The use of identity politics to win elections is a trend that needs to be reversed – I’m sure it can be

·6-min read
Kim Leadbeater, right, with the Labour leader, Keir Starmer (PA)
Kim Leadbeater, right, with the Labour leader, Keir Starmer (PA)

It is difficult to focus on British politics when it is interrupting a blissful summer holiday, sunbathing on unspoilt, empty, white beaches with occasional dips in a gentle emerald sea set against a background of beautiful mountain scenery.

No, I haven’t managed to wiggle through the quarantine system to get to the Seychelles or Jamaica. This is Scotland: the Hebrides; the island of Mull. The water is on the chilly side and the rain arrived today, but otherwise I have painted a fair picture.

Scotland is also a good place to look at the politics of identity. Mull is part of an SNP constituency, Argyll and Bute, both at Westminster and Holyrood. But until 2015 it had long had a Liberal, and Lib Dem, MP. Across the Loch is what was Charles Kennedy’s long-held Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency. The legacy reminds us that nationalism is recent and not necessarily permanent.

I found a powerful antidote to it in the cemetery of the ancient chapel on nearby Iona. There lies the simple but affecting grave of the late Labour leader John Smith: a patriotic Scot, Briton and European. I was privileged to be his special adviser in the Callaghan government. He came from a long line of social democratic and liberal Scots in the Labour and Lib Dem traditions who combined and lived those different identities – from Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown to Jo Grimond, Robert MacLennan, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell.

It is also easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. Across the road from our hotel is a house festooned with Saltires and the Scottish lion rampant. It would be all too easy to assume this was the local SNP headquarters, but – as in England – the flag does not belong only to nationalists. The house had been decorated for the football.

Meanwhile, between novels, I have been trying hard to follow from Scotland the fallout of the Batley and Spen by-election. I can’t claim much local knowledge of the constituency, having visited the area only once to see Batley beat York at the improbably named Mount Pleasant rugby league stadium.

However, local history aside, what seemed absurd was the media focus on the contest being “all about Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party”. He has only been in the job for a year, whereas restoring the Labour Party to a party of power is the work of a decade or more. It could yet be beyond the powers of anyone.

As a former party leader, albeit of a smaller party, I recognised, all too clearly, that Starmer has to put up both with the impatience of supporters and the petty intrigues of courtiers. As these are fed into a cynical media, they sap one’s energy and authority. I was pleased to see that enough Liberal Democrats in Batley switched to Labour’s Kim Leadbeater – and that my party absorbed enough Tory votes in Conservative areas of the seat – to ensure that Labour held on and Keir Starmer kept his job.

But the narrowness of Labour’s victory spells out a wider problem. The by-election clearly centred on the politics of identity, and specifically English nationalism. It differs from the Scottish variety in the way it is represented, not through a bespoke party, but by having taken over a mainstream UK party: the Tories.

While the Labour candidate was fighting off the challenge from Brexit Conservatives on one side, it had the threat of George Galloway’s Workers’ Party on the other. I have always found George to be charming and enjoyable company, but his politics is something else. It is possible that in a bunker in Pyongyang, the 8,264 votes for his Workers’ party are being interpreted as a sign of the revolutionary potential of West Yorkshire. In reality, his campaign also reflected a crude appeal to the politics of identity, with a large number of Muslim voters in the constituency responding to his whipping up of anger over Kashmir and Palestine – although there were obviously more complex issues at work as well.

In Batley, but not in the neighbouring wards of Heckmondwike, many residents are of Indian heritage. Where their politics follows that of the sub-continent, many may be supporters of Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist, and strongly anti-Muslim, BJP. In the UK, the Conservatives have sought to woo such supporters. But in this instance it seems likely that sufficient numbers were persuaded to vote for Kim Leadbeater.

For the Labour Party, which is so much more comfortable talking about class issues than identity, these complexities represent a massive – sometimes seemingly insurmountable – challenge. It was noted in Batley that the party was on its fourth Kashmir policy in as many years, and its approach to Brexit was to say as little as possible about the big issue of the last five years.

By contrast, the Tories have seemingly got a clear understanding of the power of identity politics and how to use it for political advantage: to provoke “culture wars” that allow them to be the patriotic party; to be the English nationalist party in England and the unionist party in Scotland; to offer the cabinet as a model for a diverse nation, while reassuring the white majority that racism isn’t a problem; using foreign policy to win brownie points from particular minority groups, as with clear support for India and Israel; and to build on the Brexit coalition by stoking resentment of Germany, France and the European Commission while playing games for short-term advantage over the 100-year-old Irish divisions.

For the opposition parties – the Lib Dems and Greens, as well as Labour – there needs to be some hard thinking about how to remake the politics of identity in a liberal image. At the heart of that must be the idea of multiple identity; understanding that we can have a real sense of loyalty to place, including patriotism, while identifying also with something bigger, be it a multinational Britain, Europe or wider causes. Administrative reforms and tweaks to tax and spend won’t cut it, nor are the tactics of alliances to beat Conservative candidates sufficient.

The most important battleground will be Scotland since it is the nationalist advance there, currently mainly at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems, that has fundamentally unbalanced British politics. The chance will come again as Scottish voters tire of prolonged SNP government at Holyrood. And a referendum gives the opportunity to win the argument again, after which nationalism could finally deflate.

Spending my holiday close to where the remains of two of the giants of Scottish and British politics now lie – Labour’s John Smith and the Lib Dems’ Charles Kennedy – I feel inspired by the belief that the current era of narrow identities, pitted against each other by populists, can be reversed. Kim Leadbeater’s victory last Thursday was a welcome start.

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