A long read for a Wednesday lunchtime: Tim Farron on Vince, Vulcans, the centre ground and “identity politics”

A couple of years ago, Tim Farron’s often powerful speeches excited and enthused Liberal Democrats and beyond as membership more than doubled in his two years as leader. Too often these days his remarks or his actions cause anger and anxiety. I know that when I see the word Farron on Twitter, I’m thinking “Oh no, what’s he done now.”  Don’t get me wrong, given the same choice I had in 2015, I’d vote for him again. However, in his quest to become leader and president before that, he went out of his way to build alliances with certain groupings in the party. It’s fair to say that some of those people feel intensely let down by certain of his pronouncements. They bear the scars of defending him in the face of some pretty hostile stuff from within and outwith the party. He shouldn’t underestimate what people went through showing loyalty to him.

To them, it feels like Tim is throwing a flame thrower at the bridges. On the other hand, Tim doesn’t seem to understand why they’re so upset. The way he sees it, he’s not picking on one group of people because he thinks we’re all sinners. Having spent a lot of time amongst evangelical Christians in my teens, I strongly suspect my registry office do 30 years ago doesn’t quite fulfil their standard of marriage.

I don’t actually care whether he thinks certain bits of my life are sinful or not and it makes no difference to how he treats me. We’ve worked perfectly well together in the past and I’m sure we will do so again. The big thing is, though, that you don’t tend to get beaten up for having a registry office do. You are more likely to be the victim of a hate crime if you are LGBT. That’s where his comments on these issues can cause actual harm to actual people. It legitimises those who would undermine just and equal treatment of LGBT+ people. I think that Tim needs to understand that. 

On Monday night Twitter started to get a bit unsettled again. This time it was his comments on “identity politics” at an Oxford Union speech that caused some fairly widespread consternation amongst Lib Dems and others.

The term “identity politics” is generally used as a derogatory term by those on the alt-right about any marginalised group who are fighting against discrimination. And they don’t just do it for themselves, they show solidarity with others who are marginalised, too. Jennie Rigg explores the concept here.

If you point out the gender pay gap, or that bisexuals routinely have horrendous mental health, or that black women are held to impossible standards of behaviour that white women aren’t, or that 45% of trans youth have attempted suicide, as sure as eggs is eggs you’ll get some white guy moaning at you about identity politics, and how we should practise “equalism, not feminism”, and how we’re all equal anyway these days now.

When people use the phrase “identity politics” they are generally saying that all those marginalised groups should just stop fighting for fair treatment and leave all the power to the white men where they think it belongs. It was surprising to hear Tim, who has stood up for some of the most marginalised groups in our society, echo this sort of language. 

I thought the only fair way to judge it was to look at the whole speech in context and I’m grateful to Tim for kindly sending me a copy. The stuff that’s caused the controversy is not even the main subject of the speech, which is about whether the centre ground of politics is a myth and exploring the common principles that tie it together and looking at the prospects of a new party.

For me, that section just doesn’t fit in. Apart from anything else the sort of people who need to work together or be appealed to are the sort of people who are generally reasonably fair minded people who understand  the discrimination women, LGBT folk, disabled people and  people of colour face – and the intersectionality between those groups – or if they don’t, they are more likely to  be persuaded by evidence. How much better would it have been to say: “We’re seeing attacks on different groups of people from the likes of Trump and the right. We need to make sure that the equal rights and legal protections that have been so hard won are not compromised in any way.” The far left and far right don’t get this stuff at all.  They are more interested in their own brand of revolution. 

There are a few interesting observations on modern politics and some uncomfortable ideas in the speech, but I’ll let you find them for yourselves. Let us know what you think (politely) in the comments.

Is the centre ground a myth?

A great question and title, I was going to congratulate you on it… and then I realise that my office had come up with it.  which makes me think they are spending too much time chin-stroking and not enough time campaigning.  I shall have words

What I love about ‘is the centre ground a myth?’ is that it implies glamour and mystery.. putting the centre ground on a level with Atlantis, Planet Vulcan and Eldorado… when actually we’re talking about Stephen Kinnock, Vince Cable and Nicky Morgan.  Lovely people, but not quite on a par..

And I have indeed met all three of them and I can vouch that they are real people, not mythological in any apparent way.

The centre ground.  How boring.  I joined the Liberals as a 16 year old because I’m a liberal, because I was an awkward kid who was passionate about politics and didn’t want to conform to the tedious sheeplike predictability of joining the Tories or Labour.  No offence, but I thought that any old mediocrity could be a Labour or Tory MP.  Whats the point in that?  Its like winning the Premier League with Man Utd, Chelsea or, these days, Man City – its expected, its not interesting.  Winning the league with Leicester City, or if you go back a few years, Blackburn Rovers or Nottingham Forest – that’s interesting, that’s worth doing. Being a Liberal, even becoming a Liberal MP, that’s interesting, its quirky, it’s worth doing.

That’s how my 16 year old head worked.  I had joined a radical liberal party.  Call me a centrist, and I’d have given you a very hard stare…

Today, at nearly 48 years of age, with 4 children, I look myself in the mirror and I come to the realisation that I am – in pretty much every sense – a centrist Dad.  And ladies and gentlemen, I am cool with that.  

So, of course the Liberal Democrats are in a sense the occupants of part of the political centre.  Depending upon how you define it of course… 

So, what is the centre ground?  Is it a myth?  And even if it isn’t a myth, does it really matter?

Defining characteristics of those inhabitants of a centre ground would be that they are idealistic but not dogmatic; 

that they accept what we used to refer to as the concept of the mixed economy – a regulated market economy but with state ownership of key cornerstone services and infrastructure. 

 Redistributive taxation and an enterprise culture.  

