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August 21, 2016


Peter K.

Yes there will be cognitive biases and ideology and cognitive "traps" but all one can do is try the best one can to get it right and "crowd-source" with trustworthy people who have sharp critical thinking skills and a knowledge of history.

For me, the liberal/progressive left is aware of these issues and discusses them while the right doesn't think about them. They go with their gut feelings, as George W. Bush used to say.

What is my context? A "GenX" American in his mid 40s.

My question would be how credible are the three MPs who are linked criticizing Corbyn's leadership? Are they Blairites? Do they agree with Corbyn's program? Do they have an ax to grind?

If you prefer Corbyn's policies to the Tories or Troy lite of the Blairites, he'd have to be pretty incompetent, with evidence from those who share his policy preferences in order to want to dump him and give in to the Blairites.

I agree that one shouldn't be "my country, my party, my faction" right or wrong. That's self-defeating in the long run.

But why back someone with whom you don't agree with on policies even if they're a good "leader" (unless of course it's defeat someone like Donald Trump.)

The best evidence that Paul Mason might be right in his optimism is if May is really moving significantly to the left.

I was glad when Clinton was elected after the Reagan-Bush years. But many of Clinton's neoliberal, centrist, triangulating policies just ended up creating more Trump (or Brexit-type) voters. Policies need to work or what's the point?

Stephen H

Regardless of the media spectacle promoting the myth of the strong leader, or accusations of cultism, etc; or on the other hand, self-affirming identity politics or knee jerk reactions, the real question, it seems to me, is: How do we get to the future?

It's clear, to me at any rate, that we are at one of those points when things that have been stable change rapidly: structural changes that have developed, little noticed, over time erupt to the surface. Exactly what they are, what is to be done, and where we might end up, I have little idea of. But we must act - so how to peer through the mist?

Does Corbyn have these answers? Unlikely. Can he open out a space where others can, collectively, try to work them out? Possibly.

Do most of the rest of the PLP have answers? No: they don't even know they're in a hole, let alone how deep it is. Can they get any traction on working them out? No: they want to close down debate, not open it up.

Certainly, part of that working out will require questioning exactly such cognitive biases as you mention, and being open to challenge and change. The paradox is that, in this existential crisis for Labour, the current climate of extreme bitterness mixed with ennui is exactly wrong for such an endeavour. So we are going to have to go through some pain first.

What is rational may look different in long as opposed to short term thinking; and as with most politics nowadays, we only get to choose the least worst option (which is not the same thing as paying attention to an "I'm not as bad as the other guy" pitch).

Edward S

Thank you for sharing this interesting blog. I agree that there are a number of Corbyn supporters that have displayed these cognitive biases. But I think it needs to be understood within the context of a parliamentary coup and a hostile (and biased) mainstream media. Corbyn supporters who are party members feel that their democratic right to have a say in who should be leader is under threat. Any concession that Corbyn’s leadership has not been perfect is seen as a sign of weakness and so unfortunately some choose to ignore/ dismiss the criticisms.

In the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that supporters of Owen Smith (including Labour MPs) have also been guilty of many of these same biases e.g. confirmation bias. I often see Smith’s supporters reject/ ignore the positive aspects of Corbyn’s period as leader (e.g. the Tory U-turns, the mayoral elections, the huge increase in membership etc etc.) and only accept/ highlight the negatives. Smith supporters have also been guilty of finding whatever they can to discredit Corbyn without taking the time to question and critically analyse the veracity of the source of the assertion (the ‘Trotskyist entryism’ claim is a good example). I think many of Smith’s supporters have put so much time into criticizing and smearing Corbyn that I am not convinced they have put any serious thought into whether Smith has any chance at all of winning a general election and what the consequences are if he doesn’t (personally I could see the leadership under Smith being handed over to someone further to the right of the party, with policies shifting back to those during the New Labour years. This is what Corbyn supporters are afraid of!).

Whilst I’m sure there are some Corbyn supporters that discredit ‘soft left’ MPs as ‘Blairites’, I do not believe most do. They just don’t think that these MPs’ (perfectly legitimate) grievances justify their actions, which has inflicted a huge amount of damage to the party and has been completely counter-productive, given that we now have another leadership election that Corbyn will almost certainly win.

Dave Hansell

As Stephen H has intimated context is a significant factor here. Today's context is not always going to be the same as yesterday's.

It may well be the case that under the current electoral paradigm a social democratic program (which is essentially what Corbyn is offering - it's just that the feudal establishment has shifted the traditional 'left/centre/right' narrative so far to the right that even traditional social democratic centre policies of a mixed economy can be portrayed as extreme left) can at present achieve conventional electoral success sufficient to propel the Labor Party, in its current form and manifestation, into Government.

However, surveying where we are and how we have got where we are, it is equally arguable that a Labour Party standing on the ground currently favoured by the, at present, majority of the PLP and their Labour Grandee string pullers could win an election. Not after the behaviour of the past twelve months and the more recent gerrymandering of their internal democracy.

The actual evidence in which a growing majority of eligible electors are turning their backs on the three party Westminster charade suggests that there exists a sufficient body of the electorate who have lost patience with a corporate dominated feudal system, both its political leaderships and fellow electors who continue to support it, sufficient to deny any phoney alternative an election victory.

For at least a quarter of a century the number of electors not voting in General Elections has been larger than that of the Westminster Party gaining the most votes. Whereas 50 or 60 years ago the two main Westminster Party's garnered 90%+ of the actual votes between them that is now no longer the case. Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2005. Some no doubt went straight to the LIB Dems and the Greens, or the Greens via the LIB Dems. A chunk in England and Wales went to UKIP. Another big chunk doubtless did not go anywhere. Whilst another chunk went to the SNP which has replaced Labour hegemony in Scotland.

