On Red and Blue

I’ve had a couple of experiences on Twitter recently which I’m going to generalise into a statement about the whole of British politics at the moment, like a proper columnist would, or something.

(I’m being flippant because this is one of those posts where I think I’m feeling round the edges of something important, but am not at all sure about my own analysis — this post deals with a lot of ideas around identity, class, and more, about which many people are sensitive and which I have shown myself in the past to be remarkably tone-deaf about — if I cause offence by saying something stupid, please be gentle).

A few days ago, I tweeted something I’d seen elsewhere, a joke about how it would be stupid to move from the north of England to the south-east. In doing so I inadvertently caused a great deal of offence to a friend of mine — one of the people whose friendship I value most highly — who lives in London and moved there from the north.

My friend said that this joke, which I had meant as a mild bit of punching up, read to him like the same kind of ranting about the “metropolitan elite” that UKIP do. It hadn’t read *at all* like that to me, but then I realised that my friend is a gay man a few years older than me, and that (while we’ve never talked about this, and didn’t even in this conversation, so I may well be imposing additional meanings here that he didn’t mean, which is one reason I’m not naming him) a gay man moving from Greater Manchester to London in the very early 1990s, when James Anderton was still in charge of policing in Greater Manchester, may have a *very* different perception of what “moving from the north to the south” means than I do.

But then I also thought about my own reaction a couple of weeks earlier, when my wife Holly retweeted something *she* found funny — a joke “UKIP Cookbook” that was listing all the great British food we could eat post-Brexit instead of foreign food. And it was basically just my own diet. I was brought up working class in the north, and being autistic I have a strong reaction both to complex flavours and to unfamiliar ones, so my diet is very much that of a stereotypical old working class man — except I wouldn’t put brown sauce or tomato ketchup on my food, because that would make it too exciting.

And this is a problem right now, because there’s a realignment in politics going on. It may be an abortive one — our voting system is *very* resistant to change — but the combination of the Brexit vote and the reaction to Trump seems to be causing a major rethink of where the lines are in British politics — on one side are Labour, the Tories, and UKIP, and on the other side are the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the SNP.

I came across a line the other day in a comments thread, which stuck with me: There are two basic categories of political ideology: “nobody wins unless everybody wins” and “nobody wins unless somebody else loses”. The post-2016 realignment in British politics certainly seems to me to be along those lines, with the Lib Dems, Greens, and SNP all arguing to various degrees for an open, internationalist, non-zero-sum world (to quote Buckminster Fuller, all seem to have the aim “To make the World work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone” — the SNP may be a special case there, as they’re a nationalist party by definition, but they seem to have a fairly internationalist view of nationalism — I don’t properly grok Scottish nationalism…), while Labour, the Tories, and UKIP all seem to be arguing for a sectional-interest zero-sum world in which “we” (white British people who fit the gender binary) have to take more and stop “them” (anyone who isn’t all of those things) from getting anything.

Whether, and to what extent, this split exists in the population at large is open to question — at least some Brexit voters were supporters of “Lexit”, while no doubt some Remain voters hate foreigners but were convinced by economic arguments that they would be worse off. (And this is, of course, one of the reasons I don’t like referendums — a single, simple, binary yes-or-no question is treated as having implications *far* beyond the question asked.) But right now party politics seems to be aligning that way, using the supposed fissure around the question of EU membership (a question to which the answer actually reads to me as most people saying “I don’t know and I don’t care”) as a proxy for a general set of worldviews.

Now, whether this realignment lasts or not, and whether it’s a good thing or not, I don’t know. But with it comes a big danger, and it’s one we can see in those tweets I talked about at the start.

Because people are treating this realignment as a proxy for even more things. We’re splitting the world into a binary, and I don’t like binaries at the best of times, but I especially don’t like this one.

There are many possible divisions that the remain/leave binary can be mapped on to, which one could make a sort-of convincing argument about. It can be mapped to north vs south (if you ignore Scotland), England vs the Celtic countries (if you ignore Wales), rich vs poor, London vs rest of UK, old vs young, left vs right, Cavalier vs Roundhead (I could make a surprisingly good case for that one), boomers vs Gen X/millennials, industrial towns vs university towns, and so on.

But the one that seems to be taking hold is one of an internationalist, rootless, metropolitan liberal elite against salt-of-the-earth working-class types who are protectionist Little Englanders.

Now, this is just as much a nonsense as any of these other false binaries. Just compare, for example, prominent hard-right-winger Daniel Hannan (born in Peru on one of his parents’ multiple South American landholdings, educated at the £11,310-per-term boarding school Marlborough College and Oxford, speaker of three languages) with Lib Dem leader Tim Farron (brought up by a single mother on a council estate in Preston, educated at Lostock Hall Community High School, thick Lancashire accent). But it’s a false binary that is very, very appealing to the people in charge at the moment.

And it’s one that the liberal left are, on occasion, more than happy to live up to, in little things like that “UKIP cookbook” tweet, or in bigger things — during the AV referendum, for example, the Yes campaign tried to appeal to the public by putting out leaflets with Eddie Izzard and Benjamin Zephaniah supporting our side. While I’m a fan of both men, that did rather play into the stereotypes about us.

