English Labour: I’m not persuaded

Bridget Phillipson


In recent days rather a lot of my colleagues have expressed their support for the idea of an “English Labour Party”. I’m not persuaded, and since the idea seems to be going largely unchallenged at the moment, I thought I’d set out in detail why I think this is a mistake.

What’s been suggested by a number of my parliamentary colleagues is that there should be an English Labour Party, a structure akin to the Scottish Labour Party and the Welsh Labour Party, presumably within a more federally structured Labour Party across the UK. Jon Cruddas has been clear that what he has in mind would entail changes to the rules, which in practice means an NEC recommendation to Annual Conference sooner or later.

The key questions which I think need answering by proponents of an English Labour Party are:

• What is it for?

• How will it work?

• Why do we think this will help?

What is it for?

A number of reasons have been put forward for the creation of an English Labour Party. Tristram Hunt has said that, “Issues of culture, identity and defending the national interest are now as important – if not more important – than material questions of public policy.” Liz Kendall has said that “England has a radical tradition that has opposed conservatism and inequality for centuries, from John Wycliffe to E.P. Thompson.”

As it happens, I half agree with Tristram and I wholly agree with Liz here, though I’d add the rider that I think the extent to which much of that radical tradition can be co-opted as forerunners of the Labour Party is questionable. I think in our secular age we too easily underestimate the extent to which earlier movements and arguments for social justice were inspired by religion, and had Christianity at their core. And to me, defending the national interest is never other than a material question of public policy.

Like Liz and Tristram, I studied history at university, and I loved it. I wish more people had the chance to go to university. The fact that many more people do now is a proud achievement of the last Labour government. But the Labour Party isn’t ultimately there either to pay tribute to history, or to sustain traditions, but to win elections and use political power to improve people’s lives. We may reach back for inspiration to great English advocates of social justice – to Wycliffe, to William Morris, to Ruskin, to the Chartists – but for most people, most of the time, that is not the world we live in today and those are not the people or the frames of reference by which they understand their lived experience. The creation of an “English Labour Party” will not of itself revitalise a school of thought that is neither straightforwardly Labour nor merely English, nor will it win us votes which would otherwise go elsewhere. Tristram is spot on when he says that part of what makes the SNP’s narrative so insidious is that they present England as not merely foreign but as politically very different. Like Tristram, I reckon England is not foreign to Scotland and a brief glance at social attitude polling – or just getting on a train over the border – tells you that England and Scotland are actually very similar places. But I do not think we counter the spread of the impression among Scottish electors that the English are foreign and unaccountably right wing by using those precious moments when they are prepared to give us a hearing either to offer a lesson in English history – “telling the story of England’s progressive achievements” – or to notify them of a change to our rulebook.

Liz said the other day that “devolution goes hand in hand with our sense of identity, belonging and pride”, which opens up another set of reasons for an English Labour Party, seldom articulated very precisely, that it might enable us as a party to overcome a certain historic discomfort around Englishness. Much of the fuss that erupted when an MP tweeted a photograph of a house last year was expressed in terms of a supposedly significant supposed disconnect between English cultural identity and the Labour Party. The best piece I have read on this whole issue came from Stephen Bush of the New Statesman, three years ago and long before the Rochester & Strood by-election:

“In large swaths of the country, it is countercultural to vote Labour. That didn’t happen because we didn’t articulate an ‘English identity’. It happened because from 2006 until the election our most pressing concern appeared to be getting rid of our leader, because we oversaw a global recession, and because even in the good times people didn’t feel the benefits of the boom.”

To me that nails it. As Stephen says elsewhere in the same article: “while Labour has a crisis in England, what it doesn’t have is a crisis of Englishness. Talking of the latter doesn’t lead to tackling to the former. It leads to ignoring it.”

We are kidding ourselves if we believe that our lack of electoral success is owing to an intrinsic cultural disconnect from the country that makes up 85% of the UK population and a similar proportion of the PLP.

We live in a society where the spread of the web, of on-demand TV services and the proliferation of media channels has eroded the collective shared experiences and discourses that have for a century or more helped us to persuade people that, as Clause IV has it, “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. If people’s individual experiences are more different from one another than before, if people identify less with their neighbours and are less likely to share cultural experiences with people who are geographically close to them, and society is ever more atomised, any form of collectivist politics has a much bigger hill to climb. Our media scene has changed beyond all recognition from the dozen or so national newspapers and four terrestrial TV channels of my childhood. The “public realm” may or may not have declined, as David Marquand has argued, but it has unquestionably fragmented.

Like so many MPs and activists, I spent a lot of this spring in marginal seats as well as my own seat. One of the things that impressed me during the election was that in so many ways the Labour Party is perfectly capable of rising to this challenge. The ever more organisationally sophisticated campaigns that both we and the Conservatives now put into the field in the key seats speak to that. Targeted digital advertising, targeted sharing on social media, the use of modern demographic segmentations like Mosaic, hand-in-hand with bespoke modelling from both head offices. All this sophistication sent volunteers of both parties to the right doorsteps at the right times, matched as best as possible message content to the right electors, and bombarded those identified target voters who stood between their leaders and a majority government with leaflets and direct mail. The only difference was that by and large those voters, ultimately, believed the Tories, and didn’t believe us.

