The Moral Matrix and 2017

Jonathan Haidt in this 2008 talk explores the constraints and tensions in the moral psychology of left and right. He uses the context of the American political system and discusses primary moral principles, which for us in the UK, can be seen as a proxy equating to Labour and Conservative ideologies.

Given the tensions within the Labour Party at present, given the divisions created by the referendum on Europe last year, there is a merit in revisiting these earlier Haidt arguments, touching as he does on freedom, rights, power and dissent.

You can see the full TED talk from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, below…

Source:

In the talk, leavened with an easy humour, it is easy to see identifiable Labour Party sterotypes, as well as those of the Tory persuasion. The left enjoy open-ness, change and commitment to the future well-being of others. Those of the right, in this model, cleave more strongly to notions of order, and acceptance of the suffering of some, to achieve their world vision.

Haidt’s arguments about the five principal moral values that determine our political allegiance do bear subtler fruit after reflection. However, there is a more complex truth illustrated at play within and relevant to the UK Left, I would argue.

There are certainly those of the left who are adherents of open-ness, change and collaborative development. The countervailing position, arguably, is reflected in the matter of the Labour Party rule book. My electronic copy runs to 110 pages. It is hard to imagine a historically, long established political party, with a distinct and focused collective community mass-identity, that would need long debates about rule or process. Given the weight of history and experience that sits atop the shoulders of branch and national executive members.

However, it is also possible to see a ‘rightest’ version of the left, utilising the Haidtean moral psychology arguments. The press for deployment of rule in pursuit of rigid order, is also conflicted, in this model, by those who then seek to change the rule book. Not for pursuit of long term social and moral objectives, but in a short term attempt to secure self interested order as a group or societal norm.

Would it not be better to use moral psychology and the moral imperatives of the Left, socialism in my intellectual landscape, to develop thematic drivers of action which, in Haidt’s canon, would see an end to the ‘moral matrix of disputation’?

Yes, would be my answer. When even members of Momentum are being drawn into debate and argument about the rule book, it would seem, all would benefit from having a contextual list of moral activity, with a view to changing the long term political landscape of the social Left.

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Below are examples of how the ‘Moral Values Directorate‘ of a new Labour Party might look…there are many others, to be sure.

a. Social Business/Social Enterprise/Community Business

In England the depth and history of charitable endeavour runs deep. Why does the Party, most connected with the workers, not more forcefully and adroitly engage with business principles that can employ people, deliver companies with highly moral employment and marketing values, to change the topography of communities and regions.

Is it not possible that the Party could have national teams who foster branch engagement with social business solutions to local community problems? Not to the abandonment of working for votes and candidates, but as an exension, an additional part of the political armoury which would, in the long term, affect those moral value triggers of the electorate who do not currently vote for our party.

For Party members to actively engage and cultivate social business and community enterprise as aprt of their constituency armoury utilises member energy and experience, but over time, serves to illustrate the practical vaues of the Party to a much broader audience, in a newly relevant way.

b. Arts and culture

Performance, art and creative conceptualisation of problems can all be powerful adjuncts to a political allegiance or understanding. Younger members of the Party, wanting to become writers, creative workers or intellectuals should have, in a Moral Values Directorate, a process available, a ladder of opportunity which enables them to emerge as thinkers and doers, to the notice of their peers and local communities, which again can change the political landscape of branches and/or regions over time.

The Arts is just one segmental approach – creating new vertical communities of potential subscribers, followers and voters – in a way which drectly speaks to their interests, and salts political direction and thoughtful opinion into the lived experience of local politics.

The Arts can be a powerful enabler of personal development, cultural shift and redirection of loyalty, I would argue.

c. Values Rapid Response teams:

We now know, for example, that our Local Authorities are using legislation to eavesdrop and record the activities of the residents/electorate that they are responsible for. Where is the concerted effort to abolish such activity. If our freedoms are imperilled by those elected members who are there to represent us, why can we not have national teams who can support immediate, local action to such deployments when they become clear.

Here is just an example of how a vertical approach, this time by contentious theme, that could close the gap between distant elected members of the party and those who live in the communities they represent.

As an interested outsider, I am not aware of a groundswell of opinion or action, to protest in this way. Partly, this is about holding elected members to account in a very direct and solutions driven way, but also seizes the high ground for the Left, where to take action in defense of community is, importantly, to be seen to take action.

It is a thematic approach to political drive which can disrupt the’…maintain the status quo, despite the inequality inherent in such positions’, whilst making the moral values which the Left should, or could, hold most dear, radiantly clear.

You could also devise the same vertical model to confront the privatisation of education or the railway network, for example. Not in the usual overtly, partisan way, but devised campaigns that lead with the moral value, the community well-being arguments absolutely at the fore.

It can be done. I have heard railway men and women talk, at conferences, of the human value and social benefit of railways, for example. A discursive, collaborative display unknown to most politicians, voting for foreign ownership and private fiscal value without consequential thought, I would argue.

If ever history was on the side of the man or woman on the footplate, it is this conversation that would resonate with voters…if they, the voting population, could hear it in concord with a ‘moral value proposition’ that was relevant to their own experience and needs.

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Making moral psychology become part of the everyday political discourse of England, allowing the Left to jump out of the moral matrix we now find ourselves. Now that would be worth voting for in 2017.

We might even get a ‘Labour TEDTalk’ out of it?


This journal of comment and analysis is devised and published in the East of England...leaning to the left, thinking independently, arguing for humanity...

Editor: Tim Smith MA, FRSA

Now living in rural Suffolk, I have wondered all my adult life why ordinary people like me, would vote to make the policies of the self-interested Right ascendant? I now think, older as I am, that I have pursued entirely the wrong question, despite voting Labour my entire life. Why on earth cannot collaborative socialism make the Left successfully ascendant? This is the new quest.

Tim is a Partner at SmithMartin LLP - a Cambridge based social business working to create projects which tackle inequality.

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