From nation-building to location-building
Over the summer, there has been a lot of interest in Ed Miliband’s new ‘guru’, the Australian academic Tim Soutphommasane. Although he didn’t quite knock Jess, Mo and Bradley off the news bulletins, Soutphommasane’s ideas deserve a wide hearing. He pushes the value of positive, progressive, patriotism (an issue close to my heart) and the need for a national project of the left. I, for one, am glad that Ed is taking these ideas seriously.
From the earliest days of our existence, Labour has often been happier addressing economic ills than in discussing social issues. We were formed on the assumption that working men (at the time) were bound tightly by shared economic interests, rather than a similar cultural outlook. This inability to see the world of cultural interests, as well as economic interests, persists to this day. It’s why Gordon Brown was incapable of seeing Mrs Duffy as anything other than racist. It’s why many on the left see the BNP as a product only of stagnating wages, rather than as a cultural cry-for-help. Whether you agree with the cry-for-help is neither here nor there. What is certainly true is that, if you see the world only as a clash of economic interests, you will fail to understand exactly what is going on.
That’s why I’m happy that Ed is so comfortable talking about issues that we have traditionally seen as too difficult or distasteful. Patriotism and nation-building have normally been seen as the preserve of the right, and often the American right, rather than our own. But that isn’t because the right has a monopoly on these concepts – it’s just that the left have walked off the field, leaving the right to shoot at an open goal. And it hasn’t always been the case. Clement Attlee’s speech to the 1951 Labour conference quoted William Blake’s Jerusalem, and his governments certainly saw postwar reconstruction as being a national project of creating a fairer, better Britain.
For a host of reasons – some good, some bad – the left handed over this way of thinking to the Tories from the 1970s onwards. And very grateful they were for it, as our reluctance allowed the Tories to fix two images in the public’s mind – of themselves as the party of Britain, and of Labour as the party only of the working class. The Tories talked the language of culture, and Labour restricted itself to the narrow language of economics. Four election wins later, and you could say that the Tory approach was quite successful.
Ideas like Soutphommasane’s are not new or dangerous – they are a return to the language of Attlee and Ernest Bevin. They are long overdue in our party, and they resonate in the country. There is a real sense among many that, as one of my constituents put it, ‘Britain is buggered’. Some will agree with the ‘BiB’ assessment; others won’t. But we cannot argue with the fact that, for millions of British people, BiB is self-evident – an absolute given. Some on the left think that this is a good thing – Labour should revel in economic misfortune and use it to gain support. ‘You’re on the dole, but at least you can vote Labour again’.
They’re wrong. They confuse BiB as a statement of the present with it as a statement of what we want to see. We can agree or disagree with the idea that Britain is buggered now, but our response should be a national project of rebuilding the nation – economically, socially and culturally. This doesn’t require us to buy into a ‘broken Britain’ mindset, because that mindset was purely negative. A nation building mindset is relentlessly positive, and it taps into some themes that only those of us on the left truly understand. Anyone who has visited a successful developing nation like Ghana will have seen the spirit that is unleashed when people from the top to the bottom truly believe that they are working to improve themselves, and also their nation.
Nation-building really does require us all to be in it together. As David Cameron and George Osborne have shown, that isn’t a concept that the right truly understands. Nation-building makes people richer, both economically and culturally. It appeals to the nagging sense in most people that they want to work for something greater than their own bank balance – their family, their neighbourhood, their town and, yes, their country. Nation-building starts at home and branches out to a street, a neighbourhood and beyond.
Nobody built a nation without building a location, which is where councillors and other community leaders are so important if Labour is truly to take up this theme. A good councillor will be involved in their own little bit of nation building every day of the week. Ed needs to capture that and to make this theme his own. Nation building transcends the old barrier between economics and culture and puts our values in a setting which both brings together and benefits everyone. We should all be in this together – here is how.
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
Clement Attlee, Conservatives, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Ernest Bevin, George Osborne, Gordon Brown, Labour