Labour's England Problem

By Hunt, Tristram | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Labour's England Problem


Hunt, Tristram, The Spectator


My party needs to stop being scared of patriotism

In the window of a council house on a working-class estate in Exeter was a sticker bearing the cross of St George and a simple warning: 'If this flag offends you, why not consider moving to another country?' For some canvassers working on Labour MP Ben Bradshaw's 2015 campaign, such a symbol naturally meant the dreaded 'A' on the canvas sheet: 'Against Labour'.

In fact, it was a household of solid Labour voters -- supporting a party far too often offended by the flag. The truth is that the Labour party has an English problem. While members might just about embrace Britishness, too many feel queasy about Englishness -- with all those connotations of ethnicity and chauvinism. Or as one activist put it to me, when I suggested we value English identity, 'Why don't you just join the British [sic] National Party?'

What is so strange is that the movement of William Morris and Robert Blatchford, J.B. Priestley and Elizabeth Longford, could ever lose sight of its English sensibility. A doggedly English strand of nonconformity, radicalism and patriotism has been an elemental part of the Labour tradition, embodied so effortlessly in Clement Attlee. But at the very moment when ever more voters are identifying themselves as English rather than British, the Labour party is moving in the wrong direction.

In retrospect, the summit of British Labourism was reached on 17 September 2014, when Gordon Brown delivered that spellbinding eve-of-referendum sermon summoning Scottish voters to save the Union. All the ancient might of Adam Smith, James Watt and John Smith was brought to bear as Brown, pacing the stage like an Old Testament prophet, made the case for socialism, not separatism.

But by campaigning with the Tories to save the Union, Labour sacrificed itself north of the border. The referendum was the culmination of a historic shift, which had seen the underpinnings of Britishness -- the Empire, Protestantism, Westminster, Parliament, even the armed forces -- fall away and nationalism fill the void. So much so that the pollster John Curtice has described the 2015 general election as a series of separate votes just happening to take place at the same time in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And the result was devastating. Labour failed to challenge the assumption -- prevalent on both sides of the Tweed -- that we would prefer to duck constitutional questions that might threaten our electoral interests. It should not have been too hard to offer a federalist vision of the Union, which offered devolution and national self-determination to all parts of the United Kingdom. The reality is that we never tried.

A strong Labour party, with a fighting chance against the Tories, might have prevented more Scots reaching for the nationalist protection blanket. In England voters were only afraid of the SNP propping up a Labour government if, as John Denham puts it, 'they had already decided that a Labour government was an unattractive proposition'.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in marginal middle England. As Naushabah Khan, our candidate for Rochester and Strood, writes in a new book on Labour and Englishness: 'There is a reluctance among some in the party to embrace patriotism and promote national pride. …

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