Scholars' Blog

Trinity Term 2022
Sharon Chau
By Sharon Chau

Labour, Get Off Your Moral High Horse

Keir Starmer’s tweet on 19th February 2021 reads, ‘Harold Wilson said the Labour Party is “a moral crusade or it is nothing.” This encapsulates what Labour prides itself on, having the moral high ground. Instead of simply thinking they have more sensible policies that improve societal wellbeing, especially for the most vulnerable, Labour fundamentally believes that we are good people. The rhetoric that all Tories are ‘evil’ and are simply too steeped in their privilege to care about anyone else permeates every level of the party, from individual members to the party leadership. This self-congratulatory attitude is highly problematic and is arguably one of the key reasons for Labour’s recent lacklustre electoral performance.

On the individual level, such a sanctimonious attitude manifests itself in insidious ways. Firstly, it means certain hardline Labour supporters simply refuse to engage with those who are conservative. The common rhetoric of ‘I can never be friends with a Tory supporter,’ or ‘if you vote Tory in this political climate, you’re dead to me,’ or even the milder form of ‘just how can you support the Tories when they are doing XYZ egregious things?’ illustrates this, meaning there is little room for conversation and genuine understanding of why people do not support Labour. Not only does this alienate those with different political beliefs, removing all possibility of civil conversation that might convince them to vote otherwise, but it also leads to perceptions of Labour supporters as holier-thanthou and fosters resentment. This evidently has deleterious consequences for Labour’s electoral support. We have not been in government for twelve years and simultaneously there has been an increase in political polarisation, which leads to progressively extreme policies and destructive governance.

Hypocrisy is a second problem which arises from a belief in the party’s moral superiority. A common argument against the Tories is how they all support indefensible, egregious actions by their administration, so to vote for them in this political climate is unconscionable. Such a belief is strongly misplaced, as many Tory voters do not support every single one of their party’s policies. This is similar to how many Labour voters distanced themselves from the antisemitic scandals that plagued the party under Corbyn, or from Starmer firing shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry after he defied orders and openly voiced his support for the RMT strikes and many Tory supporters refused to support Boris Johnson during Partygate. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. Either we demand that Tory voters support every single policy enacted by the government and allow no exceptions for ourselves as well, or we accept that just as we can disavow certain actions by party representatives, so can they. Recognising such a double standard is the first step in dismantling our prejudice and in becoming more accepting individuals.

At a party level, the belief in moral superiority similarly leads to arrogance and complacency, rendering Labour’s political strategy highly ineffective. One crucial problem is the lack of a clear positive vision and so Labour have become reliant on dogmatic attacks on the Conservative Party. Running a moralistic negative campaign is a necessary strategy for all non-incumbent political parties, but it can also be a dangerous trap to fall into. We only have to glance across the Atlantic to see exactly the damning effects of relying on self-evident moral superiority. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election between Clinton and Trump, one of the key reasons why the Democrats lost was because they were so sure that they had a moral position superior to that of the Republicans. After all, Trump was racist, sexist, filthy rich and just a repulsive human being. Their overwhelmingly negative campaign focused on attacking Trump, leaving them bereft of a positive vision voters could root for, resulting in their stunning loss. All this stemmed from the simplistic and paternalistic belief that the Democrats occupied the moral high ground and if only you could make the voters see this truth, then they will immediately recoil from the unscrupulous Republicans. Labour must be extremely careful not to fall into the same trap. Simply attacking Boris Johnson’s administration and its many scandals, denouncing certain policies the Tories have implemented for the absence of a moral code or attacking Truss for her lack of integrity is not enough. We have to stop being so sure of our moral superiority and move towards actually listening to what voters want and care about, then transforming that into a clear, coherent vision.

Taking on such a moral position leads to vast infighting. When Labour prides itself on their high moral standard, any deviation from this is bound to be policed; everyone else is ‘tainted’ by a transgression. A pertinent example is when Corbyn’s Labour was accused of antisemitism, which immediately divided the party into pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn camps. A recently published report shows exactly how factionalism took hold, arguing that the party was ‘torn apart by infighting’ that left it ‘hamstrung in contesting elections but also did a disservice to those experiencing antisemitism’ . [1] Here, we see that such internal discord was highly politically destructive, significantly weakening Labour’s base of support - some original supporters turned away to other political parties, voting against Corbyn; and swing voters were disillusioned by the whole debacle, more so by the infighting and internal chaos than the antisemitism accusations themselves. The significant and sustained media attention devoted to this one albeit important problem, instead of the failures of the Tory government and what Labour could bring to the table instead, was highly detrimental to Labour’s electoral position.

