Labour must learn to speak for England again

It is now easier for Labour to win a majority in England than in the UK as a whole. Labour needs to decide what it would want to do with that power.

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In 2015, English voters were scared that a weak minority Labour government would be pushed around by the SNP. Millions shared those fears. Only a few actually switched their votes, but in the words of Butler and Kavanagh, without that effect there would have been no Conservative majority government in 2015”.

Unless an extraordinary recovery takes place in Scotland, Labour’s leader in 2020 is going to face the same question that Ed Miliband answered, belatedly and implausibly in 2015. How can we be sure a minority Labour government won’t be held to ransom by SNP members demanding ever more for Scotland?

The only plausible answer is that Labour has to become a party trusted to govern for England. The essays Tristram Hunt has brought together in Labour’s Identity Crisis - England and the politics of patriotism highlight how far the party has to go. At the same time the words and experiences of ten Labour candidates offer a tantalizing glimpse of what a popular patriotic politics, of people and place, might look like.

Labour certainly did enough to alienate England. John Ferrett struggled to get Labour interested in the close of Portsmouth dockyard. “Before consulting any local politicians in Portsmouth, or the trades unions representing workers in the yard”, the PLP gave enthusiastic backing to Coalition plans to move the work to Scotland. Naushabah Khan had that infamous tweet of St George’s cross during her Rochester and Strood by-election.

Even Labour’s campaigning could make things. In Harlow the inflow of activists from London "intensified the disconnect between the socially liberal canvassers and those they were canvassing". It is all very well enjoying Made in Dagenham but local MP Jon Cruddas warns that too much of the Labour Party prefers to live in the world of 1960s Fordism, instead of speaking for the real and very different lives of people in Dagenham today.

The England of Labour’s Identity Crisis is not a monochrome jingoistic place. Candidates inspire when their Labour values become a vehicle for expressing the needs of the people and communities they know so well. The fells of Cumbria are very different to the suburbs of Ealing or the parts of Manchester and Sheffield Labour has never won, but Labour only talks of Britain as though we were all the same. England is a nation that thrives on its diversity of towns, villages and cities. Our love of where we live is part of being English, not something separate from it.

With the national political debate drab and predictable, it’s a moving surprise to find the people of Lisa Nandy’s Wigan, or Ben Bradshaw’s Exeter brought to such life. We can feel in the closure of a a pub a community changing in difficult and disconcerting ways; we hear from people who want politicians to inspire with optimism, not add to their despair. Hunt concludes that Labour won’t come back unless it learns to believe in England. The natural warmth and insight found here is the the language to speak in.

Even those who still struggle with the politics of identity must surely understand Labour’s new electoral position. It is now easier for Labour to win a majority in England than in the UK as a whole. Labour needs to decide what it would want to do with that power. In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, Labour believes those nations should elect representatives to decide their health, education, universities and social care. In England, though, Labour insists that only a UK government can run those services.

The next election could see an English Labour majority that refuses to try to deliver Labour policies to the English people who elected them. It’s an unsustainable argument and undermines any claim Labour might make to act in the best interests of England. Believing in England must include believing in the right of the English people to enjoy the same political power as those in other parts of the UK.

John Denham is a former Labour MP and is the Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. ‘Labour’s Identity Crisis’ is published by the University of Winchester and is available as pdf and hard copy from www.winchester.ac.uk/ceip

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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