danieljohnsonDaniel Johnson, Scottish Labour candidate for Edinburgh Southern in the 2016 election, says we are in an era of Virtue Politics, and Labour must bring its virtues to life.


I have found myself harking back to the mid-nineties a lot in the last few days. The excitement and anticipation of the 1997 election was amazing. We were a confident party, we had ideas and a sense of direction, and people were with us.

Like lots of members, I have also been reflecting on our pledge card. It seems to me that the individual pledges were not what was important. It was that the card crystallised our sense of mission and purpose. It represented the confidence that we had and that people had in us.

Where I think we have gone wrong these last few years is in thinking that the pledges matter more than what they represent.

The emerging analysis of this defeat is that we were pincered: too left wing for England and too right wing for Scotland. We failed to meet the aspirations of middle England or meet the demands for radicalism of “yes” Glasgow. But this analysis is flawed.

There was little in the Tory manifesto that pointed to aspiration. Their entire approach seemed to be about us pointing to “chaos”, franticly attempting to calm fears over the NHS and promising to hammer the welfare budget. Hardly the “Morning in America” brand of feel-good conservative ambition. Similarly, in Scotland, the SNP barely campaigned on policy let alone argued for anything that out-flanked us from the left. Their whole campaign rested on one slogan and one person: “Stronger for Scotland” with Nicola Sturgeon subtly yet confidently smiling.

The problem is that most people who talk about politics think about it in a completely different way to most voters. We want it to be about arguments, facts, justification, merit and achievement. We hope that every leaflet we put through a door is carefully read and compared to the others. We expect our policies are closely considered and contrasted with those of our opponents. In the political anoraks’ world-view, votes should be decided only after scoring each manifesto to see which party most accurately reflects your particular beliefs and personal situation. Except this is not how it works in practice and this election result bears it out more than most.

This election was about security and confidence. The last five years have been bruising. Household bills have soared, we have all felt a less secure at work and, in Scotland, we have had a referendum that brought tensions and divisions to the surface that everyone is desperate to see healed. People north and south of the border voted for the party they felt was safest, the party where they understood how it would act and respond.

For English voters, they know the Tories are hard-nosed and perhaps even selfish, but they feel they won’t shirk tough choices to stabilise and secure our economy. In Scotland, faced with the prospect of the harshness of continued Tory governance, voters backed the party they felt would not compromise and would pursue their interest stridently and confidently.

By contrast people were confused by Labour. On the doorstep, people liked our individual policies like tackling energy prices, lowering university tuition fees in England and Wales, employing more nurses in Scotland and increasing the minimum wage. These were all good policies but people were not confident about how we would act as a government. They didn’t understand how we would make our judgements and what things would shape our decisions – it was a question of character.

Labour will not emerge from this crisis through policy or positioning. Those things are merely indicators, tokens or justifications for much more fundamental political judgements that voters use as they go to the polls. Duncan Hothersall recently wrote on this blog that we are in an era of “post-rational politics”. This is probably true, but we need to take the analysis further. I think we can take this a step further and conceive of ourselves as located in an era of “Virtue Politics”.

Increasingly, people are making their judgements based on the perception of character and the credibility of political leaders and parties. People largely do not engage with politics at the detailed policy and analytic level. Rather they seek politicians and parties whose character and judgement they feel they can trust. In other words, they seek politicians and political parties who exhibit virtues they feel are best suited to the country.

In essence this is nothing new. At the point of marking their ballot paper, voters have always aggregated and assimilated information from all sources and made a judgement that is as much emotional as it is rational. What has changed is that the importance of virtues has become greater. Newspaper columns are read by fewer and fewer people, public meetings are increasingly rare and participation in most institutions once considered vital parts of civic society are in decline. In its place we have the mass dialogue of social media. In this new environment the need for intuitive and less detailed judgement becomes more critical.

Virtue politics means taking greater care of our underlying values and purpose; ensuring that everything we say and do explains and extends these central concepts. It is an idea borrowed from moral philosophy. Virtue ethics was revived as a response to the more formulaic schools of moral thought. The central thesis was that while ideas like utilitarianism were perfectly rational, they lost an important element of moral character and intuitive judgments. Moral judgements do not stem from calculating good arising from different options, they stem from virtues such as altruism, kindness and selflessness.

We must think of our politics in the same way and we have a good story to tell. We must contrast the Tories’ shrewdness with our solidarity. We must challenge the Nationalists’ national strength with our mission for equality and community.

But it is not enough to simply assert our virtues. Moral character is not judged by explanation, it is judged by exposition. We must bring our political virtues to life explaining how we have realised them in the past and applying them to the future. We must tell the story of both our party and people bringing our policy to life. Policy cannot be about percentages and spending, it must be about people’s lives and opportunity. Above all else, our policy and positioning must grounded within this framework but also seek to reveal our political virtues.

