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.
And why I hope it doesn’t happen.
I heard it said, and argued, that in UK the system we elect MPs rather than parties Governments or Prime Ministers and that therefore based on our constitutional arrangements there is no case for an early general election now that the Prime Minster is due to change based on the opinions of Conservative party members.
And technically this is quite right, in terms of our formal constitutional arrangements. But I’d argue firstly that our electoral system and system of government is a little more nuanced than that. Whilst we do in fact vote for individual MPs they are now branded on the ballot paper based on their Party allegiance and straight away this is moving in practice, if not in principle, from us voting for individual MPs rather than a party platform.
Increasingly, at least for General Elections if not actual government, the UK has been moving toward a more presidential system. Voters vote in a very large part based on the national parties, exemplified by the party leader. That isn’t to say local candidates don’t make a difference, they clearly do. But generally the shifts in voting behaviour from one GE to the next are broadly mirrored across the UK. Particularly popular and competent (or unpopular and incompetent) can and do buck national trends… But mostly they don’t.
The reality is that we do in a large part cast our votes based on the platform and personality outlined by the party leaders. In 2015 David Cameron was widely credited with pushing the Tories over the line to their very unexpected majority win in the general election. People voted Tory to make Cameron the PM based on the policy platform he was front and centre espousing.
Furthermore he specifically promised to serve a full term. When electors voted either for their local candidate, or the national conservative party they had a reasonable expectation that this would mean they would have Cameron as their PM broadly following the program of government he promised. And of course Cameron did have something to say on the topic of early elections after the PM changes himself…….
So regardless of the formal constitutional arrangements I think there is a strong argument that based on the reality of our democracy as practiced there where the PM changes a general election should be sought even in normal circumstances.
But we are not in normal circumstances. The reason there is a vacancy for the position of PM is because of the epochal, seismic decision in the referendum to vote to leave the EU. Something that is likely to result in the biggest constitutional, economic, legal and public policy changes that this country has seen in my lifetime.
New PM Theresa May is going to have to make far reaching decisions, about massively important issues, that will affect everyone in this land (and beyond) for decades. The very existence of the UK as a political entity is under threat depending on how the new PM acts.
And…. They are not going to have a mandate to do any of this (I’d argue that Cameron wouldn’t have either BTW). The ballot paper had a simple question on do with wish to remain a member of the EU or leave the EU. It gave no instruction as to what to do next. It didn’t allow us to say choose a preference for WTO rules or EEA rules. It didn’t ask about free movement of people. It didn’t ask what happens to UK law derived from EU law should it be scrapped or grandfathered until replaced. It didn’t let us know if Scotland could secede if they voted remain but the rUK voted leave. The people have *not* spoken on these issues, we have not had a say.
And our political parties have not got a mandate for these issues either. None of them fought the last general election explaining what they would do in the event the UK voted for leave (well I guess the SNP does so maybe I’ll let sturgeon off the hook).
How can any of them, especially a PM that no-one in the country other than the 300 or so Tory MPs, got to choose, claim a legitimate mandate for the specifics and the details of such a massive constitutional, economic and political change?
The referendum was a once in a generation things, the political fallout once we activate Article 50 and actually begin the process of leaving will be a once in a lifetime thing. It is simply unacceptable on a democratic level, a moral level and a practical level for this stuff to happen without the British public having some sort of say over how it is done, why it is done, where it is done and when it is done.
Our country deserves to have a say on how this happens, and who is doing it.
Now of course as a partisan Labourite I really don’t want to see a general election right now. It will be a disaster. I’m not sure what party finances are like having just fought a general election, I’d heard it was in a bad shape, though a learned colleague of mine Rob thinks I might have got that wrong…
But the state of the party is terrible. Whether you think that Corbyn needs to go or stay one thing is for sure the party is in disarray and there seems little likelihood that we’d even achieve the kind of support Ed Milband got if we went to the polls right now.
I have to be honest if I was Theresa May I’d be desperate, desperate to have a General Election, increase my majority, give myself a strong mandate, and probably bury the Labour Party for a decade at least.
Even though I think for the sake of democracy there absolutely should be a general election, selfishly I really hope there isn’t one at least until Labour have sorted our mess out.
I dread to think where the left will be if it is soon.