Isn’t it time the Left gave up identity politics?

Written by Marina Lademacher

As has been rammed into our ears on a seemingly daily basis, the left is facing an “existential crisis”. As we don’t enjoy the benefits of multi-party politics like Scandinavia and the Netherlands, in the UK a crisis for the left means a crisis for the only party able to form a government in our archaic First Past the Post electoral system, the Labour Party. The frustrating by-election in Copeland was the worst defeat for an opposition party since 1945 and Labour is supposedly on course to win just 150 seats in 2020. Her lady May is also tempted to call a snap general election to ease her Brexit and grammar school woes; if we wish not to delve further into an embarrassing fringe element struggling to breathe, we must act now to save the soul of the left. The soul that once espoused utopian ideas of economic justice and whose articulate vision based on common humanity brought us the welfare state, yet is now drowning in a sea of angry feminists.

The crisis of neoliberalism since 2008 gives us a golden opportunity to challenge the capitalist consensus and address rising income and class inequality. If we remain preoccupied with squabbles that alienate and waste valuable time, future historians will blame the left for its own descent into oblivion. It’s time we realized what’s truly important RIGHT NOW: providing strong opposition to a UK politics in the throes of inhumane hard-line conservatism hell bent on reversing the liberal gains of the past century; and switching the tides of opinion so voters realize the Left is the ONLY side that will fight the cause of the people and not betray our nation to the elites.

Class and economic struggle was once the name of the game for the socialist movement. And yet, the rise of identity politics has ensured that those aims have been compromised to address the personal grievances of feminists, gays, the politically correct etc. Now I’m not saying those grievances aren’t important, but do they really require our full attention in the current climate? Back in the 1960s when black people in the US couldn’t vote or when homosexuality was illegal, the cultural resistance was of the utmost necessity to reverse the profound racism and discrimination. We’re now in 2017, and while it’s still far from a utopia for ethnic and sexual minorities and women, things have come a long way from what they used to be. Isn’t it time our economic narrative did the same? After all, how are we to call ourselves a leading light of the Western world when the richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth and the bottom 50% hold just 8.7%? It’s no wonder we’re only the 19th happiest country in the world.

Consuming debates amongst the left since the latter half of the 20th century, identity politics is defined as “political activity or movements based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity.” Essentially there’s a focus on the needs of different groups at the expense of broad-based party politics. So, while it’s great for those whose identity and interests are being championed, it’s not so great for those whose voices aren’t being heard. What about those less well-off workers being paid £6800 less than their affluent peers for the same work? Or the working-class women who’ve failed to enjoy the gains of other women by not making it to university? The Muslim women who are ignored in their campaign against forced marriage and sharia law? Identity politics lumps people into homogenous groups, such as the “black community” or “gay community” and ignores discussion of the different needs within those groups. Hillary Clinton espoused herself as a champion of all women’s rights, but how is she to know the needs of a single black woman in inner city Detroit who can’t access healthcare or a sustainable job? Not to mention the profoundly ignorant consensus leading up to the election that all women undoubtedly vote for a female candidate at the ballot box.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that the politics of identity is divisive and damaging. Divisive because of its endless emphasis on difference over commonality, and so damaging by preventing the left from uniting over shared ideas of economic justice and universal human rights. That’s not to say it should be abandoned, but rather there needs to be a realization that it’s stopping the left as a whole from moving its true mission of progressiveness. The time has come for a change of strategy. It’s heart-breaking for those passionate about social justice to see the ideological hero we’ve waited our whole lives for, Jeremy Corbyn, invigorate the masses so passionately and become leader of Labour on such a huge mandate, only to cause great harm to the movement as a whole through a lack of any clear agenda or concise narrative. Even a slogan would suffice. Is it any wonder the left has reverted to the defensive? People don’t even know what the Labour Party stands for nowadays. Sure, the right-wing gutter press and Blair-esque MPs have certainly made the task near impossible. But all it takes is a charismatic leader with the skills needed. Look how Jesse Klaver of the Dutch Greens transformed the party from fringe to mainstream, for instance.

Corbyn’s rallies around the country to Momentum supporters are fun to watch on Snapchat and all, but they don’t exactly help us broaden our appeal. The time that is spent shaking hands with union leaders up and down the country would be much better spent reaching out to swing voters and the disillusioned, understanding the various needs of people around the country, much like the campaigning style of Bernie Sanders. Inward dialogue within the Left must be complemented by open minded debate and efforts to reach out to the other side. And above all, there needs to be a strong economic message that truly reflects the people’s needs. This would surely come a long way to transforming what has become an uncompromising, intransigent left into a left wing populist movement people will vote for.

Liberal identity politics is class-blind and lacking in the strength needed to challenge an increasingly illiberal world. Debating whether students should be penalised for using “He” pronouns, however, comes no distance in solving the problems of today and tomorrow. Education, economic justice, global warming-  we skim the surface of these pressing and complex issues which require long-term attention if they are to be solved. We need to move beyond our comforts of cultural debate, and ask ourselves the question: Why is Britain only the 19th happiest country in the world? It’s time we change our tune and stand in solidarity against spineless conservatism.

 “The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.” –Laurie Penny, New Statesman

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