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Identity politics are here to stay; Alarm bells ring for EU’s left

For social democratic MEP’s across Europe the defeat of the UK Labour Party will have ramifications that are only beginning to emerge writes Neil Stewart – revealing forces of identity through the Scottish Nationalists, or the UK Independence party.

These forces apply not just to parties of the Left – in France and in Germany challenges are coming to the established parties of the centre-right. Identity is about much more than nationalism or populism. The recent significant progress of left-orientated Podermos in Spain is the exception, not the rule.

Across all of Europe new forces and trends which were underway well before 2008 are influencing the political choices people make. Established parties that ascribe all their defeats to austerity or perceptions of corrupt politicians, and believe it will pass as economic recovery returns and parliaments clean up politics, should look at what has happened in Scotland and the UK.

In Scotland the economic conditions are not the extremes facing Spain or Greece. But there the offers of all the established parties have been swept aside and the SNP have won 56 out of 59 seats. This was much more than nationalism. In England UK Independence party saw its vote surge to over 4 million damaging all the existing parties.

The most immediate European effect of the UK election is the prospect of an “in-out” referendum on European Union membership. And here again UK citizens will be asked “who do they identify with” who is “for them”. Interestingly the Scottish nationalists will be in favour of staying in Europe.

Behind that debate are big shifts in the relations and connections between voters and established social democratic parties and reform minded centre right parties that have sustained them in government since 1945. They have been changing for 3 decades and are reaching “breaching point” for some centre left parties as can be seen in what happened to the UK Labour Party in Scotland.

A powerful left party in the UK has been pushed aside not so much by a triumphant conservative party, which can barely believe they have won, but by forces which the Labour Party failed to see and are struggling to understand but which have lessons for the whole of the European left.

A pattern is emerging across Europe in which established social democratic parties are being squeezed by insurgent, populist parties of left and right and having their raison d’etre challenged.

The simple explanations of voters reaction to austerity, immigration, political corruption or hysterical media coverage are not enough.

Behind these shifts are searches by voters for connections, points of identity, needs and aspirations that were previously mobilised by parties through simpler immediate demands for housing, health, education, pensions, social security overlaid often by religion, locality, family experience and post-war loyalty (see General De Gaulle).

In the UK the connections between the purpose of the Labour Party and the experience of the electorate that Labour has depended upon are being broken and have been breaking for three decades.

In a crude history the social democrats and reform parties of Europe (interrupted by two terrible wars) have worked their way successfully through a list of powerful aspirations of working people, people without capital or great resources, to build organised government systems to give them the opportunities and security they aspire to.

It started with the 8-hour working day demands of the early communists and socialists, universal education for children, pensions, unemployment support, housing, health services, secondary education, university education, minimum wages, employment rights, and equality rights.

But in the past 20 years these basic needs of the majority have increasingly been met and become common ground between the parties, leaving social democratic parties sounding as though they only represent the marginalised or the victims, the minority not the majority.

The people whose grandparents were fixed in their loyalties by affiliations burned out of the war, wanting housing, health services and opportunities for their children have begun to change their relationship to the institutions, the public services, the professionals, and the society rules of those reforms and against some of the parties that built them, defend them and refuse to apologies for or address their failings.

An early political step change on the right was made by Mrs Thatcher in the UK when she gave tenants of social/municipal housing the “right to buy their home” and in a dramatic realignment persuaded great swathes of blue collar, working people, previously voting Labour, that their ambition would be met by the right, not the left. The complete failure of the Labour Party in the 1980’s to understand the sense of identity this gave the people, and accept why this worked for those ordinary people was an early warning of a denial culture to come.

The voters often do not feel in charge of or valued by the services they voted for and pay for creating an alienation, if not outright hatred and sometimes fear, of their personal treatment by public organisations and professionals. It is a growing resentment tapped into by new parties. It has many parallels in business. But attacking businesses, banks, fat cats and bureaucrats seems only to emphasise how little the existing parties are able to change anything.

It is 7 years since the financial collapse of 2008, it is 10 years since the worst political scandals swept European parties, but the perception is that all the same dull, male, pale people are still in charge. The new identity politics rages across regional and personal identify, with contested areas about the equal rights of women, minorities, sexual orientations and now generation divisions between old and young, between the post war baby boomers and new dependent disposable adults under 35.

At a recent seminar in Brussels this was describe as “emotional” politics as though it was a phase that would pass, – a distressed aunt or young relative crying for help, and as the “emotion” died down rational politics would return. Identity is rational politics for the new disengaged or alienated voters, many of whom are prosperous, doing well at work, not victims in any traditional narrative. This was very visible in Scotland.

It is a new realignment. It has been here for some time and is here to stay. If Social Democratic or centre right parties want to prevent the rise of ugly, angry insurgent parties or libertarian “Tea Party” dismantlers of public goods and services, they need to find the connections between the personal search for identity and the policies for good government and services. They need to reform their relationship with some of their most cherished creations and the people that work in them.

And here the UK Labour party comes up against a problem that its biggest trade unions paymasters are disproportionately the representatives of those who work in services that need to reform and are themselves in denial. In the UK that means the Labour Party rethinking its relationship with the National Health Services, Local government and public services and its attitude to national and regional government, in how party institutions themselves work.

In the UK those are the exact issues on which the re elected Conservative government have moved quickly with big announcement – within 10 days of the UK election – recognising they have been given a second chance to seize the best ground, and the first-mover advantage, on the reforms which tap into policies, perceptions and identities that people connect with and which reinforce the people’s sense of their own identity and worth and which party is “on their side”.

Neil Stewart is Editorial Director of Policy Review EU.

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