. It has widespread support (62 per cent) combined with decent emotional pull (52/100). Most people know they won’t reach that top rate and that therefore other people will be coughing up. Banning the bomb has low level explicit support. Preserving the Union might work, but it is likely put in the shade in comparison to Scottish Indyref advocates, for whom it’s the defining tug at the heartstrings.

The NHS has potential as a core Labour issue, but right now emotional certainty may be diluted by perceptions of the party’s ability to manage it. Closing the door on new immigrants does have emotional firepower, and there are themes to explore around austerity and social wellbeing. The trouble is, the Tories have noticed this fertile ground. The most emotionally connective policies we have found so far came in the budget: a billion extra for social care (80/100) and the sugar tax (77/100) both hit the spot.

Progressive parties everywhere need to first understand what moves people and then ruthlessly exploit those emotional triggers. To gain power again, Labour will have to lay aside an approach it has been wedded to for decades, position a leader with an ability to inspire the masses, and reconnect the party with the public.

Published in Prospect on 25th April 2017 -

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