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15 October 2021

Labour needs to end its addiction to Britishness

If it could only remove its British blinkers, the party would find plenty of other, more useful territorial identities.

By Rory Scothorne

In her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, the political theorist Wendy Brown notes an apparent paradox of the 21st century: as globalisation and the end of the Cold War broke down divisions between nation states, the number of physical walls and blockades both between and within those territories appeared to surge.

Brown argues that these “hyperbolic tokens of sovereignty” are in fact “icons of its erosion”. Across miles of concrete and barbed wire, these barriers only emphasise the instability and insecurity they are supposed to address, transgressed easily by global capital, terrorism, climate change and now pandemics.

Wall-building anxieties have crossed over into political language too, as electoral behaviour becomes more unpredictable and fluid. The concept of the Red Wall was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe something far less secure than it suggests: a group of Labour seats in England where the Conservatives “under-performed” with their usual demographics, largely for cultural and historical reasons. 

“If the Tories manage to culturally detoxify in certain seats there is a huge unlocked vote there,” Kanagasooriam wrote on Twitter in August 2019. In other words, the Red Wall wasn’t a wall at all. Labour’s apparent resilience there was based on a mirage of affinity between place and party, rather than the more reliable force of demographic self-interest. When history took another step towards the mirage in 2019, nothing crumbled or collapsed; it simply dissolved into the air.

Rather than question the reality of such electoral fortifications in the first place, leading Labour figures have enthusiastically reinforced the image of broken political battlements waiting to be rebuilt by someone with the right “tools”, as Keir Starmer put it in his Labour conference speech in September. In his own remarks to conference, Scottish Labour’s leader Anas Sarwar described Scotland as “the first Red Wall to fall”, adding an entire nation of rubble to the mix. 

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What does that comparison tell us about Labour’s current crisis? For a start, it illustrates the importance of selective memory to the new regimes north and south of the border. Starmer and Sarwar blame their current inability to break through on the slow, difficult process of “rebuilding” after the previous leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard, supposedly left the old walls unguarded. 

[see also: Labour has no hope of defeating the Conservatives until it answers the Brexit question]

But in 2017, Corbyn’s Labour registered a ten-point rise in its vote share across the north of England, cancelling out a similar rise for the Conservatives while also taking seats in the south. Labour’s decline in the Red Wall began before Corbyn, and has continued afterwards. In Scotland the excuses are even more laughable: Scottish Labour was first beaten by the SNP in 2007, with New Labour still in power at Westminster, and its most brutal defeat came in 2015 under the leadership of Jim Murphy, a Blairite on the right of the party who – like Sarwar – benefited from plenty of credulous media hype. 

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In fact, Labour faces far bigger problems which neither Starmer nor Sarwar is in any position to resolve. The fantasy of territorial “walls” has been embraced by Labour as nostalgia for a time when it could depend on old tribal alignments without doing much work to sustain them, never mind generate new ones. 

Those stubborn loyalties, whether in England or Scotland, could be relied on by the leadership while they triangulated towards more affluent and politically footloose demographics in the south-east of England. Without that backstop to rely on, the old Blairite strategy of creeping rightwards on to Tory ground – rather than actually persuading people on to Labour’s – falls apart. 

The truth is that the basis of Labour’s UK-wide, one-size-fits-all appeal – what we might call National Labourism – is long gone, leaving behind little more than those localised cultural habits whose half-life is now threatening the party’s future. National Labourism rose in the first half of the 20th century with the development of a distinctly national British economy, examined in detail in David Edgerton’s masterful The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (2018). Back then, Britain offered a clear unit of state-guaranteed security and control which Labour could meaningfully claim as its own. It declined from the 1970s onwards as the Conservative assault on industry and the trade unions yanked out Labour’s national roots. 

In Scotland, devolution offered an opportunity for Labour to re-pot itself in national soil. But with the Scottish parliament in place, it spurned this out of a pathological fear of the same “nationalism” it had quietly embraced at the British level. By refusing to seriously differentiate itself from New Labour and stand up to Westminster, Scottish Labour handed Scotland’s distinctive and disputatious political culture to the SNP. Only Welsh Labour seems to have understood the enduring importance of what Tom Nairn has called “nationality politics”, and has reaped the rewards.

Starmer and Sarwar may even think they are learning from the Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford, singing the praises of British – and even English or Scottish – “patriotism”, which they spuriously oppose to “nationalism”. Yet their vision of identity is hopelessly depoliticised, offering little more than an empty loyalty to triumphant athletes and pretty scenery that offers no bridgeway to everyday anxieties over the economy and the welfare state. There is some movement in the right direction: Starmer’s “buy British” call for strategic state procurement offers a vision of economic nationalism that is being mirrored in Scottish Labour’s own criticisms of the SNP. 

But it also helps to illustrate Labour’s problem: as Starmer acknowledges, the “British” economy is unsustainably off-shored, exploitative and unequal. There is little there to be proud of. The same goes for the other institutional underpinnings of Britishness – Westminster is deeply unpopular, while the NHS is fragmented along devolved lines. So long as Labour offers only British visions, it will remain empty and unconvincing. Decades of Conservative assaults on the British state have left the nation a hollowed-out husk, not just in economic and administrative terms, but in cultural terms too. All that remains is culture-war jingoism on the right and a strangely Americanised ideal of identity-based “progressivism” on the left, claimed on Britain’s behalf by that old magpie of identity, Gordon Brown

If it could only break free of its British blinkers, Labour would find plenty of other, more useful territorial identities that it has tended to submerge within Britishness. These come with less institutional or ideological baggage, and are often far more malleable and open to left-wing appropriation. That doesn’t just mean Scotland, England and Wales. Cities and regions, especially in a country as big and diverse as England, offer deep reservoirs of memory and meaning that mix far more productively with Labour values – and can be opposed more effectively to the Tory state – than the detritus of Britishness can. 

These places are small enough to mean something immediate and positive for the people that live there; and they are large enough to meaningfully frame that combination of working-class solidarity and state intervention that makes up Labour’s distinctive contribution to politics. If Starmer, a native of the British state apparatus, cannot see beyond it, then Labour may have to look elsewhere for someone who can. A mayor of a northern city, perhaps.

[see also: Labour’s lost future: the inside story of a 20-year collapse]