That is a quote from Yeat's "Second Coming" it contains an oft quote line in politics about the "centre cannot hold". I don't know what made me want to use that as my starting point, except for the fact that it is bloody brilliant poem. But I guess it is the political sentiment. It does feel like the centre - whether that be centre-right, centre-centre (is there such a thing!) or centre-left is not only under siege, its positively collapsing. For some months I've been saying to people that we are living in "extreme" times, not just the extremists who perpetrate atrocities on the streets of Westminster, but also the extremes of right and left, where those who scream loudest from the citadels of Facebook and Twitter, like Mr Trump, are the only ones heard above the background radiation of chatter.
My reason for writing this post is to try and formulate a response to a narrative that I'm seeing slowly take hold amongst some "progressives" in the US and here in the UK. I suspect this narrative might also grow in mainland Europe depending on how the latest round of elections go. We have had recent success in Austria and Netherlands recently where 'populists' were defeated, and it is my hope that the moderate centre-right, centre and left will coalesce around an alternative to Marie Le Pen in the French presidential elections. If the damage can be limited to Mr Trump (who will not be in office forever) and to Brexit, then that will allow breathing space for us all to get our collective heads together. Incidentally, I can't stand this term "populist". Your not "popular" if you poll less than half of the popular vote (Trump) or win a one-off plebiscite by a couple of percentage points (Brexit) design to hold the Tory Party together at the last General Election. Lets call this out for what it is - yet another right-wing backlash against change that's been happening for decades. It's been tried and failed before, with Major's "Back To Basics" and Hague's "Save the Pound" campaigns. But this backlash against a socially progressive agenda is new and much more dangerous, because this time they appear to have captured the hearts and minds of the easily persuaded. Its my sincere hope that this is the socially conservatives last dying gasp of breath, before we shovel the last part of the sod over their retrograde values.
2016 has caused many on the progressive side of the house to question themselves and ask why did we 'lose' so badly last year. Why did the Democrats fail against Trump, and why did we fail to win the argument over Brexit? I read two articles recently that tried to dissect this issue, and laid the "blame" to some degree on over-emphasis on "identity politics". Here's the two incidents I'm thinking of. Bernie Sanders did an interview with The Guardian a few weeks ago. Here's what he said:
“Over the last 30 or 40 years the Democratic party has transformed itself from a party of the working class – of white workers, black workers, immigrant workers – to a party significantly controlled by a liberal elite which has moved very far away from the needs of … working families in this country.”
He goes on to lament what he sees as an unnecessary dichotomy between the identity politics favoured by those liberal elites and the traditional labour roots of the movement – steelworkers, say. He is so incensed about this false division that it even dictates his self-perception: “I consider myself a progressive and not a liberal for that reason alone,” he says.
I ask him to flesh out the thought. He replies that the liberal left’s focus on sectional interests – whether defined by gender, race or immigrant status – has obscured the needs of a shrinking middle class suffering from huge levels of income inequality. It didn’t need to have been that way. “The truth is, we can and should do both. It’s not an either/or, it’s both.”
Late last year, Labour MP Steven Kinnock suggested that Labour must end being obsessive about indentity politics. He said this:
Speaking at the London School of Economics on Monday evening, Kinnock said Labour should learn from Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump.
“We have been a party that has been increasingly associated with standing up for certain groups in our society and not standing up for all in our society,” Kinnock said.
“We’ve been obsessing about diversity,” he added.
“The huge mistake we’ve made, we have played the game of identity politics and identified groups, whether it is by ethnicity or sexuality or whatever you might want to call it, rather than say, ‘we stand up for everyone in this country and that includes you, the white working class’.”
“What we need to see in the progressive Left in the country is an end to this identity politics. We need to be talking far more about commonality rather than what differentiates from each other - let’s talk about what unites us.
There's a couple of things to mention here. Both Sanders and Kinnock manage to rescue themselves in the last breath, by pulling out the "unity" card and that's not either/or. But not by first expending a lot of hot air at the expense of so called "identity" groups. For anyone who comes from an "identity" group it is no small irony that these comments from from those who are largely white, heterosexual, men. They don't have an "identity" because they are not "different", they are "normal". It's perhaps worth mentioning that neither the Democrats and Labour are renowned for diversity in the past - for decades they have more or less parties that represented a "dickfest" of white, male and heterosexual people. Yes, we have had two female PMs, and Blair's so-called "Blairs Babes", and I wouldn't want to decry attempts at positive selection and all-female shortlists. But compared to the long history of both parties - these have been some what tokenistic. The Democrats failed with Clinton because she is just such a hate-figure amongst the conservative right, and couldn't overcome the baggage that comes with being a Clinton. They failed with Clinton because she was offering economically more-of-the-same. At least Trump dangled a fake US resurgence together with hollow promises he could never, will never, and can never deliver. He took "telling them what they wanted to hear" to the Nth degree...
