Panic as ‘Project Fear’ proves a turn-off

Hope and fear: Lincoln’s idealism (left) contrasts with Powell’s pessimism over immigration.

As polling for the EU vote sharply veers towards Brexit, the Remain camp blames negative politics. Cameron is taking a back seat and wheeling on Labour heavyweights to try to turn the tables.

Yesterday the former prime minister Gordon Brown made a passionate call to ‘lead, not leave’ Europe. He singled out the ways in which Britain has shaped the continent for the better, and could continue to do so. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, declared that high immigration is a sign of a healthy country. High-profile colleagues took these rosy arguments to the streets.

The aim was to set out a ‘positive agenda’ for voters. So far, the debate has been defined by negativity. The main themes – the risks of immigration, the threat of economic chaos – play on fear, not hope. Each side spends more time demolishing the other’s case than making its own. Personal slurs are hurled back and forth. As shadow chancellor John McDonnell warned, this mud-slinging has ‘turned people off’.

Perhaps it has, but it is nothing new. Negative campaigning has long been a feature of political life. Gordon Brown should know: in the run-up to the 2010 general election, he was the subject of a sarcastic Conservative poster that displayed his smiling face alongside the caption ‘I doubled the national debt – vote for me’.

Not only that, research suggests that it is on the rise. In the US, for instance, the 2012 presidential campaign was said to be the most negative ever waged. This year’s looks set to break that record, going by Donald Trump’s habit of insulting his opponents.

Why all the doom and gloom? It may have something to do with what psychologists call a ‘negativity bias’. The term describes our innate tendency to be more affected by bad events than good ones. In other words, an off day affects us more than a happy one. Or, in political terms, we heed the threat of bad things more than the promise of good things.

Many party strategists agree that negativity works. But if McDonnell is right, it can also backfire. Just how negative should political campaigns be?

Think positive?

Campaigns should always hammer home negative messages, some believe. Firstly, it is politically smart: humans are hardwired to respond to them. Secondly, focusing on the opponent’s weaknesses is an important public service, as it holds them to account. Otherwise, the voter is left with a bunch of candidates just bigging themselves up.

Some criticism is necessary, agree others. But when politicians spend most of their time trying to discredit their rivals, they are going too far. This demoralises voters, who want to know what they are voting for, as well as against. The most successful campaigns of recent times – Labour’s in 1997, Obama’s in 2008 – were built on clear, optimistic promises. People should remember that.

You Decide

  1. Is it always wrong to insult someone?
  2. Should Britain stay in the European Union?


  1. Pair up. Tell your partner about the last time you had a good day, and a bad day. Describe how each one affected your mood over the following days.
  2. Research the EU referendum debate. On both sides, find two positive aspects of the campaign, and two negative ones. Using them as examples, explain in 500 words which you think has been the better campaign.

Some People Say...

“Negativity is the enemy of creativity.”

David Lynch

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I trust politicians anyway?
When two sides keep squabbling over facts, it’s hard to know who to believe. This can put people off voting: many argue that the rise of negative campaigning is linked to the growing disillusionment with politicians. The best way to sort facts from fibs is to read around the topic. Check the stats, follow newspaper columns, read the reports of independent bodies.
Have any porkers been told in the EU debate?
In recent weeks, the Leave camp’s claim that Britain £350m a week to the EU has been called out – critics point out that it doesn’t account for the money the country gets back from Europe. The Remain camp has been accused of making misleading statements of its own: for example, that leaving would cause a Jungle-style refugee camp to form in Dover.

Word Watch

The ways
Brown spoke about Britain’s role in fighting fascism and establishing the European convention on human rights. He suggested that, from within the EU, the country could lead the way in tackling tax evasion, illegal immigration and energy shortages.
Said to be
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, 73% of the Obama campaign’s ads were purely ‘negative’ – only criticising his opponent Mitt Romney; while 6.3% were purely ‘positive’ — only referring to Obama himself. Romney’s campaign was found to be less negative.
Insulting his opponents
He has called Ted Cruz ‘Lyin’ Ted’ and Hillary Clinton ‘Crooked Hillary’.
Negativity bias
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has described the related concept of ‘loss aversion’: the fact that we mourn loss more than we enjoy benefit. For example, losing £100 would have a bigger negative impact on us than winning £100 would have a positive one. This tendency makes us generally risk-averse as a species.
Optimism was ingrained in Labour’s early-1990s rebranding as ‘New Labour’, and in Obama’s slogan ‘Yes We Can’.


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