I've been watching the Labour Party's slow self-destruction for some years now with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret in what has become of a once great party, and relief that the Frankenstein’s monster it became may be slayed. This article will be rather critical of Labour, indeed it is more of a lament about Lamont and her ilk, but it is deserved. How did the party get to a point where its leadership has become so dysfunctional that they've turned former voters – myself included – away in droves?
I'm one of the lucky ones. As a supporter of independence I can envisage a future where the parties of old are reborn from the flames of destruction like a phoenix, without any Westminster baggage dragging them down. But that future is post-independence and until then the final death throes of the corruption eating away at the party are a danger to its prosperous future in an independent Scotland.
It is for this reason that I have been looking at most probably the greatest example of dysfunctional leadership in modern history, but one in which the participants learned and adapted to prosper later, a trick Labour could do with learning.
I am, of course, talking about the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, April 1961. Now you may not be thinking that an article on the psychology of the Bay of Pigs feeds very naturally into the independence-referendum debate. But as I'm hopefully about to demonstrate, you’d be dead wrong.
The Bay Of Pigs invasion was one of the biggest disasters in modern politics. It showed a lack of thought and openness on the part of the group involved, and led to an investigation by psychologist Irving Janis into the thinking practices which led to the catastrophe. That analysis saw him coin the phrase "groupthink", defining a process by which a group may make faulty decisions because of each member's tendency to conform to what each takes to be the group consensus.
To see why this event is significant in the context of the forthcoming referendum, it's first necessary to understand the situation which led to the disaster.
Before his inauguration, John F. Kennedy was briefed on a plan by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), developed during the Eisenhower administration, to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba in CIA set up training camps in Guatemala. The President, several key advisors and the CIA created a small group who were in on the plan and ‘needed to know’. This group became secretive, centralising and controlling. It did not seek out alternative views, stifled information that was counter to their own opinion, and failed to take account of real and pertinent information which was readily available to them.
Sound like any contemporary political party in Scotland?
But back to the history. The original plan was to undertake guerrilla warfare in the mountains and start an insurgency to overthrow Castro from within. The President's group altered this to a full-scale invasion, going toe-to-toe with Castro’s forces with only 1,300 exiled Cubans backed (unofficially) by the US.
This change from guerrilla tactics to open warfare was undertaken without consulting the Pentagon on the military aspects of the plan. Neither did they interact with the National Security Agency (NSA) on the capabilities of Cuba before the invasion. If they had done so, they would have seen an army of 41,000 regulars, spearheaded by 2,500 elite Soviet-trained and -equipped troops, backed up by a reserve militia force of over 200,000 armed civilians, and therefore outnumbering the insurgents by a daunting ratio of around 185 to 1.
The plan was rushed into action as the group feared that Cuba was about to receive fast jets off the Soviets that could bring down their bombers… a quick talk to the NSA would have confirmed they already had them. But they pressed on using WWII American Bombers that were repainted for the purpose and fooled no-one. The story was broken in the papers and even needed denying in the UN, yet they still went ahead with the plan.
It was envisaged that the invasion would bring out the Cuban resistance in support, but Kennedy's men didn’t bother to contact them, and when the bombing started Castro had a handy 24 hours warning to round the domestic opposition up into camps. Then there was the landing itself. They chose the Bay of Pigs, since the most likely landing point for an invasion force further along the coast was heavily guarded while the Bay of Pigs offered a clear run. But the lack of serious defences there was for good reason.
The group believed that if they were unsuccessful, the troops could retreat to the mountains and revert to guerrilla warfare. But the CIA had scrapped guerrilla training when they decided to go for an all-out assault, so the troops wouldn’t have had a clue what to do in that event. The second, rather bigger problem, was the fact that they never bothered to look at a map of Cuba. To do so would have shown that the mountains the troops were to retreat to were over 80 miles away, through a swamp. The half-cocked plan went ahead anyway and the rest is history.
So what could have happened to the powers of reasoning of this collection of experienced, intelligent leaders to bring them to such a catastrophic and multiply-flawed misjudgement? Janis, as we've heard, labelled the phenomenon as "groupthink", but what does that actually mean?
