There is no easy way of saying it, but after Election 2015 Labour faces an existential crisis the like of which has not been seen in the modern era. The direction and fundamental purpose of our party is under threat and action is needed if we are to avoid falling into obscurity.
While the collapse of Labour’s vote in Scotland is important, the loss of yet more English voters to UKIP and the Conservative Party is no less important, particularly amongst the skilled working class. It has become popular parlance to suggest that we failed to offer ‘aspirational’ voters a substantive offer. This theory has some merit, however, it ignores a more general spiritual problem facing Labour: our inability to fully recognise the strength of English national identity.
In many respects Britishness is a creation of empire, a means of unifying disparate groups and projecting the power of king and country across the globe. In the twentieth century it was solidified through shared experience and struggle, like the First and Second World Wars and the labour movement, and through nationalised institutions and industry. Parliament and the crown also played a role, offering singular and clearly identifiable sources of power and prestige that we recognised in Brora as much as Bradford or Bridgend.
These institutions no longer exist, or are in a state of chronic disrepair. British Steel once employed workers in all corners of the country, but this industry, like so many others, is now highly automated and reliant on comparatively few skilled employees. The trade union movement has also been hollowed out and, like government itself, is increasingly devolved. The public are perhaps less deferential than they have been in the past. Tellingly, by identifying as Scottish, and Scottish alone, the SNP have been able to rail against British orthodoxy and homogeny and shatter Labour’s illusions of ownership over the Scottish electorate.
With labour and capital now more fluid than ever and globalisation seemingly a fact of life people are compelled not by a message of class solidarity across borders or an intangible, invented nationality, but by the local: their families, their community and their nation. The rise of Scottish nationalism cannot be attributed solely to last year’s referendum, but to a wider cultural and political acceptance of a unique Scottish identity. Labour played a key role in this and we cannot cede ground on the fact that it was our party that established the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
However, while we have recognised the existence of distinct Scottish and Welsh identities we have struggled to accept their English equivalent. Britishness is an easy term, one that has long been claimed by artists and liberals and is outward facing and pluralistic. Englishness is more exclusive, owing more to family ties than cultural experience.
It is notable within Labour that there is a level of discomfort toward the growth of civic nationalism and a passive belief that vague ‘British values’ can unify voters across borders. Ideas of fairness, tolerance and liberalism are in some respects worthy, but they lack exclusivity and are difficult to relate to.
By ignoring Englishness Labour has enabled UKIP and the Conservatives to take ownership of English identity and values. English history, for example, is widely read and understood from a conservative perception alone. The radical strain – from the Diggers to the Chartists to the Clarion Movement – has been erased, with Labour complicit in failing to champion the people of England and their story. It is no surprise that Labour are eyed suspiciously by many English patriots as antithetical to their interests. Certainly the party has struggled to offer them a compelling narrative or even a shred of sympathy.
Such attitudes cannot continue. The march towards federalism seem inexorable and with the question of English votes for English laws catching Labour off guard, the party must be nimble in how it adjusts.
The first thing Labour must do is establish itself as an English party. Scottish Labour will continue to suffer as long as it can be identified as a “branch office” and the goals of the Scottish people are becoming decisively different from their English counterparts. Llafur Cymru has modelled itself as a thoroughly Welsh institution and should be seen as a model to follow. Such regional pluralism would enable greater discussion across Labour and help to strengthen the party in the long run.
Second, Labour should commit itself to fairer representation for the English people. This should include an agreement to equalize the populations of England’s constituencies and to devolve power to the people of England as quickly as possible. Though some in the Labour Party have railed against these steps, we must accept that if we cannot win over the people of England fairly and justly then truly we have no right to govern them. Similarly, we must look beyond the statism of the past and accept that power in the future rests with the people.
Third, finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must champion English identity and English history. This is not to denigrate those who, through family ties or experience, see themselves as British, but rather to recognise the changing state of the nation and to reflect it across our party. We must accept that Labour has allowed others to write us out of England’s past and commit to rectifying this.
If we are to be a viable party of government it is not enough to rely on institutions and identities that have lost their sheen. We have not ‘won’ in England since 2001, a situation that should concern all involved. That ‘England’ was mentioned just a handful of times in our recent manifesto speaks volumes.
Our position is perilous and we must be bold. Looking to the future, one thing is clear: if we are to govern England, we need to speak for England.