In my recent profile of the Australian political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane, who has done much to shape the Labour leadership’s thinking on patriotism (he is a particularly important influence on Jon Cruddas, who is leading Labour’s policy review) I wrote of how the party could draw inspiration from the 1945 election. In that year, it was Clement Attlee’s promise of a “new Jerusalem” that propelled him to power over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly 70 years later, “a patriotic vow to ‘rebuild Britain'” could do the same for Ed Miliband, I argued. As Soutphommasane told me: “The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project”.
The opening days of the Labour conference have seen the party explicitly embrace this theme. First we had the conference slogan “rebuilding Britain”, then we had Ed Balls’s speech, in which the shadow chancellor spoke of the need for Labour to “recapture the spirit and values and national purpose” of 1945.
Balls is right to argue that a patriotic appeal to “rebuild Britain” after austerity could resonate with voters in 2015. Under the rubric of “national reconstruction”, Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a major house building programme, and a “solidarity tax” on the wealthy. Balls spoke of how this could be the generation that “safeguarded the NHS, and started the rebuilding of our national infrastructure … that tackled our debts by growing and reforming our economy – and making sure the banking crisis that caused those debts could never happen again … that broke from the cycle of political short-termism and started to rebuild Britain anew in the long term national interest.”
Labour’s best hope of winning the next election lies in offering an optimistic vision of a society of shared obligation and reward, something Bill Clinton did so effectively in his speech to the Democratic National Convention when he contrasted a “we’re-all-in-this-together” society with a “winner-take-all society“.
The irony is that “we’re all in this together”, with its appeal to voters’ instinctive patriotism, would have been a good slogan for the Tories if only they’d lived up to it. But their reckless reform of the NHS (“the closest thing the English people have to a religion”, in the words of Nigel Lawson) and their decision to abolish the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity in hard times, means that they have lost any claim to be a patriotic one-nation party. The road is clear for Miliband to establish Labour as the truly patriotic party.