Monday, November 19, 2007


The road not taken

I often find myself wondering in politics what my life would be like if I'd been brought up in a strongly Labour or Tory household. I've been a Liberal Democrat ever since I was able to vote. I was admittedly delighted when Labour annihilated the Tories in 1997 - however my views of Labour (and socialism) have taken a long road away from both since then.

But I have to accept that my upbringing and social class make me a prime candidate to become a Liberal Democrat. The house I grew up in happens to be in the Mosaic demographic that scored highest for the Liberal Democrats in 2005 - that's top out of 60. My mum delivers leaflets for the party, my dad admits to having been a fan of the SDP in the 1980s - although I am by far the most politically active in my family.

But under different circumstances could I have joined the Tories? Labour? The Greens? UKIP? Respect? The Legalise Cannabis Alliance?

I've recently been reading an excellent book by American political psychologist Drew Westen called The Politicial Brain. The premise of the book is that the idea that people make political decisions on the basis of a sober analysis of maximum personal utility is dead wrong - that people actually carry around with them a much simpler emotional model of political reality, and base the vast majority of their decisions on that.

I'm very aware, then, that a lot of arguments that people give for a particular side of an argument are post-rationalisation, based on adopting the best argument from their own side, or maximising the importance of some facts and minimising others, or simply refusing to accept the motives of those who would argue the contrary.

That feeling has been particularly acute during this leadership contest. I'm a Sheffield Liberal Democrat. I was brought up in Sheffield. I worked on Nick Clegg's election campaign in 2005. I know and like Nick Clegg; I've never met Chris Huhne. I feel passionately that Nick Clegg is the right man for the job of leading this party - but would I feel different if I did my politics in Eastleigh? And just how much of my view is made up of my natural bias?

Doubts are a difficult thing to admit to in politics, but they are intrinsic to its fabric. I like to think of myself as a rational person. I like to think (and Westen's book agrees) that it make sense for us to look first for emotional literacy in a potential leader, something that Nick has in bucketloads. I like to think that it makes sense to put values before policy, something that Nick has tried to do in this leadership campaign. But how much of my opinions here are post-rationalisation? Perhaps I will have to wait until the next leadership contest to find out - here's hoping that that's a long time off yet!

I'm also feeling very odd about having some people I genuinely like and respect as political opponents, albeit temporarily. Jock Coats and Paul Walter are plumping for Huhne; I suspect James Graham and Alex Wilcock are heading that way. The temptation to feel less of them is at times disturbingly compelling; I sincerely hope that I resist it and come out of this election with my capacity to respect personal choice intact!

So, here's to the future. Let's hope that on December 17th, whoever wins, we are a party again. I want us to get back to railing against the real enemy: the massed forces of NewToryLabour. Let's hope that before long we are sat in a by-election war room somewhere in some NuLab or Tory heartland, stuffing envelopes, eating pizza, telling bad jokes, and generally being the grease that oils the wheel of the great campaign that will finally bring the cosy consensus to it's knees.


That idea is similar to 'The Myth of the Rational Voter' which seeks to demonstrate that voters have systematic bias which makes for bad decision making (eg protectionism rather than free trade).

I do wonder about what 'The Political Brain' could lead to though, another assault on rationality could be a result. Instead we should realise that many decisions have their roots in irrationality, but that rational discourse is the way to develop them. (I've been reading too much Karl Popper it seems).

I also think that this lends support to my theory that people make decisions on many factors, and the ones generally taken into consideration by economists are only part of them.

The fundamental thing is that people do make choices, and can be influenced by rational debate as well as other factors, the only thing is we may not be able to predict it given that we know less than the individual concerned about their circumstance - leading of course to radical individualism and liberalism...


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