Time for a truly English Labour Party

There is Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour but England does not have its own national Labour Party. T

There is Scottish Labour, there is Welsh Labour and there is Labour. But there is no English Labour. In May's general election, Labour won in Wales and was ascendant in Scotland. But it lost the election in England. In England, Labour has been driven back into deindustrialised areas; its presence in prosperous parts of the country is tenuous. To avoid becoming a regional party, Labour needs to build a specifically English strategy to win back the support of the working class, the middle classes and those in the south-east.

Writing in the New Statesman in early July, David Miliband acknowledged the scale of this task. He has opened up territory neglected by both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, but something even more visceral is necessary. Miliband was right to point out that Blair failed to grasp the meaning of globalisation. At the 2005 Labour party conference, Blair described the world as "unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice." Blair didn't see this world as destructive; he celebrated those who are "swift to adapt" and "open, willing and able to change". These attributes belong mostly to the highly educated from the metropolitan elite. Only those who are open to this world will be rewarded by it.

Creative friction

Those sections of the population which followed Blair's call have now discovered that the British economy cannot deliver the dream. Their hard work and adaptability have resulted in stagnant or falling incomes, debt and chronic insecurity. The majority simply did not benefit from the boom in the way the rich did.

By the end, New Labour had a dystopian "winner takes all" ethos, which subordinated commitment, fidelity and loyalty to the rule of anonymous and unpredictable market forces. It promoted a free-market system that destroys ethical values and social cohesion, and deracinates cultural identity. This world-view played a large part in the collapse of Labour's support and left behind an acquisitive individualism cut loose from social obligations. It opened the door for David Cameron's compassionate conserva­tism, and left space for a progressive development of the Liberal-Conservative coalition.

Labour has to win back this terrain with a language that can encompass both cosmopolitan modernity and English conservative culture, linking them together in a sense of national purpose. It would incorporate all the things Blair dismissed as anachronisms: tradition; a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one's neighbourhood.

England once had this kind of conservative, common culture; it acted as a counter to the commodification of labour and to social isolation. Ruskin provided its rallying cry, "There is no wealth but life." At one time Labour gave expression to this kind of conservatism. It need not be reactionary, right-wing, or sentimental, although it has been all these things. Its political character will depend on Labour's capacity to articulate a progressive and ethical conservatism that embraces difference. It need not be parochial or conformist: England celebrates a rich tradition of volatile, creative cultures.

Devolution is creating new kinds of plural, alliance-making politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The great absence from this development is England. But Englishness is not silent among the people, only among a political elite frightened by the threats of ethnic intolerance and bigotry. This gulf between the political elite and the electorate is responsible for the threats to Labour's future: resistance to immigration, racism, a politics of resentment, an uncontested right-wing press.

Labour has to engage with the electorate and fashion its own cultural language of Englishness. It must move away from the unitary British state towards a new kind of federated settlement of nations within the UK and towards a federated party structure. Labour's prospects as a governing party will be determined in England. All the UK nations will see their future in Europe shaped by England, the dominant power. An English leader of the Labour Party offers the opportunity to build an identity to respond to white English ethnic nationalism.

Roots to unity

The new nationalist politics are a reaction to New Labour's dystopian world-view. It is a corrosive expression of resentment caused by the cultural and economic devastations of globalisation and deindustrialisation. Following the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, this reaction is shaped by race, not by class. Labour has to build a democratic, socialist and republican cross-class alternative to reactionary English nationalism. It can do this only by meeting racism on its own ground: in the streets, in popular culture, in language and in the historical myths and insecurities of the English. In this struggle, Labour will renew both its cultural language and its local rootedness.

Labour has attempted to tackle the question of national identity before. In 1995 Blair described living in "a new age but in an old country". Then, in 1997, the opportunist branding exercise of "Cool Britannia" took hold. In Brown's jaded administrative appeal to Britishness a decade later, the search for an overarching national story reappeared. These were all elite expressions of nationhood concocted in Westminster. This time, Labour has to go to the streets. Let's debate the idea of an English parliament in, say, York. Why not have elected mayors and parliaments in our major cities and give them back their civic identity and vitality? We are a footballing nation - let's elect the manager of our national team. Then Labour could campaign for a new national anthem - "Jerusalem" - and allow the English to stand tall again.

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham. 

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy