Interview: Harriet Harman

The constitutional affairs minister warns colleagues that they can't be a "little bit against discri

Harriet Harman is a militant in the "lilac revolution". She has even coloured her new website lilac in preparation. Her campaign for Labour's deputy leadership is infused with what once would have been called political correctness, but has now entered the mainstream: the fight for women's equality, gay rights and anti-racism. "With Ségolène Royal in France, Hillary Clinton in America, the first woman president in Liberia, another woman in Chile, politics is changing for ever. The idea that you have men talking about equality for women, those days are gone. It's a very significant moment for somebody like me who fought for this and seeing people agree. The spirit of our times is equality," she says.

Harman uses the current Channel 4 race controversy to illustrate her point: "I think it is significant that 40,000 people rang in to complain about Celebrity Big Brother." She cites a Bangladeshi friend from east London who faced open hostility in the supermarket after the events of 9/11. "In that same supermarket now, she's got people coming up to her and apologising, saying: 'Actually we don't think that's all right.'"

That same spirit, she says, infuses a new public attitude to sexuality, which is why the government has introduced civil partnerships and rules to outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services. This has brought it into collision with the Catholic Church, which believes its adoption services should be able to deny children to gay couples. As the constitutional affairs minister responsible for the new regulations, Harman is resolute. She quashes talk of a compromise said to be backed by the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, a Catholic. "We will stay true to our commitment in tackling sexual discrimination in terms of sexual orientation," Harman says. She adds, in a tart rebuke to colleagues: "You can either be against discrimination or you can allow for it. You can't be a little bit against discrimination." She insists she would not budge on the regulations.

Whether the Labour Party is ready to be painted lilac is another matter. Harman has made gender a major issue in the election. She points to polling evidence that puts her well ahead of the other four (male) candidates with the public. (Other polls put Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn in the lead.) Harman knows from experience that elements of the party remain brutish. As social security secretary in Tony Blair's first cabinet she was undermined by colleagues and special advisers. The campaign culminated in the Prime Minister's decision to sack her in 1998. After a long period on the back benches, she returned to prominence as the first woman solicitor general after the 2001 election and in 2005 became a minister of state in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. If she succeeds in her latest battle, it will mark one of the most remarkable comebacks of the new Labour era. She is still bruised by the experience. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody. I don't want to sound like one of those people in Hello! magazine," she says, "but you do learn when you get a knock back."

Apart from the equality agenda, the only other time Harman becomes passionate is about spin. "I did think it was important to be disciplined, loyal, unfragmented and clear [at the beginning]. But I've always found spin abhorrent, because it's duplicitous. It's like pulling the wool over people's eyes. It's wrong in principle and it's also wrong because people end up not trusting you."

For all this condemnation, however, for all this talk of a new openness, Harman often comes across as cautious and wooden. Time and again we ask her to say what she really thinks, to say what she and Gordon Brown would actually do - you never know, to take some risks. When we raise, in passing, the strong media coverage Peter Hain received for his interview with us last week, Harman's body language suggests a combination of disdain and possibly fear. On those big issues about which Hain spoke with such frankness, she is all evasiveness: yes, the Bush administration is not quite her cup of tea, but let's talk about the Democrats; yes, it was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but parliament voted for war in Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction . . .

Her own plan

Like Hain, Harman has a four-point plan of her own - her "four points for a fourth term". These focus on public trust, which she concedes has been undermined by the fallout from Iraq and the "cash for honours" scandal. Everyone in Labour, she says, should focus on the following imperatives: never to take for granted the government's achievements; to be sharper in the critique of the Conservatives; to push forward the policy debate; and to rebuild the party.

Only once or twice does she come close to outlining a policy agenda. She believes, for example, that working parents should be allowed to work more flexible hours to avoid "shift parenting". At present, employers are obliged to consider proposals for flexible working arrangements but not obliged to act on them. "You could shift the onus of proof on to the employer to say why they couldn't do it," she suggests. "With the Factory Acts we didn't exhort mill owners to stop employing children, we legislated against it. Because we didn't agree with poverty pay we didn't exhort employers not to pay below a certain level. I don't think you should pass laws unless they are necessary but if they are necessary we shouldn't shrink away from them because there's a big social imperative here." She hastens to add that this is not a policy commitment.

