The two main parties need to talk about Englishness, in light of Ukip's threat and Scotland. Photo: Getty
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Tories and Labour are stuck in a crisis over Englishness

A Conservative party conference fringe event revealed both the Tories’ and Labour’s problem with defining Englishness.

“I could do so much more as a locally-elected mayor than a member of parliament, wobbling up and down on the West Coast Mainline.”

This was the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart’s lament at a fringe event held by the IPPR during Conservative party conference this afternoon.

He was speaking on the subject of the post-Scottish referendum Union, calling for England to have a broader conversation about its identity and people having a sense of place, and more power to localities.

Stewart, chair of the defence select committee, was damning of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland, saying “the depressing thing about No voters was that they were voting for the narrowest material reasons; their hearts were saying Yes, but their heads were saying No.”

He went on to criticise the PM’s immediate concern of “EVEL” – English Votes for English Laws. Though not disagreeing with having a closer look at this constitutional change, Stewart said the bigger issue was to “start a serious conversation” about broader English identity, for which we would need to “build a constitution again”. He admitted, “I know this is not a comfortable thing for a Conservative audience to hear.”

However, it wasn’t just a message for the Conservative party. Stewart was joined by the Labour peer, Blue Labour architect, and former adviser to Ed Miliband, Maurice Glasman, who made a very similar argument.

He said: “In the referendum debate, there was a complete confusion as to who we were… It was an empty, self-interested, rationalist debate."

Glasman attacked British politics as a whole for neglecting to look at the intricacies and reforms of English institutions, calling the Commons “full of people who have never worked. They’re constantly dealing with PR situations – not thinking about institutions.”

And his condemnation certainly didn’t soften when he spoke about the Labour party. He said there was “not enough conservatism” in the Conservative party but also that there’s “a lack of conservatism in the Labour party. Everything’s thought through in terms of the media interest and PR.”

Both politicians’ key lament was that our narrow-thinking political leadership, on both sides of the House, means that England has not been allowed a proper conversation about Englishness and being empowered on a local level. This debate has emerged because of the shift in power required by the Scottish referendum result, and also because Ukip are offering voters a vision of Englishness – something the main parties have not been addressing.

Glasman warned against “heritage patriotism”, or “theme park patriotism”, with people dressing up as St George and riding on horses and such like, saying that the “English nation and tradition needs to be recovered”. “You don’t just give people a couple of festivals,” he warned, about paying lip-service to patriotism, “England is a very complicated composite – it’s a civic category; it’s never been an ethnic category.”

For both politicians, the lack of local empowerment in England was one of the reasons there has been a loss of English identity. They had different solutions for this, with Glasman being particularly emphatic about the “nightmare” of trying to impose administrative “regions” upon the country: “Nobody says they live in a region… There’s no allegiance, no loyalty, it’s a nightmare… Why would people support regional devolution?”

Stewart was more enthusiastic than Glasman about taking the McKay Commission as a starting point for solving the West Lothian Question, but was still sceptical about David Cameron’s hasty promise of more powers to Scots. He admitted, “I do have an anxiety about opening up the Pandora’s Box of constitutional change”, cautioning that such reforms could snowball into scenarios such as the adoption of proportional representation and the break-up of the House of Lords.

What both men were united on, however, was that the politicians in their respective parties' leadership have failed so far in having an increasingly vital conversation about Englishness.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.