The future of the left since 1884

Local heroes

The real lives of ordinary people, not flags and Rule Britannia, should inspire Labour’s progressive patriotism today, writes Marc Stears.


Long read

“Has britain given up on Labour, or has Labour given up on Britain?” a senior figure in Australian political life asked me the other day. It is one of the subtler questions I have been presented with since arriving in Sydney three years ago.

Usually people just ask: “What on earth is going on in your country?” or some blunter variant of the same. Australians, like people around the world, have looked on in utter disbelief as the country has lurched from Theresa May’s dancing at Conservative party conference through parliamentary chaos over Brexit and the rise of Boris Johnson to the catastrophic Covid-19 response that has left hundreds of thousands of people bereaved.

Britain may not be a failed state, but it certainly seems to be ruled by a state that has failed.

The more attentive observers are now seeking reasons why this has not led to a renaissance for the party of the opposition. It has been almost 16 years since Labour last won a UK general election, and despite everything that has happened, we now read that the party has a double digit deficit to the Conservatives in some polls.

Those observers often hypothesise that a fundamental gulf has opened up between Labour and the people it seeks to represent. And given how long-lasting the rift has been, they believe it is rooted in something bigger and more profound than politics as usual. Perhaps it is not an economic or ideological issue but is instead one of underlying questions of cultural identity.

It is not just overseas commentators who see the challenge in this way. Within the current leader of the opposition’s office, there are several senior figures who worry that the fall of the ‘Red Wall’ in the 2019 general election, indicates that Labour now faces a historic choice: it can carry on espousing an internationalist ideal, replete with cultural liberalism – as it has for the last few decades – and slide into electoral oblivion or it can shift back towards a more explicitly patriotic, even nationalist, story and compete again for those voters who identify with more traditional, socially conservative values.

Keir Starmer has not decided where he stands on this divide as yet. But the Union flag has started to appear in the background of his video addresses and the rhetoric of his speeches is now chock-full of the legacy of Captain Tom Moore, the second world war and the Attlee government of 1945. Starmer talks energetically about Britain, and about England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. He is eager to point out that he spent time as director of public prosecutions, ruthlessly pursuing those who put the country’s national security at risk. And he seems much less eager to talk about Brexit or the problems it has unleashed.

All of this has already opened an intense debate in Labour circles. Is it a vital move to repairing Labour’s compact with the people, or is it a step away from the party’s fundamental values and towards a compromise with the populist right?

Whatever view we take of that question, though, a more fundamental problem confronts the strategy. When progressive politicians do patriotism too often it seems just achingly false.

Keir Starmer, like Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him, makes an unconvincing public patriot. That is not because he does not love the country. I am sure he does, just like Corbyn and Miliband in their own ways did. But he does not naturally display that affection in the way that those imagined voters of the Red Wall seats conventionally do and it looks inherently unconvincing when he tries.

Nor is it just displays of loyalty to Britain itself that seem to come so hard. Starmer’s displays of national affection have sometimes gone awry in other contexts. In a recent party promotional video released for St David’s Day, the patron Saint of Wales, Starmer did not just have one daffodil pinned to his jacket, but three. It was a display of patriotic fervour that would have made Max Boyce blush.

For some, this is a further reason to abandon the patriotism project altogether. If a leader cannot make you believe that they enjoy nothing more than singing along to Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms, the argument goes, they should just give it up and stick to the policy announcements.

But that is a mistake. There is another way of displaying affection for, and loyalty to, the country, its culture and its traditions.

That other way begins with two commitments.

The first is authenticity. People know when they are being spun a yarn and voters are especially adept at noticing when someone is pretending to be a caricatured version of who they themselves are said to be. In short, candidates for high office should only run as the person they really are, however difficult that might be to square with the message they are promoting. Otherwise, we will find them out.

The second is empathy. Too many people now suspect that senior politicians look down on them and treat their fundamental identities with disdain and contempt. As voters, we do not want our politicians to be exactly like us and we certainly do not want them to pretend to be something they are not, but we do want to be shown respect and have our perspectives taken into account. We want politicians to listen and attend and to care and not to believe they are somehow superior or morally pure.

Although these two principles might appear very straightforward, it remains extremely rare for them to be displayed at the same time, especially when it comes to these questions of patriotism and national identity.

There was authenticity when Jeremy Corbyn refused to sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial, for example, but there was no empathy. He did not care enough how his silence would be received by those for whom this was a solemn moment of great meaning.

Conversely, there was empathy when my old boss Ed Miliband reacted furiously to Emily Thornberry seeming to mock the cross of St George as it flew from a house in Rochester. But there was not a lot of authenticity. Few people believed Miliband really wanted to sack a long-term ally from the shadow cabinet for a single tweet.

So how can a progressive political leader develop an approach to patriotism and the nation that is both truly authentic and empathetic at the same time?

In my recent book, Out of the Ordinary, I reveal how in the years from the Great Depression to the 1950s there was a conscious effort to do just that.

Confronted by the joint challenges of fascism and communism, a group of writers, thinkers, artists and activists, including George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Barbara Jones, generated a political language of nation and nationhood that was both respectful of those who were deeply loyal to the country and its traditions, at the same time as being open to the need for bold, transformative change.

