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








Why Frank Luntz is afraid of the Occupy movement – What Osborne and Miliband can learn


Steve Richards writes about a George Osborne piece, from behind the paywall in the Times ‘It reads like a private internal memo to David Cameron: “The US election and how we win next time.” (1)

Essentially the election themes according to Steve Richards will be:

1)  ‘[Osborne] notes that Obama’s most effective message was that the US was “beginning the long, hard road to recovery” by “laying the foundations for a modern, more balanced economy”. He concludes that voters agreed with the message “we’re on the right track”.

2)  ‘Miliband and Balls caused this mess! Don’t let them near power ever again!

3)  ‘Obama supported an economic stimulus, but … only made headway when he refocused on the “need to get our fiscal house in order

4)  ‘the Conservatives’ wider message will be that they are on the side of “people who work hard and who want to get on

5)  ‘Finally, Osborne notes that the Republicans were on the wrong side of several social issues and points to his own support for gay marriage as electorally significant.’

I am pretty sure that these ‘themes’ were already widely known prior to Osborne’s article …  However, Steve Richards concludes ‘.. in one area [the Labour Party] knows Osborne is on to something. He implies President Bush won the election for Obama, the leader in power when the economy crashed in 2008. Romney could not escape the recent past….  It defies reason and is shaped wholly by emotion, mainly rage. By 2010 the UK economy was growing again, yet mention Gordon Brown and some voters start frothing with anger.’

Read the excellent William Keegan for a dismantling of the substance of Osborne’s analysis. (2)  My focus is on Steve Richard’s phrase ‘It defies reason and is shaped wholly by emotion, mainly rage’ because this fits nicely with the conclusions of ‘The Political Brain:  The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation’ written by Drew Weston.

Drawing from the fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, Weston, a clinical psychologist and political strategist from Emory University, speculates as to how we make decisions and choices when we vote … ‘the nature of political campaigns are where “rational minds collide with irrational thinking”….  ‘Irrational thinking’ will certainly have had to play a major role if the Tories succeed in getting re-elected in 2015. (3)

Weston illustrates the extent to which candidates’ speeches and political ads are emotionally laden with words and images designed to provoke strong feelings…. which activate networks in the brain and become the avenues down which true or false political messages travel.  He suggests that these messages connect to the unconscious emotions of the voter in a nano-second and involuntarily trigger us to react passionately.  This translates to voting without the use of the dispassionate brain.   In other words, we do not think when voting.  Weston demonstrates his contention by re-writing actual speeches using alternative wording designed to illicit a very different set of responses.

In the US, Frank Luntz the Republican strategist and organizer of Newsnight’s focus groups pre-general election, has taken the message to heart, as the following piece illustrates:

How Republicans are being taught to talk about Occupy Wall Street.  By Chris Moody | The Ticket – Thu, Dec 1, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Republican Governors Association met this week in Florida to give GOP state executives a chance to rejuvenate, strategize and team-build. But during a plenary session on Wednesday, one question kept coming up: How can Republicans do a better job of talking about Occupy Wall Street? 
“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
 Luntz offered tips on how Republicans could discuss the grievances of the Occupiers, and help the governors better handle all these new questions from constituents about “income inequality” and “paying your fair share.”

… Don’t say ‘capitalism.’
“I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. “The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

Don’t say that the government ‘taxes the rich.’ Instead, tell them that the government ‘takes from the rich.’ 
“If you talk about raising taxes on the rich,” the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But “if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes.”

Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the ‘middle class.’ Call them ‘hardworking taxpayers.’
“They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the ‘middle class’ and the public will say, I’m not sure about that. But defending ‘hardworking taxpayers’ and Republicans have the advantage.”

Don’t talk about ‘jobs.’ Talk about ‘careers.’
“Everyone in this room talks about ‘jobs,’” Luntz said. “Watch this.”
He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a “job.” Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a “career.” Almost every hand was raised.
“So why are we talking about jobs?”

Don’t say ‘government spending.’ Call it ‘waste.’
“It’s not about ‘government spending.’ It’s about ‘waste.’ That’s what makes people angry.”

Don’t ever say you’re willing to ‘compromise.’
“If you talk about ‘compromise,’ they’ll say you’re selling out. Your side doesn’t want you to ‘compromise.’ What you use in that to replace it with is ‘cooperation.’ It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you’re selling out those principles.”

The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: ‘I get it.’
“First off, here are three words for you all: ‘I get it.’ . . . ‘I get that you’re angry. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.”Then, he instructed, offer Republican solutions to the problem.

Out: ‘Entrepreneur.’ In: ‘Job creator.’
Use the phrases “small business owners” and “job creators” instead of “entrepreneurs” and “innovators.”

