A somewhat tatty beige paper card still lies in a drawer somewhere in my basement. My original Labour Party membership card has survived four decades and several house moves. The lower half of the card reproduces the original Clause IV of the party constitution: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry…upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Classic prose, but it was never literally what the party intended to implement and Tony Blair replaced it while still in opposition with a less dreamy, though more realistic, statement of aims. The modern equivalent speaks, rather more blandly but somehow more realistically, of creating a community in which ‘power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’.
The year was 1980 and I was turning 17. The previous year Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives had swept the minority Labour government from power and begun the breakup of the post-war social democratic consensus. As a believer in social justice, it felt very natural for me to join Labour. Every piece of equalities legislation had been enacted under a Labour government. I became active in the local party, campaigning in local and general elections and of course setting myself up for the pain and disappointment that followed, shared by anyone on the British left, and amusingly described by John O’Farrell in his 1998 anecdotal Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter.
Although at the time viscerally opposed to everything that Thatcher accomplished I have since forced myself to undertake a more dispassionate analysis of the positives and the negatives. Among my left-wing friends these efforts have not always been well received. Attempts to talk to those with a tribalist mindset are often unsuccessful and lead to suspicions of character. In such an environment one is no longer optimising for truth, but for the acceptability of an argument.
I did of course enthusiastically welcome the arrival into office of Blair’s New Labour in 1997 and the dramatic increase in the female representation in Parliament. The all-women shortlist policy of Labour during the 1992-97 Parliament had a profound and irreversible effect. The Blair government gave prominent positions to women, members of ethnic minority backgrounds, and had in David Blunkett the first disabled Cabinet minister.
Since 2010 Labour has been once more in opposition, but this Conservative government has a different face. To his credit, David Cameron piloted the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 through Parliament, which on a free vote split the Tories fairly evenly but was carried easily on overwhelming Labour and Liberal Democrat support. The ethnic makeup of the MPs on the Tory benches was unmistakeably changed, and with the election of Theresa May in 2016, David Cameron could at his final parliamentary questions taunt Labour that his party had gone “two-nil up” in the female leader count.
It is therefore less obvious that Labour is the clear choice for those who value fairness and equality of opportunity. Labour, and the left more generally, has not reacted well to having to oppose a governing party with non-trivial numbers of MPs from ethnic minorities on its benches and within the government. With the reintroduction of Sajid Javid into the Cabinet as Health Secretary during the current health crisis, three of the top five positions in the UK government are held by members of racial minorities. Further non-white MPs occupy more junior positions, including the extraordinarily eloquent Kemi Badenoch, whose dismantling of the arguments for ‘decolonizing’ the school curriculum in the House of Commons in October 2020 made for viral viewing. The response on the left is often unpleasant and bears the unmistakable undertones of perceived betrayal, as if Labour were somehow ‘entitled’ to certain people’s votes based on their ethnicity. All politicians must remember – the people owe them only the respect and credibility they can inspire by their own actions.
I stuck with Labour throughout the Brexit period because I viewed the referendum question as dubious, without a clear explanation of what would realistically be the outcome of such a dramatic change. Without wanting to re-fight the Brexit debate here, I was deeply suspicious of any claim that the withdrawal deal that was eventually agreed on was something that the population would have supported against the single competing alternative of remaining in the EU. Even at the December 2019 election I was pounding on doors in the winter rain and early nightfall in the vain hope of depriving Boris Johnson’s Tories of the ability to inflict what I saw as unprecedented self-harm onto the country. In the leadership election that followed Labour’s colossal defeat, the party once more spurned the chance to elect a female leader, despite the fact that all the main candidates, barring the one that won, was a woman.
The Brexit fox is now shot, and Labour has to think of something else to talk about. The nonsense of its position on race and gender issues is what has finally moved me to sever my connections. Two moments are key.
In March of this year the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, set up the previous year in response to the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, published its report. Leaving aside some unfortunate phrasing about the mixed legacy of empire, the report highlighted many examples of racial disparities in the UK, none more shocking than the finding that young black men are 24 times more likely to die through homicide than their white counterparts. However, in its introduction, the report, while of course acknowledging the continued presence of racial prejudice in the country, rejected the notion that the UK is ‘systemically racist’.
This is obviously an immediate disqualification from credibility for anyone who accepts the key tenets of Critical Social Justice (CSJ). CSJ teaches that all human interactions are governed entirely by membership of dominant or marginalised groups and that these have deterministic qualities related to success. People who believe simplistically and uncritically in the notion of white privilege are going to have difficulty accepting the ability of non-white people to rise above their disadvantages and make the best of their lives. Their whole philosophy requires this to be impossible and this can lead them into the pursuit of a self-fulfilling prophecy which trashes the legacy of the gains that have been made by black and pro-black campaigners in the last fifty years.
