Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The new "Dead Cat" strategy

I was writing an article for the Whitehaven News this week about the remarkable events of Summer 2016. That article will appear in tomorrow's issue and I'm not going to repeat it here, but I am going to extend a train of thought which came from the article about the tactics used during the Referendum.

Vote Leave produced and successfully used a new version of the dead cat strategy.

The "Dead Cat" strategy, much associated with the Australian campaigner Sir Lynton Crosby, is a means of changing the debate agenda during a campaign. If the media are focussing on an issue which is deemed to be helpful to the other side you distract them by getting someone on your side to say something extremely controversial, if not downright outrageous.

As Boris Johnson wrote in 2013,

"Let us suppose you are losing an argument."

"The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

"Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as 'throwing a dead cat on the table, mate'."

Going on to describe the tactic, he wrote

"The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout 'Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!'; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief."

Vote Leave came up with a new version of this tactic for the EU referendum, which we might call "The false £350 million gambit."

How it works is this -

1) you start by taking a true argument for your side which you want to get more attention - the tactic only works if the underlying argument is pushing an important truth on an aspect of the situation favourable to your side - and then

2) you present it in a deliberately extreme form which is not true, and

3) you use ruthless message discipline to promote the false form of your argument where everyone will see it.

What will follow is that

a) your outraged - or unwisely delighted - opponents will be unable to resist firing both barrels at what they will see as a lie or a gaffe,

b) the media, who love a good row, will turn their attention onto this subject, thereby turning the media spotlight away from whatever you wanted to distract them from, and

c) in seeking to be impartial, the media in general and the BBC in particular will report both sides of the row, and if they make any attempt to analyse the situation they will probably point out that the exact form of words you used is wrong, but -

they will also point out the accuracy of the true form of the argument which you wanted all along to get  out there.

In the case of the EU referendum, the true and false forms of the argument were:

TRUE - Britain is a large net contributor to the EU budget, paying about £161 million a week

FALSE - “The EU now costs the UK over £350 million every week – nearly £20 billion a year"

(and even more false was the suggestion that Brexit would enable this sum of money to be spent on the NHS.)

Some opinion polls suggest that a significant minority of the more fanatical leave supporters actually swallowed the false version, but I don't think there is any reasonable doubt that the leaders of the Leave campaign knew perfectly well that the figure they were using was completely misleading and took a deliberate decision to provoke a row by using it.

Before 23rd June I thought that the decision of the Leave campaign to use the false form of this argument rather than the true one was a strategic mistake. They surrendered the moral high ground and damaged the reputation for integrity of all the people they used to push the £350 million figure.

However, given the result, it would appear at least possible that it worked because, as they had planned, it diverted attention to the cost of the EU.

Because there actually is a large net payment from Britain to the EU, it seems that the advantage Leave got by reinforcing the message that Britain does pay scores of millions of pounds a week to the EU may have been significant to a majority of voters - 52% of them, anyway - enough to outweigh the disadvantage they got because a majority of people knew the Leave campaign were not telling the truth about how many millions.

This was, of course, in the specific context of a referendum, not the election of a government. Hence most people were voting on which policy they thought was right, not which campaign team had more integrity.

Although the referendum was won for Leave, there was a price, which both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have paid. Before declaring for Leave Boris's popularity ratings had a Teflon quality which defied gravity, but the most recent survey of the popularity of prominent politicians puts him in negative approval territory along with almost everyone else except Theresa May.

It is difficult to separate out the causes of Michael Gove's disastrous performance in the Conservative leadership election - his part in the Leave campaign tactics in general and the £350 million claim in particular, his unfortunate comments about "experts" particularly the comparison of Nobel Prize winning economists with Nazis (for which he rightly apologised, but the damage was done) and the "Game of Thrones" style last minute stab-in-the-back against Boris probably all contributed.

What is beyond doubt is that he has trashed his standing with most of the Conservative party to about the level of popularity he enjoys among teachers.

The new PM might well have sacked him anyway as they are not exactly best friends and she was clearly determined to stamp her authority on the new cabinet, but the catastrophic decline in his reputation made his return to the back benches all the more likely.

Of course, if this tactic were used in an election campaign, it would have been far more risky. Most voters do pay some attention to whether the candidates for their vote have a reputation for integrity and for telling the truth. Most of the leaders of both the "Remain" and "Leave" campaigns took a big hit to their net approval ratings because of the (justified) impression that both sides fell short of the level of honesty that voters were entitled to expect.

Because this new version of the "dead cat strategy" appears to have worked once, it may be that some campaigners on right or left will try a new iteration of the "false £350 million gambit" in future elections.

I don't believe it deserves to succeed and I don't believe it will. I flag it as a trick to watch out for.

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