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives.
The eight symptoms of groupthink were listed by Janis as:
Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
Stereotyped views of other groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
Any of this sound familiar? Let's see if we can spot any of the symptoms in Scottish Labour's well-documented modus operandi.
Illusion of invulnerability
Labour has had an almost-unbroken monopoly on running Glasgow City Council (GCC), and its predecessor Glasgow Corporation, since 1933. The years of power led to a widespread and only semi-joking belief that putting a red rosette on a flea-bitten stray dog would see it voted in by the party's faithful supporters. (See also: "the Labour vote in Glasgow isn't counted, it's weighed".) This illusion of invulnerability stemmed from Labour's dominant position as Scotland’s only credible left-wing party of government, until the rise of the SNP under devolution.
The demise of the Tories further added to this perception and allowed the Labour group to become complacent. Complacency invariably breeds corruption and greed, and without the fear of electoral annihilation the party elite began to feather their own nests.
Cronyism and corruption have since become bywords for the antics of Labour in its city stronghold. For instance, when Stephen Purcell was caught snorting narcotics with various underworld types (who may or may not have had access to council contracts – investigations ongoing), then resigned from 'stress', he was given a kid-gloves treatment from the Scottish media that anyone from outside the country would have found impossible to imagine, let alone witness. It was as if nobody in the central belt of Scotland thought the events even worthy of mention.
Then there was the mystery surrounding the appearance of organised crime boss at a Jim Murphy fundraising event in Glasgow in 2010. Lewis Rodden received a four-year prison sentence (reduced on appeal to two years) in 2005 for a campaign of intimidation against construction firms in Ayrshire and running 'security' for various companies based on contracts obtained through threats, assaults and fire-raising.
When Labour councillor and Strathclyde Police Authority member Betty Cunningham was asked about the revelation she stated “Louie was there, aye”. For someone in Councillor Cunningham's position to be on first-name terms with an organised crime boss – when said councillor's primary responsibility is to ensure the police force functions correctly and that the Chief Constable is held properly to account while also pursuing his duties effectively – is clearly rather unconventional.
These are not the actions of a party that feels vulnerable. They depict the mentality "Nobody's going to stop me so I can safely do things which would normally be unacceptable, without fear of censure".
It's a common complaint lodged against the Labour Party – even by its own activists, as a cursory glance at LabourHame will show – that they don't learn from their mistakes. But groupthink requires that individual members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. Let’s look at Labour's record.
After the 2010 General Election, the party promised to undergo a deep soul-searching exercise and learn from their mistakes. The end result was that they decided, in essence, that they'd been right all along and the public had simply not listened to, understood or appreciated them properly. This conclusion is especially surprising given the widespread analysis of others within the party, such as this typical example from the party's self-styled "independent grassroots e-network" LabourList:
"Labour got disconnected from the electorate. The evidence lies in the collapse of the popular vote. People stopped trusting the party and they didn’t believe what it said about foreign wars, the state of the economy, reform of Parliament and public spending."
After the earthquake-level shock of the 2011 Holyrood elections, Scottish Labour also promised to review the way the party operated and learn from their mistakes. This, for example, was Jim Murphy on that cataclysmic defeat:
"There are lessons for everyone in the Scottish Labour Party about our defeat, including MSPs, MPs and every party member… The election was a real kick in the shins for Scottish Labour but we will pick ourselves up and rediscover our confidence.. What is clear is no party has a right to govern and Scottish Labour has to again earn people's trust to govern... I am confident that, with a huge amount of work and goodwill, Labour can come back stronger than before."
The Scottish branch knew the fact they were viewed as being controlled by London was working against them, so they created a new post of overall Scottish leader, controlling both MSPs and MPs (as opposed to the job held by Iain Gray and his predecessors, which was merely leader of the MSP group in the Scottish Parliament), to report directly to Ed Miliband in London. They then carried on exactly as before, having decided that they'd failed to get their message (whatever it was) across effectively and that people would come back to Labour if they just heard the message, or at least whichever version of it was in effect that day.
