An accessible short essay/blog by Simon Brewis (@Si_Brewis_Says)
20-25 min read
This is the first in a series of three pieces about Identity Politics and Economic or Class based politics. It is set in the context of the collapsing vote in the Labour Parties traditional post-industrial seats. I am in the Labour Party, and write this in solidarity with all people on the Left.
On the 7th of May 2021 results from local elections across the country were going badly for the Labour Party. Hartlepool was the highest profile catastrophe. Labour had lost another ‘Red Wall’ seat, and the rot had not been stopped by a year under new management. The Green Party on the other hand were having a rather pleasant time of it. In honesty, I was not particularly surprised. I knew in my heart that Labour had not found the answers to these problems yet.
What did shock me was what I saw on Social Media in the aftermath. A dedicated socialist that I know was pointing the finger of blame towards Labour as a party for ‘Students and Teachers’. I was unimpressed, and we had quite a spat. Later that day I saw the words of Labour MP Khalid Mahmood quoted in various Left and Right-Wing news. He was attacking woke social media warriors, Identity Politics and the University educated. I was outraged. I had voted for Labour. I had helped campaign for my local candidates in Leeds. I came to this City from a working-class family to get a University education, to be ambitious, to better myself. Why am I being attacked? Every instinct I had was to attack back with fury. Although after a little while I remembered why fighting this fight on the Left was going to get us nowhere – because it never does.
Different priorities in ‘Left-Wing’ politics have led to conflict and warfare between factions since before the word ‘Left Wing’ was invented. A pre-Left example was the Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell. After defeating the Royalists in the English Civil War he could not live with his more radical allies the Levellers, and so he executed their leaders and suppressed their movement. A more recent example was George Orwell. A dedicated Socialist, he volunteered as a foot soldier in the Spanish Civil war to ‘fight Fascists’ for the cause of ‘common decency’. Unfortunately, he was caught up in a friendly fire purge of his own faction by a more Totalitarian group. The experience shaped his later famous works. These should be understood as a critique of the Left from the Left, grounded in the historical schisms between authoritarian and Libertarian Socialists. As for the more recent history of the Labour Party… I cannot bring myself to go there.
Maintaining cohesion between progressive people from different walks of life is hard. People understand themselves through the lens of their own life experience, cultural identities and shared histories. For progressive movements to work they always need alliances, often referred to as ‘Solidarity’, between these different groups. I will unpack why Solidarity is always and not just sometimes needed in Part 3. The History of the Left shows that it is easy to slip into conflicts between these factions, derailing progress, and handing victories to the political Right. The Monarchists eventually ended up back in charge of 17th Century England, and Franco’s Fascists won the Spanish Civil War. The Conservatives have formed the government after eight of the last eleven UK General Elections.
The recent conflict I have witnessed is more specific to our own time. The argument is between those who advocate for Economic, or Class-Based politics and Identity based politics. To understand this conflict today, we need to understand more about where these ideas came from. Let’s start with traditional Economic or Class-Based politics. Historically speaking, Left-Wing politics has been framed by the anger of Working-Class people who are poorly paid. It is directed towards Middle-Class Capitalists who are wealthy because they own the businesses that pay the poor wages. Anger is also directed towards Upper-Class aristocrats who are wealthy because they inherit money and land. There is often conflict between Middle and Upper Classes groups, but from the point of view of traditional Working-Class Socialism – they are both the enemy.
Identity Politics is usually considered to be a newer addition to the Left, although in Part 2 I will question this. Identity politics is framed as the fight against oppression due to personal characteristics or traits, i.e. discrimination against Race, Gender, Religion, Age, Disability etc. To understand this conflicts origin, we need to understand how religious Protestant culture has influenced our politics in past eras. Historically, Protestant culture is associated with the Middle-Class business owners. It makes a distinction between the ‘Public Realm’ meaning work life, and the ‘Private Realm’ meaning home or domestic life. The Middle-Class Protestants claimed politics was in the domain of the public realm of work outside the home, and the domestic realm was not a matter for political concern. Crucially, traditional Socialists tended to agree with their natural enemies in the Middle Classes on this point – politics was about work and money. This distinction was later blown to pieces by Middle Class Feminists – who argued that they were politically oppressed because they were not allowed to go to work and earn their own money. An oppression that was based on cultural ideas about women’s place in the private, domestic realm. This means that their political oppression in the public world of work was based in sexists ideas private world of the domestic – so the separation between the two was utter tosh. To the horror of many male Capitalists and Socialist alike, Feminists campaigned that ‘The Personal is Political’. This was the beginning of ‘Identity Politics’ as we understand it today. Going forward I will refer to this conflict as economic politics vs identity politics.
