Interview: Alan Johnson

The one-time postman became the Labour darling of the Tory press as he contemplated the top job. But

Alan Johnson greets me with a broad smile. It is not a fixed smile, one that denotes discomfort, but nor is it natural. It is a professional smile. We chat mischievously about the prospects of the other candidates, wondering out loud about which of the other four runners will get the required number of nominations to stand.

Tape on, I go straight into the issue of the moment - the treatment and behaviour of the nation's youth, following a Unicef report com paring the UK unfavourably with other nations, and the spate of gang killings in our inner cities. Johnson enters the caveat that some of the report's findings are based on old statistics. Fair enough, perhaps, but I still invite him to discuss the various concerns. Instead, he offers this: "What the report shows is the damage you can do with 18 years in power from the right, and what good you can do with long periods in office from a government that's determined to tackle it." Blame it all on Thatcher? "Theirs [the Tories'] is a disgraceful record," he retorts. "It would be really strange if we were suddenly to shut up about it when such a report is released."

Johnson talks passionately about the achievements of Sure Start children's centres. "All the things we're doing in education, from Sure Start to higher education and through to adult skills, is about closing the social class gap," he says. "Closing that gap has to start at a very young age because most analysis shows that usually it's at the age of 22 months that a bright kid from a working-class background starts declining vis- à-vis a less bright kid from a more affluent background." He cites data showing that literacy and num eracy standards have risen more rapidly at schools in deprived areas than elsewhere. "In terms of absolute poverty, 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. On relative poverty, it's much more difficult when everyone's income is rising . . . It's clear we're getting to the disadvantaged. Are we getting to the most disadvantaged? We need to do more work there."

It riles Johnson that the Conservatives are now talking about quality-of-life issues, with the ind ulgence of the media. He calls David Cameron's agenda "synthetic": only an Eton-educated Tory leader would see the world in this way. People on incapacity benefit and single mothers, Johnson says, "are almost knocking down our door to say, 'We want to get back into work.' I know it's become a mantra, but it's true that the best form of welfare is a job. Christ, we campaigned on that for donkey's years, from the foundation of the party through the Jarrow marches - the dignity of work and the obscenity of people being cast on the scrap heap."

We move on to drugs. Given the links bet ween gangs and drugs, should the approach change? "I don't know what more we can do on drugs policy," he replies. "I suppose we could stop a few party leaders smoking cannabis."

It might seem strange that a man who has a visceral loathing for the Conservatives looks chuffed when I remind him how right-wing newspapers wrote fawning pieces about him last autumn as the most likely "anyone-but-Gordon" candidate. It took Johnson a good two months, following the tension surrounding the so-called Brownite "coup" of September, to decide to stand only for the number-two job, thus removing the Blairites' last hopes of finding a credible rival to the Chancellor. I wondered if he had been in no hurry to disappoint them. "Why should I? I was getting some good coverage, lots of profiles, and nobody really knew what was going to come out of it anyway." Before the party conference, "there were all kinds of people throwing their hats in. I might have wanted to throw my hat in as well."

Why he is different

So what now is his pitch? What makes him different from the other candidates? Johnson says he likes them all. I suggest he ought not to be so bashful. "Modesty comes naturally to the working classes," he insists, and then says: "I could complement the leader; I've got experience; I could help us continue to win elections; I've got links in the trade-union movement; I've been in five different constituencies in my 35 years of party membership and I've been in government for eight years."

He plans an overhaul of party structures if he does win, and says he is setting up a commission led by the MP Shahid Malik. This will report back, before the official launch of the campaign, on a number of matters: the recruitment of new members, particularly wo m en and people from ethnic minorities; a strategy for marginal seats; a new structure, including the role of the party chair; an improved policy-making process; and strengthening links with the trade unions to ensure that the ties are as much emotional, social and to do with policy as they are financial. "We should use the leadership elections to renew the party and make sure it is in the best state possible to fight the next general election. I've got my own ideas, but I also want to listen to ordinary members to get their thoughts."

What about policies? Which areas are ripe for change? "I think we have a very good record. We have an excellent record." No mistakes at all? "Well, I don't think there have been any huge mistakes. By and large, we've played it well, over the past ten years." I suggest that voters, and Labour members, have moved on from 1997 and politicians reading from scripts. They tend nowadays to appreciate a little openness, and perhaps the lack of it is harming the party's performance at the polls. "I think we're in very good nick in the polls," he says. This is on the eve of one survey putting Labour support at a 14-year low.