And this is, really, a *big* problem. Because it’s looking to me scarily like we’re heading for a US-style “culture war” in the UK. And just as in that case, a war between “the elite” and “the salt of the earth” would mostly lead to collateral damage among people who are neither — LGBT people (especially trans people given the current mood music, but the others in the acronym aren’t on particularly sturdy ground either), immigrants, BAME people, disabled people, and those who fit into multiple categories.

Not only that (as if that weren’t bad enough) but it hurts everyone. Think of the people in red states, being harmed by the economic policies of the Republicans but being condescended to by the blue-staters — and especially think of the people in red states who *don’t* vote Republican, but who won’t enthusiastically vote Democrat either. And think of the Democrats who can’t win, despite being the less-awful of the two major parties, because the image of them is of snooty elitists — because a Latinx Wal-Mart greeter living in a cockroach-infested one-room apartment is magically “elite” because they’re doing it in California or New York, though the main effect that has on them is to make their rent ridiculously high.

The solution is not the kind of professional-Scouser more-working-class-than-thou attitude of right-wing politicians like Paul Nuttalls of the UKIPs or Andy “I’m Northern, Me” Burnhams of the Labours. Nor is it being posh but “recognising real concerns” and being “moderate and sensible”.

Rather, it’s recognising that people are complex individuals, and that while some people fit the stereotypes, most don’t. It’s trying, as far as possible, to have an identity politics that allows people to have multifaceted identities.

Because no-one, on any side, actually fits these stereotypes. It’s very easy, on seeing the news that Stewart Lee has joined the Lib Dems, to say “well, that’s the kind of thing they do in that London, isn’t it?”, and it’s equally easy for those in London to treat people in the north the way Lee does on his TV show, as drooling idiots who say things like “well, that’s the kind of thing they do in that London, isn’t it?”

And to an extent that’s OK when you’re just making a joke — although even the most innocent joke about that kind of identity issue can hurt people in ways you’d never expect. But if you try — on any side — to tie your views on a whole host of nuanced political issues to things people see as an intrinsic part of their identity, and then give them a straight either/or choice, you may well not get the result you’d like.

Because people are multifaceted and complicated, and very rarely will their political views match the identity you assign them. And most people’s identity is far more complex than the stereotypes, and you never know who you might be stereotyping by accident.

A straight white fat Northern working-class man on a low income, with a strong Northern accent, who regularly eats at Greggs and doesn’t like subtitled films or vegetables, shops at Iceland and ASDA, and isn’t actually even sure what a quinoa is but knows he wouldn’t like it if he tried it.


a disabled Lib Dem member, a homeowner in a rapidly-gentrifying suburb of a major city, who works in the media and used to work in IT, a published novelist and member of Amnesty and Greenpeace who has read the Guardian all his life, who studied at Oxford university, used to drink lattes constantly but switched to Americanos to try to cut down his dairy intake, and who’s married to a disabled bisexual immigrant.

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7 Responses to On Red and Blue

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    There are many possible divisions that the remain/leave binary can be mapped on to, which one could make a sort-of convincing argument about. It can be mapped to north vs south (if you ignore Scotland), England vs the Celtic countries (if you ignore Wales), rich vs poor, London vs rest of UK, old vs young, left vs right, Cavalier vs Roundhead (I could make a surprisingly good case for that one), boomers vs Gen X/millennials, industrial towns vs university towns, and so on.

    For the record, the data on voting by wards that was recently released by Martin Rosenbaum clearly shows that by far the strongest correlation is with educational level. It also shows some interesting surprises. For example, while Leave-voting increases with age up to about 50, it tails off after that. And Leave votes are were stronger common in both very white and very non-white wards than in more evenly mixed wards.

  2. Tony Harms says:

    Quinoa? It sort of like Semolina mate.

  3. David Brain says:

    That ideology comment, whilst obviously oversimplistic, works for me. I’ve generally tended to feel that the (equally oversimplistic) options were “this does something that helps me but may – as a side effect – help other people”, and “this does something that helps lots of people but may – as a side effect – help me.”

    But yeah, the binary problem is the main reason why I’ve never been able to join a political party – because they always end up being too tribal; even suggesting that “the other side” might have a good idea is sometimes enough to get you exiled, which is why when a major political leader does it, is has to be spun so violently, rather than having them stand up and say “you know what, this is sensible.”

    • Mike Taylor says:

      David, I think it’s even worse than that. We have an ideology now, exemplified most obviously by Trump, where something is only a win for me if it’s a loss for other people. The point of trade negotiation is not to improve your own country’s lot, but to be the winner.

  4. andrewducker says:

    The simplest way to think about the SNP is that it’s a group of fellow travellers who have in common that they think that Scotland would be better off it it wasn’t ruled by England.

    Specifically, in my case (and that of many people around me, in my lovely liberal bubble) that Westminster is not being reformed any time soon, and that being out from under it would allow Scotland to be an altogether nicer place.

    Also, that in Scotland their main opposition wasn’t the Conservatives (because there weren’t many of those left) but corrupt Labour politicians taking their voters for granted. All they had to do to pull those people in was be competent, less rubbish than Labour, and not in government with the Conservatives.

  5. rob1parsons says:

    What have you got against subtitled vegetables?

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