Whist in theory the feminist argument above is logically watertight, in practice the conflict between economic and identity politics is still ablaze. For some the fire was raging in the aftermath of the recent poor election results. The argument is often that Identity Politics confuses or gets in the way of ‘real’ politics. For some Identity Politics is to blame for the losses of seats like Hartlepool. The Socialist I mentioned on Social Media told me that Identity Politics was ‘The Death of the Left’.
Khalid Mahmood is not the only Left-Wing Politician to have vocally expressed this way of thinking. Yet, he did it very deliberately and vocally on May 7th, and so I think it is right and fair to criticise his statement.
For context, Khalid Mahmood was until recently Labour’s Shadow Minister for Defence. He appears to have resigned a few weeks before the elections in frustration at the Parties direction under Keir Starmer’s leadership. However, his resignation was kept secret until after the local elections, when he revealed his departure with a blistering attack claiming that …
“Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people. A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party. They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday.”
I found his words to be confusing and disturbing for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was confused by his language. Later in his statement he goes on to complain about “rich urban liberals and young university graduates”, yet he doesn’t see the irony of usingacademic language like ‘tech utopianism’. Also, what is a ‘Social Media Warrior’? Does he mean ‘Social Justice Warrior? It is difficult to know. And… how many people in Hartlepool have experience of ‘Californian High Society’? I don’t know many people currently living in Hartlepool, so perhaps they do? But as a University educated city boy I was mostly left guessing as to what this actually means.
Strange language aside, much more disturbing was Khalid Mahmood’s appropriation of the Trump-esque rhetoric ‘woke social media warriors’. ‘Woke’ is a term with a long history, most of which has been in the United States. It dates back as far as the ‘Wide Awakes’ movement to oppose Slavery promoted by Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans. The term Woke evolved to mean ‘well informed’ or ‘awake’ to racial injustice. Around 2014 its meaning shifted when used by Black Lives Matters activists. Black Lives Matter take an Intersectional approach to their politics, which means that they see oppressions of gender, race, class, disability etc as intrinsically linked in a system of oppressions – They focus on race but understand that as part of a wider system. Through the prism of their Intersectional point of view ‘Woke’ became more associated with awareness of these webs of oppression and, more linked with identity politics as a whole.
Since 2020, Right-Wing commentators have appropriated and weaponised ‘Woke’ as a mocking term against the Left. It is difficult to explain in terms of logic what it means when used this way. It is not a criticism famed in ideas or arguments. Why is being ‘Woke’ to injustice bad? What these commentators actually refer to is the emotional feelings of distain, anger or rage, that people sometimes feel when Left-Wing ideas challenge their traditionally held values and opinions. Emotional arguments in politics, sometimes called ‘Dog Whistles’, belong to the playbook of the political Hard Right and not the ideas of Liberal Conservatism. This is why I found Khalid Mahmood’s statement so shocking. The way he uses the word ‘Woke’ isn’t conservative, it is Hard Right politics. I think it is responsible to add here that I do not think Khalid Mahmood is actually advocating for the Hard Right – I think he is not paying proper attention to what he is saying. I also think he should know better.
Of course, what was quoted in the press was only part of Khalid Mahmood’s statement. I found it in full on the website for the Right of Centre think tank ‘Policy Exchange’. What is interesting once you have read it all is that after his initial barrage Mahmood then changes tack and begins to say things that are economically Left-Wing and make a lot more sense. People, he says –
“want job security themselves – not zero hours contracts – and for their children and grandchildren to have a bright future. They want an NHS that works and doesn’t leave them waiting months for an operation or weeks for an appointment with their GP. They want investment in infrastructure, and in basic transport such as cleaner and greener buses.”
The central idea seems to be that Labour should be more strident in its economic agenda, whilst also siding with the Hard-Right in their attacks on Identity Politics. I do not want to be too harsh on Khalid Mahmood. I am sure he does good work for his Constituents, and I agree with much of what he says in his economic arguments. However, mixing Left-Wing economics politics with Hard Right attacks on Identity Politics is a truly terrible idea. Here are just three of the reasons why.
Firstly, voters do not respect Left Wing politicians who tactically swing the Right. In fact, it tends to often really p*ss them off. Getting tough on Immigration sunk Hilary Clinton’s chances of the US Presidency, and Tony Blair will be forever infamous as the Left-Wing Leader who took us to war. Mahmood himself seems to already understand this. He pours scorn on “superficial flag-waving”, clearly referring to the flawed idea that if Labour Politicians stand in front of the Union Jack more often, then Red Wall voters will come running back with open arms. What he seems to have missed is that his Hard Right language is only ‘upping the ante’ on the same flawed tactic. To many this will read as a cynical dalliance with the Hard-Right, and I strongly suspect that small-c conservative voters won’t be having any of it.
