This weekend I and thirty-five others gathered in Cambridge to see what we could learn from a political simulation game based on Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup; a 1980s Labour government needs to organise and succeed whilst dealing with internal and external obstacles. These issues could be factionalism within the party, a hostile media environment, or just trying to balance the national budget whilst delivering pledges from the manifesto.
Some of the participants were civil servants, strategy consultants, armed forces personnel, and political volunteers whereas others had little to no knowledge of UK politics but were interested to learn as well as joining for recreational reasons (at the end of the day, it was a game).
The hope was that people would take away a basic understanding of how the UK government works, but also how negotiation and communication between all relevant parties could shape the way in which policies are supported.
The game, which lasted a little over five hours, saw different Labour traditions vie with each other for influence over the government cabinet. All factions of the party had specific objectives, such as cancelling the Trident nuclear missile programme, abolishing the House of Lords, or starting talks with the Republic of Ireland on unification with Northern Ireland. Other issues which had broader support across the spectrum included opportunities to fund the NHS more, or banning fox hunting.
Players found themselves making promises to representatives of other factions as well as talking with the Conservatives over some cross-party business. Additional factions represented included the diplomatic missions of foreign powers, as well the likes of the Church of England, and the intelligence services.
The Labour players quickly learned how important unity in the face of opposition would be when they lost their first vote in Westminster – an environmental policy was defeated by the Conservatives. They would only lose one further vote after this.
Although there were several notable events across the game, one included a Labour faction becoming isolated, its fellow MPs were on the verge of removing it from power when the membership came to its rescue; does this sound familiar to anyone? In this instance it happened to the Fabians.
Other events of note included uncovering Russian meddling in UK politics, and the Labour government voting against a massively expensive public works proposal put forward with some careful manoeuvring by allies of the Conservatives. The idea was that it would force the government to put the UK into horrendous debt, and therefore reflect badly on Labour – it certainly left a sour taste in many Labour players’ mouths that they had to vote against building more libraries and schools!
At the game’s end, the Labour government had survived a call of no confidence but was nowhere near as popular as it had been just a year before. A swing towards a New Labour stance had been pulled back to a more traditional position, and the USA was calling for the repayment of its debts after a rocky relationship which saw the UK “persuaded” to keep Trident (just) but banned weapon sales to repressive regimes.
Something else which arose from conversations after the game was how plausible several people felt it had been. There had been scandals, voting against the whip, and frantic policy meetings. It would have been interesting to see how things developed further. Although the Labour players had learnt how to cooperate, their efforts were still resulting in a drop of popularity (although not with Labour Party members) and increasing debt in a very hostile media environment. Who knows what would have happened next?
Largely those that played seem to have enjoyed themselves, but also learnt something about how government works. Many also saw first-hand how working together, even despite ideological differences, can achieve results for everyone. As an educational tool, making sure people have an enjoyable whilst also learning can be a powerful combination, and I hope more Labour volunteers get the opportunity to play A Very British Coup. You won’t regret it!
(thanks to Chris Mullin for giving permission to use his material, and Jim Wallman for developing the game – his website is www.stonepaperscissors.co.uk)
By Rob Grayston, CLP Chair