How the left went west

You thought Islington was the new Labour heartland? Wrong. Giles Corenexplains the lure of Notting H

On the day in 1997 that new Labour announced a clampdown on road tax evaders, and ceremoniously pulped an offending vehicle before an invited press audience, Philip Delves Broughton, then a young diarist on the Times and resident of Notting Hill's exclusive Northumberland Place, stepped out into the bright morning.

Turning right, and heading towards the Tube station, he passed the front door of the then Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, his next-door-neighbour-but-one. Glancing at Mandelson's green Rover, he noticed, to his delight, that the tax disc had expired. Naturally enough, he wrote the story up and it appeared next morning in the Times.

"About six o'clock," he recalled to me last week, "I got a phone call at work from Mandelson, who was standing on a train platform with Derek Draper and Robert Harris, saying that he was appalled by the story. He asked me if I thought it was neighbourly behaviour. He clearly felt that his Notting Hill address entitled him to special treatment from the press."

But now the west London home that Mandelson apparently saw as a force field has become the very hubristic flaw that brought about his fall. Notting Hill, like Excalibur, is the ally only of he who has truly earned it and understands its mystical power.

In the aftermath of Notting Hillgate - as the scandal has come to be known - the most shocking revelation for the general public was that Mandelson lived in west, rather than north, London. Those who had been led to believe that N1 was the political postcode of the decade were left goggle-eyed by talk of W2. And the question left quivering on a million lips was: whatever happened to Islington person?

As a feature writer on the Times whose career began only weeks before the death of John Smith, I spent most of 1994 in Islington. I was sent to Granita the night after what the paper called "The Night of the Long Fishknives" to find out what it was about the Upper Street restaurant that had led Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to play out their power struggle on its stripped pine floorboards. Glenda Jackson was in there, and Judi Dench. Islington, they said, was the centre of new Labour power. And it all seemed so right.

But did new Labour fit in? I was sent to Barnsbury Square dressed in Victorian clothes with a troupe of carol singers from St Bride's to see how much the Blairs would give compared to the rest of the street. It took a harassed-looking Cherie some time to open the door. Surrounded by children, she seemed incredibly relieved to discover that we were only carol singers and not journalists. She gave a pound. Most of the rest of the street had given a fiver. I felt terrible, and told my editor there had been nobody at home.

Now fashion, like new Labour, has moved on. While the foot soldiers of the revolution - the Chris Smiths, Harriet Harmans, Geoff Mulgans and Alan Rusbridgers - are still in Islington, the key figures in the government's maturity are being gobbled into the gravitational pull of the Westway. Was Islington a mere staging post? Can we reasonably characterise it as the Damascene spot where old Labour paused on its route down from the grimy North, learnt its focaccia from its Ferragamo and practised a few new vowel sounds before its final push on the seat of privilege?

It is true that very few of our elected representatives, on their £45,066 a year, can afford an area that is now, in pounds per square foot, more expensive than Chelsea. But what has happened is that, ensconced in office, the Labour Party has turned towards the new establishment (better off, in fact, than the old Knightsbridge Tories) to keep up momentum. Lord Jenkins is crucial to Blair's ideological life, but Roy's neighbour in Kensington Park Gardens, Elisabeth Murdoch, will be of more long-term use to the party. And they both live on the all-important south side of the street. Anyone who is anyone backs on to Ladbroke Square, darling.

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, the 26-year-old special adviser credited with overhauling the Mandelson image, must have been delighted when his boss moved in. Round the corner in Palace Gardens Terrace, Wegg-Prosser is just the sort of dyed-in-the-wool Notting Hillbilly (or should that be Notting Hilltony?) on whom the future of the party looks to depend.

Matthew Freud, the young head of Freud Communications and central to the Dome project, recently bought a £2.5 million house round the corner in Ladbroke Road, before moving out when his relationship with his neighbour Elisabeth Murdoch became public. She it may have been who pointed Mandelson towards Lambton Place Health Club, where he is often seen on the treadmill chatting to Lady Antonia Fraser. She and her husband, Harold Pinter, new Labour's greatest literary grandee, live two minutes up the road in Campden Hill Square. Blair's favourite huntsman, John Mortimer, is but a "view-halloo" away. Also in Notting Hill, you will find Lord Hollick, Blairite proprietor of the Express, and David Sainsbury, generous new Labour donor.

When the sacked minister David Clark blamed the loss of his job on being "out of the loop" and "not part of the London social scene", complaining that as an outsider "you don't make the contacts, you are not invited to the soirees, the coffee mornings, the dinner parties", he presumably had in mind Carla Powell. She, since becoming friends with Mandelson, has become the first "society hostess" for some time to enter the sphere of political influence. She lives in Caroline Place, but a short trot down Queensway from Newton Road, where the columnist Paul Johnson, a Blair confidante, seems also to be making a comeback.

The Express editor, Rosie Boycott, in Chepstow Road, has her part to play. Michael Jackson of Channel 4 and John Birt are among the other on-message media mandarins in the heart of Trustafaria.

There are red herrings, too: it is said that Peter Mandelson offered to babysit for his neighbour Princess Charlotte of Luxembourg, a power alliance that is probably not too threatening. Norman Lamont can be found in Kensington Park Road, but then he surely bears as much responsibility as any Millbank spin-doctor for getting new Labour into power. It's more difficult to fit in Tony Benn, who has lived in the area for years. It is not impossible to imagine the Prime Minister strolling down Westbourne Grove on a Sunday morning on his way to chat to Lord Jenkins about the Third Way, waving merrily to the gawping Okay Yardies, only to spot Benn coming back from the newsagent, and having to dart into Cafi 206 to hide behind Mariella Frostrup.

Perhaps there is a natural affinity between Labour and Notting Hill. For years after the war it was the working class, the poor and the ethnic minorities who made it what it was. By the 1980s, however, the property boom caused an identity crisis to set in, leading to some years in the wilderness. From the early 1990s, however, money was embraced wholeheartedly, and the area is now dominated by right-thinking but style-silly media slaves. They may have gone to public school, but they pay lip service to the ideals of cultural diversity and salt-of-the-earth rootsiness they believe their postcode upholds.

All this could so easily have been old hat by now. In November 1995 the Evening Standard revealed that the Blairs had employed a "looker" to find them a "suitable residence in west London". They were forsaking the wilds of Islington, it was revealed, for this "paradise for upmarket lefties". It was only the events of May 1997, then, that kept them out of Notting Hill. But for one small landslide Tony might have had an address to be really proud of.

It is still his dream. If you ask him where he would most like to be living in five years' time, he will say "No 10". Watch his eyes very carefully and say, "is that on the north side of Kensington Park Gardens or the south?"

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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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