Can lefties do Britishness?

We shouldn’t be afraid to ground our political vision in an idea of Britain, of who we are and what kind of society we want to build.

Like most good teenagers, I had a lot of dramatic political revelations. This was one of them: we all have multiple identities. I might be a Londoner, a Brit, English and European. But the identity that matters most is our humanity. If everyone could realise that we’d all be ok. No more wars, prejudice or inequality. Everything would be great. Think kum ba yah with logic.
 
Now I’m older, I’m not so sure. Try loving everyone, and you’re in danger of loving no-one. There’s something cold about working from an abstract moral equation rather than natural affection. Reduce people to statistics, and we lose something important. So now I’m not ashamed of feeling a greater connection with the person next to me on the bus in Britain more than the stranger on a coach abroad; I’m proud that I do.
 
The left has always been wary of nationalism. Owen Jones tweeted last week “The more that nationalism rears its head, the less we talk about the tidal wave of austerity hitting working people across Britain”. People are worried about past atrocities we’ve committed in the name of the nation. About people carrying the flag for the wrong reasons. About the apologies we never made. There are good reasons to be skeptical.
 
But there are also good reasons to be positive about Britain. If you’re a lefty, you have to give people a reason to care for one another, to vote and pay their taxes even when times are tough. A collective national identity is one reason to do that. It’s a story we tell to bind us together. It wasn’t a coincidence that the National Health Service was born out of the spirit of the war. We wanted to care for each other. We continue to volunteer thousands of hours. It’s part of who we are.
 
If you want an example of positive nationalism, look at the picture Obama has painted in the United States. To him, national identity wasn’t bigoted or irrational; it was a reason to believe in green energy, health care and hard work (the Chrysler advert still sends lovely shivers down my spine). Nor was it about being introverted. To know what role you want to play on the world stage, it helps to know who you are and why you care.
 
So what is it that unites us? I’m not pretending the answer is easy. But there’s something about sharing space and time on an island in the middle of the Atlantic that pulls us together. Watch Britain in a Day, and you’ll see what I mean. You get this powerful sense of us living together, eating at the same time, sharing the same sunsets, the same holidays and working hours. Then there are our institutions. Our parliament, our football, our NHS. We’re struggling together.
 
And there’s something British about the way we approach this struggle. It’s not simple or easy to articulate, but there’s the gentle way we don’t give up. The quiet determination and common decency, the “caring as well as competing”, as Ed Miliband put it last week. The tolerance, the awkwardness, and the humour.
 
We’ve made great global contributions too. We continue to invent and innovate way above what our population and landmass might predict. We were the first country to industrialise. We invented the rubber band, the pencil and the combustion engine. We created the lawn mower, the jet engine, crosswords, water desalinisation, the magnifying glass. We unveiled the typhoid vaccine and the structure of DNA. Football. Hell, we even discovered Uranus.  
 
Today, our creative industries continue to inspire the world and our universities to educate it. We still touch and influence the world from our tiny corner. Even if we don’t always get it, the people outside do, as Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi so eloquently explained earlier this week.
 
The left worries that putting one nation above another is immoral. But that’s what we do with family. Someone once told me that family is not who we share blood with, but who we’d give up blood for. In Britain, we share blood for one another, whether that’s through the army or donating through drips on the NHS. It doesn’t mean we’re justified in treating others badly. It just means there are bonds we just can’t break.
 
And people care. Do we really want to dismiss the 6 million people who participated in the Jubilee as suffering from false consciousness? Or the military wives that got to number one? They brought more people together than politics has recently. Dismissing the thousands turning up in the rain at the Thames doesn’t sound like the love and respect the left should show others. The Olympics. Team GB. The Euros. We should try and understand and work with it.
 
I don’t know what my teenage self would say to all this, and I’m not saying anyone who disagrees with me is naïve. I’m not even advocating a list of policy prescriptions. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be afraid to ground our political vision in an idea of Britain, of who we are and what kind of society we want to build. Maybe then we can have a Britain that lefties can be proud of.

National pride? A royal supporter waits outside Buckingham Palace for the Jubliee concert. 4 June 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.