Why project fear really works

Let me tell you why you should vote in favour of my argument. It’s because the other side, their position is nonsense. I can promise, it’ll be bad for you. You’ll be worse off. What do you mean, why is what I’m arguing better? It just is. But, make no mistake, the other lot will leave you poorer, with less opportunities.

That’s basically where we’ve got to with Brexit. Attempts at harmony within the Conservative Party are swiftly being abandoned for outright public acrimony. Labour, for so long beset with strife amongst its own ranks, can almost watch on with a degree of amusement.

And now, the debate isn’t just about the merit of remaining in or leaving the EU. It’s about how the debate itself is being conducted. If you’re bemused by this state of affairs, you’re not alone. But the waters are being muddied as an argument over pros and cons becomes one simply about cons. Neither side is an innocent party in this war of attrition, but the Brexiters have been swift to accuse the ‘Remain’ campaign of mounting ‘project fear’ – not least for the publication of a dossier involving Number 10 highlighting the disadvantages of leaving the EU.

Frankly we shouldn’t be surprised either campaign has devolved to this so quickly. Tom Mudlinski, Director of Political Polling at ComRes, writes in City AM today that “negative messages tend to stick in the minds of voters more sharply.” He’s absolutely right. Negative campaigning has been around probably since the first ever popular vote. And who can forget Lynton Crosby’s famous ‘dead cat’ tactics in the last election, designed not to promote Tory policies but to ridicule those of Labour and its personnel.

Mass media, social media and digital content means negative campaigning has more traction than ever before. But its brilliance isn’t just because, as Tom suggests, it sticks in the minds of the voters more vividly, with ‘project fear’ dragging the opposition away from what they want to be talking about.

As any communications professional will tell you, the elegance of project fear is that it forces an opposition to play defence. They either have to defend their views or, as we’ve seen with Iain Duncan Smith’s letter in the Daily Mail, they get drawn into a debate about how the campaign is fought. What they’re not doing is either mounting a counter-offensive or talking up the merits of their position.

It’s all deeply cynical. But it works. And with 130 odd more days until we go to the ballot box on 23 June, you’d better get used to more of it.