Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Does Labour have an ‘English problem’?

In Scotland, Alex Salmond has linked together culture, society and the economy in a story of Scottish hope. Labour is placed firmly on the side of reaction and backwardness. In Wales Labour holds its own but in a context of decline. In England, Labour increased its council seats in the May elections.

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It was enough to temporarily stifle the argument that it is in danger of becoming the party of the liberal middle class and a clientist public sector. Labour as both a unionist and a national political force is under threat.

This is not a temporary setback, but part of longer-term trends. First, historical forces – end of empire, devolution, the EU, globalisation, the rise of the BRIC countries – are weakening Britain’s unitary state. Second, Labour has lost its cultural moorings. It has never been a class-based party, but one based on particular communities and occupations. With deindustrialisation, many of these have disappeared. New forms of production and consumption are transforming the cultures and structures of class. Who and what does Labour stand for?

Labour has to understand these sociological and cultural changes, attune itself to their moods and become the party of national renascence in each country of the union. It needs to be a genuinely federated party that champions a new settlement of nations and devolves power from Westminster. In England we need an English Labour party, and we need to start a debate about the democratic representation of England, and the issue of English votes for English laws.

England is a country defined by an empire and an open trading economy. We have spread ourselves through the world and in turn the world has come to our shores. We are a country of many roots but without a clear sense of national identity. Where do we fit in and belong? Who are our people and who will watch out for us?

Anxieties and conflicts around identity and culture are a reaction to the insecurities created by three decades of global economic transformation. The cultural devastation caused by deindustrialisation and unemployment has meant for many the loss of our grandparents’ ways of life. People are faced with the cultural differences of mass immigration and many live alongside strangers, their own families distant.

During the boom years, the externalities of ‘neoliberal’ capitalism were contained by rising living standards and easy credit. People of the middling sort gained through asset inflation. But the financial crash has brought those gains to an end and exposed the heavy social costs that neoliberalism has inflicted on large sections of both working and middle classes.

Economic insecurity, falling living standards and a belief that our national culture is under threat resonate powerfully in public life. These are ‘pre-political’ structures of feeling and they erupt into public political life as rage against immigration and ‘benefit scroungers’. The fear of crime is because it threatens to shatter a fragile sense of order.

Labour fears the intolerance and racism of this populism. It has ignored it, morally condemned it, and tried to emulate it. Each tactic has revealed its political weakness. Labour’s national renascence depends upon confronting the causes of social insecurity – and seizing the politics of identity and belonging – from the right, in the name of the country and the common good.

The task is hampered by a cosmopolitanism whose abstract universalism is dismissive of the insecurities of perpetual change and of people’s desire for familiarity and for home. It has stigmatised the solidarities of ethnicity, community, and local place. In turn, third way social democracy has recoiled from the visceral politics of belonging and the pain of social death and cultural devastation. Its promotion of liberal individualism and market choice has undermined the value of society and relationships, and left people to fend for themselves against powerful economic forces. It has ended up in a transactional approach to politics that favoured those who were most able to get what they wanted by individual action. Across Europe its traditional supporters reacted to its utilitarianism and meritocracy by deserting it. Many turned to the xenophobic social movements which combine ethnic absolutism with a promise to look after ‘our people’.

Labour needs to respond with its own vision of England. Nation and culture are the places where people make meaning, and where they create a sense of belonging and identity. But there is also something more at stake. ‘The national’ must be won politically, culturally and socially, because it is key to rebuilding the economy and creating a common prosperity.

In his 1933 essay on ‘National Self Sufficiency’ JM Keynes confronts the ‘decadent international but individualistic capitalism’ that caused the Wall Street Crash. Its ‘self-destructive financial calculation governs every walk of life’, he writes. ‘It is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods’. But what, he asks, shall we put in its place?

