The future of the left since 1884

England: A crisis

England was a fractured country well before the 24th June; the tensions that are now widely acknowledged had been developing for many years. A different result would have just left the other half of England feeling they had lost their...



England was a fractured country well before the 24th June; the tensions that are now widely acknowledged had been developing for many years. A different result would have just left the other half of England feeling they had lost their country. The centre ground of politics is hollowing out – with the socially conservative more resistant to change; the radical more open to radicalism; and still others more sceptical about any politicians. Our diverse society is much less genuinely integrated or at ease with itself than we have liked to pretend. New dynamics are at play that require a new politics and a new progressive movement.

The overriding need for social democracy is unchanged. Formed to challenge the unaccountable power of market capitalism, social democracy’s historic mission has always been to hold capital to account and bend it to the common good. Unrestrained markets always lead to concentration of wealth, power and infl uence. While global capitalism is often dynamic and creative it is often also hugely destructive of security, income, communities and human relationships. With greater or lesser success, social democracy has always worked to create an elected majority capable of challenging the failures of markets and the abuse of their power.

Social democracy’s base was the organised industrial working class, with its strong institutions and tough-minded collective values of solidarity, contribution and reciprocity. Here voting Labour was not so much a political choice of policy and ideology but a statement of identity. But as the economy has changed the old industrial working class has declined, triggering a crisis of social democracy across Europe. Millions today have never shared the experiences that generated identity with the Labour party. The modern economy creates hugely different lives, stratified by education, privilege, class, geography, ethnicity, faith, age and employment. Sometimes we barely understand our neighbours’ lives, let alone sense what we share with those we don’t know. And so our bewilderingly diverse society seems hard to unite. Yet, just as all seems lost, new opportunities are opening up.

In response to the insecurity and inequality of global capitalism people are creating a new politics of identity; new ways of identifying common interest. The most dynamic political movements are those of nation, people and place. The most successful parties those that have established a relationship with voters on the basis of ‘who we are’ and ‘who stands for me’. It’s why the SNP have displaced Labour in Scotland (and why UKIP threatens Labour’s base in England), and is one of the reasons for Welsh Labour’s relative resilience.

Two generations ago, the Labour movement had little difficulty with patriotism (though Orwell said that English intellectuals were the only ones ashamed of their own country). More recently and disastrously, the left has treated national identity politics with suspicion. In doing so, it has let the populist right set the agenda. There are dangers in right wing populism, but the turn towards nation, people and place is not created by the right. It is a spontaneous response to globalisation. It is also the left’s best chance of creating a new, collectivist, popular base for social democracy. National identity reaches across social gulfs. We share deep attachment, across communities and class, to where we live. The left’s politics need to be the politics of progressive patriotism, a politics that brings people together, not a bitter politics of division and fear.

The steady emergence of English identity is becoming politicised as voters distinguish English interests from those of the UK. The 2015 general election saw four different national elections take place, with different issues in play and different parties emerging successful. For the first time a distinct English issue – the so-called SNP threat – became a talking point for millions of English voters and may have tipped the balance in key seats. In the EU referendum, those feeling most intensely English were far more likely to have supported leave.

These English interests won’t go away but will intensify as the diverging interests of different parts of the UK become more apparent over the coming months and years. Scotland wants to be in the EU and (possibly) out of the union. England – whether we like it or not – wants to be out of the EU and (probably) in the Union. Scotland wants open borders, England clearly doesn’t. In these circumstances, who speaks for England and who for the UK in the Brexit process?

The separateness of the Scottish and English (and Welsh and Northern Irish) political debates will rekindle resentment that English voters cannot elect representatives to determine domestic policy as other UK voters do. Pure electoral calculations – it is easier to win a Labour majority in England than in the UK, yet UKIP may steal our base – should focus Labour attention on England like never before. England can be built as a nation of shared progressive values; with a powerful story of how we came to be here and what we are building together. At the heart of our national story would be the need to challenge capital to meet the common good. But to do so, we need to create the democratic institutions of England and create an English Labour movement that can live up to this moment of opportunity.

A distinct, progressive and patriotic Englishness cannot mature while there are no democratic forums or systems of democratic government to provide the focus and crucible of debate. An English parliament – whether directly elected, part of Westminster or some form of super EVEL – is now an essential Labour movement demand. English devolution is also critical to counteract London centric politics and should be established as a right, not a whim of Westminster government. While we need to devolve within the English nation, only a federal constitution holds any hope of holding the Union together.

An English Labour movement must lead the drive for constitutional change. But it must also be equipped to build a progressive, patriotic nation. English identity is on the rise, but its form is far from settled. It can sometimes be seen as ethnic and exclusive, sometimes civic and inclusive. It’s often a ‘conditional’ civic identity – anyone can belong as long as you play by the rules. For most people it is and has always been one of several identities – regional, British, ethnic or faith.

National identities are created, not discovered, and the progressive patriotic Englishness we need is not yet fully formed. English Labour has to be a vehicle for nation-building; a place where the common ground can be found to define the sense of fairness that underpins society, share the need to hold the powerful to account, and work together to defend our ancient and recent rights.

Is there sufficient common ground in our divided country? Yes, if we are prepared to look for it. We can find it in our traditions of freedom and our commitment to voluntary action; our instincts to support those most in need at the same time as we reward contribution; and our belief in strong communities with obligations to each other. We can find it in our belief that markets can be challenged to tackle inequalities of wealth and power. We can find support for diversity so long as we respect the limits of rapid change.

As we survey our divided nation, and our divided party, Labour needs a new vehicle for progressive patriotic politics. An English Labour movement could fill that gap.

The England and Labour project is being coordinated by Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, with an editorial group of Prof Mike Kenny (Director of the Mile End Institute, QMUL), Mary Riddell and Jonathan Rutherford. The  Fabian Review will be publishing regular articles from the series, as part of the debate about Labour’s response to contemporary England.


John Denham

John Denham is a former Labour cabinet minister and is currently the director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, and director of the English Labour Network.


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