Family, faith and flag

The Labour Party lost four million voters in England between 1997 and 2010. To win them back, it nee

Not so long ago, few people outside the academic world had heard of Maurice Glasman. Since the turn of the year, however, when he was unexpectedly ennobled by Ed Miliband, the London Metropolitan University lecturer has been much discussed and even hailed as the "intellectual godfather" of a new kind of left-wing thinking.

To win again in England, argue Glasman and others like him, Labour needs to look back to before 1945, to a time before the left fell in love with big government, and to a forgotten "conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity". Just as Phillip Blond's short-lived "Red Tory" boom captured the imagination of commentators a couple of years ago, so what Glasman calls "Blue Labour" has become the subject of admiring features, including a special edition of BBC Radio 4's Analysis that was broadcast on 21 March.

Like many other intellectual exercises in self-renewal, Glasman's vision, which strives to capture a sense of Englishness amid the hurly-burly of globalisation, has something deeply backward-looking about it (see profile, page 34). The narrow political self-interest is hardly surprising. Between 1997 and 2010, as David Mili­band noted in a strikingly Glasmanesque piece for this magazine last summer, Labour lost four million English voters and 137 English MPs. By the time Gordon Brown faced the electorate, the party had lost the ability to talk to the people it once took for granted - not just aspirational Middle England, but also thousands of white working-class people in cities who looked instead to the Conservatives or the British National Party, or stayed at home. Once again, Labour is in danger of turning into a party of the industrial north and the Celtic fringe.

Beyond that, however, Glasman's emphasis on looking back seems eminently familiar. Talking to the BBC, Roy Hattersley dismissed Blue Labour as an exercise in mere nostalgia, mocking "the idea of Arcadian England, the idea that there was some mythical time when we all loved each other". And yet, contrary to what we might think, nostalgia has long been a central part of the left-wing political tradition. Despite the forward-looking, modernising connotations of the name, "progressives" have enjoyed looking back. As early as 1883, Henry Hyndman, the founder of the Social Democratic Federation and populariser of Marxism, insisted that he saw himself as working in a distinctly English radical tradition dating back to the Peasants' Revolt, the Wars of the Roses and the 16th-century Commotion Time uprisings. "Tyler, Cade, Ball, Kett . . ." he wrote, "read to me like sound English names: not a foreigner in the whole batch. They all held opinions which our capitalist-landlord House of Commons would denounce as direct pla­giarism from 'foreign revolutionists'. We islanders have been revolutionists, however, and will be again, ignorant as our capitalists are of the history of the people."

Hyndman made an unlikely heir to the English radical tradition. The son of a rich businessman, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge and played cricket for Sussex, making him probably the only Marxist to have been a first-class right-handed batsman. He funded the Social Democrats almost single-handedly, their fortunes waxing and waning with his investments. A staunch anti-capitalist, he was also a committed patriot, his support for the First World War horrifying many of his colleagues. He stood for parliament five times, losing on everyoccasion, not least because he alienated voters by bombarding them with Virgil - in the original Latin. Even so, his example has echoed down the decades.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Marxist historians E P Thompson and Christopher Hill celebrated "the long and tenacious revolutionary tradition of the British commoner", stretching from the Lollards to the Levellers and on to the Chartists and the suffragettes.

Amid the apocalyptic headlines and candle-lit evenings of the three-day week in 1974, Tony Benn immersed himself in books on the English Revolution, lamenting that "the Levellers lost and Cromwell won, and Harold Wilson or Denis Healey is the Cromwell of our day, not me". Five years ago, promoting his radical English manifesto The Progressive Patriot, the folk singer Billy Bragg told readers that their freedoms "had to be fought for, from the Peasants' Revolt to the Diggers and the Levellers, to the Chartists and the suffragettes".

Given that the idea of a radical English tradition is so deeply embedded in the left's collective memory, it is odd that people keep insisting it has been forgotten. To be fair, Labour in recent years has hardly been a party struggling under the weight of its own nostalgia. Tony Blair often seemed embarrassed even to recall that his party had a history before 1994, and despite Brown's doctorate in history and eagerness to tell us about his "values", he rarely harked back to the party's past. Perhaps it is not surprising that, since their Scottish-educated masters left the stage, Labour's bright young Englishmen are so keen to look backwards.

And yet it is hard, rereading David Miliband's hymn of praise to a "specifically English story that points to the battle for social justice born of a proud tradition of personal liberty and independence", to resist the feeling that this is merely another exercise in myth-making.

In truth, the idea of a golden thread of English radical action, stretching through the generations, is deeply problematic. Much of what we know about England's most celebrated radical leaders comes from their opponents; after all, Wat Tyler and Jack Cade left no memoirs. As the historian Edward Vallance points out in his brilliantly provocative Radical History of Britain (2009), the idea of a simple "continuum of radicalism" is flawed.

