Let’s Talk About Issues, Not Identity


Identity politics have dominated the headlines during the US election. Hillary Clinton, in particular, has been criticised for appealing to minority groups on the grounds of racial, religious or sexual identity in order to secure votes, rather than offering serious policy that would benefit the majority of individuals within each constituent group. This has also been cited as one of the main reasons for her election defeat, in that the Democrats failed to appeal to the white working class whereas Trump succeeded on the basis of his promise (albeit false) to improve living standards and opportunity for ordinary Americans.

In the British context, we can now see how identity politics has played a role in the splintering and fragmentation of the left. Amid claims of anti-Semitism within the Labour party, deputy leader Tom Watson recently performed ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (which literally translates as ‘the nation of Israel lives’) at an annual lunch for Labour Friends of Israel in a bid to appeal to party’s Jewish and Zionist contingents. Indeed, the party faces a crisis of identity between two of its largest groups of supporters, the post-industrial left of old Labour and the Muslim community. While these two social groups may differ on the issue of immigration, it is a reasonable assumption that there is common ground in most other areas. However, the media continues to drive a wedge with a narrative focussed on identity, rather than issues.

To complicate this further, there is now a generational conflict within the party, between the young workers and students who have rallied under Corbyn’s banner and an older generation of New Labour supporters, illustrating a national narrative of conflict that the older generations are responsible for squandering the opportunity of the youth. This age-old song may have a certain appeal, but millions of middle-aged Brits may very well find themselves in agreement with much of the county’s youth on individual issues such as tuition fees, the NHS and the nationalisation of rail. That is why individual issues should be the focus of our attention, not identity.

Identity extends far beyond the traditional divisions of race, age, religion and gender and can manifest itself in the context of political allegiance. A trend of identity politics can be observed in Scotland, between ‘unionists’ and ‘nationalists’ (two terms void of pertinence in the Scottish context). While individuals form this identity by choice instead of circumstance, they still suffer from the same clumsy, ham-fisted categorisation. The views of one Scottish nationalist differ from the concerns of another, as do the reasons for why one supports unionism – we all understand this. Nonetheless, one makes certain assumptions on the views of the other, based on their identity as either a nationalist or unionist. For instance, the stigma that those in favour of independence have a poor understanding of economics, or that unionists hold conservative values, or that the youth support independence and pensioners support the union.

During the 2014 referendum, many unionists were apprehensive about disclosing their views on the issue, fearing the barrage of judgement that would ensue from the vociferous section of the nationalist support. Natural allies who held similar views on social issues and on economic policy were being pitted against each other by the binary nature of a referendum and the identity assumed by the baring of the choice. In those few months, the flag in hand gradually became more important than the issue at hand as social media sites transformed into hovels of intolerance. Such blatant tribalism ought to have no place in politics and would be more at home in the arena of sport. With the possibility of another referendum on the horizon, we may face the same crisis again.

Similar observations can now be made of the EU referendum and the societal conflict spurred by the media’s depiction of the voters. On one hand, the portrayal of the remain vote as educated, left wing and internationalist. When we consider that continentalism and internationalism are very different and that the EU is a neo-liberal project that clashes with left wing economics, does this assigned identity represent anything founded in reason? On the other hand, the middle-class sensationalism of the pro-EU faction of the media, portraying Brexit supporters as racist, right wing and uneducated. This identity has been illustrated for the Brexit voter, however, it fails to describe many Brexit voters I know who do not match these characteristics.

My reasons for voting remain will differ from others who made the same choice, yet certain assumptions will be made by a stranger should I divulge my identity as a ‘remainer’. Why should individuals with complex and disparate political views be categorised and grouped in such an absurd and crass manner? Surely it is patronising and wrong to assume that the LGBT community have shared political views or that all Christians occupy the same stance on abortion? This is why identity politics is problematic by nature, for identity does not dictate political opinion.

[Euan McIlvanney]

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