The issue of identity politics has become a highly contested battleground over the past few years. It has always been a target of criticism from conservative politicians and commentators, however an increasing number of voices from within the left have begun to question this concept which has dominated mainstream liberal and leftist discourse for nearly two decades. Traditional class-based politics with an economic rather than social focus seem to have made a comeback, championed by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders across the Atlantic, and the argument that the left needs to move beyond identity issues to cope with the new political landscape has been gaining traction in both the UK and US.

Should the Left Move Beyond Identity Politics?

picture from Thought Hub

Given that much of this debate has centred on the political culture in universities and colleges, this is an issue that directly affects young people all over the UK, and indeed all over the world. It is therefore important to understand the origins and nature of Identity politics, and examine its impact on both the left and the right. This is also an issue that has become increasingly difficult to understand as it is mired in confusing terminology and misrepresented arguments, so we should firstly define what the issue is.

Broadly, the term “identity politics” refers to a form of politics that focuses on the interests of social groups based on their identity as members of a particular race, gender, or ethnic group. There is, of course, nothing new about this as a concept – politicians have appealed to peoples’ sense of belonging and identity for as long as politics has existed. What is different about modern liberal identity politics is that its focus on oppressed minorities and social justice, which can be traced back to the radical movements that were active during the 20th century – socialism, feminism, LGBT rights, black rights, the labour movement, and the anti-war movement. These movements had mainly been a united left-wing front for most of that century, and found their way into the mainstream through the Labour Party. Following the extensive liberal reforms under Harold Wilson, which included a ban on racial discrimination in 1965 and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, social liberalism became more and more mainstream. This was further amplified by events in the US, such as the success of the Black Civil Rights movement.

When the pendulum swung to the right and the Reagan-Thatcher era began, the left faced somewhat of a crisis, and what followed was a move by the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK to the centre in terms of economic policy while fully embracing liberal identity politics. As a result, the left-wing base shifted from the unionized working class, which had traditionally been its main source of support, to middle class metropolitan liberals. Although this move allowed Labour to gain power in the 1997 elections, it shifted the party’s ideological foundation to a much weaker one and alienated many of its supporters.

Now that the Labour Party has been in opposition for seven years, and Jeremy Corbyn has been its leader for two years, it seems that traditional economic leftism is returning to the party, despite much resistance. A significant part of this resistance has been based on the idea that it is somehow incompatible with liberal identity politics – indeed, Corbyn has repeatedly been accused of misogyny, and condemned for not taking action to combat online abuse directed at women. This pattern was echoed to a great extent in the US, as the main line of attack used by the Clinton campaign against Bernie Sanders was that he and his supporters were sexist. This, of course, completely ignores the fact that Mrs. Clinton’s economic platform was almost as far to the right as the Republicans, which put off many young Democrats from supporting her.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find supporters of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders that are actually sexist, excluding the online trolls who exist only to post inflammatory content and generate controversy. This isn’t to say that sexism within the left isn’t an issue, but essentially, no one on the left is arguing that we should abandon the fight for minority rights or gender equality. No one disputes the importance of social equality and justice. Rather, the problem is the way in which social issues have superseded actual policymaking and economic issues, and how much of political discourse, especially among the youth, has become saturated with platitudes about multiculturalism and side-tracked by arguments over fringe issues such as gender-neutral pronouns, while issues that affect the majority of people to a much larger extent, such as stagnating wages, are ignored. This was especially highlighted by the failure of the Remain campaign, which had placed a strong emphasis on attacking the racist elements of the Leave campaign but ultimately failed to address the predominantly economic concerns of people in the lower income brackets.
Furthermore, a troubling knee-jerk response to Brexit by many on the left was to criticise people of lower income and working-class backgrounds who voted Leave using sweeping generalisations such as labelling them racist.

Closer examination of Brexit also reveals a crucial flaw in the use of liberal identity politics as a political strategy – the right, especially the far-right, has always been better at using identity politics than the left will ever be. The right was quick to capitalise on all the weaknesses of liberal discourse, and by linking social issues such as immigration to the economy, was able to gain support from large sections of the working class. Another example of this is the now-widespread opposition to ‘political correctness’, which has become a rallying cry for many people all over the political spectrum even including moderates who fear that the left’s supposed obsession with controlling offensive language threatens freedom of speech. Regardless of how much this rallying cry depends on an exaggerated and caricatured version of ‘political correctness’, it is very effective. The implications of all this are clear: the left abandoned its roots, and has suffered for it.

The key to ‘moving beyond’ identity politics is to understand that people’s political interests are never limited to one factor, and that representing the interests of working class people doesn’t have to come at the expense of the interests of minorities. There is nothing wrong with focusing on specific issues that affect only a small number of people – it is in fact essential to do so sometimes – but it must not keep us from engaging with and understanding the bigger picture.

So where does this lead? Ideally, the revival of traditional leftism, as represented by Corbyn, Sanders, and others like them, will help guide the modern left towards to a form of politics better suited to facing the challenges of today – one that can represent the interests of working communities, the youth, and minorities in a more holistic and effective manner.

By Bilal Asghar