‘National flags and identity can be inclusive – we’re right to embrace them’

Alice Perry
© William Perugini/Shutterstock.com

From the very beginning, Keir Starmer’s Labour has been proudly patriotic. The 2022 Labour Party conference opened with delegates coming together to sing the national anthem to pay their respects to the late Queen. Flags feature prominently at conference and in the background of key speeches. Labour wants to reassure voters that we are a government-in-waiting that loves this country and will work tirelessly to serve people throughout the UK. 

It was interesting to see newspaper articles suggesting some unnamed MPs felt discomfort with the idea that the UK flag was featured on recent election leaflets. As Keir has said himself, we should not let fringe groups define what it means to be British, or English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Labour has grappled with how best to engage with nationalism

2012 seems like a very long time ago, but Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony captured a special, inclusive sense of what it meant to be British. Likewise, the politically and culturally aware men’s and women’s England football teams have shared very thoughtful reflections on inclusive national identity and how this identity can be unifying and uplifting.

It is also fun to reflect that if Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Prime Minister, today would have been a bank holiday. One of his election manifesto proposals was to make St George’s Day, St David’s Day and St Andrew’s Day public holidays.

Keir Starmer has successfully (and impressively) changed public perceptions of Labour. After 2019’s disastrous general election, he moved us from a party in turmoil to a serious party of government, reminding voters that Labour is the party of NATO and can be trusted to defend our country. As Labour repositioned itself following the 2019 election defeat, a new approach to patriotism has been part of how Labour has demonstrated its break from the recent past.

For many years, Labour grappled with how best to engage with nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism has meant different things to different parts of the party over the years, although each provides lessons that we can learn from.

Over the past decade in England, Labour has debated how to reframe English national identity so it includes our history and values, championing people’s history, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, suffragettes and the freedom to organise politically, vote, unionise and express ourselves. We debated whether Labour should have its own “English Labour Party” and how greater devolution might shape the debate.

Our CLP structure helps keep us connected to our communities

In Scotland, the independence referendum created deep divisions, which have taken a long time to heal. For people who took part in the bruising 2014 campaign, the vivid memories of the tone of debate and Scottish Labour’s subsequent electoral collapse lead to a sense of wariness about nationalism and popularism. Scottish Labour has had to sensitively and thoughtfully navigate these issues to reconnect with voters.

When I was on Labour’s national executive committee, it was always fascinating to hear from Carwyn Jones and his colleagues about Welsh Labour’s approach, with Welsh Labour framing voting Labour as a part of Welsh identity and using national identity, while also campaigning against nationalist parties.

Once every parliamentary term, Labour conducts a review into its long-standing policy not to stand candidates in Northern Ireland. I was part of the Northern Ireland working group, where we would consult widely with all the relevant stakeholders and consider the role Labour should play in Northern Irish politics.

Part of Labour’s strength is our commitment to devolution, which is reflected in our organisational structure. Our local Constituency Labour Parties, with dedicated activists and volunteers throughout the UK, make us unique in UK politics and help keep us connected to our communities. It is part of what unites us through our shared values. We are familiar and comfortable celebrating our regional, local and community identities, and these identities are a crucial part of what it means to be British. 

Read more of our coverage of the 2024 local elections here.

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