The rise and fall of New Labour

The architect of the Third Way argues that although the Blair-Brown years may not have been the new

The era of Labour hegemony is over. How should we assess its legacy? It is conventional these days to disparage Labour's record in government over the past 13 years. Even sympathetic observers argue that little of substance has been achieved. For the more determined critics, Labour in power - Labour as New Labour - has been more than a disappointment; it has been a disaster. The party led an onslaught on civil liberties, betrayed leftist ideals, failed to make any impact on inequality and, worst of all, embarked upon a calamitous war in Iraq. New Labour had promised a "new dawn", and many feel betrayed.

I have some sympathy with these criticisms. Yet it is possible, nevertheless, to mount a robust defence of many of Labour's core policies. And a balanced assessment is needed if the party is to chart an effective path in the future. A realistic starting point for doing so is to compare Labour's period in government with those of its sister parties in other countries over roughly the same period - Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the US, Lionel Jospin's Socialists in France and Germany's SPD, led by Gerhard Schröder.

Labour managed to stay in power longer than any of these - longer, indeed, than any other left-of-centre party in recent times, including those in Scandinavia. The ideological changes associated with the invention of the term "New Labour" were a large part of the reason for this electoral success. "New Labour" was not an empty soundbite designed to disguise a vacuum where policies should have been.

From the outset, the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left - solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government - remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in an information age, the emergence of a more voluble and combative citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Most of Labour's policy prescriptions followed from this analysis. The era of Keynesian demand management, linked to state direction of economic enterprise, was over. A different relationship of government to business had to be established, recognising the vital role of enterprise in wealth creation and the limits of state power. No country, however large and powerful, could control that marketplace: hence the "prawn cocktail offensive" that Labour launched in the mid-1990s to woo the City of London.

The expansion of the service economy went hand in hand with the shrinking of the working class, once the bastion of Labour support. Henceforth, to win elections, a left-of-centre party had to reach a much wider set of voters, including those who had never endorsed it in the past. Labour could no longer represent sectional class interests alone. In Tony Blair - not a Labour tribalist by any description - the party seemed to have found the perfect leader to help it further this aim.

Labour's policies evolved during its years in government. However, some core ideas remained the same. Economic prosperity, in a global­ised marketplace, had to take primacy as the precondition of effective social policy. An increasingly prosperous economy would generate the resources to fund public investment, dispensing with the need to raise taxes. Labour sought to break away from its previous predilection for tax-and-spend. "Prudence" was Gordon Brown's watchword as chancellor. Prudent economic management was essential if welfare spending was to rise and social justice to be enhanced.

Here, Labour had to struggle with the disastrous legacy of the Thatcher years. Inequality had increased more steeply in the UK during those years than in any industrial country except for New Zealand (which had also followed Thatcher-style policies). The welfare system was run-down, so investment in public services, coupled with reforms designed to make them more flexible and more responsive to the needs of their users, became a guiding principle. Labour was to be the party not of the big state, but of the intelligent state.

A further important strand of New Labour policy was its refusal to allow any issues to be "owned" by the right. The task, rather, was to provide left-of-centre solutions to them. This strategy became the focus of attacks by critics worried about its implications for civil liberties, but was vital to Labour's longevity in power. Social democrats fell from power in other countries because of their failure to do the same. In the past, the left had tried to explain away, rather than confront directly, questions having to do with crime, social disorder, migration and cultural identity - as if the concerns citizens had about such issues were misplaced or irrelevant. It was assumed, for example, that most crime resulted from inequality, and that once inequality was reduced, crime would inevitably decline. Without denying the connection, New Labour took a different view. Tony Blair's 1997 manifesto pledge "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" was not just a slogan; it was adopted as a principle of policy.

It might seem a long way from these concerns to New Labour's emphasis on the need for an activist foreign policy. But it is not. Because of globalisation, domestic and foreign policy now overlap each other far more than previously. Britain faces no visible threat of invasion, but must be prepared to assume an active role in the wider world. Interventionism becomes necessary doctrine when national sovereignty has lost much of its meaning and where there are universal humanitarian concerns that override local interests. Transnational terrorism, itself a creature of globalisation, is a threat far greater than the more localised forms of terrorism prevalent in the past.

How far did these strategies and policies bear fruit? Labour's record is distinctly patchy, but it would be hard to deny that it has had far more impact than did any of the other centre-left governments mentioned above. The UK enjoyed ten years of unbroken economic growth, not to be dismissed as simply based on a housing and credit bubble. That growth took place alongside the introduction of a national minimum wage. Large-scale investment was made in public services and significant reform was achieved in the areas of health and education.

Wage and income inequality was contained, though not significantly reduced. The position of the poor, however, improved substantially. Targets to reduce child poverty were not met, but before the recession 600,000 children were raised out of relative poverty; measured against an absolute standard, the number is about twice that figure.

The New Deal, Sure Start and tax credit policies have all had their difficulties, but have mostly proved their worth. Even the much-derided PFI has worked, at least when measured against public procurement. Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has largely been successful, and what looks like a lasting peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland. Crime rates have come down substantially in the UK as a whole, and Britain has made a more fruitful adaptation to increasing cultural diversity than most other European countries.

