What went wrong? A psychologist’s view

David Clark-Carter, Professor of Psychological Research Methods

Prof David Clark-Carter

What lessons can be learnt from the 2017 British general election?

The picture seemed obvious at the time the Prime Minister called the election:  the next election was due in three years’ time, which could be inconvenient when trying to deal with the aftermath of leaving the European Union (EU); Theresa May had become Prime Minister without being subject to an election; she had a small majority which meant she was dependent on the support of factions within and outside her party in order to get her proposals through Parliament, making her job harder; and the manifesto to which the Government was being held was throwing up some serious problems, such as not allowing them to raise National Insurance and so causing a U-turn after the budget.  The Conservatives were far ahead of Labour in the opinion polls and so an election would address each of these problems.

Now, instead of increasing her majority, she has no majority; so what went wrong?

Firstly, she had said publicly and repeatedly that she wasn’t going to hold an election, so her trustworthiness was already being questioned, which would mean that any appeal to the public just to trust her would be less successful.  Secondly, despite saying that leaving the EU was the main topic, it was hardly mentioned.  Instead the manifesto proposed a number of measures which proved unpopular, some of which forced rapid U-turns or demands for clarification which didn’t fully emerge.  Thirdly, she tried to stage manage her appearances during the campaign to such an extent that we were left with just the impression of parroted phrases such as ‘strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’, which, like ‘Brexit means Brexit’, started to seem meaningless.

As part of that management she refused to take part in any debates with her opposing parties.  A fourth issue is that her opponents generally performed better than she did and than predicted, despite notable exceptions such Diane Abbott’s appearance on LBC and Jeremy Corbyn’s on BBC Woman’s Hour, both of which involved failure to remember costs of policies.  Her opponents appealed to an electorate which was tired of the consensus that we should continue to have more austerity measures for a further five years or longer, so taking the agenda away from the one she said she wanted.  Finally, the atrocities in Manchester and London should have put her in a good light.  As the Prime Minister, she had a platform to demonstrate her gravitas and resolve.  She did that well. However, having been in the party which had been in power for seven years and having been the Home Secretary for most of those, the cuts in police numbers during that time became another issue.

When Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, he was in a similar position to Theresa May: he had not been elected and the polls showed that his party had a large lead over the Conservatives.  However, he didn’t hold an election until he needed to and he lost.  He has been blamed for that loss by not holding the election earlier before the financial crash was used to question his Government’s ability to handle the country’s finances.  Perhaps we should re-evaluate his decision, given what has happened in this election.

Opinion polls have been shown to be wrong a number of times recently and, even if they accurately show that one party has a large lead, during an election campaign it is possible to lose much of that lead through ill-thought out and poorly explained policies, failure to engage in debates and the occurrence of events which put the spot-light on previous policies.  You can’t do much about the last one, except try not to leave hostages to fortune, but the first two will need addressing if the same mistakes aren’t to be made again.  As people are already talking about another election being held soon, the mistakes made in this one will need to be analysed quickly.

A first step would be to look at the numerous examples in the past of policies being devised by a small group of like-minded people.  They are not discussed with a wider group or, if they are, criticisms are resented, seen as disloyalty and ignored.  When the policies are implemented they prove to be very unpopular; in fact, sometimes so unpopular that they can be the first step towards the leader being replaced. The Poll Tax, as it came to be called, was one of these.  Although trying out ideas on a wider group, and genuinely listening to reactions, doesn’t guarantee that they will find general approval and increases the danger that they will be leaked to the Press, it does reduce the danger of creating a budget or a manifesto which contains untested ideas which need to be withdrawn soon after they are made public.

Two electioneering strategies

David Clark-Carter, Professor of Psychological Research Methods

There appear to be two strategies at play in the electioneering prior to manifestos being published:

Prof David Clark-Carter

  1. Repeat a slogan and try not to say anything about policy.
  2. Announce policies and do the round of interviews.

The danger with the first is that if another party is doing the second then you will seem very light on policy and the media will latch on to anything you do say and try to extrapolate from it.  For example, you might keep saying ‘Strong and stable’ about your own party and ‘chaos’ about another party.  If the media get a hint that you might not put up V.A.T. they will ask about other taxes, which were part of a previous package, and failure to answer can be interpreted as an intention to put those other taxes up.

One consequence of the second strategy, when other parties are adopting the first strategy, is that your policies are the only ones available for comment and so they can fill the available space. This can be an advantage if you make sure they withstand the scrutiny.  However, if the delivery in any way obscures the message then the message can be lost.  I gather that Diane Abbott’s interview on LBC was her seventh.  If someone is being put through such an intense schedule of interviews then I would recommend having memory aids which are very easy to refer to.

Fake news and conspiracy theories

Dr Daniel Jolley, Lecturer in Psychology

Dr Daniel Jolley

Popular conspiracy theories propose that members of UK government murdered Diana, Princess of Wales; climate change is a hoax orchestrated by the world’s scientists to secure research funding and pharmaceutical companies and governments cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines for financial gain.

Conspiracy theories like these accompany almost every significant social and political event and can typically be defined as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as the secret actions of malevolent powerful groups, who cover up information to suit their own interests.

Fake news, which involves the publication of fictitious information on social media, appear to be a fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish.  Indeed, millions of people subscribe to conspiracy theories.

They are not reserved for only people who are paranoid, but rather, they are a normal everyday process that we are all susceptible to.   With the popularity of social media, conspiracy theories are at our fingertips more than ever before.

What’s the harm with conspiracy theories, anyway? In research conducted with my co-author, Prof Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, we have shown that being exposed to the idea that governments are involved in plots and schemes reduces people’s likelihood of wanting to engage in the political system.  People were less likely to want to vote.

We found that being exposed to conspiracy theories can make people feel politically powerless and feel that their vote will not count; if the government is conspiring against us, how can I make a difference?

In our most recent research, we have also uncovered that conspiracy theories are potentially resistant to correction.  Once a person subscribes to a conspiracy theory, they can be increasingly difficult to debunk.

It is, therefore, important that at the point of exposure to information, people are thinking critically.  If the headline sounds too good to be true, it very well may be!  Here are some practical suggestions to help with this:

  • Think about the source; who has written the article?
  • Evaluate the evidence contained within the article; is the piece based on fact?
  • Read multiple articles from a variety of outlets on the same topic. Do not just trust one article; try and get a full picture of the story that takes into account all sides of the argument.

We know that conspiracy theories can be potentially damaging and difficult to debunk.  So, think critically before clicking “share” on Facebook or “retweeting” on Twitter.  Be sure you feel confident that the piece is accurate before sharing!


Dr Daniel Jolley blogs at conspiracypsychology.com and tweets @DrDanielJolley