Everybody is Doing Identity Politics, Even If They Think They’re Not

Merely referring to 'the working class' every ten seconds can’t conjure a shared political identity.

by Ash Sarkar

10 May 2021

Labour leader Keir Starmer having a pint of Guinness with Hartlepool by-election candidate Paul Williams
Keir Starmer/Twitter

Why did Labour lose Hartlepool? If Labour MP and scandal-prone ex-frontbencher Khalid Mahmood is to be believed, the problem is that the party is ‘too woke’ for the working class. “We are seen as out of touch,” bemoaned the MP for Perry Barr, “a party captured by urban liberals, whose most vocal supporters are university graduates with woke politics straight from the world of left-wing campus protests.” The problem is framed in identitarian terms: students and thin-skinned city-dwelling snowflakes have abandoned and alienated the ordinary voter. Class politics has been abandoned in favour of intersectionality, BLM, transgender rights and esoteric coffee orders. This analysis isn’t just contained to Spiked-online anymore. You’re as likely to find an article denouncing identity politics as kryptonite to the ‘traditional’ working class in the pages of the Morning Star as you are The Telegraph

This diagnosis of the identitarian turn is misleading. The problem for the left isn’t that class is juxtaposed to identity, but that contemporary class politics – the conflict between labour against capital – lacks an identity. Wealth and work continue to organise how we live (and indeed, how long for), but how people perceive their own class has little to do with the economic base. As the oft-quoted Stuart Hall once said, “politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them.” Class functions as an identity as well as a material force: culture is what turns an economic position into a collective political expression. 40-plus years of neoliberalism have corroded the working class cultural machine. Unmoored from the gravitational giants of industrial labour, social housing and trade union militancy, class consciousness now floats freely amongst a nebulous set of social signifiers. 

Accent, proximity to manual labour, immigration status, education, race, consumer habits, geography, political and cultural disposition, and occasional outright delusion determines who gets to claim the moral authority of speaking for the working class, regardless of what income or assets they might have to their name. Khalid Mahmood’s broadside against the “London-based bourgeoisie […] walking around with their laptops and sitting down wherever,” though plainly deranged, is a revealing insight into how class antagonism is reframed through a hodgepodge of snapshots and totems. 

We picture the youthful hipster tip-tapping away on an Airbook, sipping a matcha something-or-other. The image is a potent one, regardless of the latent suggestion that the ideal working class subject has never seen a computer (or chair) before. The crusade against metropolitan values isn’t the subordination of identity politics to class analysis, but the opposite. Political conflict is solely understood as identitarian antagonism: city vs town, woke vs reactionary, culture vs culture. Identity politics are most potent where it is most vociferously denounced. Class is now spectacle, driven by an anxious media clique vaguely ashamed of its own bubble. Journalists heap disdain on London’s progressive tilt, but would rather die than live anywhere else. They race to pour scorn on the very coffee shops they frequent as signifiers of elitist decadence – blithely unaware of the barista on zero-hours helming the milk steamer, or the homeless man camped outside. 

For a political tradition steeped in class politics, there’s a stubborn refusal amongst the left to acknowledge that merely referring to ‘the working class’ every ten seconds can’t conjure a shared political identity between a precariously employed tenant and a retiree who’s paid off their mortgage. Many seats represented by cabinet ministers in Blair’s first government are not held by Labour today. Hartlepool is the latest in a trend of the Conservatives picking up seats where homeownership rates are 50% and above. As Joe Bilsborough points out, the Conservatives have “a keen sense of class formulation”. In privatising social housing, Margaret Thatcher fashioned a machine for making Tory voters: four in ten ex-council homes bought under Right to Buy are now owned by private landlords. While pay packets languish, house prices continue to appreciate in value – even in areas otherwise defined by declining high streets, low wages, and limited job opportunities. There are divergent material interests between a worker who’s haemorrhaging half their salary in rent and a pensioner who relies on the upward trajectory of their property value to cover the costs of care in their old age. As the young cluster around cities and Britain’s towns age, generational inequalities in wealth become difficult to untangle from differences in cultural outlook.

We cannot pretend that identity is somehow neatly divisible from material forces. Of course, the availability of jobs and the expansion of university education drives young people to the cities: but it’s culture, leisure and sociality that helps keep them there. No one actively wants to pay £5.20 for a pint, or £800pcm for a double room in an ex-local authority flat. But there’s a reason why people continue to do so despite the availability of cheap housing elsewhere. I may never be able to afford to buy a house, or have kids, in the city where I grew up. North London is coded as the stronghold of the deli-scoffing classes, but where I live has over half its children classed as being in poverty. Islington, long a synonym for the bleeding-heart bourgeoisie, has a worse than average rate of premature mortality and is in the country’s top ten for child poverty. Grenfell Tower is less than two miles from Kensington Palace. For all the talk of metropolitan elites, Britain’s cities are the home of the working poor.

But would I pack it all in for a Barratt’s new build? To be honest, being deeply unwilling to cut myself out of the city’s cultural fabric has made me the perfect cash cow for rentier capital. I like the Turkish grocers and Caribbean takeaway, my Filipino neighbours and not walking around in fear of hearing “Paki” yodelled out of a moving car. I like warehouse raves and pretending to be interested in art exhibitions. Even if I had to hand over a portion of my own bone marrow every month to the landlord, wallahi I would still want to live in this place. Diversity, cosmopolitanism and internationalism are part of what makes Britain’s cities exciting places to live. This is true not only of London, but Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol. England’s major cities are strongholds of progressive values and political organising. Yet the left, disciplined by the rebuke of the red wall, seem perpetually embarrassed of the fact that the ideologically sympatico young live in electorally-inconvenient urban concentrations not only due to economic necessity but cultural appeal. Over 50% of young people go to universities, and most people in England live in cities, and yet these groups are derided as minoritarian elites.

Politics is the expression of class forces, but we experience it as culture. And it is the malleability of culture which means that the freelancer with a laptop is coded as privileged instead of precarious, and the retired homeowner as ‘left behind’. We end up with an image of the British working class that does not include working-age people, that more often than not comes attached with the prefix of ‘white’, that renders invisible Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders.

Identity politics, the question of how we perceive ourselves and our communities in relation to others, is the master-frame through which all politics must first pass. That’s as true for Brexit as it is for BLM, or indeed, the appeals made by the left to traditions of working class radicalism and trade union organisation. Culture does not exist in opposition to class: it’s what makes it feel tangible. The task for the left isn’t to abdicate the terrain of identity, but reclaim it from the reactionary right. 

Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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