Today it has been reported that Labour has published a book of essays, edited by Stoke-on-Trent MP Tristram Hunt, on how to reconnect Labour to its old, white working class roots. The authors, including the thoughtful Jon Cruddas, float the idea of a specifically English Labour Party to appeal to “cultural and regional identities”.
The headline grabbing claim came from Suzy Stride and Jacob Quagliozzi, who described Labour supporters bussed in during the general election campaign as appearing to the voters “…like middle class Ryanair passengers having to stomach a couple of hours with people they had little in common with. It was uncomfortable, but it got you where you wanted to go.”
I don’t doubt that these essays are sincere and accurate reflections of these authors experiences during the last election campaign. However, I find them troubling, and flawed in their thinking.
When Labour could stand a dog in a red rosette in some constituencies, and still win a thumping majority, loyalty to Labour was rooted in lived experience and thriving institutions. Mass trades union membership, the local Labour Club as the boozer of choice, Co-Op membership and the ‘divi’ that came with it; all these things and more at a local level were linked at national level to trades unions that could deliver rising living standards, and Labour governments (local and national) which could deliver services and opportunities.
Let’s be blunt. Those days are gone. Dead and buried. They were killed off by Thatcherism, and a lack of interest in industry, and a deliberate strategy of weakening the unions. Labour colluded in this. New Labour, in particular, was as terrified of smelly working class voters with their weird loyalties, and unmodernised social attitudes as any metrosexual Tory.
But the people who live on average and below average incomes in the towns and villages of England (and Wales) are still there. And their residual bias to Labour is eroding fast, seeping into apathy, non-voting, or angry UKIPery. They may share income levels, job security and housing tenure with the Labour voting cities, but culturally they are on a different page.
Personally I’m not afraid of such people. Unlike most Westminster-focussed career politicians, I grew up amongst the white working class, and don’t view them collectively as an alien species. When the political and media class were crying out in horror at the cast of Benefits Street, I just saw people who looked pretty familiar, living lives I understood.
But I also ‘get’ where the contributors to Hunt’s book are coming from. There is a huge condescension towards working class people, white or otherwise, who don’t fit culturally into a socially liberal template. To some extent, the ‘white working class’ are constituted as a problematic ‘ethnic group’, analogous to British Muslims (also largely working class, though, ironically, with higher levels of Labour Party membership and voting allegiance).
On this basis, the idea of appealing to “cultural and regional identities” makes sense. Or does it?
The regional thing is sensible, and long overdue. Rebalancing political decision making and power, so that London isn’t the only power centre that matters is simply a matter of strengthening democracy and ensuring legitimacy. It is a matter of institutional and constitutional reform, which at the level of ideas will only excite geeks, but as devolution to sub-state nations has shown, hearts and minds will follow an honest spreading of power.
But the cultural thing? What culture? Whose culture? What the hell is ‘English identity’? It’s a genuine question. When I go to Newcastle, it feels very different from Bristol. Dudley, a few short miles away from me, feels a lot like Dewsbury, a few hundred miles away from me, and yet it doesn’t. The metal-bashers of the Black Country and the textile mills of West Yorkshire have produced highly localised mindsets which are dead set against being conjoined with others. The solidarity produced by trades unionism has not been replaced by any open-minded ‘English’ solidarity, whatever Billy Bragg may think.
The code that ‘English’ suggests, as represented by the St George flag and ‘white van man’, and cries of ‘Ing-er-land!’, is masculine, aggressive, and uncivil. When confined to sporting fixtures that may be acceptable – a release valve. But if it goes beyond that (and this is what scares me about all nationalisms, very much including Scottish nationalism) it becomes coercive and controlling.
The scariest quotation from Hunt’s book came from Naushabah Khan, Labour’s candidate in Rochester and Strood. She expressed deep anger at Emily Thornberry’s tweet from the campaign there – the infamous picture of a white van outside a house draped with the St George cross. She said, “The irony was not lost, as, having grown up in an Asian household where the St George flag was hung out of the window for any sporting event…”
When I read that, my blood chilled. The sight of Asians in Scotland doing the same also scares me. It brings to mind Philip Roth’s terrifying novel, The Plot Against America. Roth’s tale is set in an America which did not join the fight against the Nazis in World War Two, but instead became gripped by a populist nationalism of its own. American Jews in this nightmare become divided between those who, at great danger to their safety, fundraise, propagandise and even flee to Canada to fight against fascism. But others remain, cowed, frightened, setting up organisations to proclaim their total Americanness, whilst politicians and popular sentiment push them ever further to the margins.
Let me be explicit. Many of us whose ethnic origins are not from the ‘nations’ of the UK, but whose nationality and identity are wholly British, feel threatened by ethnic nationalism. What is more, this is what is intended. When the EDL and their friends deploy the flag of St George it is meant to exclude. Possibly widening the cultural and political reach of ‘Englishness’ might defuse that aggressive intent, but I fear it will only assuage it, and license that feeling. Like ‘debates’ about immigration, such things resist reason.
In the 21st century ‘nationalism’ is an answer to no question. We’ve seen how destabilising an aggressive Scottish nationalism has been to the rest of our island – and Scots have a population no bigger than the West Midlands. An aggressive English nationalism would be far, far worse. (Don’t tell me that you can have ‘unaggressive’ nationalism. Just look at history.)
There’s no easy route back to power for Labour. The task for the left is to de-tribalise, accept the necessity for electoral and broader constitutional reform, and start planning for it in a cross-party, open way.
For as this referendum on the EU shows, the big two parties of the 20th Century no longer ‘fit’ with a fractured electorate. Both the Tories and Labour must split. There must be new parties which appeal to specific demographics, and with can cooperate and form coalitions of interest.
That is the real solution.