• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Identity politics has conquered the Westminster bubble

Something strange has happened to British politics: more and more social and political grievances are being aired and conducted through accusations and counter-accusations of Islamophobia or anti-Semitism or some other form of prejudice. This ‘racism’ game seems to be the only one in town at the moment.

Even before the media were finished with putting Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism under the microscope, you could already hear voices of outraged Labour supporters yelling: ‘What about Islamophobia?!’ According to these people, the focus on expressions of Judeophobia in certain Labour circles was simply a distraction from the allegedly far larger problem of Islamophobia afflicting British society.

Many of these crusaders against Islamophobia were actually delighted when Boris Johnson expressed his dislike of the niqab and burqa. His remarks were seized upon as proof not only that he himself is a racist, but also that the Tories have a serious problem with Islamophobia. In the blink of an eye, the Muslim Council of Britain was demanding an inquiry into Tory Party Islamophobia. The MCB went so far as to claim that Boris’s comments ‘highlighted the underbelly of Islamophobia’ in Tory circles.

With one party overwhelmed by its inability to deal with anti-Semitism and the other accused of embracing an Islamophobic worldview, a symmetrical relationship of prejudice and victimisation has developed between two camps of competing victimhoods. Sadly, we seem to be moving into a territory in which politics is increasingly reduced to a zero-sum conflict between alleged anti-Semites and alleged Islamophobes.

I could write an article questioning the wisdom of comparing someone who expresses dislike of a head-dress with someone who expresses hatred for the Jews… but I will leave that assignment to a later date. What is more interesting right now – and also more disturbing – is the ease with which charges and counter-charges of racism have become the medium through which public discourse is conducted. Politicians and media commentators seem irresistibly drawn towards trying to make sense of the world through the simplistic idiom of identity politics.

Identity politics continually feeds on itself. A few months ago, commentators were obsessed with sexual harassment in political parties. Making MPs resign over their alleged sexual misdemeanours became the new game in the Westminster bubble. The politics of victimhood then directed its attentions towards the supposed epidemic of bullying faced by hapless MPs. Politicians have also tried to secure for themselves the symbolic status of victimhood by telling the world about all the nasty internet trolls who blight their lives. And now we have the all-consuming culture of accusation and victimhood around Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Once upon a time, political passions were devoted to discussing economic, social and political issues that touched upon the lives of citizens. What mattered about political parties was not how they conducted their internal affairs, but the quality of their policies and their visions for the future. In more recent times, the Culture War and identity politics have displaced those old political projects, and what we are left with is a wasteland where claims of victimisation are the new political slogans. Liberating public life from its obsession with identity and victimhood is the first step towards overcoming the current climate of political stasis.

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