Labour has to win England. Despite our strength in Wales, and welcome recovery in Scotland, Labour must aim for an English majority. It’s not just the fact that we can’t rely on winning enough Welsh and Scottish MPs to give us a UK majority, it’s also a matter of democratic principle. English voters will not be prepared to see Scottish and Welsh MPs used to push policies on England through a UK parliament, when those matters have already been devolved to their own nations. We just about got away with it when Scottish MPs imposed tuition fees on English students; as the fallout from the Scottish referendum showed – when English voters feared the influence of the SNP – it will be much harder to do so in future.
Labour needs the ambition, determination, organisation and policies to win across England. We can’t just rely on heartlands, or even on the fantastic breakthrough seats we won in 2017. We must attract voters in villages, towns and cities across the country. The English Labour Network we are launching this week wants to support members and activists in that task.
The electoral challenge is clear. Labour’s support lags amongst voters who identify as English rather than British. In fact, if Labour had polled as well amongst these “English” voters as we did in the wider population, Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister already.
It’s not an impossible task. In Labour’s landslide of 2001, there was little difference between the voting patterns of English and British voters. But a big gap has now grown up. Many of the voters Labour needs to reach are older, working class, and live outside the biggest cities. They live where the economy has taken away good jobs and rapid migration has been disconcerting. They are strongly patriotic, believe in community and contribution and, like it or not, were much more likely to vote Leave. We won’t win their support by simply waving St George crosses but by respecting who they are and showing we understand their fears and concerns.
The next election will be decided mainly in large towns and small cities in England (often with a chunk of countryside) without large numbers of the students and liberal middle class voters who backed Labour strongly in 2017. Labour’s message and policy need to be presented as progressive and patriotic.
The second challenge is to give Labour a distinct English voice. Labour often does not say “England” even when it means an English-only policy. To key groups of voters, we give the impression that England and Britain are just the same thing. Sometimes this has disastrous consequences, as when the Remain campaign insisted on “Britain Stronger in Europe” for England, while saying “Scotland (and Wales) stronger in Europe” in the other nations.
Millions of voters, not just those who feel strongly English, think that England has special interests that can’t simply be swept under the carpet of the United Kingdom. Yet, while Scottish and Welsh Labour enjoy a great deal of autonomy from UK Labour, and Labour members can make policy for their own nations, English Labour members don’t have any forum where we can discuss the policies or messages that England needs.
This democratic deficit has another practical problem. All moves to decentralise power within England – whether to city regions, counties or local authorities – have failed, often because the interests of Scotland and Wales have come before those of England. If Labour in England had been free to sort out is own priorities, England might already be less centralised and more democratic.
Those who have resisted England’s voice often claim they are defending the union. But resentment at the perceived unfairness of the UK’s financial and political settlement is adding to the pressures that may lead to the union’s break up. Labour is committed to a constitutional convention in which federal options for the UK will be considered. The third challenge will be to make sure that England has a clear voice in those discussions.
Labour’s 2017 manifesto was a big step forward, promising to be the party of devolution, creating a minister for England, and establishing a “relationship of equals” between the nations of the UK. The English Labour Network will work to make all these ambitions a reality. We will face outwards, supporting activists, councillors and MPs to make Labour’s English case to English voters. We don’t want to add yet another internal party group lobbying for individual policies or individual candidates. Instead, we’ll provide practical support.
We know, for example, that some Labour activists worry that engaging with Englishness means making concessions to racism and xenophobia. It doesn’t, and we’ll help show how.
We know that councilors and others want to build an inclusive Englishness that all their constituents share. We’ll share how others best practice from across the country.
We’ll showcase the most successful campaigns that are already taking Labour’s message into the “harder to reach” parts of England. We’ll provide a platform to celebrate Labour in power today: in town halls and mayoral authorities across England. And we’ll let Labour’s local leaders set out they powers they would like to exercise and how they would use them.
Labour is the patriotic party, for both England and for Britain. Our greatest creation, the NHS, embodies the idea of nation where everyone works and contributes together for a common cause. As the Tories create chaos in the post-Brexit world, only Labour can forge the progressive patriotic vision, a country run in the interests of the many, not the few, that we so desperately need.
John Denham is a former Labour cabinet minister.
The English Labour Network has initial support from across the party, including MPs Jon Cruddas, Shabana Mahmood and Liam Byrne; councillors Judith Blake (Leeds), Alice Perry (Islington) and Vince Maple (Medway); as well as Sam Tarry, of the TSSA, in a personal capacity; Dr Emily Robinson from Sussex University; Mike Kenny, Cambridge; Jonathan Rutherford, a writer; Polly Billington, a former PPC; Paul Hilder, the founder of Crowdpac; and Morgan McSweeney of Labour Together. The co-ordinator is Joe Jervis.