Thinking of the recent Batley by-election, I am reminded of Percy Shelley’s timeless sonnet Ozymandias. A once unquestionably powerful leader, reduced to a mnemic symbol that would have been an unthinkable resemblance in his own lifetime. Granted, it is not a perfect reflection of the current plight facing Labour. Yet recent electoral results have thrown the party into crisis. Labour is becoming a pale imitation of itself in the North, where it was once safe enough for Labour officials to joke that the electorate would even elect a donkey if it wore a red rosette. 

An Exercise in Double-think

Labour’s surprise hold of Batley and Spen has been hailed as a victory. What a world we live in where a party can lose 10,000 votes, produce their worst performance in a constituency’s history, cling on by the skin of their teeth and still claim victory and a revival. Of course, Labour’s victory was helped by tactical anti-Galloway voting and a pathetic submarine campaign from the Tory candidate. But Labour must take responsibility for their failings and take this near miss as a warning.

Cracks in the Wall

The issues facing Labour are multiple, and not one singular problem is contributing to its demise. In fact, Labour is facing the threat of Pasokification that is devouring social-democratic parties all over Europe, without facing all the same issues as them. Yet the failings of identity politics stand out as the salient issue engulfing Labour and its support.

This is primarily because identity politics categorises people based on certain personal qualities, leading to paradoxical inconsistencies in Labour’s message. Labour tries to appeal to specific interest groups by targeting specific issues that apply only to these groups. But the demands of these groups often oppose each other which fragments Labour’s support base. In other words, Labour is trying to ride too many horses at once.

The most noticeable demographic factor in Batley and Spen is its significant Muslim electorate, making up just under 19 per cent of the population in 2011. This poses a serious conundrum for Labour. In the local campaign, some Muslim activists harassed the openly lesbian Labour candidate, Leadbeater. Others apparently raised Keir Starmer’s wife being Jewish as an issue right on the doorstep. Labour’s support for Palestine and Kashmir and opposition to India’s Modi government (Indian Labour MPs called the campaign leaflets ‘dogwhistle racism’) are seemingly not enough to placate the prejudices of some voters residing in the anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT blindspot of the ‘progressive’ movement.

Sitting Uncomfortably

Labour finds itself in an unenvious position. It may soon realise that its progressive alliance is not actually all that progressive or cohesive — and that some of the individuals it desires to represent are actually rather conservative. In Batley alone, there have not only been protests against teaching LGBT themes in schools but also against the teaching of freedom of expression, something that’s arguably crucial to a progressive agenda. If Labour cannot stand up for a teacher hounded out of his job in 21st-century Britain for offending the fragile sensibilities of a few religious adherents, it should drop all pretence of being a modern, progressive party. For shame.

In trying to hold together these diametrically opposed interest groups, Labour pleases no one. Inadvertently, they open the door for mavericks like Galloway to come along and hoover up the votes that Labour has lost.

Yet in spite of all this, the main issue with Labour’s identity politics is not only the focus on the personal but also the absence of focus on economic aspirations and class issues. This was always the traditional unifying theme that cemented the Red Wall together. Batley and Spen houses a population where 1 in 3 adults are out of work and nearly 10,000 households seek Universal Credit. In dropping the focus on unifying proposals in favour of targeting specific categories of people, Labour has enslaved itself to identitarian conflict, preventing it from uniting the very groups it should stand for.

Getting Back on Track

If Labour truly wants to win, it needs to focus on what unites us beyond our identities, rather than what distinguishes us. Such distinctions only encourage people to view themselves as separate from others, making them ripe pickings for opportunistic candidates claiming to exclusively represent their interests.

Labour must also drop its sneering middle-class attitude that views the working class as bigots — something that disintegrates upon contact with reality. It is this mischaracterisation that drives former supporters into the arms of the Conservatives. So unless they think trading the Red Wall for Putney is a good deal, Labour must change their mindset and fast.

The Tories are the most successful party in history because they can adapt themselves, as they are doing now to win places like Hartlepool. If Labour wants to stay relevant, it must swap character-based division for class-based unity.

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