Sunday 27 April 2014

The Problem with Identity Politics and the Left, by Luke Blaxill

A political outlook grounded in group identity is something that sits at the heart of the world-view of the left since the emergence of labour politics and trades unionism from the late-Victorian period onwards.

I am referring, of course, to class identities.

Namely, the idea that different social groups are defined by whether or not they have wealth or access to capital, the character of their work (especially if it has a physical or manual element), and also finally lifestyle- how they live, who they associate with, and the nature of the leisure activates they indulge in.

The left have sought to champion the interests of the working class against that of the middle and upper classes who, if left unsupervised, would seek to exploit and grow fat off the backs of the workers’ labour, and maintain (or widen) the class divide to benefit themselves.

Because in modern industrial societies like Britain it has always been relatively easy to identify the working class (not least through trades unions) then the existence of a party to represent that class and to advance its interests appeared as a quite natural (and some historians would argue inevitable) by-product.

Although since universal suffrage the British working class has never been monolithically Labour, it is still beyond argument that working class votes – whether cast by those who actively defined themselves as such or by those who simply fell into lower socio-economic groups – have been the bedrock of the party’s support base.

We now come to the question I want to pose in this short essay. It is: why is the modern left now so obsessed with just about every other kind of identity politics around apart from class?

Two examples are the obsession with ethnic minority and non-heterosexual identities.

How many times do the liberal commentariat, and Labour politicians talk about ‘the black community’ when talking about, for example, the lack of ethnic minorities at Oxbridge or racial discrimination in the police?

Or ‘the gay community’ when complaining about, for example, ‘bigoted’ opposition to gay marriage or anti-gay discrimination, such as practised by Putin’s Russia?

Such terminology, and the arguments it is habitually used to deploy, imply the existence of politically aware and cogent social groups which are defined primarily by skin colour or sexuality.

When class identity and ethnic or sexuality identity come into conflict, the latter wins every time.

Social conservatives who oppose gay marriage for reasons of religion, tradition, or conscience (who are very often working-class people) are told automatically that they are bigoted throwbacks to yesteryear.

When those same working class people complain that their local jobs market has been rendered untenable by a sudden influx of immigrants prepared to work in harsh conditions at or below the minimum wage – or that the character of their community has been violently transformed - the left is always the first to scream ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’.

A still more dominating obsession has recently gripped the left with gender identities.

Progressive organs such as The Guardian, The Independent, and the Huffington Post attempt to surf the wave of the so-called fourth-wave feminism, and subject their readers, and by extension the social media sphere, to an almost daily diet of outrage by hitherto unknown bloggers and campaigners such as Laurie Penny.

Those decry the systematic repression of women by the patriarchy, whether it is through under-representation in politics, their lack of influence in big business, or the everyday ‘sexualisation’, ‘pornification’ and misogynistic mistreatment of every woman in every walk of life, as exemplified by the supposedly groundbreaking everyday sexism project which shares anonymous and unverified testimonies of women exploited by the patriarchy.

The Labour Party itself embraces all-women shortlists to artificially boost the number of females its ranks and to bolster its claim that the Tories have a ‘woman problem’

The Scandinavian left, likely to be copied soon by the British left, pushes forwards full throttle with laws such as the ‘golden skirt’, whereby a minimum of 40% of company boardrooms must be women, and passes quite extraordinarily asymmetrical legislation on prostitution which simultaneously criminalises the client but legalises the prostitute herself.

So suddenly we have a situation where the most talked-about identity groups are the immigrant community, the black community, the gay community, and those repressed by the patriarchy.

While these are all terms that I hear from progressives almost daily, I barely hear any reference to the working class at all.

While it used to be uncommon to hear a Labour politician speak for a minute without hearing the term ‘working class’, I now can’t remember a time when a Labour Shadow Cabinet member ever even mentioned the term.

The best we get is ‘people up and down the country’ (Ed Miliband), ‘ordinary people’ (Andy Burnham’s catchphrase) or ‘people in Streatham - they’re quite poor, by the way’ (Chuka Umunna).

The only occasions ‘class’ is uttered is by those still proud to call themselves Socialists.

Listen to Len McCluskey, George Galloway, Dennis Skinner, Ronnie Campbell, or the sadly-departed Bob Crow, and you will see and hear that class identities – and indeed a form of class struggle – lie at the centre of their politics.

