This is what governing like you’re campaigning looks like

What are the three most important things we know about election campaigns? First and foremost, they don’t change anyone’s mind.

Campaigns don't change people's minds, they cement their biases, argues Roudie Shafie
Campaigns don't change people's minds, they cement their biases, argues Roudie Shafie

Every successful election guru will tell you that winning or losing an election is not about you convincing the electorate that you are right; it is almost entirely about convincing the electorate that they are right – right to worry about immigration, right not to trust the other lot with the economy or the NHS, right to want more for their children’s job prospects.

This is essentially confirmation bias, and it is how you win campaigns.

This approach was also taken in the Government’s COVID-19 response. The behavioural scientists on SAGE, the focus groups and weekly polling – the question was never how far can we go in imposing restrictions, but how much and long will people stand it for?

Last week was the final PMQs of the season.

Boris Johnson was unwavering and doubled down on his strategy to paint Sir Keir Starmer as a solicitor at large, driven by focus-group feedback that the Leader of the Opposition’s perceived “weakness” in the electorate’s eyes is his geekiness.

But the tactic of governing like you’re campaigning isn’t just for PMQs. No. 10 and its political team’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been dominated by this approach.

The second thing that has no influence on election campaigns are facts, which is exactly why 'fake news' is so potent and social-media echo chambers so effective.

For example, people are asking whether Boris Johnson did a better job than Nicola Sturgeon handling the COVID-19 outbreak.

The facts are that there is little variation in outcome between like-for-like regions of England and Scotland.

Yet the latest analysis by John Curtis at the University of Strathclyde is overwhelmingly that Nicola Sturgeon is perceived to have done a better job than the PM.

This plays to the third rule of campaigning: what matters at the end of the day are emotions, not facts.

Emotional resonance wins and loses elections.

Take the Labour Party’s 2019 pledge for universal free broadband. Pollsters will tell you that, while it consistently polled highly, it made very little impact on voting intentions because it didn’t generate a feeling.

This is exactly where the Government has got its COVID-19 campaigning right.

The “wash your hands” campaign at the beginning of the pandemic was one of the most successful public-health interventions I have witnessed in two decades of working in the public and private sector on public-health messaging.

Why?

There were no facts telling us how effective it was at killing the virus, or even estimating the number of lives it would save.

It gave us a simple instruction and then backed it up by making us want to do it, while images of the infrared door handle showing up bacteria and virus was designed to solicit a feeling of disgust.

When it comes to corporate communications or campaigns, changing an entrenched opinion about you – real or not – takes years.

A good campaign reinforces the positive confirmation biases about you and then generates an emotional attachment to your message, solution or product.

But don’t get rid of all your experts just yet – governing is not always campaigning.

Roudie Shafie is a director at Ovid Health and a former adviser to Boris Johnson at City Hall


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