Today we face the same dilemma. A second phase of ‘neoliberal’ globalisation has resulted in economic crisis. Britain has a failed open economy and a state-supported system of capitalism. Its private sector is anaemic and its financial sector dominates like an imperial cantonment which takes and takes – and gives nothing back. A selfish elite has embraced a cosmopolitan global culture, while across the country people face the loss of national purpose. What is England without an empire?

For Keynes the question was an opportunity to forge an English cultural renascence. His economic theory is grounded in the idea of an economic community; a shared set of national cultural values drawn from the conservatism of Burke and Coleridge. Shared traditions provide the language of collective experience and belonging, which create a bulwark against the ideology of laissez faire. Keynesian economic theory was in part a reimagining of English national culture. This cultural reimagining has continued with EP Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. Labour needs to delve into its own traditions and take up the baton.

A Labour politics of national renascence depends upon macroeconomic policies that can ‘renationalise’ the economy. US economist Dani Rodrick argues that transnational regulatory institutions such as the Basel Committee, the WTO, IMF, and the Group of 20 are important but remain weak. The nation state remains the political unit best equipped for managing globalisation and rebuilding the national economy.

Labour needs to create policy spaces of democratic deliberation to restructure and diversify the economy. Keynes wrote in his 1926 essay ‘The End of Laissez Faire’ that the ideal size for the unit of control and organisation of the economy is the semi-autonomous body that lies between the individual and the state, and whose criterion of action is the public good. These intermediary institutions can bring together the public sector, the private sector and the third sector in the English tradition of a ‘balance of powers’.

Three themes underpin renationalising the economy. First, ownership matters. Keynes argues that ‘remoteness between ownership and operation is an evil in the relations between men.’ Unlike our economic competitors, the UK has failed to keep control of its key industries. Sir Alan Rudge, in a paper given to Civitas in 2010, argued that we are well on the way to owning virtually none of our key economic assets. Second, investment matters. The British economy is suffering a lack of capital investment. Renationalisation requires a national investment bank and radical reform of the banking sector – no bank should be too big to fail. Regional banks can contribute to spreading wealth creation, and a system of community banking will help to capitalise localities. A cap on interest rates will reduce personal indebtedness and undercut loan sharks.

Third, protection matters. Britain has one of the least regulated labour markets in the rich world. The flexible labour market has not realised the economic gains promised by its advocates. Reform of European regulation can end low-pay, low-skill and casualised labour, and create a level playing field for both migrant and indigenous workers. Strong trade unions are the best defence against exploitation. A living wage would improve the lives of over-worked, time-poor families.

The last time Labour was confronted with this kind of political crisis was during its 1931 electoral rout. It had tenaciously clung to economic orthodoxy at the expense of its own traditions and good sense. As RH Tawney despaired, it ‘crawled slowly to its doom’. Sometime soon Labour will need a little boldness of purpose. 


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Jonathan Rutherford

11 comments

  • complete rhetorical phooey ; not reactionary and backward but, by not putting unbridled aquisition of wealth top of ideological aspirations, looking to a world more realistic and humanitarian .Reform European regulation ? you and who’s army. Industries – we’ll invent new ones because THAT is what’s needed , we don’t want to go backwards to whore to investors .If you can’t join them beat them. Here is the opportunity to make a better world.

  • If Labour are to re-engage with the people of England and to recognise England culturally and as a society they have a long road to take to convince those very people of England. Since devolution Labour in the guise of John Prescott were only too keen to balkanise England into regions, when asked about England Prescott even had the temerity to say the “The English dont exist”, we have had Jack Straw exclaiming “The English have a tendancy to violence”, then we have to look at various Labour lead councils who have for one vacuous reason after another banned the Cross of St.George flying. When looking at the economic ( Barnett Formula) and democratic ( West Lothian Question)disparity of England Labour have ignored the situation to the extent that when Lord Irvine was approached about the West Lothian Question his answer was “then dont ask it”. Then to top it all it was labour that deliberately set about changing the demographic climate in England by allowing unimpeded immigration “just to rub the rights (Tory Party) noses in it. So as the progressive left must appreiciate there is a long way for you to go if you are to reverse the perception that a new progressive Labour will win the hearts and minds of England. One of the first steps it can do is to promote a democracy in England that allows the people of England a voice and that voice must be an English Parliament with powers akin to the Scottish model. progressive Labour must engage in a new democracy for England. Labour once stood for the working class and with great struggle gained the vote for the working man, the least of all a new progressive Labour can do is to restore the democratic right of the people of England to vote for a Govt that refelct their needs and rights, that Govt would be a restored English Parliament.

