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Andrew Marr: Why the pundits got it wrong - and what the parties should do next

As the media try to make sense of the 2015 general election, Andrew Marr explains why predictions were so far off the mark.

As we try to sift the meanings of the 2015 general election, it’s worth beginning with a fundamental but far too little-discussed problem for political journalism: how the hell do we know what we think we know? What value – if any – do commentators, set apart from the professional politicians, actually bring? It’s not surprising that most of the time we commentators don’t like to talk about this. This spring, we really must.

I pick up my information from four sources, I realise, all of them suspect. The first is the politicians; during this campaign I spoke regularly to the parties, and to old friends across the political spectrum. The party HQs proved to be either deluded, or lying: I was told again and again by Labour that its ground operation was superb and its numbers, particularly in the north-west of England and the Midlands (where the party was slaughtered) were very strong indeed. The Liberal Democrats assured me that Tory talk of destroying them in the English south-west was malicious and ridiculous. (Plainly, it wasn’t.) The Tories said they were doing fine, you know, fine-ish, but never sounded hugely confident.

So much for going to the top. More useful were politicians from all sides I’ve known for years. A series of experienced Labour people sounded pretty wobbly – I should have spent more time thinking about that and less about the messages from the centre. Some Conservative MPs, notably George Osborne, seemed much more confident than Cameron HQ.

The second source, and one that dominated everybody’s day-to-day thinking, was the polling. The pollsters didn’t get everything wrong: they picked up the huge Scottish story. Then again, anybody who stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and bought a latte would have picked that up. But they were massively out on the main story. My deep frustration is that this tilted the whole conversation about politics – the reporting, and therefore the pressure the reporting placed on the politicians. To be specific, if we had known how close the Liberal Democrats were coming to wipeout, there might have been speculation about what that would mean. Everybody ignored this. Had we known how badly Labour was doing, there would have been much more pressure on Ed Miliband over his main economic message. There wasn’t nearly enough.

My third main source was the rest of the commentariat, this time including the self-appointed commentariat of Twitter. That’s a big range of voices. But during an election campaign, people retreat into their ideological bunkers. There are some who ask pene­trating questions, keep their heads tilted sceptically, and are worth following, but by and large journalists listening to other journalists only produces an echo chamber of lazy, received opinion, big on the volume, an ear-splitting background noise.

This leads me to the final source of information, always ridiculed and yet the one that proved most accurate and that I wish I had spent more time attending to – anecdote and random conversation. That is plainly dangerous: we are all prisoners of our own geographical and class location, however much we think we are in the swim. One of the advantages of having a televised face and jug ears, however, is that people come up to you the whole time and tell you, unprompted and unstoppably, what they think. As I was doing my daily walk to the shops, or sidling off to my local for a pint of IPA, I was buttonholed again and again.

What people wanted to say, in my part of London, could be broken down into two big themes. First, they hated the idea of a minority Labour government backed by the SNP. Almost immediately that this became a leading Tory theme, I was picking it up on the street. After the first two weeks of a Tory campaign focused on the economy generally and the uselessness of Ed Miliband, and which seemed to me to have been from their point of view wasted time, plainly the Conservatives had found something that was cutting through.

The second theme was that Labour apparently “hated” the self-employed, people running or working in small businesses, and anyone who’d had any kind of success. I’m going to come back to this, but it struck me at the time. A painter and decorator, for instance, who employs half a dozen others, walked across the street to say: “I can’t vote Labour. I work bloody hard. I’m the kind of person they despise . . .” As with the anti-SNP reaction, you ignore a single comment but when you hear the same kind of thing dozens of times, you know that something is going on.

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Now this isn’t the complete sum total of what was going on in my head during the campaign. I’ve been covering these things since 1983, and echoes of John Major in 1992 reverberated. But note that, compared to his open and confrontational street oratory back then, in among the jeering, the leaders this time were sanitised and surrounded by pre-selected audiences. Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, put himself through it in Scotland; but apart from that, it seems to me that all the money spent by the broadcasters and newspapers on sending their correspondents to join Cameron, Miliband and Clegg on their bus tours was wasted. No election is just like any other. Having been around for a long time is no guarantee of wisdom.

Other sources will be more respected next time. The betting market wasn’t great – money was pouring on to Ed Miliband right at the last minute, by which time he’d already lost – but the gilt markets seemed to know what was going on. Number crunchers using historical voting data did pretty well. And intriguingly, those in the parties who had scanned postal voting returns were also in on the secret.

Finally, I’ve interviewed many dozens of politicians many times. I ought, therefore, to know where their weaknesses are – though that doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing what the public thinks. But if there is a logical problem obvious to me, presumably it is obvious to millions of ­other people. The ever more glazed and convoluted attempts by the two Eds to avoid saying that they had overspent while in office is a good example.

There was a perfectly rational way of dealing with this. They could have said: “Look, the overspending was relatively minor in historic terms and was supported by almost everybody at the time. And be very careful of describing the building of new hospitals, schools and nurseries as ‘profligate’ or ‘waste’: our alleged overspending has given Britain places where children are currently learning and their grandparents are having heart operations. It’s not like blowing too much money on your credit card in B&Q.

“At the time, none of us knew – not you, not the government, not David Cameron or George Osborne – that an obscure housing crisis in Middle America was going to bring down the entire banking system.”

They could have said that. They didn’t.

