January 7, 2020
In the aftermath of the crushing Labour defeat in the UK in December 2019, a race is about to begin to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party. This race will indicate the direction in which leftwing British politics will be headed and one issue is likely to dominate: multiculturalist citizenship and the defence of pluralism, despite temptations to shift to the right in the backdrop of last month’s failure at the polls. The issue of citizenship within this is significant, not simply in the UK but across Europe.
In the heyday of the Labour government from 1997 to 2010, there were wide-ranging discussions around multiculturalism, and how authorities ought to respect the diversity of their populations. In the aftermath of the Brexit campaign, the issue of respecting diversity came to the front and not in a good way. On one hand, the most nativist and parochial forces in the UK had little shame in scaremongering about diversity in the UK to try to spur identitarian politics. But the demographics tell a different story: 87 per cent of Britons identify as “white British”; about 7 per cent identify as any type of Asian or Asian-British; 3 per cent as Black or Black British. This is an incredibly small number, but one that populists blew out of proportion to argue that change in the UK was coming at an incredible rate and withdrawal from the EU was necessary to avoid some kind of demographic downfall of the white majority.
But it is not simply the right that talks of “respecting” the “white majority”. In the aftermath of Labour’s defeat in 2019, various voices on the left speculated why the vote had turned out the way it did. And a significant number of voices argued that “working class people” had deserted Labour because they felt left behind.
“Working class people” is generally understood to be code for “white working class people”, as when it came to non-white minorities of the working class, they generally voted for Labour according to the available statistics. But this is the new field of debate: how can Labour tack further to the right on identity issues and multiculturalism in order to take voters away from the Conservatives?
Into that niche space enters “Blue Labour”, whose founder Maurice Glasman once declared his vision was: “to build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the English Defence League within our party”. This defence league is one of the most far-right wing populist movements in recent history.
Blue Labour has moved on in the past few years. But when it comes to immigration and respect for citizenship rooted in diversity, it is not clear if it has developed very much. What is more, it is a straw man argument. While public discussions on multiculturalism are underdeveloped and have been used for populist political gain, others have already taken the discussion to the next level.
People such as Lord Bhikhu Parekh of the British House of Lords and Professor Tariq Modood of Bristol University, along with academics such as myself, prioritise the development of multiculturalism within a cohesive notion of common citizenship. To put it bluntly, no one is advocating for multiculturalism as a way to break up national belonging. Rather, it is – and has clearly been for a very long time – a way to reimagine national belonging, so that it becomes more inclusive and more durable. The likes of Blue Labour ought to realise that quickly.
But it is not simply about Blue Labour in the UK. There are scores of parties across the European continent that are jumping on the bandwagon of populist bigotry to gain currency at the ballot box. They are not all right-wing, even though much of their discourse might sound like it.
The European project has seen a massive blow over the last few years, both in terms of Brexit, which questioned the cohesion of the EU itself, and the temptation faced by some European countries to bring populist bigotry into the mainstream. There is indeed something that is missing within public discourse which leads us to grasp simplistic answers in a confusing world. But our leaders ought not to seek the easy and the superficial, which simply gives them short-term political gain. They should look beyond that, and see the opportunities in fully embracing diverse societies. If nothing else, history teaches us bigoted populism against minorities on our continent works out very badly indeed. We can and we should do much better.
Dr HA Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Source: The National