25 June 2020

Can Starmer stop Labour spiralling into the identity politics abyss?

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Last week, the former Labour frontbencher Dawn Butler stood up and declared that the Government has its knee on “the neck of the Black African, Caribbean, Asian minority ethnic communities”.

It was an extraordinary statement, one which attributes to the UK government no greater a moral standing than that of the Minneapolis cop who killed an unarmed black man earlier this month, provoking worldwide demonstrations under the Black Lives Matter banner. Her words had echoes of another Labour MP, David Lammy, who last year suggested that his previous comment comparing the European Research Group of Tory MPs to Nazis “wasn’t strong enough”.

In some such playground name-calling is easily dismissed; very few members of the public take seriously the suggestion that an elected Conservative government with the highest proportion of black and ethnic minority ministers in history is remotely comparable to Hitler’s dictatorship. It is a farcical tendency for some on the left to try to paint everyone with whom they disagree as a modern incarnation of Adolf Hitler, but we might have expected more from an elected representative.

Yet Lammy’s comments, like Butler’s, have provoked no formal repudiation from the party’s leadership, and we must conclude, therefore, that it either agrees with him or at least thinks his remarks within the bounds of reasonable debate.

George Floyd’s appalling death and the latest round of the so-called culture wars that have been ignited as a result pose a serious challenge to the British left. Should Labour abandon its historic role in fighting for the conditions and rights of all working people in favour of a politics that places identity – whether race, gender, sex or religion – front and centre?

There are two fundamental factors to consider. The first, and less important, one is electoral considerations. To what extent have identity politics delivered the goods for progressive parties in developed democracies?

In America, the birthplace of identity politics and where it has come to dominate the Democratic Party and college campuses, the results have not been auspicious. As far back as 1968, Democratic candidates who pander to minority but vocal interests find themselves as an invited guest at the subsequent inauguration, not the one holding the Bible. In 1988, the well-meaning but ineffectual Michael Dukakis found his liberalism effectively weaponised against him: when Republicans use identity politics, they do it far more effectively, as the Democrats found when Dukakis was unable to defend the parole of black rapist and murderer Willie Horton.

And whenever Democratic candidates have won the White House, they have done so only by distancing themselves from their more progressive party activists.

In short, identity politics can and will rebound on progressives electorally for the simple reason that those who feel strongly enough to march and demonstrate, to denounce statues and use violence against those who don’t accept that a biological male can ever be a woman, will always be outnumbered by the vast majority who don’t, and whose disagreement is expressed privately in the voting booths.

The danger for Labour now is that it is slowly but inexorably being drawn into the identity politics arena by its own activists and supporters. True, much of the nonsense perpetrated by universities goes largely unnoticed: when Sheffield University appointed “race equality champions” to police students’ discussions and challenge such things as “micro-aggressions” (where “micro” invariably means “imaginary”), it did not hit the headlines. And Labour politicians were not prominent among those who called out the move as an unnecessary waste of money. Instead, whenever free speech is challenged, on or off campus, or when feminists and politicians are “no platformed” lest their contrary views be interpreted as actual violence by fragile young millennials, it has been politicians and commentators hailing exclusively from the right who have defended their right to speak.

This pattern risks spiralling into a vicious cycle, where the right wing is assumed by the wider populace as owning the common sense agenda that chimes with most voters, while Labour is left defending the unrepresentative and dictatorial fringes of woke activism. It risks repeating the 1970s and 80s, when the Conservatives successfully gained ownership of the law and order agenda, much to Labour’s disadvantage.

Labour instead needs to realise that identity politics is at root an inescapable path to division. That is its entire point: to divide society into black vs white, biological sex vs trans orthodoxy, Muslim vs non-Muslim and forcing everyone to pick a side. It is division on which its advocates feed and thrive; without division there can be no “progress” towards achieving their aims, the most important of which is the continued proliferation of division itself.

It is beyond irony that in Dawn Butler’s speech quoted above, she used the words of her murdered colleagues Jo Cox in her maiden speech from 2015 – “There is more that unites us than divides us” – to make her case for more division, casting the Government as the evil, racist villains of the piece. It is always distasteful when people start interpreting and reinterpreting the words of those who can no longer speak for themselves, but it is hard to believe that Cox’s words were not intended as an appeal for unity even across party boundaries. Whereas Butler’s words were the opposite.

This is an area which Keir Starmer, for perfectly understandable reasons, has chosen to avoid so far in his leadership. This has been possible because of the other, rather more pressing, issue of coronavirus. But sooner or later – and certainly before the next general election – he will need to decide whether Labour is a party of identity politics or a party that seeks to represent the interests of the whole of society.

Aside from the likelihood that there are no political gains in adopting identity politics as a central principle, it would be the wrong thing to do on moral grounds. We have never been more in need of political principles that unite us as a society. If Starmer continues to offer even reluctant support to those who proclaim identity as the definition of the individual, rather than confront their obvious fallacies, he will be letting down his party and, more importantly, his country.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.