The loss of two elections – putting the party in opposition at both Westminster and Holyrood for the first time since devolution – should have been the alarm call that caused them to buck up their ideas, but instead saw Bradford West added to the names on Labour's list of infamy. Ed Miliband said that "people are understandably sceptical about all politics at the moment. I think we can break through that and show we can make a difference to people’s lives", before adding, right on cue, that the party would "learn the lessons of Bradford".
(Harriet Harman similarly opined that the result did not mean there was a "more widespread problem" but that Labour nevertheless "must learn lessons from a very disappointing result".)
If that sounds familiar, wait until you see their conclusions in a few months' time. if the local elections go as many are predicting, my money is on Scottish Labour claiming that the local community – as with the UK, Scottish and Bradford communities – just didn't get the message, not that the message was wrong in the first instance.
Belief in inherent morality
We see this every day in the standard "sales patter" boilerplate of Labour as the party who stand up for the people and are the only ones who can benefit the working class (or their modern replacement, the "squeezed middle"). They believe that they are morally right in the actions they take.
To traditional Labour voters, though, scrapping the 10p tax rate, raising council tax by 60%, failing to vote against the reduction of the 50p tax rate in Osborne’s recent budget (as a result of the Bain Principle), raids on pensions, attacks on union rights and civil liberties, support for nuclear power and weapons, and the ever-dubious Iraq war don't necessarily score highly on the morality scale.
The party gets around this by holding up a token or two as proof of morality, the minimum wage and foreign aid being the two most obvious examples – the former, in particular, has been Labour's answer to any and all criticism from the left for years. Another extract from the LabourList article linked above highlights how this thought process works:
"Labour stopped defending individual freedom. The evidence can be found all over the place. Detention without trial, courts without juries, increased police and social welfare powers, camera monitoring, the expansion of GCHQ and, of course, identity cards. This is a tricky area for Labour which has always been to some extent a paternalistic party in setting out to support the disadvantaged and the oppressed. Tony Blair didn’t always help because, occasionally, his moral convictions conflicted with everyone else’s personal freedoms."
They believe that what they are doing is right for the greater public good, regardless of what the actual public thinks – as this piece from the Guardian where Gaby Hinsliff lays into the party's recent past shows:
"Labour has still to confront a pervasive sense that too little changed for too many people when it held power. There are pockets of deprivation all over Britain – often a stone's throw from beautifully regenerated city centres – where life never seems to change much, come boom or come bust, and not just for those at the bottom of the pile.
The party noisily champions the 'squeezed middle', but Labour is vaguer about exactly what squeezed them: wages have been flatlining for lower earners since 2003, long before the credit crunch or Osborne's austerity pay freezes.
Young couples were steadily priced out not just of buying a home but renting one – the average London rent now demands an income of £52,000 a year – not merely in the last two years, but over more than a decade of failure to prick the housing bubble. In Bradford, Labour's candidate complained that the "Tories didn't care" about rocketing unemployment – but joblessness actually began rising in the city in 2004.
So it's not enough just to apologise for failures in bank regulation, when lower earners were suffering well before the crash. And it's not enough just to jeer at posh Tories for being out of touch with ordinary folk, when many of them think that Labour had lost touch too. Life may be tougher under the Tories, but for some it was no picnic before – and where's the proof that it would get better if Labour won again?
Where's the big plan for generating more and better jobs, or for helping people do the simple things – find a home, raise a family – now slipping out of reach?”
It's this self-belief in contradiction of the visible facts which shows that Labour cannot see any ethical or moral issues in the collateral damage they cause. To the groupthinker, in a strange reversal of the norm, the means justify the end.
Stereotyped views of other groups
Any independence supporter can attest to the stereotyping of the Labour party against them. It runs something like this:
If you're online and you're an independence supporter you are a "Cybernat".
If you're an SNP member you're a "Tartan Tory", an anti-English racist, or both.
The First Minister is Mugabe/Hitler/Mussolini, etc etc.
