Authoritarianism and Labour’s new moral crusade

Martin Hutchison PhotographMartin Hutchison is an enthusiastic Fabian and, like everyone else, blogs about politics. Here he presents an analysis of how Labour can define itself in terms of moralised anti-authoritarianism.


Harold Wilson famously said that Labour was “a moral crusade or it was nothing”. He could not have been more correct. Labour’s traditional concern for its core values of solidarity, social justice and fairness represent an explicitly moral claim about society and the world.

Labourites are seized by an intense belief that deep inequality is wrong, that poverty is a moral outrage, that social justice has profound moral worth. Labourites also wish to reduce harm and the record of Labour governments (seat belts, breathalysers, health and safety) show this concern to be an animating force in left politics.

But is there another moral force which shapes Labour politics and indeed all left politics globally? What about moralised anti-authoritarianism?

For sure the opposite process – moralised pro-authoritarianism – is everywhere on the right as we look across Europe. Greece, under monumental strain, has three hard right parties outside the mainstream conservative party. In the people’s home of Scandinavia there are the xenophobic Swedish Democrats and the True Finns. The Front National in France are increasingly menacing. And Wilder’s Party of Freedom in Holland is still a significant force.

Notably the three large continental countries in Europe who are not distressed by pro-authoritarianism are those ruined in living memory by its most virulent form – Spain, Germany and Italy.

In the UK, a relatively new pro-authoritarian political force – UKIP – took four million votes in May, though practically none at all in Scotland. Who took all the pro-authoritarian votes in Scotland?

An analysis in favour of the importance of authoritarianism is provided by two American political scientists, Hetherington and Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, 2009) who have found that attitudes to authority shape all aspects of US political opinion from welfare to terrorism to immigration. The current front-runner in the Republican Party presidential primary process is a person devoid of charisma, notable personal qualities or political achievement, but he is an authoritarian, and that for the moment is sufficient to explain his success.

It is easy to see pro-authoritarianism in our opponents, but what if there is a spectrum, and moralised anti-authoritarianism shapes the left in the way authoritarianism does the right?

The European left mirrors the split on the right, with mainstream social democrats blocked from power by parties defined by their virulent antagonism to authority (which includes the EU) – Die Linke in Germany, the Socialists in Holland, Podemos in Spain.

Corbyn’s astonishing victory in which he took 60% of the electoral college first preferences and drew in 150,000 to the Labour Party was as unforeseen as it was overwhelming. It was a political phenomenon attended by an upsurge of emotion and demonstrations of great public support across the country.

Rafael Behr in the Guardian correctly saw it as a clear moral victory, with Corbyn able to claim a monopoly on virtue during the campaign. But political morality comes in several flavours.

In The Righteous Mind the social scientist Jonathan Haidt developed a Moral Foundations Theory indicating that political morality came in different shapes: fairness, harm reduction, in group loyalty, authority, freedom and sanctity. These “flavours” of morality define the left and right. Labour, as Wilson claimed, was indeed a moral crusade, but it was one for Haidt’s fairness and harm reduction foundations, while the right emphasised righteous authority, in group loyalty and freedom.

The stress of the great recession has seen an epic split on the European right as the pro-authoritarian parties break away from the moderate conservatives. The mirror process. which has been happening on the left on the continent, has now arrived in the UK in the shape of the result of the Labour leadership contest.

These ancient intuitions which shape our politics still broadly make sense. Labour is never going to abandon fairness and the right will forever cherish national loyalty and freedom. But pro- and anti-authoritarianism are a complete bust. They are truly ancient (millions of years old) and relate to a time when all authority was based on physical force.

Authoritarianism, pro- or anti, misfires. It is an entirely faulty apprehension; an intuition which is entirely confounding and distorting. Moralised pro-authoritarians in their anti-EU antagonism have created the “in or out” referendum and cast a shadow over jobs and businesses. Virtue doesn’t inhere in authority any more than corruption inheres. Both intuitions mislead and harm and cannot be aligned to values such as liberty or social justice. And both types of authoritarianism confound any type of internationalism.

No one doubts Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to Labour’s core traditions of fairness and harm reduction. But look at how moralised anti-authoritarianism works in our opponents.

Moralised anti-authoritarianism in our opponents

Moralised anti-authoritarianism destroyed the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have not been electorally obliterated by traversing from slightly left to slightly right. They did something much more damaging – they harvested disaffected Labour voters (read anti-authoritarian voters) by the million, and presented them to the Tories. Then prosaically they crossed over from a position of no authority in 2010 to one of great authority, a desperate problem in itself given the politics of authoritarianism.

