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The phrase ‘the indignity of speaking for others’ was used first of all by Gilles Deleuze in 1972, at a conference in Paris, in addressing Michel Foucault. ‘You were the first,’ Deleuze said, ‘to teach us something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others’. Foucault’s work marked the end of the era in which the Left had spoken for every social struggle, transposing their various demands into a single key. It had revealed the power relationships at work when ‘difference’ was absorbed and appropriated by the mainstream. For some in the 1970s and 1980s, this reappraisal took the form of an irreducible politics of identity, in which misrepresented and silenced groups – especially ethnic minorities, women, and gay people – contested the Left’s attempts to speak for them, and tried to make their own demands in their own voice.

This paper is concerned with the resistance that these ‘demands from difference’ encountered in the British Labour Party. There are two literatures which touch on the subject. First, there is a large descriptive literature which narrates the progress of the various demands from difference, much of it produced by campaigners themselves, or heavily based on their accounts. But there has been little attempt to examine the processes as a whole, and even less to understand the resistance that they encountered. The dominant impression to be gained from this literature is one of committed campaigners battling against unthinking intolerance in the labour movement. Secondly, there is a literature, more institutional but also largely narrative, which describes the intra-party battles between the party Right and various Lefts, soft and hard. Here the new demands are regarded as part of a Left agenda which was adopted, modified or defeated by the Right according to its new electoral strategy.

I want to suggest that the existing literature over-simplifies the processes in two ways. The first literature exaggerates the resistance, in the interests of producing a heroic account of the campaign. Its account of party attitudes is outdated and undifferentiated, as though nothing had changed since the 1950s. It fails to distinguish adequately between attitudes held by the party leaders directly – their own conscious and unconscious prejudices – and those they imputed to Labour’s electorate. It also offers no explanation of the unevenness of resistance. Some doors swung open at the first push; others were firmly kept shut. These differences were partly, but not only, a consequence of how hard those making the demand were pushing.

The second literature offers a more sophisticated explanation of the intra-party forces involved, but it too over-simplifies. It treats the new demands simply as demands of the Left, which the Right resisted on those grounds alone, as well as in the interests of an appeal to an electorate which was assumed to be generally hostile to them. This, I think, is a mistake. It lumps together a large, varied set of demands – ethnic minority, lesbian and gay, feminist, peace, anti-nuclear, green, ‘third world’ solidarity and many others – which prompted varying forms and degrees of intra-party resistance. In each of these areas, there was a cluster of demands, more or less radical. Even when allowance is made for this clustering, the new demands do not map at all neatly on to the intra-party struggle, though they were, of course, deeply marked by it. Not all of the new demands emerged on the Left; and the Left was itself divided over their significance, as indeed was the Right.

I think the difference about the new demands is neither that they came from the ‘Left’ of the ‘Left-Right’ ideological spectrum, nor that they were ‘post-materialist’ in contrast to older, materialist demands. The difference between the new demands and others lies between demands which could be articulated by anyone without significantly being altered; and demands which couldn’t. They posed a problem of voice: of who ‘speaks’ demands, and who has authority over how they are to be articulated and pursued. In short, they raised issues about representation. The resistance they aroused was primarily, though of course not wholly, on this account.

The best evidence for this view is that resistance to the demands from difference arose less over their policy implications, though of course these were resisted by some, than with their implications for representation. Labour, as a party of specialist advocates, found it easier to cope with demands for policy change than it did with challenges to its expertise in speaking for others.

In policy terms, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Labour moved quite rapidly to a position of ‘indifference to difference’: the guiding principle being that ‘being different should not matter’ in public policy arenas, such as the workplace, the police and the courts, or in dealings with local councils and social services. This readily supported a politics of anti-discrimination (though less easily a politics of identity.) By the mid-1980s Labour policy had already moved substantially to accommodate the demands from difference. It had also put clear water between itself and the Conservatives, although the electoral costs from these policy choices were considerable.

The sticking point were the representational implications of the new claims, not the radical policy content, or electoral unpopularity. This point needs be made carefully, and distinguished from similar claims.

There were six features of the new demands that made them representationally complicated.

1. First, the demands from difference were unusually strongly felt, differing from other demands not only in degree or quantity, but also type. The difference concerned was not simply another interest, to be satisfied so far as possible bearing in mind other interests. It dominated, such that it had to be satisfied first; and it was necessary, in that its being satisfied was a precondition of anything else being satisfied. Older conflicts could be reconciled through an ordering of priorities in a way which left some of them delayed but not thereby devalued. This was much harder with the demands from difference: to delay them was to devalue them.