Being in power for 13 years was a good thing for Labour and our country. But the problem is we have a generation of leaders who think in policy memos. We come up with clever stuff, things that will work. But the electorate does not think in bullet points.

Various leadership candidates have pointed to particular policies or a lack of aspiration as being the cause of our defeat, but our analysis and response needs to be deeper than this. People want to understand our character, to feel confident in our judgement and know we will act in their best interest. Our politics must be grounded in our character and virtue. And these must be Labour in conception, act and outcome if people are to trust us again.

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13 thoughts on “What are Labour’s virtues?

  1. I think this is a good article.

    I think Labour led on policy. Zero-hour contracts, non doms, mansion tax. All good, all agreeable really. Then the SNP took them all and put a kilt on it (there’s also an element of perceived character, the SNP didn’t need to shout about left policies, it was taken as a given). And too many, neary half the population, liked it. Of course, it’s nationalism. Enough Scots wanted a strong Scottish voice at Westminster. Some Labour people don’t agree Scotland is a distinct polity in a Westminster election. Problem for these people is too many Scots disagree with you.

    Secondly, people are now aware the Tories can’t win seats here so the net effect is zero. Jim Murphy’s “little helpers” on SNP winning for Cameron line was embarrassing and illogical.

    It may be the case that the differences between Scotland and England are overly hyped up. However, the swing voters in Scotland are different from the swing voters in England by some margin. Perceived competence and standing up for Scotland. They’re the issue.

    No elected Labour politician in Scotland demonstrates believable competence. And Scottish Labour is considered to be a “branch office”. Look no further that’s the cause. The thing is, if you believe in the solidarity principle across the UK, a “branch office” is all it ever is and ever should be. The problem is that’s not what Scottish people want. Regardless of the vote in September, everyone agrees Scotland’s a country and enough of them expects their parties to operate on that basis.

    Scottish Labour never adapted to devolution within the UK. Being formally part of the UK Labour hinders it at a Scottish level. But an independent Labour party goes against the solidarity principle and will ultimately lead to an independent Labour party taking completely contrasting postions from London. But all that will do is demonstrate the gulf between the two countries and lead to a further distance and possibly break up. It will acknowledge different needs and a different polity on a national geography.

    Problem is it’s where Scottish opinion is.

  2. Ross Pollock’s comment that a separate Scottish Labour Party would ultimately demonstrate the gulf between the two parties – that gulf is already there to be sensed as an uncomfortable mismatch. It isn’t just at the level of analysis. It is a lived reality for people. Scary as it probably is for established members and representatives, I think there is more chance of Labour gaining ground in Scotland as a separate entity albeit with strong links to the Labour Party. I am a newly joined member of the Labour Paety. I therefore don’t speak from a strong background to where we have reached. I do feel much concern for the future of the Party here in Scotland and I notice many website posts expressing mistrust and a sense of having been lied to. That at least can surely not be attributed to the snp, something seems to have been going wrong leading to that loss of trust. I am hopeful if what can be effected with a fresh start and relevance to Scotland. This I think affirms Daniel Johnson’s piece on politics of virtue.

  3. When Ed Miliband stated he would prefer a tory government, voters took him at his word and delivered one.
    A trade union member, I cringe at how utterly toxic the Labour party has become.
    The “copy and paste” line about the SNP’s manifesto is total nonsense, an illustration of just how completely out of touch with reality key figures within Labour are.

  4. Daniel, Daniel…tut, tut, tut. You’re trying too hard.

    Your policies were wishy washy — I’ve noticed a few of you (post election) talk about how you intended to end zero-hour contracts but that isn’t true: you are forgetting the word “exploitative” which in essence meant you were going to do nothing about them. Same again with your rhetoric on “tackling energy prices”; freezing energy prices was your stated goal and who on earth is going to get excited about that?

    Then you have the nerve to mention your leaflets and suggest people liked them: it’s actually highly probable that many of the Labour leaflets I looked at were illegal in terms of lying — brazen faced fabrications of the lowest most manipulative order. The Labour Party should apologise for those and investigate their origins. Just scandalous.

    But that’s all very typical of Labour these days, isn’t it? It’s like you have this twisted production line and everything that comes off it is plastic with “Made in Middle England” stamped on the back.

    The thing that I thought most interesting in your article was the reference to Duncan and his “post rational politics” insult. It is an insult, we should be clear about that. It’s an insult to all of those who rejected your spin, flagrantly implying that they were acting irrationally. Hardly likely to endear you with the electorate, is it?

    Maybe we should put that down to sour grapes but it’s precisely because you worship nonsense like that and the vacuous idiots who espouse it that you are in this mess and very, very unlikely to get out of it any time soon.

    You lost the election because during the referendum you used “project fear” and deception on the electorate. You made promises that you didn’t keep — The Vow — and the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland want to move towards meaningful autonomy (the poles are devo Max and full independence). Duncan and people like him will never let you admit that though, will they?