But the more pernicious problem in the antisemitism scandal was that the factionalism was actually counterproductive in fighting against the problem itself, doing ‘a disservice to those experiencing antisemitism.’ [2] The reason behind this is that much of the ‘washing their hands clean’ by individual politicians was motivated by Labour’s underlying moral crusade, instead of genuine concern about antisemitism within the party. Anxious to prove their moral purity, politicians were more focused on absolving themselves of blame than on accepting the possibility of individual or collective moral failings and brainstorming solutions for them. Overall, this sweeping focus on morality has not only failed in solving the problem, but has also exacerbated the very same issues.

Here, I am not arguing we should sweep such problems under the carpet to prevent factionalism. It goes without saying that antisemitism is an immense problem that has very real consequences, especially in a whirlwind of culture wars using Jewish individuals as scapegoats; it is admirable that there was serious attention devoted to it. All I am saying is, Labour was severely hamstrung by the moral high ground we occupied. There is a better, more constructive way to move forward and implement changes to the party in light of such issues, without harming popular support for Labour and its internal cohesion. Striking this delicate balance allows us to hold leaders to account while maintaining cohesion and refusing to lose sight of the big picture as a political party. Even though the Tories arguably have a much worse track record of Islamophobia, transphobia, sexism, and many other problems, these are never existential issues. They have a way of protecting each other which Labour should be loath to condone, but we need to recognise that too much moralising in the other direction is also counterproductive.

Some might argue that standing by strong principles is what distinguishes Labour from other political parties and that proudly declaring this is an effective electoral strategy. There is evidence demonstrating the positive electoral impacts of appealing to morals. [3] However, those who care about morals, or those who want to help people who are the most in need, probably vote Labour already. Being ‘moral’ in politics is relative, and there is little marginal benefit in Labour being much more moral rather than just slightly more moral than the Tories. From a purely strategic point of view, there is no use to Labour dwelling extensively on something on which they are already in the lead.

What is the alternative? Is Labour to stoop to the Tories’ level and abandon their integrity and principles? Not exactly. But to survive and thrive, Labour needs to stop waxing lyrical about morals, and move more into pragmatic politics. Firstly, we need to start building a coherent vision for what ‘voting for Labour’ means. It does not just mean higher taxes on hardworking Britons and more money for ‘welfare queens,’ which is the narrative framed by the Tories. It means increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners, reversing the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax and clamping down on tax avoidance. [4] It means public services in the public’s hands, with common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water. It means repealing the Trade Union Act and supporting industrial action and workers’ rights. It is high time for us to focus on a positive campaign that voters can get behind.

Secondly, we need to be more strategic in our negative attacks. It is obviously crucial to point to Partygate and demonstrate how the Tories have been disgustingly reluctant to take responsibility for clear mistakes, but it is equally important to focus media attention on how years of Tory governance have failed, such as contributing to ridiculous levels of inflation, unprecedentedly high living costs, and increased economic inequality, all while wasting tens of billions of pounds across government on dodgy procurement contracts. [5]

The truth is, moral panics like Partygate blow over when newspapers find nothing new to sensationalise, while genuine failures in governance happen time and time again. Focusing on these more substantive issues allows sustained accountability for the incumbent government.

Thirdly, we need to stop being so sanctimonious. It is far too easy to demonise and vilify every single Tory supporter without even attempting to understand their stance. Such a stance frames everyone else as dupes, ‘living lives of false consciousness’ and ‘waiting for the vanguard to show them the way ’. [6] Instead, we should engage in actual conversation, trying to find common ground and starting from there. Doing so will ameliorate the excesses of polarisation and populism, and contribute to a kinder and gentler political scene.

In an ideal world, being moral and having firm principles to stand by are definitely virtues. We should celebrate politicians who uphold such standards, especially in the dirty game of politics which rewards cronyism, under-the-table deals and nepotistic behaviour. But in a world where the Tories do not care at all about morals, Labour needs to rethink its strategy. Staying on their moral high horse does Labour no good - we must try and get off before it becomes too late.

About the author
Sharon Chau, 2020 Kwok Scholar, is pursuing the Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree at the University of Oxford. She was the Women’s Officer of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC). This article was published in the Trinity Term issue in Look Left by OULC.

[3] The Mobilizing Effect of Parties’ Moral Rhetoric, Jae-Hee Jung (2019)