Moral conflict and the splitting of Labour (or what we love will tear us apart)

by Gordon Lynch

In 2011, the Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander published a book, ‘The Performance of Politics’, in which he argued that moral symbolism plays a crucial role in shaping democratic political processes.

Political communication, Alexander claimed, was based on fundamental distinctions between the ‘sacred’ values that were taken to define a society’s identity and ethos and ‘profane’ outsiders perceived as dangerous, polluting threats. Electoral success required politicians to convince voters that they were on the positive side of this moral binary and that their opponents were tainted by the ‘profane’.

Whilst many other social and economic factors weigh on how electorates view politicians, Alexander’s analysis provides a valuable perspective on certain moments in political life. The current crisis enfolding the Labour Party is such a case. Although it is less than three months since his election, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has become increasingly defined through such moral binaries.

One of the most damaging for him amongst many voters is the sense that he does not stand in patriotic solidarity with Britain, generated unfairly by a relentless communications campaign by his media and political critics. But another ‘profane’ trait, identified by Alexander’s analysis of political communication, is the perception of a politician favouring particularist loyalties rather than the wider public good.

His appointment to key posts of individuals such as John McDonnell, Andrew Fisher and Seaumus Milne, who are highly divisive in terms of public and party opinion but ideologically close to Corbyn, has for many people demonstrated this undesirable quality.

When individuals close to Corbyn act in incompetent or uncivil ways but are allowed to continue in their roles, this sense of personal loyalty and ideological factionalism trumping public responsibility deepens.

This arguably reached a tipping point with the decision by the Shadow Chancellor to quote from, and pass a copy of, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book to George Osborne during the Parliamentary discussion of the autumn financial statement.

Humour always operates on the basis of shared social and moral assumptions. For John McDonnell to imagine that this would be an effective joke will be taken by many as evidence that he little understands the symbolism of his action or the social and moral consensus to which this behaviour would appear bizarre.

For his action then to go without censure by Jeremy Corbyn becomes, by association, a taint on his judgment as well. The visceral sense of shame felt by many Labour politicians and supporters at this event (and other recent similar episodes) is a mark of the fundamental moral discomfort that they provoke.

At some points in political life, moral symbolism has little significance and political debate proceeds on the basis of pragmatic discussions of economic and policy issues. That is no longer the case for Labour, which in Alexander’s terms, is increasingly struggling against the toxicity of the Corbyn leadership for many voters.

Under these conditions, constructive policy proposals or contributions to public debates will struggle to cut through a wider public sense of alienation from Corbyn and those close to him. This now presents significant difficulties for those who were not supporters of Jeremy Corbyn but agreed to serve in his Shadow Cabinet in the ‘make it work’ spirit of party unity.

Toxic moral symbolism spreads and there is now an increasing risk that if a symbolic break is not made by the Labour Party from the current direction of the Corbyn leadership then its reputation may, more quickly than many imagined, become damaged in wider public opinion far beyond 2020.

The obvious problem to such a break with Corbyn is that so many members of the Labour Party and groups like Momentum fundamentally disagree with this negative perception of him. To them, Jeremy Corbyn exemplifies all of the traits that Alexander characterises as the ‘sacred’ qualities of the political hero: peaceful, co-operative, honest, equal, rational, solidaristic, ethical, honourable and faithful.

From this perspective, wider public opinion is being distorted by the ‘profane’ right-wing media and many see those critical of Corbyn within the Labour movement as displaying a disloyalty from which the party must be purged.

The need to rally around Jeremy Corbyn is experienced as an unquestionable moral demand, as strongly felt as the convictions of those who see the Corbyn project as evermore tainted.

And so now the Labour Party faces being torn apart by incommensurable moral narratives about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. As Alexander has argued, it is in the nature of such performances and counter-performances of deeply-felt moral sentiments that the capacity for constructive dialogue becomes increasingly strained.

The use of social media for venting frustrations or offering easy expressions of solidarity further exacerbates these tensions. Whilst plaintive pleas for party unity continue to be made, it is difficult to see the party escaping profound divisions unless without some significant changes happen with the style or staffing of its leadership.

Alongside this, more sustained reflection needs to take place by those close to Jeremy Corbyn as to why his leadership of the Labour Party – whilst receiving devoted support from hundreds of thousands of party members and other supporters – is failing to connect with the wider public. Simply projecting the blame for this on to a hostile media is no substitute for serious self-critical reflection. It is far from clear that this is likely to happen, however.

Perhaps there is some hope that long-standing relationships between people in local CLPs might make it possible to find common ground across these divisions. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how these competing readings of the moral symbolism of the Corbyn leadership can be contained without cementing deep divisions in the Left from which the only likely beneficiaries will be the Conservative Party.

Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent and a member of the Labour party. He writes and blogs on moral dimensions of contemporary society

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11 Responses to “Moral conflict and the splitting of Labour (or what we love will tear us apart)”

  1. paul barker says:

    A big part of the bitterness comes from the shared perception of ownership, both sides have cogent reasons for thinking that they own Labour. The other side are seen as traitors.
    Its possible that an open split might actually make things easier : most people can accept that its sometimes neccesary to work with political enemies but no-one is going to work with traitors. Perhaps co-operation would be easier after separation ?

