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The suicide of Britain? Not yet, and here's how it can be avoided

The election has put the Union at risk. Here's how it can be saved. 

The Suicide of Britain. Shocking as this sounds, this was the title of an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times two days after the general election. The article warned that the forces of nationalism were now on the brink of overwhelming the 300 year old Union. It was not wrong.

The election and the Scottish referendum have sent a message loud and clear from all parts of this island that the constitutional status quo is no longer tenable. This is more than just a case of rampant nationalism. The country as a whole, all of it, rejects and repudiates the Westminster bubble. Those Labour activists knocking on doors during the referendum will know what we mean when we say that the anti-Westminster feeling in Scotland was all too familiar. It was the same angry disenchantment found on doorsteps in Doncaster and Dudley, not just Dundee. It is now clear that the defining mission of the future and of our party is nothing short of a constitutional revolution to save our United Kingdom. Like every cause worth fighting for it will be a struggle of the highest order. It will be a desperate battle and carry the most enormous risks. It will involve actually leading people not just listening.

Yorkshire votes for Yorkshire Laws

The ‘vow’, the Kelvin Commission and the Silk Commission were all about powers to the nations, but do nothing to address our country’s rotten, increasingly irrelevant core. Yes, devolution has caused deep imbalances in our constitution. Of course there must be changes so that English MPs can scrutinise English only legislation, but in reality there are few truly English only pieces of legislation. ‘English votes for English laws’ is just the sort of divisive, wedge-driving populist dissimulation the Tories would champion. The imbalances in our constitution go beyond that and now mean that London MPs vote on Yorkshire issues such as transport, but Yorkshire MPs do not have a say on London’s. The answer cannot be one that demotes MPs from other parts of our country and creates constitutional chaos, with different majorities needed depending on the given issue.

Therefore the answer to these problems lies in devolution within England itself - moving power away from the centre. A Devolution that is more than just money and city deals. A Devolution, which is more radical and far reaching than we have ever contemplated before. Ignore what happened before in another political age when Scotland was painted political red and Labour understood middle England – regional government is back. While the Tories and SNP promote politics of division in order to secure power, our abiding mission will be winning power to give it away. Let the forces of conservatism and nationalism play north against south, England against Scotland, rich vs. poor and public vs. private. We will recognise the strength of our common endeavour as a union whilst pushing power down beyond national assemblies and town halls. Putting power as close to citizens as possible as the only sensible policy in this age of permanent technological revolution.

The British are coming

We must also understand that nationalism, be it the SNP version or the English brand the Tories have created, is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. The real issue continues to be disenchantment with our system and if we are honest the failure of Labour to connect with the voters who swept it to power in three successive elections. Labour’s founding father, a Scot, said that our fight is not with a class but against a system. He argued that we must offer a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. Such a platform exists that reflects our Party’s values. It is a greater, more expansive, nationalism than Sturgeon or Cameron offers. A confident nationalism that is resilient and outward looking. A nationalism that embraces those of many identities. On its platform and with its values we created institutions such as the NHS - won conflicts to protect the freedoms it stands for. It won a referendum in Scotland and dominated our Olympic Games. It is Britishness.

The article ‘The Suicide of Britain’ lamented that no one was making the argument for our country’s future. That no one was leading the charge for Britain. This is strange - not because support for Britain is so weak, but because the reality is if it were articulated properly its strength would be unbeatable. It is the British mantle that Labour must pick up. Championing a Britishness built on the values of tolerance, creativity, fair play and an outward looking approach to the world. Yes, there is a big tent for Labour to use on the path back to government. Attlee and Blair used it before. Its name is Britannia.

Tim Roca was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Macclesfield, and tweets at @timroca85. Michael Payne was Labour parliamentary candidate for Newark, who tweets @MichaelPayneUK.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.