The Jaxxlanders raise some good questions over the nature of the campaign messages for the referendum which is now a little over a fortnight away. I’m not sure that there are any easy answers though. And I think that some of the questions go beyond this particular referendum, and are a reflection on politics in general.
The post highlights two points in particular – the use of ‘celebrity’ endorsements and the vague appeal to patriotism.
I’ll admit to being dubious about the use of celebrity endorsements; I’ve never understood why the fact that one or another well-known person supports a particular outcome should in any way influence my own views. We need to understand though - the simple fact is that the approach works. If it didn’t, large companies wouldn’t be paying such enormous sums to the celebs to endorse their products.
The deeper question for me is whether we should really treat the marketing of a political viewpoint as being just like marketing a product. The temptation of politicians to borrow proven marketing techniques and apply them to their own situation is obvious – but that doesn’t make it right.
I suspect that one of the reasons that it works for the big brand names is that there is often very little of substance to choose between them. Sadly, that’s increasingly true of politicians and parties as well – much of what passes for political philosophy these days consists of statements which could conceivably be made by any of the parties. And there might well be a parallel there between Part 3 and Part 4 of the GOWA as well. Faced with trying to explain what is not exactly a major constitutional change, resorting to proven marketing techniques is an obvious option.
As for the appeal to emotion – well, again, one would have to conclude that the approach works. Much of Labour’s election campaigning in recent years – even as a party of government – was based around an appeal to an emotional and historical view of the Tories. And within the target audience sector, I’d say that it worked. The point is, though, that it doesn’t work outside that target audience – but if the target audience is big enough to carry the day, does it matter?
I think it does. There’s a bit of ‘ends and means’ going on here. If we focus entirely on getting the ‘right’ outcome (in this case a ‘yes’ vote on March 3rd), then the techniques being used will probably help to achieve that. What they will not do, though, is engage people in meaningful debate. Few, if any, minds will be changed.
From the point of view of the protagonists, the end justifies the means (and I’d say much the same about the behaviour of the other side – they are ignoring the substance of the issue to concentrate on those arguments which they believe will deliver their preferred outcome).
I’ve noted before my own view that politics should be about choosing between alternative views of the future, not just choosing which set of politicians is going to implement a cosy consensual set of policies. And that implies that the ‘means’ are as important as the end. Whether in an election or in a referendum, changing minds is surely as important as winning votes.
However, changing minds is a long term process; a three week campaign is about identifying supporters and motivating them to vote. The pity, in the context of the referendum, is that we’re having the three week campaign without that lengthier debate beforehand – and it doesn’t help that the referendum is being held at the wrong time on the wrong issue as well.