The Left Must Grasp the Power of Emotion to Win, in Britain and the U.S.

Jeremy Corbyn
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, Britain, September 28. Corbyn is attempting a "populist" reboot. Darren Staples/Reuters

The political left’s focus on policy over emotion is failing in the face of much more ruthless campaigns which exploit voters’ base emotional instincts. The election of Donald Trump was the latest example of a campaign that spent next to no time on policy detail but instead chose to access the precise emotional triggers that moved people to vote. By failing to respond in kind the left is pulling its punches and receiving something of a thrashing. Why is this happening?

In a previous piece I reported how, as part of Owen Smith’s unsuccessful campaign to be leader of Britain’s center-left Labour Party, I commissioned a psychological profile of the party membership.

I wanted to know what moved them and how they were thinking, and what they felt seemed more important to me than their demographic characteristics, although I hadn’t fully understood why.

The results of that profile were useful in the campaign although somewhat peripheral to its execution. But among other things, the profile revealed that the Labour membership makes concerted efforts to control and regulate their own emotional impulses. Instead they value broad debates.

This active suppression of base emotional instinct means that Labour members’ own personal concerns are often secondary to the “greater good,” even if that has the potential to undermine one’s own personal concerns.

These characteristics invoke predictable behaviors on the left, one of which I believe is an unhealthy obsession with policy.

There are national and regional policy forums in Labour. Local party meetings routinely break out into long discussions on policy. Labour headquarters employs banks of policy analysts to pore over every facet of Labour’s offer to voters. The annual party conference is a policy-thon for nerds. MPs and members of the shadow cabinet feel the need to carry out long consultations and write lengthy think pieces on a range of policy areas. Keynote policy-heavy speeches are still the go-to presentation of choice for Labour politicians.

During campaign season election manifestos are sacred documents signed off at all levels of the party and projectile-launched to great fanfare by the leader from a lectern in Westminster. Policy pledge cards have become an accepted component of any Labour campaign. Leaflet drops contain those pledges and more detail on policy. Campaigns are mapped out in advance to roll out themed campaign events around specific policy areas. Lastly, just in case anyone was in any doubt of the supremacy of policy, at the last election the party chiselled them onto an 8-foot tall slab of granite and threatened to install it in the rose garden at No. 10.

Political parties are expected to have policies. I’m not suggesting they’re unimportant. However, here is the question Labour needs to answer if it is to justify the obsession it has with policy: Does it move people’s voting intention? If the party thinks it does, what is the evidence? If it doesn’t then why the obsession?

If policy is going to move people’s voting intention it presumes a level of engagement and cognitive effort from the intended audience. On the other hand, if voters are less rational and focused on policy promises (I don’t like the pejorative “irrational”) then it calls into question a policy-laden approach that would only meet post-hoc justifications rather than the base emotional triggers which move people. And if Labour, or any campaign, is going to persuade people to vote for them, it needs to take better account of what actually moves them rather than what it presumes does.

The Trump campaign, and before him the “Leave” campaign in Britain’s EU referendum, understood all too well those base emotional triggers. They grasped that, for instance, many more voters respond much more quickly and emotionally to a hard message on immigration than they do to warnings about abstract risks to future economic prosperity.

Abstract threats to economic prosperity rely on voters having something to lose and making the effort to understand what that means for them. Which is why, for example, a statistic saying that over half of the population think immigration is an important issue doesn’t really get us anywhere. If it were accompanied by a measure of the intensity voters place on that issue we could test its ability to move people. It’s the intensity that informs voting behavior. If a message on immigration, particularly a hard-hitting one, moves people more than a message on the NHS then it’s a better message.

Behavioral science can help us explain this. Our brains yearn for cognitive ease. Most of us get through the day with the least cognitive effort, making fast decisions in real time based on innate impulses. Where effortful thinking is required we find ways to limit it. We’re not very good at carrying out more than one task at a time. Where there are several ways of achieving the same goal, we use the “law of least effort” to select the least demanding.

In short, people don’t appear to be the rational actors that the Labour Party wants but the less rational creatures of emotion it chooses to suppress. All of which means that Labour’s presumption of rational behavior is wide of the mark.

Once our instinct has made a voting choice it actively and single-mindedly pursues only the information which reinforces the wisdom of that choice.

This behavior is common on social media where supporters of party X or candidate Y find convoluted ways of maintaining that support even in the light of clear evidence to the contrary. These supporters’ emotional instincts have made a choice. The subsequent behavior must only confirm that choice for fear of engaging in contradictory (and effortful!) cognitive activity. Once voters make the instinctive gut call, behavioral science suggests it is unrealistic to expect the brain to row it back.

This is one reason why Labour’s unpopular leader Jeremy Corbyn’s recent relaunch, in which he sought to borrow some of Trump’s populist tactics, is unlikely to work. Corbyn’s favorability rating is among the worst ever recorded for any British party leader. The British electorate made an immediate instinctive judgment on Corbyn once he was elected. The majority didn’t like or rate him from the start. They haven’t changed their minds. All subsequent behaviors and post-hoc justifications must confirm those base instincts, meaning that voters will have unconsciously spent the last year finding ways for Corbyn’s behavior to confirm those instincts. Unfortunately, Corbyn has proved very generous in providing them with the confirmation they need.

So the left—in America, the U.K. and Europe—should understand which messages have emotional resonance and how they rank alongside others. There are progressive messages that can be used to counter right-wing populism but if the left turns its nose up at using raw emotional appeals in favor of broad policy debates it gives up ground unnecessarily. The populists are all too happy and willing to occupy that ground. With tanks. It will take more than policy to shift them.

Ian Warren is a political consultant who served as director of data for Owen Smith's campaign for the Labour Party leadership.