Pragmatic, seeking in all areas to compromise with others because of instinctive belief that no one movement or person or party has a monopoly on good ideas or even bad ones.  

And that compromising will extend not just across parties and UK communities but internationally too.  Its hard to see how a resident of the centre ground would be against us being in the EU, or NATO.

There are complications and camps within the centre ground, not just partisan divisions but instinctive and ideological.  For example, in the UK, Liberals tend to be social democrats.  But not all social democrats are liberals.  You only need to look at the moderate Labour government of 1997 – 2010 and their focus on ID cards, detention without trial, and the treatment of asylum seekers.  They were clearly social democratic, but not that liberal…

There is a great temptation for all of us with a political creed to make it sound more glorious and precise that it really is.  That a dawning of consciousness came up on us and that we concluded in some amazing epiphany that our political views are completely and utterly right.  If that really does describe you then frankly you should get out more.  In reality people come to political conclusions in a far more shambling and human way.

I went canvassing in my village about a month ago and a guy came to the door and said ‘Oh yes, I’m voting for your lot, lots of people do round here..’ I expected him then to say something nice about the hard work we do for the community… but he didn’t. He said this: ‘I’m voting for you because the Tories are evil, Labour can’t add up and you’re alright’.

People have spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds for market research like that.  You’ve heard of Worcester Woman, may I now introduce you to Milnthorpe Man.  

Now that three part assessment of the political menu is hardly inspirational, in fact it’s an almost insultingly boring label to wear… but in this world of extremes, of populism, authoritarianism of the left and right, I’d totally settle for boring right now.  

I am enthused by boring, I am desperate for boring.  Because boring means safe.  

And to be serious, that is precisely why we need a centre ground.  Because no one is free, no one can flourish or prosper if they aren’t safe.

Safe from the ideological experiments of the zealous and the ultra-convinced.  

And my evidence?  2 bits of evidence for you.  Exhibit A, the current Conservative Party.  The Conservative and Unionist Party to be precise.  

The Party of the free market, of Margaret Thatcher, the author, designer and lead advocate of the European Single Market…. Today, risking a return to violence in Northern Ireland, indeed risking the loss of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, fuelling nationalism and separatism in Scotland risking the loss of Scotland from the United Kingdom, turning their backs on a single market, extracting ourselves from the very institution that gives Britain its unique power and influence in the world, turning our backs on the European project which remains –  and without compare – the most successful peace project in the history of the world.  That this is not the party of MacMillan, Churchill and Heath is a given.  But Conservative rationalists need now to accept the truth that it isn’t even the party of Margaret Thatcher anymore.  No matter how much you might dress up Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, she was a free-marketeer, a unionist, a patriot, a European and a pragmatic internationalist.  Today’s conservative party is in practice absolutely none of those things.  If you are a true Thatcherite today then you are way to the left of the Conservative mainstream.  

That’s exhibit A.  Exhibit B?  Oh Jeremy Corbyn.

First off.  I like Jeremy Corbyn and I even admire Jeremy Corbyn.  I know him fairly well.  I mean, during the Blair years he was always in our lobby.  Not in Labours.

And I admire him, what I admire most about Jeremy is that he has – amazingly managed to unite all the Trots!  If you know anything about the far left then you will know that they are comprised of about 73 different factions all of whom hate the Tories less than they hate each other.  So Jezza has pulled off something of a miracle there, credit where its due.

I respect people with strong ideologies, even if they worry me.  But Jeremy is a socialist, not a social democrat.  He takes the basically Marxist position that society is easily analysable in a scientific way, and easily re-cast and ordered in a scientific way.  Now maybe he is right.  Empirical evidence suggests otherwise.  

Labour outperformed expectations in June last year.  But despite Theresa May pretty much throwing the election away, they still lost.  And Labour in its current form is clearly the Conservatives best hope of winning again.  You see, love him or not, Jeremy Corbyn is divisive.  There aren’t many people like me who disagree with him and like  him.  Most folks love him or hate him.  There is certainly no centre ground when it comes to views of Jezza.

And that matters.  In 1997, the Liberal Democrats didn’t just win Oxford West and Abingdon.  We also won Newbury.  Newbury!  We’d won it in a by election in 93 but in 97 against all the odds we held it.  And moderate conservative voters in Newbury who were thinking about voting Lib Dem were sent a lot of Tory direct mail.  I remember one piece – it said vote Lib Dem, and you’ll end up with Tony Blair in number 10.  The reaction of those voters was to shrug and say, well that doesn’t bother me too much.  Contrast that to 2015 when even nice cuddly Ed Milliband was presented as sufficiently worrying for millions of voters to back the Conservatives in marginal seats, even though many of them had no love for the Tories at all.  The problem we have if we want to see a non-Conservative government after the next election is that the current Labour leadership frightens the horses, it creates a narrative that allows the Conservatives to avoid taking responsibility for their own record and simply run a campaign that succeeds in persuading the voter to vote against their nightmares rather than voting for their dreams.

And let none of us be so naïve as to assume that the ruthless and well-funded Conservative party will make the crass errors of 2017 next time.  They won’t.  

The hard truth is that we will only beat the Conservatives by being cleverer than them, not by being wide-eyed and hopeful.  

The Conservatives themselves give us plenty of reasons to aspire to there being a centre ground to challenge them.  Brexit is not the be all and end all.  But it is a Trojan horse for those who now control the Conservative party.  We are now on a trajectory towards small government, partly because the Government’s own figures show that leaving the EU will cost the exchequer something like £120billion a year, and partly because the Conservatives have made the ideological choice to shrink the state.  For instance, we hear plenty of fanfare about new investment in mental health.  The reality is that most mental health trusts are having to make savings of 4 or 5% in their budgets every year far into the foreseeable future.  The overwhelming majority of schools are laying off teaching staff and teaching assistants.  Our police force is shrinking in every part of our country every year.  Our armed forces are smaller now than they have ever been.  Child poverty is at an all time high and yet the services available to support families are cut back every year.  Local government has seen a 40% cut in its funding with all the knock on effects on education, social care, social work and child protection.  

