The recent ‘No’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum triggered an initial wave of relief across the Labour party which had fought so passionately to safeguard the union. Since the referendum, the Labour leadership has nonetheless appeared defensive, perturbed by David Cameron’s insistence on ‘playing politics’ with the constitution, aggressively pursuing ‘English votes for English laws’. Labour’s riposte ought to be straightforward. The post-referendum challenge for the party is to demonstrate it is capable of commanding an English majority at the 2015 election.
In 2010, there was almost a wipeout of Labour seats in England outside London and the urban conurbations. In southern England and the Midlands, the party’s performance was especially weak. That fact needs to be confronted for reasons of electoral reality and strategic purpose. The truth is that, regardless of Scottish devolution, Labour cannot win a parliamentary majority without significantly strengthening its base of support in English seats. Even if it did better at the next election in Scotland, Wales and the north of England, there are too few additional ‘winnable’ seats here for Labour to return to government. The marginal constituencies are overwhelmingly located in the English south and the Midlands.
The party needs to recover in England for reasons of principle, not just electoral expediency. Labour must aspire to be a national party uniting a broad coalition of classes, cultures and communities. This is what the party did so successfully in 1945, 1964-6, and 1997. It is vital for Labour to demonstrate it is able to ‘speak for England’. Labour cannot afford to be positioned narrowly as a party confined to the traditional ‘Celtic heartlands’.
There are major implications for how Labour frames a credible English strategy only months away from the 2015 election. First, the party needs a specific plan to intensively target seats in southern England. Labour’s historically weak performance in these parts of England may simply reflect the fact that more social class C1 and C2 ‘swing’ voters who have become disillusioned with the party live there. Labour has been organisationally disadvantaged too with fewer activists on the ground, and fewer Labour councillors or Labour councils. The habit of voting Labour in many seats disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s, only temporarily revived under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
It is essential that Labour rebuild its organisational and political base in England. The south of England in particular tends to be at the forefront of economic and social change. One decisive step would be to launch a Labour ‘Manifesto for England’ which sets out the party’s substantive plans for radical devolution to English ‘city-regions and counties’, alongside its programme for radically improving English public services. There is an opportunity to demonstrate that Labour would encourage, not suppress, uniquely English voices and cultures.
Second, the party should acknowledge that developing a southern strategy and re-engaging traditional Labour supporters are not mutually exclusive. Most prospective Labour voters across the United Kingdom have similar instincts on the key issues regardless of where they live. Nonetheless, there are policies which may be perceived differently in England, especially the south – in particular, issues such as tax and the economy. There are larger numbers of higher-rate taxpayers in southern England. Public sector employment is lower in the south, where more workers are employed in the private sector, and service industries predominate more strongly over traditional manufacturing.
Labour will need to articulate how its economic model can improve living standards given the decline in real wages and household incomes over the last decade. Southern England may be relatively affluent, but, since the 2000s, living standards and wages have been severely compressed for many. This is linked to a model of wage competition powerfully shaped by globalisation and technological change: the perceived mismanagement of immigration policy has fuelled resentment. A return to the pre-crisis growth model will not be sufficient where ‘a rising tide does not lift all boats’. England, like the rest of the UK, needs a modern industrial strategy that delivers more well-paid and secure jobs in growth sectors.
Finally, there are key insights from the New Labour period that ought to be heeded. For all the setbacks of the Blair-Brown years, Labour needs to reflect objectively on the successes and failures of three terms in power. After the devastating 1992 defeat, the party engaged in the painstaking process of rebuilding trust, creating a new consensus on ‘tax and spend’ in British politics. This culminated in 2001-2 when it raised national insurance explicitly to pay for investment in the NHS. It required political skill and dexterity to build a new domestic policy consensus on tax and the economy: Labour has to perform a similar feat ahead of the next election.
But it is not just the economy that drives politics: identity matters too. The status of England after devolution is understandably a serious issue. Labour has to stake a claim in English identity, acknowledging the pivotal importance of the places where people live and the values animating their lives. At the core of English civic identity is arguably the tradition of liberty. In the 1980s and 1990s, the British left allowed the Tories to grab the mantle of freedom by posing as the party of markets, consumerism and choice. Labour modernisers, starting with Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, argued that the left offered a potentially richer account of freedom and liberty – not just protection from arbitrary interference by the state, but active government enabling every individual to fulfil their rich and unique potential through a strong community. Hattersley’s most important book was entitled Choose Freedom.
‘English Labour’ has to once again restore the party’s purpose as standing up for the rights and freedoms of the individual, enabling every citizen to fulfil their aspirations through a strong society. Labour urgently has to rebuild its reputation for economic competence and credibility on the deficit, public spending, tax, and the size of the state. Otherwise, its aspirations for a fairer, more equal society simply will not be heard. The party has to revive itself during a period in which politics and politicians have never been held in lower repute, restoring trust in the democratic process.
Above all, as a social democratic party, Labour must show how collective action can remedy the pervasive insecurities of the modern age, recognising that voters are more sceptical than ever of ‘big government’. Labour must show confidence that it has the capacity to operate as a fully fledged English party. The emergence of the ‘English question’ poses a challenge to Labour, but it offers fresh opportunities for the party to become the champion of a nascent English identity with its roots in the radical tradition of Thomas Paine, RH Tawney and George Orwell animated, above all, by a belief in the radical redistribution of wealth, power and opportunity through public institutions with autonomy from the central state. Labour can show that it is the party of England because it is the party of ‘positive’ liberty, never again ceding this territory to its Conservative opponents.
Patrick Diamond is lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary University of London and a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
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