Why the left should embrace identity politics

Written by Jake Davies, former OULC Publicity Officer.

The modern Left generally recognises that identity matters in politics. Most left-wingers today reject the orthodox Marxist approach to politics, which reduces everything to a struggle between economic classes. While economics is highly important, they also acknowledge that there are many identities unrelated to material circumstances, and advocate a politics that recognises the different intersecting identities that individuals possess.

Despite this acute awareness of the significance of identity when it comes to race, gender, and sexuality, there is one form of identity that the Left often wilfully ignores, namely national identity. This fact is particularly puzzling given that the vast majority of Britons regularly report a strong sense of patriotism; according to a YouGov survey commissioned in the summer of 2018, for example, 80% of the residents of England identify strongly as English, while 82% identify strongly as British. In a bizarre coincidence, the justification many left-wingers give for discarding national identity echoes individuals such as Paul Embery, a Blue Labour spokesperson and regular producer of bad takes on Twitter, who holds that the Left would be better off ignoring the specific problems of minorities because it negates a focus on class. This is a pernicious message when there is strong evidence to show that all these groups are oppressed by society in different, often overlapping ways that are not related to economics alone. I would like to stress that the left-wingers who make the argument against national identity are certainly not as ill-judged as the likes of Paul Embery. The crucial difference between this and other identities is that one cannot claim that people in the UK are oppressed on the basis of having a strong British or English national identity.

Despite this, there are compelling grounds for the Left to engage with, and indeed promote, national identity. By national identity, I mean Britishness and the identity of all four nations of the UK, including Englishness. Labour has been particularly hesitant to talk about this latter identity in recent years out of a fear of legitimising the EDL and other far-right groups. Yet Englishness is arguably the most crucial UK national identity to understand, particularly as voters who strongly identify as English were the central drivers of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016. There are both electoral and principled reasons to reach out to these ‘patriotic’ voters.

The electoral reason for recognising and appealing to ordinary Britons’ national pride is simple: identity matters in politics. Labour has correctly acknowledged that a powerful swell of resentment motivated the Brexit vote in 2016. People up and down this country are angry about the status quo, and they are willing to endorse political radicalism to change it. Yet many Labour MPs and left-wing commentators often speak as if the resentment behind the Brexit vote was purely economic in character. Labour rightly pushes an anti-austerity agenda and addresses the very real problems of low investment, stagnant wages, and falling living standards. But there was more to Brexit than anger about austerity and the ‘rigged economy’. How else does one explain the swing to the Tories in towns like Walsall, which has been hit particularly hard by government cuts in recent years? Even if voters in Walsall like Labour’s radical economic message, as long as the Party fails to appeal to their sense of patriotism, or worse is perceived as openly scornful of it, the Party will struggle electorally. The founder of the English Labour Network, John Denham, never tires of explaining why this is the case: voters first ask whether a political party represents them before they assess their respective policy programmes. So long as Labour fails to embrace the politics of national identity, these voters will feel that Labour does not represent them.

To its credit, the Labour leadership is increasingly grasping this point. The party political broadcast entitled ‘Our Town’, which was released on the last day of the Labour Conference in September 2018, perfectly encapsulated the gentle patriotic message Labour needs to consistently adopt. The broadcast appealed to ordinary voters’ sense of national identity, not through brazen Union flags waving and the bellowing of God Save The Queen, but through a much more subtle and effective demonstration of love of place and the particular.

This leads onto the principled reason for addressing and promoting national identity. Vote Leave’s ‘take back control’ phrase was one of the most effective political slogans in modern times because it tapped in to a widespread feeling that people were no longer masters over their own lives. This lack of ‘control’ was partly economic, but primarily it was about political power and agency. It is no coincidence that voters who identify strongly as English voted for Brexit in overwhelming numbers, given the way the uneven devolution process since 1997 has left the English as the only people of the UK without a say in their own affairs. Labour must think hard about how to address the difficult constitutional question of ensuring proper English representation. It must also push for a bold devolution programme across the UK in response to justified anger about our over-centralised kingdom. As socialists, we should care just as much about redistributing power to politically marginalised parts of the UK as we care about redistributing material resources.

Of course, some will object that a politics of national identity will inevitably strengthen the Right. But in fact, the Left constructing its own positive vision of national identity is the most effective bulwark against the nasty strands of nationalism the Right often promotes. When the Left fails to respect national identity, or worse openly derides it, this tends to open up a vacuum which the Right is only too willing to occupy.

Others object that patriotism, and Englishness specifically, are inherently reactionary. But patriotism is neither inherently reactionary nor radical but can be harnessed for good or ill. One needs only to look at the incredible achievements of the Attlee years, attained on the back of a wave of patriotic fervour following World War Two, to see how patriotism can be a positive force for good. The party political broadcast released in September 2018 indicates a way forward for Labour to speak to voters across the UK who possess a strong sense of national pride. It is imperative that we maintain and strengthen this patriotic stance, not only to win electoral support but because a well-rounded definition of identity matters.

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