Tom Ewing, Senior Director - Labs, talks UK General Elections
British politics has a tradition of political figures who inspired high emotion in voters – from the public’s gratitude to Winston Churchill, through the hugely divisive Margaret Thatcher, to the wave of elation – perhaps short-lived! – that greeted Tony Blair’s first landslide. Emotion matters in politics as it matters in every other decision we have to make. Our brains largely rely on fast, instinctive System 1 thinking, and emotion guides and simplifies our decisions. System 1 tells us that if something feels good, it’s a good choice. So inspiring positive emotion – and avoiding negative feeling – is a huge asset in a politician.
That’s why, back in February, we used our FaceTrace™ emotional measurement system to see how the British public felt about the current crop of politicians, asking a nationally representative sample of 2000 voters how they felt about a selection of political figures. Do any of them inspire emotion to the extent politicians used to? And what does emotional response tell us about the prospects for the five big UK parties and their leaders?
We ran this study before the 2017 snap election was called, so it’s a snapshot of how people felt about politics in ‘normal’ conditions, without the heat and media attention of campaigning. But emotion can be a strong guide to outcomes. By looking beyond voting intention, at the emotions driving people’s reactions to politicians, you can get a sense of the visceral response to politics and the role that emotion plays in it.
At System1 Research the emotional framework we use is based on Paul Ekman’s work – he’s the psychologist who worked out which emotions are universal to humankind, based on how they show up across cultures in people’s facial reactions. Ekman named seven universal emotions – Happiness, Surprise, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger and Contempt. In our testing of emotional response to advertising, new ideas, brands – and also politicians – we add an eighth, Neutrality, the absence of any emotion. We ask people which emotion they feel about something – a politician in this case – and how strongly they feel it. In advertising and concept testing, this is the bedrock of our predictions of in-market effectiveness. In politics, it provides insight into the emotional ground rules for elections.
Each of these emotions works in a different way when it comes to brands and advertising, and it’s no surprise that different politicians attract very different emotional responses.
THERESA MAY: The Tories have based their campaign strongly on Theresa May herself, a decision that’s met its fair share of criticism. But our emotional analysis explains why they took that route. Happiness is the most positive of Ekman’s emotional spectrum, and it’s the emotion that drives decisions in favour of brands, advertisers or politicians. But it’s a rare emotion for politicians to evoke – in all our political research, very few figures make more than 20% of their electorates feel Happy. In Britain, only two political figures manage this – both Conservatives. One is Theresa May herself, which suggests the Conservatives were right – at least initially – to make May central to their pitch to voters.
BORIS JOHNSON: If the Tory campaign is wobbling, though, the Tories have a riskier option. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, actually tops the Happiness charts. He’s the closest British politics currently comes to a well-liked figure. It is a gamble, though, as Johnson attracts much more negative feeling than May does. In particular he scores highly on Contempt, the most corrosive of emotions for business and sadly the most common negative emotion for politicians. Contempt is one of the hardest emotions to resolve or recover from – whether it affects brands or politicians, the public can have long memories.
JEREMY CORBYN: Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is the second most famous politician in Britain – one of only a few people can spontaneously name outside an election campaign. But just as he lags well behind Theresa May on this metric, he also does far worse on emotional response. The public know him, but in February at least, they didn’t like him. He scored poorly on Happiness and strongly on Contempt, but another negative emotion crept in too: Sadness. Sadness is a very unusual emotion for a politician to evoke, and looking into the detail of the reactions it seems those voters saddened by Corbyn are either disappointed, or upset by the media’s treatment of him. Is there a silver lining for Labour here, particularly as none of their other politicians are remotely as recognisable as Corbyn? Maybe: one of the things about Sadness in advertising is that it’s the most easy negative emotion to resolve – it's relatively simple for storytellers making a commercial to transform it into Happiness. A stronger than anticipated performance for Corbyn – whether in the polls or the debates – might well invigorate his former supporters and boost the Happiness around him.
TIM FARRON: In marketing, if you feel nothing, you do nothing. That applies in politics too, and it’s the problem facing Tim Farron’s Lib Dems. Reduced to a rump of MPs in the 2015 election, Farron has hoped his clear anti-Brexit position will win over voters, but while they may have strong feelings about Brexit, they have almost no feelings about him. Like most minor politicians from the two main parties, Farron has sky-high Neutrality ratings. People don’t know much about him and they don’t care. This explains why Farron and his party have played only a minor role in this election, and why they look set to underperform again on June 9th.
NIGEL FARAGE AND PAUL NUTTALL: UKIP’s leader Paul Nuttall is roughly as poorly known as Tim Farron, with higher negative emotions – fieldwork for the study coincided with his disastrous attempt to get elected as MP for Stoke-on-Trent. But another UKIP figure, former leader Nigel Farage, remains well-known and generates a lot of emotion. Some is positive, but much is negative, and the dominant emotions around Farage are Contempt and Disgust.
Disgust is an interesting emotion in politics. We’ve seen in all our political work that politicians seen as extreme, dangerous or criminal tend to create Disgust in voters. In France, Disgust was Marine Le Pen’s biggest negative. And in the US election, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton scored very high Disgust scores, reflecting how partisan that contest was. At its root, the emotion of Disgust is all about contamination – it induces revulsion and a desire to get rid of the disgusting thing. So politically it belongs to those seen as especially corrupt or whose views set them outside mainstream politics. The high Disgust score for Farage suggests that the UKIP brand of politics is still toxic: launching a successor party if Nuttall does poorly at the election may be the right move for its backers.
NICOLA STURGEON: Between the first wave of our study in June, and the second wave in November, very few politicians gained Happiness. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was one of them – judging by the comments we received it looks like she has become more popular among Remain voters looking for someone who will stand up for their values. But Sturgeon also has her share of negative emotion. Unusually, it’s Anger that dominates among her political negatives. Anger is a very active emotion – in the “fight or flight” reflex, Anger is the “fight” part. It’s no surprise – and probably a badge of honour! – that a national UK sample will have some people angry at Sturgeon’s plans. After all, you don’t make people Angry unless you are doing something, and on the central cause of independence Sturgeon has not been idle.
Our study of UK politicians shows a largely unloved, and in some cases unknown, bunch. If these were brands they would almost all need to work on building up positive emotion. But it underlines how different the reactions across the political spectrum are – from the Disgust many feel for Farage to the Sadness with which some Labour voters greet Corbyn. Theresa May’s emotional advantage – at least in February – rested on the fact that she made more people Happy than most and drove far less negative emotion. But the days of the genuinely popular British politician, who wins elections through strong emotional appeal, seem long gone.