Leader: The limits of identity politics

The left must be more than a rainbow coalition of disaffected groups or identity interests.

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Last November, after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US presidential election, the American academic Mark Lilla published an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he argued that the “age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end”. He argued that “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity” had “distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force”.

A self-described “liberal centrist”, Professor Lilla was alarmed that Hillary Clinton had failed to build the necessary coalition of support among blue-collar Democrats, many of whom had been attracted by Mr Trump’s blunt populism. For Professor Lilla, left-liberal identity politics and the rhetoric of diversity, so popular in the Ivy League universities, had alienated voters, especially the white working class whose primary concerns were inequality and social justice.

Mrs Clinton’s liberalism – during the campaign, she denounced Mr Trump’s less fortunate supporters as a “basket of deplorables” – appealed to the educated middle class, the west and east coast elites, as well as minorities, but it alienated voters in the crucial swing states of the Rust Belt. This cost her the election and put Donald Trump in the White House.

Professor Lilla has now expanded his argument into a new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. “There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised,” he writes in an essay in this week's New Statesman. “But the only way in a democracy to assist them meaningfully – and not just make empty gestures of recognition and ‘celebration’ – is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government.”

What relevance does this have to Britain? Quite a lot, as it happens. The left in this country is weak. Labour has been out of power since 2010 and, despite seven years of austerity, failed to win again in 2017. The press is overwhelmingly right-wing and aggressively Eurosceptic. The BBC – so enfeebled during the 2016 referendum campaign – has an establishment bias, with senior BBC executives moving seamlessly from Broadcasting House to work for the Conservative Party.

Where the left is strong is in the universities and our cultural institutions. Yet in the former, a particular kind of left-wing cultural politics is embedded – what Professor Lilla calls identity liberalism, with its focus on racial, gender and sexual identity rather than on a politics of the common good. The culture wars of the 1960s were necessary and achieved notable victories. The gains made by social liberals were real and should be welcomed. Racism and homophobia were deeply rooted in the culture, and that is no longer the case. As a consequence, Britain is today a far more tolerant and harmonious country in which to live.

But are we too diverse? The left must be more than a rainbow coalition of disaffected groups or identity interests. An obsession with self-affirmation can weaken solidarity and fellow feeling. It can lead liberals to tolerate illiberal behaviour in the name of “multiculturalism”. It can lead to the weakening of historic bonds – of class, of institutional loyalties.

Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former chief strategist and the Breitbart News propagandist, has said, “The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” There is a warning here for progressives in this country. 

The pay cap melts

After four years, the public-sector pay cap is melting. On 12 September, the government announced that prison officers would receive a 1.7 per cent rise, while police officers would get a 1 per cent “bonus” on top of the previously agreed 1 per cent increase. Ministers said that they recognised the need for “flexibility” – a signal that teachers, nurses and the rest will also get more than a 1 per cent uplift in this autumn’s Budget.

The news is welcome and overdue. Yet it was announced on the same day that inflation hit 2.9 per cent, meaning that what has really been announced is not a pay rise but a smaller pay cut. Low pay and poor productivity blight the British economy. In June, the Resolution Foundation found that
average pay was now £800 below its 2008 peak – making this the worst decade for pay growth since the Napoleonic Wars.

Theresa May’s lost majority is a testament to how many Britons feel the economy is not working for them. These small rises, however, may not be enough to avert industrial action this winter. The issue of pay is far from settled. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem