The Left & Identity Politics

Mhairi Black Douglas Alexander

How people identify themselves plays a significant role in how they choose to vote. In this post I will argue that the attempt by the Left to internationalise the Identity Politics model of the US Democratic Party is a catastrophic error of judgement since it fails to relate to the most significant categories of identity outside of the USA. I intend to illustrate this with reference to the 2015 UK General Election and the respective disasters and triumphs of the British Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP). I also intend to propose an alternative approach which is more benign than the necessarily divisive effects of the US model which I suggest the Democrats too will live to regret.

Traditionally the Left has relied on working-class support, while class is pre-eminently an economic category it is also an identity. Fewer people now predominantly identify themselves as working-class partly because of the decline of class institutions like labour unions, partly because of the break up of working-class communities, partly through the destruction of large scale industrial production or its export to newly emerging economies and for a host of other reasons. This leaves the Left with the problem of identifying a new base from which to draw its support. The Democrats have opted for a strategy of aggregating minorities who have reason to be discontented with the status quo. In particular it appeals on the grounds of race, ethnicity, language, culture, ‘gender’ and sexuality (I know women aren’t a minority but the number of women for whom gender is the defining part of their voting identity is small.) Because of the nature of America the aggregated minorities constitute a majority. In most other countries they don’t come close to doing so. In the UK for example about 80% of the population does not define itself as being black, non-English, gay or feminist.

One of the problems faced by, for example, the European Left is that historically the Right has counterposed national identity to class identity so that the Left has become innately hostile, or at best lukewarm, towards notions of patriotism (apart from during wars.) They could get away with this when class-identity was strong but now that it is weak their hostility to national identity is a liability where the only alternative identities they foster are confined to small minorities of the population. One of the reasons for Labours failure in the UK election is that many working-class voters in England perceived them as anti-English and most of their Scottish peers considered them to be indifferent to Scotland but few of them considered that class identity outweighed national identity. This is not to say that these voters were Nationalist per se because their perception of their respective national identity includes concepts of fairness and justice. Labour, however, were seen to be unfair and unjust to the extent that they were believed to favour minorities over majorities or England over Scotland (or vice versa.)

The stunning success of the SNP, securing more than 50% of the vote in a four party contest, on an ostensibly Left wing platform was based on a totally different form of identity politics. In policy terms it is not only similar to Labour but has also adopted many Democratic Party notions about race and ‘gender.’ What it hasn’t done is make these central to its electoral appeal. It is not ashamed of patriotism and simply stresses that its values are consonant with the historic values of the majority of the population and that it will pursue policies which will stay true to those shared values. This so called ‘civic nationalism’ extends the base beyond class to include nation since the virtues of solidarity, the strong protecting the weak, and opportunity for all are not the property of one section of society alone. It also includes an appeal to subsidiarity, as I mentioned in an earlier post, since people tend to be happier identifying themselves with groups of a manageable size rather than huge anonymous aggregates.

In deciding to whom they should appeal the Left needs to decide what distinct purpose they serve in the democratic process. It seems to me that their primary end is to distribute power and resources from the few who currently hold them to the many who do not. Their centralising tendencies serve to make the first half of that appeal unpopular since power moved from distant capitalists to distant bureaucrats doesn’t have the ability to mobilise enthusiastic support, however that is an issue for future posts. The redistribution of resources does have potential to garner majority support (though it doesn’t explain how resources are created in the first place) but only if the majority feel that the resources will be distributed to them. In Scotland the SNP persuaded voters that they would be. Throughout the UK Labour failed to succeed in the same way since many voters were convinced that redistribution would favour the minorities to which they did not belong. They also felt, incidentally, that the Left would accuse them of thought-crimes like racism and bigotry simply for desiring that the 80% majority population got as fair a crack of the Labour whip as the 20% of minorities, a poisonous legacy of Identity Politics being applied in a situation for which they are simply not suited.

I think that the Scottish model is more suitable for international export than the US one. Moreover the divisiveness inherent in the Democrats approach is likely to come back to haunt the Democrats themselves. One critique that the Left has traditionally made against the Right is that the latter appeals to unenlightened self-interest where as the former favours altruism. The Identity Politics approach, however, appeals to nothing but unenlightened self-interest, blacks vote for blacks, Hispanics for Hispanics, gays for gays etc etc. When the interests of different parts of the coalition collide we can expect no sense of solidarity to hold them together because solidarity is excluded from the model. By the Scottish model what I mean is a recognition that organic communities exist beyond sectional interests. People who identify themselves as belonging to a community which they love will be prepared to make sacrifices for it. Community, regional and national identities are tremendously powerful forces and remain so even after a century or so of being disparaged by the Left. What left-wingers need to do is accept the enduring power of these identities and work with the grain of them not against it. The Right may define the nation in particular ways but the Left is not obliged to accept those definitions. Every country, perhaps particularly countries with a Christian heritage, have deep rooted traditions of solidarity, generosity, self sacrifice and shared ownership of a joint national enterprise. It is surely the task of the Left to rediscover and re-energise these traditions and make their language and deeds seem a part of the civic, non-racial national community and not its enemy.

(picture from Evening Standard)

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