  2. John P Reid says:

    I know a few Constituencies in Bristol, Luton,Glasgow, Surrey, croydon, Essex, the east end (ilford north south,East and West ham ,Dagenham And Barkimg and South London Greenwich ,Lambeth,
    All completely different the Eqst ham,west ham. Ones are loyal to their MP, Dagenham,a Barking can’t stand each other, I lford north /south, like their MP, but are too the left of them

    Greenwich consists of BME members who are socially conservative, and white middle class liberals,who can’t understand their Black colleagues saying that parent should smack their children if they’re naughty in School, and Lambeth members think that the party is to tied to the Westminster bubble, while having respect for their work

    Luton is more blue labour, but after the rise of Islam tagging thees very few things the white working class still admires labour for,is our on,y saving grace Co-ops maybe,
    Bristol is similar,

    Croydon,while not to far from Surrey, has support for the 4.5% ers, if you was in the left and went to one of their constituency meetings you’d not recognize it from the rest of the country,

    Barking seems to be going towards student politics, who are going to be in for a nasty shock in 2018 ,and Dagnham have twigged Jon Cruddas isn’t as left wing as their councillors and want a lefty in his place, maybe he can pretend to be anti the EU ágain
    And Glasgow consists of people cloning on to faith in the party while the SNP make in roads,
    This article hits a few Good points,but are people who are really running CLPs in areas where labour has a chance,and don’t already have Cobynistas as their Mp,s really corbynistas, in fact I know a few people in Islington,who didn’t even nominate Jeremy for re election in 2014 and as For Harlimgton and Hayes,half the local CLP can’t stand John Mcdonnel

  3. TCO says:

    Interesting that this should be written by a professor of theology. It’s quite simple really; to 60% of your party members JC is the Messiah, but to the electorate at large he’s a Very Naughty Boy.

    There is a legitimate place in British politics for a socialist party, and that has been unoccupied for nearly 3 decades. But I suspect many current MPs and the sort of Labour members who voted for Liz Kendal don’t see themselves as socialists.

  4. Anne says:

    Thank you Gordan. An excellent analysis.

  5. Rallan says:

    Sorry but revolutionaries don’t look for common ground with the old order. They look for enemies of the revolution. There’s no room for comprise.

  6. Richard MacKinnon says:

    This article, couched in academic language, with its references to other academics in this case a Jeffery Alexander and his book ‘The performance of Politics’ needs a second reading if you are like me a non academic. The first sentence deliberately sets out to ensure that the non academics know their place. “In 2011, the Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander published a book, ‘The Performance of Politics’, in which he argued that moral symbolism plays a crucial role in shaping democratic political processes.”
    The immediate reaction of the layman is, what the hell is ‘moral symbolism’; and he/she would be right to ask that question because that is exactly what the author wants you to think. Gordon Lynch wants you to feel inadequate. That he talking about things ‘non academics do not understand. My first reaction was; I better really concentrate here because this is written by a Professor of Modern Theology and will undoubtably be full of difficult concepts and big words.
    So I read it, and then I read it again, and you what? its just another mud slinging exercise. Its no more than another attempt albeit from the angle of a ‘modern theologian’ , a tag by the way, that can be claimed by any one that thinks about things, to blacken the name of Jeremy Corbyn elected leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition Party.
    So my question to Gordon Lynch is, how much did you get paid for writing this tripe?

  7. Mike Stallard says:

    Gordon, Bingo! Well written!

    I am not Labour: I am a cradle Conservative. But I am very concerned about the EU and the direction it is going in (Spinelli-Bertelsmann document).
    I am very concerned about our defences: big ideas, small army, lousy foreign office.
    I am very concerned about our demographics at the moment where traditional English people are not producing children, while other people, with hugely different ideas and perceptions flood into our country. It is like the fall of the Roman Empire.
    I am very concerned that we are not paying our way and are falling deeper and deeper into debt which means that eventually we have to go bust. A lot of our taxation is pouring out into the hands of money lenders. Individuals, too, are falling into the debt trap. And interest rates have to be kept low which affects investment in industry and so on. People invest in houses and the price of them in London is scandalous.
    The Green Lobby is dictating silly policies too – windmills and solar panels do not produce a steady flow of power and as yet there are no means of storing electricity.

    What is the Labour policy on any of this stuff? Jeremy Corbyn/Angela Eagle/Uncle Tom Cobbley and all?
    Can you help me please?

  8. Toby Ebert says:

    Gordon Lynch is too pessimistic. The polls show that Corbyn is NOT anathema to vast swathes of the electorate; in fact we are polling at about the same amount as at the last general election, which is what would be expected at this stage of the electoral cycle.

    Also, he is too conservative. It is our duty as a radical party to put into the political area issues that are outside the mainstream, e.g. republicanism, anti-war sentiments and anti-nuclear ideas.

    Also, he is exaggerating the split between the MPs and the rest of the party. In the vote to bomb Syria about two thirds of MPs voted against bombing, about the same as the shadow cabinet and the same as the membership as a whole.

    Please Geoffrey, and Atul, ask yourselves why are you doing this persistent story of huge splits in the party and the Corbynista’s unelectability when there is no actual evidence to support it.

  9. swatantra says:

    To put it into its context, its a matter of Good against Evil. Daesh are evil personified and have to be destroyed and wiped off the face of the Earth.

  10. swatantra says:

    To put it into its context, its a matter of Good against Evil. Daesh are evil personified and have to be destroyed and wiped off the face of the Earth.

  11. Tafia says:

    Off you pop then Swat. The Kurds will take volunteers up to 70 years of age so I am absolutely sure you aren’t a wanker and you habve already booked your flight.

    It’s no big deal. Prosthetic limbs are brilliant these days and I’m sure you are willing to make the sacrifice because you are a man of principle.

    If you need some help with the air fare to Turkey give me a shout. But if you are still in this countrey in a month;s time, then you are all fur coat and no knickers (which is basically what most of the anti ISIS on here are – cowards to a man and woman)

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