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“No We Can”: the inside story of the No to AV campaign

No to AV scored a commanding win on 5 May, yet its early days were a muddle of partisan chaos. Dan H

My first day in defence of Britain's voting system wasn't a good one. An opinion poll had just been published showing double-digit support for changing to the Alternative Vote. Then I had been called in to a meeting where I'd been told our opponents were likely to outspend us by a margin of 3-1.

"You think you've got it bad," said one of my new colleagues. "On my first day someone walked over and said, 'Just to let you know, our Scottish organiser's just died.' "

I had joined a campaign, if not in crisis, then in a quandary. No to AV may have been one organisation but it consisted of a Tory head and a Labour heart. Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance was its director. Joan Ryan, the former Blairite minister and whip, was Elliott's putative deputy.

Labour was split, caught between a desire to oppose anything that could entail sharing power – or even a platform – with Nick Clegg, and a less instinctive desire to support Ed Milband's commitment to electoral reform. This left the No camp reliant on the Conservatives to provide the big battalions and big money.

But come the new year, neither had materialised. David Cameron was determined to stick to the terms of the coalition agreement and would not allow his party to engage with the No camp until the Referendum Bill had been passed. "We couldn't sign off budgets, which meant we couldn't buy ad space and that meant we couldn't even formally launch," one insider recalls.

Big sticks and fires

Things came to a head in the second week of January when Dylan Sharpe, the No team's wily head of press, reported that Gordon Brown's old spin doctor Paul Sinclair had begun touring the parliamentary Press Gallery every day, reinforcing the impression that the Yes campaign was running away with the contest. Sharpe later confided in colleagues that he concocted the story in order to "light a fire" under the campaign. It worked.

Peter Botting, a veteran political consultant with extensive contacts among Conservative backbenchers, was despatched to spread the word in the bars and corridors of parliament that the high command weren't pulling their weight. "It was a dangerous time for us," says a senior Tory activist, recalling that time. "We were getting dragged into the internal politics of the party.

"The usual suspects who had it in for Cameron were going to use us a big stick to beat him with."

Within a week, a delegation led by the 1922 Committee chairman, Graham Brady, was confronting David Cameron and George Osborne. According to one report of the encounter, Cameron was told: "You do realise there is now a serious prospect you could have the distinction of being the last ever Conservative prime minister?" Later, Cameron asked Osborne, "It's not that bad, is it?" "Yes, I think it is," the Chancellor replied.

From that point, though the public message was one of studied neutrality, behind the scenes the Conservatives began to embrace the No camp. Funders were pointed towards the campaign, weekly meetings were established between leading No staffers, and the PM called Elliott in for a briefing on the state of play.

Nevertheless, tensions remained. Though ultimately successful, the relationship between the two senior No campaign managers wasn't always harmonious. Partly that had to do with their respective backgrounds. Joan Ryan is a streetfighter, used to the bare-knuckle politics of the whips' office. Elliott, though caricatured by his opponents as a ruthless Thatcherite wolf, is a quiet, reserved, even slightly shy English gentleman; a strange cross between Norman Tebbit and David Niven.

Out of this disconnect, two campaigns were now operating.The Labour team was put in charge of the "ground war", mobilising activists around the country. The Tories were supposedly running the "air war", the messaging, media and advertising. In reality, neither was in full control of either.

"It was a mess," recalls an activist. "Someone sat down to talk us through the 'media grid'. It started with Churchill's birthday. Fine. Next was Australia Day. We had a line about Australia and Fiji, so we nodded. Then the Queen's birthday. This wasn't a media grid, it was just a calendar."

Moreover, each side had its own ad agency, pollster and designer. The Tories employed Boris Johnson's former campaign manager Lynton Crosby to run focus groups. Labour staffers were sceptical when Crosby's results indicated an implausibly high turnout. Meanwhile, Tory campaigners were suspicious of Labour's marketing agency, responsible for a series of leaflets. "Tory associations were refusing to deliver them," says an activist.

Toxic shock

Drastic measures were required. Ryan grabbed a senior team member and pointed to the dividing wall that separated the two halves of the campaign. "Get a sledgehammer," she said. "That wall's got to be down by the weekend." As it fell, the "Shotgun Strategy" was born: a twin assault on the Cost and Clegg.

The former was simple. I asked the campaign's researcher Piotr Brzezinski how long it would take to finish putting a price tag on the new voting system. "Three weeks," he responded. "Sorry," I said, "it's like that film Crimson Tide. We haven't got three weeks. We have to have that figure by Friday or the world ends." We got it.

The Clegg attack was more problematic. Ryan insisted that we should push the slogan "Tell Nick No"; Elliott thought it too negative. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote at the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election on 13 January made it clear that Clegg was toxic, but the Tories remained cautious.

"Clegg was putting pressure on Cameron to stay out of the debate," says a senior Tory. "After Oldham [Cameron] was sensitive to that. He didn't want to start kicking Clegg when he was down." Conservative HQ sent word that Clegg was not to be touched. But "the key [to winning] was Labour voters. No Clegg, no way of mobilising them," says a Labour campaigner.

It took Stephen Parkinson, the main Conservative linkman in the campaign, to march into CCHQ at Millbank and explain that, without the freedom to attack Clegg, No to AV was over and he would walk. "It was an important moment," says an insider. "People at CCHQ didn't think much of the No campaign, but they respected Stephen. When he started banging the table they had to listen."

CCHQ relented. On 14 February the No campaign formally launched, using images of a baby and with the slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility not a new voting system"; "Don't vote for President Clegg" soon followed.

"The £250m figure gave the campaign a bit of focus and stopped the slide in the polls," says a senior insider. "But even in February, the media weren't that interested in the issue. We needed to find a way of getting it more exposure."

At that point fate took a hand. While preparing a series of regional ads, I failed to notice that one of the standard "baby pictures" had been changed to fit the format of the page. The replacement image was much more graphic, with tubes, wires and syringes.

"Yes pounced, the pro-AV press slaughtered us and CCHQ hit the roof. But the [£250m] figure went global," a former colleague recalls. The move had one unintended consequence: it drew fire away from the attacks on Clegg. "Yes was after the £250m figure precisely when we were moving off and starting to go for Clegg," another insider says.

Flip a light switch

With less than four weeks to go until polling day, Downing Street informed us that Cameron was planning a new, high-profile intervention. Alarm bells sounded among the Labour team. Ian McKenzie, a former spin doctor for John Prescott, warned Ryan that the lobby was being heavily briefed that No was a "Tory front". Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP who had skilfully shepherded over half of her erstwhile colleagues into the No camp, expressed unease at the potential impact of Cameron's proposed speech.

"The key to victory was Labour voters. They were effectively the switchers. If Yes managed to turn it into a referendum on Cameron, we were in trouble," notes a Labour staffer.

Ryan demanded a meeting with Elliott and one of Cameron's close aids, Stephen Gilbert. Sensitive to growing Lib Dem criticisms of collusion between No 10 and the No campaign, they decided to hold the meeting in a private room of the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel on the Albert Embankment. "Joan told Gilbert that Cameron had to back off," says a source. "The PM doesn't do backing off," came the response.

A compromise was reached: Cameron would speak, but together with a senior Labour, the former defence secretary John Reid. Labour voters got the message. The morning after Cameron and Reid's joint appearance, the Guardian published a poll showing that support for AV had collapsed. In effect, the 2011 referendum campaign was over.

Dan Hodges was a communications consultant for the No to AV campaign.

A version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman.

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge