Everyone who is interested in British politics agrees that the Labour Party is in a bad way: Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is in crisis, and we are facing what is certain to be a bloody and bruising leadership election. There are huge divisions within the party, whether they be between the membership and the parliamentary party, or between the working-class and middle class Labour voters. Although there are problems Labour faces that will be addressed differently depending on whether Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith is the leader in 2020, there are several things that I think the party can resolve without any internal dispute being settled.
The moral foundations of right and left
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind offers an interesting analysis as to why right-wing parties often have an easier time connecting with voters than the left; he argues that there are five ways in which people’s sense of morality can be triggered, and that the left usually only targets two of them. These ‘channels’ of morality are: harm, fairness, authority, in-group/loyalty, and purity (he later adds liberty/freedom as an extra moral channel but I think that this has less significance in British politics than it does in American politics). Figure 1 shows the degree to which people who identify as liberal and conservative (which are slightly different from the British definitions of those words, they are roughly the equivalent of left-wing and right-wing in the UK) care about these different values. To win elections, politicians must appeal to more than two of these moral channels, but in the past Labour have only really bothered to appeal to harm and fairness. This is an especially important problem to address given that a large chunk of Labour’s traditional voters are working-class, and the working-class are much more likely to be won over by messages that appeal to four or five, rather than two, of these moral channels.
Unlike Labour, the Conservatives are fairly good at appealing to several different moral channels. Like Labour, they appeal to the ideas of harm and fairness, talking about how British people have been harmed by economic policies, and also constantly making reference to benefits scroungers to anchor their welfare cuts to voters’ feelings of being unfairly taken advantage of by those who are claiming benefits. They also appeal to loyalty and patriotism, whether through Cameron’s fairly frequent references to British values or through Michael Gove wanting to change the national curriculum to include primarily British writers and British history, and to authority, through Cameron’s discussion of family values and the paternal response to the 2011 London riots.
If you look through Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 conference speech and compare it to David Cameron’s through the lens of the five moral channels, several themes emerge. Both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn make reference to harm and fairness, for example, they both talk about poverty and about racism. However, when it comes to the other three channels, Cameron does much better than Corbyn does. As a crude measure, David Cameron uses the word ‘country’ twice as much as Jeremy Corbyn does, a word that immediately triggers the ‘loyalty’ channel. Cameron is also much more likely to say the word ‘family’. Corbyn does use the word ‘family’, but nowhere near as much as David Cameron does, and often when Corbyn uses it he is chastising Cameron for using it too often. David Cameron uses the word ‘loyal’ in his speech, Jeremy Corbyn does not. This is a quite basic analysis of the way that Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron use language differently, but if you watch how they speak for yourself, you will notice that David Cameron is much more likely to appeal to moral values other than harm and fairness.
Slogans and changing the narrative
If you asked a voter what the Conservatives’ plan for the country was just before the 2015 election, you would almost certainly get some variant of the answer that they had a ‘long-term economic plan’ for the country. As meaningless as the phrase is, the Conservatives were incredibly effective at getting it into the minds of voters. If you asked a voter what Labour’s plan for the country was, it is fairly likely that the voter either would not know, or would make a comment about spending lots of money or increasing benefits. This is a big problem.
One of Labour’s big problems was that it did not really make up its mind as to what it was. Was it One-Nation Labour? If it was, what did that mean? What were the values that Labour stood for? Did it believe in cutting the deficit? These were questions that largely went unanswered. Even though Jeremy Corbyn is a lot clearer on these issues, it is still fairly unclear as to what he believes with regards to the economy. I do not know, for example, where Jeremy Corbyn believes cutting the deficit to be a priority, or whether he thinks it can be done later. If I were not interested in politics, I would be confused by Labour and the left’s constant use of the word ‘austerity’, as a huge number of voters have no idea what it means.
