The Politics of Place and the Greening of Labour

November 12, 2012 5:00 pm

By Michael Jacobs

One of the beauties of the ‘One Nation’ theme is that it allows Labour to occupy the field of ‘soft patriotism’: the love of country invoked by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the Olympics.  Not the hard glorification of empire and ethnic superiority used by the right, but the celebration of all that’s good about our society: its history of social change and political rights, its multiculturalism, its literature and arts, scientific achievements and commonly-owned institutions, from the NHS to the BBC.

And its land.  For love of country is, for most people, not just a sentiment about abstract ideas and values.  It’s actually about the place that is Britain.  It’s an identification with the physical, grounded spaces in which we all live our lives.  There’s a familiar national version of this: of England’s green and pleasant land, of Scottish highland ancestry, of the Welsh Valleys and emerald Ireland.  But there’s also a much more local and arguably more visceral patriotism that many people feel: a sense of belonging to the particular places where they live, and the others they love.

For residents of rural Britain, and those who visit it, love of place is easily enough understood. Looking out on nature’s beauty – the fields, woodlands and babbling brooks – it’s not hard to inspire notions of protection and stewardship.  But exactly the same kind of belonging occurs in towns and cities too.  Urban places are different – they can be loved as much for their social community as for their physical character, their buildings, parks and river walks.  But that feeling of familiarity is vital.  Literally so:  as the anthropologists tell us, connection to one’s home territory is a crucial part of human identity.  And above all of what it means to be a citizen.  For places are shared.  From the street we live in to the country we belong to, places are the location of community – of the common life we share with our neighbours.

And that’s why ‘place’ must become political territory for One Nation Labour.  Over the last few years we have come to understand the threat posed by neoliberal economic forces to our most cherished common institutions.  The NHS, the BBC, the police, our public services and welfare system, our arts and culture – these vital parts of our common life do not operate on market principles, and the values which define them will be destroyed if the market is allowed to take root in them.  But this is true of places too.  Look at our ‘clone town’ centres now: ranks of identical shopping chains robbing once distinctive market towns of their essential character, while on their edges sprawling shopping malls erode the countryside beneath their parking lots.

And look too at where that’s not happening – on land protected by the non-market values of the National Trust, another great British common institution.

Historically, Labour understood well that the market could not protect the values of place.  Its historic 1948 Town and Country Planning Act enshrined the principle that the community as a whole must have a democratic say in how even private property can be developed.  It was Labour which created National Parks (and many urban ones), and which under the last government gave universal rights of access to the countryside and coast.  Yet it’s also true that under Blair and Brown we became impatient with local planning, seeing it as an impediment to vital national economic development.

And that warns us: a new politics of place will not be easy.  There are places the next Labour government will not wish to protect and where we will be bitterly opposed for that stance: on the route of the high speed rail line, near new housing and windfarms.

But we should develop such a politics nevertheless.  For the desire to protect and nurture cherished places is a powerful motivation which can damage Labour if we are seen to reject it, and strengthen us if we give it our support.  It is the source, not least, of much community activism.  Labour should be the champion of the myriad ‘little platoons’ of community associations trying to make their localities better places to live – from urban streets and green spaces to market towns and countryside.  Here surely is a vital role for our local councils.  We should be the party of community land trusts, handing local resources to community control.

And it will also connect Labour to an important political constituency, that of the environmental movement.  Love of place lies at the heart of popular environmentalism: the recognition that society is rooted in nature and must be its steward, and that market values must be limited if the world is to be protected.  That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.

Once upon a time love of place might have been thought to be Tory territory.  And indeed it is conservative, in the literal and best sense.  But the free market ideologues who run today’s Conservative Party have abandoned this field, and Labour should occupy it.

Michael Jacobs is Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy at University College London and was a Special Adviser in the Treasury and No 10 in the last Government

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the
    National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in
    local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.’

