To What Is An English Labour Party A Solution?

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.


How To Decide How To Vote

Let’s begin with a frank acknowledgement. The referendum on 23rd June ought not to be happening at all. The constant refrain from people that they don’t have “the facts” on which to decide makes clear that people don’t really understand what they are being asked to decide.  Yes, the question is posed in simple terms – remain, or leave – but it is far from clear how people are supposed to reach a conclusion about which option is best, and best for whom.

For “the facts” that people crave don’t actually exist.  The EU is complex, covers so many different areas of operation, is far more than simply a ‘free market’ in which goods, services and labour are sold without unfair impediment.  There’s a social Europe, a cultural Europe, an educational Europe, a research and development Europe, an infrastructure Europe, and so much more. Each side (and there are more than two to this question) chooses which ‘facts’ are relevant to their case.  There is no objective set of facts upon which all can agree.

So far, so obvious.  Except that it does need to be said.  And the person who clarified this for me last night was a lawyer and academic, Dr. Ryan Murphy of Aston University.

Murphy’s field is European law, so one might expect him to offer clarity on this issue.  And he did.  He said something so startling that I wrote it down at the time.  He said that “you should choose how to vote on the basis of what you value”.

This is surely right, and probably in many more circumstances than just this referendum. But as a rule of thumb for the referendum, it works.  It also works if we ask the question of the various ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ camps – “what do they value?”

One of the ‘Leave’ camp’s most eager proponents is the DWP minister Priti Patel.  She has told a meeting of the right-wing Institute of Directors that if a Brexit Britain got rid of “even half” of EU directives on workers’ rights it would be good for business.  Let’s think about what that means.  We don’t have to speculate, because they are talking openly about it.  Iain Duncan Smith has been clear about wanting to water down the working time directive.  That means making people work longer hours.  Tired lorry drivers on our roads, knackered doctors and nurses making life-and-death decisions, sleep-deprived technicians trying to keep the nuclear power plant running safely.

The Tory ‘leave’ campaign has very clear values.  They value profit over quality of life, profit over safety, profit over maternity leave, profit over disability rights, profit over equality.  Some of the UKIP people are in this group, too. I haven’t mentioned the UKIP far-right flank whose only real issue is immigration (from anywhere), and whose values are insularity and whiteness.

The Tory ‘remain’ camp also includes people with clear values.  The old guard like Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke are old school Tory idealists who see European unity and co-operation as a valuable thing in and for itself.  They may have had parents or even siblings who had first hand knowledge of war in Europe, and that has scarred many in their generation.

The younger Tories of ‘remain’, like Cameron and Osborne, don’t share such ideals.  For them, once aspiring to, now comfortable at the top tables of power in the world, they understand that being in the EU smooths the way for big business, and gives them personally more power and influence as representatives of a big EU country.  They don’t want to lose their membership of that club.  That is what they value.

And what of the left?

The tired remnants of New Labour combine a Cameronian love of self-importance and big business clout with some residual sentiment about ‘modern’ attitudes towards workplace equality.  I say that, because I am bitter and twisted.  They’d probably call it ‘pragmatism’, like their Tory mates.

The Corbyn position is the critical case for ‘remain’, and probably better deserves the term pragmatic.  They value workplace rights, social solidarity, good public services, decent education and healthcare, and they see that the EU can better guarantee that some of those values will be preserved and defended in the face of the unhinged neoliberalism that so grips our own government.

There’s a left ‘leave’ case, too.  They see the EU as a capitalist club dominated by business interests. Their values are also about workplace rights, social solidarity, public services and the rest.  But they have no trust in European institutions to deliver or protect those things.  Their primary value here is their anti-capitalism.

Once you have identified the values of the various groups, you can spot quite easily where they are using arguments they don’t actually believe in to fool people into voting their way.  When Owen Patterson, or Nigel Farage talk of the money we spend on the EU going instead to the NHS we should laugh in their faces.  For that is not consonant with their values. It’s not what they believe in their hearts; they’ve simply read a poll that tells them the NHS issue could swing votes.

So I’ll be voting on the basis of what I value.  Culture, education, cooperation, internationalism.  A rousing cry, which is where this piece ought to end.  But it can’t.

For I am a political animal. I won’t be voting with Cameron and Osborne when I vote ‘remain’.  I’ll be voting against them, because a remain vote has the potential to split the Tory party.


