The good news and the groupthink

by Peter Watt

Less than a year after the horrors of securing a derisory 29% in the general election, Labour is competitive again and is rightly optimistic for the first time in many years.

The party is consistently ahead in the polls, and by-election results are stunning at a Parliamentary and local government level. At the same time, the government seems gaffe-prone: just think forests, Andy Coulson or school sport partnerships. And it is doing things which are unpopular and controversial like introducing spending cuts, raising tuition fees and reforming welfare. Economic recovery is slow at best, inflation is a problem and interest rates look like they are on their way up, pushing up mortgage costs.  And all that before the full impact of the cuts are felt and the outcomes of May’s elections and AV referendum impacts the morale and unity of the government. Mutterings in the newspapers about a possible early general election following a coalition ripped apart by its own divisions are nonsense – but they are indicative of unease.  And all this less than a year into the government.

So the party is understandably buoyed with where it is right now. And that consistent success makes people feel good and builds the momentum necessary for sustained success. But that success can also be a negative, can be destructive if the party is seduced by its warm glow into believing that victory is a given. Believing so at this stage would be disastrous. Not least because opinion poll after opinion poll shows that voters still, on the whole, blame Labour for the country’s economic woes.  And that is the case even if they are rightly beginning to agree with Labour that the cuts are being made too fast. As one member of the shadow cabinet put it to Andrew Rawnsley:

“The Tories are making a bad job of clearing up Labour’s mess”.

Dealing with this is, of course, fundamental to Labour winning the next election. Unless we can change the perception that we aren’t an economic safe pair of hands then we will lose.  And changing this perception will require some pretty tough and uncomfortable decisions to be made.  But tough decision making is just that – tough.

Of course, people will say that they know that this is the case. But I am beginning to worry that too many in the party are beginning secretly to believe that the job is nearly done. You can understand why. They keep meeting people who tell them how bad the government is and what a hypocrite Nick Clegg is. They meet voters on the doorstep who aren’t hostile to them in the way they all too often were in recent years. Their party meetings have become busier and many of them spent last Saturday with hundreds of thousands of like minded people on the streets of London all convinced that right was on their side.

It feels like everyone agrees with us again. You can feel it. Groupthink is developing and it is incredibly dangerous to Labour’s electoral prospects.

Wikipedia defines groupthink as:

“A type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimise conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas”.

Irving Janis was a founding father of the theory. In 1977 he devised what he saw as the eight symptoms that indicated groupthink:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

So, in essence, decision making becomes internally focused, defined by the needs and beliefs of the group. If as a party we suffer from it then it will critically cloud our decision making and severely harm our electoral prospects. And of course the point about groupthink is that you don’t realise that it’s there until it’s too late.

But the signs are there alright.


Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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8 Responses to “The good news and the groupthink”

  1. Spot on, Peter! You speak for many in the party.

  2. iain ker says:

    I realise the article is meant to be a platitude-full, ideas empty ‘call-to-arms’ but…

    ‘… they are rightly beginning to agree with Labour that the cuts are being made too fast.’

    … is there any chance – any chance – of a contributor to this website actually setting out in what way a 3% ‘real’ cut in public spending by 2014/2015 is ‘too far, too fast’? 3% is not a cut, it’s a rounding error.

    Or is your logic, ‘meh, it’s a slogan. let’s run with it’.

    You could always of course run with, ‘The Tories are making a bad job of clearing up Labour’s mess.’

    I mean, that’s a doozy that one.

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Got any examples?

    There’s certainly some of it around, but that’s not a tremendously meaningful statement. There’s always a degree of groupthink in political parties, purely because we’re groups organised to argue for and try to put into practice a particular view of the world. Relatively homogenous views naturally promote more homogenous attitudes.

    The question is how much groupthink there is amongst us right now. And to assess that, we need to decide what is and what isn’t groupthink. Without answering that, we can’t say very much useful about the phenomenon as a whole.

  4. AnneJGP says:

    Thanks, Peter, a thoughtful article. I was interested in the article by Andrew Rawnsley that you linked to, as well.

    It seemed to me that one of the defining characteristics of the previous Labour government, in all 3 terms of office, was an all-pervading short-termism. Everything seemed to be focussed on immediate party-political advantage. It’s probable that this short-term mind-set still holds sway, since there hasn’t been much turn-over among the leading members of the party.

    You say that “Unless we can change the perception that we aren’t an economic safe pair of hands then we will lose” (the next GE).

    I’m not convinced this is actually true. There are still a lot of people who believe that cuts are unnecessary, full stop. The TUC march was aimed at “Stop the Cuts” not “Slow down the cuts”. There are plenty of politicians, economists, writers & broadcasters among their number, so the No-Cuts-At-All point of view gets a lot of publicity.

    This is where my point about short-termism comes in. If the Labour leadership privately accepts that, actually, yes, there is a problem, then the Labour party should be trying to convince the huge number of doubters that the problem really does exist. Otherwise, Labour may find itself back in government with an electorate who have totally unrealistic expectations.

    You see, Labour’s problem isn’t so much about the next GE; it’s far more about the future of the Labour party at the GE after that.

    Do you just want to win back power asap, or do you want to be a credible alternative government for the 21st century? At the moment, you may achieve the first, but you won’t achieve the second.

  5. paul barker says:

    Given Peter Watts history he must know that he is ignoring Labours biggest problems, the crippling debts & the long-term decline in membership.

    Labours debts amont to £27Million, roughly £150 per member.
    Labour membership grew by 30,000 in the 2nd half of 2010, taking the Party back to where it was in 2008 but that was temporary, its falling again now.

  6. Peter says:

    Ian – In reality the Labour and Tory positions are not in my view a million miles from each other in terms of approach to the deficit. There is a choice to be made about speed of reduction and an argument about that and the impact on growth. I agree that the Lab Party needs to set out what and where it would cut in more detail than it currently has.

    Edward, in my view there are worrying signs of an unhealthy level of groupthink – that’s why I wrote the article and gave the ‘symptoms’

    AnneJGP some people of course think that the cuts are unnecessary and in my view the fact that they are in a minority isn’t going to change. So we need to win an argument that is an economic argument for 2014/15 which means that we need to earn the right to be heard some time soon. Appearing to be on the wrong side of the cuts argument right now is stoppingbus being heard.

    Paul B – agree that they are Labour’s internal problems. The groupthink I’m referring to is about the broader political scene.

  7. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Sure, but with respect, that’s just your opinion and unless you provide examples that’s not something we can analyse.

    Who has recently said something that’s been too complacent? What issues are we too complacent about, or is it a more general thing? What is complacent and what is necessary optimism? You began to address that in your reply to others, but I do think you need to go further if we’re going to draw any but the most general lessons here.

    I think this could very well be a problem, especially if we do well in local elections, build your current poll lead but still continue to lag on key questions. But unless we discuss actual specific examples, then it’s abstract and we’re going to be complacent about our complacency.

    So please, something specific.

  8. iain ker says:

    Peter says:
    I agree that the Lab Party needs to set out what and where it would cut in more detail than it currently has.


    More detail?

    How about *any* detail?

    All we get from the shadow cabinet are slogans they saw on a Unison placard at a demo.

    Aye, opposition, it’s a grand life.

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