Social liberalism has taken a battering over the summer of far-right triumphs. The left has been constantly in retreat, asking questions about how to win. The case for winning has yet to be made, less so a vision of how the Labour Party can knit together a diverse society.
The beauty of diversity is that people will have different views on life and Labour has to find some way to unite them. Often it’s about letting people speak. Ukip and the Tories allow speakers from the people they claim to represent. In a society that is supposedly policed by liberal values, they are the resistance from remnants of an old socially conservative tradition, supposedly protecting English values. The Conservatives are a middle class party and naturally reflect that.
Labour is a curious thing, a melting pot of different groups of people drawn from different experiences. What unites us is our experience and reaction to suffering and discrimination, be it class, gender, race, sexual orientation or religion. The party has evolved from simply being the political wing of organised labour. It was an organic process that saw Labour become the party of anti-fascism and anti-racists, the party that sought to combat misogyny through the likes of Harriet Harman and others.
And yet, some depressing truths for us to swallow: we’ve still yet to elect a female leader. Jeremy Corbyn stood on such a different platform to Yvette Cooper that it was legitimate to concede that issues swayed the votes. But why did Andy Burnham attract a higher share of the votes when it was Cooper who impressively tore down Corbyn’s arguments? Why was it that Burnham received criticism but Cooper and Liz Kendall (whose dignified and principled commitment to her ideals impressed me so much) received a storm of abuse? The recent Labour leadership election reinforced the idea that the left is not as immune to misogyny as we pretend. Labour women who voted for Owen Smith were patronised and perceived as brainwashed, stripped of their agency. I voted Smith but was never demeaned in that fashion. The party right now feels incredibly hostile to women whatever our policies and public rhetoric.
I can’t speak for a woman but I can speak for BAME and working class representation because I’m from both backgrounds. And Labour’s record on that is shocking, too. Working class interests are naturally expressed but the party feels to be turning more middle class. It’s deeply alienating and uncomfortable to have someone who has never suffered or come remotely close to poverty try to tell me what it’s like. The difference can be extreme, too: working class voters are being lost under Jeremy Corbyn, who feel he does not speak to their needs and interests. If the membership had a more working class culture, we might have chosen a competent and electable leader.
Then there is the issue of BAME. It’s uncomfortable often engaging in race politics because there is an increasing tendency for many liberation activists within BAME circles to become sneering towards white people. That’s not my politics and yet there is an increasing frustration from BAME people that the British left simply does not reach out hard enough to provide a voice. Take, for example, Progress: a well-established, resourceful and deeply respectable Labour magazine with few BAME writers and often only writing about BAME issues. It’s not as though austerity doesn’t affect us either right? It’s not as though within London the poorest boroughs are also not largely immigration communities. Labour circles make token gestures with BAME representation and expect appreciation. They frankly need to do far better on this front.
This requires intersectional politics, rather than identity politics, the latter of which is often a zero-sum game of “we win, but you lose”. The old left would demote gender and race to focus on class. Some within BAME circles and the wider left now ignore issues concerning women to focus solely on their interests. Class as a concept is completely wiped out within identity politics circles to the point where I’ve seen a homeless white man beeing sneered at for being homeless, because apparently being white is a ticket to economic prosperity.
The LGBT community receive solidarity from absolutely no-one. I’ve seen Labour Party affiliates figuratively get into bed with Islamists who are guilty of every discrimination in the world, yet don’t mind a gay man like Owen Jones writing brave pieces defending Muslims.
The current Labour feminist circle is an enclosed circle of mostly white middle class feminists who don’t represent or feel inclusive, though they rightly deride the wider left for lack of female voices.
Black women face huge economic discrimination, yet does anyone ever point this out? Cast your mind back and think as to when a Labour feminist last criticised the misogyny that underpins Islamophobia? How many BAME Muslim women who have been attacked have ever received solidarity from the feminist movement? This includes my cousin who was attacked, along with a group of Muslim women when holding a stall raising awareness about Islam outside the Kings’ College campus while security stood by idly.
It includes my mother, whose body was partially trapped in a bus deliberately by a racist bus driver and dragged across half the street, to the point where she could not walk properly for weeks and became traumatised for far longer. It means every woman who has been told to “f*** off home” on the Tube or had their hijab pulled off while people watched. The feminist movement simply doesn’t speak for these women and the Labour Party unfortunately doesn’t either.
Now is the time to move away from identity politics and genuinely attempt to being more intersectional. People have diverse identities and can be affected by class, gender and race discrimination at the same time. Working class issues affect BAME and women hugely and the opposite applies. But Labour have still not managed to realise that. We act as though to speak about class means to ignore BAME and gender, or as though speaking about gender ignores from BAME and class issues.
Again, I reiterate: the huge levels of Islamophobia are misogynistic, for they are generally directed towards women. Austerity which affects working class people deeply has hurt BAME women worse. These issues are entwined, yet in identity politics, everything cause is treated as independent. Representation must be better.
Your feminism isn’t feminism if it doesn’t include BAME women. Your socialism isn’t socialism if it doesn’t include more working class people. And you can call yourself progressive all you like, but until BAME people are invited to write about issues beyond just racism, you’re shockingly stagnant. And we are the party of no-one until we are the party of everyone.