So one of the things I have ended up talking about a lot on the various Corbyn and Labour debates is about New Labour. What is was, what it meant, what its record was. In some respects analysing what New Labour was, and its record in government is key to understanding where we are and what the various motivations of the various factions are. This blog is about looking at the reason New Labour came to be, and my next blog will be my analysis of their time in office and how it relates to our current situation.
My Union’s General Secretary Dave Ward, a man I respect and admire greatly, even if I think he has got things badly wrong on Corbyn, recently described Blairism as a Virus, and this got me thinking about New Labour and Blairism and what it is…..
So here is the thing I don’t think that New Labour, at least to start with, was an ideology at all. New Labour was a strategy. New Labour was originally concocted as medicine, and I’ll talk about that medicine in a bit.
What is interesting here for me is what that virus/disease that they were coming up with a medicine for was.
I think it is hard for us to now, particularly those of us too young to “get it” at the time, what a horribly, horribly crushing blow the ’92 election was. I was into politics (yeah even aged 12. I know what a loser!) but didn’t really have a full understanding of how things worked. But I knew we were expected to win…. That things were going to change for the better…… That the Tories would finally, in my lifetime, be gone.
I remember seeing the shock, surprise and disappointment in my family members, and some of my teachers. I can only imagine what it must have been like for party activists.
So the party had to think about why it lost, how it lost, and how it could win again. The genesis of new Labour was in this process.
So I blogged a while back about why I think electoral reform should be a touchstone issue for the left, and in that I cover off some of the same ground.
So here is the thing. Because of our political system, first past the post, and the way in which our population and demographics split: in most places in the UK, most constituencies are not up for grabs. Anywhere that requires as swing of much more than 10% are probably not going to change hands however much a party campaigns there (over a longer period of time constituencies can and do come in and out of play). Usually in most of these “safe seats” we all know the outcome in advance. This is, for my money, one of the biggest problems with our system of democracy in the UK.
Barring seismic change, like the industrial revolution, universal franchise, or the rise of the Scottish Nationalist movement these long standing biases are unlikely to change.
So that leaves the parties looking pretty much solely at those seats that might change hands, mostly those with majorities under 5000. New Labour was really a project about how could the Labour party pitch itself, in these places, at the right people, to win these seats and win and election.
This then leaves you with a choice, who do you target? Do you try and get 5001 new voters, or do you try and get 2501 Tory voters to switch? It is a conundrum that will face every Labour Party unless (hopefully until) we get some meaningful reform of our broken political system.
The calculation, as they saw it, is that getting voters to switch is the easier and more reliable path. Firstly because switching voters count double (one more for us, one fewer for them) meaning you have to convince a smaller number of people. Secondly that people who have voted before, are more likely to actually vote meaning the work is less likely to be fruitless.
It was therefore seen as “the path of least resistance” to target getting switchers, in places where switching might make a difference. But the truth is the Labour party could have targeted 5001 new members and still have been trying to fix the same problem.
This is where the “Too small blanket effect” starts to come into play though. Because how a party pitches it’s policy can effect who votes for it in both directions. Your chest is cold at night, and you pull your small blanket up, but then then your feet get cold.
A public policy offer is a bit like a blanket that isn’t quite big enough. Pitch too hard at swing voters in the centre and you annoy alienate your left wing, and potential new voters. Pull too much toward your left in search or new voters and the centrists might switch and vote for the other team.
That was the conundrum facing the Labour party after 1992, that is the “disease/virus” then, it is also the difficult strategic facing the Labour Party today.
New Labour was, initially at least, envisaged as a medicine for how we could do enough, in the right constituencies, to win enough votes to win a General Election.
It really did. Labour won consecutive landslides, then a third big majority. It was by any measure the most successful, electorally at least, that the Labour Party has ever been. Nothing before, or in the short time since has come close.
Now you may passionately disagree with what this medicine entailed (I was incredibly unhappy with much of what the New Labour government did). You may believe, as I do, that the way New Labour targeted its win wasn’t the only way it could have won. I for one think John Smith would almost certainly have won in 1997 had he lived and that his government would undoubtedly have had slightly different policy priorities than Blair’s government did.
Heck once the Tories had been in for 18 years I suspect Labour fighting on the 1992 manifesto again would probably have won in 1997, though probably not with such a landslide.
