Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Lock in

This is, eventually, about the Labour Party.

Younger readers might struggle to imagine the world we fifty somethings grew up in. There were three TV channels, BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. ITV wasn't called ITV1, any more than Earth is currently called Earth1. The idea of multiple ITVs would have seemed as far fetched as a Dyson sphere.

There was no such thing as a remote control. To change channels you had to rise from your sofa, walk across the living room and press a button on the TV. Broadcasters would all (both) try and engineer their schedules to get you on their channel early, because they knew lots of people would rather watch Ask the Family than take that walk. There was no iPlayer, because there was no Internet. Literally, no Internet. Well, not unless you happened to be in charge of communications at a nuclear missile silo, packet switching having been invented for that purpose, but even under those circumstances opportunities to watch funny videos of somebody's nephew skateboarding off the end of a railing were rudimentary at best, involving using a different coloured ICBM for each pixel and hoping the timing was just right for viewers in Murmansk or Saskatchewan.

Three channels only, then, and no option but live viewing. Once you missed it it was gone, so if the midweek football clashed with JR v Sue Ellen it meant someone was going to be unlucky. The European ban after Heysel in 1985 must have saved thousands of marriages, and fortunately for the Government's Back to Basics morality campaign by the time it was over the solution had become cheap enough for most households to afford.

The answer to scheduling conflict was the VCR, or Video Cassette Recorder. They were invented about the same time as remote controls for TVs, and changed our world as profoundly as the end of pub licensing hours. A cassette is a hard plastic frame containing a spool of tape you record onto, and video is the Latin for I see (using that fact as a guide, I bet you could now make an informed guess at the Latin for I hear).

There were two formats for the recorders to use, VHS (Video Home System) and Betamax. Experts generally agreed that from a technical point of view Betamax was slightly better, but there really wasn't much in it. What happened, though, was that VHS got to a position of market dominance first. This meant that VCR manufacturers made their recorders for VHS, which meant the public bought VHS cassettes because they worked on their recorders, which meant cassette makers made VHS because that was what sold, which meant ...

You get the idea. It's a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on your opinion of the product. It's called technological lock-in.

You could have started here, to be honest

The Labour Party. I bet most of you voted for them. I bet it was mainly for tactical reasons. You might call this political lock-in. Do you see where I'm going with this? Yes alright, you saw paragraphs ago. I'm gutted to be wasting your time like this. Perhaps you'd bear with me for the others' sake?

The point is, because Labour has the largest market share of the non-Tory parties, under first past the post they are most likely to be in pole position to keep the Tories out. This means people will vote for them, which means they continue to be in pole position, which means people will vote for them the next time, etc etc.

Let's talk through the implications of the analogy. Did VHS maintain its dominant position by providing the best product? No it didn't. It didn't have to. It only had to show up to win. It wouldn't have mattered if Betamax had offered free toffee apples with every pack of five. Once you've got lock in, you're safe.

Suppose there was a different market system available, one where VHS and Betamax competed on equal terms. We could call it, I dunno, proportional recording or something. How keen on this would VHS suppliers have been?

Alternatively, suppose Betamax had offered VHS a deal, under which each would collaborate on a VCR which worked on both platforms. A kind of [insert word that means a recording process but sounds as much as possible like progressive] alliance. This would have been in the consumers' interests, and would have given the video industry as a whole a stronger position in the long run. Again, how keen do you think VHS suppliers would have been?

I'll spell it out. Labour will never support PR, they will never do electoral deals with the Green Party, they will never collaborate in any meaningful way, because why would they take the risk? If they carry on as they are they can rely on lockin to stop us doing to them what they did to the Liberals a century ago. If we ever got a foothold, they would be vulnerable. The Liberals made a pact with Labour and it broke them, and if there's one thing Labour know about it's their own history.

All talk of progressive alliances, any suggestion that we should join together to oppose a common enemy, will fall on stony ground. We should stop doing it. They aren't our friends or allies, they're our opponents, and we need to get into the habit of treating them as such.


  1. You're right. Betamax supporters refusing to bow to VHS dominance is why we all have betamax recorders in our homes to this day.

  2. The analogy does rather break down at that point, I'm afraid. Whether for better or worse, political parties have a longer shelf life than Champions League recording strategies.

  3. Or it's a perfect analogy, and the tapey ways of greens and labour alike will be swept away by the futuristic roundness of dvd neo-eco-socialism, which will have less packaging and more extras.