The Labour Party has at times been a force for radical change, but has failed to formulate a vision of Britain and Britishness, which could challenge conservative notions of nation and patriotism, writes Eric Shaw.
The profound and dislocating impact of Brexit on the party system has been demonstrated in the starkest way by the recent elections for the European parliament. Not only is the issue obviously in itself of the utmost importance but it has operated as the lightning rod of many pent-up resentments and frustrations: over mass migration, growing ethnic diversity, wage stagnation, housing shortages, straightened public services, and over what it seen as an unresponsive political system. This anger and these grievances have been refracted through a new politics of identity, place, and nationhood, as exemplified in the clamour for Britain to free itself from European shackles and to ‘take back control’.
The politics of identity, place, and nationhood has had a long history. Since the time of Disraeli, the Tories have instinctively understood the mobilising potential of national sentiment and patriotic fervour and forged the notion of the ‘Conservative nation.’ Labour, in contrast, has lagged behind. As Gerry Hassan and myself seek to show in The People’s Flag and the Union Jack, the party’s attitude has been one of uncertainty, ambivalence, and unease. Except for a brief interlude in the 1940s, it failed to formulate an alternative vision of Britain and Britishness which could challenge ‘the Conservative nation’.
This failure has recently become politically much more costly. For a variety of reasons – disputes over immigration, multiculturalism, devolution, European integration – issues of national identity have increasingly pervaded mass political discourse. Long simmering they erupted with the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.
The most obvious impact is to accelerate the corrosion of traditional modes of partisan alignment. Class divisions and left-right distinctions are losing their capacity to structure party preferences in favour of an alternative pattern of societal cleavage, one that revolves around the clash between social liberalism and social conservativism. Social liberals tend to be open-minded, tolerant of immigration and ethnic diversity, and internationally oriented; social conservatives have more authoritarian inclinations, are unhappy with multiculturalism and mass migration, and are nationalistic in outlook.
Reinforcing the social liberal/social divide is another, more novel, one: between people (in England) who define themselves as predominantly British and those who see themselves as principally English.
Until recently Britishness and Englishness tended to be interchangeable terms, both in usage and meaning. This is ceasing to be so. British identifiers tend to be social liberals and favour a civic conception of nationhood, whilst English identifiers are more likely to be social conservatives with a more ethnic conception of nationhood. The two categories also exhibit different sociological traits. The former are younger, more highly educated, and professionally employed; the latter are older, less well-educated, and more likely to employed in clerical and manual jobs. What renders this divide of even greater political significance is that it also corresponds with the Remainer (British) and Leaver (English) fracture.
The growing prominence of the politics of national identity is a phenomenon which Labour, has found difficult to assimilate. The only senior Labour leader so far who has grasped its importance was Gordon Brown. Worried by the intensifying strains on national cohesion by anti-immigrant and xenophobic feelings (and by the rise of Scottish nationalism) he called for a bold ‘progressive Britishness’, which could tap into the country’s outward-looking, enlightened, and liberal traditions. This civic form of Britishness, he declared, could unite the country through a shared vision and values in which the Union Jack would become ‘a flag for all Britain – symbolising inclusion, tolerance and unity’. He warned that if Labour failed to rise to the challenge, a wave of right-wing ethnic nationalism would be unleashed.
But Brown’s progressive Britishness was couched in a rather abstract style, offended some within the party who found any references to patriotism as alienating, and evoked little interest or enthusiasm in the public at large. The timing, also, was unfortunate since his Britishness project was soon totally swamped by the 2008 financial crisis.
Concerned by intensifying anti-immigrant sentiment and mounting support for UKIP, Ed Miliband sought to defuse the danger for Labour by unveiling in 2012 ‘One Nation Labour.’ This was designed to affirm the party’s patriotism, burnish its credentials as a party for all whilst appropriating ground which was seen as conventionally Conservative. But many of Labour’s leaders regarded ‘One Nation Labour’ as little more than a useful slogan, a deft political stratagem, and a headline-grabber, signifying little else. Miliband’s more ambitious agenda was thwarted and ‘One Nation Labour’ soon sank without a trace.
Labour’s ambiguous relationship with Britishness lay unresolved. The new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, came from a strand of the party (the radical left) which treated all forms of patriotism (except in the third world and Ireland) with distaste and disapproval. He soon showed his indifference to the liturgies and trappings of Britishness by his much-publicised refusal to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at a remembrance ceremony.
But issues of national identity could not be ducked for. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, the party’s electorate was deeply divided between social liberal, British-identifying Remainers, and socially conservative and English-identifying Leavers. Alignments within the party were more complex. A solid majority of both the PLP and the membership (including supporters of the pro-Corbyn ginger group, Momentum) are Remainers and proponents of a second referendum whilst a sizeable minority of centre-right MPs strenuously resist both, primarily for electoral reasons. Corbyn himself and his most senior advisers (such as Seumas Milne) occupy a third position: Brexiteers who oppose the EU for ideological reasons as a capitalist club, membership of which would inhibit radical policies. Their dream appears to be ‘socialism in one country.’
In such circumstances, maintaining party unity would be a formidable task for any leader even one with more political acumen than Corbyn. But his inept political judgments are also the result of his (and his inner circle’s) inability to come to terms with the new politics of identity, place, and culture. The prism through which they apprehend political life is a heavily materialistic one. How people think and behave politically is a product of the objective conditions of class struggle, exploitation, and material deprivation. Little interest is shown in the world of subjective experiences and values. Thus, anti-immigrant sentiment is seen solely as the result of economic factors such as unemployment, low wages stagnation, and expenditure cuts. Issues such as the impact of immigration on neighbourhood cohesion and traditions are ignored.
This adherence to an outdated class model helps explain why Corbyn is cut adrift from the popular mood, especially in the Northern working class. Viewing himself as a lifelong workers’ champion he seems unaware that for many of those he claims to represent he appears as the epitome of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ at its most patronising, indifferent, and remote.
The emergence of a strident and often intolerant nationalism is having a deeply destabilising effect on the left’s electorate throughout Europe. It is by no means obvious how it can best be combated but the starting point is to recognise the scale of the problem. This the Corbyn leadership has yet to do.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).