Look, I'm not trying to get all "Generation Snowflake" like on you, and Little Miss Politically Correct. But this kind of wobbly thinking will not do. I'd question the Progressive Left's de-facto assumption that some how the BAME, LGBTQ+, Women's Vote, Jewish Vote - etc, etc is somehow automagically there's to have. I would say that's a bit presumptive. Especially in the US where the BAME vote has largely been taken for granted - in a "who else you gonna vote for?" way. The history of so called "identity politics" especially on the Left, is that we would have to put up and shut-up until the Glorious Workers Revolution. And once the oppressed working classes were liberated from the yoke of Capital, then our itty-bitty identity issue would all be nicely tied up in a neat bow. Of course, it never really worked out like that. Because the revolution never happened, but more importantly we weren't prepared to wait around for Mr White Heterosexual Man to deliver us from Egypt. The story of "identity politics" isn't having our civil and human rights handed to us on a plate - but struggle, sometimes violently at our expense - to achieve those rights. It's a struggle that never ends, because there's always a right-wing backlash threatening to roll back the precious ground that's gained. OR some Leftie saying that an over-emphasis on "identity politics" means loss of focus on their 'core electorate'. Yes, that other bunch of votes who they assume they have an automatic right to. And don't get me started on the Scottish vote...
Saunders is right is that there's no reason that why the Democratic Left can't do both. So why didn't they? I mean, no-one was stopping them, least of all those from the "identity politics" side of the house. Here's what I think happened. Somewhere in the late '80s, the Democrats and Labour began to realise they couldn't win or rely on the votes of the working class alone, and that they needed a "Rainbow Coalition" of groups in order to get the ball across the line and win elections. That phrase "Rainbow Coalition" isn't mine, but was coined by Jesse Jackson during his ill-fated 1984 Presidential Bid. But no-one said the plight of the urban poor shouldn't be included in that coalition as well....
At the same time the economy was shifting - we have seen a massive decline in our industrial and manufacturing base. It's a commonly held view that we are living in a post-industrial society, and many would argue that our manufacturing capacity has been systematically degraded by successive Tory (and Labour) governments, I feel that it won't be long before we say we are a "post-manufacturing society" as well. Those with the tiller on the economy will only produce stuff here, where it is economically viable, everything else they will continue to ship out to countries with lower labour costs. Despite what Trump says, those lost jobs will not be coming back to the rustbelt anytime soon. Coupled to this there has been sustained and largely successful attack in the UK on the Trade Union movement, such that the kind of homogeneous class-politics of the post-war era has been largely shattered. We now have increasingly fragmented de-unionised, zero-contract, casualised group at the bottom end of the labour force being systematically screwed on a daily basis. These people are getting the shitty end of the Globalisation Lollipop. Is there enough of this marginalised and disaffected people to turn the tide towards progressive cause? Probably not. Both Trump and Brexiteers successful mobilised this group for the agenda, which as we all know - will do nothing materially to improve the lives of those who voted for them.
I think the real reason that disgruntled blue-collar Americans voted Trump and disgruntled blue-collar Brits voted for Brexit, is how the Democrats and Labour Party under Clinton and Blair, more or less capitulated to the ideology of supply-side economics, and so called "End of History" trickle-down economic theory. I've said it often in passing - there's a reason that "trickle down economics" is called that, because precisely a trickle of wealth dribbles down from the 1% from the top of the economic tree. Somehow the progressive left just didn't have an answers to the dominant ideology of the laissez-faire free-market. Indeed, Blair/Brown were busy cosying up to the city, as they saw it a useful way of raising taxes to pay for investment in things like Education and NHS. That was in part a strategy not to scare the horses immediately after a general election. Labour economic credentials took such a hit in the '80s/90s, that had to move to reassure the markets they could be trusted. Neither Clinton or Blair did much to reign in the excesses of the city, and instead road a credit boom all the way to the Armageddon that was the credit crunch. When the music stopped and everyone was left looking for a chair to sit on, neither Brown or Obama seemed to be able to capitalise on the fact that essentially Keynesian economics (as well as printing money) stopped the economic system going to hell in a hand-cart.
So and this my main point. Sanders and Kinnock should not be engaging finger-pointing and blaming "identity politics", and any attempt to do so will come across as blaming others for their mistakes, as well as potentially alienating those identities who felt the progressive left was their natural home. It is for me, but its worth saying it isn't for others. You do get Tory women who describe themselves as Feminists, and you do you get Tory Ministers who are Gay and Lesbian. Many trans-people I chat to have deeply dodgy right-wing notions as well as thinking Brexit is a great idea. There's nothing endemic to "identity politics" that makes it a progressive or left-wing project. There are many conservatives who profess conservative economic thinking, together with social liberal views. It was part of the project to detoxify the Conservative brand, so it was no longer seen as the "Nasty Party". Of course, we all know that the Conservatives/Republicans are the nasty parties, but they have to some degree airbrushed the worst extremes of their bigotry to make themselves more palatable to the easily (mis)led.
So where next? Over the last few years and coming years, there's going to be a continued squeeze on living standards. The medicine of more austerity isn't working, as all we getting is reduced living standards, increased inflation (because of the devaluation of the pound and Brexit) and still the deficit remains large. It's a deficit of money and deficit of political ideas..,. We stand on the cusp of a revolution in manufacturing (3D Printing etc) and automation (Robots, Machine Learning) which will threaten not just blue collar but white collar work as well. We need a radical new ideas for how to deal with this onslaught against working people, and a continued slide into low-skill service sector jobs, as well as the massive increase in social care costs associated with an ageing population. Rather than going into attack mode - we should be offering alternatives - such as revitalising our economy around environmentally friendly and sustainable technology, as well in new sectors such as bio-tech - one of the few areas were the UK still leads the world. Most of all we need to invest in our children and our future by offering the best education available minus the debt and loans that have typified recent education policy. Now, the most important asset, are the people of this country, and we must invest in ourselves.