The British state is getting smaller, all in the name of the dogmatic right wing nationalist Conservatism that now rules the roost.  That right wing faction that now holds the Conservative party in its grip doesn’t give itself a name, like Momentum does.  It isn’t a mass membership outfit like Momentum.  But its far more effective.  It is insidious, and thousands of loyal Conservatives across the country know it and have voted with their feet and left.  As a result, the party that looks likely to run Britain for the next decade, has lost countless members.  The ludicrous reality is that the party that is making the British state smaller, is itself smaller than it has ever been.  The Conservative party’s membership is now around a fifth smaller than the Liberal Democrats.  In part this is because the very attractive gentleman who led the Liberal Democrats between 2015 and 2017, doubled that party’s membership, but I digress..

Many who would have counted themselves on the right of the Conservative party in the 80s and 90s have now left the party because it has become too right wing, too ideological and insufficiently interested in those historic Tory ideals of service and good government.

So many good people without a good political home.

The poison in our political culture, indeed in our national life, is identity politics.  

This is who I am.  You must accept me on my terms at all times or else you have committed violence against me.  And you whose identity is different, are committing an act of violence against me for being different, or for holding a different world view.

I challenge you, in the next 24 hours to take a moment in quiet to ponder the extent to which that might even describe you…

Identity politics is insidious, irrational and leads to decisions that fracture us as a community and which threaten to rob us of our liberties.  

Being concerned about identity politics doesn’t do any good unless you are keen to understand the other, and do your bit to act and think differently.

Because identity politics is emotional, we run the risk of asking the wrong questions.

I got asked by someone last week, ‘what do we need to say to leave voters to switch them to remain?’  My blunt answer is that for most people, this is really a very naïve question.  Asking a leave voter, what would it take for you to switch to remain, or a remain voter what would it take for you to support Brexit?  Is the equivalent of going the door of a Welsh miner in the 1980s and asking what would it take to persuade you to vote Tory?  Or to ask a Manchester United fan what it would take for them to switch to supporting Manchester City.  

Identity politics is all about symbolism.  I was with the parents of a friend of mine on one of the Scottish islands a few months ago. They are over 80 and they’ve farmed there for 60 years.  In a quiet moment over lunch, my friends Mum looked out over the moor to the neighbouring farm where a saltire flew from the tower.  She sighed.  ‘That’s what I hate the most.  They’ve stolen our flag’.  They’ve stolen our flag.  You can’t be Scottish unless you are a nationalist, you can’t be intelligent or decent unless you voted remain, you must not love your country because you failed to say something saccharine about Meghan and Harry.  

A real centre ground is about much more than ideology or economics, its about attitude, tone and conduct.  It’s about how we think about one another, speak to one another, act towards one another, listen to one another.  Telling one side to suck it up and stop whining, or the other that they are bigots isn’t just unpleasant, its extremely foolish.

Its counterproductive.  I’m a liberal, and I’m keen observer of US politics.   I was an Obama fan, I’d have enthusiastically voted for Hilary and I’m pretty horrified by President Trump.  But Donald Trump is a lesson to us about what happens when liberals get sucked into identity politics. The problem was not specifically what liberals believed or stood for. It was attitudinal.  Liberals acted as though they’d won the argument, and they treated with contempt anyone who spoke out of turn.  I’d argue that the Brexit vote had something of that in it too.

You see, every empire sows the seeds of its own opposition and overthrow through over-reach, arrogance and complacency.

This does not mean that we all have to agree with each other and have a soggy mush in the middle.  No, in fact the desire to assimilate people into one single set of cultural norms is utterly illiberal – not to mention incredibly dull… but ironically it’s the very thing that so called liberals have tried to do.  John Stuart Mill would tick them off and gently tell them that they are liberals in name only.  His contention was that the great threat to freedom was the tyranny of opinion.  That by social pressure, people who hold certain world views are frozen out and isolated.  The law doesn’t stop you thinking or believing certain things, but in reality you aren’t allowed to think or believe them.  

Real tolerance and diversity involves fighting for the rights and freedoms of people you don’t like or agree with.  Simply fighting for your own rights won’t do.

Put short.  Calling people gammon or snowflakes is beyond idiotic.  

So the centre ground is about being reasonable in our politics, economics, our tone of debate…. and its also about being reasonable about political realities.

The Tories are – marginally –  ahead in the polls.  Even the most loyal Tory supporter probably has to admit that this is somewhat surprising.  This is a government doing something that half the country didn’t want, and doing it in a way that about half of those who did want it, don’t like.  It is leaking cabinet members like a faulty bucket, it is split down the middle, riven by gaffs, mistakes.  It appears almost comically incompetent. It is overseeing the worst economic situation in years.  People’s real incomes are down, prices are up, public services are now visibly falling apart – police, schools, NHS… It is poorly led, badly split, on the wrong side of nearly everything… and still, it’s just about winning!

You see, Labour did better than expected last year.  But when all said and done, they came second and they’re still second despite the fact that their main opposition is rubbish.

When you are making Theresa May look good by comparison, you are letting the side down.

A movement that could give this awful government the drubbing it deserves needs not to be a myth, it needs to be real.

So does this mean a new party?  Well, maybe.  Tribalism probably stops liberal Tories and social democrats in Labour just joining the Lib Dems.  Of course tribalism might stop people like me joining a new party?  

