The future of the left since 1884

Labour’s English challenge

The soap opera of Labour’s leadership election has absorbed a good deal of the party’s emotional energy and political attention for the past few months. Above all it has distracted Labour from some of the increasingly important questions about nationhood...


The soap opera of Labour’s leadership election has absorbed a good deal of the party’s emotional energy and political attention for the past few months. Above all it has distracted Labour from some of the increasingly important questions about nationhood and state that are now pressing on the UK in the wake of the EU referendum. These issues barely featured in the leadership debates, yet pose considerable threats to Labour’s fragile support and may lead to the further reorganisation of the United Kingdom.

At first sight, ideas of nationhood and state may not appear as exciting or existential as Corbyn’s battles with his foes, but these major issues are of greater long-term importance for the future of the country, the majority of its inhabitants, and most of the party’s supporters. For while Labour faces off internally across a long-established left-right divide, it is increasingly apparent that neither side in this fight has much of a story to tell about the powerful national impulses and new forms of identity that are reshaping our society from below, and that are increasingly undermining the traditional bases upon which party politics in Britain has operated.

Over the past two years, the party’s electoral base has been torn apart by identity politics. Huge numbers of Scottish Labour voters abandoned party loyalty to vote for separation and then to dump the party itself. In England, voters feared SNP support for a minority Labour government, and many others turned to Ukip. In a further major blow, millions of former Labour voters, particularly those who felt mostly sharply English, backed Brexit.  Faced with this tsunami of political rejection, the issue was simply airbrushed out of the leadership campaigns.

The essays in this book begin to define some of the issues that should engage Labour’s attention in this area.  Drawn from four ‘England and Labour’ seminars that were held in Westminster and Huddersfield during the early months of 2016, and an associated series of online essays, they highlight some of the cultural, political and electoral challenges facing the party. A complete set of all the contributions, together with transcripts and seminar contributions can be found on the Centre for English Identity and Politics website.

The broader challenges include marked regional and territorial differences that were illuminated by the result of the EU referendum, the implications of the SNP’s current dominance in Scotland, the possibility of a second referendum on that nation’s future within the UK, and the further demands for greater self-government that Brexit has unleashed. These issues, and other vital, constitutional questions, such as the future of Northern Ireland and the possibility of a ‘hard’ border with the Irish Republic, demand careful attention from progressives.

The common focus of the essays collected in this book is the national question that has been off limits for most of the Labour family: the changing national temper of the English. The majority of people who live outside London voted for Brexit. A strong correlation between support for it and the likelihood of identifying with England as a prime source of national identity had been apparent in polling for some considerable while. Like the Labour party, the remain campaign preferred to ignore this evidence, and may have paid a high price for believing that ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ was the right message for voters who wanted to be recognised as English.

Brexit has a variety of different causes and meanings. One of these is that it offers a dramatic illustration of the impact of an emergent political identity upon political behavior. An increasingly insistent English dimension has been apparent in British politics for some time. The enhanced offer to Scotland in the vow made before the Scottish independence referendum was not universally popular in England. The claimed threat of SNP influence over a minority Labour government was a talking point throughout the 2015 general election, and may have influenced sufficient votes to deliver a Conservative majority. With the electoral battleground in each nation of the UK now contested by different parties, and with different victors in each of its constituent territories, the idea that England possesses interests of its own that are not always the same as those of the union is likely to grow.

Labour’s need to respond to this trend is also borne out by the electoral arithmetic. Without a dramatic improvement in Labour’s fortunes in Scotland – something that is unlikely unless Scottish Labour can find the right blend of progressive politics and an answer to the complex politics of identity in Scotland – Labour has a better chance of doing well in England. In a complete and ironic reversal of its previous position, it makes sense for Labour to prioritise its efforts to win an English majority that – however far away – appears more attainable than a UK majority.

This means holding off the rising threat of Ukip, especially in northern seats, and winning marginal seats where a decisive swing to the Conservatives resulted in victory in the election of 2015. It is now in the largest territory of the UK that the fortunes of the party will be decisively determined in the next few years. But in large parts of England, Labour is struggling to be relevant to voters who, amongst other things, want a party that is sensitive to their English interests.