2. Secondly, and for the same reason, the demands from difference were also not so susceptible to bargaining, i.e. trading concessions with other demands. This was because they concerned indivisible identities. In this respect, a politics of difference can usefully be contrasted with a politics of interests, in which there is scope for compromise because the interests are divisible. They can be fractionally satisfied. The demands from difference, by contrast, were, at their heart, non-negotiable, and ‘all or nothing’. For gay men, the lowering of the age of consent from 21 to 18, rather than equality at 16, was not ‘half a loaf’ but ‘no bread’.

3. Thirdly, the demands from difference were personally-owned. They concerned not just accidental attributes of the demand-maker, but essential ones that belonged to, or perhaps defined, her. Indeed, misunderstanding of what was meant by the ‘personal’ is a good indicator of Labour’s difficulties with the politics of difference. One of the main critics of the politics of difference – Eric Hobsbawm – provides a case in point. Hobsbawm’s main criticism was that the new demands appealed to identities that were merely personal choices. They were ‘optional, not inescapable’, ‘like shirts rather than skin’, he argued. This was why they could not ground a politics of the Left. Not only were they secondary and diversionary, when the main battle lay elsewhere. They were also selfish, individualistic choices, rather than social ones. But this was to move too quickly from the claim that the new identities were ‘constructed’ (rather than ‘objective’) to the view that they were therefore optional, and hence dispensable, lacking the hard, objective quality of class position. It was also to miss the resonances of the term ‘personal’, taking it to mean merely small, even quirky, and endlessly various; rather than, as the advocates of difference argued, essential to the actor and hence to the political action she might undertake. Her own identity was at stake.

4. The consequence of these characteristics – fourthly – was that the demands from difference were owned demands. Unowned demands might be defined as those which can be articulated by anyone without thereby being altered. I distinguish them from owned ones, which have to be articulated by particular people, and are diminished if articulated by others. To take examples from the period with which we are concerned, the demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament was unowned. It was common property. But the demand for the full recognition of gay identities was owned (by gay people). It was diminished by being made by others. It was also non-transferable. Owned demands may be more or less transferable, in that – while ownership is retained – they can be transferred (handed over, leased temporarily, etc) to others as advocates, or champions, or trustees. It was under such an arrangement that the unions had made the Labour Party its parliamentary agent, pursuing under license the unions’ interests. The demands from difference were both owned and non-transferable. The identities they concerned, and their accompanying interests, could not easily be transferred for others to use as bargaining-chips, because the activist was affected in herself if they were won or lost. She was not an unchanged person who had come off better or worse in a clash of interests, but a changed person. The demands from difference therefore required not a politics of representation but a politics of presence. They posed a challenge to one of Labour’s two modes of solidarity: the asymmetric or disjoint ‘cause’, in which one group campaigns on behalf of others.

5. A fifth feature of the demands from difference was that they were emergent and uncrystallized, i.e. both new (not raised before) and also still-taking-shape rather than fully-formed. In this respect too, they can be contrasted with the demands with which the Labour Party was familiar. The older demands, often pre-cooked by deliberation in the trade unions, arrived in a more or less finished state. The newer demands were still fragile and unconfigured at the time they came to be considered. They did not emerge as a unified call to the Labour Party from an undivided, oppressed, formed community. On the contrary, all the communities were split. Significant numbers were suspicious that work with unreconstructed political institutions would lead to betrayal or co-option. Examples include revolutionary feminists, radical black community activists, and radical gay and lesbian groups, all of whom favoured mobilising their own communities first, and separatist or highly cautious coalition arrangements. This was especially problematic in a context of intra-party factional dispute, because an unformed demand was more liable to capture than one which had already taken on a definite form.

6. Furthermore, and finally, the claims were also dynamic. What they meant and implied changed over time. The question of who articulated them was not resolved even once they had been introduced and adopted by the party. At issue, therefore, was not merely the significance and correctness of the claims themselves, let alone their electoral attractiveness, but questions of provenance (who had the right to make the claim) and interpretative authority (who was to interpret, redefine, manipulate the claim over time). The problem was not that Labour had no means of reconciling class and non-class demands, but that its means of reconciling them involved methods, such as the reordering of priorities, bargaining and vicarious representation, that advocates of the demands from difference could not easily accept.

I wrote this paper for a conference in 2015 on ‘Contracting Horizons: Projections of the future and imaginations of the past among the British Left in the 1970s and 1980s’ at the University of Nottingham. If you would like to read the full version, please click to the left and send me a message.