One of the most insightful comments coming out of the UK election blowout was from politics professor at the University of Kent, Matthew Goodwin:
What we have seen in this election campaign is a Conservative Party that has been willing to lean left on economics and right on culture, … [Boris Johnson] is someone who has clearly grasped the fact that is easier for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on questions of identity.
Easier for the right to move left on economics.
Harder for the left to move right on questions of identity.
Boris Johnson, being somewhat of a bohemian philanderer, with all the sexual morality of an alley cat, has no real love for conservative social policy when it comes to personal ethics, so he’s no conservative culture warrior.
But still, the conservatives in Australia and other Western nations should learn the lesson. Boris has pledged to make the UK carbon-neutral by 2050. That’s a huge call and one usually associated with a left leaning position in modern nation states. He’s not pledging smaller government, he’s pledging a better funded NHS, and all at a time when many conservatives in the USA would label as “communist” any leader who implemented universal health care.
And when Boris pledged, he wedged.
He wedged the Left that has so often thrown an economic sop to a working class it no longer represents or even likes, in order to push through social ethics policies designed for the elite Left of the universities and cities. Social policies that are, increasingly, grounded in hostile identity politics; something traditional Labour voters either don’t understand or simply loathe.
Labour assumed that traditional voters would hold their noses against the toxic stench of identity politics, and still vote for their stated kinder, gentler social policies. And then Boris comes along and gazumps them with an agenda that is socialist-lite on economics, and libertarian right (to match his own amorality) on sexuality.
And by libertarian I mean truly libertarian. Johnson rejects the spluttering outrage from those who hold views that, as Douglas Murray observes in his excellent The Madness of Crowds, were invented all of five minutes ago, but which are foisted upon the public as the morality that all righteous citizens must sign up to. Johnston has no time for puritans of the left or right.
But why, as Professor Goodwin observes, can the left not move right on questions of identity?
It’s simple. With the loss of the transcendent in our public square, and the rejection of identity markers that are external to us – community, religion etc -, the internal identity markers fuelled by a therapeutic culture have become the new religious orthodoxies of our time.
This has been some time coming, although the ideas that generate these new orthodoxies have been in our universities for decades. Indeed my first degree was pretty much steeped in this stuff back in the mid eighties. I thought it was preposterous at the time, with zero chance of being taken seriously by anyone outside the sheltered workshop of tertiary education. But hey, here we are!
Douglas Murray makes this exact point in his book. He says that we are at a time in Western history when the old religions are sloughing off, (and the UK is a prime example of the spectacular collapse of organised religion), but that something must replace it.
Identity politics is self-consciously positioning itself to be the replacement plug-in. So for example in its gender iteration, it offers the promise of transcending who you once were in order to create the “you” you were supposed to be before biology screwed you over. And once you have locked into that new reality, giving up on it is nigh on impossible. It’s as costly as giving up “the faith”, because that’s exactly what it is – the faith for the Sexular Age. And there is an added disincentive to give it up, given the public shaming that accompanies doing so.
Identity politics is the new orthodox religion of the left. To question it is akin to heresy. To reject it is apostasy. Those who turn their backs on it risk what all heretics down the centuries have risked: a public burning. The spewing hatred of social media, the confected outrage of mainstream media, the rejection by the educational and government institutions for whom identity politics is almost credal.
No wonder the left cannot move right on these things. To even hint at nuance or difference borders on the sacrilegious. In other words, “I feel a de-platforming coming on.”
Will Labour learn from it? Only in the way the ALP in Australia and the Democrats in the USA have learned from it. In other words, they won’t. Sure, like the Democrats and the ALP there will be some initial handwringing about how wrong we got it, and how we have to listen to voters, and get our message across better, but this isn’t for going away.
This much is clear as the next cycle of the USA electoral cycle gets a head of steam. If anything the candidates have moved further to the left, a wonder to behold indeed, given the public commitment to listening to the “forgotten voters” who threw the furniture around the room back in 2016. Perhaps in a couple of generations’ time this tactic will work, or perhaps, as history has proven throughout, er, history, there is no stable progressive climb up towards a utopian future. There’s no such thing as getting on the right side of history. History hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t work like that.
But there’s an important takeaway for the right on this. If Boris Johnson can call for a kinder, gentler economics, and a commitment to communal policies on the environment and health care, then surely the conservatives in Australia and the USA can as well. It should not be the exclusive domain of the left.
Take note Sco-Mo and Trump, because there are a bunch of conservatives – especially among Christians – who did hold their noses and vote for you for self-interest sake in the wake of the left’s refusal to move right on identity politics, but who, at the same time, would like to see a kinder, gentler social policy platform in areas such as refugees, the environment and health care.
Compromise politics does work. Unsurprisingly, the left is struggling to play that game because of how religiously identity politics has been shaped. Identity politics brooks no compromise, and indeed one of its central tenets is a commitment to never do so. Parties on the left are now left with making decisions they increasingly cannot and will not make.