In her contribution to this collection Mary Riddell traces Labour’s English dilemmas. The origins of Labour’s deafening silence on England stretch back into the years of New Labour government. Gordon Brown made a spirited, but misguided attempt to promote a uniform account of progressive Britishness. But this was in a country where being British had long come to mean very different things in different national settings. Crucially, Brown’s implicit message was that Scotland and Wales could only flourish if England was denied any political identity of its own. Labour proved fatally unable to muster any kind of response when David Cameron decided to pose the question of English devolution in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum. (Labour’s strategists were aware that such a move was coming, but either thought it could be ignored or could not formulate a coherent response). Like the wider left, it assumed that it was somehow illegitimate of a mainstream political party to pose a question that seems blindingly obvious, and increasingly important, to most of the citizens of England. This discomfort was highlighted again during the 2015 election campaign. The Conservatives accidentally stumbled on the tactic of stressing the potential risks to English voters of a Labour government dependent upon the SNP. Labour did not prove able to respond quickly or coherently, and its final rejection of cooperation with the SNP came too late and was implausible.

While a gathering sense of national rebellion was only one of a number of factors that fed into the Brexit vote, the tenor of the campaign that led up to it illustrates the responsiveness of large numbers of the English – north and south, middle and working class – to the idea of self-government, to a political appeal that puts scepticism about mass immigration at its heart, and to the notion of putting one over on the metropolitan political establishment. The desire to take back control spoke to a complex mood of frustration, disappointment and anxiety; and it is this same sensibility that underpins the growing appeal of the stronger sense of English community and national identity that Polly Billington evokes in her contribution.

Critics from the left tend to sing two worn-out tunes in response to this issue. Britishness is an acceptable, multicultural patriotism, but Englishness is reactionary, they repeat. Others insist that people in the north cannot feel any affinity for a soft, southern Englishness – despite the welter of evidence against such a proposition. Both of these responses are the political equivalent of King Canute’s last stand, and need to be junked if Labour is to have a chance in England. Britishness is an identity on the wane. Those who believe in the merits of a United Kingdom need to learn that allowing the various forms of place-based identity greater expression and democratic support is much more likely to secure the legitimacy of the UK than lecturing about the merits of Britishness. And the assumption that we are either northerners or Englanders reflects an inability to grasp the multiple nature of the different forms of attachment that ordinary people combine and value. Julia Stapleton’s discussion of the links between the politics of localism and the current devolution debates grapples with these questions.

Left-wing critics of Englishness have one thing right. This form of patriotism is not the only game in town. It is only one, increasingly salient, face of a much more variegated phenomenon – the growing force of political arguments and appeals based upon collective identity. This is apparent in many different western democracies. Class is becoming weaker as the basis for political loyalty. Disaffection with the inability of the political mainstream to address some of the concerns and fears of ordinary people is growing, as is deep disaffection with sharply rising inequalities. New challenges to the established traditions and ways of living of the majority are generating novel tensions and fears. Questions of culture and of belonging have made their way into the heart of democratic political culture. Often associated with particular, iconic issues, like immigration, identity-based politics percolates deeply into the wellsprings of our civic life, and increasingly demands responses and engagement from political representatives.

Labour’s political opponents have been far more adroit on this terrain, as Theresa May demonstrated at her party conference. She made a clear play for voters that Labour has not only lost, but does not appear to want back. Robert Ford sets out how Labour should be responding to the voters lost to Ukip. Sadly, as the leadership contest revealed – in its avoidance of these questions — the party is unable to confront the tendency for its support to become increasingly confined to the key demographics of several large cities and university towns.

Without a major shift of focus, and a much fuller realisation that politics is now shaped by and configured around concerns associated with identity, belonging and territory, Labour will not get a hearing among the English voters it needs to reach. As the Fabian Society’s analysis shows, Labour needs 104 additional seats in England and Wales and 40 per cent of the vote to win. In marginal seats in England, 4 out of 5 of the extra voters it needs to win are from those who voted Conservative last time.