So feel free to disagree passionately with the medicine New Labour prescribed; but don’t think that the disease wasn’t correctly diagnosed, it was. And that disease is still what Labour needs to address if it wants to win a General Election under the current system. And that small blanket problem is going to be an issue whichever policy direction we take.
Understanding the reasons why New Labour took the path it did, and understanding how that relates to the current choices before the Labour party isn’t the same as endorsing the public policy platform of New Labour.
And it certainly isn’t the same as pretending that the decisions of 94-97 are somehow applicable in the political climate we operate in today. The political world, the electorate, the means of campaigning/communicating any many other things are fundamentally different today and any political party’s strategy and policy offer needs to be different.
But until our political system changes, what is needed in order to win an election remains the same. And depending on which route we go to get the votes we need, in the places we need to get them, that approach may well leave another part of the Labour voting coalition a little cold if we have pulled the blanket in the other direction.
When I wrote my far too long blog last week, about why I think Corbyn has to go, due to it getting too long I had to trim a number of sections I’d initially intended to put in. one of which was to talk about the cognitive bias’ we have, and specifically how confirmation bias can really skew how we all (and I’m definitely including myself here) think. Particularly in the social media age.
We all like to think that our thought processes are entirely logical and rational. That we think the things we do because we have rationally assessed the evidence in an unbiased and scientific way and come to the conclusions that we have.
And the truth is that is rubbish, for all of us. Every single human who ever lived has a mass of behaviours, bias’ and filters that govern how we even decide which information to look at. And we kid ourselves all the time that we haven’t come to conclusions based on what we already thought. I hate that I do this, but it is true. The best you can do is be aware of it, and try to check yourself when doing it, but we all do it to greater or lesser degrees.
Confirmation bias, described by Wikipedia as:-
“the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”
Is one that I think effects activists, particularly left activists (may well be right activists too but I do not have the experience or evidence of this so can’t comment! You’ll all see the irony there surely!)
Most of us are definitely biased in our sources for information. Let’s be honest most of us mostly read the Guardian or the Indie, as well as the Morning Star, left wing blogs, left polemicists who tell us what we want to hear. I try, mostly unsuccessfully, to read things from other sources so I can keep a handle on what the enemy thinks. I try to read the FT, even the horrendous tabloids. But mostly I can’t. I get to cross. My blood boils. I feel like a traitor to the cause. And most of you will experience this too I’d guess.
So we get our information mostly from sources that we broadly already agree with. Sources that tell us what we want to hear. Sources that are preaching to the converted. This gives disproportionate weight to what we already think, and means that we rarely give enough focus to what others think. More important to what others think, is why they think it. It ends up leading to us erroneously believing the things we think, and the reasons why we think the things we do, are far more widespread than they really are.
As activists though one of the ways this is exacerbated is through the personal echo chamber effect. So let’s say you are like me a full time Trade Union official. You spend most of your working life doing left wing activism, speaking to other left wing activists who broadly think the same as you do about politics. Because you are “of the cause” you are disproportionately likely to also be involved in politics and campaigning outside of work too. Meaning lots of the people you spend your free time with are also other people who already think the same as you do.
Most of us are also drawn to friends who share similar outlooks, philosophy or experience. Maybe like me, you are an argumentative sod who loves a good debate too. Maybe those in your circles who don’t agree with your POV often can’t be bother to talk to you about politics because it is too much bother and you don’t get to hear their dissenting views.
I’m not saying the above paragraphs apply in full to every left wing activist, but I bet large parts of it apply to the overwhelming majority of us. And when that is true it is easy to believe that most of what you think is normal, even universal. But it isn’t. And when we project our personal views, and the views of those around us onto the wider public we often make category errors about what people think and what they are likely to do.
And with social media this gets infinitely worse because as well as all the people we know reflecting back to us what we already think, we now get to hear about loads of other people we don’t even know on Twitter and Facebook, (who because of who we chose to follow become a self-selecting group that further entrenches our confirmation bias) who are also agreeing with us. That further emphasises the erroneous belief that what we think is what everyone thinks.
