The left must revise its cultural identity or face isolation

27 Jan 2017

What the tumultuous political upheavals of 2016 prove is that, increasingly, we do not construct our political opinions upon rational consideration.


In an era dominated by a hysterical media and a culture obsessed with identity, political opinion is increasingly a question of our cultural affiliations to politics. “How does politics relate to my cultural identity?” not “which party’s economic policy will be most advantageous for my personal circumstances?” is increasingly the order of the day.


Since the EU referendum, much of the Labour Party’s traditional heartlands are at risk of exodus to UKIP. The Labour Party not only came out of the referendum on the losing side, it also came out on the wrong side of the fence of the working class communities of the North of England and South Wales that have been their disciples for generations.


Few have considered the cultural reasons behind the working class’ increasing alienation from the left.


Brexit was a titanic struggle of this new, highly cultural politics. People may have felt, particularly on the remain side, that they were voting for rational political and economic reasons: for jobs, for the economy, for workers’ rights, but in reality, the dividing line was primarily cultural, not political.


Upon reflection of my own participation in the referendum, voting to remain largely became a symbolic vote against what I perceived as a regressive and nationalistic leave campaign, that was a threat to my cultural outlook as a metropolitan, pro-multiculturalist liberal; I was voting in defence of my cultural identity. This was arguably pure cultural tribalism, not politics.


The left made a catastrophic error in not recognising that cultural tribalism was the crux of the referendum. The remain side may have made a well-justified, rational argument for economic stability, but the left failed to culturally engage with the demographic it was born to serve: the working class.


It didn’t matter how rationally the left and the Labour Party made its case.


The left has, in terms of culture, drifted so far away from where it came from. Consequently, it's referendum message fell on deaf ears in the communities that were once it heartlands.


Remain was a vote for London, a vote for The Guardian, a vote for a remote and dogmatic left-wing middle class that has spent the last thirty-five years erasing the working class sentiment of socialism that had once been its foundation.


This shift can be traced back to the 1980s.


Rising from the economic boom of the Thatcher years, a new kind of metropolitan middle class began to exploit the cheap and bountiful housing stocks of inner London. In the 80s, areas such as Islington, Notting Hill, Camden and then latterly Shoreditch, Brixton, Dalston in the 90s and 2000s were transformed into cosmopolitan utopias, ruled by a new liberal sympathising, bourgeois culture.


Champagne socialism, Yuppie, Guardianista, Hipster - whatever the name or variation, we all know this culture. It has now spread to many other British Cities. While not malicious in its premise, this culture has been very damaging to the left, because over the last 20 years since the victory of New Labour in 1997, it has grown to take over the left’s cultural identity.


When New Labour brought to an end eighteen years of seemingly endless Tory rule, Blair paradoxically admitted defeat in his victory. He accepted that Thatcher had destroyed the left, the unions, the working class movement - the very forces that had bound the working class. He then proceeded to turn the Labour Party and the British left into a movement entirely emancipated from its working class heritage.


He embraced the metropolitan middle class culture that had risen in the 90s, and their liberal cosmopolitan ideals as the new doctrines and identity of the left.


Post New-Labour, when people think of the term ‘left wing’ in Britain, what do they think of? The Guardian? University culture? Vice news? Gentrification? Shoreditch culture? Overbearing political correctness? This is the legacy of New Labour. Being ‘left wing’ is now a bourgeois metropolitan ideal. The Labour supporting Daily Mirror newspaper is arguably the only bastion of mainstream, working class left wing culture left in the UK.


This cultural shift to the middle class is an immense danger to the left’s survival.


When New Labour were in power, and Rupert Murdoch was still under the thumb of Blair, Labour could penetrate mainstream political consensus. Yet, following the disaster of Iraq and the financial crisis (which was admittedly not entirely their fault), New Labour are only looked upon with scorn by the general public and indeed working class communities. Whilst Corbyn’s rhetoric may be very much in the vein of the Labour’s past, the party, particularly its membership, is arguably more culturally London-centric than ever before.


The left has to renounce itself of the metropolitan culture that now dominates its identity. It must instead seek a more universal approach that embraces a plethora of cultural standpoints.


The left cannot afford to sneer at the populism of the right, or isolate itself in a high-brow cultural bubble. UKIP have only filled the cultural vacuum that the left has created. The left must wake up to this predicament. Politics is now a cultural battle ground.



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