Lost in (moral psychological) space the UK’s Liberal Democrats are faced with electoral collapse

The UK’ Liberal Democrats (LD) are in an unusually interesting place political place.  In Government, as part of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster they are considered to be in the midst of a grave crisis one which, by some of the more unfriendly assessments, could see them wiped out as a political force losing all but a handful of their 57 currently held seats in the 2015 election.  In the 2010 election they took 23% of the vote, their best ever result, but they are now languishing on between 7 to 9% according to the latest polls

Polling Organisation Lib Dems Con Lab UKIP GRN
Ashcroft 7 31 31 18 5
Populus 8 34 36 13 3
You Gov 8 32 32 18
Com Res 9 30 30 19 4

By any accounting a 60% collapse in support is something of huge significance which needs explanation, particularly because it the main driver of the extraordinary numbers in the UKIP column.  Almost 15% of the 2010 electoral vote has floated free of it previous embrace of the LD and much of it has found a home in those startling UKIP totals.

In the standard political reckoning the Lib Dem’s woes are accounted for by the unpopularity of being in government at a time of austerity, by the breaking of pre-election promises and their identification with Conservatives which alienates left wing voters.  Those broken promises are significant see here and here, so was the 2010 tactic of running against austerity arguing that it could be mitigated or softened and then in Government the Lib Dems were party to actually deepening austerity by cutting 25% faster than the Labour government had proposed.  This later policy caused the recession to deepen and delayed recovery and extended  austerity, exploded indebtedness  by several years in the UK.

So if breaking your promises and making policy errors are the drivers of a 60% decline in popularity then the Conservatives,  rather than being down 10% on their  2010 showing would be down a very great deal more.  The difference in the way in which types of voters react to the same events needs explanation at the moral psychological level

Conservative voters revere and valourise authority, right wing parties tend to strengthen in Government for this reason.  Right wing voters are high on in-group loyalty  and this leads them to rationalise and reason in a way which is supportive and sympathetic to authority, so economic failure and broken election promises on the part of the Governing right are more easily forgiven and rationalised.  Recall Haidt, reason follow emotions which follow moral intuitions.  This phenomenon in itself accounts for a key strength of the political right in global democratic politics, success in policy or the economy is readily recognised and rewarded by right wing voters whereas policy failure can be overlooked more readily.  Now the UK’s Conservatives are challenged by UKIP who are banging on the Authority and In Group Loyalty foundations for all they are worth.

If right wing voters reason to forgive right wing governments then the inverse, has been spectacularly true and ruinous for the Lib Dems.  Moralised anti-authoritarianism and weak or non-existent in group loyalty have wrought destruction on their political prospects.  Reason follows intuitions so the moralised anti-authoritarian have little difficulty accepting “policy betrayal” such as on £9000 per year student fees as vindication, of a type which is deeply salient and of intense emotional  pull.

The Lib Dems were able to denude Labour of several million votes by tracking to Labour’s left across 1999 to 2010.  Labour in 97 had 13.5 million votes to 5 million for the Lib Dems whereas in 2010 Labour had 8.6 million to the Lib Dem 6.8 million.  This blog argues that politics need to be understood both in Haidt terms and Fiske terms.  The Lib Dems ripped up Labour’s support base by tracking stronger on Fairness and Liberty and more strongly anti-authoritarian as well as more fundamentally CS and EM with outright MP hostility.

In the standard model the Lib Dems are suffering from opposing Labour to its left and now governing on the same space or the right of the same space.  Perfectly true but the questions is why should that be uniquely ruinous for them?  Parties position themselves tactically all the time and shape-shifting is as old as politics itself.  The argument here is that the Lib Dem had such spectacular success in destroying Labour support by positioning across Haidt and Fiske moral foundations with a different emphasis of that to Labour.  Now, in Government they have not simply adopted some different policies but have moved in moral psychological space in such a ways as to spell political disaster for them, voters may not recall the broken pledge on VAT but they sense the shift in the moral basis of their position.

Some key movements in moral psychological space:

Policy areas under Labour met with Lib Dem hostility

Labour Policy Moralised Foundations Lib Dem in Government
  Haidt Fiske  
Liberal Interventionist Wars In Group LoyaltyAuthoritarianism MPAR Fought a liberal interventionist war in Syria and against ISIS in Iraq.  Adopting Labour’s Haidt and Fiske moral reference point.
Welfare ReformEducational ReformHeath Reform

Public Sector Reform

MP All these reform processes have been continued by the Lib Dem and Tory coalitionLid Dems in opposition evinced moralised hostility to contract change – hostility to MP
Redistribution Fairness CS The Lib Dems campaigned on poverty and exclusion but in Government they are unable to re-distribute at all.  (The one policy success of increasing personal tax allowances is offset by it being paid for by increasing the regressive VAT tax )
Security/Terrorism Authoritarianism AREM The Lib Dems have continued the Labour government security policy supporting detention without trial under a different name.The unique selling point of the Lib Dems is there strong EM reference but this has been systematically under-mined by there security policy.
Constitutional Reform EM Classic Lib Dem EM reference which cannot be pursued over Tory hostility
EU policy EMMP Classic Lib Dem EM reference and enthusiasm stymied by Tory hostility

Argument summary: governing under austerity and breaking election pledges are not fatal to a Party’s political prospects (see the Conservatives)  but what is critical is the way in which moving decisively across political moral psychological tramlines is felt by voters.

