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.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.