    Bit you not only stood in the way of the people achieving their goal of dramatically increased autonomy, you cheated them out of getting it and stood side by side with the Tories in doing so. I honestly doubt that your party will ever be forgiven for this but assuming you want to make amends (which I don’t), the obvious place to start is to admit your guilt and reconfigure your political offerings.

    Right now the only people you appeal to are those found in Orange lodges and old folks homes — and both these demographics are, like Scottish Labour itself, disappearing fast.

    1. In my original piece (linked to in this article) I cited concrete examples of irrationality. It wasn’t an insult to those choosing to vote a particular way. It was an empirical observation on the nature of Scottish politics.

      You are, incidentally, a walking talking example.

      1. Duncan how does your first example of irrationality re income tax relate to this from the bbc

        “The Scottish government will receive all income tax paid by Scottish taxpayers on their non-savings and non-dividend income, with a corresponding adjustment in the block grant it receives from the UK Government.”

        This coupled with the generality that income tax powers should not be to the detriment of the other nations within the UK, to my mind completely shows that it is not an irrationality.


      2. Duncan, your reasoning is flawed. I could just as easily argue that the majority of Scots were voting irrationally when for around 7 decades they voted Scottish Labour and expected their lives to improve.

        I’ll concede this, though. No matter what Scottish Labour say, do, promise, and threaten, the majority of us are going to struggle to take it seriously. That doesn’t equate to us being irrational; it equates Labour losing credibility and nobody believing a word you say.

        The real interesting part is the “why” — i.e. Why does nobody trust you? — but I doubt if you have an appetite for that conversation. The truth is you know why though, and you know that my analysis is more or less correct: if it wasn’t for project fear and the Vow, about 70% of us would have voted Yes in the referendum.

    2. One very minor comment about zero hours contracts – there are some people on zero hours contracts like supply teachers and “bank” nurses for whom not having fixed hours but having the security of a contract is welcome – I don’t doubt some people on those contracts would prefer to be on more traditional fixed hours contracts but simply abolishing any zero hours contract would be disadvantageous to workers and the services that they deliver. Thats why Labour correctly talked about exploitative zero hours contracts.

      1. Yes but who is arbitrates what is exploitative? That’s the problem i have with that particular policy. Its just soundbites, with exploitative to be decided post election, probably in consultation with the businesses who see no problem in their current use.

  5. Good article, Labour need’s positive messages, the tone in Scotland is changing. There was so much negative talk during the referendum that during the GE campaign the attacks on the SNP seemed more of the same and instantly alienated half the electorate. If you believe your policies are for the good of Scotland then focus on them. I agree it is about trust and whilst I can’t state the argument as eloquently I feel that its not post rational to want to be positive, to believe we can achieve something, to trust in a politician or party who i believe desires the same as I do, I don’t know what Labour desire anymore. To consider the electorate post rational because they don’t align to your way of thinking is simply insulting them using flowery language. We all know and have seen first hand how the media distort’s things to get over their particular brand of propaganda, god knows Labour have been on the wrong end of it often enough. Forgive me if i don’t believe yours.

  6. Wrong on more the one detail confirming how out of touch Labour is with the Scottish electorate.
    1) We are very informed and see through the lies
    2) We partecipate in large numbers to hustings and incessantly discuss on social media
    3) We knock on doors and take part in all sorts of public meetings

    It is Labour that has been absent on the territory appearing with the monotonous message SNP is bad. Forgive us but that’s not a policy that will change our lives.

    Labour has no confidence in Scotland’s ability to be a better, fairer society and does nothing but talk us down and shouldn’t be at all surprised that we’ve returned the favour.

    Labour doesn’t have to burn the last candle in the attempt to risolve the Scottish demise. The solution is very simple indeed. STOP LYING!

  7. I don’t want to offend anyone, but i feel the only people who claim Labour was “too left for Scotland and too right for England” are lazy journlists and our opponents. As DJ outlines, that just does not stack up.

    I think JM did construct a policy platform around Labour values. The problem is that people people didn’t trust us or were perhaps more focussed on talk of post election deals.

    We should gave gained trust by speaking about our record more. Indeed, my own view is that a key failing of Labour was that it didn’t say enough about what it had achieved in government.

    At Ian Murray’s campaign launch, I had the good fortune to have an opportunity to ask Gordon Brown what his proudest achievement in government was. With a great deal of modesty (mostly genuine), he answered that Labour had doubled NHS spending and  lifted 2 million people out of poverty – including 200,000 children and 200,000 pensioners in Scotland. These are statistics I would have printed on every leaflet.

  8. Out of curiosity, am i the only person in Scotland that never received an SNP leaflet.
    Zero, nothing.
    Got 10 Labour leaflets starting from last October.
    Oh and a Xmas card.

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