But what really did for them was not failed austerity or tuition fees (note that Tories did this and increased their vote share). Their near fatal error was to denude the Labour governments 1997 to 2010 of millions of anti-authoritarian votes and then perform a complete reversal. They opposed Labour’s wars and then in government proposed two and executed one. They opposed Labour’s security policy and then implement it under a different name. They opposed public sector and welfare reform and then implemented it. And of course their pro-EU sentiments were stymied and undermined by the anti-EU authoritarianism of the Tories.

Tracking like this from “anti” to “pro” caused huge cognitive dissonance in the former-Labour votes they had previously secured, and they shifted first of all from Lib Dems to the SNP, giving us the gift of the independence referendum.

The Scottish hard left has stopped believing that workers of the world should unite and, worse, the solidarity which they had previously offered Runcorn and Swansea has been withdrawn. The new policy of the Scottish left is to repudiate solidarity and join with the SNP (previously degenerate and petty bourgeoisie) in proclaiming the urgency of Scottish freedom. Currently, the hard left in Scotland is in the incredible position of supporting the SNP policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland which would result in an immediate 12% cut in Scottish public spending 2015-2016, inflicting brutal hyper austerity.

Yes, this is odd. Moralised anti-authoritarianism is the root cause. As the SNP grew in power it moved into a more credible anti-authoritarian vehicle as it promised to destroy the British state, which for anti-authoritarians is a sort of Platonic ideal.

Compass, a London-based left-wing pressure group, considers the SNP to be more progressive than Labour. It is in the nature of moralised anti-authoritarianism that you see the opponents of in group authority as progressive (your enemies’ enemy is your friend). The SNP are many things but they are opponents of in group authority for sure.

In Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way, he wondered how it is that people formally committed to social justice, equality, tolerance and solidarity support, befriend or fail to oppose injustice in certain circumstances. Cohen points to what he sees as a paradox: the further left you go, the stronger the commitment to solidarity, the more likely it is to be abandoned in foreign affairs. That’s because moralised anti-authoritarianism strengthens as we track left.

Note that the pro-authoritarian right does the same. Donald Rumsfeld supported Saddam when his authority was in conflict with Iran, and then opposed Saddam post 9/11. No-one on the right regards Rumsfeld as any type of traitor. On the right, authoritarian attitudes strengthen and build cohesion; on the left they drive people apart.

According to Peter Kellner, Corbyn won his victory among ordinary May 2015 party members, but also garnered the support of 70,000 people who didn’t vote Labour in May. Despite an absence of Green credentials, 40,000 Green Party voters voted for Corbyn.

Now if you didn’t vote at all in the general election and felt motivated to pay £15 or £3 to vote in a Labour leadership election, you did so because of a strong emotion associated with a moral intuition that Corbyn represented something different in Labour politics. Don’t rule moralised anti-authoritarianism as the explanatory variable here – “they’re all Tories”, “they’re all the same”, and then a £15 vote.

The Stop the War Coalition opposes the UK bombing Syria, but not Russia’s bombing of Syria. Russia’s bombing of Syria is called “intervention” and merely unsupported. Where’s the logic? Look to moralised anti-authoritarianism – the UK is condemned but not the UK’s opponents.

The Future of Labour

So: Labour lost the election because it failed to present a credible candidate for the post of Prime Minister; because of its stance on immigration; because of an insufficiently critical attitude to welfare; because of perceived indifference to aspiration; and because of a lack of credibility on the economy in general and austerity in particular.

What is it about moralised anti-authoritarianism that would allow Labour to address each of these challenges? Our candidate for Prime Minister may not want to be PM. Welfare is apparently about helping poor people oppressed by the wealthy. Austerity does nothing more than demonstrate the malevolence of the powerful.

The SNP will attempt to call a second referendum in June 2020, one month after the UK general election. It would be a good idea to have a Labour government at that point.

