Tristram Hunt: Labour must dispel the myth we are anti-English

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There is much to regret about the modern condition of Tory England. And in the 2015 General Election campaign, the Labour Party lamented long about it. But while I encountered little enthusiasm for the Tories on England’s doorsteps, there was even more circumspection towards the Labour Party. Naturally, some of this was about policy. Some of it too, we should be frank, was about leadership.

But operating at a deeper and more insidious level was a sense that Labour did not really believe in England or the English. Time and again, I heard our political motivations questioned as though the party were somehow hiding a secretive, anti-English agenda from the public’s scrutiny. In short, we were seen as insufficiently patriotic. And because of that our ambitions to change the country for the better were simply swept away by a rising tide of anti-political cynicism.

At times this insight made editing Labour’s Identity Crisis a deeply frustrating exercise. Because nobody who reads it in isolation would question for a second the Labour Party’s love for England. Michael Taylor finds it in the eccentric entrepreneurialism of Stockport’s vibrant civic culture; Rupa Huq sees a beauty and common decency in London’s suburban sprawl; and Jamie Reed feels it in Cumbria’s incomparable loveliness and its Empire-fuelling, democratic socialism-inspiring cultural inheritance. From his Copeland to Naushabah Khan’s Rochester and Strood, Suzy Stride’s Harlow to Ben Bradshaw’s Exeter, the stories in this book see no conflict whatsoever between English culture and the Labour story. In fact, quite the opposite.

Neither can this book be squared with the equally common view that Labour representatives lack a connection with their respective communities. Whether it is John Ferrett’s “Portsmouth ‘til I die” collectivism, Lisa Nandy’s pride in being “a Wiganer by choice”, or Oliver Coppard’s “Made in Sheffield” political soul, each chapter shows how civic patriotism is the fuel that fires our social justice mission. Ultimately, this insight provides the book with its central message: that Labour must start showing its love and affection for the signs and symbols of modern England. For unless we are much clearer about our pride in both country and community, we will not be trusted to offer either critique or solution.

This is the uncomfortable truth of the 2015 election that we in the Labour Party must never forget. Something as basic as our dedication to serve the country was questioned – and if we ignore that then we stand no hope whatsoever of succeeding in 2020. True, in England such accusations were not as terminal as they were in Scotland. Nevertheless, coming – as they so often did – from the working class people the party is supposed to represent, they were still excruciatingly painful. For this reason, far more than in 2010, the last election felt to me like a profoundly cultural collapse: as though our roots withered before our eyes. The book sets out to explore, confront and understand the precise nature of this disintegration in England. And, tentatively, to seek out some green shoots which might, one day, blossom into a Labour recovery.

To do that however, requires solutions and I hope this book advances the conversation. Certainly, there are many important insights. Oliver Coppard and John Ferrett rail alike against a remote and ineffectual centralism in the party’s campaigning that seems completely out of touch with the localist mood of contemporary politics. Rupa Huq, on living standards, and Michael Taylor, on devolution, try to channel this sentiment towards practical policy solutions. Jon Cruddas, Jamie Reed and Ben Bradshaw all stress the importance of understanding many of our voters’ socially conservative impulses, and begin to flesh out a Labour narrative that might return us to their side. And Nuashabah Khan and Suzy Stride zero-in on the need to confront the party’s toxic relationship with the politics of immigration.

But we also need to inculcate a progressive sense of patriotism. And this patriotism must come from the heart or not at all. Authenticity is the political demand of the age – the English people will see straight through any attempts at confected sincerity. For my part I find it difficult to understand how the landscape, history, culture, humour, and literature of this country would not inspire. I was born a child of the Fens, in the university city of Cambridge; and now I have the profound privilege of representing The Potteries – “that rugged pot-making spot of earth” – of North Staffordshire. I adore the industrial landscapes of Stoke-on-Trent Pot-banks, Oldham mills, and Liverpool docks; the deep England of South Downs and North Downs; the wild England of Peaks and Lakes; the historic England of country houses, minsters and castles; the coastal England of Whitby, and Durdle Door and Margate.

However, most of all, I relish the sense of fairness, good-humour, and relative social ease in which England and Britain manage to thrive. We should be deeply proud of our successful post-colonial relations as an open, confident, multi-cultural, multi-faith society. I know I am – as, quite clearly, are the other authors of this book.

This is an edited extract from the Introduction to Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, published today by the University of Winchester.

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