John Denham: Party’s democracy review must lead to an English manifesto

Labour’s democracy review is well underway, aiming to improve the engagement of members across the party and to overhaul decision-making structures at every level.

The review rightly recognises that increasing representation and empowering people are crucial elements to making Labour an effective political party that can win elections and drive radical change. And a crucial question for the review must be: “How can our decision-making ensure we reach and represent voters in the key English seats that Labour must win to form a government and begin that change?”

To meet that challenge, the English Labour Network will ask the review to recommend that Labour publishes an English Labour manifesto for the next election; and that Labour members in England should decide English policies for issues that are devolved in the rest of Britain.

At one level this would merely bring England into line with Wales and Scotland. Welsh and Scottish Labour publish national manifestos, drawn up by the party in each nation. England, which is of course the only part of Britain now permanently governed by the Westminster government, doesn’t have an English manifesto; nor are English party members directly consulted on our English priorities.

This isn’t a dry, formal, pedantic, constitutional issue. It goes to heart of Labour politics, and of democracy in England.

England is deeply divided by geography, wealth, age, education and, despite progress made, by faith and race too. The idea of a “north-south” divide is complicated by important divisions between large cities and many smaller towns and coastal areas, and between London and the rest of England.  

Wealth and capital are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small minority and the younger generation can no longer expect to do better than their parents. Social mobility in England has stalled, reinforcing the advantages and disadvantages of social class and there are wide divisions between the opportunities available to those with a university education and those who left education early.

A Labour Party that stands “for the many not the few” must find common ground for progressive policies across the nation. We can’t win with the votes of metropolitan liberals alone, or just the votes of more socially conservative working class voters; nor should we want to. But Labour support is often surprisingly weak in places that have suffered economic decline and amongst older and working class voters who believe that no one speaks for people like them. Labour has been excellent at engaging new members and younger people, but it has recently struggled to reach and represent our older and more traditional vote. The democracy review cannot ignore this.

Labour must speak for the majority in England who feel powerless and who do not think the country is run in their interests. More people in England identify as English than British and feel it more intensely. When Labour fails to mention England, many don’t think we are talking about them or are interested in their views.

It is those voters who identify most strongly with England who are the most disaffected: the votes of the “English” within England are taking us out of the EU (74 per cent voted Leave); Labour lags behind the Conservatives amongst the same voters. The last time Labour won the popular vote in England was 2001. Fear that Labour wouldn’t stand up for English interests contributed to our 2015 defeat.

Labour must show we respect the people of England and that we have a clear vision of the England that we want, with them, to build. We are a unionist party, but we should have the pride to tell England’s stories of radical struggles for rights and fairness that are still relevant today. We should have the confidence to celebrate an Englishness that is progressive, inclusive and reflects the England we live in today.

An English manifesto can help us carry all those important messages. It should cover all the domestic policy areas that are devolved to other nations: including child care, schools, higher education and colleges, health, social care, much of transport, policing, and the environment. The manifesto should also set out how, as the “party of devolution” we will permanently shift power and resources out of Whitehall and into the rest of England.

A focus on England will raise important questions. How can we consult English party members in ways that Scottish and Welsh members take for granted? Are regions still the best structure when new power centres are now emerging around city-regions and combined authorities? Do we need a more flexible approach, and how do we give a voice to the forgotten towns and coastal communities who often get squeezed out of Labour’s debates by London and the other big cities? Maybe regions are the best; maybe we will go back to regionalisation. But these decisions should be taken after careful consideration, and by the party in England, not just taken for granted because “it’s always been like that”.

Most party leaders launch reviews of the party structures, but none has ever looked seriously at England and the role of the party in England. Jeremy Corbyn’s review is an opportunity that should not be missed.

John Denham is director of the English Labour Network.

The English Labour Network was launched at Labour conference and its founding supporters include MPs Shabana Mahmood, Jon Cruddas and Liam Byrne, NEC member Alice Perry, Leeds council leader Judith Blake and TSSA political officer Sam Tarry, in a personal capacity. You can support the English manifesto campaign here.

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