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
“helps him to establish his identity—partly to the outside world, but primarily in his own eyes. Sometimes this identity is reached by indicating affinity with a social type, sometimes by indicating dissociation”.
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:
“Because of their concern to see themselves as people moved by social generosity . . . prosperous working class adults vote Labour because in this mirror they can see themselves as humanitarians beyond the reach of (Conservative) selfishness”.
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:
“establishes them (in their own eyes) as patriotic and intelligent . . . prosperous working class adults vote Conservative because ‘buying’ this label, they are able to recognise themselves as intelligent (i.e. clever, educated, sensible) and altruistic (patriotic and non-Labour)”.