John Spellar MP: Embracing identity politics would be a betrayal of Labour voters
Warley MP John Spellar says the Labour party must challenge, not embrace, the rise of identity politics.
What starts in California rarely stays in California. Many technological, philosophical and political trends, have flowed from this remarkably vibrant society across the rolling miles of America and from there have transformed the world, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but normally significantly.
One such trend has been the focus on identity politics and as a logical corollary campaigning for real or manufactured grievances. In the UK it reached its peak with Ken Livingstone’s 'Rainbow Coalition' politics in London and undoubtedly had been a successful force and means of temporarily capturing the Party apparatus. As a means of winning over the electorate it was much more questionable and also had a limited shelf life, especially when Lynton Crosby took over Boris Johnson’s campaign and appealed to London equivalent of Sydney’s Western suburbs racking up increased turnout and substantial majorities in outer London.
Even as early as the 1983 General Election, running for re-election as MP for Birmingham Northfield, I remember being outside the Longbridge car plant on election day asking a man in his 20s for his vote, his response was that he had voted already and it wasn’t for me. He added, “Labour is only interested in minorities and there is a majority in this country and that’s what you are going to find out today". The result of that '83 Election is ingrained on us all.
The comforting thought of the Metropolitan Left is that this demonstrates a hostility towards minority groups and there is undoubtedly some of that. However that is definitely not the whole story. What is really at stake and very damaging is the concern of the majority at a perceived obsession with identity issues to the exclusion of mainstream issues and values. Put bluntly, that the majority perceive we have no interest in their concerns. As the Democratic Chairman in Youngstown Ohio wrote to the Party centre “people in the heartland felt that the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the rest room than whether they had a good paying job.”
The damage goes even deeper than that. If voters constantly see attention paid to other groups and perceive this attention to be at their expense then they feel a need to respond, associate and assert identification of their own group. Not as a worker, a trade unionist, a parent, a resident or even a local football team, but on ethnic or cultural grounds.
No one should under-estimate the stimulus to English nationalism in many of our heartlands from the profile and perceived favouritism towards Scottish devolution and frankly whipped up litany of grievances against the British Government from the Scottish Labour establishment (that worked well didn’t it).
Now in surveys there is an increasing percentage of voters in England who describe themselves as English rather than British, as an example I never remember any flags of St George flying during football tournaments when I was growing up in South London. Ultimately our voters do not want themselves to be patronised and disdainfully pigeon holed as the “left behind white working class.” They want a fair deal and respect for themselves, their contribution their values. They believe in their families and their local community and hard work and decent opportunities in working age and proper health care and social provision for when they fall ill or on hard times or succumb to the ills of old age. Furthermore they share these concerns with all communities and a Progressive party must focus on these issues on behalf of the country as a whole.
That incidentally is why it’s mistaken to assert it was only the white working class who voted for Brexit. That was certainly not the case in Smethwick or I suspect in many urban areas.
None of that means we shouldn’t redress disadvantage and discrimination. That is at the core of a Progressive Party. However, it’s not just what we say, but what the public hears that matters. If that is seen to be our only concern, if we appear obsessed with these issues then the majority will conclude we are not interested in them. Identity politics is a dead end for our Party and a betrayal of not only our history, but also of our voters.
Rt Hon John Spellar is the Labour MP for Warley