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9 thoughts on “Authoritarianism and Labour’s new moral crusade

  1. Does Martin inhabit the same space as the rest of us?
    Authoritarianism comes in many guises. In the last century it was as likely to be left wing as well as right.
    The present Labour Party stood at the general election on the “authority” of the British State. That Scotland should be, and if Labour had its way, would be, subservient to Westminster. It has not deviated from that, in spite of Corbyn wishing to see an independent, self governing Ireland, by whatever means.
    The moralised “authority” of WMD’s? We know where Labour now stands on that issue—certainly not on the side of the Angels.
    Labour are in the crazy position of being pro selling off State assets, while also wishing to re-nationalise them.
    Of being anti Nationalism except when its British Nationalism.
    Of being pro Irish independence while being anti Scottish independence.
    Of lauding Keir Hardie while opposing his vision of a Dominion-Status Scotland.
    Of being outraged by housing scams from a non labour MP, while staying silent on the past scamming of Labour MP’s
    This, and many other contradictions, leaves Labour as a Party of no, or variable, morality.

  2. Martin I am very impressed by your analysis to tell you the truth I just skimmed through it and had a peek so here’s a few wee bits of feedback.

    “The SNP will attempt to call a second referendum in June 2020, one month after the UK general election. It would be a good idea to have a Labour government at that point.”

    In relation to a Labour government I can’t see a Labour government anywhere on the horizon for at least the next 20 years by then it will not matter because the likelihood is that by then Scotland will be celebrating at least a decade as an Independent Country.

    I have a question why do you think it would be good idea to have a Labour government when Scotland has a second referendum is it so that Labour can join in an alliance with the Tories and Lib Dems in another project fear Better Together campaign?

  3. Gavin – don’t try to claim Keir Hardie for the SNP – he was an internationalist who wanted Home Rule within the UK. Also, FYI, 55 percent voted “No” to independence, in case you’d forgotten.

    1. “FYI, 55% voted “No” to independence”—no one disputes that fact, but it is also true that many voted “No” because they were “Vowed” that the alternative would not be the Status Quo, but “near federalism”, Home Rule, Devo Max, etc etc. This “vow” process, was led by Gordon Brown, a senior Labour figure who was front and centre, not least on the BBC, to commit the No side to an alternative to independence that would lead to “change, safer and quicker”.
      We are still waiting, and it looks as though the wait is in vain.
      As for Keir Hardie. A mans life in a few words? Here goes—
      He formed the original, “Scottish Labour Party” with Robert Cunninghame Graham, the first socialist MP, who later founded the National Party of Scotland.
      His Home Rule DID envisage Scotland with Dominion Status. That is a fact.
      He was an internationalist in terms of the “working man”. He opposed imperial wars, where they were used as cannon fodder. His views were opposed by many in the then Labour Party. Would he even be allowed to join modern Labour? Would he want to?
      He also opposed “foreigners” coming to pits and factories in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Fife etc to punt for jobs, and deprive locals of much needed work, and income. There was a “Poles Raw(row)” of hooses in many villages.
      He believed local “assets” were for local people to exploit, not absentee landlords or Irish or Polish( this referred to eastern European people, rather just Poles) workers. An old fashioned view, but one prevalent at the time. My father left school in New Cumnock aged 13 to work in the pits, and had to compete with outsiders( willing to work for less) for a shift. Like Hardie he went to night school to gain qualifications. In my fathers case as a mining engineer.

    2. Keir Hardie was, in modern terms, something of a racist who wanted foreign workers kept out of Britain to protect ‘British’ jobs and living standards.

  4. Never mind keir Hardie if the vow is not delivered in full or there is a Brexit of the EU then I can see Gordon Brown coming around to supporting Scotland’s Independence and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he might even become the Ceremonial Head of State for an Indpendent Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon would be the First Minister of an Independent Scotland.

  5. We’ve all witnessed examples of Labours “Morale” Crusade over their pathetic failed smear attempts on Fiona Hyslop and Michelle Thomson.
    No lie too big no hypocrisy too blatant.

    In truth I don’t see Labour convincing anybody in Scotland it has a morale Atom in its entire political make up anytime soon.

  6. @Dave

    Once more with the ludicrous admonitions not to forget 55% voted no. How could any sane person ‘remember’ otherwise , did we become independent when we didn’t notice.

    It’s the 55% that need to mindful.

    If 45% of a workforce were unhappy and wanted to leave would you be comfortable, happy even to imagine things were going along swimmingly with no requirement for adequate and significant reform?

    If 45% of your family proclaimed they were unhappy and wished to be emancipated from their familial ties would you feel confident in the families perpetual continued existence?

    If 45% of people in your marriage were unhappy and wanted to leave would you be confident of eternal wedded bliss and carry on unchanged despite knowing your partner was dreadfully unhappy.

    You may claim the issue is settled, and for you it is, but if you think it’s settled for ever then you don’t really understand how people ‘work’.

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