Blunkett makes it clear there will be no return for Labour "greybeards"

The former home secretary says it was "made clear earlier in the year that the oldies wouldn't be coming back". Miliband wants to promote the new generation.

One of the regular pieces of advice offered to Ed Miliband is to recruit some "greybeards" to his shadow cabinet - Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and others - to add heft and experience to Labour's frontbench. But as David Blunkett stated on the Today programme this morning, that's not a path Miliband is going to pursue. He said it was "made clear earlier in the year that the oldies wouldn't be coming back". Rather than leading a shadow cabinet dominated by figures from the last Labour government, Miliband wants to promote "the new generation" he spoke of in his first conference speech. 

Blunkett added that he and other former ministers would have to find "new ways of being able to contribute", noting Alistair Darling's chairmanship of Better Together and the review he is leading for the party on local oversight of schools (another example is Andrew Adonis's review of growth policies). He suggested that the much-criticised shadow cabinet would benefit from his wisdom: "What we could do better is probably us joining up with younger, enthusiastic, energetic, upcoming people so that we can give them a bit of advice if they are prepared to listen to us."

Asked whether Miliband "has got what it takes", Blunkett gave a more equivocal answer than the leadership will have wanted, stating: "I think Mr Miliband has demonstrated on a number of occasions that he can do it but he won’t be able to do it alone and nor should he. Clem Attlee wasn’t the most vibrant, in public terms, opponent. He was a fantastic leader of the Labour Party". 

His comments reminded me of Caroline Flint's observation at the weekend that leaders don't have to be personally popular to win elections. Both are right. In the final poll before the 1979 election, for instance, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51% approval rating compared to one of 28% for Heath) didn't prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat. 

But Labour figures should avoid giving the impression that the party could win in spite of Miliband, rather than because of him. If his own MPs seem to lack faith in his abilities, they can't expect the public to warm to him. 

Former home secretary and Labour MP David Blunkett campaigns in the Park Hill Area of Sheffield during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.