Explaining the Labour leadership contest using social identity theory

How does a candidate with a policy position that is perceived to be much more extreme than the consensus within a party win a leadership election? Social identity theory – SIT(*) may have the answer.

If the Labour leadership election had been held when the members(-) of the party (the ingroup in SIT terms) perceived the threat from the Conservatives and others of keeping them out of power for a long time was not great, then it is possible that the debate and decision-making process within the party would have been conducted primarily an intragroup contest, as illustrated below.

Labour leadership contest as an intragroup decision
How Labour party MPs thought the leadership contest would be fought

The candidates would have been keen to distinguish themselves from one another and the perceptions of differences between each would have been heightened by debate within the party. However, the likelihood would have been that the candidate who best represented what party members held in common would be seen as most relevant (prototypical) – resulting in a victory for either Burnham or Cooper.

However, these aren’t the circumstances that Labour finds itself in. May’s election results came as a huge shock to many of their members and they trail the Conservatives (the outgroup) by a large margin in the polls nationally. SIT research would suggest that this external threat therefore makes the leadership campaign an intergroup contest instead of an intragroup one. Presumably, the Labour MPs that opposed but lent Jeremy Corbyn their support anyway during the nomination process weren’t SIT aficionados. In such cases, SIT would suggest that the most left-wing of the quartet gains in relevance amongst party members as they are perceived to be the most different to the outgroup.

The Labour leadership contest as an intergroup contest
How the Labour leadership contest has really been fought

So if Jeremy Corbyn does win the contest in a few days time, SIT suggests that it will have been less to do with internal problems of left-wing entryists and rather more to do with external macro-political pressures.



(*) Social Identity Theory was originally developed by Henri Tajfel and others to try to understand why people believe that the social groups they belong to are better than the ones that other people belong to and why enmity often accompanies these beliefs.

(-) By members, I’m including everyone that Labour has decided is eligible to vote in their leadership election.

(+) Diagrams are adapted from page 109 of Psychology in Organizations – The Social Identity Approach (2nd Edition, published 2004) by S. A. Haslam.

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