PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
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Playing the fear card


The Tories' election tactic is simple - don't worry about the truth; just terrify the people

Nick Cohen
Apr 3, 2005
The Observer

When Conservatives were attacked by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Archbishop of Canterbury on the same day last week, the 2005 election left the politics of the 20th century behind. The mainstays of respectable society were turning on the once-respectable Tories because they are the first major party to seek power with a campaign which offers nothing but fear.

Howard isn't running on how the Conservatives would manage the economy and public services - very badly, if recent history is a guide, or what place he wants Britain to have in the world, a lonely one if his blunderer's knack of alienating social-democratic Brussels and radical-Republican Washington at the same time continues - he's running on fear.

Fear is what he turned to when he was in a corner after the Howard Flight debacle: press conferences were called on the need to 'stamp out the yob culture, limit immigration, fight crime and protect Britain from terrorism'. Fear is what his posters sell: the Liberal Democrats are so soft on crime they would tear down the jails and let murderers roam the streets; Labour is sending paedophiles to rape your daughters, while it puts up your taxes, dumps gypsies in your backyard and calls you a 'racist' if you complain.

If it feels hard to admit that nothing like this has been seen before, that's because there's a strain of complacency in British culture which hates to acknowledge that the country changes. I can almost hear the harrumphing complaints that politicians have always spent as much time deploring the wickedness of opponents as praising the virtues of their policies - and so they have. It's also the case that ever since the arms race between Tony Blair and Michael Howard on law and order began in the early Nineties, New Labour has been no slouch in playing the race card or sending the prison population through the roof. But there comes a point when quantitative change becomes qualitative, as the sociologists say, when modifications to the old ways of running politics build up until their pressure pushes us into a new world.

If you don't believe that this election is like no other, look around. What's left of the American left gazes with goggle-eyed incomprehension at that large chunk of the working class which is far more interested in fighting cultural wars against rich, permissive liberals than joining trade unions, for instance. In supposedly moderate, consensual Europe, perfectly good governments are swept from power by fears of crime, terrorism and immigration. Even the French Socialists, the party which more than any other embodied the individual ist spirit of the 1960s, are now warning that the breakdown of the solidarities of class and family has left people insecure. (Being French, they naturally quote Michel Houellebecq on the emptiness of modern life while they are about it.)

Howard has acknowledged the power of the global movement by bringing Lynton Crosby from Australia to run his campaign. In the language of the Daily Mail, Crosby is an economic migrant who has sneaked into Britain and taken bread from the mouths of our own snake-oil salesmen. Yet Howard and, indeed, the Mail make an exception in Crosby's case because there isn't a huckster in the land who can match his special skills.

He's won election after election ever since he organised the victory of the Australian conservatives - who call themselves Liberals, but aren't - over an apparently invincible Labour Prime Minister a decade ago. Last time around, he played up a report that boat-people refugees from Saddam's Iraq were throwing their babies into the ocean and forcing the Australian navy to fish them out and give them asylum. It was only after the election was won on a wave of public revulsion against the barbaric aliens that the story was revealed to be - how to put this gently? - a lie.

As an Australian Labour leader warned the Guardian 's Sydney correspondent, Crosby and his team 'will play to the basest of opinions in the coming weeks. There's a dark underside to any human being and they pander to people's fears'. His prediction was spot on and the pandering will continue until 5 May.

The standard response to the well-bred contempt that Crosby and his kind arouse is that democrats can't complain if they give the public what it wants. The excuse doesn't wash because, like the media, the world's Crosbys are caught in the paradox of populism. On the one hand, they know that fear sells better than sex and that if you are a newspaper, political party or television channel, the best thing you can do is present yourself as the friend of the common man, ready to take on the 'elitists' who are threatening his way of life. On the other, falling turn-outs, readerships and viewing figures across the developed democracies prove that the more populist politics and the media become, the less popular they are with the common people.

There's no way out of the paradox for the media which are everywhere caught in spirals of decline. What's chilling about Howard is that for politicians of his type falling turn-outs can be a bonus.

The Liberal Democrats, being shot by both sides in this campaign, pointed me to a gigantic study of American elections in the 1990s to explain how. Going Negative by Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar showed how Crosby-style negative campaigning can help you to victory exactly because it depresses turn-out. The trick works like this. You attack your opponent with a ruthless disregard for the truth - Tony Blair is organising the rape of the voters' daughters or whatever. Potential Labour supporters may not vote Tory as a result. But the Labour vote will be depressed if they believe there's a grain of truth in the charge and decide to sit the election out.

Alternatively, voters may not believe a word of the attack propaganda but decide it confirms what they had always suspected: all politicians are vicious creeps and there's no reason to vote for any party. Again, Howard is happy because parties of the right are supported by the wealthy who are most likely to vote. The lower the turnout, the better they do.

At about the same time as Ansolabehere and Iyengar were conducting their study, Christopher Hitchens was interviewing Pat Caddell for an essay on the dismal effects of professional manipulators on democratic life. Caddell, one of the best pollsters in the business, had been hired to run the re-election campaign of a clapped-out Californian senator who was faced with a challenge by a smart, young rival. It seemed an impossible task, but Caddell realised that his man had the advantages of a stronger party machine and core vote. He also noticed that much of the electorate was mildly alienated and hated negative campaigning.

'So I told them, "Run the most negative campaign you can. Drive the voters away. Piss them off with politics."' It worked and the senator won against the odds. 'The day after, I realised what I had done and got out of the business.'

Many - far too many - stay in and they're getting more cunning by the day. New Labour, of course, had planned to run a negative campaign against Howard which might have driven away Tory supporters. But Crosby showed his genius by stopping it when he successfully branded New Labour as anti-semitic. We're now in the situation where Howard plays the race card two or three times a week against gypsies, asylum seekers and immigrants from every country except Australia. Yet when you attack him for it, the race card is played back at you and you are accused of being an anti-semite. This is the racial politics of the politically correct age. As I said, nothing like it has been seen before.

The chief constables complained that Howard was misleading the public about the true level of crime. They were right but won't get anywhere because the media have as much of an interest in exaggerating crime as the Tories.

The Archbishop of Canterbury told all parties: 'Despite the best of intentions, election campaigns can quickly turn into a competition about who can most effectively frighten voters.'

As a well-meaning man, he assumed that operators such as Crosby had good intentions which were momentarily lost in the heat of battle when the truth is that they have spent years calmly and cold-bloodedly refining their techniques. Don't forgive them, your grace, for they know precisely what they do.