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Half right… January 31, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Justin Gest, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and the author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, writes in the Observer this weekend about the British Labour Party arguing that:

The Brexit debate has created an ideological crisis in the Labour party, driven by its inability to bridge Britain’s sociological crisis. Its leadership has been undermined by angry reaction to last week’s instruction to its MPs to trigger the process of leaving the EU. However, it had already lost the confidence of many of the party’s pragmatists, wary that Labour has found no way to transcend the toxic social divisions between north and south, city and suburbs, young and old that the referendum laid bare.

Faced with a rise in populist sentiment, such are the circumstances for the international left today. Here in the United States, downtrodden and perplexed Democrats are faced with a choice of seeking to win back a white, working-class constituency whose support for their party has dwindled in every presidential election cycle since 1992, or double-down on cultivating their coalition of ethnic minorities and white urban cosmopolitans.


However, unlike America’s Democrats, Labour does not have the luxury of reverting to such a coalition. (It’s not even clear that Democrats do.)

Whereas ethnic minorities of Latino, African and Asian descent comprise 40% of the American population and will pass 50% in due course, minority constituencies in Europe comprise no more than 20% in any one country, so parties of the left must be able to sustain their appeal to white, working-class voters if they are to have any chance of assembling ruling majorities.


The British – and American – left’s mistake was allowing themselves to think there was an “either, or” choice – that their pursuit of racial justice for minority groups was somehow incompatible with their pursuit of economic justice for all; that their celebration of immigration was incompatible with control of immigration; that their quest for meritocracy was incompatible with patriotism.

I wonder though. There’s certainly an element of truth that the British (and other European) social democratic left did move away from economic issues, or rather adopted more clearly neoliberal approaches in a remarkably uncritical fashion. But I think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the dynamic was quite as stark as he suggests. For example, Miliband offered a mixed approach – some unpleasant rhetoric on immigration, some shift leftwards, whatever, and yet that didn’t propel the BLP to victory some years back. Nor is it clear that eliding Brexit with the issues of the BLP, at least pre-Brexit is all that convincing as an argument. Consider that part of Labour’s weakness has been the loss of Scotland, not to the right but to a rival articulating at least in part a more clearly a ‘traditional’ social democratic approach. Tellingly Gest in the course of his long piece doesn’t mention Scotland at all.

Then there’s other points. Corbyn’s leadership has been variable but until Brexit there was at least a hope that the BLP might contest the next election reasonably strongly. Post-Brexit that hope is now gone. But to suggest that the weakness of the BLP was baked in is to overstate the reality of how tight the parliamentary arithmetic was and remains in this Parliament. The Tories won unexpectedly but not by a massively convincing margin.

Moreover it is possible to see Brexit going the other way at the referendum, or no referendum at all had Cameron played his cards better. And consequently the BLP doing better. Indeed some of what Gest says seems as if it is transposed from US rather than British political culture and as if he takes as read a primacy for identity politics in the pre-Brexit era which seems questionable.

Anti-racism has been an important concept for Labour and international leftists for a more than a generation. It has informed advances in anti-discrimination policies for housing, government and the workplace. It has cultivated cohesion and openness in neighbourhoods, schools, and universities. It has fostered greater sensitivity to our inherent biases in our social interactions, our media and in our own minds.

However, the label of racism has also been extended to characterise the views of people who seek a more managed immigration system, who are wary of globalising markets and, indeed, who support Britain’s opaque, ill-advised, but now inevitable departure from the European Union.

But hold on, one might say. Pro-immigration isn’t quite the badge one would pin on the BLP in the way Gest seems to. Indeed he doesn’t mention that until very very recently UKIP pushed the sovereignty line much more strongly than anti-immigration. And what of a press that whipped up anti-immigrant feeling and sustained it. What of a political class, as with Cameron et al, unwilling to articulate a positive case for open borders? And what of the inconvenience that it was a minority of LP voters who voted Leave (31% according to YouGov exit poll)?

This isn’t to say that longer deeper rooted dynamics did not exist, some date from the 2000s, some from much earlier than that. But again the sense that this is a transposing of US concerns onto the British polity in a half-digested way is quite strong. And what of the solution to this?

The party must empathise again, listen again, recognise the plight of its white, working-class constituents before judgment and build a social vision and economic future that transcends ethnic divisions, not reinforces them.

What exactly does that mean?


1. Aengus Millen - January 31, 2017

This stuff about the white working class is what the supposed intellegensia is pushing in america too. Inarguably both Labour and the Democrats have moved away from real working class policies (or in the case of the democrats never really had them). But what they usually mean by this is: how dare you talk about the issues of minorities and not white men. White men are struggling their suicide rate is going up their life expectancy is going down but giving them false hope that their vanished jobs will return or that they can regain the hegemony they had during the 19th and 20th centuries is doing them no favors and will lead to an even ruder awakening then they had in 2008


2. Logan - January 31, 2017

Well, from a purely electoral point of view, any Democratic candidate who wants to win in 2020 (which means carrying Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania as the absolute minimum) had probably better figure out something to appeal to that constituency PDQ.
Telling them that “Your jobs aint coming back, so here is a six month training course in office skills and a free bus ticket to the nearest city” probably wont be that attractive, I suspect.


CL - January 31, 2017

‘Many cities and states in the Rust Belt have been working for several years to attract foreign-born residents, aiming to boost dwindling populations and spur business growth in the wake of manufacturing-industry losses.’


WorldbyStorm - February 1, 2017

Completely agree Logan. But sheesh it wouldn’t have been insanely difficult for the dems to fashion a line for them.


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