  • Quote: “England is a country defined by an empire and an open trading economy. We have spread ourselves through the world and in turn the world has come to our shores. We are a country of many roots but without a clear sense of national identity. ” Naturally, as an Englishman I disagree with this to some degree. Although the Scots and Irish tapped into an already successful English (and Welsh) empire, it is the United Kingdom that is defined by empire (colonisation). Scotland for example provided a third of the slave owners in the Caribbean although comprising only around 8% of the UK’s population. We English have always been relaxed and confident in our identity. We have always been a cultural diverse nation (for nation is what we are) based upon our ancient counties. However, we stand together and know we can rely on one another as Englishmen when required. This is evidenced by the very fact this is exactly what Labour’s devolution project was trying to dismantle. The reviled regions were imposed on England for the sole reason of erasing England. For something to be erased, it has to be recognised, and the roots of Englishness were well recognised by those Anglophobes in the British Government. There are none more loathsome than the British. For those unionists out there; the greatest source of mutual hostility between the peoples of these islands is the United Kingdom. If England were erased that would not halt calls for Ireland’s unification (not reunification as it was only ever unified within the United Kingdom) nor calls for Scotland’s independence. It would merely disenfranchise the English and render them stateless and powerless. Labour is not alone in wanting this, both the Tories and especially the Lib Dems are actively steering towards such an outcome. Tha English are friendless, but defiant. It ever was the case and England would have been a far more preosperous country without the Union and would also be free of crass assertions about our identity. The Union has been an unmitigated disaster for the English.

  • Labour certainly does have a problem with England. It would prefer that England did not exist. Prescott’s plan for regional assemblies without any English national political existence would have reduced England to the status of Middlesex – a quaint but largely forgotten administrative unit that occasional fields sporting teams and whose name is mysteriously attached to various, clubs, societies, universities etc. Fortunately there are people in the Labour Party who think differently, who recognise that respect for one’s own country is one of the planks of a civilised sociesty, for whom the nation state is not a barbaric affront to liberal values, and who appreciate that all the UK nations are entitled to respresentaive democracy. Their voices are now being heard. If the Labour leadership ignores them it signs its own death warrant.

  • If Labour are to re-engage with the people of England and to recognise England culturally and as a society they have a long road to take to convince those very people of England. Since devolution Labour in the guise of John Prescott were only too keen to balkanise England into regions, when asked about England Prescott even had the temerity to say the “The English dont exist”, we have had Jack Straw exclaiming “The English have a tendancy to violence”, then we have to look at various Labour lead councils who have for one vacuous reason after another banned the Cross of St.George flying. When looking at the economic ( Barnett Formula) and democratic ( West Lothian Question)disparity of England Labour have ignored the situation to the extent that when Lord Irvine was approached about the West Lothian Question his answer was “then dont ask it”. Then to top it all it was labour that deliberately set about changing the demographic climate in England by allowing unimpeded immigration “just to rub the rights (Tory Party) noses in it. So as the progressive left must appreiciate there is a long way for you to go if you are to reverse the perception that a new progressive Labour will win the hearts and minds of England. One of the first steps it can do is to promote a democracy in England that allows the people of England a voice and that voice must be an English Parliament with powers akin to the Scottish model. progressive Labour must engage in a new democracy for England. Labour once stood for the working class and with great struggle gained the vote for the working man, the least of all a new progressive Labour can do is to restore the democratic right of the people of England to vote for a Govt that refelct their needs and rights, that Govt would be a restored English Parliament.