Take, for example, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It was, after all, a tax revolt - something we now associate more with the right than the left - originating in some of England's most prosperous counties: Essex, Kent and Norfolk. Many of the rebels were not peasants: according to contemporary accounts, the first leader of the protests was a local landowner, Thomas Baker, while another leading agitator, Geoffrey Litster, held the title of bailiff and was a literate local official.

When the protesters arrived in London, they soon became absorbed in what Vallance calls “a carnivalesque orgy of violence and destruction", particularly targeted at foreigners and immigrants. They are said to have butchered and beheaded 35 Flemish weavers in one street alone. Perhaps this is an exaggeration; even so, the rebels do not sound like the medieval equivalent of Guardian readers.

Look closely at the other early moments in the great radical tradition, and you will find the story is much the same. Jack Cade's rebellion in 1450 was motivated not by crusading proto-socialist idealism, but by exasperation at Henry VI's weak government and the loss of England's conquests abroad. There were plenty of peasants among the rebels, but there were also shopkeepers, craftsmen and landowners, including a knight and two MPs.

Robert Kett - whose anti-enclosures rebellion in Norfolk a century later so impressed Norwich's Labour aldermen of the 1940s that they put up a plaque in his honour - was a big local landowner and, by the standards of the day, a very rich man. He had even previously enclosed common land, and joined the rebels only after a rival landowner bribed them to smash up his enclosures.

Then there are Tony Benn's favourite English radicals, the Levellers, whose martyrdom is celebrated every year in the faintly implausible surroundings of the Cotswold town of Burford. To him, these Roundhead ultras "anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions".

It is certainly easy to see why the story of the Leveller mutineers, shot by Cromwell in Burford, would appeal to Benn, who spent much of the mid-1970s fulminating against the betrayal of socialism by such well-known conservative figures in Labour as Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot. Unfortunately, the notion of the Levellers as cuddly proto-Marxists has been long since debunked.

Many historians see the civil wars of the 1640s and 1650s as essentially a religious conflict, rather than one comprehensible in modern ideological or economic terms. Far from being an early rehearsal for Labour's 1983 election manifesto, the 1647 Putney Debates - which were voted the "most neglected radical event in British history" in a recent Guardian competition - consisted largely of detailed discussions about army policy, understandable only within the context of the civil war.

Even the nickname "Levellers" was deeply resented by many of the protesters, who disliked the implication that they were opposed
to private ownership. They had "never had it in [their] thoughts to level men's estates", wrote their spokesmen John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn in 1649.

Finally, whatever Benn might think, there is no evidence that the Levellers influenced subsequent radicals, whether in Britain, France or America. Far from being celebrated, they remained forgotten until the 20th century.

It would be easy to go through the radical pantheon, picking holes and pointing out embarrassing family secrets, from the social arrogance of the Georgian populist John Wilkes ("I have given orders to keep away from the house and gardens all the rabble ... You would start at the number of little thefts they make") to the snobbery of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft ("I have turned impatiently to the poor . . . but alas! what did I see! a being scarcely above the brutes"). Underpinning much of this, however, is a broader point that should make uncomfortable reading for many progressives. For while we typically see left-wing commitment in terms of enthusiasm for government intervention, most radicals in the English tradition were deeply and instinctively hostile to the state.

Take Thomas Spence, the 18th-century revolutionary who coined the phrase "the rights of man" long before Thomas Paine. Like so many others after him, Spence thought that private ownership of land was the source of England's woes, but he never contemplated a grand system of centralised state ownership. Instead, he was an avowed localist, arguing that each parish should hold the land in trust: a case, one might think today, of parochialism taken to the extreme.

Indeed, many radicals were far less comfortable with collectivism than the idea of a golden tradition might lead us to think, largely because they had such distrust for the common people. Political associations, wrote the first modern anarchist, William Godwin, in the 1790s, were inherently dangerous: conviviality might easily turn into disorder, and there was "nothing more barbarous, cruel and bloodthirsty than the triumph of a mob". The task of change, he thought, should be left to "a few favoured minds" - the classic position of the well-born and high-minded. You can imagine Sidney and Beatrice Webb nodding vigorously.

Yet it does not necessarily follow that the modern left has nothing to learn from such forerunners. Although we think of Labour as the liberal-minded, reforming champion of state intervention, it was not ever thus. As another academic, Martin Pugh, pointed out in his bracingly revisionist account of the party's history published last year, there is a forgotten, pre-1945, even pre-1918 Labour story - just as Maurice Glasman argues. Glasman's formula "Blue Labour" is well chosen precisely because Conservatives and Conservatism played such an important role in the party's origins. That may sound odd, because Labour and the Tories are supposed to be implacable enemies. Surely Labour emerged as the working-class heir to Victorian Liberalism, picking up the baton of opposition to the Conservative ruling classes? Not at all. We remember that Foot and Benn came from a long line of Liberal nonconformists, yet often forget that many of Labour's best-known figures came from public-school Tory, not Liberal, backgrounds.

