Labour’s identity problems go much deeper than all women shortlists

by Ben Cobley

In Life and Fate, his epic novel of family, Stalingrad and totalitarianism, the Soviet-era journalist Vasily Grossman wrote:

“Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.”

Grossman maybe stretches his point a little too far. Nevertheless his polemic makes a powerful and important point: that groups can become forces of oppression, not just against other groups but against individuality and humanity itself.

This happens when they becomes ends in themselves, when they take on a life of their own and become self-sustaining. In Grossman’s Soviet Union this is what happened to the Communist identity – once it became a pre-requisite for career advancement and entry to nomenklatura, it lost its idealistic elements and became a malign force.

On 2nd March, Uncut published an article of mine about contemporary liberal-left identity politics, in which I questioned the continuing existence of All Women Shortlists (AWS) and other forms of positive discrimination in Labour Party processes. The article provoked a (generally) considered response on LabourList from Luke Akehurst of the NEC, plus plenty of other lively responses on comment threads and elsewhere.

The background to what I was arguing in the piece was summed up in this sentence: “Institutionalising separate identities as we do is a road to nowhere and nothingness.”

So what does this really mean? After all, when we talk about identity problems we normally mean lack of identity: for example that Ed Miliband lacks identity, or that the Labour Party could do with more identity.

My own interpretation is that identity itself is often the problem.

Consider some of the identity conflicts of recent history: from Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island to Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shi’a and any number of poisonous football-related rivalries in this country: Rangers v Celtic, Chelsea-Tottenham and Manchester United v Liverpool to name but a few.

The active motion to each of these conflicts is provided by separate identities feeding off each other for sustenance and fulfilment. One side could not exist without the other, and the oppositional aspect prevails over any intrinsic meaning the groupings may have.

Identity can offer something to gather around and defend when discrimination and prejudice are being exerted against us. But we should always try to bear in mind that to define is to exert power and control (over ourselves as well as others), and to take on definitions made by others, even when inverting any value judgements on them, is a sacrifice of freedom.

We can see the inherent difficulties engendered by identity separation in the school playground. As the sociologist Richard Sennett pointed out in a recent interview, schoolchildren from different cultural backgrounds mix happily with each other at the age of six or seven, but “by the time they are 14 it is like a chemical separation – no longer speaking to people with different colour and accents. When they have to deal with each other they are at a loss”.

Most group rights advocates put a lot of emphasis on “representation” – understandably given the low proportions of minorities and women in many professions, including politics. We would do well however to ponder professions in which women for example are disproportionately highly present, like primary school teaching, human resources and retail. There are choices involved here, and we do people a disservice by implying that they are somehow objects of oppression and objectification for having made the choices they have.

Most of us tend towards those things which will least conflict with how we view ourselves; in other words, with our identities. So in trying to break down gender, racial and class divides, we are going to have to start breaking down identities.

In politics, we would surely all like more diversity in involvement. But the word “representation” presents a problem here, because there is a clear contradiction between an identity-based approach to candidate selection and the reality of our constituency-based political system.

Do we favour centralised control of the process and the centralised patronage that comes inevitably with this? Or do we prioritise local democracy and community involvement, with all its uncertainties and imperfections?

The crux of this whole matter is what our values really are. Are they about equality, fairness and liberation of the people – right now? Or are they about a future state of equality, fairness and liberation that is conditional on a sacrifice of principles for a time?

Our political system, with its safe seats syndrome, has an in-built prejudice against all change. My preferred solution would combine some form of mandatory re-selection along with a drive to get local communities involved in selections – preferably via membership.

But we would also do well to bear in mind those six and seven year olds playing happily together in the school playground. They do not have much in the way of identity, and they are all the better for it.

Ben Cobley is a journalist and writer, based in South London

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10 Responses to “Labour’s identity problems go much deeper than all women shortlists”

  1. Kevin says:

    Given the tortuous and banal discussions about defining ‘Britishness’, we may have to settle for people having an armful of
    complex, contradictory and multi-layered identities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, merely a reflection of how fragmented British society now is.

    You mention Northern Ireland, which is commonly seen as some sort of religious row when in fact its an ethno-national conflict. The marxist atheists of the IRA were not known for frog-marching young protestant men to confession…

    Back to AWS. My problem with it is two-fold. One, I resent the implication that Labour members are so inherently sexist that they will always choose a man over a woman; and, two, AWS only seems to generate the same class of professional women with identikit backgrounds and politics.

  2. paul barker says:

    The labour party was formed to represent an identity group – the working class. The idea of “our people” is woven into labour thinking. Core labour voters vote labour precisely because they identify with “the working class”.

