Is Labour marooned in the new politics of identity?

Anthony Painter

Rose in waterThe Labour movement column

By Anthony Painter

Labour is marooned on the politics of inexplicability – how on earth are we where we are and how do we get out? New Labour started as values-based, pragmatic, national movement to provide a British alternative to Conservative hegemony. By the end it felt empty, technocratic, meaningless and suffused with the politics of dividing lines and triangulation. It was a 1990s vehicle unfit for the 2010s road.

The country has changed enormously in the last decade and a half. This is not an enormous demographic shift – though we are measurably more diverse. It is a political shift. Politics is always a tension between two powerful forces – identity and political economy. For almost all of the latter half of the last century it was the latter that dominated and the former flared up only occasionally in street battles, racist beatings, or vicious by-election campaigns in the Midlands. The report that I have co-written with Nick Lowles at the Searchlight Educational Trust shows, I believe, that the era of political economic domination may have come to an end. If I am right, then the consequences are seismic.

David Miliband, responding to our report, wrote in Guardian yesterday:

“A convincing economic response is necessary but not sufficient. An authentic sense of identity is just as important. Labour’s politics must be suffused with both cultural understanding and meaning and a pragmatic economic mission.”

He is right and we now need to work out what this means in practice. Let’s dwell on David Miliband’s sentiment for a while first. What this seems to mean in practice is that even if Labour manages to build an economic case that convinces the general public that it will act in their interests – and it hasn’t as yet – then that may not be enough to return it to power. This is profound. And it should shake our political world.

How could this be? To answer that I have to, bear with me, introduce the ‘tribes’ of the new identity politics – on a graph:

Identity politics
The first thing that you will notice about the left-right scale of identity politics is that the groups on the left are those that you normally see in the centre. They are more professional in the main, educated to a higher level, liberal and rather than being the centreground of English politics, they are at its left edge and only constitute 24% of the population. This is why the Liberal Democrats find it difficult to get beyond 25% or so of the vote – they find it difficult to reach beyond this section of society. See Julian Astle, Director of CentreForum in response to David Miliband in the Telegraph yesterday for a perfect illustration of their issue – the economic security question is just ignored.

Latent hostiles and active enmity lie where you’d expect to find them – on the right fringe and they constitute 23% of the vote.The BNP take their support mainly from the group on the far right. UKIP take their support from both these groups. But the real centreground of English politics is the cultural integrationists who comprise 24% of the population and the identity ambivalents (28%.) The difference between these two groups is that the former are more concerned with authority, national culture, and conformity – and tend to vote Conservative. The latter – Identity Ambivalents – are more economically insecure and their cultural concern tends to rise as their insecurity increases (many in latent hostility and active enmity will be former identity ambivalents.)

The second thing that you will notice is that there is no progressive majority in English politics. That assumption quite simply has to be shaken out of our heads. The real ‘swing’ voters of British politics are the identity ambivalents – even though they make up the largest block of Labour identifiers (37%) they also make up the largest block of people who don’t identify with a party (46%.) It is this group that has fallen out of love with Labour over the last decade. In fact, they are falling out of love with everyone and if they are in any relationship, it’s only one of convenience. If Labour is to win back power, this group is critical; yet it can’t get through to them.

Given their economic insecurity, one would have thought that the ‘squeezed middle’ narrative would appeal to this group. As a policy proposition it may do but as a political proposition it has severe weaknesses. If you replace ‘squeezed middle’ with ‘hard-working families’ then you have the same type of political narrative – and it is one that identity ambivalents have turned their back on – that we have had for much of the last decade. So how about ‘Britishness’ and flying the flag? Labour tried that and it was all too inauthentic, top-down and removed. Get tougher on immigration? Labour tried that too and it did nothing to staunch the bleeding.

How about European social democracy as proposed by Polly Toynbee this morning? Tried that and it politically failed. Besides, just look at the fate of social democratic parties across Europe. Each of them find themselves impaled on the politics of identity – German SPD 23%, Swedish Social Democrats 31%, Dutch PvDA 19.6%, and British Labour 29%. What about a progressive alliance? Try that? Compass has opened its membership to Liberal Democrats and Greens. In so doing it can only go deeper into the two groups to the left of the chart – just under a quarter of the population. If Labour follows the progressive alliance strategy, it’s toast in the politics of identity.

Quite simply, the risk is that David Cameron misses the identity ambivalents to the right and Labour misses them to the left. That is bad for community harmony and it’s bad for Labour and all the things it believes in. The problem Labour has is that the other centreground group – the cultural integrationists are more solidly Conservative. Labour’s support is broad but thin. Labour and identity ambivalents seem like a natural fit – but they just don’t seem to get each other (think Gillian Duffy.) And if David Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism’ forms a coalition of spirit as well as government with mainstream liberals to the left then the Conservative and Liberal Democrat vote could start to interact as it did in Oldham East and Saddleworth. AV makes such an interaction more profound. Labour will be marginalised – as will the identity ambivalents.

And yet, Labour can’t afford to fail. The stakes are bigger than the fate of a party. They are about the lives that people are able to lead which should be infused with respect, belonging, opportunity, security, fraternity, shared values, and thriving communities based around a common bond. That’s not where we are – and if we get this wrong and fail to hold people in the mainstream, things could get considerably worse and in a very real and immediate sense.

Jon Cruddas has described the Fear and Hope Report thus: “At certain moments a specific publication can turn the page on what went before…the research in this Fear and Hope document is, I believe, one such publication.” That was very generous of him. It is also for this reason that I’m not going to start throwing around solutions off the top of my head (though the report does contain a number of practical suggestions based on the evidence we gathered.)

Rather, now is the time for deep reflection on where Labour is going as a party; as a movement. ‘Squeezed middle’, European style social democracy, progressive alliances, national symbolism, they all may provide some of the answers. They haven’t as yet or in the recent past – and it’s important to understand that the policy and political discussion sometimes may not address the same things. I look forward to the debate – let’s be clear about where we are, where people are and together let’s search for the way out. Take a deep breath, realise there is cause for optimism and hope but equally understand the consequences of failing to get this right.

Anthony Painter is co-writer of ‘Fear and Hope: the new politics of identity.’ The views expressed here are his own and not those of Searchlight Educational Trust.

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