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 a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage