Love thy Tory

by Peter Goddard

Because I enjoy becoming maddeningly frustrated with other people’s stupidity I am a keen reader of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free (CiF) section.

On CiF over the last couple of years it appears that reasoned debate has become increasingly neglected in favour of vituperative attacks by all sides on all the others.

A five minute survey reveals “filthy free market scum” (Tories), “the scum of the Earth” (Labour) and “lickspittles” (Liberal Democrats).

And as the budget draws nearer, the temperature keeps rising.

All good fun, no doubt, but is it helpful?

From the perspective of what passes for everyday politics – I’m thinking prime minister’s questions, media interviews and press releases – the answer is “yes” (although perhaps without being quite so rude). This is because these events are not dialogues but showcases.

Ed Miliband will not rise to give the opposition response to the Budget on Wednesday hoping that maybe this time, this time he will finally succeed in changing Cameron and Osborne’s minds.

This debating is theatre, in which a common enemy unites us or, as Shakespeare advised his Henry V “to busy giddy minds, with foreign quarrels.”

However, when we look at how we act at a personal level, when talking as individuals to each other, the conclusion is quite the opposite.

It is a given that, in order to achieve power, Labour needs to convince some of the people who did not vote for them last time, to vote for them next time.

In all likelihood, this will mean convincing some people who voted Conservative or Liberal Democrat to change their vote. In other words, we need to sell the party to people who currently disagree with us.

In his book Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Dr.Robert Cialdini identified six key psychological levers that enable effective selling. Calling your customer “scum” is not one of them.

In fact, three of these levers have direct relevance to our ability to convince other people of the merits of the party: liking, commitment and consistency and reciprocity.

In terms of “liking”, “We most prefer to say yes to the requests of people we know and like.”

On the face of it, this is an impossible-to-fake X-factor, but even liking has some identifiable drivers, the major one being similarity. Quite simply, we like people who are like us.

Now a Labour member’s imagination may populate the word “Conservative” with a gouty, red faced Tory, scoffing roast swan and toasting his own success with a flagon of orphan’s tears, but the reality is that millions of people voted for the Conservatives and it seems unlikely that all of them were lords of the manor.

So to increase our “likeability” in political conversations, and thereby our ability to influence, it is helpful to acknowledge and even emphasise our similarities.

Stereotypes aside, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour alike all believe in the same fundamental principles such as fairness, decency, freedom and opportunity – a party declaring itself “the party of unfairness and restriction” would not win many votes from anywhere on the social spectrum. Where the disagreements lie are in how best to achieve these.

Once you have allowed this point, the debate becomes one of means to an end, rather than right or wrong, or your team versus mine. This takes the rancour out of the debate (although arguably, some of the fun too) but it leaves the door open for the other person to change their mind without compromising their view of themselves.

Which brings us to the second of Cialdini’s psychological drivers – commitment and consistency.

“Once we make a choice or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”

As a vote is very clearly a choice made, this psychological effect would seem, on the face of it, to be an insurmountable obstacle in our quest to convert our customer. However, the key to this is in the one word “commitment”.

It is quite plausible for a person to hold a belief in, say, maintaining funding for the NHS with being a Conservative voter. In fact, very few voters or even party members agree 100% with all of their party’s policies.

It is entirely possible to get that person to agree to a small point in which their belief differs from the orthodoxy of their party.

The key is that this is not an attempt to “change someone’s mind’ through force of debate, it is to establish that, in some details, the party they vote for is not entirely consistent with their identity.

Once this is achieved, the door is open to identifying other areas where perhaps a person’s chosen party is not, in reality, the best representative for their beliefs and we have made out first steps to achieving the sale.

Even better is identifying those areas where a party has promised one thing, yet delivered another. In these areas, “I am a Conservative because I voted Conservative” becomes “I believe in maintaining funding for the NHS so I voted Conservative” becomes “The Conservatives did not maintain funding for the NHS” becomes “I am not a Conservative.”

This is doubly powerful because such failures to deliver on pre-election promise feed directly into the third of Cialdini’s principles : reciprocity.

“We try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us”

This powerful principle is the reason you receive pens enclosed in charity mailings and have “lucky” heather thrust upon you in the high street.

In the political process, this reciprocation principle exists, even though no actual gifts change hands. The politicians “gift” is their promise to enact certain policies, in return for the casting of a vote. The more concrete and absolute the commitment, the more potent a ‘gift’ it is to the potential voter.

