The future of the left since 1884

England and Labour

The England and Labour project is being coordinated by Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, with an editorial group of Prof Mike Kenny (Director of the Mile End Institute, QMUL), Mary Riddell and...


The England and Labour project is being coordinated by Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, with an editorial group of Prof Mike Kenny (Director of the Mile End Institute, QMUL), Mary Riddell and Jonathan Rutherford. England and Labour has organised three seminars at Westminster and one in Huddersfield, and commissioned a wide ranging series of articles from politicians, academics and commentators.

Over the next few months, the Fabian Review will be publishing regular articles from the series, as part of the debate about Labour’s response to contemporary England. Here, John Denham summarises the key questions.

The Labour party in England faces challenges on every front – electorally, organisationally, culturally, constitutionally, politically and in policy. Some are prompted by questions about the very nature of England and Englishness. Many will be recognised by those who simply want Labour to be able to exercise power again.

Winning England

It’s now easier for Labour to win a majority in England than in the UK. So deep is Labour’s recent political and psychological dependence on Welsh and Scottish MPs that the party hardly discusses what sort of Labour could win an English majority. The idea of the ‘Celtic crutch’ has hampered Labour in England. On the one hand, it has allowed English Labour to write off much of England where the party barely exists. On the other Labour has been reluctant to assert English issues (for example questioning the Barnett formula) for fear of causing electoral problems in Scotland or Wales.

Without an unanticipated revival in Scotland, the first step to Labour power lies through an English majority, but the party has yet to think through the implications.

Labour, England and the UK government

Aiming for an English majority brings its own political challenges. In 2015 English voters had wide-spread concerns about a minority Labour government being propped up by the SNP. In part, of course, this is because a Labour government was not an attractive proposition, but in part it was fear of Labour giving in to a never ending series of Scottish demands.

Future elections may look like a re-run of 2015 unless Labour can persuade English voters that English interests will be in good hands and well protected. That’s the only way that fears of a minority government, forced to work with others, can be assuaged.

As yet, it’s difficult for Labour to win that argument. Labour has no English policy making mechanisms, it has no English leadership or spokesperson capable of speaking for England. The party has resolutely opposed english votes on english laws (EVEL) and the principle behind it. There are real technical, constitutional problems with EVEL, but the democratic argument – that issues that are decided by MSPs in Scotland or AMs in Wales should be decided by English MPs – is irresistible.

For both political and electoral reasons, Labour needs to ask how it can been seen, in England, as an English party, capable of representing England effectively.

Deciding English issues

The domestic policy agendas of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are becoming ever more distinct. On tax, the NHS, higher education, schools, skills, social care and so much more, different national electorates are able choose different priorities and ways of paying for it.

Labour’s members in England have no mechanisms for enabling its members to settle policy on these issues. It’s dependent on UK Labour structures and, in practice, the Westminster party. In the past, English interests have been suppressed by the wider UK party. At present, the problem is more that policy is determined by Westminster MPs, unconstrained by either the party membership or other elected members.

The current party tensions over English devolution arise from the absence of any mechanism for creating agreement between English local government – largely marginalised in the current structures – and a Westminster party that is not of England nor feels accountable to it.

Labour’s challenge is not just to find ways of allowing its English membership to decide English policy, but to set the right balance between its elected representatives at national and local level.

The governance of England

A choice is sometimes posed between English devolution and the development of English decision-making, whether through EVEL, an English parliament or a reformed second chamber. In reality, this is a false choice. Few people are yet suggesting the devolution of significant legislative powers to cities, city regions or counties, so domestic laws still needs to be made at national level. Devolu-tion has to be ‘from’ something, and this should surely be English decision-makers rather than have English local devolution decided – alone of the nations and provinces of the UK – by the UK government.

Labour has three interrelated dilemmas: how to make policy for England, how to determine the future of devolution, and how to make domestic laws for England.

Winning English elections

Any successful political party has to be designed and organised to win elections. New structures and positions are being created – elected mayors in some places, combined authorities, police and crime commissioners – with new powers across the country. Labour needs to win these elections, and that means a campaigning team and structures that reflect the new centres of power as well as the individual authorities and MPs that will remain important.

Labour will also have to confront the truth that it is not, in reality, a national English political party at all. In large parts of southern and eastern England in particular there are not many active members, little organisation, no organisational backing from the centre and little or no electoral representation.

In truth there is no national party in England today. UKIP and the Lib Dems aspire to relatively limited parts of the electorate. The Conservatives have their own areas with little or no support. The Conservatives have, however, seen the need to tell an aspirational story – the ‘northern power-house’ – in their problem areas. Labour has not put forward a similar positive story for southern England.

Winning England will challenge Labour to make the organisational and policy changes that make electoral success possible in every part of the nation.

The cultural challenge

At the last election, those most likely to identify as ‘English only’, as opposed to English and British or British-only, were much more likely to vote UKIP or Tory than Labour. Only amongst the British-only minority did Labour get most voters. (A recent analysis of the party membership shows that party members tend to identify as much more British than the English population as a whole, so the cultural disconnect is not entirely surprising)

There is no evidence that feeling English and proud of it makes you right wing. It is more that this group of voters – tending to be working class and socially conservative as well as patriotic – moved away from Labour because we were seen as out of touch on welfare, migration and economic management. This isn’t just an English problem. Across Western Europe – from Scotland to Finland to Greece – national identity politics have challenged the place of class-based identity politics that were the foundation of social democratic parties.

Labour needs to appeal to these voters on many different levels, but it is hard to see Labour can reconnect with them without being seen as a party that is clearly of England, for England and proud of England.

At the same time, England is clearly not homogenous. Although the rise in the number of people emphasising their English identity is taking place across every region, that doesn’t mean that Geordie English is identical with the English of the Harlequins Rugby Club car park. England is increasingly diverse, locally and nationally.

Labour can’t be a party that unfurls the St George cross in certain communities, only to hide it away when it campaigns somewhere else. So the Englishness of English Labour has to express the diversity that is today’s England.

Labour will also need to engage with cultural politics, with the organisations and activities that shape people’s identities and shared values, in a way that we have not for years.

Labour’s challenge is to express its identities with place, city, county and region, and ethnicity and faith, as part of our shared English identity.

England and the union

Labour has paid a high price north and south of the border from trying to shoulder responsibility for sustaining the union on our own. While one threat to the union is new moves towards Scottish independence, the other is English voters simply get fed up with constant Scottish demands with no gain to themselves. Counter-intuitive as it may be, establishing a clearer, more popular system of governance for England is the essential building block for the continuation of the union. This will inevitably mean a wide constitutional change, putting the relationship between the nations and regions on a new and more federal basis.

At a political level, Labour also needs to consider how it will act if it is the largest party in the UK, but without a UK majority.

Labour is certain to remain a unionist party but it needs to rethink what form the union should take in the 21st century.

An English Labour party?

In recent years, many people – including me – have advocated the formation of an English Labour Party. Discussion has often been hampered by uncertainty about its purpose, quickly falling into detailed discussion about structures and ways of working. The debate stimulated by the ‘England and Labour’ project should help clarify whether an English Labour party is the best vehicle for responding to the challenges set out here.


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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