All independence supporters are accused of being unsavoury radicals outside the mainstream and passed off as some sort of SNP extremist militant fringe. There is no mention that most are simply unconnected, passionate individuals who care deeply about their country and wish to express themselves through what for many is the natural modern social channel. When challenged on this presumption, Labour representatives invariably fall back onto "Braveheart" slurs and decades-old Sassenach-hating caricatures to reinforce their prejudices.
It’s easy to dehumanise your enemy if you stereotype them, and far easier to ignore their arguments if you coming from the position that they're unsavoury nutters, hell-bent on destroying your country based on nothing but a long burning hatred of the English. Regardless of how stupid that sounds when you say it out loud.
Just ask Tom Harris MP.
Direct pressure on dissenters
This aspect of groupthink manifests itself in the form of a bully culture. We only have to look at the recent treatment of Anne Marie Millar, a Labour member of Glasgow City Council, to see this in action.
Ms Millar tearfully told STV News that Labour's Gilbert Davidson had threatened her disabled son's job (at the council-owned quango City Building) if she didn't vote with the administration to pass Labour’s budget, which at the time was balanced on a knife-edge. Millar also claimed that after Labour won the budget vote she shouted at Mr Davidson in the council chamber, asking whether her son's job was safe, to which she says "He responded by saying he hoped we wouldn't fall out."
You might imagine such allegations would be investigated fully and swiftly by both the party and the media. Instead, STV News reported the subsequent developments:
"A former Labour councillor who accused the Labour party of intimidation and bullying tactics in the midst of dramatic budget negotiations last week has said she has had no contact from the party regarding their investigation into the matter."
And according to a Newsnet Scotland report, this wasn't the end for Ms Millar.
"It has now emerged that Anne Marie Millar, who recently claimed her disabled son’s apprenticeship was threatened by Labour councillor Gilbert Davidson, was summoned to explain herself in front of the board of City Building – the firm that employs her son.
Despite the alleged victim – Ms Millar – being summoned to appear, Newsnet Scotland understands that Labour councillor Mr Davidson, a board member, was not."
Given that the board members were Labour Party appointees and council members, the pressure being exerted on the dissenter is clear. (After all, how can a company wholly owned by the council be able to 'summon' a councillor to administer a dressing down in the first place? It'd be like Wayne Rooney sacking Sir Alex Ferguson.)
This is where doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed. We'll look now at two examples of this behaviour within Labour – John Prescott on Iraq, and Gordon Brown on 24 hour drinking.
The following is an extract from an article in the Guardian on John Prescott and the Iraq invasion planning:
Lord Prescott today said he had doubts about the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Giving evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, the former deputy prime minister dismissed some intelligence about the Iraq threat as "tittle-tattle", said the former attorney general was "not a happy bunny" in the run-up to war and acknowledged that it was easy to blame the French when negotiations at the UN collapsed before the invasion.
Discussing the controversial intelligence before the war, Prescott told the inquiry he had the feeling intelligence about Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was "not very substantial".
Prescott said conclusions in reports on Iraq prepared by the joint intelligence committee (JIC) went beyond the evidence available. He noted that the 2004 Butler inquiry found the recommendations made to ministers on the basis of pre-war intelligence about Iraq were "frankly wrong". He also said he felt "nervous" about the notorious claim, published in the government's September 2002 dossier, that Saddam could launch WMD within 45 minutes.
Referring to the JIC reports on Iraq, he told the inquiry: "When I kept reading them, I kept thinking to myself, 'Is this intelligence?' It's basically what you have heard somewhere and what somebody else has told somebody. Presumably that's how intelligence is brought about. So I got the feeling it wasn't very substantial, but it clearly was robust. As we knew more and more whether there was evidence of Iraq involved in weapons of mass destruction, the conclusions were a little ahead, I think, of what the evidence we had. Perhaps that's the way it is.""
Yet despite these misgivings, Prescott didn't question the dubious assertions in the report – he self-censored at the time and asked forgiveness later. His actions, or lack of them, were noticeably similar to those of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the issue of 24-hour drinking. From a Daily Mail story on the subject:
"Gordon Brown has said he always had 'doubts' about Labour's controversial decision to allow 24-hour drinking. The Prime Minister admitted he had long-standing concerns over measures to allow pubs and clubs to open round the clock.
