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. These concepts do not always sit naturally with our socialist principles, but the reality is that to a number of Labour voters they are of the utmost importance.’ Naushabah, of course, had to deal with the aftermath of the Islington MP Emily Thornberry’s ‘#Remarkable’ tweet, implying disdain for a Rochester semi draped in St George’s flags. He adds: ‘In one image Labour had almost destroyed its foundations, displaying a growing detachment from our roots.’
With a Labour membership skewed towards the affluent, liberal middle class, understanding socially conservative voters is becoming problematic. In ‘blue-collar’ Harlow, Labour candidate Suzy Stride was appalled at the snottiness of the campaigners sent to help her. ‘Among our activist base, manual workers were small in number,’ she writes. ‘Increasingly, the Labour party was viewed like middle-class Ryanair passengers having to stomach a couple of hours’ flight with people they shared little in common with — it could be uncomfortable, but it got you where you needed to go.’
Central to this disconnect is immigration and a nation being forced to accept incredible transformation. This is not necessarily about race. Indeed, ‘the apparently seamless link between Englishness and whiteness has long since broken,’ according to journalist Gary Younge. ‘From pop to politics, cuisine to music, the black experience is now intimately interwoven into the fabric of English daily life.’ The difference is that while activists typically welcome the ‘progress’ wrought by mass immigration, many historically Labour communities are much less enthusiastic about the impact of globalisation, industrial decline, and rapid social change.
No political leader is offering an effective solution. David Cameron persists with his barefaced lie about bringing immigration down to ‘the tens of thousands’. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn all but advocates open borders, with extra funds allocated to schools and hospitals. In this reductively materialist solution is a barely concealed impatience towards those harbouring cultural reservations about the scale of change reshaping England.
So, for some, Englishness can be a form of sociological defence. In Harlow, Suzy Stride thought it ‘a vehicle for nostalgia, dissatisfaction with a sense of decline in living standards and local area and perceived threats to cultural identity’.
But across Europe, we are seeing a revival of civic nationalism allied to progressive politics. In Spain, France, and Greece, left-wing parties are happy to drape themselves in the flag. This, of course, was always Orwell’s ambition: uniting the radical English tradition with Labour’s socialism. In the words of Robert Colls, he redefined Englishness on the left for a generation, turning English socialism from something you lived under into something that underpinned how you lived.
That has to be Labour’s task once more: in language and policy we need to show we love England. We need an English Labour party and a referendum on an English parliament. Labour has to reignite the ‘good old cause’ of radical English liberty as part of an ambitious vision for a modern, social democratic Britain. But if we continue to be offended by those Exeter flags, then England itself will soon be a foreign country to us.
Labour’s Identity Crisis: The Politics of Patriotism, edited by Tristram Hunt, will be published on 23 May.Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke and a historian, and has edited a new collection of essays called Labour’s Identity Crisis.