How 'optimism' might start to wear thin for Labour

Amid lacklustre support and waning poll leads, the scale of the challenge for Ed Miliband is clear.

In his New Year message, released today, Ed Miliband says that his party's mission in 2012 is "to show politics can make a difference. To demonstrate that optimism can defeat despair."

Optimism might be exactly what the Labour Party needs, given the scale of the challenge they face. The Times (£) today reports that the party's much-vaunted "registered supporters" scheme has got off to a slow start. The plan, aimed at widening Labour's support base, allows people to indicate support for the party without parting with any money. Announced with great fanfare at the Labour conference in September, Miliband and Peter Hain said they were aiming for 50,000 registered supporters. So far there are only 500.

Hain has downplayed the slow start, saying that they have until the next party conference in September to achieve the target. But it is dispiriting news, particularly coming off the back of a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this week which found -- yet again -- that Labour is struggling to convince voters to trust them on the economy. Forty-four per cent of respondents rated David Cameron and George Osborne as better placed to "manage the economy properly", compared with just 23 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls. The Tory lead has doubled since ICM's October poll.

This news is hardly surprising: it reiterates the findings of more or less every poll since the election. As my colleague Rafael Behr reports in this week's New Statesman, this stasis is taking its toll on morale:

The mood among opposition MPs hovers between frustration and despair. The economy is stagnant, unemployment is rising, living standards are falling and the government's plans are a palimpsest of rewritten targets and faulty forecasts. Yet Ed Miliband still fails to land blows on the Prime Minister or persuade voters that he would do the job better. The Labour leader's defence is that the defeat of 2010 is still too recent, making it unreasonable to expect a sudden renaissance. The plan so far has been to describe what is wrong with British capitalism (it is unfair) and then assemble an alternative vision (a work in progress), ready for the moment when the voters are ready to listen.

'Establishing economic credibility' has long been the vague aim, but how exactly can this be achieved? One set of suggestions has been published today, coinciding with Miliband's New Year message.

In a pamphlet for the Policy Network think tank, the shadow pensions minister, Gregg McClymont, and the Oxford historian, Ben Jackson, argue that Labour must avoid falling into the "tax and spend" trap:

Labour can sidestep the electoral trap being sprung by the Conservatives by refusing to be driven back to its core support. A patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards, not a simple defence of the public sector and public spending, is crucial to foiling Conservative attempts to render Labour the party of a sectional minority.

Drawing on the 1930s and 1980s, both decades in which the Tories won elections despite severe economic hardship, the pamphlet argues that these successes depended on painting Labour as "profligate" and "incompetent", and being able to deliver just enough prosperity to retain support.

Writing in the Guardian, the report's authors endorse Miliband's emphasis on the "squeezed middle" and the need for a new growth model as "the right political judgement".

That may be, but "optimism" inside Labour will be running out if this judgement does not start to translate into a tangible measure of success -- increased support and stronger poll leads. The pressure is on for 2012.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times