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The psychological limits of Corbyn’s moral authority

Bill Blackwater

27th June 2016

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.

“The Labour Party is a moral crusade—or it is nothing.” Harold Wilson’s famous remarks, made at Labour’s Scottish Spring Conference in May 1964, still resonate in debates on the party’s direction. The journalist 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”.

Corbyn’s unembarrassed articulation of moral purpose was clearly something Labour members had been waiting for. As James Bloodworth put it, there was a “smouldering resentment” among Labour members at some of the excessive “principle-rotting” compromises made during the New Labour years. For his core supporters, Corbyn was seen as having saved Labour from pasokification, the fate of centre-left parties in Greece and Spain, whose support has collapsed as a result of failing to articulate an alternative to austerity.

But there was always a problem: Corbyn’s startling unpopularity with the country at the large. He was the first person, on becoming opposition leader, to receive an initial approval rating that was negative (-8%). 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.

In reviewing Labour’s future leadership and policy direction, the question all factions within the party should study is this: If Corbyn has such moral authority, why is he not more popular with the public? This may be key in potentially selecting a new leader who might be able to connect with voters in its heartland areas and marginal seats.

Drivers of moral judgements and political views

To answer this question it is useful to turn to the rapidly-developing field of psychological research into the basis for moral judgement, and its relationship with political beliefs. Selecting just a few key points from a number of recent papers,1 we find:

There are five dimensions of morality:

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 things regarded as sacred, and control of desires.

The first two dimensions (harm and fairness) have been identified as more connected to left-wing views; the other three (associated with social cohesion and order) more to conservative views.
Interplaying with the five dimensions, morality comes in two forms: proscriptive (telling us what not to do, in order to avert harm to others), and prescriptive (telling us what we should do, to alleviate their suffering). Proscriptive morality translates into an emphasis on protecting society from harm (associated more with the right), with prescriptive morality translating into providing for society’s well-being (associated with the left).

In making moral judgements, people tend to resort to ‘moral typecasting’: perceiving people solely as an agent (either hero or villain) or a patient (beneficiary or victim). Where political groups are defined by a moral vision, they tend to be defined at least as much by hatred towards those outside the group as love towards those inside. Our emotional responses to others are shaped by our impressions of two factors: warmth and competence. Generally, the more competent we view someone, the less warmly we will feel towards them, and vice versa. Competence in a political candidate is the more decisive factor in winning support, but the greatest leaders are viewed as both warm and competent.

Applying this framework to Labour politics

Concentrating here on just three key messages, this analysis suggests:

1. The left does not have the monopoly on moral authority it likes to think. It only recognises two (harm and fairness) of the five dimensions of morality. Corbyn’s assertion of moral superiority thus provokes some resentment among those who don’t identify with him because he is implicitly viewed himself as being morally deficient in the three domains of in-group/loyalty, authority, and purity. This is seen most tellingly in his aversion to patriotism and the rituals of the nation-state.

2. By its own standards, the left risks being guilty of moral failings – and the further to the left, the more pronounced these risks. The left’s acute sensitivity to harm and fairness means it is very prone to ‘moral typecasting’, dividing the world into wicked villains and suffering victims – the latter then becoming incapable of doing harm themselves. It is this which lies behind the kind of moral relativism well documented by Nick Cohen, with its apologetics for the most appalling regimes so long as these are seen as opponents of western imperialism. It is also what lies behind the mentality of class war, and the literal hatred of Tories – now extended to the Red Tories who are traitorously moderate, and seen at its worst in online abuse. The more that leftist groups are defined by their moral vision, the more they are defined by hatred towards the villains they see outside. This hatred – condemning people for what they are, not seeing them for who they are – contradicts the very moral principles (fairness, and avoiding harm) it springs from.

3. By ignoring the three “conservative” dimensions of morality, as well as the protecting mode of morality, the left cedes them entirely to the right. The left emphasises the providing mode of morality. The problem comes when this is over-emphasised: at its extreme this becomes a boundless altruism which would leave us destitute, accompanied by a moral disapproval of anyone who would demur. This is also to over-emphasise one’s impressions of warmth, meaning it is psychologically near inescapable that one’s political opponents will be seen as more competent. Also it contradicts the protecting mode of morality whose chief concern is protecting the group, defending “our” interests. This protection mode is the main concern for the socially conservative and culturally insecure (Leave voters, in other words), those who believe “order is precious and at least a little fragile”, and are more likely to perceive social changes as threatening. By ignoring these aspects of moral judgements, the left enables the right to play on them in divisive ways.


Labour is a left-wing party. It is essential to its purpose and identity that it emphasises the “left-wing” moral dimensions of fairness and avoiding harm, and accent on providing for society’s well-being.

But it must guard against being defined as a purely moral movement – this will tend to foster an intolerant attitude towards those who are not sufficiently “with us”, and provoke resentment in return.

What Labour needs to understand is that morality has more dimensions than those traditionally associated with the left; that a progressive vision can and must be developed for all five moral dimensions; and that pragmatism, and seeking to respect and represent all members of society, can itself be seen as a moral virtue.

Bill Blackwater has written for a variety of publications, including Renewal, Political Quarterly, and Left Foot Forward. A more detailed version of this article will appear in the next issue of the journal Renewal.

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1 All published behind a pay wall; references available by request, but including work by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Andres Luco, Jonathan Haidt, and Gray, Young, & Waytz.