How Labour can get out the vote that other parties cannot reach

by Peter Goddard

One of the perennial concerns of political observers and party campaigners alike is the problem of low turnout. It’s a particular issue for the Labour party given some of the most disadvantaged groups, who would potentially be natural Labour supporters, are also among the least likely to vote.

Admittedly, high turnout is not the be all and end all – after all, elections with 100% turnout are generally characterised by a 100% vote in favour of the excited gesticulating man in a general’s uniform. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the world of sales and marketing which could increase the number of our supporters making the effort to have their say.

When campaigning to increase turnout, the temptation is to take an approach which attempts to convince people that voting is ‘a good thing’ and that the current government are the heartless friends of bankers.

This may be accompanied by a range of well-meaning liberal talking heads despairing that voters are not exercising their democratic rights to fight back against the government and wondering what more can be done to win back these disillusioned voters.

Whilst this seems logical on the face of it, it is an approach that may actually be doing more harm than good. The reason? Social proof.

Social proof is the principle that people tend to do what other people are already doing. One person standing and staring into the sky is an oddball. A dozen people doing this will soon find themselves joined by a flock of fellow skygazers. The government have latched onto a variant known as ‘nudge’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be of use for Labour.

In the book Yes by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini, there is an illustration of how communications that do not allow for this principle can have quite the wrong effect. A petrified forest which suffered from visitors stealing small amounts of the wood erected signs to the effect that these multiple small acts of vandalism were destroying the forest.

The authors then tested 3 scenarios. In the first, a sign declared that these many small thefts were altering the natural state of the forest. In the second, there was no sign. The third was simply a simple sign saying “Please don’t steal the wood”.

The result?

Thanks to the power of Social proof, the sign observing that many people stole bits of wood resulted in 7.29% wood stealing, against just 2.92% where there was no sign at all. The alternative sign fared rather better, resulting in 1.67% theft.

So we can see that by drawing attention to a certain behaviour, our well-meaning efforts to counteract it could backfire spectacularly.

Clearly this indicates that our efforts to increase the number of disillusioned voters would be more productive if they were focussed on congratulating or thanking the millions of people who do vote, rather than drawing attention to, and thereby unwittingly validating, those who don’t.

There’s a refinement to the social proof principle. This is that social proof is stronger, the more like us the other people who are ‘doing it’ are.

This was demonstrated in an experiment testing different wordings for the notice in a hotel room encouraging guests to reuse their towels.

Much like the petrified forest, the first stage pitted the standard ‘think of the environment’ message against a social proof approach declaring that the majority of guests reused their towels.

This resulted in an uplift in participation.

They further refined this with a message that the majority of users of that particular room had reused their towel. This yielded even greater uplift in participation.

The lesson here is that people responded to social proof even more strongly when it was people like themselves who had carried out this behaviours. This seems to apply even when that ‘likeness’ is a tenuous as simply staying in the same hotel room.

So not only is it that every time we lament low turnout in general we are unwittingly making the problem worse, when we talk about particular groups such as young people not voting or being engaged with politics, we continue to amplify the problem.

The good news is that now we understand this phenomenon, we can start to harness it.

Communications can and should be aimed at key target groups, emphasising the participation of the majority. “Thank you to the 20,000 young people who voted for Labour in West London – the future is in your hands,” or “10,000 pensioners in Yorkshire will be voting this May to say no the government’s cuts, make sure you are one of them.”

As a bonus, we can also introduce another key sales principle – scarcity.

“Hurry while stocks last” is a cliché for a reason and it’s no accident the television shopping channels show the number of available items diminishing before your very eyes.

Likewise, Colleen Szot hugely increased sales of the NordicTrac exercise machine, shattering sales records with a new advert which changed the script from “Operators are waiting, call now”, to “If operators are busy, please call again.”

This is the power of shortage.

So when developing our communications, perhaps it is the very scarcity of elections that we should be emphasising.

The facts are on our side in this. Choosing your government is not an everyday opportunity and we should present it as such.

“You only get one chance to vote in 5 years. Join the 5,000 young people in your area and tell the government that cut your EMAs and brought in tuition fees, what you think.”

By targeting those sub-groups more likely to vote Labour and applying communications that utilise the power of both scarcity and social proof, we can go some way to increasing the turnout in the Labour-supporting demographics – a much easier challenge than talking to established Conservative voters and convincing them that they have made a terrible mistake.

Besides, David Cameron seems to be taking care of that side of things already.

Peter Goddard is a sales and marketing consultant

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3 Responses to “How Labour can get out the vote that other parties cannot reach”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    I think that makes a lot of sense.

    However, in some areas, we need to get back in the habit of standing candidates agai. Too often we’ve allowed the Fib dems to say ‘Labour can’t win here’, and so a tactical voter ends up becoming a habitual LibDem voter – with that demographic peeling away from the LD’s we do need to create a sense of labour’s return as a viable party to vote for.

  2. Les Abbey says:

    So we should say – “Too many people are voting Labour. Please don’t vote.”

  3. james says:

    But Mike the Labour person elected last year where I live endorsed the Lib Dem candidate and she was elected. Perhaps it was because people saw through the hollowness of the Labour case – they were wanting to keep open a costly leisure centre in the leafy heatons instead of putting that money to help tree maintenance and a construction academy which the Lib Dem wanted.

    What do you say to the good people of East Lothian and Aberdeen who are now faced with an administration they didn’t vote for – a conlab coalition?

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