Subversives, the sausage-making process and Cold War syndrome

May 10, 2012 10:27 am

Every organisation needs someone whose job it is to think their rivals are excelling and formulate the arguments against their own strategies. In business, in campaigning and in politics, this is an essential quality.

People who do this well have internalised a cognitive dissonance. They know that in truth, they have far more belief in the principles and functions of their own organisations, yet also know that to properly strengthen the organisation in which they believe, they must be its own critical friend.

Those who do this badly fail to internalise that disconnect. They stop questioning why their opponent’s tactics work. They stop trying to bring the best of their strategies to the organisations they once believed in and start simply believing in the superiority of their opponent. They stop questioning the strategies of their organisations in order to strengthen them, and start to simply question the organisation. The keen critical eye that was once so valuable has become a combination of jaded cynicism about their own organisations and a naive faith in the power of what was once their opponent. Like Cold War sleeper agents, they wake up one day realising they have far more in common with their opponents than they do with their own side.

This matters less in business than it does in politics. No one is expected to be ideologically wedded to Coca Cola over Pepsi. A defection between the two hurts few people, and challenges a person’s sense of self far less than a move from Conservative to Labour or vice versa. It is a clean and simple transition from two highly similar organisations with simple business aims. You won’t lose friends whose values have not changed as yours have.

Politics, especially party politics, is more complicated. Firstly there isn’t a profit motive. There isn’t a simple bottom line. We can measure our success electorally, but that’s not the whole story. The point of a political party is not simply to get elected, but to implement a programme through government that changes the country in ways compatible with their shared ideology and the values of their supporters.

Delivering in politics is far more complicated than delivering in business, because the definition of delivery varies from stakeholder to stakeholder. Individual policies that form a small part of the whole of a Party are guaranteed to be of make or break importance to at least some members, one group of whom will loudly proclaim the Party to be wrong when it makes a decision one way or the other. At the moment, even my bald statement that the Labour Party does not exist simply to be elected will be considered dangerously naive by some, while others will chastise me for wanting to focus on electability at all, preferring to focus their energy on opposing the Tories.

Politics is largely an amateur sport. While there are a few dedicated professionals who run the offices and run for office, who create the campaigns and organise from the centre, the late 20th century dominance of professionals in politics is proving largely to be an aberration. Politics is the business of communicating ideas. For the most part that’s done friend-to-friend, member-to-member.

The proliferation of literature on how the backroom works and how politics is done, at the same time as the explosion of social media onto the political scene has led to a massive growth in “armchair generals” like myself, all convinced that we know how it can and should be done. Many of us are right at least some of the time (I hope I’m occasionally one of them) and the combination of new rules around Party funding and the new openness provided by social media will make the prize of harnessing this in a way that helps the Party a valuable one indeed.

But there are downsides that need to be managed too. Discussions that were once wholly internal are now being held in public. The sausage-making process is becoming ever more exposed, and as it is, ever more commentated on. Those commentators who have enthusiastically grasped the role of cynic so essential within an organisation are – without the professional capacity for objectivity or the surrounding of those whose job it is to be more optimistic – more susceptible than ever to Cold War syndrome – especially as the flattery of attention from the other side – those whose strategic qualities you have come to so admire – is incredibly intoxicating.

The Labour Party and Party members need to learn to be more relaxed about such events. The defectors, the semi-defectors, the loud “thorns in the side” are a fact of modern life. They are frequently wrong and frequently and as unlikely to accept that fact as anyone else. They still – for the moment – feel shocking and subversive, but if we remain as relaxed and unbothered by them as they are about the impact they might have on us, that won’t last. And when we relax, they will only be able to shock us when the shocking message they have to impart is of value.

  • PaulHalsall

    I’, sorry Emma, but is this piece referring to some specific event?  

    If not, it is too general to have any real meaning.

    • UKAzeri

      or maybe its preempting something big…  :))

      • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

        I assumed it was post-Livingstone.

      • Jeremy_Preece

        I got a bit lost as to the point, but maybe that is just me.

        One thing in there that I do agree with and was clear, is that we need to be able to have discussions within the Labour Party without the attentions of the outside.

        Pre-1992, the press went wild about a party that showed any signs of discussion or difference of opinion on anything and made that party out to be too divided to ever win. The result was that party conferences became stage managed, and no discussions within a party could be seen in the media without damage to the party.

        As a result, there is no discussion.

        Labour is a broad organisation, and so there will be differences. However, we do need to pull together and after we have argued, be able to stand up and put on a united stand up against the Tories.

  • http://twitter.com/TomMillerUK Tom Miller

    The first two paragraphs of this are ridiculously insightful.

  • carolekins

    So glad I wasn’t in the party in the New Labour years.  I think everyone should grow up and get real.

    • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

      I think New Labour was entirely about growing up and getting real.  But to be truly New Labour, you have to not concern yourself with the old times and be constantly looking towards the future and asking ‘what next?’ – which is why the right of the party dreaming of the pragmatism of 1997 is as futile as the left of the party dreaming of the ideological purity of 1983. 

      The past is where it belongs.  The future is up for grabs.

  • Brumanuensis

    Insightful as ever Emma, but has something happened/is about to happen, that you’ve ‘heard through the grapevine’?

  • Dan Filson

    Yes I am happy for certain debates to be had fully in public. But there are ties when you want to float ideas solely within the Labour Party membership and supporters, without the intrusion – as happens here on Labour List, for example, only too frequently – of Tory trolls intent on abuse and sidetracking the discussion. It does not follow that such discussions are mutual appreciation societies or glee clubs in which no worthwhile debate takes place. But the problem is where to find such debating spaces, especially ones without the need for moderators whether pre-publication of comments or post- .
    As to the rest of your theme, it is a bit over my tiny head – “internalise the disconnect” : yer what?

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