    Labour can never be a party of individualism or freedom & individual members attached to such liberal ideas are doomed to frustration.

  3. treborc says:

    Labour the party of the middle class Middle England, well off.

  4. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Ben enjoyed reading your article which should be of interest to people regardless of their political position and loyalty.

    On your first point about bodies becoming self-sustaining, indeed this has occurred in Establishment Religion and many other major bodies including politics, withdrawing from community and (as you point out with an example I am not so confident about with the lack of social schemas between youth groups whose communication is almost alien to each other which was a case also highlighted in Dramas and Movies about “gangs” of individuals) developing their own communication and culture. You are correct when identity is so clumsily handled by Political parties attempting to force feed patronizing and obvious candidates into seats to “appear” fair.

    The “culture” and “values” of those groups is terribly important in politics and Labour has failed as a Political cause and segregated itself from a movement it no longer has any claim over, as we have also seen with lefty MPs limited to groupings of sycophantic fan bases that are declining.

    There was a terribly interesting debate on another Labour blog about the composition and motives of Labour Party members and the distance that exists between CLPs and said members again as overall membership declines in the long term.

    Both for the exactly the same reason.

    Identity is not just something which is used to plant a flag and say “yay! or “nay!) and discriminate consciously or otherwise, its also created , affirmed and weakened through identification and reinforcement/sanctions (depending on whether you prefer psychology or sociology). Labours difficulty in dealing with Equality and the Tories and Lib Dems too for example is the fear of appearance to the public and the fear of allowing the public to think that any particular group holds dominance in politics and gains an unfair advantage over everyone else as a result of Power.

    Again this comes down to representation and the irony is that Labour has created, at its senior levels a groups that realizes these fears in society. It already appears that there is a group, not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews that have an unfair slice of the cake. This is continually reinforced but begins as a rumor, a feeling, an instinct, but becomes stronger as the very separation occurs Ben that you describe. As time passes the distance increases between the Political party Leaderships (imposed by them especially Labour) we see a change, strange language most people and their groups do not understand. We hear the Press use terms that take this further willing encouraged by the Politicians themselves in their ignorance and outright foolishness, terms like “elite” as they themselves use language that distinguishes, divides and separates other groups “underclass”, “middle”.

    The social Schemas existing between people in politics at the top become alien to the rest of society and so the very prejudice you describe begins to form. Centralization has become segregation, but not by society but by Politicians inflicting it upon themselves and their ever narrowing groupings.

    Again for the same reasons as CLP and membership declines, so Ben what is this reason?

    I know it. I have even tested it and made a live example of it.

    Well done Ben for your evaluation, you need to dig a bit deeper though, an excellent article.

  5. Ben Cobley says:

    @ Kevin.

    I think identity really only makes much sense in terms of strong cultural roots, but even then it is not something that we can own – we are just passing through, and these are things we can freely play with and adopt, as we see all the time, and indeed as you see actors and musicians doing for a living.

    On Northern Ireland, yeah fair point to an extent, though the point still holds and the religious aspect is certainly an, ahem, aspect to it.

    On AWS – yeah been over that, fair points.

    @ paul barker. Back at the turn of the last century the working class was a lot more than an identity group – you had full-on social stratification back in those days; these days everyone is a consumer, though of course class consciousness still exists in different forms – most the meaning has come out of it though and I just see this consciousness as holding people back.

    As for your comment, “Labour can never be a party of individualism or freedom”, well, it depends on what you mean by those phrases really, but I certainly don’t like the implication!

    @ treborc – irrelevant comment; dunno why you bothered posting it.

    @ Ralph Baldwin. You make some interesting comments there. I’m especially interested in the customary ways that CLPs operate and their relationships to members and community. Also I’m with you on the relevance of these issues to organised religion, having taken a number of quotations off a fantastic Radio 4 Start the Week episode called Faith and Doubt on 27th February.

    Richard Holloway said some good stuff in the programme, but what I really liked were these passages from the Roman Catholic nun turned writer/philosopher Karen Armstrong:

    “When people cling to beliefs, they are cling on to something egotistic: my beliefs, my church, my institution, and this is a form of idolatry really.”

    “Uncertainty, unknowing is built into the human condition.”

    “Einstein said that to live in the presence of what is impenetrable and incomprehensible to us is a source of great joy. Not a frustration, but a source of great joy.”

    That is the way I see non-identity – as a form of human freedom and genuine enlightenment. Certainly we see all the time on these comment threads and in life in general how many people cling to their beliefs as an egotisitical act more than anything. A lot of false identities come out of that sort of thing.

