Labour backbenchers’ defence of Woolas goes beyond tribalism

November 10, 2010

It’s an unusual feeling, agreeing with the woman who wanted to make it legal for wives to kill their husbands, but Harriet Harman’s condemnation of Phil Woolas was a refreshing return to form for the ginger-baiting avatar of political correctness. It’s also entirely unsurprising that Labour backbenchers have immediately rushed to condemn her in turn for attacking one of their own. We now have the editor of Labour Uncut claiming that Woolas was the scapegoat for the affront to liberal conscience caused by his victory using the politics of race. Dan Hodges’ article reveals an attitude held by some members of the Labour Party that seems to be saying, ‘Screw the bourgeois, their concerns are incidental to those of the proletariat’. This is despite the fact that, if race really was an issue in Oldham, you’d have expected the BNP to come better than 4th place.

What’s more important here – and what I would argue lies at the heart of Labour backbenchers’ reaction to Harman – is the implicit rejection of the use of the politics of identity that lies central to the judgement. Woolas cast the Lib Dem candidate as belonging to a tribe opposed to his angry white men, despite the fact that it was untrue. This form of identity campaigning has always been central to the Labour movement, normally in the form of class, but lately in particular areas of the country – Tower Hamlets, I’m looking at you – in the form of race, too.

Rejecting identity politics means rejecting class-based politics too. The grouping of individuals by an outsider to that group for purposes of influence and control is always anathema to liberals (with a small ‘l’) but is the cornerstone of socialism. This judgement cuts to the heart of that sort of class-based mindset, and in doing so condemns the way in which many Labour members see the world. It’s hardly surprising that Harman received such condemnation as a consequence.

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