Why Labour needs the nation

As in Wales, a renewed sense of national pride is necessary to rebuild our politics and our economy.

In Manchester, the theme of "patriotism" is set to feature alongside more familiar Labour keywords such as progress or public service. For many on the left, patriotism is a dangerous credo, capable of calling men and women to action, of course, but corruptible, and enlisted too easily in the service of chauvinism and conflict. The power of patriotism is, however, too potent a force to be left to the right, or to those who would subvert it.

The Australian academic Tim Soutphommasane has played an important part in stimulating a reappraisal of modern patriotism and the importance of nation-building for progressive politics. However, Labour might look closer to home for an example of how the power of patriotism - or nationalism, even – has been freed from jingoism and xenophobia and harnessed in service of social democratic ends. We might look to Wales.

In the Welsh Assembly, despite a system pre-disposed to deliver coalition government, Labour remains in power after almost a generation of devolution, while Plaid Cymru’s separatist agenda appears shrunken and shrill. Why should this be the case in Wales, in sharp contrast to the fortunes of traditional parties of the left elsewhere in Europe? Certainly, the "institutional" strength of the left in Wales, and the Labour Party as its principal expression, is part of the answer. But so too is the authenticity of Welsh Labour, which has been an anchor in the confused and convergent politics of the last 25 years, particularly since devolution.

The party in Wales has cleaved to its radical roots, even at the height of New Labour revisionism, eschewing, for example, private sector engagement in the delivery of public services and generally maintaining faith in collectivist, community and comprehensive models of service provision. And crucially, in delivering devolution, Labour responded not only to a renaissance of Welshness, but to a demand for local accountability being expressed across the world. Thus, Welsh Labour’s success is both a product of the left and radical traditions of Wales and of a renewed sense of national mission. It is this fusion of progressive politics with national mission – this nation-building from the left – that Labour needs to understand and adopt across the UK. Is that a realistic aspiration? In modern, multi-cultural Britain, where "identity politics", compounded by immigration, devolution and political cynicism, seems to many to have fatally compromised the notion of a British "nation", can Labour conjure and then command that patriotism? The answer is that we must.

For Labour, the party of hope and progress in Britain, a renewed national pride is a necessary condition for a call to action to rebuild our politics, our society and our economy – in the national interest of us all, not the vested interest of a few. And despite the manifest difficulty of calling "the nation" to action in our nation of nations, there are reasons for Labour to be hopeful.

To begin with, we must recognise the great strength of our movement as a British institution in our own right - a powerful and unifying institution. We remain a meeting place for people from across the classes, faiths, ethnicities and all other divides within British society and we’re the only British party with meaningful representation in Wales, Scotland and England, the last "One Nation" party of Britain, if you like.

Secondly, as in Wales, we must be authentic in Britain. That doesn’t mean adopting old-style, statist solutions. Water is delivered in Wales by a not-for-profit mutual, and our railways may soon operate under similar models of ownership and control. However, it does mean being explicit about the need to reform capitalism such that it acknowledges its co-dependence with the state and its potential to damage the fortunes of our people, or limit their achievement, unless it is regulated and reformed.

Thirdly, we must combine these twin strengths in a new national mission for the reinvention and renewal of Britain. That doesn’t mean just recalling or celebrating those values, experiences or institutions - fair play, the war or even the NHS - that have defined Britain for previous generations. That isn’t enough anymore. Instead, it means inventing and instituting those values, experiences and institutions that might define it for the next. And that demands we rediscover the radicalism, the boldness of thought and action that we’ve demonstrated at our best, as at the creation of the welfare state, the introduction of devolution or the establishment of the minimum wage.

For this generation, it might require a new constitution, written perhaps, to enshrine national standards and common values and to frame a more formal, confederal architecture of British government, including at a more local level in England, as in Wales and Scotland. It may entail the creation of a new National Care Service, as some Labour colleagues have suggested, to provide equitable and decent care for our burgeoning elderly population,  a new period of national, civic service for our young, inculcating values of tolerance, responsibility and duty.  A National Day and a State of the British Union Address are other ideas that have been canvassed and that might usefully play a part in this task of reinvention.

Such new institutions and innovations might create a new spirit and rhetoric of fraternity and national solidarity – of common endeavour and collective enterprise – to replace the narrative of individual rights and personal achievement that has dominated our political discourse for much of the last 30 years. It might also provide a framework within which we could more easily recognise the gross inequality of wealth, education, opportunity and even life expectancy that persist in Britain, and enlist a majority in favour of their eradication.

Of course, achieving that ambition against the backdrop of deficit reduction and low growth, which appears set to constrain our economy – especially if the government persists with its current strategy until 2015 – will be a formidable task. But we cannot allow our own dreams to be curtailed, because those of the British people will not be.

This new narrative of social solidarity could provide the backbone for a new British patriotism, a social and liberal patriotism, with new symbols, institutions and sense of common purpose. Only the left, only Labour, can imagine and nurture such a hopeful vision of our future. That’s our job in politics. Let’s raise up our eyes and look to it.

In Wales, Labour has cleaved to its radical roots. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

Getty
Show Hide image

Should Jeremy Corbyn go? Two Labour Party members take different views

The Labour leader says he will not betray its members. But what do they think?

The Labour MPs stand on one side. The Momentum activists stand on the other. Both claim to represent the real voice of Labour voters, and therefore the true democratic will. 