For these thinkers the answer lay in steering discussion away from the abstract, grandiose language of patriotism. They chose not to talk about the flags and the glorious histories, what George Orwell called “all that Rule Britannia stuff”. Instead, they rooted their account of a patriotic politics in the smaller, more everyday, places and values of ordinary people. Their heroes were local heroes.

Perhaps the most poignant version of this account came in a short film that Dylan Thomas wrote during the second world war, called Our Country. Originally conceived as a  way of persuading Britain’s allies overseas that it was a country worth fighting for, Our Country strove to depict the whole of the nation, revealing its fundamental character and laying out the reasons why even those most sceptical of the very idea of nation should believe in it.

Our Country opens with a bird’s eye view across Britain, beginning in Glasgow, journeying to London, to the white cliffs of Dover, to the orchards and farms of East Anglia, the markets of the marches and the industrial heartlands of South Wales, before returning to Scotland and ending with the faces of fishermen in Aberdeen.

It captures the brutality of war. A young woman is shown walking home from work imagining what would happen if the bombs began to drop, with “suddenly all the houses falling down on you and everybody you knew lying all dead in the street”.

But it is essentially a celebration. Thomas wanted to show that Britain was a country where people had learned to struggle collectively not because of any belief in the established order, but because they had realised they shared a deep and abiding love of the elements of life that many had previously dismissed as utterly mundane.

To underline this vision, Our Country features apple picking and hop picking in the fields, commuters rushing across the platforms at Waterloo Station, people listening to music in their kitchens, people haggling and drinking in the pubs, people sitting in contemplative silence on the bus. There are no invocations of past military glories or vast noble ideals. There is nothing grand at all, apart, that is, from the dome of St Paul’s, briefly shown towering above it all. There at the top of the dome, Thomas told us, it was possible for one’s eyes to “move over London”. There, everything and everyone, can find “peace under one roof”.

That tradition can inspire us to try to paint a picture of what a progressive patriotism could really look like today; a patriotism, that is, and could be shared with authenticity and empathy.

In essence, I believe it embraces a politics that is bold and transformative, that invests power in the hands of ordinary people, and does not shackle it to those in Westminster. It is a politics that has big ambitions, but also treats people with the respect that they deserve.

If Labour could speak this language, it would be articulating patriotism and pride in a manner that is both believable and impactful.

There is work still to do, of course, in explaining precisely what this should look like in detailed programmatic terms. It is an idea that can be dismissed either as too vague and sentimental, or too reminiscent of David Cameron’s Big Society, which was just a pleasant mask for a deeply regressive austerity.

Fortunately, there are already an extraordinary range of practical social experiments going on across Britain, each of which shows that this need not be the case.

One of the largest of these efforts is the Every One, Every Day initiative run by the Participatory City Foundation, masterminded by the social entrepreneur Tessy Britton, in the east London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Founded on the idea that ‘what people do together every day matters’, Every One, Every Day fosters and facilitates ‘widespread networks of co-operation and friendship’ in one of the most economically deprived and ethnically diverse communities in the whole of the UK. It does so through a host of projects, each co-designed and co-produced by ordinary residents themselves.

In its first year alone, funded both by the local council and a host of major philanthropic foundations, Every One, Every Day has seen at least 2,000 people involved in 40  different ongoing projects, including taking over shops on the high street and turning them into welcoming spaces for people to meet and socialise, cultivating disused public land as community gardens where people can grow food to eat, providing spaces and equipment for families from different backgrounds to cook together and to entertain their children and opening a warehouse equipped with free-to-use tools, IT equipment, sewing machines, laser cutters, co-working space, financial advice and a  co-operatively run childcare facility to help foster new community businesses.

There is a similar initiative in Wigan in the north of England, where the local council has worked to create The Deal, which it describes as an “informal agreement between the council and everyone who lives or works here to work together to create a better borough”. Projects include programmes for supporting community businesses, enabling children and young people to exercise their own influence in shaping education and social services and a  wholly new way of providing social care to the elderly, developed on the principle that residents should never be approached as ‘a collection of needs and problems’ but rather as ‘unique individuals, who have strengths, assets, gifts and talents’.

The same principle motivates the social reformer Hillary  Cottam’s brilliant work, as outlined in her masterpiece, Radical Help. It is shared too by the think tank New Local, which has recently published its ‘community paradigm’, a series of practical instructions to local authorities and service providers that explains the transformative potential of one simple idea: handing power over to communities.

Each of these endeavours is potentially profoundly important. They connect elements of the everyday to the deep business of social change. They show that it is possible to be bold and ambitious at the same time as acting in a way that is respectful of people and place. It offers a new sense of direction to the progressive cause. It is what real patriotism can mean.

These projects also offer hope that I might finally have something to say to the sceptical commentators here in Australia. After all, if this kind of work became the heart of a  new vision, we could confidently say that there was no way  that Labour had given up on Britain. Then too there would be a real chance that the country would repay its faith.

Image credit: Flickr/Levan Ramishvili 


Marc Stears

Marc Stears is director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. He was previously chief speechwriter to former Labour leader Ed Miliband and a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford. His new book Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How it Can Again is published by Harvard University Press


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