The move, introduced in 2005 under the Licensing Act, was fiercely opposed by MPs, police and medical experts, who warned it would lead to a rise in binge-drinking. Critics yesterday claimed he was craftily attempting to distance himself from the failing legislation. Even though it was introduced by Tony Blair, his predecessor in No. 10, Mr Brown was in Cabinet at the time as Chancellor, and could have spoken out."
Again, the reaction to doubt is one of instinctive self-censorship – a textbook trademark of groupthink.
Illusion of unanimity
The illusion of unanimity is the mindset fostered by not voicing questions which contradict the group, making it assumed by other members of the group that any position being discussed is held unanimously due to the lack of any questions or dissenting views.
This can occur due to stress from threats outside the group – which in Labour's case is usually the SNP – the loss of power or the lack of an alternative policy suggestion. The group provides support against these stresses and the individual will defer to the group and adopt the position as their own. The focus is on remaining part of the group and on what is best for the group.
After a series of failures the "need for a win" becomes a motivator to exonerate the group's past performance, creating an unwillingness to oppose any idea for fear of antagonising group members or being branded as 'disloyal'. This concept is personified by the party whip system.
The whips keep the members in line and thereby allow them to provide a united front that reinforces the illusion of unanimity. Those that rock the boat, even when ostensibly acting in the best interests of the group, are ostracised and treated as traitors to the party. Such treatment leads to a "keep your head down" mentality, as observed in the next characteristic trait of groupthink.
In the Bay of Pigs fiasco it was Bobby Kennedy that acted as the Presidents Mindguard by preventing unflattering news reaching his ears. In "A Thousand Days", published in 1965, Arthur Schlesinger reported Bobby preventing a dissenter from voicing his fears with the words "You may be right or you may be wrong, but the President has made his mind up. Don’t push it any further. Now is the time for everyone to help him all they can".
We can see this closer to home in the recent Bradford by-election where Respect candidate George Galloway defeated the Labour candidate in a landslide. The media portrayed the result with astonishment and surprise, but the activists on the doors, the campaign managers, the Labour strategists and spin doctors would all have known the way the wind was blowing. Yet mere hours before the election Miliband was planning to attend victory celebrations in the constituency. And one unfortunate Labour MP was so isolated from the grass roots he actually tweeted a congratulatory message to the Labour candidate.
How could it be that they had no idea of what was about to happen? Harriet Harman said the loss had come as a bolt from the blue, claiming that "It was a really last-minute bandwagon but it wouldn’t have happened if things had been right in the relationship between us and the local community". But that statement simply suggests Labour weren't looking at freely-available information – days before the election, countless Twitter feeds were describing the mood around Galloway as "electric", and predicting his triumph with unusual conviction.
It was missed because the Labour leadership had "yes men" between the troops on the ground and the party's chiefs – acting as mindguards, protecting them from the truth and from hearing bad news. But modern Labour's administrators seem to be capable of going even further, and acting as their OWN mindguards.
Take for instance this infamous interview, in which Miliband makes no attempt to take on board deviations from his message, does not listen to questions that disturb his own view and repeats those views regardless of additional information presented to him. These are the classic symptoms of groupthink, and the failure to address the reality of situations facing the group.
The primary socially-negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent reasoning. Labour has become infected with the groupthink mentality, talking amongst themselves rather than listening to the public. They fail to grasp that it's not that the public aren't listening to them – Labour's problem is that it is, and it doesn’t like what it sees anymore.
(So it's little wonder that Labour can't see why anyone would take issue with their guileless admission of the Bain Principle.)
So what's the cure to groupthink? You have to cast your net wide, challenge assumptions, listen to dissenting views and be prepared to admit the negatives of your approach. In other words, you have to admit that you do not have a monopoly on wisdom. That's a lesson the SNP have learned, and indeed made a very public virtue of. (For example, postponing the anti-sectarianism bill and pursuing consensus on minimum pricing when they didn't need to.) Labour show no sign whatsoever that they may be anywhere close to approaching the same epiphany