But better still, listen to what people themselves say: according to a major British Social Attitudes survey of 2013 (encompassing 3,000 people, properly selected by a reputed pollster), 60% still define themselves as ‘working-class’.

Other surveys in the last few years have put it lower, but none less than 40%.

And anecdotally, leave the M25 corridor and head north, and ask Labour-voters in Worksop, Oldham, Liverpool, Sunderland, Bassetlaw, and Doncaster whether they still consider of themselves working-class. The answer comes ringing back in the affirmative.

Those who identify with class politics might well be traditionalists, and might well still see the world through the lens of political battles largely lost in the 1980s, but might they still have a point?

We might ask: have the inequalities which persisted when Labour were still avowedly a class party perhaps 35 years ago been removed or even mitigated? Have relations between the capitalist employers of labour and the workers become more harmonious? Do those qualified for a job have a good chance of securing one that pays a reasonable wage?

In every sense, the answer is clearly ‘no’.

Whichever way we think about it, it seems a certain mistake to assume that the collapse of heavy industry in Britain, and the parallel decline of trades unionism, have necessarily killed the basis of class politics, or the purchase of class-based identities.

What seems to have changed much more dramatically is the willingness of the Labour Party, and leading lights on the left who sit beyond parties, to avowedly champion working class people. 

I put to you that one of the reasons for this is not because the left believes that modernity has killed off identity politics, but because it wrongly believes that class politics has died, and been at least partly superseded by those of gender, race, and sexuality.

And they may even believe that those groups – women, ethnic minorities, and gay people – may be more reliable sources of Labour votes than the working classes now are.

We have a situation where the working class Labour MP is virtually extinct, but where the party obsesses over the fact that it only has 31% women MPs, and seeks to artificially boost them with affirmative action, preferring to displace a working class man with a middle class woman.

Instead of avowedly championing the working classes victimised by the greed of capitalism and corporations, Ed Miliband uses all six questions of PMQs (05/02/2014) to attack the cabinet for not having sufficient women on display on the front bench, concluding that this, like Philip Hammond’s confusion between Liz Kendall and Rachel Reeves on Question Time, exemplifies the Tories’ ‘woman problem’.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the cause of gay marriage is something that every progressive politician, who has hitherto been silent on the issue, professes as the culmination of a decades-long struggle against the tyranny of the hetronormative institution of marriage that reduced the gay community to second class citizens. 

Even when we look deliberately at the left’s economic analysis (insofar as it has one at present), we find no zeal for protecting the working class and forwarding their interests, but instead a preoccupation with defending for their own sakes a large state and the salaries of public sector workers, many of whom are middle-class.

In conclusion, I put to you that the great failing of the modern left is its abandonment of class politics which, it wrongly assumes, are yesterday’s political currency.

It then makes the corresponding error of being suckered into a myopic obsession with what it sees as today’s identity politics based on ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

But class identity has stood the test of time. For while there is a divided society, there will always exist a class politics which can be politically mobilised.

However, the politics of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality are much more likely to be a passing fad, a fly-by-night storm of faux political outrage confined to an increasingly elitist, bourgeois and marginal leftist leadership of the Islington coffee terrace, and the self-appointed progressive vanguard who squawk indignation to the world in tracts of 140 characters.

It is also deeply muddle-headed and patronising.

Women voters’ opinions are seen to be determined by their gender, and they, like ethnic minorities and gay people, are held to make political decisions based not on policy, issues, or leadership, but on absence of a Y chromosome, skin colour, and who they prefer to sleep with.

Identity politics are important, but as I have argued above, it is class identities which the Labour Movement has made its fortress in the past, and it is with class where identity politics retains most relevance and resonance.

The ditching of class for the faddist politics of ethnicity, race, and sexuality is undoubtedly causing a long term corrosion at the root of Labour’s support base.

Looking at the dramatic decline in the party’s strength in heartland seats since 2001 – and the attractiveness of UKIP and even the BNP to traditional Labour voters - exemplifies this.

But both trends are continually ignored as the liberal intelligentsia increasingly forgets its roots.

If it does not recover them, then the heart of the Labour Movement, if not its body, will have stopped for good.

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