Writing in the New Statesman last week, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale made a powerful case for a new “People’s Constitutional Convention to reestablish the UK for a new age”.
Dugdale was right to call for this. She was right, too, to illustrate the new predominance of identity politics across the UK, not just in Scotland. Warning of the kind of national and social division our political generation has not witnessed in our lifetime, Dugdale rightly identified the iniquity of the centralisation of political and economic power in one corner of our nation.
Let’s be clear. Globalisation – the invisible deity upon which too many politicians now attribute everything bad which happens in the modern world – did not do this. Yes, the dominance of the financial sector in our national economic environment has worsened this reality, but it didn’t cause it: Britain was chronically unequal and suffocatingly over-centralised before the City let rip.
The response of our nation to Brexit – wherever anyone may have stood on the debate – will be largely defined and expressed by our political parties. That is why Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, is right to argue for a Brexit for the 100 per cent, not just the 52 per cent. But identity politics were well established before the Brexit vote.
Identity politics in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are well established and well understood – but the identity politics of England are not. To complicate matters further, the politics of English identity are not homogenous. To put it another way, there is no fixed consensus on the merits of morris dancing, cheese rolling, Cumberland wrestling or gurning.
The Scottish referendum had a profound effect upon the notion of English identity, particularly in Northern England and particularly amongst the working class. The politics of class solidarity – so it felt below the border – had been replaced by not just an insular nationalism but also the notion of abandonment. The “feeling” that the majority of the Scottish working class had rejected the English working class (many of Scots descent) is palpable.
Dugdale and Scottish Labour deserve huge credit for acknowledging these issues in a way in which the rest of the broader party has not done. But before we approach any kind of constitutional convention at all, Labour itself needs to change. As Dugdale rightly infers, London is not Labour and Labour is not London. Life is very different on the coast and in the countryside, in our rugby league towns and lower-league football cities. Our party must stand for national renewal, for nation building and for the redistribution of power, wealth and opportunity.
This means that, in addition to ensuring that power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, we must now add “nation-building” to our party’s historic purpose. National renewal should consist of two elements. First, the preservation of the United Kingdom as the oldest most successful political union in the world. And second, following the new constitutional settlements for Scotland and Wales, the radical devolution of power to England’s towns and cities.
Labour should recreate itself in the image of that country it would wish to create. This means that alongside the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties, there must now be space for a discrete English Labour identity.
In the wake of the 2016 local elections, Labour’s approach to the “English question” is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the UK) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and Ukip, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020 and recreate the UK for a new age.
Unless we come up with this ambitious, compelling vision for England, we risk becoming a party without a country. Kezia Dugdale understands this. But the national renewal we seek will not be possible without a vibrant English identity within a renewed Labour party. This way lies Labour’s renaissance.