If I was to go by what my friends, family, social media contacts thought then I’d have expected in the recent referendum for Remain to have won by north of 90%. But it didn’t because the people I spend time with, the people I talk politics and shop with, are just not representative of the public at large. Heck they are not even representative of ordinary Labour voters at large.
So where am I going with all this? Well firstly I think the point I’m trying to make is that we all need to examine why we think the things we do on a regular basis. Because sometimes what we think in our heart or in our gut just isn’t right. That I think our subjective experience is a very poor substitute for widespread and rigorously checked impartial factual information.
For me a classic example is how we use support for individual policies as evidence a particular cause or course of action is right. People think contradictory things, especially about politics. When asked a question about a specific issue in isolation I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority answer accurately and honestly. So when polled about renationalisation of the railways for the left, or the death penalty for the right, I’m sure that the answers to these questions really do reflect what the public thinks about these issues in isolation.
But from both a public policy perspective, and crucially to where I’m coming from, how national political parties construct their pitch to voters, this is of much less usefulness than how voters think of these things relatively. So if 80% of voters agree that we should all be provided with free clown shoes at a cost of a billion pound a year, but only think that weakly, whereas the same number believe that the national free costume budget needs to be cut but believe it strongly. Even though voters would like clown shoes, they are more likely to vote for the party calling to cut the costume budget.
On the left we often hate doing this kind of analysis as it often tells us things we don’t want to hear. It tells us that even though voters broadly agree with our policies (say in 1992 or in 2015) they won’t actually vote for us and the Tories get in.
I’m not BTW arguing for Labour to move back to nothing but triangulation and focus groups. But I am saying that we can’t afford not to think in terms of what our voters actually think and what their actual priorities are. And more than that I’m saying that if the Labour party is serious about winning a general election any time soon it has to recognise that if there is a policy that matters to it’s voting base, that contradicts what its activist base thinks, then there is really only one choice.
Most activists in our movement are to the left of the average labour voter. We have different subjective experiences, and our passions and beliefs are not always shared by those we represent, or aspire to represent.
So where does all this come from? Well I linked in the first paragraph to my blog about why I as a lefty still think that Corbyn should go even though I personally agree with almost all of the policy positions he espouses.
I think many of his left supporters are mistaking their personal subjective experience, and that of their colleagues, friends and social media contacts; of their rallies and meetings of CLPs, union branches and momentum meetings; for what the wider ordinary labour voting public think.
Now I could well be wrong about this. I’m as guilty of all of the above as any other activist. And I didn’t vote for Corbyn so me finding fault in what he does may well be my confirmation bias in seeking evidence that backs up my preconceptions. But maybe it is actually my Corbyn supporting friends who are doing this.
The single best measure of what the voting public actually think in the UK is a general election. We had one of those last year, fought on the most left wing ticket the Labour Party has fought in a generation (not saying much given the very low bar I agree!), and we got spanked and the Tories won a majority for the first time in 23 years.
After this the most reliable indicators are large scale local/regional elections, not in terms of the seats but in terms of national voting shares and how this acts as a very large scale reasonably accurate poll. The National Equivalent of the Vote is not full proof and it get’s things wrong, people change their minds and circumstances change, but it is one of the best indicators of how between general elections people might vote in future ones (and really do follow that hyperlink it is a very interesting article about the 2016 local elections).
By these measures, which are far from full proof, the Labour Party is not looking in good shape to win in 2020 or next spring or whenever an election takes place. Now you might not agree with this measure, and even its staunchest advocates accept that it is at best a rough indicator, you might think it is so outside of your personal experience of the effect Corbyn is having that it should be disregarded.
And that is fair enough. But I’d argue back that is probably confirmation bias in action, that however imperfect large scale meta analysis is, it tends to be better than subjective experience.
And I further argue that if some, like the PLP, look at that kind of statistical studies and large scale behaviour instead of what the activist base is saying, it isn’t necessarily illegitimate or wrong.
Again I am not expecting this to convince anyone. But I am trying to demonstrate why others might think something different about Corbyn and why the poison on this issue has to stop. People are not “traitors” just because they think something different to you. It is quite possible for sensible, decent, principled people in our movement to come to different conclusions. And if we allow ourselves to ascribe only the basest motives to the people on the other side of the debate we are damning our party, and our movement to oblivion. That won’t help ordinary working people one jot.