Stories not stats


For a recent Fabian Society pamphlet on multiple needs I was asked to take a look at the public politics of helping the most disadvantaged in society. On the face of it, the public opinion battle is incredibly challenging. When asked: ‘how many welfare recipients are ‘scroungers’ who lie about their circumstances’, 25% say a small minority, 39% say a significant minority 22% say around half and 7% say most. That’s 68% agreeing some are scroungers against a paltry 3% saying very few or none.

The political activists’ knee jerk response is to challenge what they see as the widely held myths. But the ‘if only they knew what I know’ school of persuasion has very limited appeal. The problem is, we’ve learned, that if you don’t start your argument where people actually are, they will simply switch off and your efforts to ‘educate’ them are wasted.

With this in mind, a number of guidelines emerge that could help campaigners and politicians to make an effective case, in this instance to build support for those who experience multiple needs like homelessness, poverty and substance abuse.

First, it is important to start your argument in a place where you know the public can agree. Beginning with a challenge will only lead them to switch off. For example, previous polling for the Fabian Society found that respondents would be more sympathetic towards people with multiple needs if they had: looked for help and not found it (63%), were motivated to improve their situation (58%), had poor mental wellbeing (54%) or had suffered abuse in childhood (47%). It also found that making a long-term case – that spending on multiple needs is a form of investment to allow people to contribute themselves in the future – could prove a fruitful strategy.

Second, resist bombarding the public with stats. The successful ‘scrounger’ narrative is rooted in anecdote, stories and symbols, not statistics.  Challenging like with like will succeed where counter intuitive stats will not. It would be relatively easy to exemplify how the current system fails the people who need it most, by showcasing at a national level the stories of individuals who are shunted from pillar to post by disjointed government and local services.


Thirdly, empathy trumps sympathy – choose examples that everyone can identify with, rather than simply feel sorry for. The narrative that anyone could fall into the spiral of multiple needs is a powerful one, but people need to believe it and to be able to recognise the fragility of a stable life. Empathy for people who may have fallen on hard times and who now need help to help themselves could be a powerful driver.

Fourth, where possible demonstrate a concrete benefit to a wider audience rather than just the poor or multiply excluded. At a time when every public penny spent must be accounted for, the huge long-term savings of a lower crime rate and stronger communities should be at the forefront of any campaign.

Finally, an important part of developing a persuasive argument is having credibility to act. Here, the two main parties each occupy their own distinctive – and sometimes difficult – territories. Recent work shows that while Labour is believed to be compassionate, it is too often seen as not having the competency to achieve what it would need to do in government. The Conservatives’ image is the opposite – the party is seen as able to ‘take the tough decisions that might be necessary to be effective’ but it still tends to be seen as the ‘nasty’ party: out of touch with the needs of the less well off.

Frustrating though it may be for campaigners anxious to do a spot of myth busting, and put the public right, we’d say that this simply doesn’t work. We’ve explored how to change minds in a number policy areas where public attitudes, often passionately held, do not always coincide with the facts. We’ve found again and again that arguments are more likely to land if their starting point is the public’s beliefs as they truly are not where the campaigner wishes they were. As Mrs Thatcher’s advisor, Tim Bell, used to say, ‘perception is reality’.

Deborah Mattinson is Director of BritainThinks. A version of this article was originally published in the Fabian Society pamphlet Within Reach: The new politics of multiple needs and exclusions

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