 

But Labour voters are divided too. We heard from two Labour Party members with very different views about Corbyn:

 

Stay

Sophie Dodds

On 8 May 2015 I felt pretty wretched. Since 2010 my world had seemed to have become increasingly constricted. Rent had gone up at least 5 per cent every year; wages had not kept pace. East Coast Rail had been handed to a private company which increased ticket prices. For the first time ever, I was being told my diabetes medication would have to be switched to cheaper, less adequate brands, and it was getting harder and harder to get appointments with my nurse. And these were just the ways in which politics had touched me personally.

I went to the anti-austerity march that June and it gave me hope. I didn’t see Jeremy Corbyn speak at that but I was given some leaflets and heard Charlotte Church’s incredible speech, so decided to look into him. I watched a panel debate with all four candidates for the Labour leadership and my mind was settled.

 

Corbyn stood there and calmly and repeatedly stated that the poor should not have to pay for the results of an irresponsible financial sector, and that most economists agree that austerity does not work. He seemed to understand not only how Britain had arrived where it had, but what was going on in the world as a whole, and how we would have to fit into that. He understood that people and politics are complicated and that evangelical solutions will never get us anywhere. He was also the most charismatic of the bunch – not in the traditional, swept-back hair kind of way – but he had a rare air of intelligence, honesty and, to use that hackneyed phrase, integrity.

 

I was clearly not the only person to respond to him in this way. The trade unions got on board and tens of thousands of people paid their £3 and signed up for the right to vote for him. All manner of respected public personalities, from journalists and economists to comedians and musicians, spoke at his rallies. A core of young, digital-savvy and politically disillusioned talent formed and Momentum took shape.

 

There is a fundamental gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Party membership, and a further gulf between those two groups and the rest of the British electorate. We live in fractured times, in which social media only serves to deepen those fractures. As the first Labour leader to be voted in by his own membership, rather than selected by the PLP, Corbyn was never going to have an easy run of it.

 

As for the EU referendum, not only was I 100 per cent sure of where Corbyn stood on this, but he put forward what I felt was the strongest argument for staying in the EU – the protection its laws offer to workers’ rights. Any reserve he showed in his enthusiasm for the EU was simply a reasonable reaction to its very real flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather be in the EU than out of it, but let’s not forget what happened to Greece. Let’s not forget TTIP.

The mutiny in the PLP has nothing to do with the EU. It’s been coming since he was first elected leader. The PLP are mainly Blairites. At some point or other this s**t was going to hit that fan. If they oust Corbyn, who do they think is going to lead them?

I suspect that the next time Labour win (if there still is a Labour Party by then) it will be under someone a bit more shiny, a bit more slimy, or possibly some charismatic Sturgeon who maintains her right to slash and burn as necessary.

But Godammit, whilst I still have the power to, I will keep voting for that socks and sandals man. And if they oust him for good? Well, at least I will save £5 a month on my Labour membership.

Go

Simon Foster

You've spent the last five days lamenting the loss of your Interrail pass, predicting a return to wartime rationing and contemplating overturning an incredible democratic mandate. Yet now a new post adorns your timeline. Your Facebook profile picture remains a snap of you “finding yourself” on your gap year in Thailand but it is now joined with a curious red banner proclaiming "I'm With Corbyn". You're with who?

Surely we can't be thinking about the same Corbyn? The Corbyn who remained practically invisible during the referendum campaign, surfacing only to reveal that he was "7 out of 10" in favour of Remain. The same Corbyn who refused to put party politics aside to campaign with Cameron even after private polling indicated this would help the Remain vote. Indeed, the very same Corbyn whose team under Seamus Milne actively worked to sabotage Labour In. Surely you cannot still be defending this champagne socialist?

I admit I am towards the more social democratic wing of the Labour Party - sorry, I mean I am "Blairite vermin" (the term adorned on a t-shirt worn by a delightful Socialist Workers' Party member during a recent pro-Corbyn march). I didn't vote for Jezza's vision of a “kinder politics” last September and have been calling for his ousting pretty much ever since.

I am honestly speechless at the continued unwavering support of my Facebook friends for a man whose utter incompetence has lead to a referendum result which most of them have despaired over.

Let's make no mistake here - the big loser of the referendum was the Labour Party. Much, if not most, of the blame for that rests on the shoulders of Jeremy Corbyn. A Britain Stronger In Europe memo leaked just three weeks before polling day revealed that up to 50 per cent of Labour voters weren't actually sure what the party's position on the EU was. How truly pathetic.

Is it really at all surprising then that come Thursday all the Northern Labour heartlands and 64 per cent of C2DE workers voted Leave? So surely we should all now be in agreement that Labour lost this referendum. Spectacularly. Yet I'm sure the Corbyinstas will blame it all on Tony Blair. Is there anything for which Corbyn is to blame which cannot instead be blamed on a Prime Minister who stepped down almost 10 years ago?

I guess this shouldn't even be a surprise to me. Some of those proclaiming their solidarity with Jeremy now are the same people who previously defended the anti-Semitic actions of Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone by claiming this was the imaginings of the "right-wing media".

As far as I can see it you can either be a Brexiteer, happy that the referendum campaign secured you the working-class votes necessary for your shock victory, or you backed Remain and are furious with Corbyn's lacklustre support. How can you possibly continue to support him when he ensured this defeat was inevitable?