So, to those who are seeking to set up a new party – let me give you some advice.  The first thing you need to work out, is what will your relationship be with the liberal democrats?  The Lib Dems have 2,000 councillors, 100,000 members, parliamentarians throughout Britain.  A heritage going back 150 years.  And they have the organisational capacity and expertise to actually win elections on the ground from the perilous position of being the third party.  Those who seek to set up a new party have none of those things.  If they want to survive even six months, they need the Lib Dems.  And personally, if a new party is what they want then I’ll be excited to work with them.  

The problem for the centre ground is that beyond the Lib Dems, all we hear is impressive individuals but no grassroots.  British politics today seems to be awash with generals without armies.

One of the charges made by the Labour moderates against Momentum is that its not good enough to just do and believe things that make  you feel good, you need to win elections so that you can do some good.

But this argument works back at the moderates too.  Unless a new movement can win electoral scraps in every council and in more than a hundred parliamentary constituencies, then will simply become – ironically – a carbon copy of UKIP.  Lots of bluster, good poll ratings and no bums on seats.

We are a month off the world cup.  I don’t expect England to do that well this time, I’m looking forward to being pleasantly surprised.  22 years ago.  I did expect England to do well. It was the European championships, held in England.  We’d battered Holland 4-1 and beaten Spain on penalties on our way to the semi finals.  Where we played Germany.  We were the better side… and lost on penalties.  After the game, John Motson interviews the crest fallen England manager Terry Venables and asks him, some what insensitively, ‘so Terry, what do you most admire about the Germans?’  Terry cut him back a look of contempt, ‘their results John, their results!’

And by that measure, I admire Tony Blair.  He beat the Tories three times.  He did so by drawing together a coalition that cut across normal party allegiances and by presenting a politics that was hopeful, competent and broadly progressive.  He did some really terrible things, and he missed some really good opportunities.

For all that, much was achieved, after a quarter of a century of decay the NHS was essentially saved by Tony Blair’s investment.  Similar boosts were felt across schools, the police service and much of the rest of the public sector.

You can’t do those things if you don’t win.  

A movement of the centre ground needs to show Macronesque ambition, practical calculated ambition.  

Winning must be our first and last thought in all that we do.

So.  A political victory for the centre ground, is not a myth.  

It is not planet Vulcan

Its more like planet mars.

In that it definitely exists, but is flipping difficult to get to.

And to do so will require putting aside our labels and prejudices and putting our country before our tribes.

Because I want a government that understands that the free market is only free if it is refereed

And that to keep us safe and prosperous we must be internationalist

That knows that small governments mean weak citizens

And ensures that the state works for the people not the people for the state.

A government that is both competent and compassionate.

…And I want a movement that is wily, mature and realistic enough to win

So that this vision actually happens.

So it is a difficult journey to a movement of the centre ground.  

But it is no myth.  

The question is: can we bury our pride, our tribalism, even our own personal ambition, 

in a common endeavour to reach it.  

I’m up for it if you are…

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Tim’s right that nationalism is bad. But the point is already made by Caron and Jennie that most people who complain about identity politics aren’t actually complaining about that. They are complaining about marginalised communities and their allies – whose rights liberals support – speaking up for their rights. Tim shouldn’t be surprised when people assume soundbites attacking identity politics are attacking marginalised groups, given the current usage of “identity politics” as a term.

    There’s a big problem around “tolerance” at the moment. The BBC have it, thinking that it means you have to listen to both sides equally, even when one side is right, and one side is wrong eg the debates between scientists and Lord Lawson on climate change. There’s also a belief among many that if someone says that some fundamental rights are up for negotiation then it suddenly becomes a legitimate debate. It’s not. I will not tolerate intolerance; I will not listen to “legitimate concerns” about my trans friends, nor will I listen to “legitimate concerns” over immigrants. We have to stand firm against people who are homophobic, or sexist, or transphobic, or racist bigots. Any debate where such words are not called out legitimises such bigoted views. And yet, here we have Tim implicitly saying that we have to listen to and engage with such people, and saying that identity politics is bad. No thanks. There are people who want to take away the rights of marginalised groups that liberals fought hard to secure. Tim is using their terminology and saying that we should engage with them.

    I might be minded to think this was all a misunderstanding, save for Tim’s history. Where is his speech calling out homophobes in the Christian church? Where is his speech where he calls for greater rights and tolerance for marginalised groups by the Christian church whose name he invokes regularly? That he chose to make this speech and not one calling on his friends to do better says as much as the content of the speech. Tim says “Real tolerance and diversity involves fighting for the rights and freedoms of people you don’t like or agree with.“ Another aspect of real tolerance and being an ally is calling out those you regularly associate with when they attack marginalised groups. I’m not aware of his having done this.

  • My main reaction, unrelated to the “identity politics” farrago? I like 16 year old Tim better than 48 year old Tim. I’m a Liberal, not a centrist. I think centrism is vapid, pointless capitulation of everything I hold dear. And reading the entirety of this speech hasn’t changed my mind.

    I’ve got the very British urge to say “sorry” here… but I’m not. I’m not sorry at all.

  • Tim Farron: My identity as a Christian is very important to me.

    Also Tim Farron: Identity politics is insidious and undermines our society.

    Maybe he just means other people’s identity politics, but his own are just fine?

  • Zoe O'connell 23rd May '18 - 1:19pm

    I disagree that calling out bigotry is foolish. No, we won’t convert those people we are calling out but then we never will. But we do need to be clear to others what our values are and that there are some things that are intolerable to liberals. You can argue about the language used to do that calling out, but objecting to it happening at all is deeply unhelpful.