She talks earnestly about the culture of "remittances", whereby immigrants in Britain send money back to their families in their country of origin. "They work often in two or three jobs. They work incredibly hard, they're low-paid, they pay their taxes, they bring up their children and they are the welfare state for their village in Africa." Harman points to the injustice of such poor people paying what are in effect development grants out of taxed income with large charges for international money transfers on top. So does this mean she is proposing some sort of tax relief for them? "Well, I'm not going to say anything about that, no."

On Labour's human-rights record she is similarly hesitant. As a former head of the National Council for Civil Liberties, the forerunner of today's Liberty, she might be expected to have concerns about her government's draconian anti-terrorism legislation, antisocial behaviour legislation or proposed limits to the Freedom of Information Act. Her response is off-the-shelf new Labour. It comes down to the Human Rights Act. "The government has got a responsibility to keep people safe, but we have put the mechanisms in to make sure that if the government does overstep the mark and parliament oversteps the mark by agreeing to something that the government has put forward, then there is a remedy. So I think we have the right checks and balances." The rationale strikes us as bizarre. In effect, ministers are under no obligation to calibrate their actions against the civil-liberties consequences, because the Human Rights Act is there to do it for them. But what about the immediate effect of state actions, and the ethics?

No criticism

Where she does depart from the government line (or rather the Blairite line), is over the issue of the cash-for-honours scandal and its implication for the future of party funding. Harman's husband, Jack Dromey, is deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He also happens to be the Labour Party treasurer and the man who blew the lid on the secret system of loans set up by Blair's inner circle in advance of the 2005 election, so it is perhaps not surprising that she has strong feelings on the subject. Harman does not join some of her cabinet colleagues in condemning the police approach to the criminal investigation, particularly its dawn knock on the door to Blair's senior aide Ruth Turner. "I think the police have to go about their investigation as they see fit," she says. "They've got to be fair in how they treat people, and whatever the circumstances people have, they've got to deal with them equally. The police have their job to do and they've got to do it. That's what everyone would expect them to do. That's very important."

As for the scandal itself: "I think it has undermined public confidence and trust, and it has dismayed party members. Tony Blair did say that he took the view that it was wrong that the party wasn't told and I think he was right to say that." She supports changes to the law to make future loans disclosable, but is adamant that any cap on future donations should not apply to the trade unions. "I can't understand why some people purport not to be able to tell the difference between 800,000 members of the Transport and General Workers' Union and one millionaire," she says.

The union link, she suggests, should not be loosened further, as some around Blair suggest, but enhanced. "We need to make sure that we work with the trade unions to make sure that more branches are affiliated to local Labour parties. Obviously unions are very important at election time, not just with financial donations, but with people coming out and helping. But actually we need to make it a living link."

In many ways Harriet Harman is the obvious foil to Gordon Brown, not just because she is a woman, but because of other qualities she would bring to the job, such as her record on family issues and the sympathy she has with party members and the wider public. Her lilac revolution indeed chimes with the spirit of the times, as David Cameron has been so quick to realise. But in order for her to reach the political pinnacle she seeks, she needs to be as assertive as she would wish other women to be.

Harriet Harman: The CV

Born 30 July 1950, London
1974 Employed as a solicitor at Brent Law Centre
1981 Found guilty of contempt for disclosing Home Office documents exposing prison "control units". Later cleared
1982 Elected MP, one of only ten Labour women in the Commons
1984 Appointed to Labour's front bench. Succession of posts over next decade
1996 Attracts criticism from Labour ranks for sending her children to selective state schools
1997 Appointed secretary of state for social security and minister for women
1998 Abruptly sacked in Blair's first reshuffle following high-profile disputes with fellow minister Frank Field
2001 Appointed solicitor general, the first woman to hold the title
March 2004 Describes Gordon Brown as prime minister on BBC's Question Time
2005 Appointed minister for justice at the Department for Constitutional Affairs
March 2006 Her husband, Jack Dromey, Labour's treasurer, says he is kept in the dark about loans. Harman gives up ministerial responsibility for party funding to avoid conflict of interest
September 2006 Announces bid to run for Labour deputy leadership
Research by Sophie Pearce

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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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