Martin Hutchison PhotographMartin Hutchison considers the internal cleavage in Labour between Corbynistas and moderates, and suggests that despite starting with broadly the same values, it is different strategic reasoning which leads the two Labour groupings to fundamental disagreement.


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 being 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 is 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, tell you is true.  So “strategic reasoning” becomes the process of selecting some facts, ignoring others, inventing some more, and believing things which are untrue or only 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 like social justice and fairness, what can go wrong?  The answer is that while they share values they simultaneously share and do not share moral intuitions, so we are sometimes both 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 Corbynistas that goes like this:



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 resulting in seat belts, smoking bans, and health and safety legislation; and equality matching which brings the commitment to democracy as a 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 enemies are the British state, NATO, powerful multi-national capitalism, Israel and the United States. And their enemies in turn are benign as a consequence and are 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. Indeed they are often supported out of the perverse moral purpose that is moralised anti-authoritarianism.

“We don’t do leaders” said Corbyn and McDonnell before they were leaders.  And they still don’t, really, because leaders, leadership, authority, the state, all accumulations of power are suspect, and are the issue.  Was Corbyn broken-hearted on 24th June?  Did he process the EU referendum as a defeat for progressive internationalism or one in the eye for supra-national authority?

If you are wondering whether Corbynistas really want to win an election, note the above attitude to power, and the comments from the Chair of Momentum, and conclude that Labour is in the grip of a project that eschews the winning of power 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 more evidence that a moral intuition is in play is the fact that 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 Venn diagram above it is suggested 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 word 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 on crime and the causes of crime. Previous Labour governments broke with the Party’s foundational hostility to capitalism and accepted the mixed economy and then markets, and then Gordon Brown saw moral purpose in the actions of free markets in their ability to create wealth.  Of course from the Corbynista perspective these overlaps with the Conservatives in terms of policy are deeply suspicious and represent the origin of the “Red Tory” jibe hurled at Labour moderates.

Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership and the challenge to him have been characterised by a degree of aggression on the part of some supporters.  But perhaps the “Red Tory” abuse is explicable (if not excusable) 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 in some cases feel entitled to aggression against those perceived to share policy outlook with the Tories.

The chasm between the two parts of the party is the most dangerous facet here:


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 and solidarity?

Noting the picture above, let’s 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 “neoliberalism” is a perversion of the value of social justice and therefore the resulting 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, meaning the British state can and will act morally in the world.

If you are in any doubt about the salience of emotion in all this, take the two recent referendums, Scottish independence 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 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 the establishment, the bosses, the social democrats and their state governments (moralised anti-authoritarianism), so the phenomenon is universal.

And 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 repel as well as attract within the left.  Corbyn’s attitude to NATO will inspire and appall 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.

Without studying and understanding the real origin of the cleavage, it’s difficult to see how Labour get out of this mess. There is much work to do.

Related Posts

7 thoughts on “Labour’s cleavage is moral psychological

  1. Halle-effing-lujah.

    Someone has finally written about how differences between political factions, which on the surface appear to be driven by policy, people and presentation; are actually driven by deeper psychology.

    “It’s the economy, stupid” may have (and still does) shape political debates but several dire sets of GERS figures and endless warnings of the economic consequences of Brexit didn’t stop huge numbers supporting those causes. These days, with increasingly emotionally driven politics, its also a case of “it’s the psychology, stupid”.

    Thanks to this article, we have just might have made some progress.

  2. Well that explains it . The cleavage, that’s a new word for it: as in ‘check out Labour’s massive cleavage’. Seriously, this is a fascinating psychological analysis, and all those coloured diagrams. Quality.
    And after all his studies what are Martin Hutchison’s conclusions?
    “Without studying and understanding the real origin of the cleavage, it’s difficult to see how Labour get out of this mess.” In other words I think what Martin is saying here is, ‘Don’t ask me, I don’t bloody know’.

  3. Leaving aside the decades of Scottish Labour MP’s indolence and indifference to the poverty, lack of job opportunity or run down of the infrastructure of their constituents, we should examine the decline in voter confidence in Labour as lying in other, policy, areas.
    My belief is that Labour mistook ALL “markets” as a driver for social change and economic growth. The selling off of public assets and utilities, often essential to modern life, to private interests has been a huge mistake. There is no sense that “competing” electricity/water companies, or rail companies etc etc—where these players are all using the same necessary lines, rails, pipes etc to move their product about, and where profit can only be realised by asset stripping or price hikes rather than improvement in productivity.
    That’s the past. The future?—-
    I live in East Ayrshire—-I can see nothing in the policy manifesto from either candidate which would entice me to vote for them. They bandy about vast sums of non-existent money to be spent on who knows what.
    This election appears to be little more than a public fraud and a giant con-trick. It is the end of Labour as an electoral choice for many of us.
    Of course there will be Labour Peers for many years to come, to remind us of their hypocrisy over HoL reform.

  4. Fair play, comrade.
    Not many could post an article with an ending that leaves us all none the wiser.
    Suppose that’s a type of Progress.

Comments are closed.