Labour do not have to take this self-defeating attitude, and I am not saying that all of its members do. But the influence of CSJ in its ranks is clear. It would have been a more constructive anti-racist position to swallow the uncomfortable portrayal of Britain as a basically decent society, focus on the report’s recommendations, and hold the government’s feet to the fire in implementing them. But the big problem with the report for the CSJ-orientated is that most of its proposals are not even couched in racial terms. An enduring theme of the report is to highlight a racial disparity and then propose a non-racial way of tackling it, one that assists single mothers, or low-income families, or urban youth, without reference to their race. The report proposes other more significant determiners of outcome in our country than race – such as geography and class. This is very unwelcome to the CSJ campaigners because these groupings are not immutable and do not fit within the oppressor-oppressed power group schema. Within the CSJ pantheon of oppression, the neglect of class is the most conspicuous differentiator from the traditional left-wing societal critique.
The report’s other crime is to question the wisdom of thinking of black and minority ethnic people as a homogenous group. It points out the difference in educational outcomes between black Caribbean and black African schoolchildren, the latter of which are easily outperforming white children. A similar story could be told about the patterns of homeownership between Asians of Pakistani and Indian heritage, who stand at opposite ends of the spectrum with white people between them. All of this is ‘problematic’, to use the CSJ cult’s own phrase, and they do not wish to have to confront the disconfirming evidence against the reductionist identity-based oppression model put forward by Critical Social Justice concepts of the world. Until they are willing to expand their current philosophical stock and recognise the greater complexity of social reality, Labour are simply not equipped to tackle questions of social equality in a way that will convince enough people who care about social equality to vote for them.
I am equally dismayed by Labour’s simplistic position on the complex issues surrounding the rights of transgender individuals. I respect anyone’s right to live as they choose, to dress as they choose, to identify as they please and I will use their preferred speech forms. But as expounded in Kathleen Stock’s brilliant work Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, there are conflicts between accepting trans women as women in every situation and preserving women’s rights which urgently need to be resolved through thoughtful and practical negotiation in a spirit of problem-solving. Labour has not grasped the nettle. The feminist movement is divided as to what extent a male to female transitioner can be regarded as a woman. Labour has so far sided with those who assert that there is no difference between cis and transgender women. They seem to have taken on the belief that being male or female is something one is ‘assigned at birth’ rather than determined at conception, with frontbench spokesperson Dawn Butler once stating on live TV that “babies are born without sex”. Are they happy for male prisoners, including those convicted of sexual offences, to self-declare as women before sentencing in order to be sent to women’s prisons, for women’s sports to be accessible to individuals who benefited from the strength and bulk gains of male puberty, for women’s toilets and changing rooms to be accessible by anybody who identifies as a woman? It seems that they are.
Thus, the second and decisive moment in my decision to leave Labour was Keir Starmer’s announcement at the Pink News Awards 2020 that Labour would reform the Gender Recognition Act to accept self-identification with no requirements for official diagnosis of gender dysphoria or to live for a qualifying period in the acquired gender. This happened at the same time as the rights of gays and lesbians to define themselves as attracted to people of the same biological sex are coming under attack, with lesbians in particular facing ostracism for declining sexual relations with people with male bodies who identify as women. Quite apart from the inherent repulsiveness of allowing anyone to feel pressured into having sex with another individual that they would prefer not to for any reason that might be real to them, this is only a logical consequence of changing the definition of ‘lesbian’ from ‘a woman who is attracted to other women’ to ‘a person with female gender identity who is attracted to other people of female gender identity.’ This approach has been favoured by the Stonewall charity, once giants in the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but who now appear to have realigned themselves in support of a particular form of transgender activism which again does not allow for the complexities of reality or the different values and beliefs among transgender people. Stonewall are explicitly campaigning for changes to the law to protect male to female transitioners from charges of sex by deception. In other words, Stonewall says that transgender people should be allowed, under privacy considerations, to initiate a sexual relationship with a lesbian while claiming to be of the same sex: indeed by Stonewall’s definition, they are.
Labour, if they have a problem with any of this, have so far failed to make it known.
My email to the party resigning my membership was acknowledged, with a polite request for an explanation. I obliged with a shorter version of the reasoning I have given here.
Where am I now? Do I still consider myself to be ‘on the left’? Possibly I do, but more important than my position on the left-right spectrum is my adherence to liberalism in a general sense. A liberal is one who believes in reason, progress, the scientific method and debate. We believe the truth is ‘out there’ and will never accept the quasi-religious determinism of the mixture of bastardised Marxist and postmodern philosophy that underlies Critical Social Justice. We recognise the existence, and the limits, of agency. A liberal acknowledges that disadvantage exists but believes in the possibility of minority groups progressing towards equality and sharing in the benefits of the wider society, and campaigns to this end. Liberals optimise for truth, accept that no one has all the answers and do not insulate themselves from debate on the grounds that they or someone else could feel offended or ‘unsafe’. Liberals treat people like adults, they accept and demand co-responsibility with their fellow citizens for their actions. They believe in people.
And from now on that is the corner in which I will stand.