Labour’s cleavage is moral psychological

Harold Wilson said that Labour was a moral crusade or it was nothing, little did he know that Labour might just come to nothing and the very reason was that he was right; Labour is indeed a moral crusade but therein lies the problem. Various social scientists have now identified the moral psychological structures which form Labour’s crusade (and other political projects) discovering in the process, that there is not one morality but rather there are “flavours” of morality. It is speculated here that it precisely those varying moral psychological foundations which are currently cleaving Labour.

If you doubt that politics even on the left is ultimately a claim about conflicting moral purpose see the enfant terrible of political geography Danny Dorling making this explicit moral claim for Corbyn, and the enfant terrible himself, Nick Cohen, arguing the opposite case. As the young people who are invading Labour to support Corbyn might say, how is this even possible?

Moral Intuitionism that’s how, start with a different flavour of morality, allow that to drive different emotions and then deploy a set of “strategic reasoning” in defence of the emotion. That “strategic reasoning” is not really reason in the normal sense as it is not a pure process of rational deliberation but rather reasoning back to what you want to be true. What you want to be true is what your moral intuitions that you were issued with at some point early in life, tells you is true. So “strategic reasoning” – select some facts, ignore others, invent some, and believe some things which are not true or partially true. In the EU Referendum the £350 million per week claim by the Leave campaign wasn’t true but it worked because Leave voters wanted it to be true so they added it to their “strategic reasoning” in defence of their emotion in defence of their moral intuition that the UK was a virtue (technically strong moralised in-group loyalty). Now if Labour supporters share values – social justice and fairness what can go wrong? The answer is that they share values and they both simultaneously share moral intuitions and do not share moral intuitions so we are sometimes the same and not the same. Did anyone notice the exact same thing happening to the Tories in respect of Europe these past twenty years? So we can have a cleavage between Labour Moderates and


These moral Intuitions are derived from the work of Jonathan Haidt in the Righteous Mind and Robert Fiske’s Social Relations theory. Both scholars divide up the moral foundational landscape slightly differently and moralised anti-authoritarianism is inferred from the work of Bhoem.

To see the way in which some Corbynistas reason that Labour Moderates are Tories it is important to note how moral intuitions might give rise to the whole Right-Left spectrum


So on the left Labour moderates and Corbynistas share some fundamental intuitions – a commitment to Fairness from which the values of social justice and equality flow, a commitment to Harm Reduction which has been central to Labour politics – seat belts, smoking bans, health and safety legislation…Equality Matching brings the commitment to democracy as moral system. Incidentally the absence of Equality Matching on the hard left outside Labour is what differentiates them from Corbynistas inside Labour. A moral cleavage separates the SWP from Labour to no one’s surprise, it is the internal cleavage that is difficult grasp.

The case that Corbynistas employ a strong moralised contempt or hostility to authority is made indirectly by the ferocious criticism levelled at the British hard left in the work of Nick Cohen and in particular in his book What’s Left. Cohen is not a psychologist but he recounts endlessly how the hard left fails to stand up for Fairness; here this is adduced to moralised anti-authoritarianism which overrides Fairness in certain circumstances. Cohen describes the circumstances at book length but the logic he describes is simple the enemy is the British state, Nato, powerful multi-national capitalism, Israel, the United States, their enemies are benign as a consequence and their enemies as not held to the same moral standard, so when Irish Republicans, Hamas or Russia breach Labour’s formal moral foundations and values they are not condemned, or indeed supported out of the perverse moral purpose that is moralised anti-authoritarianism. “We don’t do Leaders” said Corbyn/McDonnell before they were leaders. They still don’t because leaders, leadership, authority, the State, all accumulations of power are suspect and are the issue. Was Corbyn broken hearted on the 24th June? Did he process the EU Referendum as defeat for progressive Internationalism or one in the eye for supra-national authority?

If you are wondering whether Corbynistas really want to win the election note the above attitude to power, the comment from the Chair of momentum and conclude that Labour is in the grip of a project that doesn’t want to win an election, because that way lies the hated Authority.