One of the Conservatives’ most effective ways of getting their message across was that they used language and analogies that were universally understood. Whether it was about fixing the roof when the sun was shining, or about not letting Labour max out the credit card, or not letting the people who crashed the car get back in the drivers’ seat, all of the Tory lines on the economy could be understood by anyone. Labour did not have equivalent analogies. They did not make the point that you can’t buy a house without a mortgage, they did not use the example of small businesses that need to borrow to get started, and they did not compare investing in capital to putting money into something that will eventually pay for itself. They were not clear about why they were right.
Whichever route Labour take in trying to claim victory in 2020, they will need to learn these lessons. They cannot use esoteric language that the average voter will not understand and they cannot only appeal to those who care about poverty and inequality, they must also focus on patriotism, on family values, and other issues that come under the themes of loyalty and authority. Labour have a mountain ahead of them, but life can be made easier by changing the way that the debate is framed, and by getting out of the liberal, London bubble that a lot of the urbanite MPs are so used to. Although one way to do this is for current leading Labour politicians to change their language, another is to ensure that more working-class MPs, who are much more likely to be in-tune with these values naturally, are offered top jobs by the Labour leader.
Most people who follow politics probably think of Labour as a divided party, and to an extent they’re right, there are certainly differences within the party between the leadership and the MPs. However, in many ways, the Labour party is far more united than it appears; the problem comes in when the issues that are talked about most often are the ones either that Labour is conflicted about, or the ones don’t fall in line with popular opinion.
In a Prime Minister’s Questions before the Brexit Referendum, Jeremy Corbyn had a very effective line of attack: The Google ‘sweetheart’ deal made by George Osborne to allow Google, a huge multi-national, a piddling rate of tax. This is politically toxic for the Tories, it shows them to be the party on the side of big business rather than people (immediately springs the question ‘why can Google pay such little tax but I can’t?’). The problem in PMQs was that Jeremy Corbyn allowed Cameron to distract from the Google tax deal with his ‘bunch of migrants’ jibe. This is a losing battle for Labour, for two reasons. Firstly, most people don’t think that the phrase ‘bunch of migrants’ is particularly offensive, and will largely interpret it as a sulk over nothing. Secondly, polling shows most Britons to be more likely to think we should accept fewer migrants/refugees, not more. This was the dead cat strategy at play, invented by Lynton Crosby, the idea being that if you are losing an argument, you ought to throw a dead cat on the table, people will be so disgusted by the cat that they will forget what the argument was. It is likely that Theresa May will continue to make us of Lynton Crosby’s dead cat strategy.
There are lots of examples of Jeremy Corbyn picking the wrong battles. He should have sung the national anthem. He shouldn’t talk about the Falkland Islands. He shouldn’t suggest that we keep our trident ships without nuclear weapons on them. Every politician is going to have passionate beliefs that the public disagrees with them on, and they can only air so many beliefs before they become totally hated. Corbyn needs to focus on the issues of 2016, not of 1981. For all Ed Miliband’s faults, he stuck to talking about the cost of living crisis and the National Health Service. Given his career path since the election, we can be fairly certain that one of his passions is climate change, but the fact that he did not give it any particular prominence before the election (completely aware of how little most voters care about it) shows a level of political insight that Corbyn lacks.
- Labour must appeal to more moral channels than they currently are. To win over working-class voters, they must know that ideas about loyalty and authority are just as important as those about fairness and harm, and that if they fail to highlight that they share these values they will lose votes to both the Conservatives and UKIP.
- Labour must change the narrative on spending cuts, and use language that ordinary people understand. The word ‘austerity’ should fall out of their vocabulary, and metaphors and analogies that make sense should be made often.
- Labour must pick their battles. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair cut the level of poverty hugely, increased spending on education and the NHS, and introduced the minimum wage, but they knew to talk about things that resonated with voters. The problem Jeremy Corbyn faces is that he is so passionate about issues like trident and helping the very poorest that he fails to recognise that most people are more concerned with other issues.