  6. Les Abbey says:

    So let’s make it far easier and learn from the kids. Our identity or the ‘grouping’ we could identify with should be the 99%. The Tories can’t say that, because they are the party of, and financially supported by, the 1%. In the balance of how our national, and international, resources are divided, we should be fighting to give more to the 99% and less to the 1%.

    There you go, said that without mentioning class identity at all;-) Quite why we have this fear in the party of class identity I don’t know.

  7. swatantra says:

    Ben misses the point yet again. Unless you have those role models where it matters then people who identify themselves with that particular group, will say : ‘Well there’s nothing in it for me’.
    At the moment the Party is is predominately male pale and stale, very stale, havingbeen to a County Party meeting where nobody was under 50.
    It was right that the Party moved away from a working class image, because the working class was itself in decline. The Party has to reflect the times and te aspirations of people. Some would liked the Party to be in permanant opposition and confined to the working class; I don’t. Because there are many not manual working class who hold Labour values and there is a place for them. The Party has to be more representative of the generalpopulation. And the only way to do that is by Postive Action which will in effect reduce the influence of these smart alec spads gaining prominance in the Party. It will bring more balance.

  8. Ben Cobley says:

    @ swatantra

    I get your point fully; I just find it fundamentally flawed and inherently depressing.

    Favouring certain group interests has the effect of forcing everyone back upon group interests, something which I think is not a good idea at all (and we can see plenty of evidence of that out on the street).

    I also think it is incredibly patronising the way you talk of “the working class” as if people who see themselves this way do not matter and should be ignored in favour of whatever sectional interest(s) you yourself favour.

    Your post actually proves one of the points of this article – that by prioritising one identity you automatically create and provide fuel to others that are or might become opposed to it. Solidarity only goes so far in this version – seemingly not beyond the bounds of one’s own sectional identity…

    These self-created, self-fulfilling divisions based on identity and self-interest need to be opposed. They are a road to ruin for the Labour Party, internally and electorally.

  9. Brumanuensis says:

    At no point in any of your writings on this topic have you dealt with the elephant in the room. CLPs have failed to, on their own account, to supply a representative PLP. The somewhat odd non-sequiteur about women in teaching and retail does nothing to detract from this essential point. AWS are a very crude and clumsy method, I agree, but they have proven necessary because, of their own volition, local parties haven’t stepped up to the plate. I’m all in favour of more selection power for CLPs, but there’s always going to be a role for the NEC to take a broader view. I do favour mandatory re-selection incidentally, but I don’t see how this will solve the problem.

    The argument you make seems to have two threads:

    a). A sort of ‘wishful thinking’ (quite literally) where if we pretend distinctions between people and social groups don’t exist, they won’t matter

    b). A belief that any kind of ‘identity’ is anti-solidarity and sectarian.

    The crux of the latter is implied by what seems like a zero-sum opposition of group interests. In your argument – I made this point to you when you commented on Seema Malhotra’s article on LabourList – any time someone describes an issue as principally a ‘women’s’ issue, this is automatically to the detriment of men. To even talk of different problems for different social groups is to undermine solidarity. I find this a strange approach and as I said on LabourList, I struggle to understand why you don’t seem to grasp that recognising the particular needs of one group is not always detrimental to the interests of another. Concern about issues principally affecting ‘women’ does not automatically mean that men are neglected. The truth is that whilst all members of society have ‘common’ interests, they also have particular interests depending on their background, occupation, sexual orientation, etc. The trick is not to let one set completely overwhelm the other. This is a fine balance, but it must be struck. We need to create a PLP that is broadly representative of all groups in society – and this means expanding out beyond the usual crop of lawyers, trade unionists and public sector workers that form a majority of our candidates too. This will require occasionally imperfect solutions. Making the perfect the enemy of the good helps no-one.

    I don’t understand your reluctance to recognise the reality of social distinctions. They may be frequently undesirable, but they undoubtedly exist. When you write:

    “you had full-on social stratification back in those days; these days everyone is a consumer, though of course class consciousness still exists in different forms – most the meaning has come out of it though and I just see this consciousness as holding people back”.

    ‘These days everyone is a consumer’; what does that even mean? Are you seriously saying that because rich and poor shop in Aldi that we have reached a stage where only ‘consciousness’ holds people back?

