Identity or class politics? It doesn’t have to be a choice.

By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_

There has been much excitement recently among some lefties about the death of “identity politics”.
Let me correct that sentence. There has been much excitement recently among some straight, white so-called left wing men about the so-called death of “identity politics”.

Finally, it seems, with the vote to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the proletariat are back, ready only to be led in unadulterated class warfare from which the working class will emerge triumphant. It’s certainly true that these were both caused by an upsurge in voting from certain parts of the working-class community and a rejection of the patronising tones of Westminster’s managerial class. And with this rejection of all but basic (some might say crude) class politics, the revolution will no longer be distracted by side issues of identity but with laser like focus on the need for the overthrow of the bosses and the rise of the workers.

Except that it isn’t that simple. Because we know that this analysis ignores vast tracts of evidence that shows that black people face far greater barriers than white people of the same class; that women are far more likely to take on unpaid labour – and the lower they appear on the class scale, the truer that is. We know that the lives as well as the livelihoods of the LGBT community are threatened at home and abroad and we know that this too is harder to escape for the working class than those who are richer and more powerful.

All too often, when we talk of how the working class have voted we ignore the fact that what we mean is the white working class. According to exit polling, two thirds (67%) of those describing themselves as Asian voted to remain, as did three quarters (73%) of black voters. In the US election the racial breakdown is even starker. So to make claims on behalf of a homogenous working class is to exclude the men and women of colour who make up an increasing proportion of that group.

Who is this cartoon about?

Who is this cartoon about?

We also know that in in increasingly post-industrial era, our straightforward notions of class are somewhat outmoded. Despite a genuine frustration with the establishment, class has developed unrecognisably since the formation of the Labour movement. Class signifiers such as property ownership previously taken for granted by the middle class are almost unthinkable for vast swathes of young middle class people today. Whereas a university education – previously the privilege of only a few is now far more available to all (even if this comes at a cost). More recent suggestions of a breakdown into seven separate and distinct classes from the elite to the precariat is more representative of society, but traditional leftists are struggling to find the social solidarity levers that will bring the classes together.
None of which is to say that the Labour Party shouldn’t but economics and class equality at the heart of its politics. In fact, doing so is as essential as it always has been. Because there are swathes of previously natural Labour voters who do not feel that we represent them, their lives and their economic interests any more.

There is a reason we aren’t the Liberal Democrats. A class analysis of the failings of our economy was essential to our foundation and remains essential to our being. We believe in a muscular state which intervenes in favour of rebalancing the economy towards better rewards for the workers and less accumulation of capital at the top. As a result we reject extreme economic liberalism and laissez faire capitalism. Equally, social liberalism without a class based component is social liberalism only for those who can afford it. No true equality can be found here.

But equally, socialism without an element of social liberalism is socialism only for white men. It might have masked its inadequacies when our countries working classes were vastly and predominantly made up of such men. But even then, it failed to recognise the importance of supporting the unpaid work of the women who ensured those men were able to go out and work or the barriers that faced black people trying to find decent jobs and housing. In today’s society, it would be intolerable not to recognise and rebalance the many different aspects that keep an individual down.

We are faced today with a wave of right wing populism. Hucksters have stolen a march on us everywhere we turn and are offering simple solutions that sound too good to be true precisely because they are. We will not turn back this tide by pandering to the basest instincts of our humanity that drive it, nor will it be found in trying to offer the simplest of solutions.

We face a complex world with incredibly complex challenges. We will not live up to the challenge that we are given by those who need an active and muscular liberal socialism by ducking back into comfort zones or offering simple and ineffective answers. We must stand up to the challenge on our right economically and socially. To do so is to reject the false choice between liberalism and socialism.

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