George Osborne’s psychological warfare

It is getting to be a bit of cliché that George Osborne just copies the Republicans – not only in his policies but also in their dodgy tricks.

For example, how did Mitt Romney behave in the first presidential debate when Obama put in such a miserable performance?  Romney simply denied that policies, which he had spoken about repeatedly throughout the primaries, were his proposals for government.  In fact without turning a hair, he disagreed that he had ever had such policies.

Obama was totally thrown because all his arguments and ‘killer lines’ were based on Mitt Romney’s professed policies.  Aside from calling him an outright liar, what could Obama do?  Stitched up and wrong-footed… but also badly advised by his Spinmeisters that he had to be ‘presidential’ and not attack Romney over the Republican’s many gaffs (like the discounting of 47% of the US electorate who were ‘sponging off’ government welfare).

Similarly, Ed Balls was totally thrown off course by George Osborne’s astonishing announcement that borrowing was ‘set to fall, rather than rise, this year’.

If there was anyone who would have known every single fact and figure, it was Ed Balls!  He knew that all the indicators showed that borrowing was increasing. So it is easy to see how bewildering and confusing it must have been for him.  This was ‘shock doctrine’ played out on the micro-level!  It’s the technique used by stage hypnotists to persuade their chosen ‘victim’ to act like a chicken.

Ed Balls told Sarah Montague on Radio 4 Today programme (1):

What happens in the House of Commons when you are responding to that statement is you have none of the figures, none of the documentation, and you have to listen to the chancellor. The outside forecasters were all expecting a rise in borrowing this year, because it has risen for the first seven months … it was impossible to work out in that first minute or two what was going on.

Very quickly, the LP apparatchiks had identified Osborne’s accounting wheeze but clearly too late for Ed Balls in the HoC … although, it must be said that Ed recovered himself much better than Obama managed in the presidential debate.

Nevertheless, the Westminster Village had already written off the shadow chancellor’s response as ‘missing an open goal’… and the right wing press were able to write the ‘story’ with which to distract the public from the disastrous economic figures.

However, Ben Chu of the Independent, called Osborne’s manipulation of the figures ‘disgracefully misleading’.  Andrew Neil came very close to calling them fraudulent on the BBC’s Daily Politics, with his muttering about Enron accounting.  Michael Meacher MP said:

 ‘There can be few budgets ever (even Gordon Brown included) so full of misrepresentation, deliberate deception, fantasy enumeration, misleading claims, or downright twisting of the truth.’ (2)

Ben Chu explains here (3) how Osborne had manipulated the deficit figures, which had been increasing, into a fall.

However, the point of this piece is to demonstrate how much Osborne has imported from the ‘hamster wheel’ of US political thinking, psychology, weasel words and strategy.

Essentially, US politics have been turned into a commodity.  Politicians and policies alike are marketed in a highly sophisticated, cynical fashion.  The facts have become irrelevant. The dirty tricks are OK.  Only the successful delivery of that ‘winning’ message matters.  The connection between what is said and the reality, or execution, of any policy is more or less arbitrary.

This is not democracy.  This is advertising and public relations.

As Weston describes (4), it is also the sort of advertising/public relations which is informed by a sophisticated understanding of psychology.  For example, deconstruct Osborne’s declaration on the Today programme following his spending review:

“It’s got nothing to do with the fact that he [Balls] has got a stammer, it is because he was the chief economic adviser when it all went wrong, and he never acknowledges that.” (1)

Firstly, note that the sentence does not make any sense.

However, the ulterior messages are clear.  Balls was just making excuses for his ‘poor’ performance by blaming his stammer.  By implication, Osborne associates ‘poor’ performance with Balls’ performance as chief economic advisor.  Osborne then slips in his oft repeated hypnotic mantra ‘when it all went wrong’ … which is further reinforced by the suggestion that Balls has reason to acknowledge/apologise.

It is significant that so many of Osborne’s sentences do not make sense on the social level.  Instead, they invite the listener into the schema of his choice… For example ‘’The Labour government not only failed to mend the roof while the sun shone, it spent taxpayers’ money bribing people not to notice the roof was caving in’ (5)

The ulterior message is that the electorate has been taken for a ’ride’, conned and made foolish, even though not a fact, figure or explanation is offered.  The neurological-psychological explanation, which underpins the ‘shock’ bit of Naomi Klein’s ‘Disaster capitalism and Shock Doctrine’, is highly relevant to George Osborne’s weasel words and tricksy ploys.

Our thoughts/words take time to be mobilized in our brains, so we unconsciously create and update a ‘cone of expectation’ of likely-needed pieces of information, memories and responses.  That we unconsciously predict, is demonstrated when we experience the jolt or confusion of something, like a doorknob or a step, not being where we unconsciously ‘expect’ it to be.  Being on the receiving end of an irrational statement, which doesn’t correspond to our expectation, can produce a similar confusion.

