The future of the left since 1884

Crossing the divide

Is it possible for Labour to heal our nation’s divisions? John Denham suggests there is a way forward in the politics of the common ground.



We all know that our nation is bitterly divided. Too few realise how deeply those divisions threaten Labour’s hope to deliver a society that works ‘for the many not the few’. Divided by geography, class, and race, income, wealth, opportunity, age and education, we can’t pretend we are a single nation united by broadly similar experiences of life. Our world views are different and our values are different. Some of us value belonging, continuity, community and security, while others of us relish a fast-changing, diverse and open world. We can find it hard to understand each other.

We’ve been growing apart for years; Brexit only told us how far. If there had been no referendum, the challenge for progressive politics – as in the rest of western Europe – would have been to find new ways of bringing people together. But today the danger is that Labour accepts that divide and puts itself forward as the representative of just one side.

Corbyn’s intellectual outrider Paul Mason argues: “Labour has to assemble an electoral coalition of people who want an open, global, European-orientated economy and society.” Tom Watson, representing a very different wing of Labour, argues that: ‘Remain values are Labour values.’ The corollary of his statement is that leavers don’t share Labour values. It’s a short step from there to deciding that Labour no longer wants to represent them.

Some claim that Labour doesn’t need leave voters now or in the future. The truth, as far as I can see, is that most of Labour’s support in 2017 came from remain voters. But Labour still needs the support of significant numbers of leave voters. We won’t get them if we define our party and our values as entirely remain. And we can’t start from the 2017 election (which we lost badly, remember). Millions of working-class voters left us in elections from 2001 onwards. Some went to UKIP, then Tory, then Brexit. Others simply stopped voting.

Resolving Brexit solves fewer problems than people think: win a second referendum, get a remain vote and we will simply have returned Britain to the divided nation we were in 2016. Nothing else will have changed.

We will still live in a society that works for the few not the many. Seventy-five per cent of people think that the country is run in the interests of big business. Labour’s policies on public ownership are popular. But the other divisions matter too. Labour can’t build a politics of ‘the many not the few’ when too many voters look at us and see us only standing for one side of the divide. Many of those whose support we have lost are working class, haven’t been to university, are on below average and insecure wages and live in places that have seen economic and social change go against them. If Labour isn’t for them, who are we for?

The very voters Mason, Watson and others reject understand that Labour is no longer for people like them. If our leaders put us on one side of a divided nation, our party won’t be ‘for the many not the few’ but ‘for some of the many against the rest of the many’.

Critical decisions do hang over us. A second referendum:  what would the question be and what position would Labour take? What would an early Labour election manifesto say?

The questions can’t be ducked – constructive ambiguity has impressed no one and alienated both sides – but we must avoid taking positions and using language that makes Labour’s future success impossible. Difficult though it may seem, we have to keep our eyes on the wider horizon and develop a new progressive politics that reaches across our current divides.

The starting point is to understand that there are things to value on both sides.

The values of community, solidarity, patriotism and belonging that were produced in working-class industrial towns and cities, amongst voters who are often leavers, are values found in every successful social democratic nation. This includes the post-war Labour that rebuilt Britain and created the NHS. We should not reject the values on which our past success was built.

On the other hand, we should also be clear that support for international cooperation to tackle common problems, a valuing of diversity, and the widening of opportunities are essential values that remainers bring to the national mix.

Nor does the leave-remain divide fall neatly into right and left. We know that the young people who generally vote to the left tend to hold more right-wing views on poverty, welfare and redistribution than their more Conservative-voting grandparents: they are more liberal, but not more socialist.

Labour not only should appeal to voters in both halves of divided Britain: it has to if we are actually going to deliver for the many.

We don’t have to endorse the xenophobes amongst the leavers, nor those remainers who are only interested in preserving their own privilege and opportunity. Just explicitly saying that there is value in both world views would be a huge step towards bringing people together and opening up the debate about what we share.

We can extend this to policy. Hope Not Hate and British Future have shown us that even on a poisonous issue like immigration there is plenty of common ground to explore. We need to extend that work to other policy areas, as the Fabian’s new Uniting Labour’s Tribes project aims to do.

As we do this, we can begin to tell a new national story of shared values and shared interests. In recent years, ‘English’ and ‘British’ have come to reflect the different world views. Those who most emphasise their English identity are more likely to be leavers; the British more likely to be remainers. Labour leaves England and the English out of the story. (We are ‘Rebuilding Scotland’ in Scotland, ‘Rebuilding Wales’ in Wales,  but ‘Rebuilding Britain’ in England. No wonder some people don’t think we stand up for people like them. We don’t even sound as though we live in the same country.)

We not only need to bring England and the English back into Labour’s story, we need a new national story for England and for Britain, a progressive patriotism brings people together and not divide.

In the weeks ahead, Labour may well endorse a second referendum, or promise one in our manifesto: it’s what most party members want. But if we sound as though we only stand for remain voters we will set the left’s prospects back for a generation.

This blog is an edited version of a talk given to the Southern Region Fabian Society Annual Conference in Southampton on 22 June 2019

John Denham

John Denham is a former Labour cabinet minister and is currently the director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, and director of the English Labour Network.


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