The past 18 months show the politics of England can no longer be ignored

Joe Jervis

St George’s Day provides an annual reminder to Labour members that many of the key challenges the party faces in our mountain-climb back to power are specifically English in nature. For those still in doubt about that reality, just take a look at the major events of the past 18 months.

Firstly, the pandemic has reminded everyone that, since devolution, most English policy is different to that in Wales and Scotland, and that England has suffered particularly harshly from the centralising, privatising, corrupt cronyism of the Tories. Secondly, Labour’s heavy election defeat in 2019 was largely at the hands of voters who say they are “more English than British”. Labour actually won more votes than the Tories amongst voters who, like many Labour activists, say they are more British than English.

These voting trends haven’t always been there. Over the past two decades, English voters have turned away from Labour’s politics. While in 2001 Labour won an equal share of voters identifying as “more British than English” and “more English than British”, within 20 years those voters had left Labour in their droves, presumably in no small part put off by the ‘little Englander’ narrative driven by liberal left-leaning graduates in the major cities. These same formerly Labour-supporting voters also delivered Brexit.

These trends have made clear the political costs of not engaging with England or English identity. Step away and the right will fill the vacuum. While an inclusive, civic sense of Englishness is becoming the norm, it is the loud-mouthed, xenophobic minority of ethno-nationalists who have been allowed to fill the vacuum. 90% of England now say that you don’t have to be white to be English, but – aside from David Lammy’s brave interventions and Gareth Snell’s 2017 election campaign – too few on the left have been willing to wave that particular flag. Studies by academic Paula Surridge show that – in an economic sense – proud English voters should find what they want on the left of politics, but instead they are being attracted by the Tory right.

Labour speaks to virtually every other identity in the UK. Anas Sarwar talks about his pride in Scotland. Mark Drakeford is patriotic when discussing Wales. Labour frontbenchers rightly put out videos for religious festivals, for liberation campaigns and more recently to connect with British patriots. It is great, then, to see Keir Starmer has put out a St George’s Day video that we hope will be a first step towards Labour telling a national story for England.

The pandemic has shown that Labour needs to have clear and distinct English policies in all areas that are England-only, such as health, care, education, transport and local government. The crisis has told a particularly interesting and important story about England’s governance, and how Tory rule has left England so unprepared to fight Covid-19. From privatisation to centralisation, from austerity to cronyism, the Conservatives have failed the people of England – and Labour shouldn’t be afraid to say it.

Cuts have meant that at the start of the crisis England had fewer ICU beds available than any country in Europe. Our social care system was already in crisis, relying on underpaid staff and high charges for many vulnerable people. Conservative neglect over many years left hospitals and care homes all too vulnerable to Covid-19. The pandemic also revealed how England is the most unequal nation in Europe; sickness and death were highest in the poorest and least healthy communities and amongst people who worked in the most vulnerable jobs.

Privatisation put England’s track and trace in the hands of profit-making companies. For months, the Conservative government refused to work with England’s local councils, unlike in Labour-run Wales where cooperation with local public health experts worked far better.

Conservative cronyism has wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on personal protective equipment contracts that don’t deliver for the English NHS and English people. This money could have at the very least gone towards a ‘thank you’ payment for health and social care workers, as it has done in Labour Wales.

Centralisation means that time and time again the Conservative government has taken decisions in London without considering the views and circumstances of people in other parts of England. The country is one of the most centralised in Europe.

Ahead of the local elections, Labour has a fantastic opportunity to tell a persuasive story about a modern England with our party at the helm; a Labour Party that values its public sector foundations, that puts power into the hands of local experts, and that wins an argument about investing now to save later – from education and housing to illness prevention and pandemic preparation.

But to do this Labour must say ‘England’ when we mean England. No more materials confusing English-only policy with UK-wide policy. No more cringing at the St George’s cross. Luke Pollard has set a strong example with his ‘rural England policy review’ – a rare case of best practice.

Nobody is arguing that UK Labour should only speak to England. There are wider ways in which the UK Conservative government has utterly failed Britain as a whole. For instance, the utter failure of industrial policy whereby half a million manufacturing jobs have moved overseas in ten years.

There is the fact that the Tories have overseen the selling off of our national assets to the highest bidder, with elements of our critical national infrastructure now being controlled by hostile foreign powers. Or the weak UK-wide ownership regulations that have caused the disconnect between distant overseas football club owners and loyal fans in local communities, which this week threatened to further damage our beautiful game due to the greed of the ‘big six’ English club owners.

But for those English-identifying voters that Labour must win back, England needs to have a place in the story. The events of the past 18 months mean the political importance of England can no longer be ignored.

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