Conflicting In-Loyalty Identity Drives Scotland’s Referendum Result

Conflicting In-Group Identity Drives Scotland’s Referendum Result


After several years when support in Scotland for Independence from the rest of the United Kingdom hovered around the 30% mark for several decades in opinion polls, the final result in September’s Referendum was much closer than many observers had predicted in the months beforehand, at 45% saying Yes to Independence with the No to Independence at 55%.  In the weeks beforehand however, the outcome was considered too close to call but this appears to have been due to a systematic error in opinion polling for one staggeringly untechnical reason: opinion polls are based on sampling past behaviour and there had never been Scottish Independence Referendum before so there was no historical data to sample. So the polls showing a Yes majority in the several weeks leading to the poll were flawed but induced the No Campaign’s Unionist Parties to pledge an additional transfer of powers to Scotland giving the Yes side the ability to argue that the resulting No vote was conditional on an acceptable transfer of powers.  The “acceptable” here having the meaning acceptable to them.  And they say opinion polls don’t influence the results…..

In an earlier post it was argued that the success of Yes was explicable in political psychological terms as their ability to underpin their rational reasoned argument for Scottish Independence with their unstated but powerful emotional one, whereas the Unionist parties decided, as a tactic, to forego the emotional component of their argument for the Union, and crucially, accept the Nationalist frame – what is good for Scotland. Now political perspectives flow from emotions through feelings to intuitions about right and wrong to values and then onto rationalisation and reasoning to policy. The gift to the Yes campaign was intense moral coherence along all six moral foundations: Care, Fairness, Freedom, Loyalty to Scotland, rejection of Authority (the Tories, the Union and the Westminster parties) and the Sacralisation of the Saltire from which the Yes campaign was never 20cm distant.

A feature of the campaign was the panic reversion to emotional and moralised arguments on behalf of the No campaign when former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown joined the campaign late on. It was probably too late to make a difference though and possibly struck a discordant note.

Since psephology and polling is set up to analyse the electoral salience of the government’s education reforms it is hard to deduce direct evidence of these moralised psychological factors around identity in the vote.  However, there is much indirect evidence of people voting their core identity (Haidtian Loyalty foundation) as either Scottish, or mostly or completely British.  Lord Ashcroft polls found that 74% of Yes voters could cite disaffection with Westminster and 70% agreeing that all decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland.  British identity in Scotland is strong and drove the No vote with one third of people saying they are equally British and Scottish, sometimes 23% of people living in Scotland are exclusively self-identified as British.  Here is Professor John Curtice’s analysis of how identity drove voting:

“Meanwhile, people’s sense of national identity was also reflected in how they voted. In Ipsos MORI’s two final polls, no less than 88% of those who said they were Scottish and not British voted Yes, compared with 65% of those who said they were ‘More Scottish than British’ and 26% of those who felt ‘Equally British and Scottish’. Amongst the two remaining small groups, only 9% of those who said they were ‘More British than Scottish’ identified themselves as Yes voters, and just 13% of those who said they were British and not Scottish.”

More evidence about the moralised nature of the debate is in the sheer antagonism that it actually generated in reality, in noted contrast, to the official line (media, campaigns, parties, Governments) that the Scotland was in the middle of a wondrous democratic renewal and was conducting a forensic examination of what it takes to create a good society. This was shown in the finding by You Gov that 45% of No voters felt intimidated by the Yes campaign.   That doesn’t happen when you are discussing child care policy. Incidentally, if this was rational argument how many people changed their mind, switched from Yes to No after reading Paul Krugman in the NYT and took down their Yes posters?  It is physically unimaginable. No one changed their mind, their decision was reached either quickly or slowly but there were no switchers.  In Group Loyalty is going to jump horses Krugman or no Krugman.