    Those are principally middle-class romanticised versions of ‘Englishness’ of the early 20th century, propounded by Colls/Dodds. The countryside (and parks) are the lungs of urban people, if they can manage to get to or are allowed there. It’s a matter of priorities. There’s no point in a romanticised ‘sense of place’ if you inhabit an area of inner city deprivation. I really fear for this line of suggestions for policy.

    • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

      Hi Dave, this article doesn’t emphasise a “middle-class romanticised version of ‘Englishness'” – it would seem you are positing your own prejudices there. The theme in terms of nationality is about Britishness. Likewise what is the contradiction between love of country and nature and dealing with problems of inner city deprivation?@google-506b766cc7416a497caa1bdaa81c3b1f:disqus

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    I despair at this article, rather than a realistic analysis the old strawman is wheeled out; the evil neoliberal economic forces destroying our institutions and our countryside.

    I have a strong sense of place, I know my home town and I know what has been the driving force transforming it over the past 40 years; 2 words – POPULATION GROWTH.

    It started as a compact little town, then government (more socialist than neo-liberal) decided that urban expansion was required to accommodate the London overspill, to help solve London’s housing problems. Not in itself a bad suggestion but it meant a lot of new ring roads were built over the countryside, new housing estates, new industrial parks and tens of thousands of Londoners moved North to a better future.

    That urban development would be a price worth paying IF it solved the problem, if it gave the new residents decent and affordable and reduced the over-crowding of London, providing the decent and affordable housing that we all claim to want for people.

    Unfortunately it didn’t work because the population of London and the South East continued rising, particularly in the last 15 years and we are back where we started. So now more of the green fields surrounding my home town fall under the bull-dozer, more roads, more warehouses, more housing estates.

    Yet again, it isn’t the neo-liberals drivingit but a government Development Corporation trying to address the problems of POPULATION GROWTH.

  • AlanGiles

    “One of the beauties of the ‘One Nation’ theme is that it allows Labour
    to occupy the field of ‘soft patriotism’: the love of country invoked by
    Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the Olympics.”

    Come home Mark Ferguson, all is forgiven.

    I’m sorry but are we going to have a week of this wishy-washy pseudo-intellectual regurgitated nonsense?

    This article sounds suspiciously like John Major when he dreamt of “old maids going to church” and cricket on the green etc.

    It’s all Jam and Jerusalem, tennis on the lawn (and Tennyson the poet), flag waving and is a bit reminicent of George Orwell when he was in his more pastoral moods.

    As for trying to catch the “enviromental” vote, this is just another cynical example of trying to get the Green vote, and, as with all the major parties, is playing lip service – something for everyone and nothing for long.

    • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

      Alan, what is wrong with love of country and nature? To me, it is an essential part of the good life for everyone. I do love a lot of what you say, but this post of yours is pure tosh.

      • AlanGiles

        What is wrong with love of country and nature, Ben?. Absolutely nothing, but it sounds somewhat phony when for example so many Labour MPs are in favour of a third runway at London Airport, and many of those Labour supporters who are getting misty eyed over this Elgarian love of country were probably sniggering when John Major made the speech I was referring to.

        I just feel more than ever, Labour is trying to be all things to all men. Quite frankly I am not convinced this article, or many others, actually means anything, except some bogus desire to be seen to all be seen reading from the same hymn sheet. The “Tennyson the poet” bit was a joke BTW, or rather a play on words, perhaps not as funny as some of my better bon mots!

        • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

          Hi Alan, I get you and agree with you on the points you make, but that has nothing to do with this article so I can’t understand why you are having a go at it. I do think though this is part of a kind of phony war in which people like Michael Jacobs here are saying what they think (which has strong and contested implications) but being careful not to have a go at people with opposing views. As such, like that, it could quite likely die a death when it comes upon the rocks of political reality, but there is a debate going on (kind of) and you shouldn’t have a go at individuals for what other people want, completely separate and opposed to them. That makes no sense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    Well, I’m glad that I live in an urban area, and a city and region which has plenty of local pride. I don’t think we really need this sort of clarion call to know that Liverpool is the best place to be!

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