Just Another Day In Europe

Yesterday I was in Madrid (the image above is of the main post office in the city). It was the last day of a holiday in a city I haven’t visited since 2011. Back then, only five years ago, but already well into this long drawn out period of ‘austerity’, finding wifi in the city was difficult, and the set-up in the flat we rented was a primitive matter of wires and cables.  This time wifi was everywhere, the costs of using my smartphone had tumbled, and so I was both present in Spain, and every moment able to check in to social media to follow political events back home. It made Europe feel a smaller, and a larger place simultaneously.

I first went to Spain around about the time it joined the EU. In that thirty year period it has changed beyond recognition.  Whatever mess PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party is in now, the long years of PSOE rule after the end of dictatorship cemented Spain’s emergence as a modern European country.  They used EU support to build infrastructure, educate the population, and reach out to the poorer areas of the country to try to spread prosperity. I saw it happen. New roads, high speed rail, brand new schools, and enviable facilities for the elderly, all proudly bearing the flag of the European Union.

Britain could have had some of that.  When I look at poor Wales (and I mean poor – one of the poorest areas of Europe), with not a mile of motorway, or even a dual carriageway to link North and South, nor a railway to do the same (unlike the 19th Century), I could weep. We didn’t do it not because the money went to Spain, or Portugal, or Greece, but because our government under the Tories wouldn’t match fund such projects in our poor regions, even though they had North Sea oil receipts and a boom in the post-Big Bang City, unlike the impoverished Spaniards, who had the political will to make the EU work for them.

But that’s an old grudge I bear.  And Spain’s been battered of late, a Club Med country suffering Euro privations to support Germany’s strengthening economy. Some of it shows. There seemed to be an awful lot more potholes out there in Madrid’s roads. No doubt had I ventured out into the less favoured regions of the country the evidence of high unemployment would be even more apparent.  But what struck me most last week was the Europeanisation of Spain – and of Britain.

This is a tale of how Europe – the club that is the EU – feels to me, an ordinary European citizen.

When I first visited Spain it was absolutely Spanish. Perhaps not even fully Spanish, for the strength of regional and local identities was everywhere palpable. Food and drink could change from village to village, region to region.  Bars and cafes all looked pretty much alike, scruffily pretty in the sunshine, while the restaurants were stuffy places that looked like Franco-era hunting lodges, all dark wood, and animal trophies mounted on the walls, serving lukewarm hunks of meat to people who looked like retired generals.

That has all changed.  Not through an erosion of national identity, but through a relaxation, and an opening up. Regional Spanish food and drink can be found, and appreciated, throughout the country, but so too can food from across Europe, and the world. There’s pride in the country which is intrinsically linked to a sense of broader European and global solidarity.  There were bilingual schools all over Madrid, which felt like absolute cultural confidence.

So what of Britain over the same period?  We aren’t in the Euro, and our unemployment levels are much lower (although as anyone with half a lung , or the ability to stand for 30 seconds, is now deemed fit for work, and I suspect we don’t know how many of our army of ‘self-employed’ are really hidden work seekers, it is hard to make a fair comparison).

We certainly haven’t seen much investment in regional infrastructure, or education – the things that have helped to transform Spain.  We are less likely to notice the tiny little EU flags on those things which the EU has helped to fund, because there’s little political appetite to trumpet the good things the EU has given us. And yet we, too have Europeanised.

This struck me when I was in a Spanish supermarket. I say ‘Spanish supermarket’ as it was in central Madrid, but Carrefour is French.  The foods on sale would have been impossibly exotic thirty years ago in Spain. Stilton, Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Gouda.  German beer, and London gin, ready made lasagne, sushi-to-go.  I might have been in Waitrose (though the prices were lower).

British people who might be thinking of voting to leave the EU are as Europeanised as any in Spain, or the Netherlands, or Sweden.  We expect to move quickly past passport control when we travel in Europe, our burgundy passports a fast-track.  At the pub we down bottles of prosecco, or Polish vodka, with rather more enthusiasm than we could rustle up for a pint of lukewarm mild and a pickled egg. For heaven’s sake, we expect pubs to serve food – bruschetta, olives, moules marinieres. Whatever happened to a bag of pork scratchings and a game of arrows?  We want to drink proper coffee at tables in the street – even Greggs does that!

So why has European cultural transformation not translated into an emotional attachment to the EU in Britain, when it plainly has elsewhere?  No serious political party is Spain, of left or right, is anti-EU. In Britain the atmosphere is so hostile that the most enthusiasm politicians are willing to display is lukewarm and hedged about with criticism and caveats. Sure, Nick Clegg (who he?) was willing to take on Nigel Farage in a debate, but look where that got the Lib Dems.