Clement Attlee, who was educated at Hailey­bury and Oxford, was a Tory until he saw the poverty in the East End after becoming a manager at a children's charitable foundation in Limehouse in his early twenties. Stafford Cripps, whose father was a Conservative MP, moved to the left only in his twenties, shocked by the plight of what he called "the poor slum-beings". Hugh Dalton, son of John Neale Dalton, tutor tothe future George V, was another convert. At Eton, he later recalled, he was a "Joe Chamberlainite, a Tory Democrat, a self-confessed imperialist", but when he went up to King's College, Cambridge, he fell in with a more left-wing crowd, among them John Maynard Keynes, and became a keen member of the Fabian Society. Hugh Gaitskell came from a Conservative-voting family, as did Blair, the son of a Conservative Party activist in the north-east of England.

Seen in the light of the political journeys many Labour titans have made, talk of Blue Labour seems rather less outlandish. And there is more. In its early years, Labour often seemed a markedly conservative rather than socialist party. At the very first meeting of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, Ben Tillett, the future TUC president and MP for Salford, warned that if it was to be called "the Socialist Party he would repudiate it". "The great mass of British workmen," the meeting agreed, "do not understand Socialism and have rather a prejudice against it." Other pioneers held similarly robust views, not least the supremely conser­vative socialist Robert Blatchford, whose bestselling left-wing manifesto Merrie England, published the following year, traduced "lily-livered Methodists".

As David Marquand put it in the New Statesman last April, early socialists such as Blatchford "drew on a long line of working-class Toryism: a rollicking, rambunctious, fiercely patriotic and earthy tradition, at odds both with the preachy nonconformist conscience that saturated the culture of provincial liberalism and with the patronising, 'we-know-best' preconceptions of metropolitan intellectuals".

Even at this early stage, they dreaded the influence of the well-meaning, clean-living recruits flooding over from the Liberal Party. If the ex-Liberals could select a king, warned Tillett, "he would be a feminist, a temperance crank, a nonconformist charlatan . . . an anti-sport, an anti-jollity advocate, a teetotaller, as well as a general wet blanket". We can all think of people like that, some of them not so far away from the Labour leadership.

In this context, Blue Labour's evocations of English voluntarism and self-help sound less like heretical borrowings from Margaret That­cher's old speechwriters and more like a throwback to Labour's early days.

The hard-drinking Ernest Bevin, a patriotic West Countryman who said that his foreign policy was to "take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere I damn well please", and who insisted that Britain have its own nuclear deterrent with a "bloody Union Jack on top of it", would no doubt have agreed with Glasman's prescription that, to win in England, Labour must wrap itself in "family, faith and the flag".

The truth is that Glasman's talk of "reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity", and even his vaguely Daily Mail-ish noises about the challenge of immigration in white working-class neighbourhoods, probably echo Labour's founding values more closely than the anguish of the liberal elite. The academic is withering about the left's record after 1945, which he calls "elitist, managerial [and] bureaucratic". However, it was this managerial and bureaucratic mindset that built hundreds of thousands of homes, established the National Health Service and virtually eradicated the extreme poverty and disease that had blighted many lives before the Second World War.

All the same, it is hard to resist the feeling that Labour still suffers too much from a kind of knee-jerk Fabianism, preferring to meddle from Whitehall rather than to enable people to help themselves locally. To pick one small but telling example, we often forget that it was Harold Wilson's 1970s Labour government that first toyed with the idea of allowing tenants to buy their council houses, even going so far as to have it discussed among ministers.

Years later, Wilson's senior policy adviser Bernard Donoughue reflected that he had been desperate to give people "the freedom to decorate their homes as they wished and, very important, to move in pursuit of employment . . . It infuriated me when I raised this issue with my local Kentish Town Labour Party and was dismissed out of hand by a bunch of mainly left-wing activists, many of whom were prosperously middle-class and enjoyed the benefits of owning their own homes in nearby Hampstead and Camden Town."

This was Blatchford and the Methodists all over again. The Methodists won; council house sales were shelved because they were deemed inegalitarian. "It was an own goal," Donou­ghue's Downing Street colleague Gavyn Davies conceded. "A monumental own goal." Selling council houses - which would have allowed Wilson and his colleagues to plough the proceeds back into more social housing for the poor - is exactly the kind of counter-intuitive policy that their 21st-century successors need in order to rebuild their support in the English south and Midlands. For if the Labour leadership is serious about winning back even half of the four million English voters lost since 1997, sentimental evocations of a romanticised, radical tradition, or fond reminiscences of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the miners' strike, will not be enough.

Instead, a healthy scepticism about the capacity of the state, a renewed enthusiasm for localism and self-help and respect for working-class anxieties would go a long way. Contrary to what we often think, these values are not alien to the Labour Party's history or to the English radical tradition; they are part of their DNA. Strange as it may sound, if the party of the left wants to reconnect with its heritage and win again in England, it needs to rediscover its forgotten conservatism.

Dominic Sandbrook is a contributing writer of the New Statesman

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?