I never thought I’d miss the 2010s, but I do have some nostalgia for them. At least last decade’s “opposite world” meant what it said: whatever the truth was, ministers would blame the opposite. In the creation of poverty, the culprit was the poor rather than the rich; in the nightmare of Brexit, the problem was remainers rather than leavers; in a runaway climate crisis, the root cause was Extinction Rebellion rather than fossil fuels and all those who’d hitched their finances to them.
It was pretty tedious, but it was preferable to today’s opposite world, in which, despite whatever is important – from Covid rates to customs turmoil – ministers will be trying their level best to talk about what is petty. (A piquant, if tangential, example: Monday’s Daily Telegraph, the little drummer boy of the endless culture war, reported approvingly the idea of an “anti-woke Citizens Advice service”.) They create pantomimes, patriots battling straw men over trivia. This would make no sense if it came from a state in the grip of a crisis, but it makes every sense from a state with only one aim – the survival of its ruling party. To the modern conservative, all government business is party business.
A typical explanation is that it’s all distraction: while we’re blaming each other for wokeness or bigotry, that’s all energy not directed at the government. The more intense the debate, the more divisions it opens up within as well as between each side, so there is no oxygen for more productive discussions. This theory is true as far as it goes but, like the one about why planes stay in the air, it’s insufficient. An electorate fighting among itself will always be less challenging to its government – yet governments do not typically rely on disunity and sourness, still less work so hard to create them. The question is, what political capital does all this generate?
In the late 1990s, the sociologist Nancy Fraser described how “cultural recognition” – the recognition of difference, what we used to call identity politics – had displaced “socioeconomic redistribution as the remedy for injustice”. It was Fraser’s aim to try and knit recognition and redistribution back together, since justice required both: there was no point being culturally emancipated if you were still materially oppressed by low wages.
Over four grim Brexit years, William Davies, another sociologist, drew out the evolution of “recognition” politics to the present day. Our concept of different identities had shrunk to one: the “left-behind”, AKA the red wall, previously known as the white working class. All other banners that people might congregate behind – ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality – were collapsed into “metropolitan”, which was then elided with “elite” to become de facto inauthentic. Nobody had to recognise you if you weren’t real. It was a bit of a surprise, to be honest; not to find that I’m a despised elite (I knew that), but that so was my whole postcode.
In terms of the left-behind, which may have been newly prominent in 2016 but wasn’t a new construct, the Labour government had typically been good at redistribution but bad at recognition. This reached its apotheosis in Gordon Brown’s famous “bigoted woman” moment. As gaffes go, it would have passed without remark had it not been seen to contain some essential truth – that he and his predecessor despised the very people they claimed to prioritise.
Three Conservative prime ministers, meanwhile, have been very good at recognition and heartbreakingly bad at redistribution. They have systematically impoverished the very people whose worldview they say they champion. Their failure to redistribute needs little analysis: they don’t do it because they choose not to.
Yet this quest for identity-building issues – patriotism, British exceptionalism, nostalgia, monoculturalism – is much more than a simple balancing act: “Here, have this orgy of flag-waving in lieu of liveable sick pay.” It has proved extremely useful to them in neutralising the Labour party, which for more than 10 years has been unable to find solid ground on this matter.
Successive Labour leaders have essayed the acts of recognition that focus groups have told them were required, and either failed quietly, by shuffling away their inconvenient points of difference, or failed explosively – Ed Miliband’s “curbs on immigration” mug, Jeremy Corbyn’s bungled attempt to whip for abstention on a really ugly immigration bill in 2019. The problem is not that they disappoint their beloved liberal elite, but rather that nobody believes them; nobody ever bought that Miliband was anti-immigration, or that Corbyn supported Brexit, or that Keir Starmer has a union flag in his kitchen. If they’re not who they say they are, who on earth are they? They defy definition, and the blurring effect follows them even when they exit enemy territory to talk about the NHS or regional inequality, so that a soft Tory like Jeremy Hunt can sound more convincing on social care than any given Labour MP.
The Conservatives’ culture wars, as boring as they are, have been magnificently effective, partly because they are agile. The current fixation on “wokeness” is an adaptation to the fact that “elitism” as an idea was beginning to fray. Labour cannot carry on surrendering to a Tory version of recognition which will always shape-shift on demand, but nor can it go back to ignoring recognition altogether.
Instead, Labour needs to attack the foundational myth: the Conservatives haven’t done anything complicated; they have merely characterised the red wall exclusively by those features with which all the other walls – the youth wall, the tartan wall, the metropolitan wall – could not possibly agree. But there are other issues on which these constituencies would agree, ideas that may sound economic but actually form the cornerstone of identities: that one ought, for instance, to be able to sustain oneself with dignity and without hardship by working. This has much higher salience than what “woke” does or doesn’t mean. There is opportunity in the sheer silliness of the current debate for Labour to start building their red bridge.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist