Monday 16 September 2019

UK result a reality check for RTE and referendum

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

After three television debates I believe the Yes side can lose the referendum unless it learns lessons from the UK general election. Like not relying on polls or on abstract argument.

Let me start the lesson.

Last Wednesday, the day before the British General election, I placed a fairly substantial bet with Paddy Power on David Cameron to become the next Prime Minister of the UK.

At odds of 10/11, a win would be less than evens, while a loss would hurt badly. A bet apparently so risky I am ready to show the slip to sceptical pundits.

But I felt my money was as safe as if in the Post Office. Because I was backing a belief I had reached after reflection and research. Few pundits predicted the final result that Bryan Dobson rightly said "almost no one expected". Almost. But Ruth Dudley Edwards bravely bet on a Cameron majority.

So why did we beat the poll and media consensus that the result would be neck-and-neck, leaving the SNP in the driving seat ?

Possibly because we are not prisoners of ideology. Ruth has served a long apprenticeship studying British politics. And I have Aristotle.

Most modern studies of political persuasion back Aristotle's belief in his Rhetoric that the three pillars of persuasion are: credibility and character of the speaker, empathy with the emotions of the audience, and lastly logical arguments.

Accordingly, a few weeks ago I asked John-Paul McCarthy, late of this parish, who is based on Britain, for his read on Cameron's personal credibility. In reply he sent me a link to an extraordinary lightly edited 11-minute video of a day in the life of Cameron, as told by himself, taken from the Sun website.

Television cameras are cruel. But Cameron was comfortable in his own skin, as happy at home as he was at work.

This contrasted with Ed Miliband, who on camera came across as a shifty posh socialist, speaking as if he had a rubber ball in his mouth.

John-Paul's covering comment on Cameron was courageously prophetic. "I've a feeling he might win bigger next week than the polls suggest. Just something about the way he comes across that 'fits' "

So much for Cameron's personal charisma. But apart from the economic recovery, why might he "fit" Middle England better than Miliband?

Rejecting the polls, I began an exercise in empathy. And finally figured out why Middle England felt they could trust him to deal with the two secret fears they refused to share with pollsters.

The first was anger about Nicola Sturgeon's strident threat to "lock Cameron out of No 10". The second was that the immigration issue was actually a code for fear of Islamism, which Middle England preferred Cameron to deal with rather than UKIP.

So on May 6 at 4.43:14am I sent the following email to a few friends -­ which political colleagues can check too - rejecting the neck-and-neck poll consensus and predicting a Cameron win.

"I'm going to put decent bet on Cameron to be next Prime Minister because of what I call the England factor which I believe is not showing in the polls but which will prove crucial for three reasons. First, voters in Middle England won't want Sturgeon & the SNP bleeding England dry, or want her propping up a Miliband government. Second ME doesn't like Ed's plan to make "Islamphobia" illegal. Third, in the crunch, Lib Dem MPs are centrists so they will dump a weak and weakened Clegg and support a Cameron government."

Naturally, I was not surprised when none of these reasons surfaced on Sean O'Rourke's panel, which weirdly concluded that Cameron's spectacular success posed big problems for him!

This was par for the course in RTE's politically-correct, but electorally incorrect coverage of the UK election.

Like much of the Irish media, RTE spent the entire election fixated on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

Some green pundits saw SNP as a Scottish Sinn Fein, to be supported as a thorn in the Tories' side. But O'Rourke's panel should have dismissed it as a dead duck. Cameron doesn't need Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. They will fume impotently for the next five years. In that time their massive majorities will begin to melt.

RTE's cranky coverage of Cameron - putting his historic win second on Friday's bulletin - reflected the same sullen line as the BBC.

Both broadcasters live in a politically-correct bubble that cuts them off from the centrist views of the majority of people. Accordingly, the BBC was caught rotten by the result.

But so was RTE. And it led to the national broadcaster not credibly celebrating the many nuggets of good news.

Like Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP and Tom Elliot of the UUP showing Sinn Fein the door. Hopefully a taste of things to come.

A further joy for me, if not for RTE, was George Galloway, Saddam's dour defender, losing his seat.

RTE should have got a reality check from the UK results. But, Sean O'Rourke's panel discussion showed it had learned nothing.

The Yes supporters must not do the same. Because the British results have a lesson for their flagging referendum campaign.

The lesson that issues and ideology are not as important as likeability and empathy in helping people to change their mind.

As I said above, people are not swayed by abstract arguments, but by gut feelings. Normally this is a good thing, given the genocides caused by abstract armed doctrines.

But even when gut feelings get it wrong they can be dealt with as long as they are left out in the open. But political ideologues pressurise people into hiding their feelings.

Right now, people are lying to pollsters about how they mean to vote in the referendum. And I sense Yes support slipping away.

The last major poll said 22pc intended to vote No and 78pc to vote Yes. But a whopping 26pc of Yes supporters said they had doubts.

Even if only half of these doubters defect we will get a No vote of 35pc. Too close for comfort. And it's the fault of Fine Gael and Labour.

Before a single poster went up the Coalition should have first figured out how to fix a fundamental flaw in the emotional engines of many floating voters.

One of the core flaws is the deeply hidden fear, based on ignorance of the facts, that voting Yes will allow homosexuals to abuse access to male children.

Cosmopolitan campaigners assume that the majority of people know that gay fathers are already raising boys. Not so.

The Yes side forgets that for many heterosexual people the last few weeks have been both a crash course and steep learning curve on a minority sexual culture.

Far too many of the Yes speakers wrongly assume the majority of our people are au fait with gay and lesbian lifestyles in which children are cherished.

Accordingly, the Yes side should have concentrated on core fears about homosexuals and children during the three television debates.

Ryan Tubridy ran a smooth discussion on the Late Late. But only Senator Averil Power spelled out the simple fact that the referendum would not give gay fathers access to children for the first time - because many gay men were already rearing them.

The Prime Time debate came down to a gruelling head-to-head between Noel Whelan and John Waters. But again, majority fears were not allayed at an emotional level.

Thanks to George Hook, the Vincent Browne discussion flushed out some majority concerns . But the final two weeks will have to focus more on hidden core fears.

Meantime, Micheal Martin can calm two other political fears. First, that Cameron will not be rushing out of the EU in 2017. Second, he should tell his party to ignore all polls except exit polls.

Sunday Independent

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