If the referendum was about health, public spending, unemployment and the economy then a class distinction in voting might be evident.  But it isn’t:

Yes No
Social Class ABC1 C2DE ABC1 C2DE
Ashcroft Polls 44 47 56 53
You Gov 41 50 59 50
Actual Result Overall 45 55


Other Moral Psychological Aspects of the Referendum Vote


In addition to the core “Scottish not British” third of Scots we have –

Moralised Anti-Authoritarianism

37% of Labour voters and 39% of Liberal Democrat voters voted for Yes to the compete dismay of those two parties.  Now some of this was poor Labour voters with nothing to lose voting to change everything. The Liberal Democrats have a crisis of their own authorship, campaigning to Labour’s left and governing with the Conservatives to the right of their positioning of the 10 years prior to 2010.  These factors alone though cannot explain why Labour voters in particular would abandon their previously felt loyalty to British working class solidarity.  But it is argued here that attitudes to authority are pervasive in driving voting patterns and hostility to in group authority in particular is ubiquitous on the left.  What better way to express hostility to in group authority (currently the Tories) than by voting Yes?   Many Liberal Democrat voters are ex Labour voters so the same moralised anti-authoritarianism is present as an explanatory factor in their referendum vote as well.

As you proceed left the moralised anti-authoritarianism component grows stronger: the hard left in Scotland ex-Bennite Labour, the Trotskyists and Communist were all driven to abandon their previous dedication to British working class solidarity and supported the Yes campaign, explicable only by the emotion of anti-authoritarianism.

The International support for the Yes campaign was weak – North Korea and the demented Ukrainian separatists.   But the International left evinced the identical split to the one in Scotland with main stream Social Democrats looking on aghast at the prospect of separation with a minority of hard leftists supporting separation such as the lifelong foe of authority Noam Chomsky.  Foes of authority outside Scotland urged a Yes vote.

Moralised Pro-Authoritarianism

Supporters of authority outside Scotland urged a No vote.  The Australian and Canadian governments, the EU was coldly hostile to Yes and the Obama administration directly intervened against the Yes campaign.

In the UK pro-authoritarians such as the Conservative and UKIP Parties and Northern Ireland loyalists were passionately on the No side.

The Greens and Communal Sharing

Moralised anti-authoritarianism is present in Green politics and that was a factor in their presence in the Yes campaign but also the Greens in Fiskian terms have a more fundamental Communal Sharing ethos, hostile and indifferent to Market Pricing.  For the Greens an Independent Scotland can be poorer and more economically strained but as long as it more equitable that is OK, and they are happy to be frank about this.

Moralised Binding and Blinding

In neat piece of blinding the Labour politician Douglas Alexander complained that the Yes campaign was full of emotion, but what else could drive a Labour’s politician’s defence of the solidaristic UK flows other than emotion which undergird the sense of fairness?  Everyone is attuned the irrational emotional conduct of their opponent’s position whilst wholly unaware of why it is they are defending tax credits.

The Yes campaign wholly forgot to engage with the core Unionist sympathy the UK.  No attempt whatsoever was made to understand or emphasise or assuage the hurt and grief that would be caused by the end of the Union to two million Scots.  Instead they were told that Scotland would be like Norway, have better child care and lower business taxes.  The Yes campaign bound together in moralised self-righteousness was blind to these Unionist sensibilities.  Worth repeating that: people concerned about the loss of their British identity were told that Scotland could be like Norway.

Incoherent Rationalisations

The evidence that reason is supporting emotions rather than emotions supporting reasons comes when political arguments are truly incoherent.  Some Yes campaigners argued that the risk in not becoming Independent of the UK (and therefore automatically leaving the EU) was that a UK Tory government might arrange a referendum to leave the EU.

Confirmation Bias

Believing what you already believe when you are presented with evidence to the contrary is one of the enjoyable mainstays of political campaigning.  The contradictory evidence is rejected and the original belief is held all the more dearly. In a spectacular example of this new leader of the SNP/Yes campaign appears to believe that the referendum was won. She says “Let me make a confession. While I was never complacent, I did believe up until polls closed that ‘Yes’ would win.”  She appears to be now proceeding on the basis of the earlier belief rather than the facts.  She certainly doesn’t process the result as the settled, self-determined will of the Scottish people, rather that something incongruous and a little puzzling has happened and needs to be re-done to iron out the crinkled reality.

Other Psychological Aspects of the Vote

Optimism and Pessimism

A key tactic of the Yes campaign was to be resolutely upbeat and optimistic on the basis that in other political contests the more optimistic message usually won out.  Certainly the No campaigns rational objections often sounded like pessimism.  The psychological point would be that Optimism/Pessimism is psychological trait so did the intensely optimistic tend to side with Yes, and was this offset by the pessimists voting No?  Does anyone know whether anything like this happens? 

Tough and Tender Mindedness

It can’t be claimed that tough minded realists voted No but can a case be made that the possibility of a new country, a new dawn, a completely new beginning and a nation brimming with possibilities was attractive to the tender minded?   A new dispensation shorn of the old constraints and full of possibilities would facilitate the idealism favoured by the tender minded.

Woman’s Risk Aversion

John Curtice is puzzled as to why women voted No so convincingly at 58% but the entire basis of left politics is the rick averse nature of women voters and their greater attraction to risk reducing welfare provision.   They would process the Scottish Independence argument as the more risky and therefore less attractive option.