Why our identities shape our politics

If a leader signals to enough people that they are like them, they are likely to trust and relate to them.
- Professor Emeritus Rodney Barker
Jeremy_Corbyn 4 3
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn Sophie J. Brown

Britain’s recent political history has been notable for acrimonious campaigns that have highlighted grave differences in voting behaviour by age group and social class. Examples such as the 2016 EU referendum campaign and the 2017 general election appear to corroborate the theory that voters are not primarily driven by rational economic interests; instead, they are guided by their relationships and attitudes towards other social groups.

Psychologists assert that humans have a tendency to favour those who are similar to them, and fear those who look, act, or speak differently. This is known as the in-group theory: we overvalue our own group, while devaluing the ‘out-group’ and define ourselves against them.

Professor Emeritus Rodney Barker of the Department of Government’s latest book investigates the ways our identities can engage our political choices and wider behaviours. He takes a holistic view that every part of our identities are important, with each aspect combining to comprise the self.  

“I reject the idea that individuals have an interior belief from which everything else flows,” Professor Barker says. “Who people are is comprised of a whole series of particular elements.”

“It is the difference between saying, ‘she is a patriot, and that is why she waves flags and sings the national anthem’, and ‘she waves flags and sings the national anthem, so she is a patriot’. I agree with the second description; we are a product of our many behaviours,” he adds.

The way in which an individual’s different facets overlap and are interconnected, combining to create a multi-layered self, is often described as ‘intersectionality’. In his book Professor Barker borrows the term 'cultivation' from agriculture, using the metaphor to explain how identity is developed over time. “We are reliant on our environments. Identities are created over a period of time and constrained by our individual circumstances,” he says.

In political terms, our different identities will become more or less salient depending on the situation Professor Barker asserts, meaning that leaders who can appeal to the strongest identity amongst the largest section of voting population are well-placed to win majority support. The role of identity helps us understand why some politicians seem to connect in mysterious ways with large sections of the population, while others fail.

“A politician may have well-considered policies, which would work if voters were calculators that acted rationally. But if a leader signals to enough people that they are like them, they are likely to trust and relate to them,” Professor Barker says.

Equally, political campaigns can be effective by deliberately ‘othering’ opponents and labelling them as members of an out-group. This can be achieved by portraying them as a supporter of minority groups and interests. During the 2017 general election campaign the Conservative party and supportive media outlets focused on attacking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in this way.

“At the outset of the campaign, the Conservatives claimed the election was necessary to secure a mandate for Brexit negotiations, but it became very clear that their campaign would focus on plausibility of their opponent, with the intention of destroying his reputation,” Professor Barker says.

“What the Conservative campaign failed to predict was that Corbyn seemed to become more relatable and likeable to parts of the electorate as the campaign progressed. He emerged as his own personality, and people felt they could identify with him,” he adds.  

Additionally, Corbyn is also likely to have benefitted from the comparison with his opponent, Conservative leader Theresa May, whose aloof and rigid appearances on the campaign trail were said to have led to her failure to connect with some voters and cost her party support.

“Impugning someone’s character rather than their policies may overshadow important information, but it is an important example of why identity matters when we vote,” Professor Barker says.

“When it comes to identity everything matters. And, you will often find that our political leaders tell us an awful lot about who we are.”

Behind the article

Cultivating Political and Public Identity: Why plumage matters by Rodney Barker is published by Manchester University Press.

The book will also be available as an eBook under a CC-BY licence, the first ever book by an LSE academic to be made available as open access.