I’d like to shake the British population by the collective shoulders and make them realise how much – and for the better – this country has changed by being integrated into the EU. I’d also like them to realise that we’d have had, and could still have, much more out of Europe if we put a bit more in.  Not more money.  Time, effort, team-work, a constructive attitude.  If we could see how European we really are, it might help.  It might help us to pressure our governments into working together with our neighbours for the good of us all.

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Why Didn’t Labour Do Better? Or Worse?

I’m observing the British election results from the capital city of a country which had an inconclusive general election last year, and has just called another. About a year ago the widespread belief was that Britain itself might have been in that position.

But there was no minority government, hung parliament, or mistrustful coalition. As we now seem to know, the Tories bought an election victory, or at least their mates in the hedge funds and off-shore smurfing did. The Electoral Commission must decide what to do, but in the here and now we have a majority Tory government, and an official Opposition, both of which look more than a little battered right now. Why?

The Tories are doing their own battering, with Michael Gove as Mr. Punch beating the hell out of mimsy David Cameron, whilst baby George Osborne wails in the background whilst Owen Patterson and a chorus of badgers with the faces of Nigel Farage look on and cheer, Ingerland-style. That’s entertainment! Or it would be if the potential consequences weren’t so serious for us, and for the whole continent.

And what of Labour? Plainly it is not a party at ease with itself. Or perhaps it is? It’s just that the Parliamentary Labour Party haven’t noticed? I don’t know. These are important questions, but they scarcely account for Labour’s slo-mo fade from Masters of the Universe in 1997 to today’s amateur hour.

Is that unfair? I think not. Jeremy Corbyn and his handful of supporters in parliament could scarcely have expected to win the leadership. They were, in anyone’s book, amateurs when it came to the dark arts of party management and Opposition (as opposed to oppositional) politics. And those around them who were schooled in the Westminster spotlight have done very little to assist their new leaders. It’s as though the executive team of MBAs suddenly found that the new CEO was the old car park attendant. They couldn’t stomach it, and they’re damned if they’ll help out.

In any case, look at Ed Miliband. He had all the attributes of a successful modern leader. Clever, articulate, young, with a full head of hair and some photogenic kids. He often took Dave apart at PMQs. You’d never have known it. The Blairites didn’t quite hire a sniper to take him out, but then they didn’t need to. Mr. Murdoch, no friend of Tony these days, the marriage-wrecker, was happy to stick Ed in a bacon sandwich and leave him out to dry. If Ed couldn’t get loved-up with the press, what chance did allotment man, Corbyn, the man in beige?

And to to the ‘test’ of elections. Local elections, regional ones, devolved elections, dog-catcher polls (that’s PCCs, by the way). Any serious analysis would begin with local, regional or devolved assembly matters, seeing each result in its own terms. Any national conclusions would follow from that. But we don’t have the seriousness or the attention span for that. It’s all a plebiscite on Jeremy. Especially to his own MPs.

It looks to me like there was little ‘Corbyn effect’, positive or negative. I doubt that in current circumstances, with massive media hostility and a BBC with a Whittingdale revolver to its head, any leader could have done very much better. The question is, why, in the circumstances, didn’t they do worse?

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the political system is out of synch with social cleavages, the changing technological ecosphere, the rise of elites with no meaningful roots in any single polity or economy. We have votes, but we scarcely have a democratic political culture fit for the times.

At the moment this suits the Tories, though they should be warned, they may not be able to buy their right to rule for ever in such chaotic times.

Some of Corbyn’s youthful enthusiasts perhaps pin too much hope on using social media to by-pass the powers of the off-shore press proprietors. But they seem to me to have at least sussed out the direction of travel. That is hopeful.

But realistically, we need institutional change. The different politics of Scotland, which I don’t especially admire, owes much to their electoral system, and the need to understand and embrace cross-party cooperation. Constitutional change is needed across the UK, to our electoral system, our parliament, the powers of the executive, the role and power of local government, and much else too.

Labour came close to learning this lesson in the early 1990s, and might have been a genuinely historic reforming government after 1997 under a John Smith premiership. But too many people fell under the spell of Blair and his dead-eyed allies. They are still around, still up for gaming the system rather than respecting the voters and offering genuine leadership, not poll-chasing opportunism.

So the verdict on May 2016? Sound and fury? Not much of that. But still signifying nothing. Either way.