    I agree that identity should not be destiny. I also agree that in an ideal world AWS wouldn’t need to exist. But we live in an imperfect world and man (in the generic sense), as Kant remarked, is made of crooked timber. Let me put this to you:

    In Bolton, a majority of schools are overwhelmingly dominated by either white or Asian-origin pupils. This is de facto social segregation. Something similar exists in Bradford. Locals often approve of these arrangements and have developed a ‘sectional identity’. I’m sure you agree that this unhealthy. But according to your model, if the local community finds this set-up desirable, then we shouldn’t disturb it. I think this is unhealthy and in the interests of togetherness, we should be looking a ways of requiring intermingling. This would require some form of diktat. What would you do to foster togetherness?

  10. Ben Cobley says:

    @ Brumanuensis

    Thanks for a really interesting and challenging response. I hope I can deal with most of the points you raise – you certainly raise a lot!

    Firstly, on the “elephant in the room ” of a “representative PLP”, I agree that we want a diverse Labour Party in Parliament, but it depends on what kind of diversity you are privileging and how you are prepared to go about getting it.

    Myself, I think we should always bear in mind that the primary meaning of a “representative PLP” is a PLP in which representatives represent their constituents well. This is what our democratic system is supposed to be all about, and we should always respect that.

    You are right to question the practice of many CLPs, but I would emphasise that the role of CLPs is not just to make sure women get picked as candidates, but to ensure that the whole of the local membership is equal and has a voice, and that supporters feel that their local CLP is open and welcoming to them, whatever their background. There are many more issues here than just women’s representation, and so many of them lead back to poor governance in CLPs. Privileging only the women’s aspect offends men who feel themselves coming up against exactly the same brick walls.

    For me, all of this leads to the idea of more local community involvement, which for some reason you did not acknowledge in your response. This is about ways and means, but I see the election of Dr Sarah Wollaston by open primary and I see a much more interesting way to build up local parties, for diversity to be reflected in them and from the people they elect.

    CLP governance in general also needs some addressing clearly – perhaps via specific training and a contract for chair and organiser to respect equality and democratic process at all times. The present way of centralisation while letting CLPs get on with pretty much whatever they want as long as they don’t interfere too much is not really good enough. CLPs are the entry point to our party and as such need a lot of care and attention that they don’t get at the moment.

    Quite a few of the points you make as apparent arguments against what I have said I don’t actually have a problem with – maybe I explained myself badly in posts/articles that you are referring to. You seem to have the impression that I don’t think different groups have different concerns and that we shouldn’t recognise them – that would be absurd. And I don’t think identities are all bad by any means, just that we should be aware that we don’t own them, and that we should be respectful of their intrinsic meaning (literally, the identity between one thing and another).

    Also you’ve reduced some of what I said about consciousness and consumerism to some very basic opposites which I don’t accept. Maybe I’ve written badly or you’ve misunderstood – I would never suggest that people are only held back by consciousness. I do think it plays a huge role though, and that that is the main space to address social division, but it’d take an article in itself to drag that one out. Capitalism though is the main force here, and capitalism is not interested in these identity debates; it just cares about how useful someone is.

    I like a lot your mention of men and women being made of crooked timber; yes, we live in an imperfect world, and politics is the art of the possible. I don’t happen to think that building up democracy within the party and outside it is an impossible task though. The only obstacle (and it is a big one) is that hardly anyone seems to think about it, at all. We have this beautiful thing that we like to make grandiose speeches about and invade other countries in the name of, something grounded in equality and respect for the individual, yet we treat it with such careless contempt. It is very sad.

    Lastly, on the racial divides in schools in Bolton, I agree that this is something we should not like, but I do wonder quite what we can do about it. Sometimes we should recognise (or rather, perhaps we should always recognise) that we cannot and should not try to micromanage everything that does not fit our political ideology. Especially, I draw back from any policy that looks to tell people who they should be (in identity terms), even indirectly through implicit messages (like: your kids should/should not really be in this school because you are white/Asian)

    We should be prepared to let society breathe and tease out its own problems over time sometimes, rather than imposing policies that do not address the underlying causes of separation. When thinking about Bolton, I would guess that Amir Khan becoming successful and proudly local does a lot more for race relations in the town than any political manipulation could achieve. Just like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den do a lot more to encourage entrepreneurship than any number of government initiatives.

    Public figures and politics do have a role here, but for me it is more about setting an example of being relaxed and comfortable with difference, rather than fretting all the time that this or that aspect is not perfect and needs some sort of intervention, of dubious efficacy. The idea of “requiring intermingling” is something that makes my hair stand up on end – it is like “forcing people to be free”. Invite and encourage, sure, but “requiring”? No way.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting thoughts and I hope some of what I have said has been of benefit in some way.

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