Undeterred, he suggests that public displays of candour are not in the party's best interests. "If you're going to have an election as leader, then it's the opportunity for your political enemies - as we found out when Charles [Clarke] said the things he said about Gordon - to mark down what candidates say about each other. You have to be absolutely sure that there is an appetite for this and I don't think there is an appetite for a contest. You certainly don't have a contest for the sake of it. There's nothing wrong with coronations."

He launches a swipe at Peter Hain and others. "You can go for the cheers and applause of your members, and even your ex-members, but the British public are watching. It's totally different if your party is in government, so there's no case for picking over the past ten years, where we went right and where we went wrong." Really? "Well, we could have this debate. What difference would this debate make to somebody on a good income, in a good career? Probably it doesn't make any difference to some of your readers. It doesn't make any difference to you, probably. It makes an awful lot of difference to the people I represent. It makes an awful lot of difference to people from my kind of background."

Middle-class lefties, in other words, indulge in criticising Labour because ultimately, they do not care if it loses. That, one might say, is a moot point. As newspaper clippings love to point out, Johnson was orphaned at the age of 12 and was then raised by his elder sister. He married at 17 and by the time he was 20 he had three children. He left school with no qualifications and became a postman. "I raised three kids on a council estate in Slough. My foreground, my background, my hinterland, are all working-class. I'm not on the dinner-party circuit in Islington."

Money talks

Johnson was one of new Labour's first modernisers, and the only senior trade-union leader to back Blair's scrapping of Clause Four in 1994. One of the party's achievements, he says, has been to combine the needs of "aspirants" with the less advantaged. He recalls canvassing in the 1983 election in his home area of Slough. "The people on this estate felt that Thatcher had given them an opportunity to buy their own council houses. And we were still in theoretical discussions endlessly about Nicaragua and Cuba."

It is only when we talk about City bonuses and other business practices that Johnson concedes that all might not be perfect in the new Labour garden. Last year, the private equity company Permira bought Unilever's UK and European frozen-food business. A few days later, it cut the pension provision for workers at the Birds Eye plant in Johnson's Hull constituency, and promptly closed the factory down. The GMB has been mounting a vocal campaign against Permira to draw attention to its "asset stripping".

Johnson is keen to support the union. "I don't know what you can do to deter this, but it's good that there's a focus on this. It's also good that the GMB is focusing on what's happening with hedge funds and what's happening with private equity companies: that's absolutely right. It ought to be a subject for debate."

He concedes that Unilever "probably would have closed the plant anyway" if it had remained the owner, but talks of a duty of care to employees, which costs money. "You were dealing with an employer that had a feel for the community and that had good employment relations and dealt properly with its trade unions. One of the reasons they [Permira] sold Birds Eye off was because they couldn't face up to the decisions they needed to take. They ducked out of them." Johnson says politicians should exercise caution. "If you get it wrong you just find the same things are happening but you've damaged an important part of the economy." Still, by backing the GMB campaign, he is hoping to change the mood in the country, and put pressure on such companies. "It's public opinion that changed people's attitudes to treating employees properly."

As Johnson lets himself be a little more candid, impressions of him improve. My colleague Martin Bright and I have now seen all five declared candidates. (We are waiting for Hazel Blears to declare.) Some have used the opportunity for grandstanding and headline-grabbing. Others exercised caution and were defensive. Dispiritingly absent so far has been vigorous debate on the way ahead. There is still time. But if a party in government for a decade closes in on itself during its deputy leadership contest, and avoids a meaningful contest for leader, it will have only itself to blame for reverses in the polls.

Alan Johnson: the CV

Born 17 May 1950, London
1962 Orphaned at 12, he is raised by his elder sister in a council flat
1968 Becomes a postman. Joins Union of Communication Workers. The following year, moves to Slough
1992 Aged 41, becomes youngest general secretary in history of the UCW
1994 Only senior union leader to back abolition of Clause Four
May 1997 Elected MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. Becomes parliamentary private secretary to Dawn Primarolo at the Treasury
July 1999 Appointed minister for competitiveness, Department of Trade and Industry
2000 His proudest achievement: Trawlermen's Compensation Scheme, providing £46m for those who lost their jobs after the cod wars
June 2001 Minister of state for employment and the regions
June 2003 Minister for higher and further education
September 2004 Joins cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
May 2005 Appointed Trade and Industry Secretary
May 2006 Reshuffled again, becomes Education Secretary
June 2006 Says the idea of him becoming prime minister is like "putting the Beagle on to Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure"
November 2006 Launches deputy leadership campaign
Research by Sophie Pearce

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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