And yet, the election out of the way, that nuanced and subtle understanding of our electors is not always matched by the way in which we as a parliamentary party perceive the challenges ahead. Much of the debate has focused on changing our internal structures, rather than our policies or politics, as the route to victory.

I want Labour to engage with England and its electors. I want us to win elections in England and in every part of Britain. I don’t want to us to fool ourselves that draping ourselves in the Cross of St George is the route to understanding the swing voters I spoke to in Stockton South and Carlisle this spring who weren’t persuaded that we were the answer. They need to trust us. They need to know that we understand their concerns and their varied and diverse lives. They need to know we can run the economy. They need to know that a Labour government offers something – a vision and a hope, both for themselves, and for Britain – that the Conservatives do not and never can. I am unconvinced that that something has anything to do with the creation of a structure called the English Labour Party.

How will it be set up?

Which brings me neatly to my second set of concerns. The reason we have a Welsh Labour Party and a Scottish Labour Party with reasonably distinct identities and distinct leaders is not because these countries have distinct national identities. They had distinct national identities before 1 May 1997 and they would continue to have them if devolution ended tomorrow. The reason Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour have separate party identities and leaderships and sometimes put a little policy distance between themselves and the leadership in Westminster is precisely because the structures of our party map on to the structures of our democracy. Welsh Labour is about winning elections in the Welsh Assembly, setting the policies for the Labour group on the Assembly and choosing a Labour leader who is First Minister. Scottish Labour is about winning elections in the Scottish Parliament, setting Labour’s policy for the matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament and choosing a Labour leader who could become First Minister.

This pattern holds at every level. Simon Henig, for example, is leader of the Labour Group on Durham County Council, a structure and a post that exists not because of the thousand-year history of the Prince-Bishops ruling between the Tyne and the Tees, but because there is today such a body as Durham County Council. Party structures fit government structures: they are not there for paying tribute to history. We have no Berkshire Labour Party; not because Labour dislikes Berkshire or its people, but because there is no constituency or local authority called Berkshire any more.

And an expectation of policy independence for devolved parties and their leaders, at least for matters that are devolved, is nothing more than a sensible concession to reality. The alternative is unachievable even if it were desirable. Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair hardly saw eye to eye on every policy issue: not simply because they were different politicians, but because the interests of London and the interests of Britain aren’t always the same. I live in London four days a week when Parliament is sitting and it’s great to see the improvements in public transport being built at the moment, most obviously Crossrail. I only wish, as a North East MP, that just as much money was spent on improving public transport for my constituents. Policy independence and a distinct leader makes sense for the devolved parliaments where that leader is or aspires to be First Minister leading a separate government within the United Kingdom.

But what would the purpose of an English Labour Party be? If it has its own leader, and policies, are those different from the UK-wide leader, and UK-wide policies? If it doesn’t have its own leader, what is it? Is it just another subcommittee of the NEC with a powerful chair, another talking shop for us all, where we discuss our values internally with people who share them rather than talking to electors? Is it another opportunity for Labour MPs in Westminster to define ourselves and our outlooks against each other, rather than against the Tories? We’re getting quite enough of that just now with the leadership campaign. I’m not sure we need more of it. Is it neither separate leaders nor separate policies, but just another regular meeting? Or is the argument even that the UK leader would be abolished, and the substantive leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons would always be an English MP as leader of English Labour?

I’d remind anyone who does think that, that two of the five Labour Prime Ministers since 1945 were MPs for Scottish or Welsh seats. Both Labour Chancellors in my lifetime were Scottish MPs. We would be impoverishing our politics for no good reason. London too is something of a special case, with its regional Mayor and the London Assembly. Will the London Labour Party, with London arguably just as different from any other English region as any of them are from Wales and Scotland, be subordinated to the English Labour Party, even though London is capital of the UK and not just of England?

Since we have no separate English Parliament, then even with some botched Tory implementation of English Votes for English Laws, the English Party would presumably have as it main forum Parliament at Westminster, just as the Scottish Party focuses on Holyrood and the Welsh Party on the Senedd. Again – would it elect a leader separately as the Scottish & Welsh parties do? If it did elect a leader separately from the UK party, which of those leaders – the one elected by the whole UK membership, or the one elected by the English membership – would ask questions at PMQs? Would it depend on the nature of the question? What if the question was about the level of public spending in England and therefore the issue was both an English matter and, because of the Barnett Formula, a UK matter as well? We cannot – rightly – maintain that EVEL is constitutionally ill judged and at the same time seek to embed such flawed proposals into the structure of our party. Either an English Party has a leader, in which case we set ourselves up for endless unproductive power struggles between the MP who is elected leader of 85% of the Labour Party and the one who is elected leader of 100% of the Labour Party, or it is another talking shop, of which we have quite enough as a Party. Or – my preferred option – we don’t set one up at all.

