dr. mark abrams’ survey of political attitudes, “Why Labour Has Lost Elections”, published in four consecutive issues of Socialist Commentary, and shortly to achieve wider distribution as a Penguin “Special”, does not tell us anything new about the reasons for Labour’s defeat, nor does a close reading support its claim to offer a “reliable understanding of contemporary British political loyalties”. Its importance lies rather in the underlying approach to man and politics which it reveals and which, in turn, it supports.
This might be summed up as a species of status determinism, supported by a behaviourist psychology of opinions and informed by the assumptions of motivational and market research. Dr. Abrams, in a general statement of his views published in the May issue of Encounter, advances what he calls a “functional view” of the nature of human opinion. A man, so he believes, holds a certain opinion not because he thinks it to be true, or considers it to be important, or because he holds that its consequences would be just, but rather because “holding it serves certain functions in life”, the principal one being that it
Starting from this “functional” definition of political behaviour, Dr. Abrams would have us revolutionise the traditional picture of the reasons why people support Labour. Working class people who vote Labour, in his description, do not do so because of material conditions—since many people in the same situation vote Conservative—nor yet because they think Labour policy better for the country, or for their class, or even for themselves, but rather:
Nor are their Conservative neighbours accorded much more respect. They do not, in Dr. Abrams’ model of political behaviour, vote Conservative because they actively prefer that Party’s policies—thinking them more “national” or more “efficient”, crediting them with responsibility for the new prosperity or, deferentially, holding that “they’re born to rule”, “they’ve got the money”, but rather that the act of voting Conservative:
Dr. Abrams does not explore all the consequences of his “functional view” of the human mind, but he does propose it as a general theory of opinion, and indeed sets it forth as a self-evident truth which requires no justification. The Labour voter—to translate his analysis into everyday terms—does not support Labour because he is moved by a desire to help the old, or give aid to the poor, or because he would like to see the country more socialist or more just, or because he wants to improve life for the people of the country: his real purpose—since no generous impulse or objective convictions are allowed to exist—is merely a “concern to be seen to be a person moved by social generosity” both in the eyes of others and in his own status mirror. He is “buying” a “label” to support his self-image. He is not so much committed to supporting the Labour Party as enmeshed in a pattern of compulsive role-playing, in which a desperate concern to validate his own self-image is matched only by his desire to win the esteem of his neighbours (which neighbours, Dr. Abrams does not say: it is a curious departure from his theory that Dr. Abrams’ Labour voters do not seem troubled by the image they present to their Conservative neighbours, whose pursuit of ego-identification has led them down such very different paths).