Demonstrators protest the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty
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Amid the tear gas and arrests of reporters in Ferguson, we must not lose sight of Mike Brown

The shooting of an unarmed black man by police in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri has provoked civil unrest, media fury and a debate about the community’s reaction. But riots, reporters' arrests and black anger are not the issue here – the death of Mike Brown is.

Mike Brown: this is about Mike Brown. It’s important to write his name twice, because he is in danger of disappearing from view. It is the appalling fate of young black men like him to be lynched twice: first when they are killed, and then afterwards, when their reputations are dragged so far through the dirt that all remaining of them is a shapeless, shadowy mass of black criminality. So the speculation about Brown’s life has raged away, as if there were somehow in his past a misdeed so terrifying that people could somehow feel that, even though he had allegedly been tracked down and shot in the back, justice had been done. The events unfolding in Ferguson are about many things, including the militarisation of the police and the corresponding chokehold being placed upon any form of protest in public spaces. But, above all, they are about the local police’s vigorous defence of their right to kill an unarmed black teen in peace.

Perhaps that sounds strong. But nothing else explains the impunity with which these forces continue to operate. Meanwhile, Mike Brown’s body is in danger of becoming the mere canvas on which the latest grand failure of an institution is painted. His story is already drifting from view, submerged beneath two things: the police’s treatment of journalists, and the fierce initial media interrogation of black people’s response to this tragedy.

The latter of these issues is what may be referred to, again and again, as “the black reaction on trial”. Put simply, the behaviour of black people in response to a horror that they have suffered is examined more keenly than the horror itself. That explains why, in this case – as noted by Chris Hayes of MSNBC – their news network, and not the police, were the first to interview the key witness in Mike Brown’s death. The death of Mike Brown is not so remotely interesting to the law enforcement authorities – or, indeed, some sections of the media – as what black people will do by way of reaction. This also explains the apparent disappointment with which so many reporters first on the scene sidled away from the action, or lack of it, concerned that the protests were not aggressive enough for their tastes.

Why, then, have black people not taken to the streets of Missouri and mown down every white policemen that they have set eyes on? It is not because they have otherworldly powers of emotional restraint, because that would be to suggest that they were somehow less human, less sensitive, than any other group suffering their fate. No: it is because they are mourning a member of their community, and they are looking for justice. It is impossible, on that note, to imagine that Mike Brown been white he would have been left lying on the tarmac for so many hours after his death, the latest gruesome testimony to America’s racial inequality.

Why, again, are black people not unleashing a vengeful hail of bullets? Because they get it: they get why they are killed by authorities with unerring regularity. President Obama gets this, even though he called for “reflection and understanding” in the wake of Brown’s killing; as if there were anything left to reflect upon or understand. The answer was set out clearly by none other than James Baldwin in his short book of two essays, The Fire Next Time. As long ago as 1963, he explained the surprising calmness of African-Americans in the face of these atrocities, and why they comprehend the actions of the policeman who gunned down the fleeing Mike Brown, even as they do not forgive them.  

“The American Negro,” wrote Baldwin, “has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honourably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbours or inferiors. . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

Baldwin got it then, and black people get it now: while we consider the fact that these scenes are as vivid and visceral as they were in the Sixties, evidence of a system so efficient that it erases the individuality of each of its victims. So, again: Mike Brown; Mike Brown; Mike Brown.

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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University