Meet Miliband's new guru: Tim Soutphommasane

The young Australian shaping Labour's thinking on patriotism.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I profile Tim Soutphommasane, the young Australian intellectual shaping the Labour leadership's thinking on patriotism. I interviewed Soutphommasane (pronounced Soot-pom-ma-sarn) in Wesminster in June after he addressed an intimate Commons seminar organised by Jon Cruddas and attended by several senior Labour figures, including David Miliband. A few days later, he met with Ed Miliband.

Soutphommasane's thesis, elaborated in his book Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives, is that the left must promote a common national identity if it is first to win and then retain power. "One of the reasons why you need to have a cohesive, collective identity in any liberal democratic society is that you need to have a sense of fellow feeling in order to redistribute resources."  Since societies have become more diverse, he said, "You can't take it for granted that citizens will have an identity in common or will be willing to contribute to the common good, and so you have to work hard to ensure that people feel like they belong to a community."

Yet too often, for fear of appearing "racist" or "xenophobic", the left has vacated the field and allowed the right to define national identity in starkly conservative terms.  He told me:

There can be more than one kind of patriotism. For a lot of people, patriotism is, by definition, an exclusive and a very nasty sentiment, when there can in fact be a very appreciative and generous love of country, one in which you can criticise your own country when you think it’s in the wrong. That’s the kind of political community, I think, that the left should try and work towards – one that’s mature, one that’s reflective and one that’s more deliberative.

Still only 29, Soutphommasane, who is of Lao-Chinese descent, is currently a columnist for Australian paper the Age, a lecturer at Monash University (he holds a PhD from Oxford) and the author of two forthcoming books, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society and Don't Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works. He has also served as an adviser to Australian foreign minister Bob Carr and believes that Labour has much to learn from the successes and failures of its Australian brethren. The Rudd-Gillard governments, he said, "have great achievements to their name – the apology to the indigenous people, the establishment of a carbon pricing scheme, the creation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a massive school-building programme – but they’ve lacked a nation-building story, they’ve lacked a nation-building project."

For Miliband and Labour, he argued, "the task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project". It is this insight that has excited Cruddas, who told me that Soutphommasane’s concept of "nation-building" could act as a "framing device" for the policy review he is leading. "Labour only successfully appeals when it actually owns an alternative national story based around what a country could be," he said. "And that’s why we invited Tim into our policy review. Through the idea of ‘rebuilding Britain’ you could counterpose a sense of national obligational duty to one of managed decline."

In the early months of the coalition government, David Cameron and George Osborne sought to couch austerity in patriotic terms, employing the wartime-like slogan "we're all in this together". But the government's reckless reform of the NHS ("the closest thing the English have to a religion," in the words of Nigel Lawson) and its abolition of the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity, have deprived it of any claim to be acting in the national interest. The path is now clear for Labour to present itself as the truly patriotic party. Under the rubric of "national reconstruction" (to use Soutphommasane’s phrase), Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a school-building programme, and a "solidarity tax" on the wealthy.

The response to Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony revealed an unfulfilled appetite for a patriotism of the left that dispenses with imperial nostalgia and offers a progressive vision of Britain's past and its future. With its representation of the suffragettes, the Jarrow marchers, Windrush immigrants, the NHS and the CND, the ceremony presented a people’s history of Britain that the left instinctively understood and applauded. Afterwards, Toby Young wrote that he felt as if he had just watched "a £27m party political broadcast for the Labour Party".

I asked Soutphommasane how Miliband’s party could harness a new wave of liberal patriotism. "Sometimes political parties can let these moments do the work for them," he said. "But the patriotic goodwill generated by the Olympics does provide an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building."

In 1945, it was Clement Attlee's promise of a "new Jerusalem" that propelled him into Downing Street over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly seventy years later, a patriotic vow to "rebuild Britain" could do the same for Miliband.

Pick up this week's New Statesman, out tomorrow, to read the full profile of Tim Soutphommasane.

Australian writer and thinker Tim Soutphommasane is emerging as an important influence on the Labour leadership. Sketch: Dan Murrell.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Labour's unstoppable force meets its immovable object

Team Corbyn are confident. But so are their opponents.

If you come at the king, you best not miss. And boy, have they come at him: over 40 resignations from the opposition frontbench and a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that both loyalists and rebels expect to pass easily.

What happens next? The ruling executive of Momentum, the organising force behind Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the party grassroots, met Corbyn in his office late last night. It would be overstating it to say that the mood was jubilant but Corbyn and his allies are confident of victory in the struggle for supremacy. “Game on,” texted one senior figure. “He won’t stand down,” another told me, “He feels he owes it to the membership to let them decide.”

Within Team Corbyn, they remain convinced that the shadow cabinet “are going to war without an army”, in the words of one insider. Others are already looking forward to the policy conference of Labour and Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, where there is a chance the union may adopt a policy of supporting mandatory reselection of Labour MPs.

Are they right? Having called and spoken to party members, it is certainly clear that Corbyn’s standing among the membership is not quite as high as it once was.

But members are unclear what they want next – several mentioned Keir Starmer, although my instinct that is largely because, as one member conceded, he is still very much a “blank slate” on which the hopes of the party’s electorate can be projected. What most want is someone who would retain much of the politics but with greater competence – the Vice News documentary seems to have done more damage than the referendum on the whole – and without the thirty years in politics for the right-wing press to pick over. The difficulty is that it is hard to see a politician in the parliamentary Labour party answering to that description or even close to it. While for the rebels, finding a winner is no longer the priority, surviving a snap election in October is, loyalists in the PLP and the grassroots are either unconvinced that the result will be heavy defeat, or unconvinced that any of the replacements would do better.

The difficulty for Corbyn’s critics is, rather like Labour under Ed Miliband, although they might be the repository for people’s irritation and uncertainty, there are few making a positive choice to vote for any of the available candidates. My instinct is, if Corbyn is on the ballot, the polls might show a tighter picture, he might have a tougher time on the campaign trail that he did last time, and he might have a closer fight as far as constituency nominations were concerned, but he would ultimately win, and win easily.

That’s before you get into Momentum’s ability to expand the electorate further.  Although appearing at last night’s rally was criticised by some journalists and cost Corbyn’s team at least one frontbencher, who, while keen to avoid prolonging the fighting, didn’t want to endorse the attacks on his colleagues in the parliamentary party, ultimately the petitions in support of Corbyn and the impromptu rally have given them more data to go out and recruit people to vote in the next leadership election, more than making up for any loss of support within the party-as-it-is.

But – and it’s a big “but” – I’m not convinced that Corbyn will make it to the ballot.

The party’s legal advice, from the party’s lawyers, GRM Law, is that Corbyn will have to secure 50 nominations to make the ballot, just as any challenger will. My feeling, with MPs of all parties convinced that there will be an election in October as soon as the new Conservative leader is in place, is that pressure from activists to nominate Corbyn will be less fruitful than it was in 2015. (That said, Labour MPs are skittish.) 

The Labour leadership themselves have obtained legal advice showing the reverse from Doughty Chambers. But whichever way the NEC rules, neither side will be able to take it to the courts. Most legal professionals estimate that Labour, like a trade union or a private members’ club, is exempt. “You accept the rules of the club when you join the club,” and that’s the end of it. My impression is that the judiciary would be reluctant to get involved.

The difficulty with predicting what happens next is it brings two of Labour’s iron laws into direct conflict: Labour never gets rid of its leader, and Tom Watson always wins. And I don’t think anyone is sure which of those laws is going to end up broken.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.