The UK’s political divide

The Economist this week explores the political divide between the North and South of the UK: the North belongs to Labour and the South to the Tories. Unfortunately, they are unable to pinpoint the reason for the divisions, saying that “even controlling for factors such as education level, housing tenure, benefit receipts, local unemployment rates and age, the political divide remains in evidence.” That is not particularly surprising since voting doesn’t tend to follow economic divisions, for whatever reason.

An interesting theory of political divisions is provided by Jonathan Haidt’s descriptive theory of morality. He suggests that there are six foundations for our emotional response to situations and ideas: caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. His empirical research shows that left and right-wing people systematically differ in the weight they place on each of those foundations. For example, left-wing people are far more responsive to ideas that trigger their caring response, while right-wing people are more likely to worry about proportionality. Crucially, he claims that almost all of our responses to ideas are determined by an initial emotional response that we then rationalise. He uses his theory to explain the divisions between Republicans and Democrats in the US, but it could equally be applied in the UK.

For example, Haidt claims that most conservatives will have an emotional response triggered by the sanctity foundation, while liberals will not. The recent debate over gay marriage in the UK shows precisely that division. While liberals pointed to the importance of the liberty to marry freely, conservatives talked about the ‘sanctity of marriage’ and were morally disgusted by the idea that homosexuals could marry. Those differing emotional reactions drew the battle lines for the ensuing debate and were post-hoc rationalised in various ways by both sides.

Perhaps economists who view ideological and political divisions through a materialist lens are thinking far too narrowly. Rather than pointing to industrial policies and wealth redistribution as vote-winning tactics they should look to the emotional responses that the parties’ rhetoric evokes.

6 replies
  1. VMC
    VMC says:

    For that theory to work (in this case) Jonathan Haidt needs to explain why the North has attracted a majority of caring people and the South a majority of uncaring folk?

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      I see what you mean but I don’t think he has to go quite that far. The little that I’ve read has empirical evidence that shows the divide between left and right in ‘moral foundations space’. He also goes as far as identifying a combination of nature, nurture, and group identity as formative influences on beliefs. To then show how the intuitions evolved differently across regions would be very interesting but I don’t think it’s necessary for it to be a supportable theory.

      • VMC
        VMC says:

        On reflection James I agree with you. When I read your article closer I realise that you are not including Jonathan Haidt in a specific discussion about why the UK north is different to the UK south – just making a more general point about why people might vote the way they do. I have always liked my Father-in-Law’s explanation that goes as follows. When a person is young, if they do not vote socialist they have no heart. When they are older, if they are still voting Socialist, they have no brains! That does not, however, work in the UK example either as I suspect the the southern UK has a younger population that the north.

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    “Rather than pointing to industrial policies and wealth redistribution as vote-winning tactics they should look to the emotional responses that the parties’ rhetoric evokes.”

    Like football teams.

    In seriousness though, I agree with your conclusion. But that won’t stop me running through the thoughts running through my head in a comment 🙂

    There is a difference between trying to analyse the political process, trying to fully articulate psychic and non-psychic values, and trying to answer questions about the allocation of resources under scarcity.

    Economics and the descriptions it gives are focused on the last question – the existence of state dependent preferences, or looking at choice of political policy through the lens of a theory of groups, are cool. And any economic description of these should indeed include these where possible – as they are assumptions that impact on the core of the result.

    But, when the economist is looking at the allocative impact of a policy the way the policy is framed SHOULDN’T impact on the result we come to. Framing should be an issue that is analysed, but not one which directly influences the discussion of trade-offs – instead economics should try to ensure it has a relatively value neutral language when discussing said trade-offs.

    The problem is that interest groups from both sides steal economics words and misuse them to achieve the very ends you mention. I constantly hear politicians, journalists, and intelligent lay people suggest free lunches that don’t exist – while refusing to acknowledge that there is a free lunch, due to their own unwillingness to build an internally consistent model of trade-offs in their minds. And of course, this is where my view on economic communication being a separate discipline that tries to do this directly comes in 😉

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      This was really just prompted by the Economist dedicating thousands of words to the divide between North and South without giving a single plausible framework for understanding it. Of course I agree that people shouldn’t steal 😉

      • Matt Nolan
        Matt Nolan says:

        I agreed with what you said, I just wanted to discuss how it made me feel 😛

        What can I say, I like typing with my keyboard at home so much I can’t help it!

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