Voices: Labour needs to learn to speak plainly again, or else it is doomed

·4-min read
We must acknowledge that direct reasoning can be right and proper (PA)
We must acknowledge that direct reasoning can be right and proper (PA)

Over the last few decades the UK has become more socially liberal across all regions, ages and classes. Yet our politics is polarised by cultural questions. In a country with widespread concern about climate change, LGBT+ rights and racial inequality, an alleged culture war rages.

The beneficiaries of this polarisation are the Tory right. From Brexit to the “war on woke”, they are experts at dividing the “very liberal” from the “quite liberal”. And, because the “very liberal” congregate in cities, the electoral arithmetic lies with the Conservatives. They are effectively cornering the “quite liberal”, non-graduate market.

This raises a wider question: why, in an increasingly progressive country, do progressive parties increasingly struggle? In a new paper for Progressive Britain, I tried to answer this.

The American psychologist George Lakoff described two modes of reasoning: direct and systemic. “Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognises that many problems arise from the system they are in,” he wrote.

Do you treat crime, for example, as the direct fault of the perpetrator or as the responsibility of the social systems they inhabit? Lakoff adds that “When causation is direct, the word ‘cause’ is unproblematic.” This way of thinking is intuitive. Systemic logic, by contrast, is not innate and “has to be learned”. Hence, I would argue, it’s most common among those with more time in formal education.

Lakoff argued that the US Republican party is the party of direct logic, and Democrats the party of systemic reasoning. See, for example, Trump’s promise to build a wall with Mexico; an ultra-direct pledge that horrified the left but helped to win over direct reasoners in Rust Belt states.

The UK has followed the same pattern in recent years. The Tories are now totally focused on direct causation, calling a spade a spade at every point, regardless of the complexity of each issue. Labour, by contrast, now always looks to wider structural explanations for everything, and often gets mired in a kind of word soup as a result.

Non-graduates, many of them in frontline jobs that rely on thinking in straight lines, have been drawn to the Conservative’ uber-direct rhetoric. And graduates – who often pride themselves on seeing the bigger picture – have lapped up Labour’s ultra-systemic pitch.

Boris Johnson is a pivotal figure here. He is now wounded, perhaps fatally, by Partygate. But his particular brand of direct reasoning, flawed and irresponsible though it is, is worth understanding. His use of metaphors and veneration of bish-bosh-wallop common sense has let the Tories chart new terrain. He manages very direct approaches to policy-making, diplomacy and general life, without appealing to overt prejudice.

His use of ultra-literal language (”Get Brexit Done”) poses as competence, and his approaches to migration and the economy speak explicitly to direct causation. When Johnson dismisses social factors as “tripe” or “hogwash”, he can pose as the guardian of no-nonsense thinking and native wit. He thus appeals to a swathe of voters, many of whom hold no candle either for conventional Tory policies or for the racism of Nigel Farage, yet feel sick of a world where every question has an arcanely complex answer. His “boosterism” creates agency, in a way that the progressive instinct to critique our “rigged system” cannot.

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There are three ways for Labour to bridge this gap.

First, we must acknowledge that direct reasoning can be right and proper. This is especially true when systemic answers to a problem haven’t had time to kick in or haven’t worked. If an armed terrorist is walking down a street discharging their weapon, for example, “preventative” steps have already failed. Keir Starmer is well-suited to make these arguments and has begun to do so.

Second, Labour must distance itself from parts of the left who misuse systemic reasoning by making it confusing, overwhelming or fatalistic. There’s a difference between the idea that our system is fixable – that inequalities of outcome and opportunity can ultimately be closed – and the notion that these faults are “baked into” our society in ways that can’t be unpicked.

Lastly, Labour should aim to fix the system. The post-Covid world creates a space for positive radical ideas. This could include egalitarian reforms, or the 1945-style creation of new institutions. To persuade direct reasoners of the need for ideas like this, however, Labour would need to join the dots and show their workings. They would need to explain exactly why these reforms are necessary and how they’d deliver them.

The phoney war over culture will outlive Johnson, and is based on the Conservative assumption that Labourites are too frightened to think in straight lines or speak frankly. Keir Starmer’s party needs to prove them wrong.

Chris Clarke is the author of Thinking In Straight Lines, a new essay for Progressive Britain

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