The neuroscience of Jeremy Corbyn

Photo: Chris Beckett
Photo: Chris Beckett

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Robert Colvile is a freelance journalist and global fellow at PS21, formerly head of comment at Telegraph and news at BuzzFeed UK. He tweets at @rcolvile.

There’s a simple theory which helps explain why he won — and why he’ll probably lose.

As I listened to the Labour leadership announcement on the car radio, there was a sentence that jumped out at me. It wasn’t from Jeremy Corbyn, in his victory speech, but from his new deputy, Tom Watson.

‘In the Tories’ second term, Labour is the last line of defence for the millions of people who suffer in their hands,’ said Watson. ‘Only Labour can speak for the real Britain… on behalf of the millions who need us, we are the guardians of decency and fairness, justice and equality in the United Kingdom.’

Who suffer in their hands. That single phrase helps to explain so much about British politics — and why the Corbyn insurgency happened in the first place. Because it reflects a critically important difference in worldview.

To put it bluntly, Tories believe that Labour supporters are stupid, and Labour supporters believe that Tories are wicked.

You can see this in your typical op-ed or leader column. A columnist on the Right, writing about Corbyn, will generally structure the argument as follows: ‘He is obviously a decent man, who has devoted his life to his beliefs. It’s just that those beliefs are completely wrong.’ His Left-wing equivalent, writing about David Cameron, will instead say: ‘Can no one stop this horrible man doing these horrible things?’

This isn’t an original insight: Daniel Hannan, for one, has been banging this drum for a while. It’s also, inevitably, a generalisation. But I think it’s a useful one. It explains, for example, why many on the Left feel quite so comfortable being quite so rude about their opponents: as Tim Montgomerie recently wrote on CapX, ‘because many on the Left feel they are doing the work of God (or Marx) they feel even the worst of behaviour is ultimately in service of a good cause’.

It’s in this context that the Corbyn victory makes perfect sense. Most Tories couldn’t believe Labour could be so stupid as to actually pick someone with so many glaring electability issues as their leader. But when you’re fighting a religious war, who do you want in charge — someone who promises to lay about the infidels with a flaming sword, or someone who accepts that they have a few good points about past overspending?

This also, of course, explains why picking Corbyn is such a terrible strategy electorally. Castigating the Tories as heartless monsters certainly whips up your base. But it’s also saying to anyone who’s voted Tory in the past (and especially those who switched from Labour in 2010 and 2015) not that they made a regrettable and understandable error, but that they made a deal with the devil.

There’s actually some interesting neuroscience behind all this — as laid out in the book Hannan refers to, The Righteous Mind by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt argues that there are six key values people look for in political leaders: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity. The evidence shows that those on the Left are motivated primarily by care and fairness: they want a more just and equal world, they stand up for the oppressed and the underdogs. Those on the Right often share those concerns, but balance them against others: for example, the need for personal freedom, opportunity, social order and moral decency.

One consequence of that is that it literally makes it harder for Left-wingers to see Right-wingers’ point of view than vice versa. The result, as William Saletan says in his New York Times review of Haidt’s book, is that ‘liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.’

This is a pretty good way of thinking about politics. When the Tories made themselves unelectable in the 1990s/2000s, for example, it was because they doubled down on liberty, loyalty, authority and above all purity/sanctity and forgot about the other two. And Labour are now making their own version of precisely the same mistake.

To see this at its most explicit, all you need to do is compare Corbyn’s victory speech yesterday with Cameron’s from 2005.

The most obvious thing is that Cameron’s is much better as a speech: it’s much shorter, it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, a structure and an argument.

It’s also explicitly aimed at agnostics rather than believers. As he says in his conclusion: ‘To those watching at home, if you have a passion for positive politics, come and join us. If you want to build a modern, compassionate Conservative party, come and join us. If you want me and all of us to be a voice for hope, for optimism and for change, come and join us. In this modern, compassionate Conservative party, everyone is invited.’

But what’s equally interesting is how many of Haidt’s psychological buttons Cameron presses. He talks about looking after the elderly, family breakdown, the need for more women MPs, but also about safer streets, school discipline, people’s duty to the community. The only value he doesn’t stress is ideological purity/sanctity — precisely because the public were fed up of hearing Tory leaders bang on about them. Corbyn, by contrast, is operating in a much narrower spectrum.

The great irony of all this is that, a few months back, many Tories I talked to had convinced themselves that the 2020 election was Labour’s for the taking.

The flipside of the wicked/stupid thing is that Labour, even under Ed Miliband, were still viewed as well-meaning — what let them down was their perceived ability to govern, and especially to run the economy. But the Tories, even after 10 years of Cameron, still haven’t shed the ‘Nasty Party’ tag: their schtick is competence, not compassion.

So yes, the argument ran, the Tories had a great election. But it relied heavily on the unique threat of the SNP, and the unique uselessness of Ed Miliband.

All Labour had to do was to appoint a new, competent-looking leader who apologised for the economic errors of the past and promised not to repeat them — Chuka Umunna, say, or Dan Jarvis — and they’d be competitive again: compassionate and competent, just like under Tony Blair. In other words, they’d tick all the Haidt boxes.

Instead, they went for Corbyn. Good luck with that.

This article originally appeared on on September 13, 2015.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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