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10 March 2016

Labour’s Englishness problem isn’t imaginary. It is real and pressing

Labour risks becoming a party of no nation, warns Ed Miliband's pollster James Morris. 

By james Morris

It is not surprising that most English people think the Labour party is “not quite one of us” when the party itself is so uncomfortable with the idea of the English. Fifty-seven per cent of people in England are seriously concerned that Labour “puts the interests of others before the interests of England”. Meanwhile, the Cross of St George is rarely seen in a Labour context, outside of sneering tweets.

When the party could take Scottish seats for granted, the problem of England was not pressing. Weakness south of the border was more than offset by strength to the north. That recipe for electoral success worked, but its legacy is a party that disdained many voters in both countries – Scots because it had them without courting and English because they were not needed. It is 15 years since Labour last won a plurality in England.

This isn’t a straight forward left/right issue. Labour’s prioritisaion of international development is in part responsible for the sense that the party prioritises “others” over “us”; but so is its perceived fealty to the United States over the Iraq War. The party’s rejection of transitional controls for European Union accession states was as much about embracing the free market as immigrant rights. The disproportionate prominence of Scottish politicians in Labour governments was a function of small-p politics, not ideology. But, all these issues painted a picture of where Labour’s priorities lay. Not here. 

A couple of years ago I was running a focus group in the front room of a terraced house in Stoke. A woman who had lived on the street for forty years pointed down the road: “that’s the Sikh community centre; where’s ours?”. She was perfectly happy for there to be a Sikh centre, but she was reflecting a feeling common in de-industrialised towns around the country. The sense of communal identity that was there in the past (for good and ill) is being replaced with an inchoate sense that something is missing.

Tackling the issue of Englishness will not be easy. Labour activists’ bravery in fighting racism in the 70s, 80s and 90s helped transform Britain, and the party, for the better, but it has also left Labour skittish about embracing the flags of the countries it seeks to represent.

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Changing that means helping party members see Englishness as a potentially progressive force. That is in part about reminding party members of the radical history of England – the Englishness of the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, and so on. It is also about empowering an English Labour party, so it has an institutional role alongside the Scottish and Welsh parties.

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But the real trick is not so much convincing the Labour party to love England. It is convincing the public that that is the case.

Draping events in the flag may help but only if it is an authentic expression of the party’s approach, not just a smart piece of branding. The party must continue to draw a line against racial forms of national identity while expressing a progressive, civic version of Englishness. The party will need to put the case for England when it makes policy arguments, starting by showing that the desire to remain in the EU is grounded in what is best for our country, not an abstract, geographically neutral value like ‘internationalism’. To properly represent English people, the party cannot be relaxed about the idea of national borders disappearing.

Much of this will come down to the kinds of people the party puts in leadership positions. The party should choose leaders proud of being English, rather than leaders who want to choose a different English people.