Identity politics will not carry Corbyn to Downing Street – Labour must focus on spending and security to reclaim power

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Since the Brexit vote and the surprise election of Donald Trump, there has been increasing criticism of so-called identity politics from figures across the British left, including journalists, trade unionist and politicians, and Labour figures as diverse as Stephen Kinnock and Richard Burgon.

Yet when it comes to ethnic minorities the whole premise of “identity politics” is largely misleading – not least because there is no homogenous “ethnic” set of values – but also because there are no fundamental differences between the beliefs of black, Asian and white Britons.

The most salient divide in British politics is not between different ethnic groups, but rather ones according to education and cultural capital. Unfortunately for Corbynites, they’re on the wrong side of that divide.

Take immigration. Polls have consistently found that there is a great deal of support for restricting immigration among Commonwealth and other pre-1990 immigrants. While Sikhs were the one of the most pronounced supporters of Brexit, behind only white Christians and Jews, with 52 per cent voting to leave the EU.

According to research led by Anthony Heath, professor of sociology at Oxford University, South Asians in general are less supportive of asylum seekers than white Britons while British Indians are more supportive of the war in Afghanistan than whites.

When asked about trust in parliament, politicians and the police, Heath and his fellow researchers found: “Strikingly, on all but one of these indicators of satisfaction and trust, the overall minority level of confidence in British democracy and institutions is either significantly higher than, or no different from, the white British average”.

They also noted that class and educational differences are highly significant: “The largest cleavages are apparent between graduates and people with low qualifications on the issues of detention without trial and asylum-seekers”. That is to say, the people with the most radical views on these issues are not those who actually suffer, but rather the better-off and better educated.

In terms of the people most likely to get involved in protests, boycotts or other political activity, Heath’s team found that “education, political interest, and a sense of political efficacy are pretty consistently important”, while “social class and housing…have much patchier effects”. They concluded that “the underlying mechanism is not really about economic resources but about psychological ones…protest [is not] a weapon of the weak. Individuals with weaker economic or psychological resources…less-educated or working-class individuals, show no sign of being more disposed to engage in protests or boycotts”.

This means that those groups most structurally disadvantaged do not form the vanguard of radicalism in Britain, but rather the privileged and well-educated; the exact sort of people who dominate the Labour membership and have propelled Jeremy Corbyn to power. According to professor Tim Bale’s analysis of the Labour membership, as of May 2016 fully 78 per cent were in the ABC1 social categories, 33 per cent were from London and the South, and merely 25 per cent were trade unionists.

Those most likely to provide the foot soldiers of anti-austerity movements, Stop the War and Blacks Lives Matter UK are not usually the people on the sharp end of austerity, war or police violence.

Figures within the Labour party, academia and journalism who push radical positions on, say, the Iraq War, security and civil liberties – supposedly to attract different communities – are themselves a symptom of the alienation from Labour of a broad swath of people across ethnic and class lines.

For Corbyn and his acolytes, Labour’s current travails are attributable to issues such as Iraq, tuition fees, the immigration mug, and attempts to introduce identity cards and 90-day detention. Yet the YouGov pollster Laurence Janta-Lipinski, writing on this site last year, found that none of these factors ranked inside the top five reasons for disapproval of Labour. Instead, people disapproved of Corbyn’s leadership, Labour’s perceived economic profligacy in office, the scale of borrowing and immigration and a view as being weak on defence and security – despite Labour’s many achievements in 13 years in office.

This should not surprise us: after all, if Iraq and other authoritarian measures have resulted in the estrangement of young people, ethnic minorities and the liberal-minded from Labour, why are these groups the most pronounced and reliable supporters of the party today? Nick Pecorelli’s research has found that while support from settlers (traditional Labour voters with conservative values) has tanked over the past 20 years, support from pioneers (liberals and metropolitan types) has skyrocketed.

If the franchise was restricted to those with postgraduate degrees, Corbyn could move into 10 Downing Street for life. Unfortunately for Labour, most people – irrespective of ethnicity – are socially and culturally conservative. For Labour to appeal to a cross-section of society – white, BME, middle class, working class – it needs to drop fringe issues, concentrate on challenging the socio-economic status quo and fight the damage being done to Britain by this generation of Tories.

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