Why do we think this will help?

I think the most troubling question is why we repeatedly focus as a party on seeking solutions to our political problems in structural rearrangements. A few years ago, after the Scottish Labour Party suffered a horrendous battering from the SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, a review ordered by Ed Miliband and led by Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy proposed a wide variety of structural changes to the Scottish Labour Party. These included:

• create, for the first time, an elected Leader of the Scottish Labour Party;

• open that position to all Labour parliamentarians elected in Scotland, provided they commit to seek election as an MSP and First Minister;

• fully devolve the Scottish Labour Party in all Scottish matters, including the rules for the Scottish Leadership election, local government processes and selections, and Scottish Parliament selections;

• begin the process of restructuring local parties in Scotland on the basis of Scottish Parliament seats, not Westminster seats;

• establish a political strategy board, meeting weekly, to develop and co-ordinate political strategy with the Leader, Shadow Secretary of State, the leader of the COSLA Labour Group, a representative of the MEPs, the party chair, and the Scottish General Secretary; and

• establish a new political base in Edinburgh.

Soon after I was elected, I became Jim Murphy’s PPS and I bow to no-one in my admiration for Jim, above all for his energy and courage in taking on the separatists in the last year, both in the referendum and afterwards as leader. The proposals set out in the 2011 review were largely implemented. But the result this spring can only be described as catastrophic. I do not blame the review for one moment. The recommendations were all sensible even if they came with teething problems that Scottish colleagues in the last parliament would occasionally grumble quietly about. My point is not that the organisational restructuring was counterproductive, but that it was largely irrelevant to the real challenges Scottish Labour faced.

It wasn’t the first time we have made this mistake. David Miliband, according to the leaked draft speech he would have given had he been elected leader, planned to call for a “Clause I moment”, to focus our efforts and our energy on altering our organisational model, rather than the Clause IV moment that Tony Blair famously achieved. But not all clauses of Chapter 1 of the Labour Party rulebook are equally interesting to the general public. Though I voted for David, I would have been disappointed by that speech. Focusing on organisational change is at best something of a distraction from the core purposes we should have of persuading electors in the seats we need to win who don’t currently trust us that they should, and that we offer a vision of a better and fairer Britain. The post 1995 Clause IV has its detractors, but just as important is the final line at the end: “On the basis of these principles, Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern”. If we are not in government, we are failing all the people we are sent to Westminster to represent.

We turned to restructuring as a way of keeping ourselves busy again in 2011, with “Refounding Labour”. The most tangible effects of that set of reforms were the transfer of much more of the elected representatives levy to head office and the central party having an increased share of the overall membership income. That was good insofar as it helped head office to fund organisers for the seats where they could make a difference, rather than the seats that had more and better-off members. In my case at least, it also encouraged our CLP to be more energetic about fundraising, which is also all to the good. I suspect the wider rhetoric about reaching out into communities and rule changes to emphasise the importance of Supporters achieved rather less. I imagine good local parties continued to work to campaign hard and involve and bring in non-members, and less active local parties continued not to do so. And yet hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of staff and volunteer time was spent setting up new structures such as local campaign forums, which were remarkably similar to the old local government committees.

Again and again in opposition we make the mistake of thinking that our structures, not our ideas, are what we need to change to win. It’s easy. We can change our structures: the leadership can with the consent of Conference push through major changes that may have unconsidered consequences (who predicted back in 2013 that Jeremy Corbyn would top the first poll in the first leadership ballot conducted under rules brought in by Ed Miliband?) Structural change can give the impression of purpose, of progress. But it isn’t either of those things unless it connects with what the electorate want, what they are prepared to believe of us, and what we can in truth deliver for them. Ultimately, structural changes to the Labour Party are irrelevant to the Labour Party as most electors experience it – glances on the television, unfriendly press coverage, occasional conversations on the door with a keen volunteer.

I want our next leader to offer to the people of Britain in 2020 a bold and attractive vision of how Labour will transform our country for the better. I want him or her to spend the next five years getting that vision across with a loyal team of Shadow Ministers at their side, pulling the Tory record apart and projecting competence and confidence. I want our leader to be focused so ruthlessly on that aim that we and they succeed, and that in May 2020 we enter government again. I do not want the leader to spend any part of the next five years making largely cosmetic but nonetheless time-consuming changes to the party’s structures, nor dealing with inevitable tensions between himself or herself and another English MP who leads an English Labour Party, and nor do I want her or him to be sitting in a needless extra lengthy committee (“English Labour Executive”) every week when he or she could be out taking our message to the people. This is not the most sensible route by which we can – and I believe, will – win again for Labour.

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