From a party so often seen as illiberal and authoritarian, there were substantial achievements in the opposite direction. Labour signed up to the EU Social Chapter, together with the European Convention on Human Rights, introduced a Freedom of Information Act and endorsed civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Britain is a more liberal and tolerant society than it was, and Labour's policies played a part in this change. In foreign policy, overseas aid was increased well beyond anything preceding Tory governments had managed.

The military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo - where Blair played a crucial role in persuading the Americans to contemplate deploying ground forces - and Sierra Leone were widely regarded as successes. If only he had stopped there! Nothing corroded Blair's re­putation more than his ill-starred decision to become George Bush's main partner in the invasion of Iraq.

Other far-reaching mistakes were made. The experiment with spin and media management during Labour's early years in power backfired and helped to create the impression that New Labour was about presentation rather than policy. Blair did not succeed in integrating Britain more closely into the EU, and some of his closest relationships with other European leaders - notably with the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi - were puzzling.

It was right to argue that Labour should become more business-friendly, and it was also right to recognise the importance of the City to the British economy. But it was a fundamental error to allow the prawn cocktail offensive to evolve into fawning dependence, with the result that the UK was transformed into a kind of gigantic tax haven. The idea that Labour should be "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" not only exacerbated inequalities, but also helped to create a culture of irresponsibility. Bosses protected themselves from the risks they asked their employees to bear.

I don't accept the simplistic idea that New Labour was just a continuation of Thatcherism. Labour's policies involved extensive government intervention in economic life, although mainly on the supply side. And there was a genuine preoccupation with increasing social justice - a notion alien to Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and their guru Milton Friedman. Yet Blair and Brown should have made it much clearer than they did that recognising the virtues of markets is quite different from prostrating oneself before them. Market fundamentalism should have been more explicitly criticised and its limitations exposed. As for proportional representation and wider constitutional reform - surely Labour should have endorsed these as a matter of principle, not as a result of political expediency?

The other parties have had to respond to the agenda that New Labour set. The Tories now endorse gay rights, accept the necessity of reducing poverty, support the Climate Change and Energy Acts that Labour introduced, and will continue most of the labour-market reforms that were made. In propagating the idea of the "big society", the Conservatives are drawing upon the same communitarian traditions that Tony Blair also endorsed. Naturally, they may retreat from these emphases, but at the moment they look genuine.

The global financial crisis, foreseen by very few, seems to have put an end to the world that helped to shape New Labour. Suddenly, everything has gone into juddering reverse: Keynesianism and government economic intervention are back. No one denies that we should seek to regulate the financial markets that once seemed so omni­potent. A tax on world financial transactions, previously dismissed as unrealistic, is now on the cards. It is, after all, possible to elevate the tax rates of the rich.

Meanwhile, there is talk among all the main parties of a return to an active industrial policy and of a renaissance of manufacturing. Climate change and other environmental risks, which Labour did little to confront until late on, are now at the heart of mainstream political concerns. Planning, for years in the shadows, is once more on the agenda, as are severe public spending cuts - the very opposite of the bold, expanding social investment on which New Labour policy was built. Fiscal prudence has ceded place to huge borrowing and very large accumulated debt.

New Labour as such is dead, and it is time to abandon the term. Yet some of the core social and economic trends to which it was a response still obtain, and significant portions of its policy framework remain relevant. In the future, Labour will still need to attract mainstream, affluent voters, against the background of a changing political culture in which the electronic media play a growing role. While it makes eminent sense to aim to reduce the dominance of the financial sector in the economy and encourage a renaissance in manufacturing, the UK will continue to be a post-industrial economy, with service- and knowledge-based occupations dominant.

Welfare reform will loom as large as ever, even more so when efficient spending will be a priority. The problem of sustaining progressive policies on immigration and multiculturalism without losing voter appeal will remain, as will that of how to reduce citizens' anxieties about crime. So, too, will that of finding an appropriate balance between civil liberties, on the one hand, and protecting the country against the threat posed by international terrorism on the other. Keynes is back in fashion, but there can be no return to Keynesian demand management as practised between 1945 and 1979. The challenge ahead of us is to preserve and enhance the flexibility and creativity that markets engender, while turning these qualities to long-term, socially desirable goals.

Fundamental rethinking is needed and a fresh set of policies has to be created. The key problem for Labour out of power will be to minimise the internal squabbling that afflicts so many parties, especially on the left, following an election defeat. Ideological reconstruction could have a decisive role here. The starting point should be to redefine the role of the public sphere.

“Blairites", it could be said, leaned more towards the market than "Brownites", who were keener on the state. However, the public sphere is distinguishable both from markets and from the state, and can be used as a platform for reconstructing each. Labour can be seen to be groping towards such an insight with its attempts, in the wake of the financial crisis, to reintroduce the idea of mutualism to political debate. These rather primitive efforts should be developed further and applied to the task of constructing a form of responsible capitalism, coupled to a sophisticated approach to issues of sustainability.

Anthony Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics and a Labour peer.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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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