The Labour Party has an England problem. You don’t have to speak to many people in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, and areas like it, to be told that Labour doesn’t stand up for England or the English. And it’s a problem that we cannot afford to ignore any longer.
That is why, in a speech to John Denham’s new Centre for English Identity and Politics in Winchester later today, I’ll be arguing that we need a Labour Party that goes far beyond a grudging acceptance of populist English culture and instead learns to embrace it. And we need to do this urgently, because without it all our ambitions on inequality, poverty and social justice will come to nothing.
The toxic charge of anti-Englishness is fresh in our collective memory. In a shameless marriage of convenience, both David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon exploited rising nationalist sentiment to crush our 2015 hopes. In Scotland, voters were told we would sell out to the Tories, while in England they were told we would sell out to the SNP.
But it would be a mistake to attribute the stickiness of this charge in England to the Tory’s artful campaign. The truth is that the perception of Labour’s anti-Englishness runs far deeper than this.
George Orwell, in his superb 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn, wrote: “In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet pudding”. He was right too: no other progressive tradition in Europe shows such a reluctance to fly the national flag.
The tragedy is that such squeamishness is light years away from the values of our own voters, let alone the ones we need to win over. Worse still, it highlights the widening culture gap between the party and the communities we seek to represent. Yes, there’s a deeper dislocation caused by issues as diverse as our overly technocratic language, a lack of working class representation, and our record on immigration and inequality when in government. But there’s also a sense that we don’t empathise with our voters’ patriotic pride – captured perfectly by the infamous ‘image from Rochester’ tweet.
To heal this breach we need to continually show we are on England’s side – and this starts by offering a clear solution to the ‘English question’. When the issue resurfaced following the Scottish independence referendum, we chose to bury our heads. We looked and sounded as if we were scared: scared of democracy; scared of our people; scared of allowing England to express itself. This was fatal for us: no progressive party can expect to thrive without a sense of optimism, hope and democratic confidence.
In contrast, nobody who campaigned in Scotland ahead of the referendum could’ve failed to be shaped by the experience, which was to reconnect with the power and wonder of democracy. Labour must now seek to extend that democratic awakening to England. Wales and Scotland have been asked their views on the future of their nation three times since 1973, and so we must give the English a chance to have their say. We should have an English referendum where a number of options – English Parliament, regional assemblies and the English Votes for English Laws status quo – are put to the people. And we should use it to develop a more instinctively patriotic culture within our party.
And our patriotism must come from the heart or not at all – in this age of authenticity, people see straight through any attempts at false sincerity. But this really shouldn’t be hard; the overwhelming number of Labour supporters I meet are fiercely patriotic. It is this patriotism that leads them to want to make this great country even better, and why so many of them choose to dedicate their lives to public service. A love of country, of England and Great Britain, is certainly one of the reasons I entered politics.
So of course we need the poetry of vision, the prose of policy, and much more besides. But it is patriotism which always supplies the purpose, the motivation behind the social mission. To achieve the transformational change we all want to see the Labour Party first of all needs to start loving England, and then start showing that it does, too.
Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Hunt will be making a speech at the Centre of English Identity and Politics tonight, as part of John Denham’s initiative to win England for Labour.