Secondly, you cannot put the Identity Politics genie back in the bottle. It is not going anywhere. Huge numbers of Lefty voters, often Millennial and largely concentrated in metropolitan areas, see Identity Politics as being inseparable from Left-Wing politics. It is also worth knowing that these voters have a tendency towards being less attached to political parties, and more attached to political ideas. I can’t tell you loads about voters in Hartlepool but, trust me, I know these people. They are the ones I drink craft beer and play Settlers of Catan with on a Friday night. If Labour starts banging on about the ‘woke elite’, and attacking people with University educations, they will be on their bikes to the Green Party before you can say Green Industrial Revolution. This is not a theory. It is practical reality, and basic arithmetic. Labour cannot win without replacing votes lost in ‘Red Wal’ seats. Labour also cannot win if it declares war on its own base in City suburbs.
Thirdly, the idea that people who live in more economically deprived towns are not interested in Identity Politics is bunkum. Some may not be, but others are. In fact, the idea that Class is particularly relevant to voting intention has not been true for some time. At the 2017 and 2019 General Elections age was the clearest demographic indicator of voting intention. People from different social grades, i.e. Classes, voted Labour and Conservative in similar ratios. Put simply, people no longer vote along the lines of social class, the big divider in society is now how old you are. This idea might take some getting used for people on the Left. If so, please check it out for yourself. 
There are plenty of downtrodden feeling young people living in underprivileged communities up and down the country. Many of them are on the internet speaking their truth. ‘Social media warriors’ are not strictly metropolitan. The point of internet activism is you can be anywhere, including Hartlepool.
It is also worth thinking culturally. Tends in culture today often become future trends in politics tomorrow. What are today’s popular art forms with big audiences? Who is watching RuPaul’s Drag Race? Who is making Stormzy one of the most popular musicians in the country? Much of today’s popular arts and media is interracial, pro Queer, Ableist sceptic, steeped in feminist thinking, with audiences of young people across the socio-economic spectrum. An attack on this culture becomes an attack on many young people who are economically underprivileged and already on the Left. To abandon Identity Politics is to abandon the next generation of voters.
If as some say that ‘Identity Politics is the death of the Left’ then we have no hope. Pandering to the Hard-Right, pitting white collar worker vs blue collar worker, or attacking the culture of young voters – is an abandonment of the principles of the Solidarity. As I began by explaining, when Left-Wing people from different walks of life turn on each other – it is also the death of the Left. Or in this case, at least the death of the Labour Party.
When we hear voices on the Left claim that we can win by attacking or abandoning social justice – we should not join them in false hope. We should not ignore them either. We should explain why it is just not true. We should be clear that a fight on the Left between economic politics and identity politics will guarantee yet more victories for the Right. This of course does not mean that the economic policy arguments are wrong. If there is anything to be learned from the dreadful results in the May elections, it is that Labour must improve its economic offer to these voters.
Questions that we should be asking ourselves include – is there a genuine divide between City and Town? Are some voters right to be angry with Labour and the Lefts perceived inability to deal with it? The answer is yes. I think most will agree that the problems primarily relate to economic issues. However, is Identity Politics wrapped up in this in ways that we must understand? Must a proactive engagement with issues of Identity be part of the solution? The answer is also yes. I will explore these questions in the next piece in the series.
Postlogue – Text taken from Podcast
So… those are my hopefully coherent responses to the issue so far. It is worth pointing out that so far I have only responded defensively, and that isn’t a solution. Over the next two episodes I will unpack things that should get us closer to resolution. The next episode in the series will be about what really is driving the collapsing vote in many post-industrial Towns. Jon Cruddas as literally just released a new book on about this called ‘The Dignity of Labour’. The next episode will in part response to his new book.
A quick thought on Khalid Mahmood. I realise I have had a bit of a go at him. I have focused on his statement to keep things clear. However, he isn’t the only culprit. A few days later Tony Blair of all people was toting the same flawed point of view – and he really should know better. Anyway, it isn’t about attacking these people. It is about understanding that this tactic is a non-starter, and we need to look beyond it.
I want to give myself time to read the Jon Cruddas book. So, the next episode of this Podcast will be on a different standalone subject and I will come back to this series after that. The next one I am working will report back on a fascinating conversation I have been having with some friends about Umberto Eco’s classic essay ‘14 features of Fascism’. It shine a light onto a number of things that our current government are up to that Umberto mentions – spoiler alert, some of it isn’t very nice. Don’t worry, I won’t be reading Eco’s wordy essay, but I will do us a nice accessible summary so that you don’t have to. Until then, thank you vey much for your time. I appreciate it.
If you enjoyed this blog then please follow me on twitter to stay in touch: @Si_Brewis_Says
 For a full explanation by an exasperated Lefty see Chris Harman’s ‘A People’s History of the World’ Pg 212-216 in particular.
 Eric Author Blair, or ‘George Orwell’ to most of us, tells this story autobiographically in his excellent book ‘Homage to Catalonia’.
 See YouGov’s breakdown of votes in December 2019 – https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/12/17/how-britain-voted-2019-general-election