Prospect theory and Type 1 swingers

May 16, 2011, 3:35 AM GMT+0

Yesterday I wrote about the three types of swing. Let’s remind ourselves how swing is defined: at the last election, Labour had 36% of the vote and the Conservatives had 33%. If this time it turns out to be, say, Labour 31% and Conservatives 40%, that would be called a 6% swing from Labour to Conservatives (half of the change in the respective shares of the total vote). But we need to remember that this does NOT mean 6% of people changed their minds and moved from voting Labour to voting Conservative. That nominal 6% swing actually consists of all kinds of churn, a significantly larger amount of movement between lots of parties, and between voters and non-voters. You could theoretically even achieve that swing simply by a big chunk of Labour voters staying at home, with no-one changing sides at all.

But let’s now consider only Type 1, those people who are actually considering changing their vote from Labour at the last election to Conservative this time around. I want to invoke Prospect Theory, which I first discussed here three years ago. I won’t rehearse this well-evidenced Nobel Prize-winning theory: in summary, people tend to over-value what they already have compared to a rational valuation of a new prospect. It’s a vital theory for elections as it explains the dynamics of hope vs. fear.

In a straight fight between giving up what you have in exchange for something new, the odds are heavily stacked against the new prospect. In order for people to vote for change, they must either (a) really dislike what they already have, or (b) really love the new offer. In 1992, they didn’t dislike the Major government enough, nor was the Kinnock alternative seen as very attractive. By 1997, they despised their government, and all that Blair had to be to win was likeable and safe.

So the choice for the Cameron Campaign depended on whether they thought our current mood towards the government was more like 1992 or 1997. They decided on 1997, and went for likability and safety rather than the strong, highly differentiated offer they would have to attempt (and which Kinnock failed to provide) if it was 1992. About six months ago, it all seemed very 1996: things looked bad for Brown. But of course, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly, and we are neither in 1992 nor 1997. The twist was a fragile recovery from a frightening recession. People started to credit Brown - just a little - with steering the nation out of a disaster. His negatives reduced. The Conservative modern-young-man safety-first strategy started to seem a little shaky.

I think we’re delicately poised. The public, as measured by opinion polls, has certainly shifted towards change – but the 5% advantage to Labour that is currently built into the electoral map might mean the shift isn't yet decisive enough. Labour’s strategy is clear and simple: play hard on fear of loss, fear of change. But how should the Conservative campaigner respond?

A conventional professional strategist’s view is that they should now go strongly negative and launch a sustained attack on Brown’s fitness to govern. Of course most people don’t like negative campaigning, but they should remember that the finest and most successful example of it in British political history was practised Blair, Brown and Mandelson in 1997. That campaign is often remembered as positive because Blair presented an attractive figure, but one shouldn’t forget that day after day they ripped into Major as “weak, weak, weak,” and mercilessly pressed the accusation that the Conservative Party was the party of sleaze. It was an awesome barrage. If the Conservatives want to be surer of victory, they should also realise that (in line with prospect Theory) Type 1 Swingers need to be jarred out of their safety zone and made to worry that it’s actually risky for them to stay with the old, the incumbent.