    Tim’s speech reflects the increasing tendency to believe that we must respect all views and make statements about engaging with “genuinely held beliefs”. This does nothing except legitimise hate and put members of marginalised communities constantly on the defensive against people who object to their very existence.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd May '18 - 1:19pm

    I am also a Tim supporter, albeit I would not put him in charge of LGBT rights.
    I think however we need to define what we are talking about. When Tim complains of how Christians are treated in politics these days then that is also a kind of identity politics.
    Identity is about how you identify yourself after all. It has been central to politics in various forms from the beginning.

  • He seems to get tangled up, if you are in politics it is best just to stick with plain old common sense.

  • Katharine Pindar 23rd May '18 - 2:04pm

    ‘Milnthorpe man’ is my friend. I’ve only just met him, but I know he is a good friend. He said to Tim, “I am voting for your because the Tories are evil, Labour can’t add up and you’re alright.” Hello, friends all, that last bit is much what I wrote in a comment on my thread – that the majority of people in this country probably think we are a well-meaning bunch, who have been useful to the country in the past and maybe can be again in future. So it follows, forget about any further apology for black marks among the achievements of the past, wear our badge with pride and proclaim with confidence, it’s the Liberal Democrats who have the answers that the country needs. Tell young people what Tim always said, we care about your future and we know how to shape your forward march.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd May '18 - 2:08pm

    Interesting stuff from Tim though I would be a lot happier if Tim talked about Liberalism, not liberalism or centrism which are both meaningless words full of mush and sometimes (as in neoliberalism) dangerous rightwing nonsense masquerading as reason.

    But I agree 100% with what he says about identity politics.

    “The far left and far right don’t get this stuff at all. They are more interested in their own brand of revolution.” But so are the identity warriers. Liberalism is about accepting and respecting and supporting the identity of everyone, where they come from, what they are, and where they decide to be.

    But identity politics is about people saying “What I am is better than what you are”. That is fundamentally illiberal. When Tim says “Identity politics is insidious, irrational and leads to decisions that fracture us as a community and which threaten to rob us of our liberties” he is absolutely right. The point is – you don’t have to agree with someone, you have to accept what they are. You certainly do not have to go around trying to convert everyone else to your identity (where that is potentially possible).

    Where I worry is that Tim seems to have drifted away from his Liberal convictions in other areas, which is a pity.

  • Phil Wainewright 23rd May '18 - 2:16pm

    Having read it, it seems to me that Tim should have stuck to the phrase ‘tribal politics’ instead of introducing the loaded term ‘identity politics.’ It would have made it a much more sensible speech.

    Apart from that, what Jennie said. Centrism is Liberalism stripped of its soul and hung out to dry (qv ‘coalition’).

  • ” identity politics is about people saying “What I am is better than what you are”.”

    No it’s not. It’s about saying “just because I am different from you doesn’t mean you get to oppress me” – which I don’t think is in ANY way incompatible with liberalism.

  • Absolutely spot on comments from Tim Farron, and the entirely predictable reactions from those who completely miss the point.

  • Andrew Hinton 23rd May '18 - 3:01pm

    I can’t help but agree with Phil that what Tim describes as “identity politics” would be much better described as “tribalism”. Tony Greaves’s straw man attack on identity politics as being about saying my identity is better than yours would even hold some water then (sorry to mix metaphors).

    Sadly, though, I don’t think Tim is just using a badly chosen form of words. He thinks he is making a Clever Point about those mean bullies the… er… (checks notes) marginalised groups campaigning to protect their rights. Because you see calling people out on their privilege is pretty much the same as saying you are better than that person, isn’t it? (Spoilers: no. It isn’t.)

  • Lots of people with different definitions of “identity politics” here

    Me, I essentially agree with Tony Greaves’ viewpoint, but would phrase it differently. To me it means creating exclusive political alliances based on distinct identity groups, with the aim of advocating the interests of that group. Not denying this might bring short term gains that we all agree with, but in the long term I think it is hugely damaging to society because its divisive and fracturing nature.

    And I don’t think it is generally used as a derogatory term by those on the alt-right. It is used by a wide spectrum of people, very often liberally minded people (liberals instinctively disliking boxing people into groups based on rather archaic facets of identity, preferring to view people as individuals) from both left and right. And additionally, the alt-right are some of biggest purveyors of identity politics what with their white ethnocentricity. The “identity politics” that the alt-right don’t like is the type that involves anyone who isn’t white deriving any sort of social or political betterment. Which isn’t a criticism of identity politics at all, it is a dislike of competitive purveyors of identity politics doing identity politics better than they are.

    I never liked Tim Farron. Didn’t vote for him, never supported him, though his snap stance on the EU post referendum is something I appreciate him for. But if he is speaking out against the sort of identity politics I am defining, then I am rather glad that I can at last find some common ground with him

  • The main problems with identity politics is that it’s easily flipped and can lead to a kind of political separatism. On the plus side, people have identities which can have a larger group identity. This can be a source of pride as well unifying people which can result in positive social changes. The women’s movement, gay rights, the fight against racism and organised labour would be impossible without identity politics. But to me the problematic flip side is that the Alt Right is very much about identity politics and things like religion can themselves be completely at odds with progressive liberal values. I dunno, I think there’s a lot to be said for the broader idea of equality of treatment in the political sphere, but recognise that identity can be important

  • David Evans 23rd May '18 - 3:43pm

    While I agree with the principles behind Andrew’s comments, I do hope that he doesn’t believe a person really does have the right “to define myself as I choose and to be allowed to live the life I choose rather than one imposed on me”. Jenny’s point is much more succinct and apposite.

    As I have said on many occasions one of the key words in the preamble is “balance” where it says “we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community.” And how one chooses to define in terms of language used, can put two of these in direct conflict, because self-definition has implications for an individual in terms of liberty, but also it has implications for a community which needs terms to be clear and generally understood. For a liberal self defining as S, L, G, B, T etc. for an individual is acceptable, but self defining as a policeman or surgeon to a community is not.