Corbyn’s leadership immediately removed Labour from any type of pro-business, enterprise or market stance returning the Party to its founding hostility to capitalism. Unsurprisingly economic policy has been an epic failure under Corbyn and the evidence that a moral intuition is in play is the fact Corbyn is also completely hostile to all forms of public sector reform. The moral intuition of Anti-market pricing is more properly described as hostility to contract based relations for in the environment in which this intuition took hold there was trading and contract but not capitalism per se.

In the diagram Labour’s Contending Moral Intuitions above it is shown that Labour moderates share three intuitions with the Corbynistas but do not broadly subscribe to two others, however, in weaker versions they share moral intuitions with centrists and Conservatives. Liberty the left word for Freedom is a central value of these moderates, they don’t say the work often but you will never hear a Corbynista say “freedom”, Labour governments have historically promoted rights and freedoms as an expression of this value. Weak Pro-Authoritarianism saw the creation of Nato, the pursuit of military action, multiple anti-terrorism acts, tough crime and the causes crime… Previous Labour Government’s broke with the Party’s foundational hostility to capitalism and accepted the mixed economy and then markets and then Gordon Brown say moral purpose in the actions of free markets in their ability to create wealth. From the Corbynista perspective however, these overlaps with the Conservatives in terms policy is suspicious and is the origin of the “Red Tory” jibe hurled at Labour moderates.

Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership and the challenge to him has been characterised by a degree of aggression on the part of some of his supporters. The “Red Tory” abuse is explicable in in that all aggression is moralised to some extent, the aggressor pursues the people who have broken a moral code and feels as a consequence, entitled to outrage. The argument here seeks to explain that to some extent Corbynistas do have a different moral frame, partly similar, partly different and some cases feel entitled to aggression against those perceived to share policy outlook with the Tories.

Most dangerous is the chasm between the two parts of the Party

Moral Intuitionism


If they are in the same Party how can they disagree so profoundly and not see the same reality? The two groups appear to be losing the ability to communicate, on Twitter they live in “filter bubbles” connecting only with the congenial and blocking the arguments from the other side. Aren’t the values held in common listed as – democracy, liberty, social justice, equality, internationalism, the economic progress of the working class, solidarity?

Note the picture above and take two recent examples:

The last Labour government strongly embraced market based prosperity. For Labour moderates the strategic reasoning is working class economic advantage which is a value and therefore an emotion and therefore a moral intuition – fairness. For Corbynistas the embrace of neo-liberalism is perversion of value of social justice and therefore and emotion and the moral intuition is hostility to the market pricing moral foundation.

In the summer leadership campaign Corbyn said that he would not militarily come to the aid of a NATO ally. His emotions value peace, his moral intuition is that in-group authority is corrupt in any case and leads him to hesitate to defend it. For Labour moderates the value and emotion is internationalism and the moral intuition is weak pro-Authoritarianism, the British state can and will act morally in the world.

If any doubt about the salience of emotion in all this take the two recent UK referendums, Scotland and the EU to observe how the Leave sides did so well on the basis of a stronger emotional component in their arguments. That was so because they had more moral intuitions on their side. Note also that the above picture shows why the two sides regard each other as delusional. Another’s “strategic reasoning” has exactly that quality. This difference in “strategic reasoning” could be the basis of a split.

More evidence for the this cleavage being a moral psychological one and not just a case of Corbynistas being several degrees to the left of moderate Labour is from continental European politics where left parties sit to the left of Labour’s traditional allies in the PSOE, SPD and PS and other Scandinavian sister parties. These parties like Syriza, Die Link and Podemos are characterised by absolute rejection of market capitalism (moralised anti-market pricing) and hostility to establishment, the bosses, the social democrats and their State governments (moralised anti-authoritarianism) so the phenomenon is universal.

By why the flood of new members to support Corbyn? It is precisely because he offers something new; something not offered by Labour in the past that they are joining. Many millions of people support those continental leftists with votes amounting to 5-10% of the population and the UK should not be different. The problem is that moral intuitions attract as well as repel that is why we have politics but they attract and repel within the left. Corbyn’s attitude to NATO will inspire and appal within the left. It is as If all the members in Germany of Die Linke were to join the SPD , to overwhelm it. That is what is happening to Labour.

In conclusion it is hard to conclude that Labour can get out of this without really knowing or understanding the real origin of the cleavage.

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