There are signs, however, that the need to recognize the salience and political resonance of English national identity is starting to make its way into Labour’s mindset, as the essays collected here – from figures associated with different parts of the party – attest. If they help to jettison some of the canards that often feature in Labour’s thinking – including the tendency to make a false separation between ‘internationalism’ and ‘nationalism’, and a visceral suspicion of homegrown patriotism – they will have done an important job. That it is possible to inflect nationalist sentiment in progressive ways is demonstrated by developments in Scotland, by the adoption of patriotic motifs in the rhetoric of radical parties like Syriza and Podemos, and indeed by the long and rich history of socialist patriotism across Britain. The essays here argue that Labour must take these issues seriously, and also go further. Ruth Davis argues that the left must renew links between progressive politics and our empathy with the English environment. David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann, as well as Tariq Modood explore an Englishness that is equally accessible to English people of all ethnicities and faiths.

The left is significantly inhibited by the dearth of serious attempts to ‘re-imagine’ England and different English futures – in both cultural and democratic terms. Ben Lucas and Andrew Harrop look at two of the vital elements of the democratic debates on devolution and finance. Previous essays – from Peter Hain, Graham Allen MP, Craig Berry, Richard Hayton and Jim Gallagher – for the Centre for English Identity and Politics and the Fabian Society have also looked in detail at these questions. To many who feel a sense of pride in their national tradition, the only political voices who seem to speak this language are from the political right. Until progressives begin to engage a battle for the English imagination, this situation will not change.

On one or two carefully scripted occasions Ed Miliband showed that he understood this issue and wanted his party to engage with it. But Labour did nothing under his watch to bring it into the heart of its political vision. Under Corbyn, there is no real encouragement for an agenda that the radical left feels to be a distraction from the real engine of conflict – social class. And yet, during his leadership a concerted debate has finally begun to break out about Englishness, and some have begun to employ patriotic language: in his speech Corbyn notably remarked that “there is nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes”. And, as Hillary Clinton recently suggested, patriotism can separate those who accept their obligations to the wider society, and those who think it is clever to avoid them. In English radical history, the recurrent notion of the common weal held that the measure of the powerful was how well they looked after the commons. Such thinking has a powerful resonance today and Labour needs to mine it more deeply.

At its best, progressive patriotism, explored here by Emily Robinson, can unite disparate interests and communities. It opens up conversations with people who would reject any particular political label. It can be a foundation for holding the powerful to account. England’s radical traditions (and their notions of political, social, religious and economic emancipation) can be combined with conservative traditions (of responsibility, service, respect for the rule of law, and voluntarism) to create a popular politics that would hold the powerful to account, and challenge the abuse of power, wealth and privilege of those working against the national interest.

Paul Hilder considers some basic steps that must be taken for Labour to win in England. Liam Byrne points out that any Labour Englishness must be relevant to the way England will be in 20 years time, not a simple appeal to the past. An English Labour will not be created by packing a boot full of St George’s flags to take canvassing in certain council estates, only to be quickly discarded. Nor is there a need to invent a brand new English nationalism and tame it for progressive ends. Very little in current manifestations of English nationhood is new. For most people this is about a feeling that insufficient respect and recognition have been afforded to an older sense of patriotism that quietly celebrates community, place, tradition and country. The number of people in England who identify with a politicised English nationalism, and envisage a break with the union, remains small. Rather larger numbers have always supported English votes for English laws or an English parliament, though not with any evident passion or insistence. Of course, in the circumstances of a future constitutional crisis, the mood on both these issues could change. But for the vast majority of English people, the English tradition is as much a liberal one – celebrating tolerance, freedom and fairness – as it is a conservative one – prioritising community, stability and carefully managed change. Until Labour people put aside the temptations to demonise or dramatise Englishness, they are unlikely to develop the kind of language, sensibility and policy prospectus that will be needed to make Labour a truly national party once more.


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.


Michael Kenny

Michael Kenny is the Director of the Institute of Public Policy at Cambridge University. He is also the inaugural director of the Mile End Institute, as well as coordinator of the England and Labour project.


Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.