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‘Downstream of Culture’: How Identity Politics Swept Labour Away

While the right has turned politics into a culture war, the left has yet to tackle the politics of culture, says Hardeep Matharu.

Steve Bannon

‘Downstream of Culture’How Identity Politics Swept Labour Away

While the right has turned politics into a culture war, the left has yet to tackle the politics of culture, says Hardeep Matharu.

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How has it reached this point? The UK now has a Home Secretary proudly introducing an immigration system which would have likely stopped her own parents from coming to the UK from Uganda in the 1960s. “This is the point, we are changing our immigration policy,” declares Priti Patel as if the story is over and the right’s anti-immigrant, nativist agenda is beyond question. 

This is the high watermark of the right’s adoption of identity politics in its culture war. It’s not that Labour has lost this culture war, it hasn’t even worked out how to begin engaging with it. Stuck in a bubble of ideas to tackle economic and social change, it has discounted the one big development of recent times which the ruthless Conservatives have understood implicitly: identity. 

Identity matters. It is the story of these times.

Steve Bannon and the ‘Northern Strategy’

I have written in these pages before of how my parents – immigrants to the UK from Kenya and India – voted to leave the EU in 2016, not because of economic or social concerns but because of deep-rooted and unconscious forces of nostalgia, Empire and belonging which have so strongly shaped their understanding of their identity, its place in Britain and Britain’s place in the world.

Having been born in countries of the British Empire, they don’t feel European. Their allegiance is to Britain and they also feel Britain owes an allegiance to the countries it colonised, not to Europe. 

I have also written in these pages about how my parents, traditional Labour supporters who brought me up on the street in a London borough where the British National Party had its headquarters, had switched allegiance in the past two General Elections to the Conservatives.

What has Labour to say to people like my parents?

For Francis Fukuyama – the (in)famous “end of history” political scientist – identity is the main driving force in politics today, beyond people’s economic concerns. 

Many of those who voted Donald Trump into the White House and Britain out of the EU did so regardless of any concerns they might have had for their economic interests, he notes. This is because “dignity” is important to people. Identity “tells us that we have authentic inner selves that are not being recognised and suggests that the whole of external society may be false and repressive,” Fukuyama writes. In uber capitalist societies such as the UK and US, the hollowness of consumerism has led to a tension between individual expression and the need for community. Where do we belong in these modern times? 

Nationalism is rising in the US and the UK, but also across Europe and the world in countries such as Modi’s India. And it goes hand-in-hand with identity through its claims to offer a solution, to help people feel better about their status and place. But, the ‘solution’ – which often takes the form of division and othering – is but a cheap and dangerous palliative, offering an (often psychological) pain relief only in the short-term, the time frame in which modern politics plays out.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, has understood this for a long time. While the Labour Party has spent the past decade highlighting the wrongs caused by austerity and the financial crisis, right-wing forces such as the ones he is bringing together across Europe have swept the status quo carpet from under its feet, replacing it with a culture war rug Labour doesn’t seem to know it is even sitting on.

Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, said that Breitbart founder Bannon’s key belief is that “politics is downstream of culture” and that, to bring about change, you have to change the culture. And to do this, you have to change individual people so that enough of them can tip the balance – which is where the data firm’s controversial micro-targeting via millions of people’s illegally harvested Facebook data came in. But, digital dark arts are the means not the end.

Bannon is known to have advised Boris Johnson in recent years and was in touch with him after he resigned from Theresa May’s Government in 2018, when he clearly had his eyes on grabbing the crown to lead the Brexit revolution he is the opportunistic leader of. Brexit is, at its heart, a culture war; a conflict of identities. Johnson and his Conservatives understand this, as Labour does not. On the biggest issue of our times, the Labour Opposition had nothing coherent to say.

So, in the same way the US Republican Party grabbed voters in southern states, following the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and the end of Jim Crow, by appealing to racism against African Americans, Johnson arguably used a ‘Northern Strategy’ in the 2019 General Election when he nabbed traditional Labour supporters in its ‘Red Wall’, people who will likely be no better off economically under a Conservative Government but wanted it to “get Brexit done”.

Turning a Blind Eye

The Labour Party’s refusal to fight the culture war can’t be pinned solely on Jeremy Corbyn, although his leadership at such a crucial juncture has clearly not helped.

“One of my biggest criticisms of what didn’t happen under Corbyn was that they said ‘we don’t want to fight the culture war’, the culture war was being waged and the leader’s office was saying they didn’t want to get involved in that,” Faiza Shaheen, the Labour candidate who came close to beating Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green in the 2019 General Election, told me. “You can’t get through on economic policy without countering the hate, otherwise it becomes socialism just for white British people.”

She believes that, while left progressives cannot “play into anti-immigration and visceral anti-Muslim sentiments” created by those on the right, Labour must find a way to counter them.

For Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West, the party “lost the immigration narrative a long time ago” and needs to reclaim it, explicitly countering narratives weaponising identity.