    Likewise, being “allowed to live the life I choose” seems fine in principle, but not if the life chosen is one of bank robber or drug dealer.

    The problem I find with identity politics, whether it is promoting a statue of Margaret Thatcher because she was the first woman, or promoting an Old Etonian because he is a good chap, is that it is often used to trump other, much more relevant characteristics, like someone who has triumphed despite being poor or a child in care. Also it is used on occasions as a code for “you can’t touch me and if you say anything at all that is less than total and unequivocal approval of me and my views, I will shout you out as a bigot.” This to me goes way beyond Liberal tolerance and verges on a personal narcissism, which is getting more common in society, that of demanding approval.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd May '18 - 5:05pm

    I agree that it would have been better if Tim had used the term “tribal politics” rather than “identity politics”. Unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice through the Looking Glass:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    Tim cannot choose to define “identity politics” in a way that is not used by the majority of other users.

  • I would like to echo @james pugh’s comments.
    The term “identity politics” does not belong to the alt right. It it also used by liberals like myself who fear the balkanisation of our society.
    The fallacy behind Identity politics is that the possession of certain characteristics means that you share a common experience and face similar oppression. In reality we all posses an almost unique social DNA. Certain characteristics, gender, race, sexuality are regarded as more important than social class or economic opportunities. And so a white, male, middle aged working class man who has lost his job and may never work again is supposed to be concerned at the plight of the middle class women who is having problems getting a seat in Parliament on a place on the FTSE100 board of directors.
    I fail to see how Identity Politics is the same as community politics. The community I live and work in is made up of a glorious blend of young, old, white and ethnic, gay and straight, disabled and able bodies and we all work together, one people.

  • “Lots of people with different definitions of ‘identity politics’ here.”
    Exactly. And I think there are some people who have convinced themselves that their definition is universally accepted, and that’s just not the case. Myself, when I hear the term I think of the cybernats, Corbynistas and Trump defenders on social media. Therefore I’m with Tim. But that doesn’t mean I’m defending attacks against any community – in fact quite the opposite. So I think this is one of those slightly unreal arguments where people are arguing against shadows.
    Other than that, I too prefer the 16 yr old Tim. And I do wish our former leaders would stop talking about a new party. Call me tribal if you must, but we should not be encouraging that nonsense.

  • OnceALibDem 23rd May '18 - 7:41pm

    “In 1997, the Liberal Democrats didn’t just win Oxford West and Abingdon. We also won Newbury. Newbury! We’d won it in a by election in 93 but in 97 against all the odds we held it.”

    This is nonsense. It was widely expected that – given a decent result – the Lib Dems would hold Newbury at the 97 election and they polled over 50% of the vote with an 8k plus majority.


  • Many years ago as a Young Liberal I campaigned for a single state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem; for equality of the sexes; for gay rights; for racial equality; for workers and managers to run companies together; for an end to religious discrimination in Northern Ireland; for equality of opportunity; justice for all; an end to privilege. A truly Liberal society is impossible, as is a Christian one – love thy neighbour as thyself – or an anarchist one, but that does not mean it is not worth spending one’s life working towards. The ghettoisation I see as implicit in identity politics is the antithesis of Liberalism, and I hope and believe that that was what Tim was arguing.

  • I think we often associate identity politics with the far left, and dislike it as a result of that, but in principle is it a bad thing?

    As liberals, do we celebrate our differences, or ignore them? We can all agree that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, race, religion, sexuality etc, but that doesn’t mean pretending we aren’t all different (while remaining equal).

    Aren’t gay pride marches, the Notting Hill Carnival, the MOBO awards and countless other wonderful cultural events all about identity politics? And are they somehow a bad thing?

  • Nick Baird
    I sort of agree, but I associate a lot of the language of identity more with American politics and campus culture than anything else. Some of it doesn’t really fit Britain at all because the social tensions are very different. In a sense the process of adopting them can seem quite similar to how “liberal” is being used as a pejorative term and people expressing traditional UK socialist ideas are now routinely called the far left. In a weird way there’s a kind of desire to see specific American culture and problems as universal ones because pop culture has given them an almost glamorous sheen.

  • nigel hunter 24th May '18 - 12:01am

    So!- the alt right use the term identity politics as a derogatory term. you can also argue that that they have identity politics, a derogatory term for them. Be careful what you wish for.. for the term can be described equally for where your politics are.

  • Peter Chambers 24th May '18 - 12:29am

    There have been various different suggestions as to what identity politics is. If you think it is benign, or are not sure that it is a term with history I recommend that you read “Identity and Violence” by Amartya Sen . He put a lot of thought into the term after seeing riots and other serious violence during his youth in India. He defines his categories well and justifies them. For Sen identity politics is a created effect, supporting a political project, and designed to create an Other, who will then be used as a scapegoat. Torqemada, Trump, Caesar, Orban. It fits quite neatly.

    Some of those marginalised groups? There marginalisation might have been designed for them like a frame. Who benefited?

  • Liberalism always has an element of “I don’t like what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” I think what Tim was trying to say is that there are a large number of people who are saying “I don’t like what you say, so I’m going to stop you saying it.” That’s certainly the case with nationalism in Scotland, and both sides of the Brexit argument.

    TonyH though sums up what I think too (because he’s an all-round, decent kind of guy!) – Tim is trying to make the point that we have to be more respectful to those who oppose us. We might not be able to convert them, but I’m quite happy if after such a debate someone walks away saying “I don’t agree with you, but at least I respect you.”

