Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams has posted some fascinating research from the US (published in the journal PLOS ONE), showing that there are differences in brain function between people inclined to vote Republican compared to those inclined to vote Democrat. The two groups tend to think about risk differently.
Republicans thinking about risk tended to focus instinctively on safety and demonstrated more activity in the parts of the brain associated with the ‘fight or flight response’. Democrats tended to show more activity in the parts of the brain which process ideas about self and social awareness.
Translating this into the British context, it certainly seems to fit in with the view that Conservatives feel that they are Conservative by instinct; that Liberal Democrats are Liberal because of the attraction of certain ideas and that Labour supporters are motivated by feeling a strong sense of tribal belonging with others. The Labour Party is arguably the middle party of the three, sharing many of the concerns over safety with Conservatives, but being willing to embrace risky change.
The patriotic instincts of the Conservative Party in the First World War, compared to the extensive debate among Liberals over the ethics of conscription, fit this pattern of thought. The election poster showing Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin with the caption ‘Safety First’ seems to encapsulate the party ethos, as does the focus on property ownership and policing.
These different thought patterns could to some extent account for the revival of the Liberal Party in the 1960s, as society embraced new ideas, leaving the Conservatives uncomfortable, but the Liberals more in tune with the changes.
The reaction of the Labour Party in closing ranks and throwing Ramsay MacDonald out of the party in 1931 after the formation of the National Government demonstrated a ruthless group survival instinct in the face of an existential threat. However, in calmer times the party has been willing to introduce innovative new ideas, such as devolution and the minimum wage, despite the risks involved.
Perhaps in future canvassers will be able to carry a portable brain scanner to identify their potential supporters!