It's over for Nick Clegg and his Orange Bookers. Photo: Getty
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The Lib Dems have a future, but Clegg’s neo-liberals are finished

In rediscovering the value of wielding influence rather than power, the Lib Dems should reconnect with their social democratic heritage.

Where did it all go wrong for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats? Therein lies a tale. Was it their vote to treble tuition fees, when they shredded their pre-election pledge to scrap them? How about their failure to deliver change to the election system with the humiliating two-to-one loss of the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote? Or was it the very moment they entered into coalition with the Conservatives?

How about going a bit further back, all the way to July 2004 and publication of a harmless-sounding collection of essays from party luminaries? Yet The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism in fact marked a sea change in the direction of the party, one that now curses Nick Clegg and his acolytes.

The tenth anniversary earlier this month was a low-key affair. However, at the time, the book provided the intellectual ammunition to return the Lib Dems to their historical roots as a Gladstonian liberal party. In so doing, Clegg and his ultras junked the party’s social democratic heritage and embraced neo-liberalism, becoming much more antagonistic to Labour in the process. It is no exaggeration to say that the Orange Book paved the way for the coalition deal with the Tories. (Tellingly, eight of the ten chapter authors have served as ministers in the coalition).

Unfortunately (for Clegg at least), there is simply no space in British politics for a narrow neo-liberal party. Of course there are plenty of neo-liberals floating around in British politics, but the key difference between them and the Orange Bookers is that the Blairites and Cameroons never managed to subdue the other traditions within their parties in the same way the Orange Bookers have done to the Lib Dems. A well-organised cabal in a small party is evidently more successful than in a large one.

Their legacy – and central mistake – has been to wrench their party out of its familiar orbit as the nice and slightly wacky home for mavericks, eccentrics, single-issue purists, political spleen-venters and those voting tactically against one of the other two big parties. Yes, Clegg and the Orange Bookers made the party harder-edged, but they lost some of the ambiguity that made the Lib Dems such an effective sponge for soaking-up disparate groups of voters.

For the party’s poor bloody infantry, the Orange Book has been a false prospectus ever since it was published. Indeed, it is conveniently forgotten by his political assassins that it was Charles Kennedy, and not Clegg, who took the Lib Dems to their highest ever representation in the House of Commons, winning 62 seats in 2005.

With that incorrigible old social democrat out of the picture, Clegg actually went on to win five fewer seats in 2010. But those were heady days compared to what faces the party now they have to defend their neo-liberal record at the polls.

Last month’s European elections saw them dumped in fourth place, losing nine of their 11 MEPs in the process (in some regions, the Lib Dems actually fell to fifth place behind the Greens). In the north of England, where they once boasted of challenging Labour, they are in terminal decline. Just a handful of years ago they ran big cities like Liverpool and Sheffield. Now they have lost every single one of their councillors in Manchester and the second group leader in a row lost his council seat in Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat.

Further pain beckons. A recent poll of four Lib Dem/Labour marginal seats by Lord Ashcroft shows their share of the vote has halved from 38 to 19 per cent since 2010. In Lib Dem/Tory marginals, the story is the same, dropping 15 points to 28 per cent. Wipeout is a realistic prospect.

The promise of a new style of politics during that Downing Street Rose Garden love-in back in 2010 has been reduced to David Cameron reportedly making a contemptuous remark about “green crap” while helping scupper the Alternative Vote referendum and offering nothing else on constitutional reform. Clegg is left raking through the embers for proof that this experience has been worth the effort and the sacrifice. No wonder he doesn’t want his kids to go into politics.

To those critics in his party bold enough to stand up to him, it simply hasn’t been worth it. Matthew Oakeshott, a social democratic thorn in Clegg’s flesh for the past four years, quit the party last month, warning of impending apocalypse after his (admittedly cack-handed) attempts to engineer a coup against his leader.

The short term is beyond rescue. Clegg’s power-hungry neo-liberals are finished. Instead, ambitious Lib Dems need to look to the medium term and the election after next. A possible future lies in settling for being a party of ideas and values, seeking to influence the political debate. They should forget aspirations of governing again. The collateral damage inflicted on a junior coalition partner in the bear pit of British politics means it isn’t worth it.

In rediscovering the value of wielding influence rather than power, the Lib Dems should reconnect with their social democratic heritage. The first thing Tim Farron should do when he becomes party leader in the autumn of 2015, is pick up the phone to Lord Oakeshott.


Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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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