The point being that there is a significant sector of the electorate actually wanting a genuine alternative to the limited number of brands of the same product on offer and they are willing to not only vote on those lines but also deny their vote if that alternative is not on offer.

And this is hardly surprising given that the way in which the Labour market has been changed since the mid 70 's means that more people have the time and energy to think matters through and become more actively engaged when the alternatives they are seeking arise. This factor will increase once the AI automation of more middle class professional and white coller jobs takes effect.

Which is where Mason comes in. His key context is the structure and processes of the cycles and waves of Capitalism described by the Soviet economist Kondratiev in the late 20's/early 30's. What Mason argues is that this process has essentially stopped due to collapse in real wage levels which has taken off the pressure to innovate leading to a largely rentier economy more akin to a feudal rather than a Capitalist social order.

Together with the movement towards near zero cost production means that the number of jobs paying a sufficient level of renumeration for people to sustain themselves is in the process of exponentially shrinking. This process will produce a parallel process affecting the attitudes and habits of more and more voters. This will not be uniform as some will be slower to react to the changed context than others. What is clear is that the cognitive biases of those within the electorate who remain committed to the status quo will be sorely tested to breaking point.

Matt Moore

' I’ve long said that support for capitalism and tolerance of inequality is founded in part upon cognitive biases. '

Chris - what cognitive biases do you most worry about having misled your own thinking?


"the passionate support which Corbyn attracts is disproportionate to the evidence of his merits"

but perhaps not disproportionate to his *relative* merits

Luis Enrique

Chris, would be interested to know if you read and found anything interesting in the recent JEP symposium on motivated reasoning


«"the passionate support which Corbyn attracts is disproportionate to the evidence of his merits"

but perhaps not disproportionate to his *relative* merits»

Excellent observation here. If you have a choice between a sh*t sandwich and a cheese and pickle sandwich, somehow the cheese and pickle sandwich looks like 3 star cuisine :-).

As to the comparison between the two sandwiches, some quotes I recently found, spot the differences :-):

«A No10 aide admits that Brown does not have the natural empathy with the middle classes that Blair did. "The moment Tony sent his son to the Oratory those voters thought - 'he gets it'," he says.»

«Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, the 'hard left' Labour MP who put his principles before his family, ending his 12-year marriage after his wife, Claudia, insisted their eldest child must go to grammar school.»

«Labour MPs have raised concerns that Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric on tax avoidance could appear anti-aspiration. A senior shadow cabinet source said the party leader was in danger of overreaching himself in his criticism of David Cameron for investing in Blairmore, the fund set up in an offshore tax haven in the Bahamas by his father Ian.»

«According to official records Mr Corbyn has made £3million from the state as an MP in his pay and pensions over his time in Parliament. Mr Corbyn has earned a total of £1.5million in pay as an MP and built up a gold-plated pension pot worth £1.6million, which will give him an income of around £50,000 a year in his retirement.
One Labour MP said that his criticism of David Cameron's tax affairs was "remarkable" given his own personal wealth.
The MP said: "This seems to indicate that we're going back to our bad old ways of criticising people for getting on but its even more remarkable from someone who has done so well himself over many years out of the public sector, paid for by ordinary working peoples' taxes."»

That sh*t sandwich smells particularly bad, and that cheese and pickle sandwich is perhaps a bit too simple and savoury for some, but compared to the sh*t sandwich... :-)


«Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2005.»

*New Labour* lost all those votes while shouting "electability" all of the time :-).

«Some no doubt went straight to the LIB Dems and the Greens, or the Greens via the LIB Dems.»

Given that both are currently insignificant that's unlikely.

«A chunk in England and Wales went to UKIP. Another big chunk doubtless did not go anywhere. Whilst another chunk went to the SNP which has replaced Labour hegemony in Scotland.»

This argument is well developed in R Seymour's recent book "Corbyn: the strange rebirth of radical politics", page 160:

«As Labour approached the 2001 general election, Blair was in a characteristically strident mood. Everywhere, opinion polls told him that his major policy of public sector reform, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), was deeply unpopular. [ ... ] Labour was no longer just running against itself and its own social democratic instincts. It was also running against the British public, to the extent that they shared those instincts. Blair decided that PFIs were not just another policy, but was the flagship policy for this election, and dared the electorate to oppose him.
Of course, given that PFI was originally a Conservative policy, there was little to choose between the big two parties on this issue. Only in one constituency, the marginal Kidderminster seat of Wyre Forest, was a candidate for the makeshift party Health Concern able to capitalise on opposition to PFI and take the seat from Labour. But elsewhere, much of the electorate simply abstained. Turnout plunged to below 60 per cent for the first time since 1918. The biggest drop was in the Labour vote, which fell by just short of 3 million, while the Tory vote dropped by just over a million.
The disillusionment even spread into the quarters of the old Labour Right. Former deputy-leader Roy Hattersley, who can be credited with laying some of the groundwork for New Labour, declared that under Blair the party had not only moved further and ever faster to the right, but had embraced 'an alien ideology'. By replacing the discourse of equality with that of 'meritocracy', it had in effect signed up to 'shifting patterns of inequality'. Urging party members to 'rise up against the coup d'état' against social democracy, he committed himself to an unavailing fight against the Blairites»

What R Seymour does not quite say is that voters re-elected T Blair's government, even while his vote dropped, because of the overhelming electoral importance of rising house prices.

T Blair «dared the electorate to oppose him» because he knew the southern rentier classes still vividly remembered the fall in house prices during the previous Conservative government.

He also «dared the electorate to oppose him» because «there was little to choose between the big two parties on this issue», under the principle "vote however you like as a long as first we nominate whoever we like".

"There Is No Alternative" has been turned from a claim to a plan :-).

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