You sneer if you want to, the country’s not for sneering

Most of the coverage of Jon Cruddas’ speech in east London this week has focussed on his call for an English Labour party. Whether you agree or disagree, is it not bizarre quite how controversial that call is within Labour? The true radicalism was found elsewhere in the speech.

  1. Labour, the party of empty words

Cruddas argues that our dominant Labour values currently ’tend to be universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice’ and that this is alienating us from most British people. He is right. We sound hollow and empty; well-meaning, but we move nobody.

Last year, the party put out a leaflet encouraging members to sign up a ‘plus one’. Admirable aim, but on it was an ordinary person supposedly saying ‘I joined to fight for fairness and equality’. No they did not. Nobody speaks like that. We speak in abstract nouns when everybody else is giving verbs and adjectives a go. We sound like we have turned some of the great political rallying cries into something as exciting as comparing spin cycles on washing machines. Vote Tory for less equality! Vote Labour for a better Gini coefficient!

  1. Labour, the party of phrases, not places

Cruddas says that ‘identity and belonging drive politics’. Again, he is right. Labour understands that – but only if weare talking about identities based around gender, ethnicity or class. We have no idea about identities based around love for a place. That might be England, but it might be a region. Is it too much to think that a person’s Cornish identity might be more important to them than their female identity? Or that positive regional and national identities might be more all-encompassing and less divisive than other forms of belonging? That they might be more ‘us and us’ than ‘us and them’?

Too often we sound like we are on a constant mission to slice and dice the British people into different groups which make sense only to us. Given the last two election results, you could call it a policy of divide and not-rule. Cruddas is right that an English Labour Party could transcend that, by focusing on the ‘notion of the common good’ and ‘a politics of social integration’. You have to integrate into something, and a sense of place will act as a better rallying call than a series of abstract nouns.

  1. Labour, the party of the sneer

Cruddas argues that Labour is ‘out of touch with the country’. Many voters ‘value home, family and their country … they want a sense of belonging and national renewal … Labour no longer represents their lives’. This is devastating stuff. Too often we sneer at things that whole swaths of the country hold dear.

Tweeting about England flags; not doing up your top button at a Battle of Britain service – it all adds up to the same thing. A sneer. A Labour 2015 version of the Tories’ 2005 election campaign would be ‘You are not thinking what we are thinking’. A lot of this comes back to the ‘conservatory test’ – normally taken as a sign of whether Labour understands aspiration. But that is only half of the story. Understanding why somebody might want a conservatory also shows whether Labour understands an attachment to place, to home, to family. A sneer is not good enough.

Cruddas has written and spoken a lot about what Labour should not be, but his speech this week was much more than that. It was a positive affirmation of an authentic Labour party rooted in the ‘politics of conservation’; not just in touch with the British people, but part of them; not just fighting for them, but fighting with them. That this will be controversial shows how far the party has to go to break through the distrust and scepticism that has built up over the past few years. We need to be a party of feelings, not nouns; of place, not phrases; and of people, not sneers. That party and those people are out there – it is time for them to be heard.

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Mark Rusling is a councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest

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