On liberal disunity

About as close as I’ve ever come to making a name for myself as a journalist was when I published a blog in August 2011 ridiculing Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee for asserting that it was the left’s intellectual superiority that makes it so hard for Labour to win elections. The piece (or rather the attack on Toynbee specifically – noboby paid any attention to the second half of the article in which I said some quite nice things about Will Hutton) was picked up by the Guido Fawkes website – at the time, widely considered to be the most influential blog in Westminster (I have no idea if it still is and less do I care).

I was a young wannabe journo (not much has changed) and was almost certainly somewhat unfair to Polly in the way I represented her comments (made at the Edinburgh Book Festival). However, she definitely did say, albeit half jokingly, that “left-wing people are more intelligent, and just generally better people,” because that much is in the original transcript. And she did criticise the left-wing press for not getting behind Labour the way the right-wing press gets behind the Tories. So I don’t think I was too wide of the mark when I summarised her argument as being that there is “an inverse correlation between the average IQ of a party and its ability to win elections.”

I recently came across a more compelling explanation for why liberals are so often more fractious than conservatives in social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. It has to do with our sense of morality.

Tory election poster that is successfully driving a wedge between the UK's centre-left opposition parties.

The Tory election poster that is successfully driving a wedge between the UK’s centre-left opposition parties.

Haidt claims to have identified six moral foundations (akin to different tastes) that underpin every system of morality ever. Liberals are at an intrinsic electoral disadvantage because their morality is based only on three of these foundations – care, fairness and liberty. Conservatives, on the other hand, understand all of these (although they perhaps hold them in slightly lower esteem than liberals), but also add in three more – loyalty, authority and sanctity. This gives them a much wider palette of colours with which to paint a picture that appeals to the electorate. It also goes some way towards explaining their superior ability to stick together. For all the left’s talk of solidarity, it is the right, according to Haidt, that truly gets the importance of loyalty. That’s not to say left-wing people don’t also see loyalty (to friends, family, colleagues etc) as a virtue. It’s just that they don’t see it as fundamental to a moral society.

In a sense this is just an extension of the Toynbee argument about the left being too independent-minded. But what makes Haidt’s thinking so influential is that it inverts the normal air of superiority adopted by liberal academics and commentators, who seem to be perpetually bewildered by the fact that so many of their fellow citizens can’t see that they’re right. Instead, he writes that it’s us liberals who are tone deaf and unable to properly understand conservatism, whereas they (conservatives) get our worldview. Suddenly, liberals are the stupid ones.

Haidt’s thesis is not without its flaws. He may be admirably humble in his political liberalism, but this can’t entirely mask the fact that his claim to have boiled down the whole of human moral thinking to six principles is wildly hubristic. The book’s most important limitation, to my mind, is that he only mentions in passing the fact that different people interpret some of the moral foundations in different ways. Fairness, he acknowledges, means something different depending on your point of view – liberals tend to stress the relevance of equality to fairness, whereas conservatives prefer reciprocity. But he doesn’t seem to consider this worthy of further investigation. Of course I’m biased because, as a student of the way language is used flexibly and adaptively to convey ideas, I’m bound to think this kind of thing matters a great deal. Ironically, competing definitions of fairness was actually what the second half of my 2011 blog (the half nobody read) was all about. But I’ll get off my soapbox now.


Fractiousness seems to be the name of the game in British politics at the moment. It took decades for a two-party system to become a three-party system, but now, overnight a three-party system has become a six- or seven-party system. Of course, this latest bout of disunity and disloyalty has affected the right as well as the left, with UKIP emerging as a serious threat to the Tories’ traditional ability to hold it together. But it’s the left that seems worst hit by the disease, with five centre-left parties – Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens – taking regular pot-shots at each other. Rather than attacking the Conservative-led government or announcing policies, they all seem to have wasted the last several weeks making it absolutely clear that none of them would ever dream of forming a coalition with any of the others. Lynton Crosby is sitting somewhere rubbing his hands together in glee. It only took one poster of a miniature Ed Milband in Alex Salmond’s pocket to set off weeks of left-wing parties running round calling each other names and bickering.

It seems I might be the only left-wing person in Britain who thinks it wouldn’t be a complete disaster if the next government was some sort of grand coalition of the left. Or at least a minority Labour government that unashamedly worked with and alongside the other parties that fit broadly within Britain’s social democratic tradition. Why is this possibility so difficult for any of them to even countenance, let alone an outcome they might positively look forward to? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, pace Haidt, left-wing morality undervalues loyalty, respect for authority and the sanctity of institutions. We wouldn’t be the left any more if we didn’t squabble.

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One Response to On liberal disunity

  1. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

    Hardship and chaos are allies of the left, stability and decadence political ally of the right.

    BTW, one of the fun things about Asia is that the academics are very, very conservative. The “why don’t people understand how smart we are” thing is conspicuously absent, which is nice, but they are also much closer to intellectual sterility.

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