“We haven’t been good at explaining to communities the changing dynamics and addressing people’s concerns and you’ve got this narrative of migration being hijacked by the far-right and people like Nigel Farage, coupled with the hostile environment,” she said. “What we should have done is gone strong on holding them to account and I’m not sure we’ve been strong enough. Yes, we’ve talked about austerity, but we’ve not talked about the complications and dynamics in communities.”

“Brexit didn’t happen overnight,” she added. “The Christchurch attack didn’t happen overnight. The Pittsburgh shootings didn’t happen overnight. These things happened over years and years with the seeds of difference being sown… if you look at the history of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, it started a lot longer ago than post-9/11, but we just don’t see it in that context. Malcolm X and Mandela were people who had studied history and where discourse came from and developed their leadership and their narratives, whereas now all we do is look at what’s happened in the last five years, the last 10 years and we don’t go beyond that.”

Paul Farrelly, who was the Labour MP for Newcastle-Under-Lyme until the 2019 General Election when he stood down, believes the Labour leadership has been too amateur and unrepresentative to address issues such as culture. 

“People like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with safe thousands and thousands of majorities in metropolitan London are clearly not going to be as attached to what people now call the ‘left behinds’,” he said. 

A Civic and Civilised Nationalism

Speaking in Newcastle last week on how to keep the UK’s union together in the years ahead, Gordon Brown named the “five competing nationalisms” which he believes have emerged as “Brexit nationalism, Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism, Irish nationalism and Ulster nationalism”. 

Although he himself has pointed out that 15 of the 17 million votes to leave the EU were cast specifically in England, he dares not speak the name of “English nationalism”.

Does younger Labour blood have the answers?

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, believes the only way to counter a populist, ethnic nationalism is with a new “civic nationalism”, which would include a new written constitution, compulsory national civic service for young people and “creating an encounter culture where people from all backgrounds, races and places can meet”.

“Over the past century, identity politics has secured incredible gains for women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people and other marginalised groups,” he said. “We should therefore not abandon identity politics, but our focus must be to offer a newly inclusive politics to go alongside it. What I have suggested is the development of a civic nationalism, based on shared institutions and values, to bring our divided country back together again.”

Of the three candidates in Labour’s leadership race, Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, is the only one to have really gone near the issue. Remain campaigners went into the 2016 referendum without “a story about our place in the world,” she has said. “Leave campaigners said we were a small nation with a proud history of punching above our weight. Remain campaigners said we’ll cut your mobile phone roaming charges.”

Nandy has criticised the party for allowing the Conservatives to frame Brexit as “a series of false binaries” in which “you can either be for your country or for the world”.

“Senior Labour politicians rushed headlong into it,” she has said. “It was a serious failure of leadership.”

Labour’s Split Identity 

“A sense of Britishness restored” is what Labour needs to advocate, according to Ian Lucas, the Labour MP for Wrexham until he stood down in the 2019 General Election.

“There’s nobody making the case for a UK nationalism, to recognise difference within the country,” he said. “Where I do think Jeremy Corbyn was disastrous was that he was not seen as being at all patriotic, he was embarrassed by Britain, most people felt he wasn’t someone who was interested in defending the country. What we need to have is someone who says Britain is a great place much more regularly, that we want to create a positive Britain together on these islands.”

Labour has been plagued by the issue of identity and how to confront it for many years, Lucas said, and he remembers having “anguished discussions” about it when he was in Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet “because we were trying to reconcile the liberal, metropolitan viewpoint with the viewpoint that was coming from the northern heartlands”. 

The party feels “very uncomfortable” discussing issues such as race and immigration.

“It’s really something that for a long period in the Labour Party we’ve had enormous difficulty with in terms of confronting it,” Lucas said. “It’s to do with the dichotomy within the Labour Party between the urban, ethnically diverse members of the party and the so-called traditional northern towns-type membership of the party and the division between the two of them was, to a certain extent, reflected in the Brexit issue. Finding a way to talk about these issues has been something that we’ve struggled with.”

The party also shouldn’t become so focused on narrower identity questions, that it forgets the much bigger problem staring it in the face, Lucas believes.

“In one of the television debates [during the 2019 General Election], they spent 10 minutes talking about transexuals in a one-hour debate,” he said. “I’ve been an MP for 18 years and it hasn’t been raised with me once as an issue in Wrexham. That typifies the way we’ve gone off in a particular direction that isn’t going to begin to address the issues we need to be addressing for the Labour Party to get back into power.” 

Dangerous Inaction

Fear and division is easier to spread than trust and unity and finding the solutions for the culture wars being waged will not be easy for the Labour Party. But not confronting it any longer will only make the issue much worse. And who can afford to wait for that?

As Krishna tells Arjuna, the noble warrior who is reluctant to stay on the battlefield to fight, in the Bhagavad Gita: the “one who sees action in inaction is intelligent among men”.

Deciding not to fight the culture war is a choice. It is an action. And one which the Labour Party will come to desperately regret.

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