Why not? Because, had they engaged in the conversation seriously, they would have had to go on to say something like: “However, given what we know now, do we wish we had spent a little less during the good times? Of course we do.” And, true or not, they thought that the Conservative media would have translated this into: “Ed admits, ‘Yes, the crash was our fault.’”

That seems to me to have been a huge tactical mistake on the Labour side. The party should have engaged in the argument, and made its case, not unreasonable, long before the proper election campaign started. As I have written here before, by allowing the Conservatives to set that narrative they handed David Cameron a huge weapon, which he used during April and May almost every day.

There were big mistakes on the Tory side, too, I thought. I was flabbergasted when Cameron and Osborne suddenly found a minimum of £8bn, and perhaps a lot more, for the NHS right at the last minute. It seemed to me to blow a hole in their “uncosted spending commitments” attack on Labour. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter, because voters presumably thought that ­Labour would always spend and borrow more than the Tories, whatever anybody said. Still, it was a heck of a risk.

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But the biggest issue that emerged during interviews was, as I found on the street, the SNP surge. I have been studying and writing about the Scottish National Party since I was in my twenties. I wish I had been back in Scotland much more, and earlier, but I’ve been up there quite a lot recently, working and visiting family. So I know that the SNP is not the Maoist threat Middle England cowers from. Among its new MPs are former Conservatives, business people, all types. It’s true that its new 110,000 membership contains many on the hard left who have made a lot of noise, but the party is a complex phenomenon.

Still, the “watch my lips, no deals” rebuttals by Ed Miliband were always going to be difficult. He might have ruled out a coalition and a formal confidence-and-supply arrangement, but the numbers dictated that a minority Labour government – the best he could hope for – would have to rely on SNP acquiescence at best week by week.

Now, I have no hard evidence for what follows, but I don’t believe that English ­voters’ hostility to an SNP-influenced outcome was anti-Scottish. I think it was the combination of the thought of a relatively weak government, which would have to negotiate its way through its programme, with the anti-Trident and anti-austerity messages of the SNP, that spooked much of Middle England.

Don’t forget that all the voters who do not want Trident, and were against austerity, weren’t up for grabs anyway: they were ­already committed, presumably, to Labour or the Green Party. So a Scottish National Party programme, crafted to appeal to Glasgow Govan and Dundee, didn’t go down so well with soft Tory voters and Liberal Democrats in Cirencester or the Peak District. Quelle surprise!

That, for me, was the story of this election campaign. Looking ahead, what lessons can we draw from it?

Living in London, I am very cautious about trying to predict what is going to happen in Scotland next. But the following things seem almost self-evident. First, to have any chance of revival, Scottish Labour has to separate itself from the party south of the border. It has to begin again, unionist but with its own head office; back to the party’s origins. This may not work, either. Second, in politics, winning brings new problems and winning big brings bigger new problems. Nicola Sturgeon now not only has to negotiate with somebody she never thought she’d have to deal with, and who has the authority of a big election win, she has to manage the enormous expectations of what looked like, in effect, a Scottish revolution. I couldn’t fit into her shoes in a million years; but I’m glad I don’t have to try.

As to the shattered English left, I go back first to all those conversations about Labour not being for “people like me”. Labour politics works when it is, in effect, an alliance between the bulk of people working in private companies, big and small, and those on the margins. Now, if Labour chooses to forget about people on benefits, those on poverty wages, and the huge inequities caused by a super-rich global class, then it ceases to have any purpose. But it simply can’t get itself into a position again where shopkeepers, tradesmen and all those who want to better themselves think Labour “hates” them.

I don’t suppose this was something that Ed Miliband or those around him ever set out to achieve. It was more about tone, and where they came from, and what their own instincts were. Britain is brimming with relatively affluent (or at least comfortable) non-socialists who have a strong sense of community and social altruism. They support homelessness projects run by churches, they back local campaigns, they spend spare income not on bigger cars but on Oxfam appeals. They are good people. They just happen to be outside the immediate reach of the state. Labour can sometimes give the impression that only those working in the public sector or those on benefits are virtuous and admirable. This is politically lethal.

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Is that more important, or less important, than confronting the “Blue Labour” questions of immigration, low pay and embattled trade unionism? I don’t know – but reaching out to the majority isn’t a luxury.

So, Labour has a cultural problem to resolve. It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It is vastly more important than who the next leader is. Over the next few years, we will see, I suspect, little real sign of a Labour advance in Scotland – the defeat is so profound that it will take many years to recover – while in England boundary changes further entrench the Conservatives. Unless Labour has the courage and imagination to reform itself completely, it has no chance of recovery.

Democracy is a pendulum. Not even the biggest and most unexpected victories last; in fact, they contain the seeds of the next defeat. Yet this assumes and requires that the defeated parties learn hard lessons. The Tories’ biggest problem ahead isn’t the EU referendum. It isn’t even the relationship between London and Scotland – federal Britain is taking shape before our eyes. No, it is their relationship with big money, the global financial system that remains unstable and often incompetent. David Cameron is a more sophisticated and flexible Tory leader than many understand. But I don’t see him trying to fix that problem, and that leaves Conservatism vulnerable.

Ought Labour and the Liberal Democrats to forget their differences and try to merge? Probably not: they have different philosophies and those differences matter. But it would be a good, useful and salutary thing for both of them to contemplate the possibility. A big election defeat ought to shatter old ways of thinking. It’s important not to waste a good defeat. I have spent the past few days doing two things – sleeping and worrying about how I do my job.

Defeated politicians, as well as humbled journalists, could do worse.

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is his novel, “Head of State” (Fourth Estate)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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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