Morality and left-wing politics: a case study of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.

Author:Blackwater, Bill
Position:LABOUR PARTY POLITICS - Case study

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership campaign was based on his moral authority, in turn said to be the key to renewing the party's appeal in its traditional heartlands. But latest research on the psychological basis of morality, and its relationship to political views, suggests this was always misguided.

Why do we hold the political views that we do? How is it that different groups of people can have diametrically opposing views on the same issue, on what is fundamentally right and wrong? There is a fastgrowing academic field which seeks to answer these questions, examining the psychological basis for moral judgement and its relationship with political views. To date, however, analysis of the moral basis for left-wing politics tends to be somewhat underdeveloped. This seems to be thanks to a predominately American focus in which the left is represented mainly by a liberal concern with individual rights, rather than a socialist or social democratic concern with collective equality. All of which is to say: Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party is ripe for such analysis.

One of the key findings to draw from recent psychological research is that many people have political views which are shaped by a wider understanding of morality than that traditionally recognised by the left. Bringing this framework to bear on Labour politics helps to explain why, despite being based on an explicitly moral approach to politics, Corbyn and the brand of politics he represents does not register with many of those who feel alienated from Labour. Analysis of this wider definition of morality, meanwhile, can help in suggesting ways in which the Labour Party might successfully project itself as being both pragmatic and morally virtuous.

A moral crusader

'The Labour Party is a moral crusade--or it is nothing'. (1) Harold Wilson's famous remarks still resonate in debates on Labour's leadership and policy direction. The Guardian's Tom Clark summed this up during last summer's leadership contest, with reference to the decision of Labour's front bench to abstain on a vote on welfare cuts. Taking up the options Wilson set out, he put it that the three mainstream candidates had 'plumped for nothing'. Hence the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn: he was 'filling [the] void'. (2)

Corbyn's unembarrassed articulation of moral purpose was clearly something Labour members had been waiting for--half (49.3%) of them giving him their first-preference in the 2015 election. (3) What was it they were responding to? Bloodworth put it well, referring to a 'smouldering resentment' at some of the compromises and moral choices made during the New Labour years:

Under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even to some extent Ed Miliband, Labour suffered from what the American socialist Irving Howe once called a 'failure to distinguish between expediency within the framework of principle and expediency that undermines and rots any principle'. (4) To his supporters, Corbyn's election could be seen as helping to avert the risk of Pasokification, the collapse in support for centre-left parties that has been seen most clearly in Greece and Spain, as a result of their failure to articulate an alternative to austerity. But for all the positives, in terms of re-engaging many members and sometime-supporters, there was always a major problem with Corbyn's leadership: his unpopularity with the country at large.

Corbyn is the first person, on becoming opposition leader, to receive an initial approval rating that was negative (-8%) since such polling began in the 1950s. (5) In April 2016, it is true, his approval climbed above David Cameron's; and much was made of this. Less was made of the fact that Corbyn's approval rating was still an eye-watering -22% (to Cameron's -24%), and that Cameron still beat Corbyn in terms of how many people positively thought he was doing a good job. (6) For reference, at the same stage in his leadership, Ed Miliband was also faring badly, but was still 9 percentage points better in approval (-13%). (7) The message in both cases is the same:

For an opposition leader to have a real chance of victory, they and their party must both be well ahead of their rivals by mid-term. Opposition leaders with a low starting score have never managed to achieve the kind of mid-term cushion that enables them to withstand the recovery that governments and prime ministers normally enjoy as the following election approaches. (8) Just before the EU Referendum, with the Tories ripping each other to shreds over Europe and heavily tainted by cuts and steel closures, Labour was still behind, at 33% support to the Tories' 34%--and post-Referendum, the Tories' lead has increased. (9) On the early months of Corbyn's leadership, George Eaton could write: 'At no point in the post-1945 era has it performed so poorly in opposition.' (10) For Glen O'Hara, writing in January 2016, Labour was risking a double-digit defeat in 2020: 'Everything we know--every last scrap of data--says that the Labour Party as we have known it is in very profound trouble indeed'. (11)

Here is where it may be useful to consider recent developments in academic research on the psychological basis for moral judgements, and their relationship with politics. If nothing else, this ought to offer some food for thought for everyone attached to the Labour Party, both Corbyn supporters and detractors. For the former, it should help to address the question: if Corbyn has such moral authority, why is he not more popular with the public? For Labour members generally the question would be: If Labour has always had a morally superior vision to the Conservatives, why hasn't it won more general elections? And, most essentially now: How does Labour reconnect with many of those who voted Leave, especially in its traditional heartlands?

Drivers of moral judgements and political views

Research into the psychological basis for moral judgement, and the relationship between morality and political beliefs, is a rapidly-developing field. (12) It is possible to synthesise a number of academic papers into the following key points (where I am adding my own interpretations to this work, this is in italics):

* The function of morality is to regulate behaviours that would be negative to group living, and to promote behaviours that would be positive to it. Morality has been a vital part of human evolution, a set of socially-held and internalised rules and values which help us to live in a community. (13) It depends on, and promotes, empathy with others as thinking, feeling beings like ourselves. (14)

* There are five dimensions of morality: (15)

** Harm/care: Concerns for the suffering and well-being of others.

** Fairness/reciprocity: Concerns about inequality, cheating, and injustice.

** In-group/loyalty: Obligations of group membership--such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, and vigilance against betrayal.

** Authority/respect: Concerns related to maintaining social order, including obligations between leaders and members of the group such as honour, respect, duty, and protection.

** Purity/sanctity. Concerns about physical and spiritual pollution, including safeguarding the sacred, virtues of wholesomeness, and control of desires.

* The first two dimensions (harm and fairness) have been identified as more connected to left-wing (in US terms, liberal) political views; the other three (associated with social cohesion...

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