With Liz Truss’ equalities rhetoric, the Tories clarify existing culture war battle lines

Liz Truss’ speech outlining her government’s new approach to equalities has been at the centre of much outrage and furore this week. Many right wing commentators for outlets such as the Spectator, Telegraph and Guido Fawkes have heralded her address as a “counter-revolution” or a “landmark” anti-woke turning point. But a closer look at the actual substance of what she says points to something quite different. Stephen Bush identifies much of its substance as a continuation of the Blairite equalities consensus. Kenan Malik goes one further and asserts that the speech is in fact evidence of how deeply ingrained liberal orthodoxies have become in Britain, even on the right. To varying extents, both of these analyses ring somewhat true. The real significance of the speech should not be sought in the literal text itself, but rather the political context surrounding both the speech and its intended targets.

The speech takes several shots at an amorphous, poorly defined “left” and at one point makes a completely incoherent critique of Foucault, insisting that “postmodernism” is responsible for the woke left’s flawed approach to equality. The bulk of the speech is liberal bromides about the need for equal opportunity and an end to individualised discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics. Alongside this is a lot of reheated Thatcherite pablum about encouraging entrepreneurialism and career mobility, along with the language of “choice” and “modernisation”.

Truss’ speech then, is at its most explicitly political and sharp on two occasions: the first being when she attacks the left for “failing to defend single-sex spaces, hard fought for by generations of women … enabling and tolerating antisemitism … or the appalling grooming of young girls in towns like Rotherham”. This is the clearest signal that the Tories fully intend to exploit the three issues that have divided and disoriented the UK left more than any other – trans rights, Israel-Palestine and race.

The issue of the Gender Recognition Act has become a lodestar around which trans-exclusionary radical feminists, often those of a liberal or left disposition, have rallied. Groups purporting to speak for “gender-critical” people such as the LGB Alliance have nefarious links to the US-funded ultraconservative evangelical lobby. Celebrities like J.K. Rowling jumping on the anti-trans bandwagon have also given the cause a great deal of oxygen, further toxifying the issue. This is a real wedge that the Tories will no doubt seek to exploit.

Corbyn’s lifelong history of Palestine solidarity made him and the wider British left a target for Britain’s pro-Israel foreign policy establishment, which found a shamefully real tranche of actually existing left antisemitism (often on issues completely unrelated to Palestine) to weaponise against any ideological challenge to the Israeli state project of settler-colonial expansion and apartheid. None of this is a sincere defence of the safety of British Jewry – the Tories and Labour right have shown time and again that they are more than happy to run roughshod over actual Jewish voices with their cynical, racially hierarchical pseudo-philosemitism in defence of a sordid geopolitical alliance – often hand in hand with the antisemitic far right.

Finally, her evocation of the grooming gang issue was a mainstreaming of a longstanding far-right trope – the idea that the police and legal establishment shielded those accused of abuse on account of a fear of being labelled racist. This has over time grown into a much wider theme on the hard right that uses the grooming gang scandal to entrench the notion that men (particularly Muslims) of Asian descent are inherently predatory and a threat to white British girls. This form of racial anxiety has a long history on the far right but figures such as Labour’s own Sarah Champion have also uncritically boosted such narratives. It of course also feeds broader anxieties towards migration and multiculturalism – an issue where both Labour and the radical left have been greatly compromised by the pressures of nativist attitudes hegemonic in British society.

Labour under Keir Starmer’s restorationist centrist leadership has seen significant tensions arise from its traditional Black and Muslim constituents who accuse the party of failing to deal with a deeply ingrained culture of anti-blackness and islamophobia. Meanwhile, across the pond, the 2020 election saw Donald Trump win the highest vote share percentage of ethnic minorities of any Republican candidate since Eisenhower, making massive inroads with Latino voters and notable gains among Black and Asian voters too. However, the issue of ethnic minority voters drifting rightward is not just something for Official Labourism or the Democrat establishment to worry about – the left clearly has a problem with it too, as Jason Okundaye points to in his excellent LRB article. In it he also correctly broaches a tendency among the left to homogenise entire ethnic communities as having unified political ideas and interests, an understandably off-putting tendency which the right – as evinced by Truss’ repeated appeals to the ideals of individual agency – is too eager to exploit.

The second plank of Liz Truss’ offensive against the left takes the form of a rhetorical approach that counterposes the interests of “special interest groups” and intersectional activism with the needs of those disadvantaged by their social class and geographical background. In the wake of Trump sweeping the “rust belt” in 2016 and Johnson demolishing Labour’s historic “red wall” in 2019 after Brexit polarisation, the primary source of anxiety for the transatlantic left and left-liberalism has been the “white working class” as a political subject. A key issue of discourse to arise out of this has been the false dichotomy of “identity politics” against “class politics” (often decried by the other side as “class reductionism”). The fact that significant parts of the left have embraced the notion of winning back socially conservative white working class voters by jettisoning anti-racist, feminist and queer political commitments makes it all the more dangerous for the left and opportune for the right – a hardened reactionary ideologue like Truss is able to speak in that exact same language while declaring war on the left.

The British state has a long history of disorienting and neutralising anti-racist politics through the practice of institutionalised “diversity” and “race relations” as official policy – something explored in much greater depth in Michael Richmond’s outstanding essay on the Labour antisemitism crisis. For this reason and many others, we on the radical left must not allow our arguments and responses to Tory racism or transphobia to revolve around institutions like the EHRC or equalities ministers. Although understanding where the next Tory assault on equality will come from is important, the broader struggles needed from the left are not substantively going to change in the foreseeable future. The left’s best hope of surviving a culture war onslaught is to draw clear lines dividing itself from the right on issues like intersectionality, the redistribution of wealth and power, anti-racism and anti-imperialism. That requires the defeat of insular and opportunistic tendencies within the left that willingly capitulate to those forms of reaction.

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