It’s the ethos, stupid
What is it to win the centre ground in politics? It is in part to incorporate policies that appeal to the centre-left and centre-right. But that is quite a shallow definition. I want to suggest a slightly deeper one based on Jonathan Haidt’s five (apparently universal) moral senses: a sense of fairness, a sense of caring about harm, a sense for in-group loyalty, a sense of spiritual purity and a respect for authority. It seems to me that winning the centre-ground convincingly requires embodying all these senses to some degree in an ethos that people can understand and identify with.
Haidt argues that Obama should appeal to all five senses if he is to be a truly unifying president. To a certain extent Obama achieves this – he is clearly concerned with fairness and harm, and he appeals to a kind of purity of spirit in terms of personal magnanimity and Roosevelt-style national fraternity. His speeches about Islam and race have shown a respect for responsible authority. He perhaps comes up short on loyalty to the in-group – the least attractive of the moral senses – but then, a unifier tries to forge a new in-group identity at the national level.
In this country we have Gordon Brown. Why can’t he seem to win the centre-ground? Setting aside issues of personality, it seems to me Brown does not utilise Haidt’s five moral senses. He is obviously strong on concern with harm and fairness. But he doesn’t appeal to in-group loyalty (despite his Britishness rhetoric) and he is nowhere on spiritual purity, despite his Presbyterian beginnings.
What he requires is a unifying narrative that incorporates the five senses. Without that, people feel there is something missing. He presents his Government as championing public spending and thus a sense of fairness about opportunity that such spending can redress. And he does this with an avuncular sense of authority and technocratic respect for expert opinion. But this comes across as tired and empty.
Everything has to align – a concern for fairness and harm needs to be united with a sense of purity – a moral vision if you like. At the moment that vision should be largely a reaction to the excesses of a marketised society: it’s greed, dishonesty, materialism and selfishness. Brown would need to present himself and party as humble, prepared to be restrained, honest and very concerned with sustainable living (this would be the right version of spiritual purity for the times). If he allied this with his concern for fairness and harm, as well as a respect for the authority of democracy – rather than just technocratic authority – then in-group loyalty would follow naturally.
This is because people want to see reflected in a political party or leader the kind of coherent unity found in a person they admire and respect – a person who coherently combines the full five moral senses. Achieving that unity in a communicable ethos seems to me the deeper psychology of winning the middle-ground.