These promises are powerful, and there is a terrible price to pay for those MPs who “gift” their promise and then renege. Isn’t there Nick?

For the individual in private conversation, this principle is also important and you don’t have to go as far as baking cookies for your debating partner to achieve it.

It is the simple act of gifting your Conservative foe with the respect you would give to someone who shares your beliefs. It is hearing them out and responding politely. It is, at the very least, not calling them scum.

So, armed with these simple tools of persuasion, we can start the work of convincing our Conservative and Liberal Democrat neighbours to consider an alternative.

Alternatively, we can keep entrenching and continue the debate as a race to the bottom, feeding our vanity and indulging in the delusion that it’s only us who really want to make the world a better place.

The personal may be political, but that does not mean that the political needs to be personal.

Peter Goddard is a sales and marketing consultant

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8 Responses to “Love thy Tory”

  1. Guido Fawkes says:

    It will never catch on.

  2. Forlornehope says:

    A thoughtful and intelligent article. Unfortunately it is p***ing against the wind.

  3. PlatoSays says:

    Spot on.

    I really can’t understand why anything thinks mindlessly insulting those you need to convince is a *good* idea.

    I’ve voted for all the three big parties – and called names by all sides, but Labourites really do take the biscuit tin when it comes to making up silly caricatures > so wonderfully expressed in the article.

    It is absolutely all about debating the best means to the end. And who we trust on an issue to deliver on their promises.

    Until Labour stops vilifying those who drifted away and those who are still in the Blairish end of their own party, they’re going nowhere.

  4. Derek Emery says:

    Interesting article but it ignores the low trust in which political parties and politicians are held nowadays. see

    …..shows that only 13 percent of people trust politicians to tell the truth, down from 21 percent, while 82 percent think they do not tell the truth………The level of trust in political parties has also halved in the UK, with only 9 percent of adults over 15 saying they “tend to trust” political parties by autumn 2009…

    I suspect the figures are lower still today as at no stage have politicians changed their attitudes towards the public. Whatever spin politicians try on the public only 10-20% or so will believe a word they say. In causal conversations with ordinary people (as opposed to political believers) I have never heard anybody with a good word to say about politicians for many years now.

  5. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    People only shout when they feel they are not being listened too….but sometimes attacks can be useful to depicts how people feel. The internet has replaced the old traditional platforms and Striking is less common, protests are less common and people will when they feel discluded and let down wish to vent their feelings through other channels.

    The internet and blogs are actually a great way for people to let the “fizz” out of the bottle and act as a means to limit civil unrest. of course there will always be a point at which the role of the internet changes when the momentum of anger reaches a certain level and organized resistance occurs.

    I am often amused by people who seem to think that politicians can do as they will behind closed doors as some kind of entitlement and that public anger is somehow always unjustified.

    It amuses me because the Constitutional role of a politician in society, never mind democracy will always attract anger and disquiet as power is brokered to some and not others. Especially when we politicians are held with such contempt as a result of the actions of the low quality of others.

    Instead of trying to evade, ignore (when did that ever work as a social tool?), the public or a select group of the public, it is far wiser to try and identify the legitimacy of the comments. is the anger justified or merely irrational contempt? I did and I learnt a great deal, but then I am not being cught out on Radio phone-ins as ed Milliband was and made to look (not without qualification) a complete fool.

  6. swatantra says:

    The internet and socal media is a complete waste of time. Its like preaching to the converted.

  7. paul barker says:

    In labours case it goes well beyond calling your political rivals scum. Theres been a small rash of libdems threatening to resign recently, the usual response on libdem blogs is for others to try & dissuade them.
    When labour types threaten to resign the more usual response is to tell them to bugger off & take their tory/flat-earth friends with them. In a party with declining membership actually encouraging fellow members to go seems self-destructive if not mad.

  8. John says:

    the Guardian of course backed the Libdems at the last election, reme,ber you can’t criticise people who say rude words about labour, the Police or the Tories on CIF because if you do you get called A troll, even if the liberrals have things that labour agreed with, AV refendum, opposition to police Chiefs, or fixed term parliaments,

    Actually it’s worrying come the election that the Tories might pick up on some of the comments that labour members who are branch secretaries or Councillor’s put on the Labour parties facebook page ‘calling anyone who disagrees with them fascist racist who shoould be destroyed’ or comments that the Tories are “nazis” the labour party often delete those comments, but wait till the tories use this to describe it as the return of the ‘loony Left’

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