Our conscious brain takes about 300 milliseconds to ‘make sense’ of anything that happens in our external environment, but within the first 13 milliseconds of that time, another part of the brain known as the amygdala has already reacted.  The amygdala is a sort of fast track alarm system which scans for potential dangers.

The amygdala ‘looks’ for sloppy matches by comparing and contrasting with previous experiences.  If triggered, it mobilises a cascade of  physiological changes such as increasing blood pressure and heart rate, moving blood into our muscles, curtailing digestion and flooding our brains with flight, fight and freeze neurotransmitters so that we just focus on the ‘danger’ and are unable to think more laterally.  Hence, we feel both the physical ‘jolt’ and the confused inability to think.  It is a fantastic response to escape a sabre-toothed tiger, but decidedly maladaptive in recognizing and countering George Osborne’s game.

In fact, it is even worse than I’ve described because during that lag of 287 milliseconds between the amygdala firing and the conscious thought, our brain is flailing, grasping around for clues as to what will be needed in the new cone of expectation.  We are at that point , profoundly open to suggestion (as any hypnotist will tell you).  So the second half of George Osborne’s sentence has disproportionate impact on the listener.  Watch Derren Brown to see exactly what I mean.

As Weston wrote of the Democrats, the problem for the liberals/left is that they think that facts and figures will suffice in rebutting right-wing lies… but clearly our biology can get in the way.

Ed Balls’ recognises this problem in his 2010 Bloomberg speech:

‘…the first lesson I draw from history is to be wary of any British economic policy-maker or media commentator who tells you that there is no alternative or that something has to be done because the markets demand it.

Adopting the consensus view may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.

We must never be afraid to stand outside the consensus – and challenge the view of the Chancellor, the Treasury, even the Bank of England Governor – if we believe them to be wrong.

But there is a second lesson too – which is also very pertinent at the present time for the Labour opposition and those of us who aspire to be the next Labour leader: it’s not enough to be right if you don’t win the argument.’ (6)


So that’s the nub of the problem for the LP.  The crucial decision is how to make a persuasive narrative that will counter the hypnotic effects of the Tory spin.  In my opinion, they are getting the strategy very wrong at the moment.  For example, I am still uncertain as to the degree to which Ed Balls and Ed Miliband buy into the TINA assumptions of the last 30y.  Ed Balls’ Bloomberg speech suggests that he understands the need for government to step in and create full employment; and Ed Miliband’s record suggests a commitment to mitigating climate change as a priority.  However, the lack of support for public service workers, those relying on benefits and talk of austerity has been alarming.

Regardless of my belief that it is profoundly the wrong economic policy, I also believe that the LP has a problem with their slogan of ‘too far and too fast’ because it is too easily portrayed as affirming the same frame of reference and strategy as the Tory/LDs. Whatever nuanced differences, or even the gross differences with Darling’s economic strategy, are lost under the deluge of Tory newspeak, doublethink and hypnotic invites.

I would suggest that next time, Ed Balls finds himself put up against George Osborne, he should remind himself that he will be subject to a deluge of spin, half-truths, falsehoods, tricksy accounting and omissions which will be intended to put him off his stride.  He needs to get off the ‘hamster wheel’ of Osborne’s making, keep himself grounded and perhaps to cross the transaction by saying “I do not understand what you mean when you say ..  It fails to make any sense to me”.  I would also suggest that he should not be distracted into discussing the dubious structural deficit figures or the debt.  His focus should be on the need for full employment because as Keynes said in 1933  Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself.

Ed Balls said himself in his Bloomberg speech:

“….. the clear strategy of the Coalition Government is to persuade the public both that there is no alternative, and that .. all their decisions are the fault of the previous government.  In my view Labour cannot sit back and allow this to happen.”  

Polly Toynbee agrees and suggests (7):

Labour needs to say what they see. Forget the polls and the focus groups, let the facts speak for themselves. Ed Miliband’s best instinct is that people are sick of Osborne’s callow politicking. Voters will reward honesty in politicians who speak their minds. If not, why bother at all??

Update:  This has just published and looks much more hopeful…Ed Miliband to wage war on George Osborne over benefit cuts – Labour set for Commons showdown as church leaders and charities protest at assault on welfare








5 thoughts on “George Osborne’s psychological warfare

  1. I’ve not yet read Shock Doctrine. I suppose I’ll have to now 🙂 I still think you should substitute ‘Osborne’s handlers’ nearly every time you credit Osborne above with any ability!


    • Fair comment Kay 🙂 I also think that Osborne’s delivery is very clunky but the ‘shocked’ unconscious is still likely to take the message on board. If anything, it is Osborne’s triumphalism post-trick which is more sabotaging… that photo of the trio laughing at Balls is very memorable.


  2. Pingback: Learning from history « Mike10613's Blog

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