Is Identity Politics Changing the Political Scene in the UK?

Are the old class-structured identities fading and are we beginning to see similarities to Northern Ireland’s politics in the rest of the UK?

By James Steel

Back in the late 1970s, the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher looked at the political climate and saw an opportunity to break down the stereotypes of who a Conservative voter is. Up until that point, working-class communities had never been the Tories’ target audience, and it was only the Liberals led by David Steel that aimed to bridge the divide between the middle and upper classes and the working class. In the context of the working-class dissatisfaction with the actions of the unions during the Winter of Discontent, the Tories rose to power for the next 18 years by concentrating on policies that had a natural appeal to traditional working-class voters. 

Tony Blair’s New Labour was the force that stopped this by understanding that Labour’s return to power would only be achieved through developing policies that appealed to the middle-class and shedding Labour’s identity as a working-class party. David Cameron’s Tories then followed suit in aiming for the middle-class vote, which in 40 years had significantly grown, marking a new turn in political parties’ strategy and self-vision. Traditional party identities were once again embraced in 2015, after the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. 

In 2019 however, we now have a new outlook on how people see themselves in a political sense. There are two prominent factions: those who subscribe to a nationalist, protectionist agenda with traits of small conservatism and those who promote an internationalist, tolerant agenda based around social liberal values. The migrant crisis, Brexit and the climate emergency have created the framework for these two camps to be created and for the political sphere to be significantly altered. 

In the political party arena, we are starting to see this at play. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has embraced a nationalist agenda and is ready to abandon its traditional Southern liberal strongholds for seats in the north of England in areas which voted for leaving the European Union in heavy numbers and that currently have sitting Labour Party MPs. The Labour Party by contrast is having an identity crisis when it comes to the areas they wish to keep and win. The dilemma is very much between their traditional working-class areas in the North that voted for leaving the EU and the more suburban liberal seats in the south of England. It was shown in the local and European elections – in the European Parliamentary election held in May 2019, Guildford Borough saw the triumph of the Liberal Democrats while Labour came in 6th behind Change UK – that trying to keep both sides happy is not working. 

Finally, a party written off from being in the mainframe of political discussion for decades by the media, the Liberal Democrats are on the surge, winning both left-behind liberal Tory voters and internationalist Labour voters. Not only that but on most polling, it seems like the party is set to win the largest number of MPs since David Lloyd George in the 1920s.  

Identity politics in Northern Ireland bears some similarities to the current state of the UK. There has been a divide between the Unionist DUP and the Nationalist Sinn Fein, and in the middle stands the Alliance Party (sister party of the Liberal Democrats), which is trying to go beyond that polarisation. This type of politics has had the effect of subverting the link that traditionally existed between one’s class identity and one’s political affiliation.

Currently, there are signs that class politics is no longer the dominant form of identity politics in the UK, as the divide between nationalist and internationalist viewpoints becomes the main point of contention and therefore the most prominent form of identity politics. Of course, this could all change if another massive political event were to take place, but the current course seems to be set on a critical change in how people envision the connection between their interests and identities on the one hand and their political stance on the other.

James Steel is a Hospitality & Tourism masters student at the University of Surrey.

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