Future visions

With the outlook so bleak for Labour, the government is reacting nervously to ideas of change. But s

Depending on which version of the new Labour tragicomedy you sign up to, the government is either ripping itself apart, with various younger members of the cabinet feverishly jostling to replace Gordon Brown as leader after his ultimate demise, or, in a separate but no less gruesome scenario, ministers are calmly allowing the Prime Minister to slide to defeat before embarking on the slow road to recovery.

Elements of both are true. With the outlook so bleak, ambitious ministers, with a long career in politics to contemplate, can be forgiven for preparing for a future without Brown. On the other hand, there are no immediate plans for a leadership challenge and, as a result, a certain degree of drift has inevitably set in.

So here we have it. A circle of increasingly isolated Brown allies and cheerleaders continues to believe the Prime Minister can pull it off in time for the next election. The cabinet and most of the Parliamentary Labour Party remain remarkably loyal, considering the scale of the slide in the polls. A handful of restive former ministers, nostalgic for the high days of Blairism, continue to cause trouble, while backbenchers on slim majorities have begun surveying for prospects in the political wilderness.

A sense of the state of government nerves can be found in the reaction to an article in the June issue of Prospect magazine, written by the former No 10 speechwriter Phil Collins and Richard Reeves, a biographer of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill and contributor to the New Statesman.

Collins and Reeves argue that the Labour Party must reject its statist instincts and embrace liberalism, or face oblivion. The dividing line is no longer between left and right, but between liberal and authoritarian, something that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have begun to grasp, but Labour has not.

The thoughtful essay was dismissed by Downing Street as an act of gross treachery. The Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, for whom Collins was doing some contract work, was told to sack the speechwriter. His refusal fuelled further stories about cabinet-level splits and Purnell's leadership ambitions. Make no mistake, Collins is hated by some people around Brown, but the reaction was out of all proportion to the offence. (Indeed, I understand that once the Prime Minister's fury had subsided, and he found time to read the article, he decided to hold out the olive branch to Collins and has invited him to No 10 to discuss his ideas.)

Conventional wisdom now traces the decline in Labour fortunes to the aftermath of "the election that never was" in October 2007. But some in the party saw the warning signs long before. The following words, for instance, come from a pamphlet called New Labour: Rebuilding the Coalition, published for Labour's 2006 conference. "At a time when we are in danger of talking only to ourselves, we need to show that we are motivated by the problems that people face in their own lives.

"We need to describe those problems clearly and to provide an explanation that makes sense. We need to show that we can tackle those problems because we share, with voters, a set of values and beliefs of how Britain could and should be. We need to regain our belief that individual aspiration and opportunity can best be met in a society that also promotes . . . fairness and the common good." The pamphlet, which amoun ted to a mini-manifesto, was co-authored by a group of 12 MPs led by John Denham, and included Joan Ruddock, Angela Eagle and Martin Salter. It provided a sound and sobering analysis of the situation facing Labour long before the present crisis. It argued that Labour should forget tailoring messages to individual niche groups in society based on focus-group evidence. It should also avoid the temptation of chasing the tiny number of centre-ground voters in marginal constituencies. Both strategies have been adopted under Brown, with disastrous consequences.

Denham's appointment as Secretary of State at the newly created Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in Brown's first cabinet was an important symbolic statement. Denham famously resigned from the Blair government in 2003 over his opposition to the war in Iraq, just at the time when he was being tipped for promotion to a cabinet post. Until that point he had been a loyal new Labour crusader, both at the Department of Health and the Home Office. He was a committed moderniser who backed NHS reform and the "Respect" agenda. In his post-Iraq role as chair of the Commons home affairs select committee he remained largely supportive of the government. The committee's June 2005 report on the much-maligned antisocial behaviour orders, for example, gave Asbos a cautious thumbs-up.

Real New Labour

But around the same time, Denham and a few like-minded individuals were already developing a dissident vision for the future of the party, which the New Statesman dubbed "Real New Labour". While attention was focused on the future of Tony Blair and the question of the succession, many on the left of the party hoped that Gordon Brown would show his true progressive colours once inside No 10 Downing Street. Denham was far more sanguine, believing on the evidence of detailed research with his constituents in Southampton that many still believed life had dealt them an unfair hand despite the improvements in health and education made possible by the Labour government's investment in public services. This led him to the view that Labour was at risk of once again losing constituencies such as his in the south of England, a theme to which he returned in a Fabian Society lecture just last month.

To my knowledge, John Denham has no leadership ambitions and has certainly not been plotting to depose Brown. In his year at Innovation, Universities and Skills, he has annoyed some higher education institutions by shifting funding from people taking second degrees to provide more money for first-time students. At the same time, he has increased the number of students eligible for maintenance grants. In short, he got on with his job.

Denham's analysis of the Labour Party's predicament has been consistently correct, but the party leadership is running out of time to take note. If it waits much longer, Denham himself will be swept from his Southampton constituency, along with dozens of other Labour MPs in the south of England.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.