Is a move to the centre the only way for the left to win again?

29 Aug 2015



Popular opinion can be a fickle mistress. As this BBC article shows, over the past 50 years public mood has oscillated from right to left and back again, usually in opposition to the policies of the current government. So, if someone says, ‘elections are only won from the centre ground’ ask them first what they mean by the centre. If they define it in a proper sense as the philosophical doctrine of centrism (usually characterised by a blend of social liberalism and economic conservatism), then they’re wrong: the above link shows that sometimes the public are quite willing to embrace leftish ideas, rightish ideas, or occasionally centrist ones. The point is, public opinion never stays put in one place for long. Moreover, if the political centre is taken to mean ‘whatever the public wants’ (as is often implied), then there’s an even deeper problem with this reasoning.


To require a political party to constantly chase this ever-moving and evolving ‘popular centre’ not only breeds the very worst, disingenuous and spineless kind of politics, it also fundamentally misinterprets the objective of a political party. To be sure, many different influences combine to shift public opinion one way or another, but political parties themselves have a significant role to play. It is the job of political parties to come up with the policies that they believe will help society, and then try to convince the public of their credence. And, indeed, they often do: think Tory welfare or UKIP immigration rhetoric.


Thus, it would perhaps be more useful for a political party to seek to understand the underlying morality that governs public opinion, instead of trying to aim for a constantly moving target. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, through years of research bequeathing him with a treasure trove of evidence, has identified six different moral foundations, or intuitions, that lie behind political opinion and, indeed, human behaviour. They are: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Authority, Sanctity, and Loyalty. How individuals interpret and act on these foundations may differ from person to person, but the foundations themselves seem to be universal. All of these, according to Haidt, have a solid basis in our evolutionary history.


So, if you’re trying to both win an election and prescribe a genuine cure for society’s woes, you must find a way to make your beliefs speak to the above moral foundations; the principles under which people conduct their lives. This is a problem for the left. Haidt’s research has shown that those more likely to quote Marx than Hayek typically only score highly on the first three foundations. Left-leaning politicians typically only appeal to these three foundations in speeches and campaigns, whereas the right often appeals to all six.


However, it is not necessary for the left to abandon socialism (although it may be beneficial for the left to reform some of its doctrines). The left should merely refrain from dismissing certain concerns as ‘regressive’ or ‘immoral’. For many on the left, the notion that Sanctity or Authority should form the basis for morality seems alien, even repulsive. Whilst understandable, this knee-jerk reaction must be overcome if the left is to appeal to a broader range of voters.


Many writers (including myself) have written of their utter horror at many of the reforms of the current government and, in general, the logical conclusions of their ideologies. However, it is far more useful to accept that the majority of those who vote for and indeed enact such policies (with a few possible exceptions in the Cabinet) are not morally depraved. Understanding that the Conservatives have successfully triggered the ‘Fairness’ moral intuition (albeit with faulty logic and manipulative rhetoric) in the public domain with their policies on benefits and immigration can enable the left to understand (and combat) the Conservatives’ success. Emphasising how bankers and CEO’s cheat the system out of far more money than benefits scroungers is an example of how the left could appeal to the same moral intuition, without acquiescing to the policies of the right. In essence, simply condemning the right as morally bankrupt helps no one.


Some may see this as a very deterministic way of understanding human behaviour: surely we have the capacity to reason, to weigh up evidence, to appreciate logical arguments? Of course we do, but we don’t always appreciate logic before emotion. Evidence and debate and statistics have a crucial role to play through cementing and supporting an argument, but to get someone’s attention you need to tug at a moral intuition. Others might see all this as simply political trickery; using emotive and moral words to sway people to a position that they don’t really hold. I rather think it’s the opposite of political trickery: it’s an attempt to achieve harmony between policies and beliefs. As a fairly left-leaning individual, I obviously think that socialist policies can genuinely improve the lives of millions. Moral appeals merely seek to approach these individual and identify with their beliefs in a language they understand. This strikes me as something that politics as a whole has failed to do for some time.


How people vote often contradicts their views on specific policies: they vote based on a story they are told by a political party and whether this resonates with their moral intuitions. The left needs to couch its policies and campaigns in a narrative that can appeal to a broader set of moral intuitions.


Haidt ends his book in a profoundly challenging way: he suggests that both sides of the political spectrum have a point, and that both sides have been drivers of social progress and prosperity. This does not mean we have to become ruthless concessionists or passive centrists in order to come up with correct solutions or the right electoral formula, but it does mean we need to start understanding why people are attracted to what many of us may see as heinous policies. The left needs to overcome its fractious and partisan nature and explore the possibility that on some issues the right might be, well, right.


At the very least we need to realise that moral intuitions hardwired into individuals over millennia are not going to change before inequality and climate change destroy human society. At the very least we need to work on understanding and communicating with all of these moral foundations in a new and profound way, figuring out how left-wing policies can appeal to the majority, rather than the minority.

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