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The left is in denial about patriotism

Until we define patriotism by the institutions that make us proud, the right will always own the flag.

There is a common charge against leftists that they fail to engage with patriotism, and until they do, Labour is in trouble with its core base in England. That the left’s squeamishness with flag and country is what has driven former Labour voters to UKIP.

But actually, the left are patriots - they are simply in denial about it.

On St George’s Day, the Twitter hashtag #ProudToBeEnglish was full of leftists and meme-makers proclaiming their complete disregard for such a sentiment because of benefit cuts, NHS privatisation, and Theresa May. It seemed the perfect pot of evidence to back up the thesis of Labour having an enormous problem with the English identity. In some ways, that is true. But where it is true, it is not a case of not being patriotic; rather, it is a case of how the left always fights negative, and never positive. Always preaching optimism, but never acting on it; always diagnosing problems, and never pitching solutions, this is the case of being anti-austerity, but never pro anything. 

The left are patriots, but we don’t see ourselves as such because we are blinded by our innate and ironic cynicism about where the country is headed. This in turn affects our advocacy and our messaging. Winning relies on making a positive case for England and Britain based on those very institutions the Tories would like to tear down; an institutional patriotism. Being proud of what you are annoyed of being taken away: the welfare state, the BBC, the NHS. If we are truly leftists, we should see that socialism and social democracy are inherently patriotic. We should be proud to be English and British based on our own values, instead of having those values determined for Britain and for us and abandoning the pitch. Not blood and soil, but the society the Labour Party created. The society we fight to preserve and build on.

It is a negative prism to view Englishness through if it is one clouded by austerity and by May’s agenda. That is not Englishness, nor is it Britishness; we have allowed the right to determine what they mean, and to mould them as they see fit. And instead of fighting this, we concede and move on, and in doing so disassociate our fight for social justice from the fight for a better Britain. And this is a massive own goal. It is an own goal in the sense it damages the Labour brand and allows for Tory attacks on us as ‘Britain-haters’, but also in that the Tories’ attacks on treasured public services are never fought on the ground they should be: that they are not in the national interest and thus are non-patriotic.

And this would be effective.

Take the ‘paradox’ of the UKIP voter. IPPR’s 2013 report, ‘The New Electorate’, suggests what much polling also illustrates; that UKIP voters are concerned about inequality and are, at the same time, small ‘c’ conservatives. The report uses a values-based approach, and finds that the average UKIP voter belongs to a group that is socially conservative, anxious about economic security, believes cultural identity to be important, and is rooted in community. Ultimately, these voters are concerned about economic justice; and at the same time they are also self-described patriots. As it turns out, this is not a paradox at all. Those two qualities are interconnected. Social justice is in the national interest. And the institutions that secure that social justice are inherent to communities and the British identity.

We are very good, as a party, at attaching ourselves to these institutions. We say ‘our NHS’, and the public truly know it is Labour’s NHS. But alone that is not enough. They are single-issues that do not determine election outcomes. Narratives do. Why, then, do we not take the logical step of extending that sentiment further? This is the Britain we created. Labour’s Britain. Our Britain. And the Tories are taking it away.

One Nation Labour may have started this project. But, besides being hastily abandoned, it still failed to connect public institutions with the flag in the minds of the British electorate. How the NHS is inherent to what it means to be British. The BBC. The welfare state. Even the Royal Mail and a nationalised railway. Its legacy was short-lived and its depth was superficial. The Tories successfully picked up the pieces, snatched the clothes, and re-designed it to mean something altogether more dog-whistle; appealing to anxiety and national security.

Since then, we have reverted back to that Tweeter who quickly types out their disdain for being proud to be English.

The only reason the left are so reluctant to take up the mantle of patriotism is because we have allowed it to be defined by someone else. We are rejecting patriotism because we presume it to be someone else’s. Until we define it in our own way, in the institutions that make us proud, the right will always win the argument and will always own the Union Flag. The consequence is not just the loss of elections, but losing the argument to preserve Labour-created institutions, too. It is time for us to not scoff at being proud to be English or British, but to change what it is we are proud of. Not blood and soil, but civil institutions and society. It is time to stop being in denial about being patriotic.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.