Any student of Sociology or Psychology will doubtless be familiar with Henri Tafjel’s work in-groups and out-groups. Briefly, an in-group is a collection of individuals who self-identify with a given denomination whereas an out-group are those excluded by the in-group by virtue of their not fitting the requirements to be part of it. The idea is basically the same as Max Weber’s status groups, and examples can be found all over society. For example, Arsenal fans are one big in-group, and if you happen to support Tottenham Hotspur, you are the epitome of an out-group to them, representing everything to be loathed about opposition clubs. I am sure you will be able to pick your own favourite examples from Protestants/Catholics to trad/modern jazz lovers etc.
Needless to say, a great deal of in/out-group conflict is just friendly rivalry. However, it easily has the potential to become bitter. To continue with the above sporting example, football violence is far less common nowadays, but if nationalism or religious sectarianism are thrown into the mix, you get conflicts when English clubs play in Italy or when Rangers play Celtic. It is this bitterness that we are seeing more and more in British politics as the nation becomes increasingly polarised, and the left is being hurt by it the most.
It is obvious to anyone that the aim of any political party should be to cast their net wide enough to maximise their ‘in’ group and get elected. This is where the left have a fundamental problem. Loosely speaking, the left is based on the idea that there are inherent structural inequalities in society caused by capitalism, patriarchy, racism etc. and that these conflicts must be addressed through radical reform. In contrast, the right holds that inequalities are natural, and that society should be conserved more as less at is, based around the values of family, tradition and entrepeneurship. Obviously parties are not as fixed as this, and Labour have dropped their opposition to capitalism while the Conservatives have placed less emphasis on tradition, but these remain the basic ideas behind their ideologies, and certainly many of their activists.
Effectively, this makes the left the architects of their own demise. It can only win on a traditional left platform if either enough people are disadvantaged enough to constitute a majority – such as in the early 20th century – or the plight of those who are is so great and obvious that people cannot help but feel moved to help them. Such obvious inequities as the denial of voting rights to women and segregation were untenable, and liberation movements were able to build up enough resistance to the policies from people who weren’t affected by them as well as those who were. Likewise support for a post-war welfare state was cemented by voters who were appalled by the idea of veterans returning to sub-standard housing and no medical care. In contrast, modern inequalities are not so obvious. A sizeable part of the population believe there is no serious inequality between sexes or races, and that real poverty is a thing of the past. This is partially due to reporting bias, but it is also true that conditions for all are arguably a lot better than they were 100 years ago, and talk of ‘micro-aggressions’ et al will always be written off as ‘PC gawn mad’ whether they are real or not.
Herein lies the left’s problem. As the movement has grown more divided by politics of identity and the absence of class-based politics, the possible in-group has shrunk and shrunk. The left can no longer offer a vision of uplifting a large proletariat against their oppressors, and instead has become focused on minority interest groups – LGBT, BAME, women, migrants etc. James Bloodworth argues that this is because the left has become middle class, and hence has less to say about genuine economic change, and there is a lot of truth in this. Obviously there is nothing wrong with tackling prejudice where it exists, but unfortunately the way the left frequently goes about this has left people feeling that the movement is deeply suspicious, if not openly hostile, to whiteness, maleness and Englishness. Things like the negative reaction to Liz Kendall’s intervention on the need to help failing white working-class schoolchildren only confirm this view. Needless to say, when you are in a country which is predominately white and English, and 48% male, turning this demographic into an out-group isn’t a great electoral strategy.
The biggest beneficiary of this was obviously UKIP, who made their in-group one of the demographic I just mentioned. However, the Conservatives were also able to play the game very well. Despite actually being a vehicle to reinforce economic and social privilege, the Tories were able to make themselves out to be unifiers against the ‘divisive forces’ of the left. They sold a vision of society where anyone can be a part of their in-group as long as they work hard, take risks, want to succeed and live by the rules. In return, those who vote for them and do so can expect rewards in the form of tax cuts and other financial incentives. They sold this offer as being open to all sections of society, and as such saw their highest vote share ever amongst LGBT and BAME individuals, vindicating Cameron’s decision to detoxify the brand as a masterstroke.
All of this has led to a nightmare scenario for not only the left in England, but across much of the western world. Its numerous successes in the 20th century changed society, but these changes mean that it cannot rely on its old hymn sheet. We must recognise that we need to choose our battles and our rhetoric a lot more carefully, that we have only won in the past when we have chimed with the common mood, not thrown ourselves valiantly against it, and that unless we accept this, we will never take power again.