Why Labour Lost – A Jungian Perspective

The 2015 election results are in, and they are full of shocks:

  • Three party leaders resigned before all the results had been announced.
  • The Tories’ victory was contrary to the consistent message of all the pre-election polls.
  • Labour suffered their most crushing defeat for 30 years.
  • In Scotland there was a rout by the SNP.
  • UKIP gained 12.6% of the votes but only 0.15% of the seats.

C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology can offer a useful perspective on these results, one that might help voters and parties alike in their preparations for the 2020 election.

Typological Differences

Although 2015 seemed to be the year of a multi-party election, the arguments were ultimately constellated around two traditional themes – social justice and economic competence. This is not only an echo of the political battles of the 20th century, it also echoes a clash of psychological styles that has been observed by philosophers for thousands of years. C.G. Jung described these two themes in terms of two psychological functions – Thinking and Feeling.

The Feeling function is based on beliefs. It thinks about ‘you’, about people and their future, and building strong communities. It seeks to share power and respond to people’s concerns. It wants everyone to play by the same rules, and to engage with the rest of the world. It often has just one purpose, which is to work for people.

The Thinking function is more concerned with being on the right track. It makes difficult decisions about money, the economy, control of finances, and sees everyone as having to make sacrifices and play their part. It follows a long term plan to put its house in order, plans every stage of your life, and defends against a dangerous and uncertain world.

All the words used above in the description of Feeling featured prominently in Ed Miliband’s covering letter for the Labour manifesto. All the words used for Thinking featured prominently in David Cameron’s covering letter for the Conservative manifesto. When the themes of politics and psychology coincide they become a very powerful force – whether for good or ill – that operates at an instinctual level. This means that many people will have voted according to an instinctive gut feel, choosing the theme that seems right to them at this present moment.

A Battle Between Opposites

It may seem an oversimplification to suggest that the political debate constellated around just two themes. However, according to Jung’s theory, this is what a psychological function does – it oversimplifies. It does so by paying attention to what it regards as relevant and ignoring everything else because it is “irrelevant”1. This leads, broadly speaking, to three groups of people in the election battle.

  1. Decisions are based primarily on social justice. For them, either they don’t see any problem with debt, or they regard the economic argument as insignificant, or they believe that improvement in the economy will follow from adhering to our values.
  2. Decisions are based primarily on economic competence. They don’t agree that social injustice can be a consequence of sound economic management, or they believe that it is through managing the economy that we can adhere to our values.
  3. The final group is caught in the middle, seeing the validity and drawbacks of both perspectives and unable to make a choice between them. But – as Bill Clinton once argued – when faced with that stark choice in the ballot box, the economy will always win it.

Jung observed this process, of opposition between two themes, and saw the damage it did to individuals and society. It leads to one-sidedness – a distorted view of reality that only sees the positive aspects in one’s own standpoint and the negative aspect in the other.  For example, during the election, Labour repeatedly denied that they had overspent in the period 2001-20082, and the Conservatives denied any responsibility for the dramatic rise in the use of food banks or the consequences of the bedroom tax. Neither seemed able to understand or accept the valid points of the other. Ultimately, a battle between two groups that are afflicted by one-sidedness can only have a negative impact on individuals and society.

A Better Solution

The essence of Jung’s book Psychological Types was to describe this problem of opposites and propose an alternative solution to help escape the damage it causes. There are two stages that are relevant to political discourse, the first of which is to retreat from a one-sided political stance. This does not involve abandoning one’s previously held values or beliefs. Rather, it entails taking a more objective and realistic view of both sides – recognising the valid aspects of the other’s argument and the drawbacks of one’s own. This is inherently difficult because, by definition, one-sidedness is convinced of its own view, the importance of making its own argument, and the need to oppose the other.

The second stage is then to look for a way to transcend those opposites, i.e. to deliver the aspirations of both sides. For example, one has to recognise that commerce is not the enemy of social justice, and welfare is not the enemy of economic responsibility – they represent two sides of the coin, and the aspirations of both sides have to be met. This does not mean finding a compromise, nor does it require the sacrifice of one’s own values or beliefs. Rather, it is the recognition that individuals and society are best served by finding a “third way”, a new constructive solution that is an improvement on what has gone on before.

The Third Way

The phrase “third way” may provoke very different reactions in various readers. The term has been used as the title of a political philosophy that was used by Tony Blair and others in the construction of New Labour. The risk, therefore, is that some people reject it out of hand – either because of its association with Tony Blair/New Labour, or because it is viewed as a political philosophy that is difficult to define and has now been superseded. However, such a rejection would be a mistake.

When it is viewed from the perspective of Jung’s analytical psychology, the “third way” is not a static political philosophy that has temporal limitations; rather it is an ever-changing psychological and cultural process that has timeless relevance. The “third way” is an ongoing, iterative process that recognises the tensions in society between opposing factions, and then seeks to resolve them. It goes through repeated cycles of identifying the current tensions and finding a solution that transcends them. After each solution is found, it then looks at the new tensions that emerge, and seeks further solutions that transcend these new opposites as well. By repeating the process, society is continually transformed for the better.

Labour’s 1997 election victory was built on a single iteration of this ‘third way’ process. It produced a political philosophy that gave equal priority to economic competence and social concern. For example, they committed to the spending restrictions that had previously been established by the outgoing Conservative government. However, although the New Labour brand was not retired until 2010, the Third Way began to unravel as early as 2000-2001, when they began to give higher priority to social justice and take their eye off the ball of economic competence. The return to a one-sided approach was cemented with the election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour party.


The Labour party are now beginning to debate how they can recover from this election defeat. Part of that debate includes a call to return to the “aspirational” era of Tony Blair3. However, the risk for Labour is that they fail to realise the deep psychological reasons for Tony Blair’s success and thereby adopt a formula that has only a superficial impact. This may lead to further entrenchment of the two sides of political discourse, and another election failure in 2020. If Labour want to succeed at the next election, they have to rediscover the third way as an ongoing process.


1 Jung, C.G. (1921), Psychological Types, (London: Routledge, 1991), p.410

2 Many labour advocates refute the idea that they overspent in the period 2001-2008, citing the 2008 banking crisis as the cause of the current level of debt. The economic argument against Labour is illustrated by the graph (right), in which the red line shows the size of the national debt since the last recession in the early 1990s. Conventional economic wisdom is that the debt is paid off during the good part of the economic cycle, and money is borrowed during the bad part. Labour were following this principle until 2001, but then started adding to the debt even though the economy was performing well. The blue line shows how the national debt would have progressed if they had continued to pay down the debt. As can be seen, the UK would have had a much lower debt, and been in a much better position to cope with the downturn, had they continued to keep spending under control.

3 E.g. see http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/09/alan-johnson-labour-aspirational-voters-tony-blair

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