Be A Voice: Labour must address national identity if it is to win England

By Blog Writer Max Quarterman

Labour must address national identity if it is to win England

With Theresa May’s Conservative government in disarray, Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that the Labour Party are a government in waiting may not seem so far from the truth. However, despite recent political crises the Tories remain on 40% in the latest YouGov poll, some arguing that they should be much further behind considering all the troubles at Number 10. 

In recent years the Conservative and right-wing tabloids have been branding Labour, in particular Jeremy Corbyn, as ‘anti-British’ or ‘anti-England’. In England, the Left has always struggled to take a position on the issue of national identity; it is not considered ‘patriotic’ enough for a number of reasons, namely, embarrassment and guilt related to England's colonial past and foreign policy. However, rather than offering an alternative vision, they often find it much easier to fiercely oppose far-right groups that have appropriated English identity. This is an issue that plagues Britain’s Left much more than their European equivalents.

So, if Labour is going to get a convincing majority at the next general election, then they need to gain the support of ‘middle England’ which they do not currently hold. The same anger and frustration that took us out of the EU goes hand in hand with suspicions of Labour and its commitment to national values. Tristram Hunt wrote on this in 2016 from his experiences across the doorsteps that Labour now represented the values of the so called ‘liberal elite’ over its traditional working-class base. Despite gains in the June snap election, a lack of support from non-metropolitan areas is still apparent, especially in the growing group of the population that self-identifies as ‘English’. These groups, though traditionally Left-leaning have shifted to the right of British politics, which even twenty years ago would have seemed unthinkable. It begs the question, why?

I believe this is primarily the result of right-wing press campaigns. This, alongside the fact that both the UKIP and Vote Leave campaigns capitalised on portraying Labour’s past two leaders (however fancifully) as essentially ‘anti-British’ - headlines claimed that Ed Milliband’s father Ralph “hated Britain”, and that Jeremy Corbyn is a “terrorist sympathiser” and “refused to sing the national anthem”. The Leave campaign and UKIP were both instrumental in transforming a general sense of discontent and alienation within society into support for xenophobic and nationalistic campaigns. Their campaigns blamed the EU for a multitude of the nation’s problems, most effectively, immigration and globalisation - issues that the Labour party has often failed to comprehensively address. 

Whilst many of us feel that free movement is nothing but a positive phenomenon, it would be foolish to claim these feelings in large swathes of the country merely appeared from nothing. Many of these communities have been left behind by globalisation, are yet to recover from the collapse of the manufacturing industry, and have suffered many socio-economic consequences as a result. Alongside a lack of prosperity, these areas have tended to attract higher rates of immigration, providing a basis for those on the nationalistic right to stoke up divisions within communities by linking a lack of employment opportunities, and the degradation of the community, to increased immigration. Populist right-wing figures such as Nigel Farage exploited many people’s reservations about the supposed transformation that had happened to some communities, and diagnosed the cause as a lack of sovereign control and immigration as a result of EU membership. Whilst this rhetoric of division and blame spread throughout disenfranchised communities, Labour remained relatively quiet, failing to offer any particularly persuasive argument to counter this populist wave.

This, despite the fact that considerable amounts of unpatriotic accusations have been retrospectively aimed at Labour as a result of the Blair years, building up an image of disloyalty amongst voters. Tony Blair has been portrayed by the producers of this discourse as the architect of the original crime; in the words of Nigel Farage, with regards to immigration, Blair was "the reason we are in this mess". Farage and the Leave campaign therefore not only capitalised on the alienation of these communities, but portrayed the Labour party as accomplices to their worsened state. All in all, the Leave Campaign successfully made Labour seem more concerned with the issues of new migrants, rather than struggling working-class communities. To Labour’s misfortune they have found it difficult to shake this tag however falsely constructed by the tabloid media it was. Despite offering a traditional Left-wing manifesto that hoped to raise up all struggling communities regardless of background, they still struggled to win back many of those voters who voted Brexit.

This is because of a fundamental change in The Labour Party itself that goes beyond the Brexit campaign. The Labour party, prior and during the tenure of Jeremy Corbyn has attempted and successfully been the party for the underrepresented, discriminated, and disadvantaged. They are generally seen as the ‘progressive’ choice of the two major parties. Evidently, however, some sections of Labour's historical heartlands have found the turn of attention away from their concerns alienating. Often being seen as not addressing concerns about immigration, communities and traditional values. Some of those traditional voters who were swept up in the Leave campaign's agenda of division and blame found that their new-found sentiment did not match Labour’s. 

It is for this reason that I believe a new conversation around identity must be offered.

Whilst Labour sees itself as an international Socialist party, it must not forget its traditional working-class foundations. It must dispel any middle-class, condescending tones that were capitulated in Emily Thornberry’s mocking of the house in Rochester draped in English flags with a van outside. To resolve this issue of identity, Labour must engage with those people who are concerned about the negative effects of globalisation and immigration in a respectful way, and offer a substantial solution to these deprived communities’ ailments. The Party needs to offer a real solution to creating integrated communities through a shared identity of citizenship whilst offering liberalism, but in a consensual manner. Crucially, I believe this change must take place if Labour are going to gain a legitimate and sufficient majority in the houses of parliament.

Let me make myself clear, this isn’t to say that Labour should in anyway halt their progress towards greater representation of BAME and women in the upper echelons of the party whilst protecting and supporting the human rights and dignity of all people. I am arguing that given the alienation vast swathes of the population feel from the traditional political elite, as well as the ‘liberal’ agenda, the concerns of those forgotten in post-industrial heartlands must be meaningfully addressed. 

As part of this, I am proposing that Labour offers a new identity for the British. Completely different from the one of divisiveness and difference that has been offered from the right. It should be celebratory and positive, offering hope and pride of our multi-cultural society. A respect for tradition but also promoting values of citizenship, acceptance and liberty. An offer similar to that of post-war Labour should be made, one that attempts to build a renewed compassionate, socialist-inspired society in the post-industrial era. Or, perhaps Labour should take note of how Canada opposed nationalist populism and has created an identity of togetherness and citizenship through a ‘mosaic’ identity that has not rigorously pursued assimilation to a singular culture?

Whatever the solution, no doubt Labour will face an uphill struggle in changing its image, especially with consistent attacks from the right-wing press. However, I believe if done in the correct manner, with authenticity and concentration of raising up all people it could be a beginning of a shift of the British identity as a whole, and an end to the false-dichotomy of national pride and progressiveness. 

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Image: Andy Miah @Flickr