  • Large White Bear 24th May '18 - 7:37am

    I am a gay man, happily married to my long-term partner and I find identity politics insulting, patronising and illiberal. These days I find myself quite often saying: ‘If you want to be my friend, DO NOT call me “LGBT”!’

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th May '18 - 8:01am

    Only thing is, @LWB, you got the freedom to marry your partner because of sustained effort by people who were decried for “identity politics” by the alt right. It was only 13 years ago that civil partnerships were introduced. Before then, same sex couples had no protection in law.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th May '18 - 8:07am

    @Keith I think the section of the speech where he talks about “gammon” and “snowflake” rightly does that. But there are some points of view that as a society we can’t respect – and we somehow have got to this space where, as I think Will said further up the thread, that we think we have to give racist views, for example, equivalence. I don’t think we do.

    If we are serious about healing the divisions in society we need to make sure that people have enough houses to live in, decent public services and enough money to live without worrying that they aren’t going to be able to feed themselves by the end of the week,

    Populists win by creating hatred and scapegoating groups of people and they should absolutely be called out for doing that.

  • Ian Hurdley 24th May '18 - 8:57am

    What disturbs me most, wherever it crops up, is certainty. It characterises the current Labour leadership and the current Tory leadership equally, but it also characterises several varieties of Christianity, including Evangelicals who have taken a term that applies equally to all denominations, but which has been annexed by one facet as a badge of honour. Speaking as a Christian of a different flavour, to insist that ‘we are all sinners’ may be theologically valid, but to insist that it should be worn as a badge by everyone is to indulge in identity religion, which is as bad or worse than identity politics.
    In politics, in religion, in pretty much any sphere of life we seem to be dangerously lacking in a bit of honest doubt.

  • Richard
    I think the majority of issues we have are to do with poor pay and instability. How do you make housing affordable for people in an increasingly casual low skill economy with cuts to social support? Paradoxically high end building projects are cropping up all over the place (very environmentally destructive) precisely because it is so profitable to build pseudo villages on greenfield sites! Yet home ownership is actually falling. To me it seems like more of a cost problem than a supply problem. You could build an endless number of properties, but unless the costs fell drastically to the point of a crash, which would be bad for the economy, then the notion of affordability is more of an abstract extrapolation of wishful thinking than an actuality. It’s a conundrum.

  • So much we discuss on many topics should start from the question “Why are we 7% in the polls?”
    The approach of the Lib Dem commitment to identity politics is, I think, a factor – certainly the accusation that we were “no longer interested in most of us” was brought up repeatedly when I was campaigning in April.
    So I think Tim had touched upon a valid point – even the speech feels a bit bolted together.
    Of course, we must be assiduous in fighting discrimination and prejudice, in building on the rights that have been won, and in protecting an individual’s right to live life as they choose.
    And of course marginalised groups have a right to fight vociferously for their rights.
    But for the Liberal Democrats these arguments are best won in the mainstream, by winning hearts and minds, calming fears, challenging prejudice and by stressing our universalism, not parading difference.
    When we forget that, identity politics fails us.
    We need to deliver a strong universal Liberal Democrat message, but too often it feels that we are sewing together a number of identity groups (some of them hostile to each other in many ways) and hope it all adds up to something big.
    It won’t: it adds up to 7% in the polls.
    Our community politics is not another form of identity politics. It is quite the opposite – community politics is precisely when we become more universal. The result? Our national poll rating is doubled.
    I hope Tim continues to consider this theme. There is more to say.

  • Michael Maybridge 24th May '18 - 11:08am

    @ Caron: I quite agree that we don’t need to give such views equivalence (though I don’t think I’d be as concerned as you are that we do that much as a society). My question, though, would be about how we respond to people who hold (or may hold) such views. Let’s take racism / anti-immigrationism (is that a thing?) as an example. Now, quite clearly, there are some people (almost certainly a small number) who are, in practical terms, incorrigible racists, and in those cases surely the correct response, where we must engage with them at all, is to ‘call them out’ politely but uncompromisingly. But, and admittedly without empirical evidence, I reckon the vast majority of people who we might come across expressing racist or anti-immigrant views don’t fall into this category at all. Maybe they feel, to coin a phrase, ‘left behind’, unable to find a job, or a stable, well paid job, or get a council house, and, feeling helpless to do anything about their situation, find an ‘other’ to blame – aided and abetted, of course, by the right-wing media. Now, I’m sure we’d agree that this is a highly negative forms of identity politics. But I wonder how quickly we resort to our own form of the same thing – firstly by crying ‘racist’ and thereby labelling the person concerned as an ‘other’ to our progressive, liberal selves, probably incorrigibly, and someone with whom we might take pride in having little or nothing in common, and then perhaps by identifying particular characteristics that might be ‘typical’ of such an individual – for example, white, male, working class. In doing so, we not only reinforce divisions in our society and the exclusion of a significant section of it from power and influence, but we also semi-deliberately limit the reach of liberal values, and for us specifically the Liberal Democrats, leaving the field clear for the populists. Wouldn’t it be better to listen to these concerns at least long enough to find out what lies behind them, find and make common cause (for example, in improving material conditions or community cohesion in a particular area) and work to empower people to make real improvements to their lives? I strongly suspect politics like this would be the single best thing we could do to challenge the prevalence of those attitudes we, rightly, find unacceptable.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th May '18 - 11:10am

    In general, I’m trying to stay off the entire what is / isn’t identity politics debate, as its becoming so toxic (and tribal), and I think Tim Farron, love him as I do, should by and large do the same

    I think this speech would have been much better, and not much different, if the phrase ‘identity politics’ had been excised.

    However, there is something to be said about how groups who wish to promote and protect the rights of the marginalised, engage in the public sphere. I’m not one to say it, as I’m not really from a marginalised group.

    But I’d like to see what people think of this Guardian article:

    I would also say that it is clear that both liberalism and Liberalism are evolving, and new choices are being made by the party, and by individuals. However, it would be helpful to all if – as far as possible – everyone tried to avoid accusing people, even people who are going consistently against party policy, and probably need to leave the party in due course, of Not and Not Ever Being Liberals or Liberal Democrats At All, because X course of action is The Only Right Way.

    Whatever the issue is (and it could be any one of the issues we have to tackle as a society and a party), even if you are on the moral high ground, please don’t throw rocks at me (or anyone) from it, it may bully a few people into joining you, but it will discourage even more, and they’ll work out a way to throw rocks back.

  • Peter Martin 24th May '18 - 12:18pm

    I wouldn’t say ‘identity politics’ (if we have to use this term) was tribal. There is now general agreement across the acceptable region of the political spectrum that no-one should be disadvantaged on the grounds of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. I doubt if there is a single MP who would dare say otherwise in a public forum.

    So there probably aren’t that many extra votes, for progressive parties, in “identity politics” any longer. Gay people aren’t likely to vote Lib Dem or Labour purely on identity issues. Which is a good thing. Politics shouldn’t be just about these or ideally, shouldn’t even about them at all. Which does mean, that politicians do need to get back to basics and not neglect those who don’t have a particular ‘identity issue’ to pursue.

    So, for example, if you are looking for the support of a young woman shop worker who is struggling along on minimum wages, finding it difficult to find affordable childcare and accommodation, you have to ask yourself what your chances will be if she gets the idea that you are much more interested in the unfairness of a highly paid female newsreader ‘only’ getting £250k pa whilst her male colleague may be getting £350k pa.

    So by all means campaign against inequality at the higher levels but don’t forget the inequality at the lower levels too.

  • Martin Land 24th May '18 - 1:15pm

    As a party we are stuck in our self-created ghetto afraid to say almost anything for risk of offending aggressively self promoting groups. Increasingly irrelevant we are happy to ignore or discriminate against those who are disadvantaged. Happy to defend those who have made a choice we have forgotten to defend those who don’t.

  • (Thanks Keith. 🙂

  • ‘Identity Politics’ isn’t unique to the Far Left, the Far right or the centre ground. It is simply the bred and butter of British politics at the moment and its funny people like Tim don;t even realise he participates in it. When he talks about his ‘Identity’ as a perhaps persecuted Christian. People often go on about their ‘Identity’ without even realising, but it’s the Identity of others – when they vocalise it at least – is what people seem to have a problem with. To use the word ‘Identity Politics’ without clearly defining what he means – was reckless.

  • John Critchley 27th May '18 - 11:31am

    I think that I’m on the same wavelength as LargeWhiteBear on this. I live in a community. A lovely mixed community of men and women of all ages and we are extremely happy. Whatever their other identities are I don’t care, and as far as we know they don’t care about ours: a male couple. I realise that we may be very lucky but in our view labels often don’t help, and I certainly, as a Lib Dem, would not be happy if I thought that being gay were considered of any importance; anything other than just a small part of who I am.
    Discrimination is still something to be dealt with but ‘identity politics’ is fraught with dangers.

  • David Allen 27th May '18 - 6:04pm

    I fear I can work out what thought processes led Tim Farron to his condemnation of “identity politics”. Tim has previously tried out something along the lines of “People discriminate against me unfairly because I’m a Christian”, and it went down like a lead balloon. So Tim has been casting about for a more elliptical way of making the same point. He illustrates it by reference to Leavers, Remainers, nationalists, royalists, and the supporters of specific football teams, but at heart, it isn’t discrimination against Leavers or Man City fans which motivates him. It’s what he sees as discrimination against Christians.

    Let’s make some balancing comments here. It’s not all that long ago that Nick Clegg, on gaining the Lib Dem leadership, was subjected to some uncomfortable interviews along the lines of “do you really think it’s OK for an atheist to lead a political party?” There is absolutely nil evidence that Britain as a whole discriminates against Christians!

    What people truly dislike is bigotry and evasiveness. Tim Farron told the nation, after much prevarication, that he didn’t think homosexuality was a sin. Then, after the election, he admitted that actually, he did. It is not “identity politics” to reject a political leader who refuses to be truthful about what he or she fundamentally stands for.

    This is a Lib Dem tragedy. I voted for Tim in 2015, and I still find his political ideas on almost all other topics pretty inspiring. But that’s a bit like saying that Nixon wasn’t a bad President, if you just ignore the bit about burgling your opponent’s headquarters.

    This thread shows that “identity politics” can mean just about anything you want it to mean. You can say it’s scapegoating minorities and is hence odious, or else you can say it’s promoting minority self-belief (e.g. in gay pride marches) and is hence admirable. Actually, it’s just an ambiguous phrase which should be avoided. Unless, that is, you want to make use of the ambiguity, for reasons you would prefer to conceal.

  • Richard Underhill 28th May '18 - 12:11pm

    Paul Walter 23rd May ’18 – 5:00pm: The Presidency can be a stepping stone to the leadership, as Charles Kennedy demonstrated, albeit supported by a faction of identity politics people. What Tim is doing here is exploring in some depth most, or all, of the issues challenging the leader. As President he came to our constituency and was a loyalist for what Lib Dems were doing in coalition. I collected nominations for his re-election as President, which was eventually unopposed. I did not vote in the leadership election because I liked both candidates. Liberalism and religion are just two aspects, for instance could someone play the violin, marry a concert pianist and get elected as an MP?
    Canadian businessman Thomson said “Think until it hurts”. This is what Tim Farron is doing, although he knows that he cannot afford to buy The Times, nor risk launching a newspaper such as The European or The New European.

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