Labour's policy ideas are pointless if the public just isn't listening

Miliband must address deeper public grievances if banking, benefits and other reforms Labour announces this month are to even get a hearing.

“I don’t know who that is,” says a young man on Tottenham Court Road when I ask about Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, I say as he waits impatiently at a bus stop. “Oh - yeah, I’ll probably vote Labour,” he replies, leaping onto a bus before I can catch his name.

Announcing policies is worth little if nobody is listening. Round the corner at University College London (UCL), Miliband had just given a major speech on his plans to shake up the banking market. Labour’s biggest challenge for 2014 may be less a matter of winning the arguments than convincing the electorate that its arguments are worth listening to. It cannot be confident of winning an election on the votes of people who cannot name its leader.

The responses of passers-by to Miliband’s speech on Friday suggest he must deal with profound public grievances over broken promises, immigration and uninspiring leadership before he can win support for new ideas. Especially when the ideas are about subjects as unsexy as the bank lending market.

Charmain Stanley, a jobseeker trying to set up a juice bar, may benefit from banking reform but thinks little of Miliband.

“Getting funding for it is an absolute nightmare. I’ve got a business proposal, I’m passionate and I’ve done my research but banks aren’t willing to fund me coming off benefits,” says Charmain, a former waitress.

“I don’t like Miliband as such, but maybe more competition would make banks help a lot of people out there like me who are trying to get ideas off the ground and get off benefits," she says. Why does she dislike Miliband? “He’s not very honest - though I tend to rank them all the same. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in politics. It’s why I don’t vote. But if they stuck to their word, I’d happily vote, and encourage other people too as well.”

Mark Toovey, a retired engineer, is not convinced Miliband’s proposal will work.

“I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference, to tell the truth. There’s quite a few banks out there anyway, and a new one, Metro,” he says, pointing to HSBC and NatWest branches along the street.

He is more impressed by the Labour leader’s cost-of-living agenda, but shares Charmaine’s deep mistrust of politicians. “Capping energy prices – that’s a good idea. But whoever’s in opposition, they’re always saying we’re going to cap and cut this or that. It’s just a ploy to get your vote, isn’t it? They don’t mean it.” Can Labour do anything to gain his support? “No.  I don’t like Miliband. Labour let too many people into the country.”

 Paul Belisle, a demolition worker from Newcastle, is also more concerned by immigration.

“Miliband’s just another w***, like the rest of them,” he says bitterly. “Look at the state the country’s in now. We can’t accommodate all these foreigners – I don’t mind the culture, but wages are getting lower and lower, all the time. They work for next to nothing, and it starts to affect us.” Such anger suggests Labour have some way to go in convincing the public they are sorry for past mistakes, and serious about dealing with them.

“It doesn’t interest me,” Paul says of Miliband’s new banking policy. “I don’t vote, or pay a great deal of attention.” Could anything persuade him to vote? “Well there is one thing. Throw all the foreigners out. None of the politicians have done enough.”

Students Isaac Qureshi and Lizzy Hughes think the policy is ridiculous, and the Labour leader even more so.

“People would rather Miliband sorted out the pickle the big banks are in, rather than creating more smaller banks,” says Isaac, a languages student at UCL. ”I don’t think anyone really gives a monkeys what he says, especially a speech on the fine details. He’s a bit of a laughing stock to be honest, and he’s too non-descript to hold your attention.”

 Lizzy adds: “When someone mentions Cameron, it’s usually with a negative or positive opinion. But at least it’s an opinion. I actually can’t remember what Miliband looks like.”

Isaac and Lizzy look back blankly when I ask what they make of Labour’s cost-of-living agenda. Had they heard about plans to cap energy prices? Both of them shake their heads. Fewer than 500 metres away, Miliband won a standing ovation as he rounded off his speech. “We can only do better if the conversation in politics catches up with our country,” he had told the loyal Labour crowd. Better get running then, Ed.

Ed Miliband outlines policies for banking reform in his speech last week at the University of London. Photograph: Getty Images
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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