Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Whatever the solution, Labour can't ignore its English problem

Those who disagree with Tristram Hunt's proposal of an English parliament must suggest alternatives.

Most of the reasons for Labour's general election defeat have been well-rehearsed: its leader wasn't viewed as an alternative prime minister, it wasn't trusted to manage the economy and it was at odds with voters on welfare and immigration. But there is another failing that has received far less scrutiny: the belief that the party was anti-English. The problem was visible as long ago as 2005 when the Conservatives won more votes than Labour in England and has grown consistently worse. As post-election polling by GQR found, 57 per cent said they were were "quite concerned"or "very concerned" that the party "put people from other countries before the interests of England". The rise of Scottish nationalism and the concurrent rise of English nationalism have cast Labour adrift. 

Despite this, as former cabinet minister John Denham recently wrote on The Staggers, the Beckett Report on the defeat failed to take account of this new political landscape. Its call for a "vision for Britain", he noted, neglected those "who either don't see their country as Britain or only partly as Britain". Unless it accepts this new reality, voters' alienation from the party will both widen and deepen.

Denham, whose former seat of Southampton Itchen was lost to the Conservatives (leaving Labour with just 12 of the 197 seats south of the Severn-Wash line), has founded the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University where Tristram Hunt will speak tonight. In his address, the former shadow education secretary will call for a referendum on the adoption of either an English parliament (his preferred option), regional assemblies or English Votes for English Laws ("the jury is still out"). A public vote, he will say, would allow England to "experience the same kind of democratic awakening" as Scotland and Labour should "lead it". The political logic is clear: by advocating a referendum, the party will signal that it trusts voters (having opposed a vote on the EU) and is at ease with the politics of English identity.

At present, he will say: "Our sense of Englishness matters to us more and more, and the Labour Party has fallen on the wrong side of that cultural divide. According to Jon Cruddas’s review into why the Labour Party lost the 2015 General Election, since 2005 voters who are socially conservative are the most likely to have deserted Labour. They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them. And, tragically, they feel that Labour no longer represents them, or understands their lives. In short, they felt we didn’t value England, and were not on the side of the English."

Most Labour MPs will likely disagree with Hunt on the need for an English parliament ("how very silly" shadow leader of the Commons Chris Bryant told me). Many argue that there is little demand among voters for a new political institution and that England's size makes a separate body incompatible with Westminster. But those who disageee with Hunt's solution must offer their own. The EU referendum, the SNP's hegemony in Scotland and the possibility of a second independence referendum will all raise the salience of the English question. And arithmetic alone dictates that Labour must transform its performance in England. With no sign of a revival in Scotland, almost all of the 106 gains the party will need to make after the boundary changes will be here. 

But many MPs believe that Jeremy Corbyn, far from answering the English problem, struggles to even recognise it. They lament how often his failure to sing the national anthem is raised by voters and fear that his stances on immigration, Trident and foreign policy are widening the divide between them and the electorate. Corbyn has struck a consciously patriotic note in several speeches, declaring in his Labour conference address: "[It’s] because I love this country, that I want to rid it of injustice – to make it fairer, more decent, more equal." But as Hunt suggests, far more dramatic intervention will be needed to begin to solve the English problem. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Tony Blair won't endorse the Labour leader - Jeremy Corbyn's fans are celebrating

The thrice-elected Prime Minister is no fan of the new Labour leader. 

Labour heavyweights usually support each other - at least in public. But the former Prime Minister Tony Blair couldn't bring himself to do so when asked on Sky News.

He dodged the question of whether the current Labour leader was the best person to lead the country, instead urging voters not to give Theresa May a "blank cheque". 

If this seems shocking, it's worth remembering that Corbyn refused to say whether he would pick "Trotskyism or Blairism" during the Labour leadership campaign. Corbyn was after all behind the Stop the War Coalition, which opposed Blair's decision to join the invasion of Iraq. 

For some Corbyn supporters, it seems that there couldn't be a greater boon than the thrice-elected PM witholding his endorsement in a critical general election. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496