  • Disagree with this: “England is a country defined by an empire and an open trading economy. ” England is a country (like all other countries) primarily defined by its people. And as we know the individuals that make up England are a pretty diverse bunch. But a big yes to an English Labour Party. Yes to English votes but in a re-established English parliament – we deserve no less. At the moment the English are ignored at every level. No national voice. No voice to deal with our neighbours. Scotland deals with a UK desperate to keep the Scots in Union. How are the English going to get a fair deal out of that? No-one is speaking for the English, many of whom are more than happy for Scotland to go its own way. While the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have parliaments that work in their interests we have the UK parliament happy to see the English starved of funds, and as a consequence with worse more expensive services. Even UK MPs that have English constituencies do not care that their own English constituents get nearly £2,000 less per person per year funding than Scots or the Northern Irish. While the Scots can afford free higher education for their kids the English are paying £9k a year. While the English pay £7.40 per prescription – the rest of the UK pays nothing. Care for the elderly, care full stop is more expensive in England. And so on. We English deserve an English parliament working in our interest. Spending English taxes on the whole of England. That respects our County traditions. that brings the vote back to the people. That puts our economy first. Putting the people first. “What is England without an empire? ” England is England without an Empire. And we’ll do fine without it. Much better in fact. When England has self determination we can once again be a force for good in the world. With a far healthier approach to foreign affairs post big Britisher punching above our weight, top table delusions of grandeur. Domestically we can rebuild our democracy. Enshrining the peoples opinion in the process via regular referenda (local, county/city/national). We can work towards being the small, peaceful, prosperous nation that we should be. “Strong trade unions are the best defence against exploitation.” The best defence against exploitation is some form of common ownership. Stocks and shares should be primarily for the employees rather than money speculators. Not only will this reduce the threat of exploitation it will also be a massive boost to productivity and quality. An English parliament should encourage businesses to share their assets with their workers. English solutions for English problems. Unfortunately the unions have proved themselves as anti England as the Union. the should reform into an English trade union movement.

  • England isn’t the only part of the UK where Labour has an identity problem. The party definitely needs to work on improving its identity within all the nations and regions and part of that is allowing candidates to stand in. “Labour as both a unionist and a national political force is under threat”- especially so where it disenfranchises almost 2 million voters.

  • It’s great to see Labour finally engaging with the English Question after having systematically suppressed it during their years in power. This doesn’t yet seem to be quite a joined-up programme; but I guess it’s early days. It’s not easy, for instance, to see the link between the English cultural renaissance of which the author speaks and the three themes underpinning re-nationalising the economy outlined at the end, all of which are Britain-focused. Can there – should there be – an English-national economic strategy to underpin the author’s desired programme of English national and cultural renaissance; and doesn’t the one presuppose the other? In any case, if government were devolved to England, economic development would be one of the areas devolved, assuming the devolution settlement for England were similar to that for Scotland. So shouldn’t we start thinking about the future shape of an English-national economy?

  • Re: Luke Sproule. Please refrain from using the phrase ‘nations and regions’. It’s the type of language Hitler’s Nazis would have used. Do you want to be like that lot? This liusy kingdom consists of four nations (or five, if you count Cornwall as a nation in its own right). England is a country, not a bunch of phoney regions created by Blair’s racist thugs.

  • So if Labour reconvert their Anglo-British state nationalism into pure English nationalism can we Cornish expect them to force English culture and identity down our throats?

  • Nice to see once again an article extolling Labour (progressive, blue or otherwise) to engage with thier grass roots in England, it would be even nicer if once just for once the author of said article, in this case Jonathon Rutherford, actually replied to some of the comments listed above. Obviously the author is a busy man because 10 days after posting the article we have no reply

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