Don’t ever ask anyone to ‘sacrifice.’
“There isn’t an American today in November of 2011 who doesn’t think they’ve already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to ‘sacrifice,’ they’re going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how ‘we’re all in this together.’ We either succeed together or we fail together.”

Always blame Washington.
Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it’s the policies over the past few years that have created this problem.”

BONUS:Don’t say ‘bonus!’
Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a “bonus.”
“If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you’re going to make people angry. It’s ‘pay for performance.’”(4)


I’ve included virtually the whole piece because it illustrates just how and where George Osborne has learnt so many of his endlessly, regurgitated phrases… from the Republicans.  In other words, Osborne has already learnt from a ‘Frank Luntz’.

However, my guess is that the Occupy Wall Street campaigners have not given a second thought about how to ‘spin their words and phrases’ so as to activate their listeners’ neural pathways.  They just say it as they see it … and the result is that Frank Luntz is, in his own words:

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death” *

 *(Note that Luntz cannot resist reframing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ as being an ‘anti-Wall Street effort’…  thus avoiding advertising the name ‘Occupy Wall Street’; minimizing the movement into an ‘effort’ ie. an attempt not a success;  and trying to link the campaign with a negative ‘anti’ and to being life-threatening)

We are constantly told by the mainstream media (MSM) that elections are won by convincing the ‘centre-ground’ to vote for a particular party .. and yet here is Frank Luntz ‘frightened to death’ by Occupy Wall Street, who couldn’t be further from what the MSM perceive as the ‘centre’ of political views.

I should make clear, that in my opinion, the so-called ‘centre ground’ of the MSM and Westminster, is considerably to the right of the majority of the electorate… hence ‘voter apathy’ and ‘none of the above’.  Frank Luntz correctly intuits that the aims and aspirations of the Occupy movements, the Indignados et al, are self-evidently what the 99% would vote for, given the information and the opportunity.

Jonathon Rutherford agrees:

Politics is not a battle for the centre ground. It is a battle for people’s imaginations. Labour needs a cultural revolution of its own in order to establish the kind of deep and long hegemony which will bring the neo-liberal era to an end. (5)


Ed Miliband seems to have taken note… but instead of Blue Labour’s ephemera of ‘One Nation’ we need to have some real direction, inspiration and vision.  Overwhelmingly, people would not want the disabled, long-term ill or the unemployed, to have their benefits cut if they knew the reality of what Tory cuts mean for individuals.  They have been fed cynical lies by this government and the Tory press. Why aren’t the LP fighting and exposing these lies?  Why is it left to Sarah Teather to say that she ‘saw clear evidence while in government that the policy would not save money and that it would inflict immense social damage’? (6)

Why isn’t the LP saying that they too want to cut the Benefit bill?   By cutting the housing benefit given to rich landlords and working tax credits which subsidise low-paying employers…  through bringing in rent controls and raising substantially the minimum wage?  Why aren’t the LP calling for a crack-down on Tax Havens and tax avoidance schemes?

But most of all, why is there a ‘deeply cautious reluctance of the Labour Party to follow through on its convictions’ on the economy.  Michael Meacher MP writes:

The message could hardly be clearer.   Whilst on the surface Labour did well, the real meaning of Thursday’s elections is that the public are utterly depressed, despairing at prolonged austerity, and unwilling to bother to vote when they can see no hope from any quarter of an escape from their deepening troubles.   The mood across the whole electoral spectrum cries out for some inspiration which can lift their spirit towards some positive and achievable national goal to which they can aspire.   None of the political parties at present provides any such vision, which is a tragedy because there is indeed such a scenario….

That alternative scenario is to acknowledge that the fundamental current problem is deficiency of aggregate demand and that with the private sector frozen in deep recession the stimulus required can only come from a major public sector works programme.   It can be funded either from a tranche of QE monies or from taxing the super-rich or from miniscule borrowing at 0.5% base rate enough to generate a million jobs within 2 years.   And so far from frightening the markets, it would deeply relieve them that at long last there was real light at the end of the tunnel. (7)

As Weston makes clear, ‘language’ matters because our understanding is so intimately bound up with our emotional responses… Conrad Landin writes:

The next election could well be won on the basis of who has the better narrative. If Labour does not properly challenge the myth that it spent too much money last time round, perpetuated by the media and the Tories, we will lose. But we can’t forget that there are far more subtle right-wing narratives creeping through, in the very words in which we attempt to construct our alternatives. If we simply argue back that the last Labour government was “fiscally responsible”, we don’t stand much better a chance. (8)

 But as Occupy show, its not just the language which creates that important emotional response … so too, do the ideas and the policies!