Why does Labour get a much easier ride from the left than the Lib Dems?

Nick Clegg and the fleeting nature of hatred.

If you’re reading this, there’s a high chance you aren’t keen on Nick Clegg, and possibly the Liberal Democrats as a whole. If I were to ask you to post why in the comments - as if you need an invitation - I imagine you’d probably say something like this genuine extract, quoted verbatim:

Clegg is the most insincere, deceitful, disingenuous, untrustworthy man to hold office in the UK.

...only with a few more expletives thrown in for good measure.

Thing is, like Mr Clegg, I just lied to you: I changed one of the words. The comment wasn’t about Clegg, but another politician who went from being an electoral asset to a liability after a spell in power. It's about Tony Blair, from a Guardian article in 2009. Pretty mild stuff compared to what you’ll find underneath any article about Nick Clegg. And yet, the main source of hatred reserved for Clegg’s Lib Dems is that they lied and broke manifesto promises, and this is something that Labour themselves know a great deal about too.

Leading up to the 2010 election, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats published documents highlighting failures from Labour’s 2005 manifesto (the Tory version can still be read here, but ironically the link on Nick Clegg’s site promising the PDF of Labour’s Broken Promises is broken), but the party broke promises even when fully united with a massive majority in the early days of New Labour too. Party strategists seemed aware that this was becoming an Achilles heel - in 1997, part of their winning campaign was to publish five point pledge cards, containing promises for the coming parliament. They repeated this for the following three elections, but compare the specific pledges of the first (“We will cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100m saved from NHS red tape”) to the happy thoughts of the 2005 batch (“Your Family Better Off”) and there’s the unmistakable air of a party trying to promise something so vague that they can’t be accused of failing to deliver. No wonder: they were forced to admit before the 2001 election that they had only managed three out of five of the specific pledges, which were previously viewed as a touch on the unambitious side.

So why do Labour get such a comparatively easy ride from the left? Sure, there are negative comments about Miliband and Labour in general, but they don’t contain anything like the special kind of bile reserved for the Liberal Democrats. Over 13 years, Labour broke plenty of election pledges including, lest we forget, their own pledge not to bring in top-up fees (“We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.” - 2001 Manifesto), not to mention abandoning their own 1997 commitment of delivering a referendum on parliamentary voting reform, much to the annoyance of Liberal Democrats (“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons” - 1997 manifesto). They even went so far as winning a court battle over their failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, getting the court to agree with the defence that “A manifesto promise is incapable of giving rise to a legally binding contract with the electorate”. And the biggest kicker? They did much of this with a handsome majority of seats in the Commons, without the excuse of being the junior partner in a coalition government, which is actually a far more explanation than it’s often given credit for being. Labour haven’t recently had to defend another party’s ideology to maintain government unity, which will hurt you far more than a couple of policy ideas failing to come through.

Perhaps Labour get off lightly because the pledges they failed to deliver on were not high-profile policies - electoral reform gets Lib Dem activists all hot and bothered, but barely registers with Labour voters, let alone the public at large. And although there’s a lot of bluster about the Lisbon Treaty and the role of the EU, Labour has never been the natural party of eurosceptics - indeed the man bringing the case against the government was a UKIP activist, who probably cast his vote elsewhere anyway. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand have always relied heavily on the student vote, and although they weren’t as vocal about tuition fees in 2010 as they had been in previous years (even the Tories were unconvincingly making free tuition a manifesto pledge in 2005), Clegg wasn’t averse to campaigning at university campuses and repeating the manifesto policy of scrapping tuition fees to any student who would listen. It’s worth noting the actual pledge to ‘vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament’ signed by the party’s 57 MPs was an NUS campaign, rather than a Liberal Democrat initiative (indeed some Labour and Conservative candidates were also signatories), but plenty happily posed for grinning photo opportunities alongside their signature, blissfully unaware that they had just lit the fuse on a bad PR time bomb.

Maybe the real problem is that many centre-left voters feel stupid for being taken in by Nick Clegg’s impressive television debate performance, where he artfully positioned himself as a new kind of politician in a brand new, exciting medium - one who doesn’t break promises, and doesn’t believe in limp pragmatism. It seems like another lifetime now, but Nick Clegg’s debate performance was genuinely inspiring, coming from nowhere and winning over much of the audience with his polished presentation and refreshing words which resonated with a disillusioned public, fed up with Labour but suspicious of the Tories - and he may have done a little too well. It’s easier to deal with hollow marketing copy on a page like every other year, than to find out the man you trusted on the TV turned out to be promising the impossible. The former is just business as usual, but the latter can genuinely hurt - a lie to your face. No wonder people are vocally angry.

The Liberal Democrat campaign team wasn’t shy about capitalising on the jadedness of the populace towards the two main parties either. It will make Lib Dem activists cringe now to watch campaign videos such as this one, amusingly titled “Say Goodbye to Broken Promises” in which Clegg makes an impassioned message to the camera about “promises being kept” and how political parties have proven they just can’t be trusted. Of course, he was inadvertently correct - he just didn’t appreciate at the time how being right about this one might make it a dangerous sentiment to tap into.

But ultimately the main reason Labour doesn’t face the same anger nowadays may be disappointing to those commenters who wishfully boast about the impending Liberal Democrat oblivion: anger fades. Most have forgotten about New Labour’s broken promises now that Blair and Brown are party conference memories, and it’s entirely plausible the same will apply to the Lib Dems in time. In 2016, once Clegg has either jumped or been pushed and a new face is in place, Milliband will likely be facing similar flack when his One Nation Labour turns out to be the familiar old Two or Three Nations, and Cable or Farron may once again seem a suitable vehicle for protest votes in by-elections. However implausible it may seem right now in the heat of the moment, time heals all wounds - to come back to the Guardian comment I started on, there will always be a next “most insincere, deceitful, disingenuous, untrustworthy” figure waiting to fill the hate vacuum. And that’s a promise I won’t break.

Alan Martin writes about politics, tech and gaming (although rarely at the same time).

Does Ed Miliband get off lightly? Photograph: Getty Images
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Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times