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