Identity Politics and the Contemporary English Left I: Corbyn and the Labour Party

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November 29, 2016 by James Crossley

In a recent blog post, Marika Rose provides a particularly helpful and (for me, at least) agreeable summary of some of the problems surrounding critiques of ‘identity politics’ on the Left:

For a good few years now, ‘the left’ has been repeatedly returning to arguments about ‘identity politics’ – whether it’s a proper concern for left political debate and struggle, whether it’s compatible with an analysis of class, whether it’s a distraction, or liberal, or ‘sour-faced’ etc etc. But it seems like these conversations often assume that everybody know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘identity politics’. I don’t think that’s the case – or, better, I think that often critiques or dismissals of ‘identity politics’ are doing two quite different things, although sometimes they’re both happening at the same time and are not easy to disentangle from one another.

Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.

Žižek, for example, does both of these things, but because he doesn’t engage with radical forms of ‘identity politics’ the impact of his argument on his readers seems to be mostly to encourage the assumption that it’s just not important to think about racism, the gendered construction of class, etc. Which perhaps suggests a useful way of distinguishing between helpful critiques of identity politics and unhelpful ones: is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact (although, as Amaryah points out, sometimes identity politics in this mode are not about liberalism so much as survival pending revolution)? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?

For now, I want to turn this critique to understanding the recent history of the Left and English political discourses. Markia’s post (as she implies) also functions as a summary of the confusions, contradictions, and/or tensions have been at the fore of English political discourse and understandings of what ‘the Left’ should be over the past year. From the beginning of the emergence of Corbyn in the summer of 2015, such ‘identity politics’ have been used by opponents and sympathisers alike to measure the worthiness of Corbyn and his followers, whether for liberal democracy or radical politics. And if you were to underestimate what is at stake in the potentially structuring roles of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, we only need recall murder of the female Labour MP Jo Cox by white supremacist Thomas Mair who is reported to have shouted ‘Britain F/first, this is for Britain’ and was praised in thousands of nationalistic tweets (and the context of anti-immigration rhetoric downplayed and immigration hinted at as a cause in the anti-immigrant Daily Mail).

In terms of confusions and contradictions over gender and ‘identity politics’, this past year has seen (anti-Corbyn) allegations of male dominance of certain Front Bench positions and (pro-Corbyn) claims of a gendered critique of an imperialist parliamentary system. In many ways this division was epitomised by the reported disagreement between Diane Abbot (pro-Corbyn) and Jess Phillips (Corbyn-critical). Abbot responded ‘you’re not the only feminist in the PLP (Parliamentary Labour party)’ to Phillips and Phillips told Abbot to ‘fuck off’. Racial issues were also raised in some online discussions and again we can see that gender and race are polemical (and potentially structuring) issues which are not easily untangled and are maintained in some of the most prominent debates in contemporary English political discourse.

Gender inclusion within pre-existing structures has been one of the key benchmarks among politicians and journalists for the more ‘liberal’ measuring of Corbyn. While some anti-Corbyn figures have not previously shown much interest in gender inclusion prior to Corbyn, the formation of Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet was dominated by the question of inclusion of women. When Corbyn announced the first ever Front Bench with a majority of women (52%), the question shifted to the lack of female representation in shadowing the so-called ‘great offices of state’ (typically PM, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary). These sorts of questions of representation, including representation at the top of a hierarchical structure, are familiar questions in most workplaces today (and certainly in universities). And it is, following a standard clunky construct, a more ‘liberal’ position in that it is not typically accompanied by a critique or overthrowing of the system or structure itself. However, a statement from Corbyn’s group was revealing in this respect:

For Labour our proudest achievement is the creation of the NHS. We are the party that delivered comprehensive education. We are the party that founded the Open University, and that established and will defend trade union and employment rights. The so-called ‘great offices of state’ as defined in the 19th century reflect an era before women or workers even had the vote, and before Labour had radically changed the state.

Here there are hints of a more ‘radical’ challenge to the existing structures and a construction of a more ‘radical’ Labour history which contains regular references points for the Labour Left and even for Labour more generally (e.g. NHS, Open University, trade unions). There is even a suggestion that the prominence of the ‘four great offices’ is tied in with potentially misogynistic and imperialistic discourses and that they should be more radically restricted with health and education coming to the fore. What we see, then, are competing claims for the legitimate ownership of feminism (along the lines of ‘liberal’ vs ‘radical’), but which also include some attempt to tackle the structuring roles concerning gender and race. But to add to the confusion and possible contradictions, it also seems that Corbyn has been drawn to the rhetoric of the ‘great offices’ in his shadow cabinet announcement in October 2016: ‘These appointments mean, for the first time ever, two out of the three traditional “great offices of state” will be shadowed by women.

There is a lot more going on in and around the Corbyn movement and representations of the Corbyn movement, including allegations of bullying in relation to gender (on both/all sides) and allegations of misogynistic behaviour (on both/all sides), as well as the equally controversial and intertwined issue of Israel where antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and ‘Jewishness’ are all contested terms. These are further examples of how these things are difficult to disentangle, as Marika put it, and in need of further ‘radical’ analysis, despite ongoing attempts to provide such analyses. The most prominent analysis was the report by Shami Chakrabarti and its immediate responses which included recommendations that Labour members drop issues relating to, e.g., the Holocaust and Nazis, particularly in discussions of Israel and Palestine. But in this instance, class privileges came back to haunt Labour and stifle any radical intersectional analysis as Chakrabarti was given a place in the House of Lords and sent her son to a £18,000 a year school.

Clearly, then, parliamentary (and wider social) constraints and a perceived need to focus on representation within existing structures is difficult to shake off. Equally clear (if that’s the right word) is just how entangled issues of misogyny, racial assumptions, class, etc. are. The ‘radical’ analyses and disentanglement of these issues (beyond economics alone) do exist, albeit still in need of further development. But there are other models of ‘radical’ analyses in contemporary leftist political discourses which relentlessly attack structural issues on all fronts. In the next post, we will look at what is happening outside Parliament where such constraints do not exist and where existing structures have been often literally smashed to the ground. And particular reference will be paid to representations in English political discourse of the Rojava revolution in northern Syria.

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2 thoughts on “Identity Politics and the Contemporary English Left I: Corbyn and the Labour Party

  1. […] The previous post looked at how ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ understandings of gender and racial issues in relation to class and economics have played out in debates on Left in English political discourse since the emergence of Corbyn in the summer of 2015. Such issues are also tied in with issues of race, economics/class, imperial histories etc. and have been messy, complicated and, at times, contradictory, constrained as such critiques are by parliamentary democracy. This was building on Marika Rose’s summary of issues involved in contemporary ‘identity politics’. She finished with questions aimed at Žižek in particular: […]

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